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Archive for March, 2018

I had a near miss, this morning. I was coming up to a mini-roundabout, another vehicle approaching from the opposite direction, a big car, ostentatious, with its ultra-bright HID “F*$k You” headlights on, even though it was broad daylight. I thought he was going straight ahead, because I didn’t see the blinking amber of his indicator light. So it was a surprise when he cut across my bows, so to speak, and cut across them really fast. I was lucky, had time to react, stood the car on its nose. He had time to react as well, with an offensive finger.

It’s possible he indicated. I don’t know. I’m finding with these really bright headlights, they fuzz out my vision and I can’t see anything else, especially not a relatively puny blinking indicator lamp tucked in close to the epicentre of that laser like HID blast. And that’s in daylight. Meet one of these monsters at night on an unlit twisty road and you’re heading for the ditch. Or maybe I’m just getting too old to be on the road, too long staring at computer screens, eyesight too wasted now to discern the important details any more.

Nah, the optician says I’m fine.

Anyway, those long promised robot cars are coming, and they’ll avoid awkward situations like that. The well heeled finger jabber with the HID headlamps and I will be sitting back, flicking on our phones, while the cars are doing all the driving and the talking to one another. Each will know what other is doing, adjust speed so they manoeuvre smoothly around one another without so much as a dab on the brakes. Maybe those big cars for rich folks will even have superior algorithms capable of gaming the traffic flow to their advantage. I mean, otherwise what’s the point of paying a lot of money for a car if it isn’t going to steal a march on those less well off?

This morning was just a commute in my old Ford Focus, an A to B, and fair enough, they can be a bit of a drag. A robot car would save me time, allowing me to eat my porridge while the computer did the driving, and presumably took all the insults on my behalf. But is that really what we want?

This evening was different, I managed to avoid near misses – true the roads were quieter when I backed the Mazda, my other car, out of the garage. The Mazda is not a commuter mule – I keep her strictly for fun. It was about half an hour before sunset and the temperature had dropped to nine degrees. The vinyl top was too cold to risk folding back, so I made do with the other pleasures afforded by this little car, and I just went for a drive, windows down, feeling the air, tasting it, smelling it.

She’s laid up most of the working week especially over winter, so I like to get her out and give her some exercise of an evening whenever I can. Already I’m anthropomorphising. Cars don’t need exercise like humans do, but it’s as well to keep the battery topped up and the oil lining the cylinder walls, and the belts all moving. Still, I like to think of it as exercise, and she seems to enjoy it that way too.

I have this scenic little circuit that I do. It was a beautiful evening, clear sky, deep blue above, fading to azure at the horizon. And it’s a wide horizon out here in the West of Lancashire, but you’ll miss it if all you’re doing is flicking on your phone, and that would be a shame.

In this car you don’t need to be going fast to feel the thrill of movement – yes, movement! You can take the corners without any degree of body roll, thread your way through a series of left and right-handers, flicking up and down the box as the note of the engine tells you. And at some point, she’ll get into her stride, and you in hers, and you’ll press the gas and she’ll respond with a rush. This is no longer driving. This is dancing on air. No A to B, more a silver fox in an old MX5, dancing in the last light of an early Spring evening.

It won’t be the same with a robot. They’ll never be able to dance for a start. They’re dead things. Nothing human about them at all. Nothing human either in just wanting to get from A to B, yet that’s mostly what we do these days. And when the whole world is robotised and we’re all lobotomised, glued to our phones, flicking mindlessly at all that rubbish, and those times we drove simply for the pleasure of it are but a dim and distant memory,…

What then?

in martindale

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Unless you’re involved in espionage it’s unlikely you’ll ever know what that world is truly like. We can hazard a guess it’s not the glossy shaken Martini and fancy sports car world we see portrayed in the James Bond movies, that the truth is rather less glamorous. John Le Carre worked both as a spy and a handler in the early cold war years, and it’s this formative experience we trust lends such authenticity to his work. Coupled with that we have a unique voice, bleakly charismatic, like an old English folksong. When it comes to writing about spies, there’s nobody else I can take quite as seriously as John Le Carre.

The emphasis of your typical Le Carre spy story isn’t the gadgets, fast cars and guns but the people themselves and through this the revelation that spies are often deeply vulnerable, flawed, fragile individuals, chosen by their handlers for the ease with which they can be manipulated. Then there are the handlers themselves – in Le Carre’s world usually of a classically educated public school background, as is Le Carre. Then there are the people they work for, and of course the tiresome bureaucracy of it, and then the politics, the ambition, the vanity. In other words it’s a distinctly human world, rich in deception, duplicity and betrayal, and one in which people occasionally meet with a terrible end.

In the Perfect Spy, we are introduced to Magnus Pym, an intelligence officer working under cover of the diplomatic service who finds himself sidelined to a posting in Vienna which is a bit of an espionage backwater. The reason? For years, and secretly, his masters, but especially the Americans, have doubted his reliability, and suspected he might in fact be a double agent. When he suddenly disappears, the assumption is that it’s true, that Pym has been spying for the other side and has now defected. The chase is then on to catch him and limit any damage he might do. But Pym has not crossed over – yet. He’s gone to ground in a nameless English seaside town, where he pens his life-story for the benefit of his son, Tom.

As Pym’s story unfolds we discover a man of many layers and many faces – always an actor playing to an audience, always walking a tightrope of love and betrayal. The son of a con-man and a black-marketeer, even his upbringing was one of deception and spin, but as the novel unfolds we begin to feel the yearning in Pym, and the search for the one thing that’s authentic in himself.

Too deliberate and nuanced to be called a thriller, this is more like reading a piece of existential literature, with giant characters, impossibly conflicted and totally believable. Le Carre’s bleak world-view is as infectious as it is at times repulsive, and nowhere is that world view better portrayed than here.

Pym’s potential nemesis is his one time handler, Jack Brotherhood, sometime friend, most times bully and arch manipulator, a man so deeply intimate with Pym over the decades that Pym’s disappearance has led to him being sidelined in the investigation. But while the career types chase their tails, and the CIA with its vast resources muscles in on the hallowed ground of British espionage, it’s Brotherhood, the crafty old field hand, who painstakingly closes in on Pym.

The story unfolds mainly from two viewpoints, Pym’s and Brotherhood’s, but remember both of these men are  spies, which makes neither of them entirely reliable narrators, leaving the reader to bounce around between them in the most dizzying and fascinating way in the search for our own truth amid the smoke and mirrors. Thus, slowly, we form a picture of where Pym has come from, what it takes to be the perfect spy, also the baffling nature of what it is, exactly, that Pym has done, and of course, as the net closes in, what it is he’s about to do.

Often cited as the best of Le Carre’s many novels. If you’re not familiar with him, this is a really good place to start.

 

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philosophers

Arithmetic can be interesting and absorbing, even to a non-mathematician, provided we aren’t scared off it by psychopathic maths teachers as kids – and maybe even then, depending on how resilient we are,….
There’s something fundamental about numbers that ties us into the physical world. You can imagine a little lad in ancient times being sent out to count the eggs in a hen’s roost and report back to his mother: how many?

So he counts the eggs he sees on his fingers, returns to his mother and holds up the same number of fingers, and she transfers that information to her own fingers and counts them off – one for me, one for my husband, one for each of my children. Yes, there are enough eggs. Fetch me this many – holds up her fingers.

This is okay for counting small quantities, but anything bigger than ten and we need a more advanced system, something that takes care of the tens, the hundreds, the thousands and so on. And that’s what we have, for general use at least, a system we call base ten. And although we can’t be certain, there’s a convincing argument our preference for working in the base ten number system comes simply from the fact we have ten fingers and thumbs. If we’d evolved with just four, our arithmetic would be entirely different – we’d be working in base eight, what we call Octal. In the Octal system the number nine doesn’t exist. There are units (up to the number 7), eights, sixty fours, and so on – a bit weird really. In fact there are any number of number systems.

In computing, we use the binary system a lot, where the biggest digit is 1. We also use hexadecimal when programming computers, sixteen digits there, but since we have no regular digits bigger than 9, we represent the others with letters. Hexadecimal arithmetic used to really blow my mind. Base ten is much safer ground.

Numbers can do useful, practical things like keeping track of vast sums of money or objects. Arithmetical operations help us divide them up, add other quantities, subtract them,… but those of a mystical bent also attribute spooky properties to numbers. The argument runs we didn’t just invent numbers out of thin air, did we? They already existed. We just discovered them. Where did they come from? God invented numbers, or they’re a fundamental property of the Universe, or something,… either way they hint at its more esoteric mysteries.

Like what?

Well, take any number and multiply it by nine; say 54×9=486.

Now add the digits of 486 together: 4+8+6 = 18

Add the digits of 18 together: 1+8 = 9

This is called taking the digital root of a number, and the curious thing is the digital root of any number multiplied by nine, always equals nine. I was flummoxed by this when I first noticed it, and began to think of those numerological methods where you reduce your name to a number and it tells you what kind of person you are. Adding digits of big numbers together always seemed mathematically meaningless to me, but what about that trick with the number nine, because that’s really spooky?

But that’s not all. If you play about, finding the digital roots of other numbers, even more curious things begin to emerge. Say you take the roots of a series of numbers, like the doubling sequence: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024,….

And if you take the digital roots of each number in that sequence you get a sequence of roots that goes: 1 2 4 8 7 5,… repeating to infinity. And this is curious in that never once do we come across the numbers 3, 6, or 9. Now that sequence may ring a bell, depending on how long and how deeply you surf the whackier fringes of the Internet. And if you’re curious enough you’ll end up on Google and you’ll fall down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories surrounding Nicola Tesla who’s quoted as saying some weird things about the number 369.

But then if you’re lucky, and you survive all of that, you wind up right back with basic arithmetic and number theory, and how the bases work in practice. Yes, they throw up some intriguing patterns like how with base 10, the number nine has a peculiar persistence about it. But if you switch to another system, say the Octal system (four fingers on each hand makes eight), you still get interesting patterns emerging, but the mystical numbers are all different, because they’re not actually mystical at all.

Unless,…

Well, some numbers stick in the mind, don’t they? My favourite is 1881. I see it all over the place but only because I’m receptive to it, physiologically and for some unknown reason. If I’d chosen 247, I’d be seeing that as well because numbers are everywhere, on busses, trains, tickets, time-tables. But we don’t choose these numbers, they come at us from the unconscious and render themselves like dream symbols, the mind triggering our awareness of them. They have personal meaning, but obscure and infuriating. Jung made a study of so called number dreams and came up with some curious results which, as is usual with him, straddle the borders of science and mysticism, but for the sake of brevity we’ll not go there today.

So what use are digital roots? Well, not much nowadays, beyond leading us on a merry dance through the theory of numerical systems. But another curious property once made them very useful indeed, this being in the days before calculators when large arithmetical operations were carried out by clerks in banks or say the accounting departments of big companies, using pencils and paper.

If you multiply two large numbers, for example 5986 by 213, you get 1275018. This is easy by calculator, but doing it by hand I’d probably make a mistake first time round and get fired for it. One way of checking is to reduce the big numbers to their digital roots and multiply them together. The digital root of the roots multiplied will be the same as the digital root of the big answer. If it isn’t you know you’ve made a mistake. The same goes for adding, subtracting or dividing.

So, digital roots do have their uses, but beware following the number 9 down that rabbit hole. You may have trouble finding your way back out.

By the way the digital root of 369 is 9. Isn’t that curious?

I’d forgotten arithmetic could be so much fun!

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solarIan McEwan isn’t always an easy read, often challenging in the depths he takes us, and at times brutal in his picking apart of human nature and all its attendant frailties. In Solar we meet surely one of his most monstrous creations, Professor Michael Beard, Nobel Laureate, author of the Beard-Einstein Conflation – something about light and really hard physics. He has a brilliant mind then, but he’s also a serial philanderer and insufferably vain, not an easy man to be around which is what I felt made this one of the more challenging of McEwan’s works, given the company he forces us to keep. Worse still, the third person perspective is kept entirely on Beard, so not allowing us even temporary respite in the intimate company of other characters.

Although at times darkly comic, I found Beard so loathsome, so pompous and amoral, I failed to find any of his scrapes funny, but for all of that I found the book to be a compelling read, which is quite a feat for an author to pull off. How do you get your readers to relate to an anti-hero like this? What is it that keeps us hooked, when surely we would much sooner part company? Is it anticipation of a spectacular comeuppance? Or do we long for a glimpse of a redeeming facet of character, or do we anticipate an incident that will cause Beard to finally see the light and achieve some sort of redemption?

The story charts his misanthropic ambitions in the field of synthetic photosynthesis, a process aimed at providing a limitless source of energy from sunlight. But his patents are based on research stolen from a junior colleague, and his motivation appears to be no more than self aggrandisement rather than the moral imperative of actually saving the planet. Indeed when challenged about the likely interest in his work in the face of opposition from the oil and gas lobby he quotes the approaching inevitable climate catastrophe with glee as a guarantor of his inevitable success, as if even God were on his side wrecking the planet to suit Beard’s ambitions.

Of course things don’t go smoothly and, over the years of his egotistical excesses we witness the slow disintegration of the corporeal man, his decline into ever greater depths of slovenliness and physical decrepitude. It was a challenge to understand what it was in Beard that his long line of lovers found so attractive, other than the hope they might be the one to finally rescue him from himself.

Beginning in the cold, cash-strapped breeze-block labs of British academia, in the year 2000 and ending in 2009, in the fierce heat of a privately funded New Mexico solar farm, Beard’s past misdeeds finally gain sufficient momentum to catch up with him. So, what will become of him? Will his obnoxious ego keep him one step ahead of calamity yet again? Will he find true love? Will his creaking frame give out on him before he gets to prove to the world, finally how appallingly and ruthlessly magnificent he is?

Loved it.

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book thief

I write novels and give them away as free books. Every now and then I notice my books popping up for sale on Amazon. The curious thing is I don’t publish on Amazon. Weird isn’t it? My books are put on there by some miscreant calling themselves Michael Graeme who has first downloaded them from elsewhere and then had the brass neck to charge money for them. Its a bit,… ughhh,… creepy.

Because I give my books away it’s not a big problem for me, leaves me nowadays only somewhat bemused, though it’s troubling to think of my name being involved in a scam of some sort, and I can only advise readers that any work by Michael Graeme appearing on Amazon is not authorised and you should not pay money for it. All my work is freely available and will be until the day I get a call from one of the big six. Then I’ll finally be quitting the day-job, buying myself a Harris Tweed Jacket with elbow patches, and moving to Hampstead.

For authors who do try to make a living by selling their ebooks, the Kindle swindle is more serious, potentially diverting money away from their own pockets and into the pockets of crooks. It’s not clear how the problem can be solved and for now it’s down to individual authors to be vigilant and call it out when they see it.

This sort of thing is always disappointing but sadly part of human nature. The first time it happened to me I was deeply upset by it, but those of us self publishing online, whether successfully or not, must, I’m afraid, come to accept it as part of the scenery. If it’s happened to you, don’t take it personally. If you complain to Amazon they will eventually respond and take the titles down, but it’s a drag to be honest, so nowadays I just leave a comment on the offending titles to warn potential buyers off.

The latest crop of thievery from my ebookshelves has in common the fact that all my books were recently uploaded to Free Ebooks for distribution. It’s a site I have otherwise been impressed with given their download rates, but have now grown wary of it. If any other authors have had a similar experience I’d be interested to hear from them.

So, to wrap up, please don’t pay money for my books. It’s eccentric, I know, but go to Smashwords, or Wattpad, or Free Ebooks where you can get them for nothing. I am the genuine, the one and only Michael Graeme, and I do not publish on Amazon.

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We all know the meaning of life, the universe and everything is Forty Two, at least according to Douglas Adams’ super computer “Deep Thought” in his fictional trilogy: the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s the existential question and the absurd answer, reflecting only our arrogance that we think we might be capable even of understanding the question, let alone the answer. Or do we underestimate ourselves?

What is the meaning of a spoon or a shoe? Unless they are to be considered merely decorative, their meaning lies in their purpose. On this basis then, the purpose of a human life is no more than the reproduction of its own kind to add to future generations of the evolutionary milieu. Doesn’t sound that great, does it? But if we want more than that, the meaning of life must be explored in more philosophical, dare we even say even “spiritual” terms? But since such things cannot be defined as objects, can they be said to exist at all, and should we not discount them as unreliable, and a bit airy fairy?

Well we might – indeed many people do – except, evolution has risen us up from the swamp to an extent that we are asking such questions, so is it wise we should silence the asking? Because if the questions are meaningless, and evolution is as successful at eradicating the meaningless, the superfluous and the degenerate as it’s supposed to be, then why are we still asking those questions?

Could it be it’s correct we consider ourselves to be more than objects? Okay, let’s try that. It isn’t too difficult since we’re obviously also possessed of a mind-realm, home to thought and memory and dreaming, which are at least something even though we cannot define the shape of them. And even though we cannot define them at all it turns out we derive our sense of self from them anyway, which is weird, isn’t it?

Well, not really.

But there’s more. If we withdraw sufficiently inside our heads from the noise of the physical world, it’s possible to arrive at the fact our identity lies, actually, not so much in thought or memory or dreaming, but in a state of disembodied awareness without whose presence memory or thought or dreaming cannot arise in the first place. And that’s a very strange thought indeed.

Stranger still, if we can fully enter into that state, there comes the startling revelation of a rapturous, effortless awareness, and the realisation this is more who we truly are than who we actually think we are. And if that were not enough there also comes the certain knowledge there is nothing “out there” at all, that “we” and “it” are the same thing, that all objects are pure invention, that all there is is a kind of mind-stuff.

This is a bit of a leap, I know. Indeed, it’s counter-intuitive, a hard thing to swallow for anyone still possessed of a rock solid ego, but it’s a state none-the-less many human beings have experienced. And if it’s so, then perhaps our purpose in life is to work towards achieving an awakening to that awareness, which seems to involve dissolving those aspects of the personality that prevent it. Purpose then becomes our graduation from the university of life by the dispossession of destructive personality traits, and it is in this psychological process we find our purpose.

Of course it’s not certain any of this is true. All it tells us for sure is there is no meaning to be found in the material things of life itself, in the objects, in the world of thought and thinking, nor even in all the fine things we have built and worked to artistic effect. They’re simply there, and we can enjoy them for a time, but they’re transient as dust. What life does provide us with now and then are clues to the existence of a side to ourselves that transcends the physical, and it gives us ample opportunity to allow ourselves to be drawn in that direction, the direction of our true identity, and the source of all our existential longings.

Or we could apply our efforts instead to working out how to get rich at the expense of others. We might succeed in that, or we might waste our lives trying, corrupting also the lives of everyone we encounter along the way. I don’t advise it, because then all we’ll ever be is an object with as much meaning as a spoon or a shoe.

 

 

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mazda at glassonThe last Friday of February is the one that usually kicks off my year, and for the past four years I’ve been travelling to the little Lancashire port of Glasson to walk the same section of the coastal way from Bank End Farm, on the spectacular Cockerham Marsh. There’s an element of groundhog day to this outing, underlined by the uncanny similarity of the weather on each occasion – temperature just above freezing, clear skies, wintry sun , and a light but bitterly cold wind blowing in off the sea. Today is no exception, but there’s a difference in the air, a subtle nuance – call it imagination, call it superstition, but I have a feeling this run is coming to a close now, that next year will be different. It has to be. Everything must change if it is to remain true, and whatever does not change cannot be true, thus I’m picking up an element of fantasy to the day which, although pleasant enough, cannot be entirely trusted.

The Mazda was reluctant after a very cold few weeks in the garage, and very little exercise over winter, the engine catching only at the last minute as the battery faded to nothing. Then the ABS warning light remained on throughout the outward journey – brakes were fine, so most likely a problem with the anti-lock sensor. It’s a thing with Mazdas. There’s also a grand’s worth of repairs necessary to her bodywork if I decide to keep her beyond this year. I have the sense she’s reminding me of her mortality. It’s all fixable but she’s a second car, not my main driver, and all of this seems a bit extravagant and unnecessary, especially in the current oppressively austere zeitgeist. It’s a pity because I love the car like no other I’ve owned, and we’ve had some fun, but she’s sixteen years old now, coming up on ninety thousand, and she isn’t going to last for ever. That’s just another fantasy.

Still, for all of our antiquity, we pick up a tail on the way, a Mercedes SLK, brand new. This happens a lot. Last time, as I recall, it was a Maserati. These supercars growl up close, like predatory animals, glue themselves aggressively to the bumper, then, at the first opportunity pull out wide and disappear in a cloud of dust and noise, and all in order to prove their willy is bigger than mine. Now the Mazda is a lively little thing, but the sense of her is mostly internal. She’s also worth next to nothing. That she attracts such attention is laughable, not flattering, and do I really want us to go on being the foil for this particular kind of conspicuous consumption?

The Mazda sighs impatiently at such class-warriorish ruminations, rattles up to Glasson and deposits us on the carpark at the marina. Here we leave her to admire the view, the basin running like burnished silver this morning, boats nodding at their moorings. We tog up and set out on the familiar way, first of all calling in Glasson’s gorgeous canal-side Parish Church to admire the spill of light through stained glass, and to see if there are any good second hand books for sale on the stall at the back. Today there are none that take my fancy, so on we go.

cockerham farmThe walk first takes us south across sodden meadows as far as the lush fractal patterned marsh at Cockerham, from where we pick up the coastal way. Winter wet has left the meadows heavy, and they are slow to drain. Migratory swans pepper the green sward, settling there to rest, and forage. They are not gregarious birds and spread themselves out into introspective, moody dots of white, their grumpy honking a reminder to steer clear. We pick up the more cheerful sound of waders down on the marsh, mostly Oyster Catchers and Curlew piping. There’s a Plover doing acrobatics across the emerald meadow, pee-witting as it goes, and then as we cross the causeway we are treated to the most astonishing display – a vast murmuration of starlings rises from its roost around the farm and swirls a living spiral in the air.

Unlike other birds en-mass which we tend to view from afar, Starlings are an easier treat for the photographer performing it would seem for our pleasure at much closer range, and quite exhilarating . It’s a whirring buzzing chattering shriek of a thing, a pointed cloud swooping and soaring like a single living entity, drawn into strange, pulsing patterns and made entirely of tens of thousands of birds. I am so astonished that by the time I remember the camera, I manage only the weakest of shots as the birds move north.

plover scar lightThe Plover scar light, broken last year after being struck by a ship, is now repaired and looking like new. I try a few shots but the light is suddenly flat and I need a longer lens to do it justice. And the narrow passage across Jansen Pool, where I nearly had to swim in order to complete the walk last year, is now repaired so the path can be followed without risk to dignity. Then there’s just the last long quagmire of Marsh lane and its ancient line of hawthorns, twisted into fantastic wind-blasted shapes, and we’re back – another completed round of Glasson and Cockerham, on the last Friday of February.

Image5It remains only for us to take lunch in the Lantern o-er Lune, from whose brightly lit interior we shelter from the biting wind, and pretend it is a summer’s day. Tasty Cumberland Sausage Panini and a gorgeous salad soothes our lunchtime cravings. Over coffee we gaze out at the water, and we contemplate this particularly lovely and ancient part of Lancashire. Meanwhile the Mazda catches the sun. She looks ever so lovely out there, even shaded and lined as she is by the mud and salt of winter.

Okay, so here’s what we’ll do: We’ll get the ABS repaired first, then see if she’ll squeeze through the MOT into next year without the bodywork doing. It’s a good call, and she rewards us by putting out the ABS light on the way home.

Who says living magically makes no sense?

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