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Archive for May, 2014

tennerSo, you run a blog, you self-publish online, but your presence is like one small star in the firmament. How do you get noticed? How do you drive traffic to your stuff? Well, I have this killer idea, and one I’m going to be foolish enough to share with you. Be warned though, my view on this topic is typically eccentric, to say nothing of ambivalent.

For a start, I’m no good at blowing my own trumpet. It just seems immodest, so I don’t do it. I have a lot of work online, including several novels that amount to decades of work, and they just sit there waiting for the occasional passer by. They do get downloaded, two or three times a day on average, and since I’m giving them away, it makes no sense to market them.

Or does it? Maybe I should think about it – I mean doing this thing I’ve thought about, and which I’m going to share with you.

For the independent author big marketing budgets are a thing of fantasy, and you really don’t want to be spending a lot of your own money. You can do it the free “gorilla” way of course, illegally plastering advertising notices and GR codes all over the place. Indeed, gorilla marketing sounds fun, but it also sounds like a cross between littering and graffiti to me, with a big arrow pointing back to whodunnit. The closest I came to Gorilla marketing was once pencilling my web address on the fly leaf of a paperback novel which I then recycled through a charity shop. Again this seemed immodest, and it’s had no noticeable effect on my fame or fortune.

Serves me right.

But that’s not my killer idea. My idea can’t fail, and it’s this:

Let’s for arguments sake say, I’ve hidden an envelope of money somewhere, maybe behind a lamp-post, or in a crack in a wall, or under a flowerpot, and that the precise grid coordinates are embedded in one of my posts – or maybe as a cryptic clue in one of my novels. I mean, you’ve only to mention “free money” in your tags and people do crazy things. I have a fancy it might even go viral, then I’d get hundreds of thousands of prospective treasure seekers scouring my every word for clues, downloading my novels like crazy, and sending my hit-rates stratospheric.

I don’t know why others haven’t thought of this. And there needn’t be a lot of money involved – perhaps even a humble tenner would do it, and that’s hardly going to break the bank, is it?

But on the downside, those treasure seekers, scouring my writing for clues would not be interested in my words – only in the money I’d hidden. Again, it seems immodest, adding to this the even bigger sin of cynicism, and of course there’d be a lot of broken flower pots. So don’t waste your time reading back through my archives – unless you really want to of course. I did think about it, briefly, as a bit of fun, after reading about this mysterious Twitter bod who’s been hiding money all over LA. But my stuff is what it is, and if you find it I’m glad, but if you don’t, I don’t mind. It puts me in the company of a lot of other writers.

Instead I spent half of that tenner on coffee, and an egg and bacon butty this afternoon.  The other half went on some more novels from the charity shop

Or maybe it didn’t.

#free money ūüėČ

Graeme out

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mazda slaidburn 2014Menopausal – that was the word used when I declared my sudden interest in buying an old racing car. I’m fifty three and perfectly aware of the clich√©, and you don’t need to tell me about the menopause; it’s a danger to be negotiated by all men, yet a thing women seem terribly confused about; they accuse us of it one minute and tell us it’s a myth the next, but it’s not a myth, and I know because I’ve already been through it. I’m strictly post menopausal these days, honestly.

Unlike women, for whom the menopause brings physical change, for men it’s psychological. It’s about the realisation of¬†one’s mortality, advancing years, and the possible futility of existence. Men react differently, some externally by doing things like buying racing cars, conquering Everest and running ten miles a day. Others react internally by exploring meditative traditions and pondering over Zen aphorisms. The former is to go down fighting, it is the warrior’s way, and there’s much to be admired in it. The latter is more the way of the monk; it is to enjoy the sun while it’s shining instead of shaking one’s fist at it while it sets. I think I fall into the latter camp, so why this sudden buzz about a racing car?

Well, it’s not a recent thing; it’s been in my system for thirty five years. In my novel “Langholm Avenue” the protagonist drives an old MG Midget through the wreckage of his past, the car being like the one he bought as a teenager, and couldn’t afford to insure. There’s a lot of me in that novel. I’ve been saying I’d have another, “one day”, but MG Midgets are looking old and small now, and I’m sorry to say they were never very good. They ran well when they were running, but they broke down a lot, because British cars of that period had little to recommend them besides a certain misplaced patriotism. Then we pulled out of massed two seater sports-car production completely and handed the market to the Japanese, and I’m glad we did because the Japanese had a think about it, and gave us the Mazda MX5.

I like the look of these cars. I like the way they feel. They are not ordinary – not supercars by any means, but cars designed to feel like those old MG’s and Triumphs once did. They are also cars that most of us can aspire to and, unlike those old MG’s and Triumphs, they are not plagued by niggling manufacturing flaws, and they have engines that are difficult to burst.

Modern cars have become appliances – no longer to be enjoyed for what they are. They are conveniences, only really noticed when they go wrong. But with a racing car you feel every bit of gravel along the way, and when you rev them the car flexes and twitches like it’s an alive thing. The ride is noisy, throaty, thirty feels like fifty, and with the top down they’re cold, but they are exciting, and as impractical as they are beautiful.

Now, if I’d wanted such a car in order to simply look good in it, that would obviously have been a mistake. But age, like male pattern baldness, has a way of dissolving vanity and egotism. Rule number one: a middle aged man with a wife and kids does not buy a sexy car in order to pull birds and make other guys jealous. But this does not mean he has to stop enjoying cars – or so my sons have been reminding me – reminding me too of my earlier brush with racing cars, and my oft spouted hankering for the throaty roar and a leaky rag top, plus: “If you leave it much longer Dad, you’ll be too old to get in one.”

It all sounded very plausible, very tempting, but I’ve been reluctant, as if denying myself for no good reason, perhaps afraid of it going wrong, of picking up a lemon like that old MG,¬†thirty five years ago. Sure, since then I’ve learned my lesson, learned to be sensible, and safe. Motoring is no longer a thing to be enjoyed, I retort, sarcastically, but merely endured.

Undeterred, number two son found me some nice MX 5’s on Autotrader. This ignited something queer in me – I don’t know what, exactly, but it felt good – and after a weekend spent like a re-born petrol-head inspecting tyres and leaky rag-tops and various dings and scratches, I found myself on Sunday morning drawn to a deep blue 1.6 litre Mk 2.5 with 75K on the clock. The man handed me the keys and, along with number one son, I took her out for a run. My approach was cautious – the old head, dented by past experience and still looking for the snag, while my sons advice, gloriously untarnished, was the impulsive shrug and the urge to just do it.

But how could I? It was ridiculous.

After half a mile, I turned the thing around and we rattled back to the man. I didn’t need to think about it any more. I’ve never driven a car that made me feel the way this one did. After thirty five years of being sensible it was indeed time to just do it. So, I shook the man’s hand and I pick her up in a couple of days.¬†Expect petrol-headed posts for a while on the rekindled joys of motoring – or on the foolishness of a menopausal monk and his struggles to offload a lemon with a leaky rag-top.

Graeme out.

 

 

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ingleborough

Ingleborough

After the last couple of posts on the subject of¬†mindfulness, it seems reckless now to talk of the egotistical conquering of a mountain, but such is the duality of man. Still, my excuse is that if we remain mindful, we might proceed without physical or psychological¬†injury. I have a friend who says that after spending hours slogging up a big hill, and coming within sight of the summit, one should deny the ego by not quite reaching the top. That the top is attainable is, by this point, self evident, so why go the whole distance if it’s not to simply feed the illusion of one’s own self worth? I used to think he was a mad, but these days I’m pretty much of the same mind.

It seems I am no longer a peak bagger.

I last attempted Ingleborough at New Year. It was a very wet, stormy day and the experience was discouraging. Ingleborough sent me packing, dripping wet and shivery-cold, seeking the sanctuary of a Clapham tea shop. I had become unfit, not walking the hills anywhere near enough, so, from ignominious defeat, I was motivated to exercise a little more, to climb at least one modest hill every week, come rain or shine, and then to test myself on Ingleborough again, and hopefully bag the peak. I know – I’m not a peak bagger – but there’s that duality thing again.

Anyway, today was the day.

Ingleborough was still a stiff climb, but the training had worked; I had greater reserves and was able to make the summit without serious difficulty – plus sunshine and blue skies always help to lubricate the grind. I made the top with a smile but, thinking of my friend, I was careful to avoid the trig point.

When I attempted the climb at New Year, I met few people on the path. Saturday was different though; the climb from Clapham, once beyond the nick of Trow Gill and up Little Ingleborough was more of a procession. But the people I met were friendly, unhurried and enjoying the day, eager to share a bit of passing banter and all of this added to the buoyant mood as I climbed. If you want a quieter walk, you go at a different time, or you pick a different hill. Ingleborough is what it is. And what it is is very beautiful, when the sun shines.

Entering Trow Gill

Trow Gill

Returning to a hill can also reveal the flaws in one’s memory. It’s probably ten years since I last made the summit by this route. I have a memory of a fairly flat upland plateaux, and that the route, after gaining Little Ingleborough, was thereafter fairly level, with only a short climb to the stepped summit. But today I discovered it wasn’t flat at all and that the final climb to the top was ten times what I had imagined. It was a wonderful walk all the same though, full of scenic variety and clear views all round. If you’re visiting the Dales and you’ve not done Ingleborough yet, I highly recommend it. It’s a moderate climb from Clapham. Allow two or three hours up and an hour or two down.

Return was by the High Dales Way and a short section of the popular Three Peaks Route. If I thought the ascent was busy, this section was positively crowded, and the fraternity was not so easy going.

I’ve decided there are two types of walker. There are those who do it because they get mystical in the mountains. And there are those who do not see the mountains. I know I’m risking an argument here, and hasten to add that not all Three Peakers fall into the latter category, but I met a good many today who clearly did. “Met” is not quite the right word, however. It would be more accurate to say I obstructed them in their purpose by virtue of my mere presence on the path.

limestone pavement

Limestone pavement, Sulber gate, Yorkshire Dales

The Dales National park is an area of outstanding beauty. Its dramatically stepped hills, its weirdly weathered limestone pavements, its waterfalls, its caves, its beautiful unassuming little villages, and even its dreaded shake-holes, are all things of wonder. They invite one to amble and to pause. But on the Three Peaks route, that would make you the little old man in his Morris Minor tootling along in the fast lane at thirty, with big parties of peak baggers crowding you from behind and squeezing through the gaps, pedal to the metal.

They were making their way, hell-for-leather, down the home stretch to Horton and the clock that would time them in. Three peaks in twelve hours: Penyghent, Whernside and Ingleborough. 24.5 miles. It’s a tough challenge, and I have never attempted it, partly for fear of permanent injury – because I just don’t think I’m hard enough – and also because I keep telling myself I’m not that kind of walker.

To complete the three peaks route is a worthy achievement, but it would be wrong to think of it as a measure of one’s personal prowess. Success in the mountains is always won in part with the cooperation of the mountain, and there will always be an occasion when the mountain turns you back. Pressing on regardless invites insult or injury. The call-out books of the mountain rescue teams are ample witness to that.

I remember at one point, pausing by a ladder style to take in the vista, and finding myself in the way of a guy who was busy yakking into his mobile phone. We were in the midst of a sublime wilderness, not a farm, not a telegraph pole, nor power-line, nor wind-turbine in sight. It was all quite breathtaking, but there was this guy, hurrying along, entirely unconscious of it, yakking into his phone.

I apologised for blocking his way, but he was too busy to reply. He crossed the stile, almost stumbling over it in his haste to make the clock. Others, similarly time-pressed, piled after him. I remember another occasion where I had felt just as crowded by unconscious hoards swarming at my heels – but that was on London’s Euston Station, and me a yokel from the sticks, blinking wide eyed amid all that city-slick bustle. There’s a time and a place, and for me, the Dales is not it. The green is what keeps us sane. It’s where we come to decompress, to recover our sense of stillness. Making a time-trial out of it just doesn’t add up. You might as well do it on a treadmill in a gym.

I was therefore glad to escape the peaks route by turning off at Sulber Gate. Here the way became suddenly empty, and for the first time I could feel the space. This was the start of the route that links up with the appropriately named “Long Lane” and which leads us arrow-sure, back to Clapham. Coming usually at the end of the walk, Long Lane always feels a bit too long for me, but today, it floated me down to Clapham, feather light, and I was able to savour the steps. It helped that I was a little high on sunshine and the success of the walk, grateful too that the hill had allowed me to feel like a half competent walker again.

I repaired to the same little tea shop I’d sat in at New Year. This time though I sat outside, under a clear blue sky in the late afternoon warmth. The laburnum tassels were in full bloom and the hawthorns were shedding blossom like confetti. The only thing that was the same after five months was the giant pot of tea, which, after ten miles in the heart of Limestone country, is the elixir of the gods.

tea at clapham

I seem to be getting my legs back, and that’s good. I’ve just not to let it go to my head. I’ve a few more mountains ahead of me yet it seems, but I’ll be doing it mindfully, which means not being a peak-bagger, and not getting too het-up any more if, now and then, the mountain turns me back.

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keys

“Master, when will you teach me?”
“Have you eaten?”
“Yes.”
“Then go wash your bowl.”

Presence is inner space. It is stillness. It is making room inside ourselves for the primary essence to return to conscious awareness. Without presence, our lives are dominated by our thoughts and our memories, and we mistake them entirely for who we think we are. Only when we still the mind, when we rise above the flow of thought and memory, do we invite presence and reconnect with the authentic self.

So, try this for a moment:

Sit down. Take a deep breath. Focus. Don’t reminisce, don’t anticipate the future. Narrow your sights to the present moment, and above all STOP THINKING! Do it now.

Did it work?

No.

It’s impossible to stop thinking. And anyway, we have to live, to work, to take care of our families, get through college, pass exams, fix the car. Try doing any of that without thinking! It seems “presence” is not only a difficult thing to attain, it’s also impractical and unhelpful in our everyday lives. So, do we live as we should, or do we retreat to a cave and nurture presence instead?

Actually, presence is helpful and practical; it’s just a question of how we get there. If we can somehow create that space within ourselves, we can move beyond our thoughts, rest in spaciousness, and from there recognise our thoughts for what they are: mostly imposters and prophets of false doom. We think when we need to, but we no longer confuse “thought” with “identity”.

The deliberate cessation of thinking is impossible. Even to attempt it is only going to make matters worse, risking thoughts of self loathing when we inevitably fail. We should think more of “presence” as a state where our thoughts proceed at a more measured pace, and where we no longer find ourselves caught up with their contrived chains of endless urgencies:

We must do this, we must do that, or this won’t happen, and then we won’t get that, so we won’t be able to go there, and so and so won’t like us any more, and then we will be unhappy,…

If we can distance ourselves from the chain of thought, it’s a start. And indeed, if we sit quietly we find it is possible to observe the run of thoughts from a place within ourselves, without actually engaging them. We merely watch their coming and going, without judgement. If we feel our emotions getting hung up on particular thoughts, we press them gently aside. This is a powerful practise, and we find, in time, moments of deeper presence creeping into our lives of their own accord.

“Master, when will you teach me?”
“Have you eaten?”
“Yes.”
“Then go wash your bowl.”

There are many ways to nurture presence and they aren’t that difficult. They require a little imagination, and the cooperation of the ego. But that they require Ego’s indulgence is the reason so few of us make way in this search for presence – egos, being entities comprised entirely of thought, are not naturally inclined towards the cessation of thinking.

Try this instead:

Look at your hands. Now (in a moment) close your eyes. How do you know your hands are still there? Because you can feel them. But what are you feeling? You are feeling the energy of the body. It’s particularly noticeable in the hands. Now breathe in, and very gently out, and breathing out, focus more on the feeling in the hands. The feeling grows stronger. Breath, it seems, can help focus stillness and amplify one’s sense perceptions.

Remember this.

Using the imagination as the vehicle, and the outward breath as the energy to drive it, it’s possible to explore more of the body this way. Thus, we discover similar feelings in our arms and our chest. The region around the heart and the lower abdomen also respond strongly to the caress of breath-assisted imagination. The more we practice, the stronger and more readily these feelings come to us. And at some point, while we’re doing all of this we realise we’ve not been thinking about anything for a while. We have become still, we have become more “present” in the body, and we feel calmer. This is a very effective practice on the road to presence.

But there’s more.

When we become familiar with this feeling of centred calm, secure within the body, we begin to see and feel the outer world differently too. I’m looking at my keys – familiar things – but I realise I hardly ever truly see them, because the mind is not interested in them as they actually are. It labels them “keys” and moves on because it has so many other things to think about.

But, observed in stillness, a deeper dimension is revealed to my keys – the shape, the colours, the myriad indentations, the fall of light upon them, the reflections, the highlights. Be warned though: the mind may have trouble here as thinking tries to reassert itself. We might try to think about the keys: What doors do they open? This one is looking worn out and maybe I should replace it; I wonder if the battery is okay in my little torch thingy. Should I test it?

We cannot observe in stillness while we are engaged in thought. Thoughts are like stones tossed into the lake, breaking up its morning stillness. In stillness we accept only sense perceptions as they come to us – here primarily our vision, but we can also bring the ears, the nose and the sense of touch into play. But however we observe the outer world, we simply let it be, without analysis or judgement. We sense the world without thinking about it and if we’re doing it right, the feeling that arises is one of calm alertness.

Experienced on a larger scale, say in the outdoors, in the natural world, observing without judgement the tremble of every leaf and every blade of grass, this feeling of presence can be very powerful indeed, but as the lesson of the keys reveals, it can also be experienced in the minutiae we oftentimes simply overlook. And the observations need not be of static things. We can observe movement just as dispassionately and discover the stillness in it (stillness in movement) It can be experienced even in those things that we might consider a chore – ironing clothes, clearing out the garage, mowing the grass,… or washing the pots.

Master, when will you teach me?
Have you eaten?
Yes.
Then go wash your bowl.

Perhaps we should be more willing to embrace those mindless tasks for what they have to teach us.

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The_ScreamThe question the soul asks is this: why do some aspects of my life make me happy, while others make me suffer? Then we add the corollaries: number one: why is happiness so elusive, yet the potential for suffering so abundant? Second: how do I nurture more happiness and keep the suffering to a minimum?

The first corollary is concerned with philosophy and metaphysics: what is suffering? The second is more concerned with the practicalities of every day living: How do I make the suffering stop? How do I feel good about myself, about others and my place in the world?

The nature of suffering is a complicated thing; a good deal of Buddhism is devoted to its study, so I’m never going to boil it down to a thousand words. It can however, be usefully personified as an entity, one we imagine living inside of us. The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle calls it the pain body. This is just a way of thinking, you understand. The pain body is not an evil spirit, nor an autonomous being – though it can behave like one; it’s just a very primitive part of who we are, and it loves to suffer. And where there is no suffering, the pain body is adept at creating it for us.

It’s hard to believe anyone would choose suffering as a way of life, but many of us do – not consciously of course, but more by misunderstanding the dominance of the pain body in our lives. Unchecked, the pain body grows and dictates our responses to more and more of life’s situations. But all is not lost; to shine a light on the pain body is also to shrink it. And a world observed without the presence of the pain body, is a very different world indeed.

One of the most powerful tools in this respect is nurturing “presence” in our lives. This is a very simple concept, but since the way of the soul is also one of infinite paradox, it can at the same time be rather a difficult concept to grasp, instinctively.¬†As a first step we try to attain an awareness of our essential “self”. If we can do this, then all other things follow more easily. The “essential self” is not a vague new agey term. It means what it sounds like: it is the being we are, unhampered by all the thoughts and emotions. It is what lies underneath the storm tossed psyche. It is the very essence of who we are.

When we sit quietly, our mind fills with thoughts, some good, some bad. We might remember with fondness the good things, or we might feel something akin to physical pain at the memory of the bad. We might be fearful of upcoming events, things that worry us, or we might be looking forward to things we hope will make us happy.

If we try, we can sometimes rise above this stream of thought. The thoughts are still there, but we can now observe their coming and going without engaging with them, emotionally. We simply let them be. But if we think about it: in order for us to be aware of our thoughts, there must be an awareness beyond our thoughts, just as there can be no ripples on the surface of the lake without the water to carry them. So, are we the ripples or the water? What is this awareness that is aware of our thoughts?

Since we are most of us entirely identified with our thoughts and our memories, it can be difficult to imagine there is anything else beyond them. If we try to imagine it, we imagine it might be another way of thinking, but it isn’t. Primary awareness, the awareness of our essential self, is a place of deep stillness from where we can observe our lives without judgement, or thinking. We take the input from our senses, and make no comment. We let whatever is, simply be. It’s from this place, we get to observe the pain body at work, both in ourselves and others.

Do you know someone who never has a positive thing to say? Do you never feel positive yourself about anything? Are you a glass half empty person, or a glass half full? You might think it’s not your fault, that it is because of the insensitivity, the stupidity, or the downright cruelty of others that you suffer, or that you are somehow so “unlucky” circumstances seem always fated to thwart your happiness. But two people can be presented with the same life-situation, and see it entirely differently – one negative, one positive – and the difference is entirely a state of mind. It is the lack or presence of an active pain body.

Attaining presence we create a space in which we can observe, consciously, both ourselves and others, and it is from this enhanced perspective we can tell when pain bodies are active. The curious thing is, when we identify our own pain body, it shrinks back into the shadows. When we are aware of pain bodies awakening in others the important thing is to avoid them activating our own pain body, for pain bodies each know their kind and are most at home in one another’s company where they can feed upon the mutual suffering they whip up between them.

The pain body is responsible for much personal suffering and, through our relations with others, it is also responsible for much of the damage we do to them and them to us. Happiness is therefore a life lived without the pain body, but it requires us first to raise our self awareness beyond the level of the ego, or we might not even know of the the pain body’s existence. We mistake its painful emotional reactions as our own , and nurturing presence in our selves is the key to realising they are not.

But that’s my thousand words.

I’ll explore more on the subject of nurturing presence¬†some other time.

Here’s more on the pain body.

And here’s Eckhart Tolle with the last word:

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original BeavisThe River Yarrow is one of Lancashire’s tributary rivers. It rises at the high moorland pass of Hoorden Stoops in the Western Pennines and meanders down to the Douglas near its confluence with the Ribble, and from there to the Irish Sea. About half way along its course, just south of the little market town of Chorley, the Yarrow flows through a densely wooded vale that makes up part of the former Duxbury estate.

Both British and American historians have long been fascinated with this place, its “big house”, Duxbury Hall, being home to the Standish family, and possibly the birthplace of Myles Standish, one of America’s most celebrated founding fathers. Myles’ English ancestry has been much debated, but the problem is that while it seems very likely he was indeed born somewhere in this area, the documentary evidence that would clinch it has been mysteriously lost. Some say this was the result of nineteenth century skullduggery, when various usurpers were presenting themselves as rightful heirs to the estate. Others say the records, basically seventeenth century Parish Registers, have simply perished as a result of nothing more sinister than natural decay.

I’m telling you this in order to put Duxbury on the map for you, but the pedigree of Myles Standish is not the only mystery here, and certainly not the one I want to talk about. The one I want to talk about concerns a dog.

I grew up in and around these woods, and a grand place for boyhood adventure they are too. But if you brave the mud of Duxbury park today, you’ll find little to suggest this was once the private domain of one of England’s oldest aristocratic families. Time has certainly taken its toll; the big house, Duxbury Hall, was pulled down as an uninhabitable wreck in 1956; the landscaped grounds to the east are now a golf course, and of the wooded park’s former manicured glory, there remains only an anomalous stand of soaring pines amid the native birch, a few alien rhododendron bushes scattered among the wild balsam, and a curious old plinth, marking the grave of a dog called Beavis. The memorial reads:

“All ye who wander through these peaceful glades,
Listening to the Yarrow’s rippling waves,
Pause and bestow a tributary tear.
The bones of faithful Beavis slumber here.”

1842

This remembrance erected by Susan Mrs Standish, 1870

The story of faithful Beavis goes like this: one night, the big house caught fire and Beavis raised an unholy din, rousing the incumbents from their slumber, thus saving them from an inferno. The house was partly destroyed and had to be substantially rebuilt. In gratitude, Beavis was rewarded with this fine riverside memorial.

A touching little story indeed. But there’s something wrong with it.

Unfortunately, the original statue of the hound did not survive. Beavis lost his head, then the rest of him disappeared. By the time I came along in the ’60’s only the inscribed plaque remained, though a more recent statue of the dog has now replaced the one that was carried off by vandals. You’ll often see flowers by the memorial, a tradition that suggests throughout the trials and tribulations of history, and even the eventual demise of the Standish family itself, the memory of Beavis has been kept very much alive. It surprises me then that no one else has commented on the anomaly.

It’s the dates you see?

The memorial appears to be telling us poor Beavis barked his last in 1842. If that’s so, then¬†Beavis couldn’t have been around on the night of the fire, which records tell us broke out the night of March 2nd 1859. He’d been dead for sixteen years. The legend is wrong, yet it persists. We must be missing something. But what?

Is it the date of the fire? Could it have been earlier? 1839, perhaps? But several sources confirm the night of the fire was March 2nd 1859. One of these sources is the journalist George Birtil (now deceased), a much respected local historian. It was George, writing in his column for the Chorley Guardian, who also reminds of the tale of Beavis’ barking, rousing the house on that dread night, but George does not query the fact that Beavis, according to the memorial at least, was already a long time dead!

Was there another fire, earlier? And why wait so long to commemorate the hound’s bravery? 27 years seems curiously neglectful if indeed, as myth suggests, the Standishes were so grateful for their skins. Did the stone-mason make a mistake and chisel 1842, when what he meant was 1862? Surely Mrs Standish would not have permitted such an error to go uncorrected!

Questions. Questions. Questions.

And the answer? Well, I really don’t know. It has me stumped.

All I know is when I’m here, this long dead dog haunts me. His is a myth still weaving its mischievous way through time. And in the shapeshifting way of all myths, it’s a curious twist that Beavis achieves more by way of immortality than any of the illustrious Standishes who once hung their hats here. Walking through Duxbury at twilight, listening to the Yarrow’s rippling waves, it’s hard not to imagine the barking of a lithe hound as it flits playfully through the shadows, always just out of view.

I know what the mystery of faithful Beavis suggests to me. It’s a little corny perhaps, but a serviceable yarn in the making, though one I hesitate to pen for fear of tainting the purer myth of this magical place with a more recent invention of my own. But is this not how myths survive, by endless embellishment down the centuries?

How would you explain the dates? Where would you take the story from here?

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cool catI did an odd thing this morning – I deleted a post I’d put up the night before. First time I’ve ever done that. It was a poem called “Safe in the Shire” and was basically about the violence and suffering we see on the TV news every night, and how it creeps into our bones, paints the world as a very bad place and tells us to be afraid – to be very afraid. It was a clumsy swipe at the perpetrators of that violence but also at the media for their emotionally manipulative reporting of it. I basically called them both stupid, and I called myself stupid for feeling safe and remote from the suffering, that all I had to do was turn off the TV and everything would be okay, when it clearly wasn’t. I pulled it this morning because I feel my voice is weakest when I adopt a certain tone – a negative tone. As a weapon against the forces of evil and the media, it’s about as effective as a wet dishcloth against a Kalashnikov, or like a mouse spitting in the cat’s eye.

Speaking of cats, I’m away from home at the moment, cat-sitting at my sisters house. The silence is astonishing, and the cat’s needs are refreshingly basic – just food, water, and a voice to keep it company. I can say anything I like to it. It doesn’t matter. It’s the tone that counts. They are sensitive creatures, cats, and can feel the vibes of a room through their whiskers. I speak kindly to the cat, and I mean it. I ask its advice. I ask if it’s still raining outside. I ask its opinion on the upcoming local elections. The cat is patient, but cannot hide the fact it thinks I am a little strange.

I like both cats and dogs – dogs can be tremendous fun, but of the two I am more of a cat person. I give it space. It comes and goes, shares the firelight with me for a while, then slips out through the flap. I asked it about the poem just now. It’s obviously gone away to think about it.

I’m pretty sure I know the answer. We have to be ourselves. There is indeed great suffering in the world and, beamed daily into our homes, it can affect our lives in two ways. It can make us fearful of the world, and it can harden us, render us insensitive, because it’s a distant suffering and there’s nothing we can do about it, so we shut it out. Neither is a good thing. It chips away at our humanity. It festers. It erodes our compassion for our fellow man. But I cannot counter a negative with another negative. That’s a dark game against a grand-master who’s always going to be several moves ahead. And I’m trying to see the positive, trying, like the cat, to tune its whiskers into that which makes me purr. For the cat I’ve discovered it’s a simple matter – tap the spoon against the food dish. Big purr, and I’m the cat’s new best friend. There’s positive for you in the cat world! But for humans it’s more complicated, and it isn’t helped when every image we have thrust upon us is a bad one.

So I pulled the damned poem, scrunched it up and tossed it into the electronic bin as petulant nonsense. Instead, I counter the bad news of the world tonight with the simple pleasure of being back in the house where I was born, the house where I grew up. It’s not much of a weapon, I suppose, against the forces of evil, but it’s the most sincere thing in my armoury right now, and therefore the only thing I have that’s worth anything. I have such fond memories of this place, and of my parents – both gone now – and for whose lives, unknown to the world, I give thanks. Yes, there is great suffering, the causes being always, as Krishnamurti taught us, the defective thinking of man. And as a man, I cannot counter it with yet more defective thinking, because that’s only going to make things worse. We have to be positive, even if all we have left to us are the smallest things. I was raised in love, in this house and I remember it. I feel it most strongly, and I offer it back to the world, instead of that stupid poem.

The cat’s in again, looking at me. It’s either come to tell me I’m on the right lines, or I should put another log on the burner.

“Don’t sit the fire out, Michael.” That could be my mother speaking.

Cool creatures, cats.

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tree of life paintingAccording to the theory of parallel universes, every time we make a decision, our personal universe splits into however many possibilities we are presented with. Roll a dice, the universe splits into six, and six versions of ourselves are led off into each of them. Toss a coin, the universe splits into two – one for heads, one for tails. The universe becomes a multi-verse, one of infinite possibility, the result not only of our own decisions, but the way the decisions of others, and chance events in the manifest world, impact upon us. It’s a staggering idea, but one that is taken very seriously by physicists and cosmologists as they explore the twisty turney rabbit hole of Quantum Mechanics.

If this is the way things are, one of the most important rules we’re bound by is that once we’re committed to a particular universe, there can be no going back. We can’t buy a blue car one day, then wake up the next with a red one. Our timelines must be consistent with all previous events. Of course there’s considerable unease over the idea too, with critics telling us the theory is light on actual “theory” and top-heavy on universes. While this is true, I’m still open to the possibility, and why not? If the multi-verse is infinite, it can’t be filled, no matter how many universes you pour into it, but I have the advantage of being unconcerned with scientific rigour – just fictional plausibility.

If we think of our lives as inhabiting any number of potential universes, splitting off many times a day as we make even the most trivial decision, our multi-dimensional growth can be visualised as a tree in which every single possibility for our lives is realised within its ever-bifurcating branches. Some branches may not extend very far, with poor decisions or even just bad luck leading to our early demise. Other branches lead to long lines in time, and a grand old age, but these might be lives where chance and poor decisions have resulted in unhappiness. Other branches of course may trace lines through times of great hardship but lead eventually to the promised land of inner happiness and well being.

But humans are hard to satisfy, and no doubt you’ll soon be wondering if you’d be any happier than you are now if you’d only taken some other path. Without the ability to go back and remake those decisions though, there’s no point in reminiscing and lamenting the choices we’ve made. It’s a metaphysical dead end, and the idea of parallel universes becomes one of purely theoretical interest, one of making the sums add up, rather than helping to make any real sense of our lives. As story tellers though, if we can come up with plausible ways in which one might indeed set up lines of communication with our alternate selves, or indeed swap places with them, we can have lots of fun.

In my current work-in-progress, the protagonists have realised it’s the only way to avoid an asteroid on a collision course with the earth. There’s no need for Bruce Willis and a nuclear bomb – you just search the probabilities, find a timeline in which the asteroid’s course is slightly different, misses the earth completely, and Bob’s your uncle. There’s still a version of your self who dies in the impact, but it’s a self who’s no longer in the line of your newly-current conscious self. You’re not aware of your demise, so you don’t care – if you know what I mean.

But in the story – because it’s a story – there’s a price to pay, such as will the ideal partner you’ve just met, the woman you’re convinced is the one true love of your life, still be around in that other time line when you’ve jumped, and if not, is it better to live a longer life without her, or to experience love as you’ve never known it, knowing full well you’ve only got a week left to enjoy such a profound mutual awakening? Once I’ve solved that conundrum, I’ll have my conclusion and final chapter in the bag – and thank goodness for that because it’s making me dizzy and I’ve still got white rabbits running about all over the place.

But why stop there? You could search all the other timelines in which the asteroid misses the earth and in which you meet someone else who blows your mind even more. Then you could search for the timeline in which you were not only stoned out of your mind in love with this person, enjoying the best sex you’ve never had, but also all the scenarios where you’ve made the right investment decisions too, avoided the crash, and are living the life of Riley, retired at forty to a beach house with a sky-pool in the Bahamas. And if you didn’t like the idea of ageing, you could find a way of entering a timeline at any point, pick a nice long line that yields all the stuff of your dreams, trace it back and enter it in your twenties, just as the ride starts to pick up. But no life is perfect, so skip sideways for a bit to avoid that day when someone robs your house, then skip back later on, once the emotional hurt has healed. Heavens, you could become a time travelling, materialistic pleasure seeker, cherry picking the best bits of all the possible versions of your life!

I think you can see where is going.

by fall of night cover

coming soon

It would take great discipline for such a time traveller not to waste their multi dimensioned life, enjoying the rush of the best bits, because it’s the tough bits, the puzzles, the confusion of choice, the insults, the injury, the heartache, the bits we are most tested by that we learn the most from. But who would willingly submit themselves to the most unpleasant parts of their lives if they thought they could avoid it? This is the manure that makes the tree grow in all of its dimensions, and without it we might as well never have been born.

Perhaps I should be more grateful that my awareness is limited to this single line through time. It might not be perfect, but it is at least authentic. If there are other versions of myself, living out the lives I did not choose, I’d be better just letting them get on with it.

And if I’m not mistaken that’s my conclusion staring me right in the face.

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naked man cafe

Ye Olde Naked Man Cafe – Settle

It was an unusually quiet drive east along the A59, then a left turn at Gisburn for the undulating and sinewy-twisty loveliness of the Hellifield road, which becomes the A65 at Long Preston, which directs one a little more assertively north and west in the direction of Ribblesdale, which brings us finally to the beautiful little Dales town of Settle. The last time I was in the Yorkshire Dales – Ingleton, back in March – the season was a good few weeks behind Lancashire, but seems now to have overtaken us in the race to summer, the Laburnum tassels already opening to cascades of yellow, while the Laburnum in my own garden, down on the Lancashire plain, is still some weeks away.

For company on the drive I had the inoffensive burble of chatter on the radio, but I remember only the one snippet of an interview with a writer who inadvertently posed me the meditation for day, which was: is it better to fail utterly at doing something you think you’ll love (like writing), than to survive doing something you merely tolerate, (like holding down a conventional day-job for 40 years)?

It’s a question I’ve often asked, especially now as I’m approaching that 40 year service mark myself. Unlike me, the writer in question did indeed give up on the financial security of the conventional day job in order to take the risk ¬†of doing something she loved. The message was clear: you only pass this way once, so don’t waste your life doing something you don’t particularly enjoy. It’s sound advice and hard to fault, but at the gut level I wasn’t so sure; I suppose it all depends on how you define “surviving”, and whether or not you believe happiness can be achieved by “doing” anything.

It’s okay, even heroic, to take a risk on realising a dream if you’re single, when there’s only you to crash and burn, but what if you’re married, with kids? It’s a conundrum – and it depends how “far out” that dream is, I suppose, and how easily you can balance your own desires against a responsibility towards others. I chose¬†financial security, at least as much as that’s possible for a time-served engineer living through a downsizing, de-industrialising phase of his nation’s history. I made my choice and I stuck with it, but for all of that I’ve never considered myself to be a frustrated author, held back by the shackles of wage-slavery. I am still writing, still publishing, of a sort – just not rich or famous at it. And driving into Settle on a sunny Friday morning with my walking gear in the boot, and all the fells looking so timelessly lovely as this, I could hardly feel that I was wasting my life either.

constitution hill

Constitution Hill, Settle

Of all the Dales towns and villages, Settle is my favourite, but then my favourite is always the last place I visited, so others need not feel too put out about it. It was a beautiful, warm sunny morning, and there were American tourists photographing Ye Old Naked Man Cafe. I joined them for a few shots myself. It must be the most photographed cafe in Yorkshire. The day was shaping up well. In winter I’ve thought of Settle as the coldest, teeth-chattery place on earth, even something a little dour about it, but basking in the spring sunshine it made for a very respectable waymark on the tourist’s tour-de-UK.

My walk for the day was a circuit taking in the not-so-secret secret waterfall of Catrigg Force, then the cave-dotted crags of the Attermire Scar, and returning via the breathtakingly beautiful Warrendale Knots – four or five hours and six or seven miles of varied ground, and every step begging a pause for a photograph. It’s a walk I’ve done twice now, in the company of a friend, both times characterised by atrocious weather, and the fact we got lost. It was a pleasure to be seeing it at its best for a change -the camera was charged and ready!

But was she right? Who? The writer who talked about taking a chance on doing what you loved. She’d been working in New York, in a Lawyer’s office, watching the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapse, and thought to herself, there are people in those buildings who’d been thinking to stick at the crap dayjob a little longer, while putting off their dreams – whatever they might be – and if only they’d gone and lived the dream a little sooner! But would I have done anything differently if I could? I don’t think I would. Of course I have always wanted to write, but for me the writing, like much so much else in life, ¬†has lead me in directions I did not expect.

Near Lancliffe

Approaching Lower Winskill

The walk takes you out of Settle, climbing first the aptly named Constitution Hill, then along a path through the high meadows above Springs Wood. All is lush green and lovely here, the meadows contained by the white limestone dry-walling that demarcates much of the upland regions and which assumes an almost painful pearly whiteness in strong sunshine. We drop down briefly into the village of Langcliffe before continuing our way north, up Ribblesdale, along a green lane, walled in between ancient field systems, then  on to the energetic Stainforth Beck, which, pouring through a nick in high limestone crags plunges into the Sylvan glen that contains the roaring spectacle of Catrigg Force.

Waterfalls make great subjects for photography, with the best examples being judged by a fairly strict set of criterion: not too slow a shutter because that misty milky effect is definitely pass√©e now, and definitely no ugly fallen trees¬†to spoil the view – at least according to the forums that discuss these things. The latter is an unfortunate requirement because at most significant falls of water, there’s always a log gone over the top and lodged itself somewhere in the flow – the falls thus eliminating themselves, apparently, from the “sublime” category. I don’t know, nature is what it is and I think we have to take it as we find it. It’s strange, but I can look at a fall like this and those untidy logs are nowhere to be seen. It’s only when we look at the pictures afterwards they stand out. It’s as if in trying to capture something, we imagine them as simpler than they really are. I note the Catrigg Foss log has slowly been working its way out of shot since I last visited.

catrigg foss

The path to Catrigg Foss

But we were thinking about that “living the dream” thing. Have I not wasted those forty years? I suppose we can all wonder this, especially in moments of transient unhappiness. But I’m old enough now to realise that if I’d ditched the day job at 25 like I intended to, and banged away at publication for my novel “Sara’s Choice”, that really would have been a waste. For all my naive enthusiasm for the tale, it was hardly literature and the world is not exactly the worse for my having abandoned it. It does not even appear as a freebie download in the margin of my blog.

I have the internet to thank for stripping the writing of its “arty” veneer, its debatable mystique. I was never going to make my living at it, and that’s not defeatism or lack of self confidence talking. Call it experience, and reading the runes, but I finally worked it out that there has always been more to the publishing lark than I was ever going to understand in one lifetime. Then I realised I didn’t want to publish anyway, I just wanted to write, and put my stuff somewhere where people could read it, and maybe have a chat now and then with those readers who felt the urge to get in touch. I didn’t want my life to consist of literary parties, speaking tours, book signings and publicity bashes. I wanted to do a job I was reasonably good at, but one I could also shut in a drawer every night at 5:00 pm, then go home and do the stuff I wanted to do. And now and then I wanted to take the days that were owed me, and slip away to beautiful spots like this. It seems I have not wasted those 40 years at all, and am already living that dream. It’s just that sometimes we think we’re not, that the grass is somehow always greener on the other side.¬†In this sense there’s a risk, not that we will will fail at the dream, but ¬†that the dreams will reveal themselves to be simply whatever we’re not doing at the time. And chasing those dreams is just another form of materialism.

catrigg foss waterfall

Catrigg Foss

From Catrigg, a dusty path leads across open moor to the narrow Langcliffe road, which we descend a little way until a close cropped path leads us off through the green towards the Attermire Scars – great limestone crags, running with scree. These are famed for being dotted with the entrances to several caves: Jubilee, Victoria, Attermire, and the Lookout Cave. They are all accessible, with care, and have been drawing the eye of humans since Neolithic times. They were used as burial places, also as hidey holes by the Celts during the Roman occupation – beautiful period jewellery, and even a chariot have been recovered. But I’m not much of a caver and wasn’t tempted to explore, except to wander a little way into the most accessible of these holes – the Jubilee Cave.

jubilee cave

Inside the Jubilee Cave, Attermire Scars

The return to Settle is via a lush meadow pathway that follows the line of the Warrendale Knots – dramatically shaped limestone crags that rise several hundred feet above the green of the dale. This is Carboniferous limestone country, laid down in a tropical sea some 360 million years ago. Compared with the immense age of the earth we’ve come from nothing to iPhones in a heartbeat and it makes one wonder if we’ll still be here in another 360 million years. The sun has another 6 billion years to go, which makes the earth quite young, and I’m wondering at what point in our evolution we shall finally get our hovering jet-scooters, like in Dan Dare, and when the problem of the daily commute will be solved by teleportation, and when the day job itself will finally be abolished, enabling us all to live the dream, however we define it.

But if we’re all living the dream, what then what shall we dream of?

warrendale knots

The Warrendale Knots

At a little over six miles, the walk is by no means a severe one, but my feet have a way of complaining on the last quarter of any hike, whether I’m doing two miles or twenty, so I was feeling like I’d had a decent outing by the time I made it back to Settle. I found excellent coffee at the quirkily named “Car and Kitchen”, where I sat out at the pavement tables in the warm late afternoon sunshine. How would I like to change my life, at that moment, I wondered? How could I improve on the day as lived thus far? Well, ¬†right then it would have been to settle, in Settle and to have hills like this for company all the time, instead of the dreary plains of home, where all I can see is sky.

Funny things though, dreams, to say nothing of the dreamers who dream them. If I was surrounded by unremittingly steep hills like this all day, I’d probably be ¬†hankering after a bit of flat.

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fire engineMy morning commute was interrupted¬†earlier this week by a lorry on fire. I saw the funnel of smoke from five miles away, a great ominous plume rising thousands of feet into the air. Fire Engines and police vehicles tore past me, and then the motorway slowed to a halt. My heart sank. I’d a feeling this was a big one, a terrible accident up ahead, and we wouldn’t be going anywhere for a long, long time. I switched the engine off, opened the window a crack, settled back and took a deep breath.

To the right of me was parked the great shiny white whale of a coach. The driver was a bulky fellow, shirt-sleeved, leaning forward a little over his wheel. His muscular forearms were perfectly relaxed, resting lightly on the rim, his fingers drooped, his posture empty, his expression impassive. This was a face used to staring out at an endless ribbon of road, in all weathers, day and night. He barely moved from that position until the traffic cleared. Some people are naturally meditative and calm. I admired his stillness, and adopted him as my guru for the morning.

Behind me, through the rear view mirror, I spied a Mercedes, all corporate black and shiny. It carried a lone occupant, a suited man, grey and of late middle years, apparently talking to himself. Now and then he’d shake his head in vehement disagreement, then drive home his point with sharp little nods and jabs of his fingers. I presume he was using one of those hands free things. It was barely eight fifteen but his business was already running at full tilt, and very important business it appeared too, at least judging by his tense expression. He was an eminent meetings man, no doubt, a finger-on-the-pulse type, dynamic, assertive – all the things I am not, and am consequently quick to notice in others.

To my left was parked a red Ford family saloon, a man and a woman, again middle aged. The woman was very still, the man by contrast very twitchy. His window opened half way and he lit up, releasing a great gasp of smoke. Neither spoke. She seemed withdrawn into a place of deep silence, her eyes inexpressive, resting in the middle distance while he appeared more quick-eyed, prowling and irritable. He was a caged and hungry lion, his patience sorely tested by the interruption of his routine – she a docile rabbit. I felt a tension between them – unspoken and probably imaginary on my part. I felt also a passing and quite peculiar sense of compassion for her – in all likelihood entirely misplaced – but interesting all the same.

In front was another Ford, a small, squat little Ka. Its occupant was a young woman who had the immediate urge to remove her jumper, then comb her hair, then check her face in the mirror, then put her jumper back on, then apply some lipstick, then slide her seat back and recline it, then pull it forward again, then check her ‘phone, then pull her jumper off again, then comb her hair a different way, then check in the mirror to see if she preferred the hair up or down. All this and we’d only been stationary for five minutes – any longer and she’d be getting out to have a walk around! She too lit a fag and a great gasp of smoke leaked from her window. She was indeed a terrible fidget, the little vehicle rocking impatiently on its springs as she wrestled gamely with her restlessness. I tried to remember if my own energy at her age had bucked so fiercely against such imprisonment. I know it had. It was only in my thirties I discovered the damage it was doing and began groping my way back to some sort of stillness.

Eventually, her window came right down and she stuck her head out. Her body followed. I was thinking now she might be trapped and was trying to escape, but then the ‘phone came up and in a couple of little flashes we got the “selfie”. I wondered at the caption. “Me stuck in traffic?” Heavens, love! A little dull?

The traffic began moving again after thirty minutes or so Рnot a severe delay by any means, and a sterling effort by the emergency services. I was lucky Рthose stuck at the tail end of it were delayed by a couple of hours, and the motorway was down to a single lane all day. The lorry was a terrible mess, the forward half of its cargo, some 20 tonnes of pet food, all gone and the cab burned to a shell. When the engines of these monsters overheat, they really overheat! The driver was unhurt, but it was a sobering scene all the same.

I carried with me into the day the stillness of the coach driver, but also the memory of the fidgety girl, and her diametrical lack of any stillness whatsoever. Of course for the Facebook generation there can be no such thing as inactivity, with even moments of forced inaction necessitating the reactive “action” of capture and comment. There seems nothing mindful in such a culture; it’s definitely a “look at me” kind of thing, more self absorbed than self reflective, and a little childish. I hesitate to criticise though, because I was young too, once, and remember being more painfully aware of myself with the world as my backdrop, trying to be seen as “cool” and likeable, as I made my first hesitant steps into manhood. Who’s to say I would not have been a Facebook fan, had they had it in the 70’s and 80’s, when, let’s face it, I was trying to attract girls?

Nowadays I think I look more at the world itself, in all its shades, perhaps seeking to catch glimpses of myself reflected in its sometimes quirky, sometimes mysterious traces, but without bothering much about the picture of myself within it. Is that true? Or do I delude myself? Is blogging not the more mindful selfie of the older generation? There I was, stuck in traffic, and here I am now, writing about it. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and that’s about what I’ve written here. Perhaps I should have saved myself the self reflection, joined with the fidgety girl, and taken a selfie, just two faces in ten thousand, the pair of us held up by a lorry on fire.

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