Archive for May, 2020


West Pennine Moors, late May. Eight p.m. The sun is turning to amber. Millions are still clapping the NHS, rather than funding them the PPE they need. And with what’s looking like the worst death rate in the world, the PM has just announced a further easing of the bio-security controls.

I find the little moorland roads are crazy-busy. There are long lines of vehicles nose to tail, driving fast, all filled with youths, catching Covid. The windows are down and the thump-whack music is drowning out the curlews and the lapwings. I wonder if their parents know where they are.

I’ve left the little blue car down in the last free layby, at Parson’s Bullough, by the Yarrow Reservoir. I’d hoped it would be quieter this evening, after an aborted attempt earlier in the week, by day. I was wrong. There were people swimming in the reservoir, next to the signs that warn you not to. The water here is very deep and cold. You’d be a fool to risk it.

There was a sickly-sweet smell of weed.

My son and I climbed the quiet pastures by the old walls, towards Jepsons. It was a most treasured respite. I wouldn’t actually be here, but by neighbours had been driving me nuts all day with their boom-box music, and I’d simply had to get away. I thought they’d followed me, actually. I could hear the same mindless thump-thump-thump, two beats per second, as we climbed to Jepson’s gate.

There, we found a car all skew-wiff, both doors open, the inhabitants, a boy and a girl in their teens, hanging out. They were stoned on the nitrous oxide they were imbibing, somewhat comically, from pink balloons. Little silver cartridges were scattered everywhere. They’d clearly been at it a while, and others before them. A mid-week evening, pubs shut, so they come up here en-mass, families, swimmers, stoners.

We gave a wide berth, picked up the track for the moor, joked about the degeneration of society, about the freak show. My son, at 26, is closer to that generation than me, yet dismisses it as lost, corrupt, decadent. I laugh, though it breaks my heart. He sounds older than me at times. But he’s right, they’re lost. There is no going back from this. I see things a little differently. I see a society broken and despairing, trying to kill itself by whatever means comes to hand. Drugs, covid, driving like a loon.

What a waste.

There are a couple of stones on the hill, on the approach to Jepsons. I swear they’re megaliths. I want to show them to my father, though he’s been dead getting on a half-century now. Still, I know he would have enthused over them, theorized over them, spoken to his contacts in the local archaeology groups in Chorley and in Horwich. But I’m not sure anyone knows or cares about such things any more. And I would have hated for him to see those kids. He would have wanted to help them, call an ambulance perhaps.

I have a friend who collects those little spent nitrous oxide cartridges. He makes hundreds a year for charity, selling them for scrap. I would have picked them up to add to his collection, but I didn’t want to catch anything. It’s worth thinking about though, if your area is similarly plagued, a rich and self-sustaining vein of valuable scrap.

The sunset was extraordinary.

We drove home with the top down. It was a warm night, and beautiful. The birds were singing rapturously, the little blue car burbling along, sweetly as ever, but all of it still eerie under the circumstances. My neighbours had gone in to watch the telly, so it was quiet. They have been known to drag the telly outdoors and watch it at full blast. Small blessings then. I sat a while, as a crescent moon slipped west, lit candles.

There are over 37,000 dead now, even by the government’s own conservative figures, but it’s nearer 60,000 if you look at the real figures, the so-called excess deaths. The PM looked confident tonight as he told us all the tests had been met for a further easing of the lock-down, opening the shops and getting us all back to normal. I understand many of the died-in-the-wool, true blues who voted for him are still confident in those assurances. But most of the country isn’t actually listening any more. Even before Covid, they had no dignity in work beyond that grim glass ceiling of minimum wage slavery. They have no future, no hope. And they were all up on the moors tonight, getting stoned. A part of me couldn’t blame them. But I’d hoped to see my country in better shape than this as I drift towards retirement, better anyway than the freak-show its become.

I suppose every generation says the same.

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Mazda MalhamThe small blue car and I slipped out today, for pleasure! We were going to find a quiet little spot up on the Western Pennines, and I was going to take a hike. This is legal now, but it turns out it’s still not advisable. Tuesday afternoon, midweek isn’t known for being a busy time up here, but it was busy today. Very busy.

I couldn’t park the car. I cruised around for a couple of miles but every pull in, lay-by and car-park was jam-packed. There were people everywhere, hordes of them, at times ambling four abreast down the middle of the roads. They blinked, cow-like, at me as I squeezed by. Worse, the waysides were trashed with several month’s worth of Macmeal leavings. It was a disappointment and a disgrace.

So I came home without stopping. I hesitate to say it’s time everyone went back to work. Those of us still working weird shifts want to enjoy our time off! And aren’t all you lot supposed to be working from home anyway? And that means – you know – being at home, not all enjoying the same couple of square miles of green. I know, it sounds selfish of me. Bad Karma and all that.

There was one tight little spot I could have squeezed into, then took my place in line on the trails. But where would the pleasure have been in that? Risky too, with so many sticky palms on the kissing gates, and on the stiles. The moral is to stay local for a while longer. No matter what the rules say, don’t use the car for anything yet except commuting and supplies.

There was a package on the step when I arrived home. I’ve been waiting for my garden twinkle lights for months now. You know how it goes? You make sure you pick the UK supplier on eBay, but it turns out it’s a front, and the stuff gets shipped on that slow boat from China anyway? All right, so it’s a non-essential item, but such things weren’t an issue when I placed the order.

Anyway, great, I thought. We’ll get those up, and sit out tonight in the peace and quiet and with the bats a fluttering, with a glass of something nice. I’d ordered warm-white lights, 2000 of them. Awesome!

I switched them on. They were pink.

Send them back to China? Nah! Give them time, I thought.

They may grow on me.


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philosophersWe start with Nietzsche and a few pop quotes, like: “god is dead” and “I am dynamite”. I don’t understand him, so I go back to his influences, namely Schopenhauer. But I don’t understand him either – plus he’s deeply morose and repulsively nihilistic. So I go back to Kant. Kant’s a bit more optimistic, but he’s also a life-time’s study. Even the Kant scholars are still arguing over what he wrote, and you’d think they would have settled him by now. So I step back to Aristotle, but I’m in a bit of a muddle, so rather than stepping back in time even more to Plato, I take a breath. Maybe philosophy’s not my thing at all.

The philosophers are certainly a breed apart. They don’t seem to add much to the ordinary life, but if you’re at all interested in what life’s about you can’t avoid them. They’re about “epistemology”, which is the theory of knowledge, and how we know things. And they’re about “ontology” which is the theory being, or meaning. They use a lot of other unfamiliar words as well, and when they run out of actual words, they make words up. Then they all have their take on “ethics” – that’s to say, how should we behave towards one another, and what is “good”?

They approach all this through logic. The Kantians tell us the faculties we’re born with are linked to what is knowable, and this comes out in language. So, by a process that resembles a cross between a word game, and basic algebra, they arrive at a story about what it means to be alive. More than that they try to get a handle on what it is we are alive in. I mean the universe – the nature of it, the nature of space and time, and being – in other words a creation story.

So it’s a big subject, but to the layman it’s difficult, or at least to me it is. Or maybe I’m too set in my ways now to squish my calcifying brain into a new way of thinking. I’m just this old engineer, steeped in deterministic ideas. I’ve always known they’re an incomplete model of the universe, because my teachers told me so. But they work at a practical level, so we use them to do things. And I’ve really liked being an engineer. We put a man on the moon – well not me – I was only nine at the time, but you know what I mean? There’s something satisfying about doing things, making things. As for proving something you can neither see nor touch, like the philosophers do, nor use in the process of making things, or doing things,… what’s the point of that? Well, it’s interesting. And if I have to wait another lifetime to be a philosopher, then so be it, and for now I’ll just skim this stuff, pick up what bits I can and make do.

If we skim Kant, we get the idea we can’t grasp the true nature of reality at all. All we’ve got are our senses, and a mind that’s structured in a certain way to intuit the universe. We can see things as they appear to us, but not how those things are in themselves. But the most challenging idea of all is what Kant says about space and time. He plays his word-game and deduces that space and time drop out of the equation altogether. They’re part of the perceptual toolkit we’re born with, which means we can never get a handle on the way things are when we’re not looking. This is not to say the world is an illusion. It’s just that the way we see it is the only way we can see it, while its true nature is hidden and unknowable.

This sounds like the opening of Dao De Jing, written in China two thousand years before Kant. It says what we can see and touch and put names to is not the same as the essence of those things in themselves. Chinese ideas were floating around in Europe at the time Kant was writing. They’re sophisticated philosophies because the Chinese got themselves organized into a literate culture early on. But to the semi-theocratic west, these were pagan ideas and it was dangerous for philosophers to make too much of them.

Still, I think it’s an important thing to know, this link, that two cultures, isolated, and thousands of years apart could come up with the same basic idea. It suggests they might have been on to something. But its also frustrating I’ve not the nous to make any more headway with it than that. I did try reading Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” once. I wanted to understand it, word for word, like I once understood fluid dynamics. But I couldn’t follow it in any meaningful depth. I was probably in my late thirties then, and no point trying again now.

Carl Jung read it when he was seventeen. He’d read Schopenhauer’s “Will and Representation” too. He understood both well enough to think he’d spotted a flaw in Schopenhauer’s reasoning. It’s schoolboys of that calibre who grow to influence in the world of thought. All laymen like me can do is hold on to their coat-tails, hoping for a line or two of poetry that will stick and sum things up for us.

Most of us don’t bother of course, and are no more enlightened in the philosophical intricacies than mud. Or maybe the essence of life and living are so obvious anyway, we don’t need to learn it from the philosophers, or perhaps it just doesn’t matter. Or should we be content to leave it to those cleverer than we are to make a difference in the world? But when you look at the way the west is disintegrating – our leadership and our key institutions – and how China has undergone repeated convulsions down the centuries, finally to evolve into an authoritarian techno-surveillance state, you wonder if more of us, east and west, shouldn’t be making a better effort with those philosophers after all.

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WOTH cover smallWinter on the the Hill – Twenty Three

I know, the title Winter on the Hill is looking less appropriate as we head into early summer, but it’s metaphorical, right?


The earth is rusty-red and dusty here, the sky a deep sepia tint, fading to the colour of straw where the sun has just gone behind the hills. There’s a pleasant warmth to the air, and a dryness. It’s coming out of the earth, quaking up from the rocks themselves as they give back to the heavens what the sun has poured into them all day. I’m sitting on the porch of a pioneer’s wooden cabin, out in the wilderness of Western Australia. We’re somewhere on the frontier, as it was I suppose towards the later nineteen twenties, and as near as I’ve imagined it at various points in my life.

News from home isn’t good. The vacuum of peace following the war to end all wars has been filled with the decimation of traditional industries and civil unrest on account of poverty. In America there’s been a market crash and stock brokers are leaping from the windows on Wall Street, though all this was as nothing compared with the hundred million worldwide who had already died from the H1N1 contagion, the so-called Spanish Flu.

I’m with Annie, the pair of us gazing at the afterglow of the sun. She came out on the SS Balranald in ’23, left her child with family in Ulverston, and she misses him deeply. He’ll come out when he’s older, just in time to get swept up in that second war, and sent out east – or rather west from here – to fight.

Charlie’s been dead since ’18 of course, but she still thinks of him, though by now she’s married anew, and carrying another man’s child – always something pragmatic, adventurous and uniquely admirable about Annie. And I suppose, though again I’m imagining all of this, what I admire in her, what marks her out for me is that she set the frontier of my matrilineal blood furthest from home, travelled as far as she could around the globe, planted her shovel in the dirt and said, this is where I’ll start again.

The world has seen such unimaginable upheaval, and no more so than in the first half of the twentieth century. Europe at least saw relative peace and prosperity after that, a period that coloured the aspirations of all, like me, who were born into the second half of that century. We never knew a world like Annie knew, and it’s hoodwinked us into thinking it’s impossible things could ever be like that again. I suppose ours being also the nuclear age, it gave us a certain bleakly arrogant confidence, that should such upheaval ever be visited upon our generation it would result in the earth being turned into a cinder, and would anybody really be so stupid?

Don’t answer that.

“I guess I’m dreaming all of this then, Annie?”

She nods, smiles tenderly. Her hair is dusty from a day tending the stock, which she describes as a sea of sheep, and her face, her cheeks, are different to my imagining, with their more natural pale Lancashire pallor burned red.

“I suppose so, Richard. But it’s lovely to see you, anyway.”

I’m not in the habit of dreaming of Annie, not like this, not so,… vividly. I know I tend to conjure her up in waking reveries, but that’s different. This is coming from the deeps, and there’s an easy pleasure in it, something comforting. I’m not saying this is anything more than it is, that I’m just dreaming, right? The thing is, I don’t know where I’m dreaming from, from what part of my life I have slept. Indeed, I can barely remember any of my life, yet still feel perfectly myself here, and complete, for all the lack of memory.

“I think I know what you’re trying to say to me,” I tell her. “But you were barely thirty when you came out here. I’m at the wrong end of my life, and anyway there’s nowhere like this now for ruined Brits to go to any more. All our bridges are burned. Our horizons have narrowed. Soon there won’t even be a Britain any more, just an England. And sixty million of us cooped up and screaming at each other.”

“Well, you don’t need to come all the way out here and tend sheep, Richard. All you need’s a bit of money to be comfortable. And you’ve got that. Do you think I would have made that decision if I’d your money?”

“But do I want to be comfortable? Is that all I’m good for now? Am I just another last man standing?”

“Well, no fun in prison either,” she says. “Or with your head bust open by a policeman’s billy-bat. Those are the times I remember too, and the times you’re running up against all over again, or so it seems to me, and God help you. But you’re in a position to ride it out.”

“True. And I’m too old for all that protesting anyway. I’m scared by it. And I don’t like being on a watch-list, same as any bloody murdering terrorist psychopath.”

“So what is it you want?”

“Just company, Annie. I want to be with someone who wants to be with me. Someone I can take care of. Protect.”

“Why protect?”

“I don’t know. Because in a way I was trying to protect others by my politics and my protests. By sticking it to the man on behalf of others.”

“And because you enjoyed it?”

“Yes, I’ll admit that. I did enjoy it.”

“So you led them to vote, and they voted for you to shove it up your arse. Fair enough. So maybe now you’re looking for something smaller and more docile to protect, like a hamster maybe? But have you thought what you need more than all of that Richard is someone who wants to protect you? Also, maybe you’re looking at things the wrong way. Sure events being what they are, it’s easy to say the world’s done for, but what about you? Are you done for? Inside I mean? Or after all the ups and downs of your life, could it be, do you think, that in spite of the way your thoughts are most naturally inclined these days, you’re actually on the cusp of a greatness of spirit like you’ve never known before?”

“Cusp of greatness? Doesn’t feel like that to me. Were you ever, do you think, on the cusp? Coming out here I mean?”

“Sure, why not? Can you imagine Blackburn in the nineteen twenties?”

“Seen pictures. Knew it best myself in the seventies. Time’s not improved it much.”

“Coming out here, Rick. I found myself, I think, or as near as a body could. You can do it too. You’ve got to see beyond events though. Events,… they’re just noise, like the clatter of a loom, it’s all incidental to the weave of the cloth. You see that, don’t you?”

“The cloth?”

“You, Richard. The warp and the weave of you.”

“You’re way ahead of me, Annie. You’re wasting your time looking over my shoulder. Me and my times, we’ve nothing to teach you.”

“Well, like I’m sure I’ve said before, you don’t get to my age and not pick up a thing or two. Nearly made it to ninety, I did. Outlived two husbands. Plus the times were, shall we say ‘interesting’. You tend to grow up fast when there’s a lot going on.”

“But you said the times, the details, they’re just noise.”

“Sure they are, which means in quiet times you can learn as much from the small things if you know how to look and how to read them. Me, I learned some lessons those six weeks crossing the world from Blackburn to Freemantle, say nothing of the next fifty out here. You’ll maybe learn as much just crossing over the threshold of a woman’s house. That can take you to a different continent, too, you know? All depends on what you do with it.”


This is going up on Wattpad, a chapter at a time. We’ll be done by Christmas, when it’s winter again. I’ve no idea how it will turn out, but I’m finding the ideas fascinating, also the fact that Coronavirus hijacked the story half-way through, without derailing it one bit. It’s just the way I write them.

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girl smelling flowers 2I’ve been waiting for this. No sense of smell! Technical term: anosmia. There’s the temporary, short term variety, or the long term variety – like permanent. Though I’m not a medical man, I do know quite a bit about it, having had the condition, studied it and written about it during a long period of recovery. I also know that after much messing about in the ENT departments, long term anosmia is generally written off, and people are advised to just live with it, hopefully before the surgery. Sometimes the sense of smell comes back, as in my case, but it can take years.

Why we lose our sense of smell permanently isn’t understood, but in its temporary manifestations, it’s most commonly related to an infection of the upper respiratory tract. This causes inflammation of the mucous membrane. A cold will do it. But allergies such as seasonal hay-fever will also do it. And since we’re heading into peak hay-fever season just now, I expect a lot of people will be losing their sense of smell. Alcohol will do it too, or even spicy food. Regarding the latter two, many people don’t even think to notice, and anyway, in most of these cases, it comes back after a day or so, so no problem. But anosmia can also settle in. No smell, no taste. Ever.

What complicates matters, and the reason I’m writing this, is anosmia has just been listed in the UK as one of the key symptoms of Covid-19. As of this afternoon, if you go anywhere near the NHS online Covid symptom checker and put in anosmia related symptoms, even if you’ve had them for ages, and even if you list no other symptoms, like fever or cough – you’ll be told to self-isolate. Don’t go to work. Stay at home. You and anyone you live with.

I understand a lot of clever people have decided, on balance, this is a sensible precaution. But, judging by the hits I get on anosmia related posts, it’s a more common condition than is generally appreciated, and long before Covid-19 came along. So there’s going to be a lot of people phoning in sick and self-isolating suddenly, a rush on demands for testing too.

I’ve pretty much recovered a normal sense of smell now. But a normal sense of smell varies. Some days its almost supernatural, some days middling, some days it might be gone for any of the benign reasons listed above, or none of them. I notice these things because, having lost my sense of smell once, and for a long time, I really value it now that it’s back.

I checked myself with common scents today just to make sure I’d not relapsed. Ground coffee? Check. Cherry scented candle? Check. Mr Sheen polish? Check. Vanilla car freshener? Check. I’m okay then, no time off work for me. But plenty of long and short term anosmics are going to get caught up in this. And right now, they’re confused and anxious.

Could it be hay-fever? Was it the curry you had? That extra glass of red wine? Common or garden, mysterious anosmia you’ve had for years? Or is it Covid? I don’t know. I’ve been hoping they wouldn’t do this. But now they have. Self-isolating is no trivial matter, especially if you’re only entitled to statutory sick pay, or none at all, and you’ve a family to feed. So what do you do?

Well, to the letter of the guidelines, if you have anosmia, even if you’ve had anosmia for as long as you can remember, or even if you think it’s only hay-fever, go to the  NHS symptom checker online and follow the instructions.

Take it from there.

My guess is you won’t be in work tomorrow.




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rambler movement

It says Rambler on the ratchet wheel, Swiss Made on the dial. Other than that, I don’t know anything about this watch. My researches have turned nothing up on the make, if indeed “Rambler” is the make. That, and its date of manufacture, are both mysteries. Its story is lost.

I bought it twenty years ago, and paid too much for it. It had been languishing in the dust of a back-street jeweller’s shop when I took pity on it. It ran a little slow, but the wily old jeweller wanted more money to service it, so I made do.

I like old watches, and enjoy musing over the nature of time. It’s not so much the accuracy of time-keeping that fascinates me. It’s more the fact of time’s subjectivity. There’s a flow to it, from past to present, but also the hint of something cyclical, like the circular path of the hour-hand’s tip, scything through the present moment. And we need a device to hold us firm in reality, because perceived time has an odd, variable quality, one in which not every hour measures the same. Relying on perceived time, we’d be all over the place. All our realities would be subjective, and we’d never connect.

One of the minor myths of our culture is the passing on of one’s grandfather’s pocket-watch. If it was a good piece it might even have come down from our great-grandfather. Thus, the trail of ancestral time might stretch back into the middle-Victorian period. I think there’s something Romantic about that. But if my grandfather had a watch, I never saw it, so my fascination for old tickers might also be compensatory.

By the middle-Victorian period we were mass-producing watches that would last several lifetimes. Well, the Swiss were doing it, and the Americans were catching up using Swiss methods. English pieces, by contrast, were already obsolete due to lack of industrial investment. Sound familiar?

In my experience an English Victorian watch surviving to the present day is definitely not a thing one can rely upon. Most had their cases melted down for the silver, the orphaned movements appearing on eBay now for spares. I have three old English pieces in my collection and none of them are any good. The Swiss and American pieces I own from the same period  are still perfectly good. But I digress. Let’s get back to the mysterious Rambler.

What can we say about it? Well, it’s a full hunter, meaning it has a cover over the watch face. Half hunters have a small, inset glass window. When you press the crown, the cover springs open to reveal the time with a dramatic flourish, an affectation I find oddly attractive. But here the case-spring was broken, so the time remained shy. The case was also tarnished, the brass showing through where the gilt had rubbed off.

The plates are of the three-fingered type, made of nickel – a thing that came in around 1900 – and they are decorated with a uniform swirled damaskeening. I count eleven jewels, not including the cap-jewels on the balance. Case, a little worn, minor chipping to the dial at the four-o’clock position. Otherwise, a decent quality Swiss piece, possibly a “Rambler”, probably made some time after 1900. I think it looks like the interwar period, but that’s just a guess.


Strangely, after paying a packet for it, we never really made friends and I never carried it much. It was the lack of clear identity, I suppose, the lack of back-story. So it languished in a drawer until quite recently. In the twenty years since I bought it, I’ve acquired some knowledge of watch tinkering. So yesterday I stripped it, cleaned and oiled it, regulated it. And in so doing I managed to “own” it a little more. I also managed to fashion a replacement spring for the case, so the cover now pops up when you press the crown.

I was hoping to solve some of the mystery of it. Sometimes a maker will leave clues on the less visible parts of the movement, but not this one. It’s running well now, hasn’t lost a minute since I set it last night. It’s an enigma, then, though one I can’t imagine anyone losing sleep over. I still feel a little sad about that but, having felt the beating of its heart now (300 per minute) , we cannot be anything other than friends at last.

So, it finds a more settled place in my collection now, ticks away at my bedside as I write, and therefore claims a bigger place  in the story of my own times, even if all it’s taught me really is that eBay’s a much better, and cheaper, place to find old watches, and those dusty backstreet jewellers will surely rob you blind.

Thanks for listening.

[If you know anything about watches and recognise this piece, do get in touch. I would still dearly like to place it in time, and give it its proper  name.]

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lancashire plainIt’s a strange thing. Having loved the hills and mountains all my life, I’ve spent most of my life actually living on the flat, among the potatoes of the Lancashire plain. Here, the sky has a crushing quality that seems to laugh at the transcendence of spirit even the most modest of hills affords. On the mountain top, we are giants. On the plain we are small, and made to feel it.

Here the earth had become a factory for the intensive cultivation of vegetables, vast rectangles of land, tilled by machines and, when not under crop, the soil looks tired. It is puddled and bleak in winter and in summer it is dry and cracked and dusty, the whole of it is criss-crossed by stagnant sluices, and the high, strutting march of crackling power lines. For me, even during the most golden of golden hours, it lacks poetry.

So why am I still here?

Well, sometimes the practicalities of life leave us no choice. But it’s also one of life’s axioms that we are born within limits. And it is those limits that define us by providing the energy we need to live.


Arthur Schopenauer 1788-1860

I’m dipping in and out of the philosophers, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche at the moment. Their world-view is impressively bleak. I’m sure it’s only a mark of my own ignorance to say so, but I am reluctant to take such profoundly miserable men at their word. Life is pointless, says Schopenhauer. It is nothing but nature eating itself. True, says Nietzsche. If we can’t laugh at it, we should jump off a cliff and thereby deny it the satisfaction of our own suffering!

Not exactly promising, is it? Except, although there might not seem at first glance to be an inch of poetry anywhere here, the poetry comes anyway. And it’s not altogether bleak. Why not? Is there something wrong with me? Does it only betray my philosophical illiteracy that I am not more of an old sour-puss, like them?

Of course, when I do travel out a bit, get among the hills, the effect is more profound for my having been starved between-times of the sublime. I would like to think that if I lived among the hills, I would never tire of them, but I know that’s not so. I would always find something was in limited supply. A decent shop, a better Internet connection. And then the broad horizon and the humbling sky of the Lancashire Plain.


Friedrich Nietzsche 1844-1900

As the dam limits the progress of the river, it raises the water and gives a head of energy. This enables useful work, it fuels purpose. Even the gods understand this, and envy the limiting full-stop of our mortality. Why? For the intensity of experience it grants our lives. The secret is finding a balance. We seek a dynamic sweet-spot somewhere between that which crushes us, and that which bleeds us back into the hedonistic void.

To live, of course, is to suffer. Whether we turn that to positive use, or we just moan about, is up to us. The Buddhists are the experts at dealing with suffering, but their language is often times difficult. I fear we lay readers of Buddhism risk a simplistic interpretation of it – something about attaining a state of mind whereby we do not care about anything. But not to care is to lack energy for life. So why be alive?

“Living in the moment” is another lazy new-age trope, one I am also guilty of spouting from time to time. It suggests disregarding the future, including the bus that’s about to run us over. So before we settle into the present moment, we should take stock. We should change what is sensible to change, what can be changed, like avoiding that bus. As for what we cannot change, we seek a way of not minding it, for only then can we abide serenely in the ‘is’-ness of life.

Knowing what is sensible to change though is tricky, isn’t it? Do we change our car because it’s knackered, or because we’re bored with it? If the car is knackered but we have no money to change it, how do we not mind it? And what about my dilemma of living on the plain but craving the mountains?

I suppose if we want a thing, and cannot explain why, it’s wiser not to make an issue of it because change is unlikely to please us for very long. But if we need a thing, like we need a cat to keep away mice, and we can articulate that need without using the word “want”, then it has some utility, because one’s craving doesn’t come into it. Craving satisfaction rather suggests we are lacking a more useful purpose. In identifying craving, we can then choose to deny it, and pick up our purpose instead.

I understand “purpose” in creative terms as “the work”, the book, the poetry, the formulation of the idea. But without energy it doesn’t move. We become listless, becalmed like a sailboat without wind. We can lose our energy anywhere, whenever we succumb to craving what we think we lack. Similarly, we can find it anywhere – among the high places, or down among those potatoes of the Lancashire Plain. It’s just a question of knowing not so much where, but how to look.

So, Schopenhauer: austere, other worldly and profoundly pessimistic. And Nietzsche: bombastic, rude, and ready to have a pop at anything he doesn’t like, which is just about everything. I’m sure they have a point, and could easily embarrass me out of home-spun delusions, but I don’t suppose they were writing for me. And maybe that’s a good thing, that I’m not a philosopher, I mean. Otherwise, from time to time, I’d have nothing to smile, or write, about.


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It’s said we’re dreaming more. This may be true, but I suspect not for everyone – just those no longer woken to the call of the alarm, no longer rushing out into the dawn-light for work.

Waking should be a gentle thing, granting time for us to reel in the dreams we all dream every night. When we respect the dreams this way, they lend the day their feeling-tones, adding another layer to one’s experience of life. Except, I read it’s anxiety dreams and nightmares we’re reporting, and that’s not so good, though understandable under the circumstances. I’m perhaps more fortunate but my dreams seem kinder.

Last night, I took a taxi into Manchester. I knew the driver, though I knew it was only the dream telling me I knew him. I rode with his friend, a beautiful and well-dressed woman with a serene disposition, who never spoke. The three of us visited a cafe-bar. It surprised me that it was open. Perhaps then, this wasn’t Manchester after all.

The feeling of the dream was optimistic. It was something about my companions, but it was also in the sheer human buzz of the bar. Outside, the streets were lit as if for a festival, the shops were open, the pavements busy. Everyone looked prosperous, and happy.

I sat with my new friends, drinking coffee. They seemed other-worldly, but wise and courteous. I felt perfectly at ease, confident again of my own future in their company. There was a brief, anxious moment when I sneezed. I froze then, expecting the whole of the bar to be looking daggers at me. But no one cared. No one noticed. It was okay to sneeze now, to be oneself again.

Then I was alone. It was dark, and I was walking home along country lanes by the light of a head-torch. It’s beam illuminated the way, bright as day. The meadows beyond the hedgerows remained mysterious, but the power of the light gave me confidence. Like a third eye, it granted the power of sight and light, whichever way I turned my head.

In the small hours of the morning, I came down to a sleepy dell where there was a public house. It was open, and there were women at the bar icing cakes. There was no beer, but plenty of tea. I sat at a table with a fine-China cup and saucer, Earl Grey tea, slice of lemon, and a jam bun. Everyone was smiling, all strangers, amiable, chatting.

When I woke it was to the drone of a neighbour’s chain-saw. It was a little after eight. I made coffee, sat a while in bed. I have bought some industrial grade EP5-standard ear plugs for such eventualities now, and popped them in. They’re small, comfortable to wear, and block out everything except one’s own heartbeat. They are used in the most extreme environments. Thus, while my neighbour doggedly reduced logs to sawdust, I drifted back into a semi-conscious state. I was seeking out the threads of the dream, and found myself walking again, this time across the moors at dusk on the eve of May.

There, I came across a woman, dressed in a ball-gown and seated primly by the wayside. She was of the Faery, plain as day. I knew because the dream was telling me so, reminding me also it was not a good time for mortals to be about – the eve of May. Or it might be auspicious. It all depends. On what? Who knows? This was the day and the time the Faery reserve for themselves after all. Only the most profane among mortals would not know that. And they would pay the price. According to lore, the Faery are a strange lot, sometimes helpful, sometimes cruel but always easily offended.

It was too late to choose another way and it worried me that to surprise the Faery is certain to get their temper up. So I doffed my cap in respect, made ready to give her a wide berth. It’s the best one can do with the Faery. That and hope they’re in a good mood.

She rewarded my respect with a smile, tossed me an uncut diamond the size of a robin’s egg. It was for luck she said. I understood this was not for me, personally, more for all the mortals, like me. It would bring peace, and prosperity, she said, unless, I was ever to sell it. Then it would bring only a transient wealth, and eternal misfortune thereafter. It was for me to work out where I could hide it, so others never found it. Because if they found it, selling it is the very first thing they would do. And then we were done.

So I woke a second time, now with a lovely, rounded though enigmatic sequence of dreams to ponder. My neighbour had finished making sawdust by mid-morning, so I settled out in the garden with notebook and coffee. It was a beautiful day, warm, sunny, and everything seemed charged with an aura of optimism.

My neighbour cranked up his beat-box, kept it up all day – Hi way of celebrating VE day, I suppose. I reached for the EP5s, settled down to the beat of my heart, put pencil to paper and reeled back the dream. All I have left to do now is work out what the diamond symbolizes, and why I should hide it from the hands of the profane.



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In the whole of Europe, the UK is looking like it’s suffered the worst death rate from coronavirus so far. In the world we are second only to the US. This doesn’t sit well with those who would paint a picture of Albion’s God-given superiority. There are story-tellers who have had a go recently, with mixed results. But if all else fails – and death is a hard thing to sell – you can always try playing it down.

The morning these figures broke, the majority of the UK press chose to ignore the main story. Instead, they went with news of the assistant chief medical officer. He’d been caught flouting his own social distancing guidelines and had resigned. It was a silly thing to do, and a poor example, but it was hardly the most important headline of the day. Thus, the A-list story-tellers are revealed again as accomplices in the great game. They are PR gurus, not journalists.

But if we can see through all that, what the past weeks and months have shown us is that we were under-prepared. We were under-funded, and we ignored the hard lessons learned by the rest of the world. More, the conclusions of a pandemic planning exercise carried out in 2016, and which predicted the pickle we’re in now – were disregarded.

This should come as no surprise. The British approach to impending calamity is always to ignore the drums, and muddle through. We do this with a mixture of blissful ignorance, bombast, and real-politik. And, when the shit hits the fan, like it always does, we display a certain cold blood in dealing with it. We count the bodies. We shrug, we move on.

Now, the death rate has levelled off. The health service is still on its knees, though not flat on its back as we had feared, and a new story is emerging. Those who pay for the politics want us to focus elsewhere. So they engage their A-List story-tellers to flesh out their post-coronavirus narrative. And it goes something like this:

It’s time to wind back the money, to open the shops. The public are addicted to their free time and their State handouts. They are becoming fat and feckless. We have decades of austerity ahead now to pay for it. They should get back to work, and what are we all worried about anyway? It’s just a bit of flu. You’ll only die from it if you were weak or old to begin with. We must get back to normal, to the way things were before.

The other story, one struggling to take shape, is that things cannot settle back the way they were. We should take this opportunity to build something new from the ruins of the past. We have a chance to tackle the nightmare of climate break-down and inequality, build something new from the ruins. We need to change the economy in ways that won’t leave us so exposed to calamity next time. But, whilst laudable and emotive, it’s a narrative that fails to find any traction among the A-list story-tellers. You’ll only find it on the more obscure and leftist media back-channels, run on a shoestring.

Death is a tricky business, definitely a hard thing to sell, especially when it’s obvious the risks of dying are not shared equally.  I’m not sure how that story will play out. A severe global recession, and mass unemployment look like certainties. It’ll also be a good time to sneak a hard BREXIT over line, because in the midst of this chaos, who would notice? Or care?

Beyond that, I cannot say. I’m approaching my seventh decade, yet I am still naive in the ways of the world. I have learned sufficient only to stand aghast that even in the midst of such an unprecedented crisis, we are battered by a storm of wanton spin. But I do know this: the truth never surfaces in the world of current affairs, that what is often touted as truth is too often the product of an equation weighted by its omissions. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. It is the story that counts: how plausible, how resonant to the emotions, a story spun in exchange for power and votes.

I know which story of the future I prefer. And I shall continue to sing my lament in the face of those A-Listers we all listen to, yet who never seem to tell it the way it is. Or the way it needs to be.

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