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Archive for December, 2015

chinookAfter a quieter day, one in which the village clears away the mess from recent floods, we are unsettled again. It’s not so much the weather forecast which promises storms, but the arrival of the army and the Chinook helicopter. Stealthy the Chinook is not, and the steady, thudding rhythm of its rotors has been compressing my eardrums since noon.

There are holes in the flood banks, and the Chinook will plug them by dropping grab-bags of something or other – the media say sand, but this sounds inadequate to me and I’m hoping for something rather more substantial. The media, who have by now invaded the village in strength, also tell us the banks are to the south, when in fact they are to the west and the north. This lack of accuracy is disconcerting but not altogether surprising.

The flood banks have been breached in two places. Further meaningful information, such as the extent of the damage, the resulting danger, and the feasibility of repair is unavailable. The public, those threatened by these breaches, are advised to keep away from the “area of operations”. This is sensible, I suppose. But there is also a risk here to each of us, personally, and the media can be relied upon for nothing more than emotive garbage – pictures of Christmas trees being chucked into skips and our womenfolk dutifully choking back tears for the nice journalist bastards.

So, I set out to learn what I can by observation on the ground. There is a highpoint to which I might walk and maybe glimpse what is going on,  but I fail to get through a police check-point on the main road. There’s a bigger police presence now and a WPC has me dispatched in short measure by one of her community support minions. The young man peremptorily delegated to tackle me is polite, apologetic. His accent betrays a drafting in from far away.

I try another route, threading along a network of farm tracks, out across the flooded plains. The waters have receded a little, leaving the tracks passable to Wellington boots, though the meadows are still like lakes. Here, reflections in the water have brought the sky down to earth. The effect is dizzying, beautiful. Murmurations of birds have begun to explore their novel bounty.

By this somewhat open subterfuge, I am able to approach quite close, in fact, to the “area of operations” and, through binoculars,  learn the extent of the breach. The hole in the river’s flood banks is of awesome proportions. I am humbled by it. These banks have stood for centuries. I have walked their tops on balmy summer days, confident they will stand for ever. Why now such a dramatic collapse?

Here also, I find a handful of  moss-dwellers, with whom to swap stories. The best information, the most useful, is that gained at first hand and “local”. The usefulness of information decreases the more removed its source. Information on the TV or in the paper press is of course not information at all. It is infotainment, possibly manipulative, and worse than useless.

I watch for a while as the Chinook drops its bags, four at a time, sending up an almighty splash. It is more likely building aggregate, I think, than sand, which would simply be washed away the moment it hit the water. The roar of outraged river is drowned by the roar of the Chinook’s engines. I estimate it will take a thousand bags to plug that hole, five minutes per drop. You work it out. Operations have just begun in earnest, but there’s only ninety minutes of daylight left, then the Chinook will be going home for its tea. I am  not hopeful the hole will be plugged in any meaningful sense by nightfall. This is useful information.

I’ve seen enough now, and turn for home, the light fading.

The Chinook is a mighty bird, noisy as hell and ungainly to look at, but steady as a rock and graceful in the air. A daunting job, that pilot has, stopping the next tide from coming in where it ought not to. But those bags of dropped stuff looked pitifully small, beneath its belly, and that hole dauntingly big. On the plus side the tides are tending now towards the neap rather than the spring, and the fire brigade’s massive pumps are making a difference. This also is good information.

Meanwhile, in the village, more sand has arrived, donated by builders’ merchants. Local people organised by Twitter and Facebook, shovel it into bags. Anyone with a van or a tractor and trailer tours the village, dropping off bags wherever they are needed. Unsolicited, I have acquired a pile of ten. They look inadequate, but I’m grateful, and anyway I’m sure I won’t need them.

We are all a little jumpy now, feel irrationally threatened by even the promise of a spot of rain. But the river levels have dropped to no more than boisterous levels. Only the media  insist we’re doomed. I’m sure they hope we are. Great story isn’t it?

As I write a reporter stands not fifty yards from my home, talking empty nonsense to the entire nation. I see him on the TV in realtime. It’s disorientating. Shall I run out and photo-bomb? Offer him a cup of tea? He says nothing I can remember even five minutes later.

Dark now, 11:00 pm, a storm moving over – for some absurd reason they are calling it “Frank”. It’s raising a roar of wind in the chimney, promise of more rain tomorrow. But I note there has been an adjustment in the psyche’s perceived threat level. The risk is still severe, according to the Environment Agency,  but on the front line we are less reactive, no one staying up until the small hours this time. There is less traffic on the little road outside my window. Normality is relative, and human beings are adaptable creatures, defining their normality by whatever circumstances they find themselves in at the time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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aysgarth upper fallsThe climate is changing. It’s becoming wetter, the rains harder, longer and more frequent. They saturate the ground, the rivers rise, then spill, bringing mud and ruin. Such events were rare, they were a once in a generation thing, but now they happen so frequently, even a year without a flood is counted as a blessing.

I live in a bungalow in a village suddenly prone to annual flooding. Everything I own is at ground level. If the floods come through my letter box, I lose it all. Fortunately my abode rests on a modest high spot, an understated quirk of geography, one that has never flooded in living memory. But weather “events” are so spectacular now it renders the unthinkable thinkable and the phrase “living memory” less of a comfort.

And as I write, my home is under threat from rising water. Three overburdened rivers have burst creating lakes which pool over the escape roads, rendering them impassable to all but the army in their big trucks. And the army have gone home after attending record breaking floods on Boxing Day. We’re cut off from the world, at least for now.

I’m thinking we’ll probably be all right, except I’ve just had a recorded telephone warning from the Environment Agency – flood threat, severe, my area, risk to life, cooperate with the emergency services. These warnings are a one size fits all kind of thing and, though undoubtedly necessary in some circumstances, I feel they are unnecessarily alarmist in others. I suspect the latter is the case now, but one can never be certain. It is in my nature to hope for the best, until the worst is staring me in the face.

I have been to check the spread of water around us, though it’s pitch dark and much of the power to the village is still to be restored. This makes it hard to see anything at all. The encroaching waters are discernible as patches of paleness in the black, seemingly huge spectres laid across the usual pitch void of meadow and moss. I see distant lights reflected in them. It’s hard to tell how they are moving, or if they are moving. Darkness and imagination – still ringing from the Environment Agency’s warning – adds to the possibly inappropriate sense of threat.

There are other people about, roused by the same warnings, gathered mostly into small groups. The mood is generally calm but quietly anxious. There is a murmur of voices, faces occasionally lit by the flash of a mobile phone. Some wave their torches, loosely focused shafts of light, beaming uselessly into the darkness. They seek perhaps to probe the incoming water – measure its depth, its speed, its intent. Now and then you see someone in a hi-vis jacket running, shouting unhelpfully, breaking the quiet as if with a pointed stick. They are not officials, but easily mistaken as such – their skittishness betrays their imposture.

The flood warden passes sedately on his bicycle. I recognise him. He bears an uncanny resemblance to John Le Mesurier’s Sergeant Wilson – same looks, same voice, same gentle manners. He tells me all the sandbags were taken in the preceding days of flood – these were days that saw hundreds of properties in other parts of the village washed out with silt and sewerage. He tells me there’s nothing we can do, is apologetic. I admire his stoicism, am inspired by it.

His walkie talkie scratches to life, a garbled voice speaks to him of something incoherent, he cycles off. I note homes nearer to the front line have improvised their own defences from polythene sheet, which they hold up around their door frames with bricks and planks. They might as well have saved themselves the effort, but at times of crisis it is easier to be busy, harder to be still.

By 2:00 a.m. I am alone by the silty water’s edge, the village having given up its vigil and gone to bed. Here, the tarmac of the little road disappears under an alien plane of rippling murk that spills from a meadow, and may as far as I know stretch all the way to the sea, some five miles away. I poke at it with my toe, make ripples, suspect the level might be falling. Can’t be certain. It’s been three hours now since the recorded warning of imminent threat to life and property. What are we expecting here? I imagine a tsunami bearing down on me in the still of night. It does not come.

The emergency services arrive, but International Rescue this is not. It’s just the one night-duty policeman in a minibus. He cruises down to the waterline beside me, stops suddenly when he sees it, looks surprised, gets out, shines his torch. He says nothing to me, as if a gulf of language separates us, yet we are two men alone at dead of night, on the edge of the unknown. I thought he might at least have nodded his fellowship. I leave him to it, return home to my desk.

So, here I sit and ponder what, among my belongings, I should rescue.

In a house, one can move valuables upstairs, but the best I can do is put things on the table-tops. Beyond that, the accumulated paraphernalia of my half century of life must take its chances with the goddess of destruction. I must face the possibility that this ephemera might not be here in the morning. What I can keep of it must go into my pockets. So, what shall I take?

What would you take?

Wallet and phone; these are the obvious, ubiquitous items, but I shall take also the little black codebook in which I keep passwords for my various online accounts. Computers are replaceable. Insurance documents are online now, but I have them copied for convenience to an SD card which I keep in a folder in my wallet.  I am portable, capable of letting go of what I cannot carry.

But evacuation is slow in coming, and I’m losing interest in staying up all night. I strip to teeshirt and trunks, lay my clothes at the bottom of the bed in case I must get into them quickly. Wellies and a torch are by the door. The village is quiet now, at last. I snuggle under the duvet and drift eventually to sleep and dream of mermaids.

Dawn comes, and there is no sound of lapping water around the bed. My ‘Droid assures me the imminent risk to life and property is still pending. I lie in ’till mid-morning, then walk down to the water’s edge once more. It has not receded much since the small hours, but looks less threatening in daylight. It is not the wide inundation I had imagined. There are corners to it, patches of dry.

A helicopter flies low, buzzing officiously. It loiters over breaches in the flood defences. Far away there are the flashing blue lights of a fire engine, pumping furiously. Water is still pouring in where it is not wanted, but seems to be finding a level that brings it no closer to my doorstep. For now at least.

One of the inroads to the village has cleared. We are accessible to the outside world again. The milkman delivers to those houses he can get to, the bins are emptied. The press will be here soon with their clownish satellite vans, po-faces pressing for their sound-bites. Nothing like pictures of flood and tears on the teatime news, is there?

 

 

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grumpy at grasmereDave’s presentation is slick, professional, official-looking, but also transparently sham, like Dave’s bling watch. First up the asking price for the Ford Focus Dave is selling is not the actual asking price. I must add £100 in order to cover “administration fees”. This, explains Dave, in a voice that now rings disappointingly dull with rote learning, is for peace of mind. It will yield indemnity against any outstanding finance on the car.

Excuse me? You mean there’s a possibility you may be selling a car that has outstanding finance owing, and to which I will be liable if I buy it? Dave fluffs his next lines, stumbles a little, moves on to another slide:

Unreliable things, cars. They are expensive to repair. Astronomical prices, are charged for every day things like clutches and brakes and cylinder heads. What I need is a warranty. But does the car not come with a warranty, Dave? Is the car likely to be so unreliable I will have need of it? Have you not checked it out in your extensice workshop facilities? Plugged it it into your main-dealer computer what’s-a-ma-gig?

The car comes with a basic and entirely useless three month warranty on engine and gearbox – things that are unlikely to be a problem on a three year old car. This does not inspire much confidence in me. No, what I need, says Dave, is a proper warranty, for which I must add another £500. I do not want this, and tell him so. I tell him I am not interested in any more “extras”.

By now the light is going, the sky clearing further to a cold cobalt. Meanwhile the cars inside the dealership shine beautifully. The sweet, squeaky clean scent of their tyres is exquisite. A sparkly-black Mustang rotates smoothly, soundlessly, on its plinth. This is the higher end of the motor business, and not without its allure. They don’t wear Trilby hats and sheepskin coats in here. They wear nice, business-like suits and learn their patter from highly trained sales-trainers, whose learning in turn is built upon the killer-psychology of Freud.

In a moment, and in spite of my discouragement, Dave will be urging me to have the paintwork of the car protected with a special, armoured gunk – protected against bugs and tree sap. Now, I’ve never had a problem with tree sap. I admit it can be a nuisance, leaving unsightly blobs on the car, but hot water and shampoo generally does the trick in getting rid of it. I wonder if car paint is not what it used to be – I mean if simple washing, or rain will nowadays dissolve it, without resort to this expensive protective coating clap-trap. Dave’s next slide does indeed warn against the perils of tree sap. Protecting against ice-cream on the seats is also, apparently, essential.

By now I have lost track of the extras, but estimate we’re up to about a seven hundred pounds. Do punters so routinely accept such an easy rack up, I wonder, that they should form part of the salesman’s daily patter? I suppose when paying by monthly instalments, on finance, it might not sound like much, an extra twenty quid a month or something, but I am an adherent of Grandma’s Stern Economic Principles – I save up for what I want, and pay cash. To me seven hundred pounds is seven hundred pounds. But punters like me, paying cash, are not that welcome in such high-bling places as this. Why should we be when with a finance deal we’ll pay thousands more for the same car, over the term of the agreement?

And still there is no word on the trade in value for the Astra. I have been at the dealership for an hour now. I’m growing a little tired, and couldn’t care less about the Ford Focus I once fancied any more, have no interest in taking it out for a test-drive as the light bleeds away and we approach rush hour. I am being flim-flammed, polished up for a mug, and I wonder if Dave knows that I know this. Certainly nothing in his patter suggests such a heightened degree of self-awareness. He jabbers on heroically, if still a little woodenly.

Finally, and as if by magic, the trade in value appears on Dave’s computer screen. The offer is £1000. But I have already ascertained from my trusty Autotrader App that £1650 is a fair minimum price. In all good conscience, I mentally deduct £300, knowing a repair on my car is necessary, but Dave and I are still some distance apart. I tell him his offer is too low. So Dave, who is my friend, and doing his best to protect my interests, sets out to tackle his boss again. This takes another ten minutes. More coffee is offered. Refused. The boss comes over.

This is an older guy, late fifties, jowly, crinkly-faced, dark suit, undertaker grey – a mark of his seniority. Certainly, he talks a higher level of tripe than his minion, and at the speed of an auctioneer, talks at me for what feels like an age. I can barely understand his diction – Shakespeare this is not – more Lear possibly, but I have no interest in it, am no longer listening. Instead, I nod politely, wonder if we are heading in the right direction, wish the jowly guy would cut to the quick, because by now I’m seriously wanting a wee. I almost miss the punch-line. Sorry, what was that? The deluge of rapid-fire tripe equates to an extra £50 on the trade in. Did he really think it was worth such an effort? An Oscar nomination perhaps, but £50, please! The insult is accepted, digested. This is business, remember, not personal.

The main-dealer experience is not without its interest, if you’ve the stamina for it – mainly in the observation of unusual human interaction, also the rather unsubtle and amusing psychology of flim-flamming. Perhaps I have become too unplugged over the years to respond normally to this sort of thing, and instead quietly record the absurdities of it in my mental notebook. It may reappear in a future story, whole or part, or maybe just the characters.

But by now I can no longer remember what the Ford Focus I briefly sat in looks or feels like, and I really don’t care. Indeed I feel like I’ve been in prison, subjected to an intense and craftily contrived interrogation. I will be happy if I never see another Fuc*%ng Ford Focus, or a squeaky dealership again.

I shake Dave by the hand, thank him for his time, because it’s business-like and the polite thing to do. Then I walk out into the early evening darkness and freedom. The sky is luminous, beautiful, streaked over by a single orange vapour trail, a planet sits low in the west, a steady white light. A star to guide me home.The Astra starts at the first touch, as it always does. There’s a clatter from the camshafts at low revs while we find our way out of the dealership, but I’m getting used to that now. She warms quickly and settles down to a familiar sedate hum as we motor home, and all without a single warning light on the dash.

In spite of its litany of faults, both past and present I’m feeling it’s still a nice car to drive, this 07 plate Vauxhall Astra, and may be worth hanging onto for a bit longer, even at a venerable 93,000 miles. I just need to bite the bullet and get it fixed. Again.

Never give your car a name. It makes it all the harder to part with.

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grumpy and friendHe’s an expensively coiffured young man, good suit in pale grey, a quality cloth, fashionably narrow tie. His watch is cheap bling though – gents dress-style in a thin chrome plate – more a case of show over quality. All right, perhaps I’m being a bit uncharitable, but I have a thing about watches; I notice them, and his is already an unfortunate omen. We shake hands in the foyer of the squeaky clean car dealership, and the game begins. My new friend is called Dave.

The dealership has easily a thousand cars, and a dozen well turned out young men like Dave to sell them. The place is so vast he struggles to find the one I’ve seen on the Autotrader App – a ’12 plate Ford Focus with Zetec trim. It has the innovative 1.6 Ecoboost engine with Powershift transmission, asking price £8400. Dave scuttles across the lot, in search. I follow.

It has rained heavily all day –  not a good day for looking at cars, not a good day for inspiring the good humour necessary for bridging the inevitable gap between dealer and punter’s expectations. But just now there’s a more optimistic opening, the greyness turning to white, a wider blue emerging. Gulls screech in from the waterfront. We’ll see.

This moment comes around once every seven or eight years for me – the hunt for a new(ish) commuter mule, a mule with minimal miles on the clock, in exchange for one approaching six figures. I normally avoid the main dealers because they’re such hard work – preferring smaller independents who are equally avaricious, but generally waste less time with Powerpoint presentations and beating about the bush. Still, today I’m open to the experience, and it’s been a while.

We find the car. It’s a pretty looking thing from a distance, a little smaller on the inside than I’m expecting, but has a nice feel to it. I circle it in the age old fashion, and with an eye trained on appraising the risks in much older cars than this. Dave stands to one side, spares me his patter for now. A good sign. I’m not expecting to find much on a car this age, but then I’m clocking damage to the bumper on the front nearside, and a serious gouge in one tyre that looks to me like it’s been kerbed and run flat for an irresponsible period of time.

Dave assures me, breathlessly, the car has passed its MOT, otherwise the tyre would have been changed, meaning they’re not going to change it now. But only a fool would drive any distance with a tyre in that condition, MOT or no. He admits the damage to the bumper is unsightly, that it will be “put right”, but by now I have lost faith in the dealer’s attention to detail and expect they’ll simply slobber some touch-up on it, and let it go at that. Shades of Tressell’s Philanthropists comes to mind, and philanthropist, at least in the Tressellian sense, I am not.

The sun goes in, a cold wind whips up, and my optimism dissolves. Thus far I’m unimpressed. But I’m polite. The car still has an enticingly low mileage at just 10,000, and may yet redeem itself in the details of the deal.

Would I like a test drive?

I suggest to Dave it might be better if he looks at my car and gives me a price for trade-in first, then we can see how far apart we are. No sense wasting time on a drive otherwise, is there? I’m not sure I’m what he’s expecting from a punter, or trained to expect, but I’ve bought more cars than he’s sold, spent decades of my youth at the grungy end of the trade, and am myself trained to be unimpressed by glossy language. When dealing with cars it is not sentiment but money alone that speaks, and invariably with a tongue that is severally forked, regardless of whether we are dealing with the grungy, or the glossy end of the trade. It’s not personal; it’s just business.

As for me, my car, “Grumpy”, is ailing, but Dave doesn’t know that, and dealers never offer what a car’s worth anyway, so I’m not feeling too guilty about it. I will not sell it to a private buyer knowing it needs repair, but to a dealer? A dealer is different. Experience assures me they are about to take serious advantage of me, so am already compensated to some degree by the knowledge my vehicle has “issues”, as I already know has theirs. It’s not personal; it’s business. The rules of utilitarian economics work both ways.

Dave gives Grumpy a good going over. An official-looking but entirely superfluous tick sheet is filled in. On appearances at least, old Grumpy cannot be faulted – full service history, four good tyres, and a tidy body. However for all of his efforts, Dave explains, he cannot give me a price directly, that he must consult his boss. This is expected, and part of the game. And it will take time – wearing down time. Coffee is offered, refused. I’m fine, I tell him, and settle in for the long haul. I have been here before, and know how it works.

At some point the punter finds himself at the dealer’s desk, while the dealer goes away to consult his boss. Now, I may be a suspicious old punter but believe one is wise to be circumspect under such circumstances, especially if accompanied by wife or other confidant. By all means talk to your confidants now about the weather, or about how beautifully presented the dealership is, but under no circumstances must you discuss your finances, and especially not your bottom line for trade-in. As shocking as this might sound, dealers have been prosecuted for eavesdropping. I don’t know if the practice still goes on, but one should be aware of the risks.

Trade-in deals are a black art – some might say a dark art – and in my experience follow not the simple guidelines of such optimistic wonders as the Autotrader App, nor less the punter’s naive expectations. One must expect, in fact, to be insulted. It’s just a question of how good a mood you’re in that dictates whether a deal will be closed or not. But before all that must come Dave’s Powerpoint presentation.

Already I’m sensing I will not be buying this car, not unless Dave comes up with something to shatter my boredom, because my mood is sinking and I can be a serious depressive. To be sure, it isn’t looking promising for Dave at this stage, as the “full dealership experience” renders numb my bum, and takes on the air of something more Pythonesque. It is only a grim sort of curiosity that keeps me seated now.

The afternoon slides away to a wintry dusk.

And the presentation begins,…

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Vauxhall Astra at RivingtonMore days of endless, heavy rainfall leave the meadows sodden, rich veins of silver showing in the furrows and the ditches. Long days and nights are spent listening to the rattle of the rain against the glass. And then this afternoon, with just a few hours before it sets, the sun slides clear and the meadows take on a lush, luminous green beneath streaks of lapis blue and brilliant white. I pull on my winter coat and venture out, spirits lifting, but it’s a shy sun, dipping in again as soon as I curl my fingers around the camera for a headline shot.

And the wind bites. It has been warm thus far, but this brief clearing brings with it a more seasonal cold, and the lakes that have formed in the corner dips of the meadows are wind-combed to a nervous texture, obliterating a calmer reflected sky. Meanwhile the black earth oozes bits of red-brick, potatoes, and carrots,  all squishy and ruined, and the hay bales loosen. They buckle at the knees, shed their black wrappings and capitulate to the wet and wind. I smell mud, and rain. Walking by the farm gates I smell silage – musty, sweet. I have not smelled either in a long time – a recovering sense of smell yields unexpected memories now at every turn.

shadowmanIt’s a meditative walk, this walk across the moss beyond my gates – seizing the opportunity of oxygen before the promised rains return tomorrow. My birthday.

And I’m thinking on the fact my car is broken. I am thinking cars are second only to womankind in the litany of a man’s woes. We think about them all the time, cherish the good, lament the bad, and fear always the pain of permanent damage, of loss.

It’s been a permanently squeaky hinge since I bought it, this car, nearly new, some eight years ago. And already its age puts it beyond economical repair. This is disappointing. At 92,000 miles, I’d thought a 1.8 litre engine had a few more years in it yet. But an ominous camshaft rattle at low revs has it sounding like a diesel, and the engine management warning light is flashing intermittent excuses in a trade-code the mechanic has deciphered to “very expensive”.

lines of lightTime to move it on, he says with a shake of his wise old head, time to let the trade decide its fate – restoration or scrap. Time for the punter to buy a newer commuter mule, less miles on the clock, less of a money pit. But this continuing investment in the need to earn a living has me wondering if it would not be cheaper to stay at home, to retire, to fade out, to fizzle into the white noise of all that rain hurled against the glass, these dark winter nights, to begin the glide to death, and the inevitable return to earth among the ooze of squishy carrots and potatoes? Strange thought indeed.

I know; energy is still lacking after a bout of flu. Washing the car in speculative readiness of a trip to the dealer takes my breath away. The walk then renders my head light, and my bones heavy. I trust these morbid thoughts will pass as strength and light returns. There’s a nice red Ford Focus I’ve been half fancying on Autotrader, then dismissing in equal measure. If the dealer still has it tomorrow, I suppose I might just take a look.

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writer pasternakIn the myth of the unknown writer, long years of solitary scribbling will eventually be recognised by the gods of good taste, and the work lauded for the world changing, opinion changing, timeless masterpiece that it is. But like all myths this story is entirely aspirational, having no basis in fact. Before the online revolution this uncomfortable truth was harder to discern, that writing was in fact a largely thankless and poorly paid service to a machine, that publication, for the writer, was a mere drop in an endless ocean of also-rans. There are many good writers of course, and there have been many good writers in the past, a select few of whom we still speak now, but there are many who remain unknown. Success, genius, or lack of it, is again a matter of myth-making.

It is no different now, though less of a secret. Writing online the vastness of the ocean we travel is apparent from any general search of contemporary titles – self published or otherwise. Book covers fill the screen, scrolling on into oblivion. Everyone is writing a book, has written a book, or will write a book, its subject being just one more pixel in a pattern of noise that goes on for ever. This is the creative stratum of the human collective. It is chilling evidence in opposition to the myth of the unknown writer, that to travel such a sea it is abundantly clear you will be for ever alone, that your vessel will one day fail you and and you will drown alone. If it is instant rewards you seek, better you play the lottery, for writing will change nothing in this regard, and may even be dangerous for you. To survive it, the ocean of words must be your natural environment, and when I say survive, I mean simply to get by day by day, and in good spirits.

The club of conventionally published writers is small, and growing smaller now. Publishers still tout their much lauded and mythologised biographies, but we can learn nothing from them. Perseverance along certain inscrutable lines may gain us a place at that table, sufficient to temporarily persuade us of our genius, obscuring for a while the enormity of our folly – our belief that alone we can make a difference to anything. The futility of this view comes creeping slow, but faster to those who have written for the online world and thereby felt the enormity of the ocean and the slackness of its tides.

What we’re tapping into when we write is a structured energy, our work a rendition of a pattern of the unseen. And whatever the truth of its form, it is pre-existing. The writer does not create it but merely presents a piece of it as glimpsed through the eyes inside his head. If we are mistaken in our purpose we imagine we are revealing the way, blazing a trail of wisdom and truth for others to follow – when what we are doing is no more than groping the length of a cave, blind, our work like occasional torches flaring to reveal momentarily the shape of things before us.

To do this primarily to reach others, to bring others with us, to dazzle others with our writerly prowess is to mistake the process. It is our purpose – if purpose there be -to feel the shape of things for ourselves first. And having found something interesting or pleasing, then pay our respects to it by making a writerly account. But the shape of it is vastly intricate, and the size of it is vastly unknown. It is as big and as complex as the entire species of mankind, and then some. It is the equal of all who have lived, plus all who are alive now, plus all who will live. It is not so much a reality then as an evolving potential. To describe it as a journey accurately we must begin from the premise we are none of us alone a destination, more each a single footfall along the way.

The paradox of writing is that when we put pen to paper, we might feel we are nothing, yet are also embarked upon the finest journey imaginable. Our individual power lies solely in the fact no one else can see the world the same way we see it ourselves. Beautiful or grotesque? Only the writer gets to choose. Others must live with the world as they find it.

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chattertonUnlike a head-cold there’s no working with influenza. It’s not without irony my last post should have been on the health conscious practice of Qigong – more useless talk and insufficient action I’m afraid. And the next thing I know I’m sicker than I have been in years. The universe is not without a sense of humour, but neither is sickness without its purpose.

I’m conscious of viewing the world differently just now, not so much as a firm reality any more but as a half truth, one we can render malleable through the active medium of imagination. Or we can become passive while that truth is more shaped for us by external images beamed from myriad sources: TV, computer, phone. I can watch the national news, update myself hourly on a selected slice of the world as it is presented “now”, or I can allow a different kind of prejudice – my own – to choose a path through the plethora of alternate views on the video channels of the world wide web.

And viewed through the lens of my sickness, all of these images have taken on something of the grotesque, like a circus sideshow viewed at night, under the leaping glare of an unfamiliar light. And there is a sound, like the snort and bray of caged animals and their top-hatted masters. There are donkeys preening with two tails, giraffes with two heads, snakes with two tongues. The images compete, each for a slice of momentary meaning, but only in sickness and delirium does the mind allow safe passage for these chimera into consciousness – not as the truths they purport to tell, but more as the ravings of drunks and loons. Why only in sickness are we capable of seeing that the world is not that?

For the duration of my illness at least, the world is my bed, my pillow. It is the soft press of the covers upon my chest. And it is the sound of heavy rain, falling day after day. There are no other certainties. Any other story of reality is a flexible concept. And there is no end to the stories of the world I can choose to believe in. But are any of them even remotely true?

What is it safe to believe in any more? Our only guide is to ask this: What does not go away when we stop believing in it? What does not go away when we switch off the info-screens? This is the only safe guide to personal reality, that our reality is not concocted from the lies and the grotesqueries of others with a view only to power and self aggrandisement. The only sure reality then is intrinsically local. Distance from the centre will inevitably blur it.

My sickness fades, leaves me emptied of energy. And what doesn’t go away as I surface from these thoughts is only the world that butts up against my weary senses. There is no meaning to be found in anything beyond that. I have by now tired of the news, tired of You Tube. So many images, so many voices, so many versions of a possible reality. And there is something of the intellectual demand, too, that we keep up with current affairs. But current affairs are like soap opera. It does not matter if we watch or not, keep up or not, for there is no story, no vital plot twist that will leave us behind in the reality stakes, even if we close our eyes.

Part of this meditation may be that I no longer possess the energy to deal with the world that lies much beyond my bedroom window. The winter thus far has drawn a forbidding veil.

I take a deep bellied breath, let it out slow, feel for the stirring of the Dantien.

There is nothing.

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