Archive for June, 2015

Times like These

Accurist movement - circa 1960The weekend began with a beheading in France, the machine gun massacre of sunbathing European tourists on a Tunisian beach, and a suicide bombing at a Shia Mosque in Kuwait. For me, as is usual under such circumstances, and powerless as I am to make a difference to anything, I am left to make an assessment of the sky, and decide if it is falling, or if the world has always been like this, because the fourth estate can always find a story of depraved violence from somewhere in the world to numb my soul and make me afraid.

So what do I do? I take an old, broken and rather unpromising timepiece, one that hasn’t run in decades and looks about ready for the bin, and I dismantle it. Inside I find the intricate treasure of a Swiss movement, shockingly pristine within a shell now cracked and caked with layers of decay. And amazingly, fingerless and freed from the festering strait jacket of its former function, the mechanism comes at once to life. I give it a clean, the tiniest bit of oil, and its runs with all the sweetness of a – well – of a Swiss watch.

I’m embarrassed writing about this, this weekend, when so many mourn the loss of loved ones, embarrassed I could find no better way to spend my time than by tinkering with this old instrument of time. It isn’t that I do not care – indeed I do – but what can I do? What should I do? If my children were listed among the dead the challenge would be all but impossible, I know: the challenge of forgiveness, the challenge of not rising to hatred.

This mechanism, beautiful as it is has outlived its case from which the chrome sheen is now un-serviceably pitted and flaking away, lifted by the salt-sweat of past labours. It seems improbable to me so much effort should have gone into assembling such a fine movement, the very heart of the machine, only to put it in a vessel as prone to wear and imperfection as this one. The dial is stained and illegible beneath a murky crystal that has taken on the yellowing of age and the deep scoring of long misuse. Without opening the case and peering inside, the watch would have been dismissed as hopeless.

And the metaphor? Because there must be one here, or my fascination for this old thing tonight is a vain irrelevance. I suppose the nearest I can come to is that beneath the workings of the world there is a jewel that is the human spirit, but when the old ways are worn out, the old displays, nothing good can come from maintaining them. We have to let them go. The exterior is meant for show, it is impermanent, and vital as it might seem at the time, it is not the essential thing.

I lived through decades of Irish Sectarian violence, which seemed a terrible evil, that men could do what they did to other men and women and children in the name of an idea, yet it compares as child’s play to the scale and the depravity of the acts now reported on our tea time screens.

“And what shall we make of it?” opines the grave-faced lady on the six o’clock news. Well, as much as you possibly can, no doubt, comes my cynical, time worn, day worn reply – perpetrator, manipulator and media, ever lustful partners locked in their eternally perverted embrace. The effect upon the psyche of one damned thing after another, since the turning of the century has been unrelentingly, abrasively debilitating; it has been fear inducing, confidence sapping. Or did it begin even before then? Has it not always been this way? Always the need for an existential threat?

Man is the danger, said Jung. Mass insanity, in one shape or another, is never far away.

Or do we overstate it? Do we overly-conflate the act of the world’s lone, crazed killers with a darker subplot threatening world domination? With what? What is it? What unspeakable horror of the collective imagination is breaking through into the world now? What kind of inundation? The subjugation of women? The violent repression of every creed or culture that turns away from this cult of death? Black, the colour of death. The severed head its symbol. Rapine. Torture. Fear of the foreign stranger. The sacrifice of the goddess of mercy upon the pyre of literal, Old Testament beliefs. It is every fear we have ever had and suppressed, now emerging from the dark lake of the unconscious, like the dance of crazed, ravenous demons.

What am I to do?

I put the mechanism back in its case, fix the hands in place to tell the time once more. It stops, as if in outrage at its re-imprisonment. Take it out, it ticks lustily again. But what place the beating heart without a serviceable body to beat in?

I set it aside for now, keep the beating heart safe for other times.

If forgiveness is not exactly to love, then it is at least not to hate. To hate is to engage on equal terms with depravity.

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man in garden doing qigong with mouseYesterday closed with a beautiful evening. But I’d had a long and rather tedious shift at the day job and I’m afraid to say I arrived home too tired and grumpy to pay it much attention at first. A weariness and a sense of despondency hung on throughout my evening meal, and overshadowed my chores. Then I stepped out onto the lawn in bare feet and began my practice. The more airy fairy Qigong books talk of going barefoot because it connects you to the earth, and to the Telluric currents, but there’s no sense to be made from any of this, no firm evidence I’m aware of that the body is influenced beneficially in any way by being “grounded”. I do it on warm evenings simply because it feels good to go barefoot on the grass. Everybody know this.

I warmed up slowly, gently, then did a routine called the Eight Brocades. There are thousands of Qigong routines but to my mind the Eight Brocades is an important one, but only because it’s an easy sequence of moves to remember, and it takes about twenty minutes, which for me is about long enough without overdoing it or getting bored.

Breathing deep and in sync with those moves, I became aware of a familiar tingling in the palms, one that by degrees came down my arms and entered my body, until by the end of the practise, I felt my whole self faintly buzzing. You can call this “awakening the energy body” if you want; sometimes I allow myself to imagine it as such, and it does feel good – it feels relaxing and invigorating at the same time – but it’s better to keep your opinions about what it is to yourself because you don’t know for sure, and neither does anyone else.

Then I ran through the Yang 24 Tai Chi form, a little of the Chen Old Frame, then broke into a spontaneous freestyle that was mostly silk reeling. I closed with some Heaven and Earth Qigong, another simple set that’s easy to remember and nice to do. If I don’t close with the Qigong, settling this imaginary energy down, then I can come away not feeling as much of the benefits of practise and with a lightness in the head, rather than a more grounded awareness. Again, there’s nothing scientific here; it’s just a personal observation.

Throughout all these moves the palms were tingling, and at times it felt as if they were vibrating. The arms were also “charged”, though I make no claims for that word either and use it merely in the descriptive sense. During the Eight Brocades specific fingers experience a “fullness” – the index fingers during the second move, the middle and third fingers during the fourth. They feel swollen, they feel “charged”. These experiences are repeatable, but I don’t know what they are. You also feel a heat. It begins in the lower body, in the thighs and, if the posture’s right, it rises to the upper body so you feel an overall glow.

I used to be a ballroom dancer. Any dancer will tell you of the pleasure of movement, of how a sequence of moves can connect with something deep inside of yourself and raise a smile, raise a tingle in your bones that makes you want to do it again and again. Tai Chi and Qigong are like that – they’re slower than your usual dance routine, and there’s this element of control too, of mindful focus, and of measuring, of pacing with the breath. But dancing doesn’t result in the same sensations of heat and tingling. With dancing, the breath is not coordinated, it is the music that drives the pace. With Qigong it seems to be this coordination of breath with movement that is the key.

As I finished up, the sun was setting, and the lawn felt different through the soles of my feet. It felt colder, felt as if it were now drawing heat out of me, rather than raising a tingle up my legs. I stepped onto the patio where the stone flags had retained the heat of the day. I felt comfortably warm again, and sat down. The dusk deepened and the bats came out. I watched them for a while, thinking of nothing in particular, then brewed bush tea and went to bed.

These were are all subjective sensations and mean nothing to anyone else. I might also have appeared slightly ridiculous while I was practicing. And, since I didn’t break a sweat or feel myself getting out of breath, it’s arguable it was a complete waste of time in terms of physical exercise, and did nothing to extend my life expectancy for even a millisecond beyond what fate has already allotted. I did however feel deeply relaxed. I was able to think clearly. I was no longer grumpy, felt myself recharged, and magnanimous about the day’s events, I felt I had transcended them. I felt human enough and decent enough now to be with others.

I slept deeply and dreamed vividly.

This is the practical reality of Qigong and Tai Chi. It raises a feeling one cannot help but describe as “electric”, but seeking any definitive explanation of those sensations in the literature – either modern or traditional – is simply asking for trouble. In looking to deepen one’s practice, there is no substitute for the practice itself. It is a personal journey, a subjective experience gained through a framework of basic moves that are taught differently by every teacher, but this discrepancy is not important because the moves themselves are not the thing. Going deeper into Qigong and Tai Chi is not about “understanding” at the intellectual level. Nor is it about anyone else. It’s about you. And through you, it is about everything.

I feel most confident when speaking about the benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi in terms of the vascular and lymphatic system. Privately, I can speculate as much as anyone else about the electromagnetic effects, about the energy body, about the significance or otherwise of Telluric currents, about the best times for practise, about “chi” and the yin and the yang of it. But I can’t speak with any authority, and neither can anyone else, not yet, and not until the basic research has achieved sufficient momentum to shoulder aside the justifiable caution of the scientific establishment.

There are many who will try to explain it to you; they’ll do so with a straight face and an authoritative tone, while selling books on it at a tenner a time, or inviting you to expensive seminars on it, or selling you gadgets that claim to boost your chi, smooth your wrinkles, grow your hair back and make you live for ever. But their terminology, although it might sound scientific, is never grounded on anything firmer than the dubious claims of long dead researchers or “masters” that have never been independently verified.

Yet the practice of Qigong and Tai Chi persists, and has done so for thousands of years. Why? Well, practiced as a mind-body exercise, the truth is revealed as being at the same time rather more prosaic, yet also more remarkable than any of the claims made for it by its self styled spokespersons, authorities, Masters, and book peddlers.

And it’s this.

It’s not about the body at all. Not about the physical. It’s about the mind, the immaterial, it’s about transcending for a moment our self constructed sense of self, and revealing to us the void that is as much a part of existence as the mess we can see. It is about revealing to us the truth that we are less the atoms of the physical world, the physical body, and more the gaps in between. It’s about showing us that if we can leave off bothering about the physical for a moment and just be content not knowing who we are, the stillness and the calm awareness that is left, that is who we are. From this transcendent perspective everything else becomes trivial, and it puts a bad day at the office firmly in its place.

That the body benefits from practice is something you can only establish for yourself by practising. But this is secondary, a side effect of balancing the mind and the emotions. There are many in the west who are sceptical about Tai Chi and Qigong, and I don’t blame them because the spokespersons for this kind of stuff come across like lunatics and new age flakes. Practicing Tai Chi and Qigong will change your life, but don’t believe half of what you read about it, and never put your trust in anything you cannot experience yourself by simply practising. It should also be fun, never simply “worthy”, or it’s not worth doing.

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mariaTai Chi has been around for a while in the west, Yang style appearing among the Chinese diaspora in the USA as early as the 1940’s. Qigong methods, although much older in origin, appeared more recently in the West, from the 1990’s. As a health system, both are practiced with a slow, mindful intent. The breath is measured and deep. They’re supposed to work, we’re told, by manipulating “chi”.

The literature talks of “chi” as a form of subtle energy that flows around the body. If chi is abundant and free flowing we are healthy. If chi is low or blocked, we become sick. This is where acupuncture comes in, being supposedly a more direct way of intervening in the body’s energy system, unblocking chi and improving its flow by needling a network of points in the subsurface tissues. Claims for the efficacy of Chinese “energy medicine” are impressive, though the research papers thus far translated are said by Western pundits to be of a poor quality, lacking the “blinded” trials and large scale studies one would normally expect. This makes it hard to differentiate between genuine efficacy and placebo. The best we can say is the results, though interesting, are thus far inconclusive. There may be something in it, there may not.

Those researchers who are most sympathetically inclined are at their best when seeking to explain things without using the “Chi” word. They speak instead of oxygen and glucose and bio-chemical energy. These processes are well understood and fit into the more mechanistic western paradigm. From this perspective it’s all about breathing and movement. This boosts the vascular and lymphatic systems, which increases the available energy for healing, for general health, and a sense of well-being. There’s no need to bring “chi” into it. Any claimants who fail this test and insist on using the “chi” word to paper over the cracks of a more rational analysis, risk an ignominious labelling as charlatans, cranks or crackpots. This would include most self proclaimed Qigong Masters, “healers” and unaffiliated researchers of energy medicine operating today.

The problem for me, as a practitioner of Tai Chi and Qigong, as well as an interested student of its background and science, is that it feels like there’s more going on than blood and lymph circulation. It feels like the nervous system is becoming highly active when we practice, that there is an “electrical” component. There is tingling, feelings of fullness, of electricity moving through the body. These are subjective sensations and could be anything, but, as far as I know, they are unique to Qigong and Tai Chi, and I would like to understand them better. However, in my last post on this subject I described having reached the stage where I was persuaded to abandon further enquiry along these lines, having found the literature far too obtuse and contradictory to make any headway with it at all.

I was happy instead to side with the work of Douglas Kendall et al, who present an alternative and convincing body of work that rebuts the Chinese concept of “chi” altogether, exposing it as a kind of Western mistranslation, that what the Chinese actually meant was something else entirely and more closely akin to Western concepts in the first place, though predating them by a few thousand years. Yes, Qigong and Tai Chi work, but not as a result of anything spooky, says Kendall. It’s purely physiological. Adopting this position we find ourselves on safer ground, but as a practitioner it also feels like an unsatisfactory retreat.

There is another large body of work by researchers who represent a hundred year long tradition of energy medicine, this one entirely western. It proposes an electromagnetic “energy body” as a pre-requsite for life, rather than as a by-product, and claims that in maintaining the health of the energy body, we maintain the health of the physical body. This work has many correlations with the concept of “chi” and is generally supportive of the eastern energy system. It began in the early part of the twentieth century, and has rumbled on in various backwaters ever since. It’s very interesting, but delving into it as I have been doing recently doesn’t help to clarify things at all.

As far as I can make out the work has been sidelined by the mainstream because no one has been able to reproduce the key experiments under the rigour of contemporary controls. What surrounds it in fact is the odour of something a bit fishy. It lurks in the shadows rather than under the illumination of a universal revelation. Its commentators are restricted to You Tube, where they appear shoulder to shoulder with the crazy cat videos. This does little for their reputation, but neither has it stopped them from going on to brazenly market gadgets for plugging into the “energy body” – the purpose being to “boost” or “repair” it, thereby arresting the onset of sickness, old age and death. Modern, western energy medicine promises us the elixir of immortality via gadgets with flashing lights. What’s not to like about it?

Now, I’m sure there is a kernel of truth in it, that the electromagnetic field of the body is indeed an integral part of its function. Robert Becker (Body Electric) has done most to establish the foundations of it, showing us how regeneration of tissues and bones following injury are all presaged by fluctuations in the body’s electrical potentials. Injuries that are reluctant to heal can indeed be encouraged to do so by artificially boosting the electrical potentials by external means. This much has been proven and accepted by the mainstream, but it’s a long way from the claims of latter day gurus.

Becker’s work seems not to have led anywhere in more recent times, except as footnotes in a greater mythology whose adherents are to be found quoting and misquoting him. Sadly, I’m unable to find any evidence of reliable science built upon the foundations of his work, and all the contemporary pundits are after is simply selling us stuff.

Energy medicine is not taught at “respectable” universities. Medical students do not emerge with a vocabulary that includes “energy bodies”, “the etheric” or “auras”. They do not talk of the electro magnetic elixirs of immortality. Progress in coming to any firm conclusions about all this stuff therefore is slow, and the answers seem as far away as ever. Is this because researchers are held back for want of funds and fear of ridicule? or is it because the research has already adequately established there is nothing in it but quackery?

So, amidst all this fog where does that leave the humble and more rational practitioners of Qigong, and Tai Chi? Well, in terms of the “energy body”, we’re going to be on shaky ground for a long time to come and must be circumspect in all our dealings with it. We must recognise that whenever we speak of bioelectricity as a more western friendly correlate of “chi” we are still entering a controversial field. We risk deluding ourselves and misleading others when we speak of it, so we’re better holding our tongues. That said, I do find it useful to think of an energy body when practising. Indeed any sensation of the body registered by the mind is the result of processes going on in the nervous system and therefore “energetic” in nature. But to develop a more acute awareness of it is one thing, to extrapolate from it all manner of dubious claims is quite another.

More about Tai Chi and Qigong, in practise, next time.

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Martindale was restless under a pale sun, animated by patchy clouds driven by a stiffening breeze. Meanwhile the head of the dale was spilling over with a snowy cap which hid something darker, something boiling and possibly nasty. Rampsgill head! It’s not a place for the faint hearted in bad weather; but I only say this because it scared the pants off me last time I was up there. I recall the wind tore my map in two – a shrieking banshee, blowing a horizontal rain with tracers of hail, like machine gun fire. The tops were just a few degrees above freezing that day, while at Side Farm, tucked away safe in the sunshine of the Patterdale valley, they wore tee shirts and shorts and sucked ice-creams.

on the beda fell ridge

Hallin Fell from the Beda Fell ridge

I chose Beda Fell instead, thinking it the lighter option. I’d spent an hour the night before at Kung Fu practise, punching a bag and leaping about with a broadsword, and calculated, correctly, my physical reserves were still somewhat depleted. Beda Fell therefore did not fall easily and the ascent was interrupted frequently with pauses to admire the northward aspect towards Hallin Fell and Ullswater, and to take photographs. Wainwright was correct when he said the fells demand a high standard of fitness. To walk here you have to train here, and I’ve been a stranger to the tops lately.

Anyway, I took the line of that lovely ridge to where it meets the path coming up from Dale Head farm, then cut back down to the car, a short circular walk of some two hours but one that left me aching and wobbly. By now the stuff pouring over Rampsgill had turned the dale grey and cold, and not a bit spitty. I saw no one on the fells at all.

We can be a bit a blind in our wanderings, us fell walkers, our heads always turned towards the next objective so we often fail to see what’s under our feet. The flora of the lakes seems often to me quite dull – just sedges, and fern and they only survive because the sheep won’t eat them. I presume they don’t like common butterwort either as I managed to find a tidy colony of it hiding by the side of a beck. I should add the butterwort is carniverous, but only to creepy crawlies.

Common Butterwort, Martindale. Carniverous, but only to creepy crawlies.

Common Butterwort, Martindale (UK). Carniverous, but only to creepy crawlies.

The weather held sufficiently for me to risk driving out of  Martindale with the top down. I’m sure it seems a childish fascination to other drivers, or the non drivers among you, I mean this topless motoring I have only recently discovered. But driving like that you feel the world, you hear the stirring of the trees, feel the tug of the wind on your neck, feel the turn of the day in the air. It’s good to notice these things, and not take them for granted.

The weather caught up with us at Glenridding, so I had to stop there to put the top up. Also it was about time for that coffee and cake I’d promised myself. The carpark here is one of those that reads your number plate as you drive on and you can pay by debit card, because no one carries that much loose change any more. However, my experience of such technological marvels is that they don’t always manage to read your plate when it’s raining, and the card readers aren’t reliable either. This serves only to add frustration to the expense, so it’s wise to have that shrapnel handy anyway. Or if you’re lucky you can park an hour for free at the roadside. I was lucky, tucked the Mazda into a spare slot and fastened down the top just as the rain came on in earnest.

martindale farmI bought coffee at Kilners, part of the old Glenridding Hotel, and sat out under the awning as the rain poured in fine silver threads. It was refreshing, and as I sipped the coffee I rose on a swell of satisfaction at the way the day had gone. My sense of smell even put in a rare return so I was able to smell and taste the coffee, and it was the finest thing, this completion of my senses, adding a sharpness to my observations.

I note several whining “Tripadvisor” pundits berate Kilners for poor service and poor coffee. But the young lady who served me could not have been sweeter, nor more helpful, and the coffee was just grand. It did cost me a fiver, and it was a very small piece of cake – two mouthfulls I’d say – but this is the Lakes, and you must be prepared for that – it’s right up there with Switzerland.

I’ve sat in this place, and its various past incarnations, on many such occasions after walking – coffee, and fine rain in Glenridding – though the occasions be interspersed years apart and spanning decades, but somehow each feeling the same, and timeless in the moment. Only when I rise and continue my journey do I feel the passage of time in the changes of my life.

When I returned to the car I found the rain beading all over it, little glass pebbles that would suddenly form little rivulets, which slid off in pearly splashes, the paintwork a deep blue lustre underneath. She looked small, tucked in between a couple of generic four by fours, but she can certainly move and climbed those zig-zags into Martindale like a rat going up a drainpipe. She’s a sparky old lady for sure.

In that instant the day crystallised into a perfect memory, frozen into the time-zero of all my days in the Lakes: a long drive to a lost valley; visiting the grave of a forgotten Victorian Orientalist; puzzling over the enigma of a man who puzzled even those who knew him; a hike up a sharp hill, one that left me blowing and wobbly; good coffee; avoiding the National Trust car park, twice; and the rain beading on the old girl’s admittedly overwaxed paintwork.

It’s hard to explain what any of this means, all of it ephemeral, but we’ve each felt it in our own ways, and through our own experience, from time to time, and I know you know what I mean. We are all of us, essentially nobodies, going nowhere. At first pass it sounds a depressing concept, but really it’s not. We are more than dust, and it is not the form of the thing that’s important, not the doing, not the seeing of the thing in itself, but more being granted the trick of insight to glimpse the magic beneath the fabric of the world, and to touch something “other” in the seemingly mundane, like,… I don’t know,… the beading of rain on the paintwork of an old car.

Then the door opens to the possibility of touching something other, touching it with our hearts, rather than just our hands.

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I set out with no clear idea where I was going, but then the best journeys always begin like that. The forecast for the Lakes was unsettled, the Dales better, but a fuzzy, subliminal reasoning had me ignoring the Dales’ junction on the M6 and continuing north, so the Lakes it was, gathering gloom not withstanding.

I’ve had a mind to take the car over the over the Kirkstone Pass since last summer, and though the weather was a bit cool and glowery, I figured we might just about make it with the top down and my hat on. So, it looked like today was the day. I had walking gear in the boot, but my outings are as much about the drive these days, so if I did end up walking, it would be a route, like the drive, planned pretty much on the hoof.

The rain held off and I enjoyed a quiet run up from Windermere, gaining altitude as we climbed above Troutbeck. I had the road pretty much to myself, and every twist of it was felt pleasantly in the gut. Not everyone “gets” the small open top roadsters. The MX5 isn’t a powerful or a particularly aggressive car on the road, at least not the 1.6 version like mine. Any number of “hot” hatchbacks could, and often do, outpace it, but while the hot hatch pays homage to the hot headed god of speed, the MX5 pays homage to the more laid back goddess of the road. It is, above, all a very rewarding car to drive, delivering thrills at forty that other cars fail to do at seventy.

There was a pale, lazy mist creeping about the deep cut valleys and the tops. The Kirkstone was clear, ponderous clouds brushing a couple of hundred feet above the summit, so I only just managed to crest the pass in the clear. This can be a busy route; any later in the day than mid-morning and you’re sure to get stuck behind a dawdler or a tourist coach. You need to be careful though and watch your speed. Sheep have no road sense. (see video).

I did hit a sheep once. Neither of us stood a chance. We had a head on after someone chased it from their garden, where it had been snacking on their dahlias. It was quite a thump, one that sent it rolling ahead of the car – a big ball of wool, legs akimbo (it wasn’t funny at the time). The sheep got up, shook itself down, and shot me a pained look – a flower still hanging from the corner of its mouth, then ambled off, apparently unhurt. That was a lucky sheep, but I suspect only one of us learned the lesson of that day: expect the unexpected in sheep country.

At around fifteen hundred feet, the summit of the pass can be a bleak spot, locked in fog, but on a clear day it’s one of the most impressive places in the North – well worth a pulling over in the shadow of Red Screes and maybe taking refreshment at the inn if you fancy it. The inn makes this the highest permanently inhabited spot in England, also unusual for being completely off the grid. It relied for many years on diesel generators for its electricity, but has recently installed wind turbines as a greener option. That said, its comforts are still simple, not least of which is a roaring log fire. On a cold night that fire can make it a hard job to tear yourself away, especially when there’s a gale roaring through the chimney pots and you’re still a long way from home.

So, anyway… what now?

Well, the route leads down to Patterdale – the trip meter nudging just over 70 miles by this time, and plenty of options for walking on this side of the pass, but I’d not had enough of the road yet, so on a whim I carried on to the northern tip of Ullswater, then threaded my way along the lesser known eastern side of the lake. The roads here become suddenly narrow. I’d still no firm destination in mind, but I seemed to be heading for Martindale, if only because that’s where the road runs out. Martindale, for me, also means Andrew Wilson and the old Church of Saint Martins.

Lady of the Lake - Ullswater - 2004I usually visit Martindale via the steamer link from Glenridding which deposits you at Howtown. Then it’s a return on foot via various delightful routes across the fells. But it’s £7:00 to park your car for the day in Glenridding this summer, and nearly as much for the steamer fare. Its a good trip if you’ve not done it before, especially if you hit lucky and it’s the Lady of the Lake that takes you, but a drive round in an old open top car is just as precious and cost me nothing. What I saved would go some way towards the petrol and maybe treat myself to coffee and cake on the way home.

The day was working out just fine.

Beyond Howtown, the road becomes seriously narrow and there’s a series of hairpins that seem on the borderline of possible. They take you up from lake level and deliver you into the lost arcadia that is Martindale. My connection with the valley is quasi-spiritual, born of many a long walk in the silence and the solitude of the tops that embrace this remarkably beautiful place. It sees few visitors. There are no pubs, no shops – just a few dotted farms – a very small, isolated community indeed, yet one that boasts two churches.

Kaiser Willy is perhaps the most illustrious visitor to Martindale. He came in 1910 as a guest of the Earl of Lonsdale to shoot deer. I wonder if he knew then he would soon be shooting Englishmen. The lodge he stayed in is still there, preserved pretty much in its original, early twentieth century glory. You can rent it if you’ve a taste for the lonesome, and a penchant for interesting plumbing.

I’ve long been drawn by the Old Church of Saint Martins. The first time was on a sweltering day, a decade ago when I came across the grave of Andrew Wilson. Wilson was a Victorian journalist and traveller, son of John Wilson, a missionary and sinologist, and one of the founding fathers of Bombay. My first job then was to pay my respects to the man.

The grave of Andrew Wilson - MartindaleI’ve researched Wilson deeply over the years and find his story an interesting one. A genial, eccentric character, he was styling himself a Buddhist as early as 1858 – not an eastern Buddhist, but a peculiarly European one, schooled in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. What his father, a senior and respected member of Scotch Church, thought of that is lost to us, as are the reasons for Wilson’s conversion. What makes this all the more remarkable is he was in training as a minister himself, but had some sort of revelation to the contrary, traded in his divinity and became a talented if somewhat wayward journalist instead.

He was an enigma, an opinionated affable Scot whose banter had charmed fierce tribesmen beyond the borders of Empire. Fluent in Urdu, writer, poet, traveller, self driven to extraordinary feats, yet sadly also hamstrung by a congenital heart condition that would finish him off in cruel fashion at the age of 51.

Of course it’s in the way of things that people die and nobody who is not close to us cares that much except to say thank God that was not me. Life goes on and the past generations are forgotten. But still, there’s something about Wilson that stirs the blood, and I like to keep faith with him.

Coming out of the churchyard, I met a coterie of passing gentlepersons who were admiring my car and who asked, only half joking, if I wanted to sell it. I replied that I could never sell it, because I loved it too much. The car is a conversation starter, and I like that because I’ve always been shy of starting conversations myself. But as we joshed I was still thinking of Wilson, a man who lived a big and full life, exploring a world under steam and sail that I will likely never see even as a child of the jet age. Yet for all of his energy and wit and intellect, he is a man now forgotten, laid to rest in this lonely dale.

I was thinking too how the car would one day dissolve to rust or get bent in a shunt, and how everything I had ever done and seen and felt, will in similar fashion be lost – in the words of the not so immortal Roy from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – like tears in rain. Ephemera, impermanence, life’s meaning glimpsed in passing snatches, if at all, a meaning that must somehow be glimpsed through a screen of meaninglessness. It is the dilemma underlying our deepest emotions and fears; no matter what we’ve done nor what we’ve seen of life, we are essentially all of us nobodies going nowhere, and until we can make our peace with that, the doors to a greater insight will remain for ever closed.

in martindale
We are all dust. The scientist will try to cheer us up by saying, ah yes, but that dust was formed in the hearts of stars, but for me that only serves to make the material world seem all the more brutal and impersonal. The thing is to look beyond the dust, for there’s an essential part of us that’s not made of it.

I looked around at the fells. They were moaning, and not altogether welcoming but I’d come a long way and now it was time for a walk.

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girl smelling flowers 2Can Alpha Lipoic Acid help restore your sense of smell?

Anosmia. No sense of smell. Mine used to be normal, though seasonally attenuated by an allergy to pollen. I seem to have been without it forever now, though I suppose it must simply have grown more intermittent over the years until I realised I couldn’t remember what anything smelled like any more.

Doctors? Well, yes, you should always go see the doctor, see what pills he can prescribe for you, but my own doctor isn’t the most hopeful nor encouraging of healers – his most endearing mannerism is his slightly leaden patience, his least endearing a sorry shrug of the shoulders and the phrase: “There is nothing we can do.” Over the years he has conditioned me into believing the same of all ailments, that the best I can hope for is that the body will heal itself in those cases where it can, and that we have to simply adjust to living with those cases where it can’t.

The surgeons at the ENT department were a little more hopeful, offering me a handful of steroids and saying that if they didn’t work they could remove the nasal polyps their cameras had also revealed. (Polyps are harmless little outgrowths from the mucus membrane). The steroids worked, restoring a supernormal sense of smell in a matter of days, but this only lasted a few months, then it was back to anosmia as usual. As for the surgery, I know people who’ve had their polyps removed. They say it hurts, you’re on sickpay while it heals, it doesn’t work, and the polyps grow back in a few years anyway. The ENT surgeons gave the same pessimistic prognosis, so it didn’t take me long to decide on that one. If your polyps are so big you can’t breathe through your nose, then it’s worth doing, but otherwise,… probably not.

I think nasal polyps are a red herring anyway. True they often accompany anosmia, and are sometimes cited by medical professionals as being the cause of it, but I think they’re more likely a symptom. I still have polyps, but my sense of smell can be restored by steroids, which work by reducing inflammation. Ergo, I believe the cause of anosmia is inflammation, probably of the mucous membrane, which also contains the nerves that help us smell. Perhaps as the membrane swells, it stretches the nerves or even damages them, I don’t know, I’m speculating now. That would be my avenue of research if I were a medical man, but I’m not. I just want my sense of smell back.

Of course, you can’t live on steroids. Taken in the longer term they’re nasty things. Indeed I’m of the view it’s a bad idea to be on any kind of pharmaceutical for life, unless you’d be dead without it. What you need is something more natural and for which there are no known side effects, that the aim should be to kickstart the body’s own healing mechanism, not to find a permanent crutch for its apparent failings.

Fortunately, there are no end of “natural” methods for curing anosmia. Unfortunately I must have tried all of them, but to no avail. Then, about six months ago I came upon information about Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA), a common, inexpensive food supplement that’s used as a natural anti-inflammatory. Medical reports, whilst not conclusive, were encouraging, that boosting your intake of ALA could help in recovering the sense of smell.

I’ve been taking it now, as the title of this piece suggests, for 200 days, and have experienced some welcome improvement. I can no longer say I have no sense of smell whatsoever. It’s intermittent, present for some parts of the day absent for the rest. I’ll go for a few weeks without anything, and then a few weeks intermittently smelling things again. The improvement is small, halting, tentative, but seems to be gathering strength. As of now, even at it’s best, I have to say the sense is still severely impaired, responsive only to the strongest of odours, also curiously selective. By contrast Steroids will reveal to me the richly varied texture of background odours as I move from place to place. Such things are still beyond my grasp, but there is movement in the right direction. I’m taking nothing else, so it has to be the Alpha Lipoic Acid.

Results were not immediate. I began taking it at the start of 2015, and noticed no improvement for the first 100 days. Then I began to get my first inklings.

The medical studies involved a dose of 600 mg per day. The recommended daily maximum (as a food supplement) is 200mg. I didn’t want to exceed the recommended dose that much, so compromised on 400 mg. (200 in the morning, 200 in the evening). I take it in capsule form, with food. If you take it on an empty stomach it’ll give you indigestion.

So anyway, yes, it’s taken a long time, and even after 200 days it’s still mostly a blank with just the occasional heady rush of scent, but welcome all the same. I’ll report back in another 100 days, and let you know if there’s been any further improvement.

One other thing I should mention here, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, is the effect of alcohol. This may not effect everyone, but in my case at least, drinking it will set back recovery by days or even weeks. I can get away with it provided I don’t exceed the medically approved limit of 1 unit ABV per hour, and a maximum of 4 units per day. Any more than that and the body struggles to metabolise it. I can only speculate it’s causing an inflammation of the mucous membrane. If you’re struggling with anosmia then, it’s worth going tee total for a couple of months to see what happens. It’s not easy I know- most of us who like a drink are more hooked on alcohol than we suspect – that is until we try quitting, and then we realise it only too well. I’m down to a bottle of wine a week now – but not all at the same time.

The only other thing I found that helped with Anosmia was acupuncture. It took about 5 sessions but my sense came back quite strongly – again acupuncture is an effective anti-inflammatory. In my case it didn’t last very long though, but I was also drinking more than the medically approved guidelines at the time. I hadn’t made the link back then, but I’ve no doubts about it now.

If I was starting out again, looking for a cure, I’d say, for the quick hit, quit drinking and get some acupuncture. You should see positive results after five to ten sessions. Any more than that and it isn’t going to work. But start drinking again, and you’ll lose the benefits. For the longer road, quit drinking and start taking Alpha Lipoic Acid. You should see the first (modest) results within three to six months, but keep drinking – even modestly – and the results will be choppy to non existent.

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body electricMany “New Age” books on topics as diverse as Energy Healing, Homeopathy, Tai Chi and Acupuncture, quote “The Body Electric” as a source. They do this because Robert Becker’s work adds a scientific respectability to what many might consider otherwise dubious topics. Alas, there is also a tendency for writers to misquote him or simply not bother reading the book in the first place and to quote instead what they heard or believe they heard Robert Becker might have said in this book. Thus there has grown around the man a myth that can only be dispelled by sitting down for a few hours with the book and actually reading it. But it’s not an easy read for the modern audience. Well written and engaging though it is, it deals with medical research; and as such it’s technical, it talks of results and conclusions based on logical reasoning. Even if you’re not put off by this, you might be too squeamish to get past the early chapters which deal with cutting the limbs off salamanders and bullfrogs.

Becker was a doctor and orthopeadic surgeon, also a publicly funded medical researcher with an interest in how the body heals. It comes as a surprise to the layman how little medical professionals know about how the body actually works. Obviously they know a good deal more than the layman, but many of its most intimate processes are still a mystery. Becker’s early work involved observing and speculating upon how salamanders can regenerate limbs and tails when they’ve had the misfortune to lose them, with the obvious question in mind: if they can regenerate to that extent, why can’t we?

His experiments with salamanders are detailed in the early part of the book, and they describe the discovery of how the electrical potentials in a living system change when injury occurs, that it is an electrical process that triggers, then monitors the healing. This goes for any living creature, from salamanders to human beings. His interest in the body’s electrical’s properties lead naturally enough to an exploration of its electromagnetic properties as well, how these relate to the body’s processes and immune system, a work that was then expanded to consider the living organism’s relationship with the electromagnetic environment in which it lives.

It has long been denied that fluctuations in the earth’s magnetic field have any effect on human beings, contrary to my own instincts, so I was both surprised and reassured to discover Becker and many other investigators had established a clear, scientifically validated case by the 70’s. Becker was able to show that there is a significant “lunar effect” on human beings, as the moon modulates the earth’s electromagnetic properties in a regular cycle – hospital admissions, suicides and road accidents do follow a lunar cycle, peaking at certain times of the month.  Solar storms, which cause less predictable perturbations, can also have a negative effect on the psyche – things like mood, concentration and coordination. A reasonable case is also made for it effecting the immune system, rendering us more prone to disease at times of major disturbance. The picture that emerges is one of an organism with a complex bio electromagnetic field whose workings are as yet nine tenths unknown, but one that is never the less influenced by the complex, changing electromagnetic field of its environment.

Becker then develops his arguments further and begins looking at the ways man has drastically altered that environment with his technology, in particular radio and radar, also AC electrical transmission in power lines. The latter part of the book is concerned with how the effects of this invisible electromagnetic “pollution” might be harmful. Becker also expounds upon his belief that it was his outspoken opposition to corporate and military funded researchers in the 70’s -who were telling us everything is fine – that cost him his funding and eventually his job.

The Body Electric is often quoted when groping for a scientific explanation for acupuncture, and I admit this  is my own main area of interest. But out of 190 pages, only 3 discuss it. This is not to say the work done was not interesting, but it was certainly not so extensive as many who quote him have claimed. Becker was able to establish that the major acupuncture points, or nodes, do exist, and can be identified by measuring skin resistance. Nodes exhibit a reduced resistance when compared with surrounding tissue. It’s also an important observation that the positions of the nodes are the same irrespective of the person being examined, and to that extent there is a scientific basis to the traditional view of Chinese Medicine, one well worth investigating further.

Some readers have complained this book is dated, and certainly it only deals with work up to about 1980, but it’s a fascinating study all the same. Becker’s clear legacy is the insight that proper bioelectromagnetic functioning of the human body is fundamental to our well being, indeed to life itself. But these processes are still not very well understood, and I don’t know of anyone of Becker’s standing who has continued the work to deepen our knowledge of it since his time. This is a pity as it leaves us largely in the hands of charlatans and kite fliers who continue to misrepresent what Becker actually said and did.

For anyone trying to get to grips with this subject from an objective rather than a speculative point of view, I think The Body Electric, though somewhat dated, it still a good place to start, providing a firm foundation for further study.

Becker wrote a follow up to the body electric called Cross Currents which updates his work to about 1990.

I’ll be talking about that one when I’ve read it.

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It’s a year now since I bought the Mazda – a hot Saturday, the last weekend of May. It was a clear day, sunny-bright, confetti of pink and white cherry blossom floating in a breathless air. I’d been feeling something of an old excitement all the previous week, I mean at the thought of picking her up, like a kid warming to Christmas. It was unfamiliar, this feeling, sign of a misspent middle-age perhaps? sign of that peculiar kind of maturity, one in which we had learned to reign our selves in so hard against the risk of disappointment we ‘d forgotten what there was left in life to be enjoyed. Too much of the nine to five, and not enough of one’s self, Michael.

But anyway, there I was, driving her home with the top down and feeling like a million dollars, feeling like a free man and that in some mysterious way, long coming, I had at last reconnected with a much younger and more openly enthusiastic part of my self. I was eighteen when this dream first took shape, fifty three before I drove it away. It was just an old car, 12 winters gone and needing a bit of work – a very small dream, you might say, but sometimes they are the best; richer in meaning and more yielding to interpretation.

The summer was a good one – warm, and the rains held miraculously in check, as if by charms, as soon as I peeled open the top. I explored the Dales mainly, and mainly topless, a middling stone’s throw from home, a place whose open moor-top roads I cannot now drive any other way and see them the same as I saw them last summer – see them, feel them, taste them. I remember in particular the drive from Aysgarth, towards Hawes, a morning in which Wensleydale glowed golden under a warm Godlike blessing of late morning sunlight. There came a moment in which the car no longer purred and rattled along contentedly, but became a luxurious carpet on which we glided, cushion soft, cruising mid air, and the scene became a broad skied gasp of delight.

Such was the summer, a time of warm memories, followed too soon by a winter of anticipation in which the old car lay under a dust sheet more days than not, dreaming of the summer to come. So when the road-tax man came calling for his £265 of wet blanket, I paid up, armoured against the usual frown. Ditto, the shyster insurance man who tried to sting me for £475, but dropped it to £300 when I asked if there’d been a mistake. I smiled as I asked, because I know this game, know there is no sense or reason to the oftentimes bizarre and rotten monied foundations of the world we are still far too enamoured of. And the Mazda would never be a frowny face. My Mazda MX5 is always a smile.

But now, with my legal presence on the roads negotiated for another year, I find the season much colder. It is rainy, squally, temperatures still scraping freezing on the fell-tops. And I’m reminded that the reason we revere memories of a good British Summer, is that they are so rare. A maritime climate lends a randomness to the mix, our summers being more a shake of the dice than a predictable turning up of the wick. We have to take what comes and with a smile, so we wear our summer shorts and hats, even though we shiver in the grey of a cold front, and the gale snatches our hats away.

I drove out to the coast last night, a gorgeous evening, high in blue skied contrast, but as yet still low in temperature, a stiff breeze dropping it to 6 degrees and the cherry blossom already blown away by a greedy air. The vinyl of the top felt stiff and frigid with cold as I folded it, and I wondered if I should leave it up, but that would be to waste the sun and the wide skies peeling back just then to shades of vanilla and tobacco. So, I was triple layered, warm hatted and gloved up as we rode towards the setting sun. I was perhaps considered mad by the usual parasitic coterie of rear view hogging Audis and BMW’s, ever pushing for a squeeze past.

Southport’s Marine Drive is something of a roller coaster, sinking slowly into the Ribble’s estuarine mud, becoming over time a long and curiously rippling ribbon of a road, the highs of it scored by the sparking strike of exhaust pipes, and sumps and sills. At fifty the big fat four by fours are gaily bouncing, their springs topping out, struggling to remain grounded, body-shells lolling like unballasted ships tossed in a swell. Hard sprung, the Mazda remains more firmly rooted, and we managed to lose the bully boys, at least until the bit where the limit drops to thirty. Here they had me cold and tore past in a series of multi-litred, self important flashes, doing sixty.

On the long strip of the promenade car park, people were lingering in the warm interiors of their cars, interiors lit with amber now as a post nine p.m. sun sank to within a finger’s width of the horizon. Pulling up among them I was immediately cold. A topless roadster’s warm enough when you’re motoring and the heater’s roaring louder than the engine, but stop a while and the cold will find your legs, and the tips of your ears, refuse to let you settle in. But that’s part of the fun – the drive I mean. Old cars like this are all about the drive for me, not so much the destination any more.

This can be a season of anxieties, cresting the month of mid-summer, a season of waiting for the whistle that will say the time we have been waiting for is upon us, that we might cast our top coats and stride out at ease and with the sun smiling down upon us. Yet we are stricken, downcast by the feeling that by the time we have begun, the time remaining will be already too short, the summer run, the season turning, while all we can do is wait for the chance to get out and do something.

But this year I am already doing it.

In the once upon a time I would not have driven out to watch the sun set. I would have thought about the cost of petrol, sat at home while shadows lengthened, and checked my blog stats. The Mazda is no longer a stranger to me, but I still see the road differently when I drive it. I hope in other ways too, I have learned to enjoy the world more as it is, feel more my presence in it as a thing to be enjoyed, than one to be resisted. Life is the journey, not the destination. It is not the rising nor the setting sun but every moment inbetween.

Sure, the sunset from Southport’s Marine Drive is always worth a trip, but I didn’t wait for it, and why? Well, that rippling ribbon of road is even more fun in the opposite direction!

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