Archive for the ‘existential’ Category

great hillI was going to write about the despoliation of Cumbria this evening, of people fleeing lockdown en-masse, and wild-camping on the more accessible tops, leaving behind their trash, their tents, their fires, and their faeces. But those who would be horrified by that don’t need another story, and those who don’t care, won’t care anyway. And it’s nothing I’ve not been saying since The Singing Loch, so we’ll move on. Here’s a bit of me trying to work out “Winter on the Hill” instead:

Chapter Forty Seven:

Life doesn’t always make sense if you measure it in a straight line. I mean, if you take it one event after the other. Sometimes, you remember a thing from the past, but which made no sense at the time. Then it springs fresh into memory, decades later, only now it’s become a key, unlocking a door on a present conundrum.

How to explain?

As a metrologist – not a meteorologist – one measures the length and the breadth of the world. But first we ask how accurate the measurement must be because this determines the method. On the one hand, we have the experienced machinist who can judge accurately to a tenth of a millimetre by no more than the feel of his callipers. On the other, we use lasers and an elaborate set-up to get to within a nanometre of reality. But that’s still a long way from measuring the diameter of an atom.

At the edges of atoms, the world becomes fuzzy. So the question arises, at what point does the world begin and measurement means anything at all? And for measurement, I suppose you can read truth, or logic – that something is either true or false, that a thing is either there or not. Except, in the fuzziness at the edges of the world, truth becomes foggy, and it’s dogged pursuit throws up the phantoms of logical paradoxes. We see their traces in our language, things like:

The following statement is true: the previous statement is false.

What does such a thing say about the world?

It’s nineteen ninety-six when I first ponder these questions. I am speaking at a conference at Manchester’s Metropolitan University, the John Dalton building. It’s a conference I’d forgotten until Molly mentioned it that time on the hill at Holcombe. I am given half an hour on interferometry, and she has insisted not a minute more or the microphone will be cut. She was always a bit of a ball-breaker, Molly – good-looking, brassy. Still is.

My talk feels elementary though, me this measurer of things. I can hear my own words as I speak them – never a good sign. The reason for my self consciousness? I have followed an ancient, white-bearded scientist from the CERN laboratories in Geneva. He has spoken about experiments studying the entanglement of particles of light. These studies have suggested there is no world at all until we come to measure it.

An other-worldly, wizard of a man, his talk garners few questions, but then it’s rather a difficult subject for the audience to get a handle on. Most are from the junior ranks of the nation’s industrial base. Some are only here for the lunch, paid for by their employers. Others are here to raise a career-profile by scoring points off the speakers. Others, the speakers themselves, are here because their employers want to raise their profiles among other employers. In this admittedly ambiguous and mutually narcissistic context, the subject is irrelevant, and few will remember anything of the day, or of him, or of me. Even by tomorrow all will be gone, in my case for decades, when the memory will rise unbidden whilst watching a woman swim.

My cousin Lottie.

At lunch, I find him sitting alone with a cup of tea. No one is talking to him. The only seats free in the bustling conference hall, where suits jostle, are those on either side of him. His intellect is felt like a force of nature, repelling interlopers. He does not mean this. He’s a loner and can’t help it. Neither can I. We have this in common at least.

“There’s me,” I begin. “All this time measuring things,… I mean the millimetres of them, chasing their ever-decreasing fractions. And all along, not realizing they only come into existence when I decide to measure them.”

A joke.

Success. He smiles. He’s human.

“What does that tell us about the nature of the world?” I ask him.

He thinks for a while, shakes his head. “Oh, I’m just a physicist,” he says. “At times, I’m at a loss. These are ultimately philosophical questions.”

We seem, both of us, at a remove from reality now. ’96 was a bad year for the bombings. It was also the year of the Dunblane shooting, which caused many of us to question the nature of existence. Life seemed violent, pointless, our survival arbitrary, a question of statistics, pretty much the same as it does now.

Since I was a lad, I’ve had no room for God, looked at the world early on and decided it was people who made the difference between heaven and hell. Obviously, it was better to aim for heaven, but it was looking like you could never have the one without the other. So, enjoy what you’ve got while you’ve got it. I did not know it then, but I was already groping towards an existentialist outlook. Nietzsche,… and all those other clever souls who looked at the horror of the twentieth century. Sure, they came to the only conclusion they could about that.

“Philosophical?” I ask him.

“Is the world really as we materialists claim?” he says. “Or is it more of a Kantian dream?”

I’d no idea who Kant was then. A philosopher, I suppose. “Dream? You mean like, it’s in our heads?”

“No,” he says. “Not in yours. Not in mine. The Universe is the dreamer. It dreams everything, including us. Shocking thought, isn’t it? Sounds bizarre. It’s also professional suicide to entertain such a notion. But it would explain a lot of what I’ve seen at the quantum level.”

“Like where the world begins?”

“Like how there is no world. At least not in the sense we imagine. Or rather not in the sense we are capable of imagining.”

I don’t know what he means by this, so try another joke, try to appear clever, when I’m clearly not. “So if the universe is dreaming us, who dreams the universe?”

He didn’t answer that one, just smiled politely, finished his tea, excused himself and disappeared into that dense crowd of past encounters. He had perhaps judged from my talk my ability to grasp these concepts was pedestrian at best. I was also hampered by a certain materialist prejudice. I don’t remember his name. Molly will have it, and his photograph no doubt. I must ask her about it. Most likely he’s dead now, but I would like to have his name.

So how long ago is that then? Thirty-four years, and counting? It’s not like I’ve been carrying the memory around with me. Indeed, it seems at times we’ve no idea what we remember of our experience as we go through life. Right now, I’m watching Lottie swim. And it’s while she swims that same stupid question surfaces, like a dream breaking. Or rather not so much the question itself as the memory of my asking it.

Who dreams the universe?

I know the answer, now. You get older, things change, you become less rigid in your thinking, and the answers creep through. It’s in the mood of the morning, in the beauty of it, the beauty of Lottie as she moves easily in the water, and with barely a ripple.

I’m sorry if all this seems bizarre, a little esoteric, but this is me you’re talking to and you should be used to it by now. I mean, here I am sitting, my feet slow-cycling in the warm pool, Lottie swimming and all you want to know is what’s she wearing, if anything, and where do things lie between us now? Yet here I am, off on a whole tangential chapter, talking about the fuzziness of atoms,…

Getting close now. I can feel it.

Thanks for listening.

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materialism is baloneyBernado Kastrup’s cheeky title here belies a serious book. It looks at the prevailing world view of materialist philosophy and uses materialism’s own logic to argue that it’s self-contradictory, and leads to absurd conclusions. What this means is the view most of us have of the world, a place of “common sense” material stuff, is wrong. It also means none of the problems facing science and society today can be resolved from a materialist perspective. Why? Because the world is not what it seems, and neither are we.

Materialism is a mindset that looks at the mysteries of the universe and assumes everything is ultimately knowable through scientific reasoning. More, it tells us everything can be explained in material terms, even apparently immaterial things like consciousness. But the problems of materialism begin with quantum mechanics. This is the study of the nature of the foundations of what we think of as material stuff, or “matter”. But quantum mechanics also tells us matter cannot be said to exist until it is observed. This is awkward to say the least, but we get around the problem in daily life by politely ignoring it. Clearly though, there’s a gap in our thinking, and it will have to be reckoned with sooner or later.

The alternative view, one that might reconcile these paradoxes and explain the nature of consciousness, is philosophical idealism. Here Kastrup builds on the works of Emanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, and brings them forward into the twenty-first century. I’m not qualified to say whether he’s right or not, only that his views support the direction of my own thinking. His robust reasoning also provides a reassuringly intellectual rigour to what might otherwise, admittedly, seem a very strange way of looking at things.

Although a serious book, I found it engaging and accessible, but you’ll still need your wits about you, because the concepts here are so startling. Through the use of metaphor Kastrup introduces us to the idea of the universe as an infinite “thought”, that the material world is a phenomenon dreamed up by the consciousness of the universe itself. This is not to say the universe is “intelligent” or capable of self reflection, more that it is somehow blindly instinctive in bringing to fruition what we perceive of as life.

Philosophers call such a thing “Transcendental Idealism”, and one cannot delve into that subject without also touching on spiritual matters. So, as well as covering the nature of the universe, the book also looks at the purpose of life. From the more familiar Materialist perspective, life is meaningless but Idealism begs to differ. Indeed, it grants humankind a primary role. It tells us we are the eyes and the ears of a universe waking up and exploring its own nature the only way it can – by enfolding parts of its self into discrete pockets of self-reflective awareness. That’s us. Otherwise, the universe would be like an eye trying to see itself.

When we dream we accept the dream entirely as our reality, and it’s only when we wake we gain sufficient perspective to see the dream for what it was. In the same way, in the dream of the universe, we have no choice but to accept the dream of it as real. Indeed, it is real. It’s just that the nature of that reality is not what we think it is. It also means that ultimately we are the same as whatever we are looking at, because whatever is dreaming “it” into being, is dreaming us too. And equally startling, it means the sense of “I”, looking out through your eyes right now, is the same sense of “I” looking out though mine. The only difference between us, is our life story.

This book will appeal to anyone who finds the high-priests of materialism, and their more fundamentalist dogmas, a little too shrill. It will appeal also to anyone seeking to restore meaning to their lives but who are similarly repelled by religion, as well as finding the otherwise seductive language of the New Age at times somewhat anaemic. I think the world according Bernardo Kastrup is a very interesting one, and well worth exploring. It is both plausible and profoundly positive, building on a rich heritage of idealism, and  putting us back at the very centre of a universe driven towards the creation of life.

Although essentially blind and instinctive, its evolutionary drift seems to be towards an awareness of itself, through us. So, while things may not be the way we think they are, what each of us sees and thinks and does, and feels in life,… about life,…

Really matters.

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by the yarrow
By the Yarrow Reservoir – Anglezarke

We leave the little blue car down by the Yarrow Reservoir. Kind souls have cleaned up after the orgy of the other week, when there were fast-food wrappers and laughing gas cartridges, and other unspeakable items, everywhere. But all are bagged now, awaiting collection. All that’s left of the party is the hangover.

It’s blessedly quiet this morning, almost normal. We’re heading up to the Pike-Stones for lunch, then on to Anglezarke moor – taking in Hurst Hill, via a small, nameless tarn, and then the Round Loaf. After a sunny start, it clouds over but looks like it’ll stay dry. It’s blustery though, and cold, so not a day for lingering.

I’ve struggled getting out lately. All these furloughed folk have been making the best of their time, and who can blame them? But they’ve been interfering with my routines, and I wish they’d clean up after themselves, leave no trace, you know? Some people understand this instinctively. They feel something when they’re in nature. But the sight of deliberate droppings pops the bubble of the sublime. And it’s offensive.

Life can seem at times like a seething quagmire, one damned thing after another, a dog-eats-dog kind of world, an endless frenzy of feeding, of seeking satisfaction. The only way to transcend such ceaseless craving is through beauty – beauty of form, of art, music, and landscape. Only humans have the power to do this – only humans have need of it. But then we see the rubbish dumped by ignorants, and we’re right back in that vale of suffering again, grinding our teeth.

Today’s looking good though.

I know this landscape well, but I’ve not joined the dots of this particular route before. First we go up by Parson’s Bullough, via the beautiful green way across Twitch Hill’s Clough. Then it’s past the ruins of Peewet Hall, to the track from Jepson’s, and the access point for the moor. This is open land now – right to roam and all that – but for now we navigate by the line of the old, burned plantation on Holt’s Flat, all the way to the Pike Stones.

holts flat plantation
Burned plantation – Holt’s Flat

I remember them putting this plantation in, thirty odd years ago, vast geometrical patterns excavated deep into the virgin canvas of the moor, and then, from the wounds, this slow, cancerous growth of conifers had emerged. I found it upsetting. The hills are the most unchanging things we know. No matter what else is going on, they seem the same, and comforting. But then someone bulldozes our sensibilities and dumps a monocultural plantation on top of them.

Half of the plantation is gone now, consumed by heath fires, the remains like dried bones, all rotting down. I try some photographs. The skeletal forms are mono-chromic and repulsive.

The Pike Stones – Anglezarke

The Pike Stones once comprised the finest Neolithic burial in the north, probably in the whole of England, and is certainly of national importance, but all that remains of it now are a couple of tilted slabs that mark the inner chamber, portal to the underworld for a soul of great standing. As for the rest, only an archaeologist could make sense of it. Indeed, it was so disappointing to some passing neo-pagan types, back in the nineties, they chiselled a funky spiral onto one of the slabs to add a bit more “vibe” to the site. It was a striking and skilful job, though criminally self-entitled, of course. Someone else chiselled the graffiti off. The outrage is fading now as the seasons weather the gritstone back to black. I only hope it did not disturb the honoured personage on their journey to Tír na hÓige.

I have a thermos of soup, so find respite from the wind, hunkered down in the lee of the stones and settle in for lunch. There’ll be no shelter further up. So far so good, then. Hot chicken soup, scent of the wild moor and the howl of the wind. What could be finer on an otherwise dull, blowy day?

Meanwhile, down on the plain, life goes on. The M61 is taking up its omnipresent roar again. There is political pressure to relax the two-meter rule. It looks like the plan is to get things back to normal, to a condition of gradual herd immunity, but without actually calling it that. On the upside, the skylarks are in fine voice, keeping low in the wind, but sounding rapturous in their twittering. They don’t seem to mind my presence and hover close, allowing a more intimate study of their plumage and colouring than one is used to. Perhaps they thought humans were extinct.

I manage a good half hour at the Pike Stones before I pick out some figures moving up by the plantation. I’m not in the mood for company, so break camp and move on, cutting the contours now up by Rushy Brow, towards Hurst Hill.

rushy brow tarn
Tarn on Rushy Brow – Anglezarke
There’s a small, nameless tarn here. It’s not marked, even on six-inch maps, yet it’s easily picked out by Google’s satellite mapping. I find it hard to believe the men of the Ordnance survey missed it, so it’s either a recent formation, or it’s intermittent and subject to drought. I remember when I first discovered it, an inviting spot on a hot summer’s eve, under a clear sky, but right now, with the wind howling, it is home to trolls, so we press on before they drag us to our doom.
hurst hill
Hurst Hill – Anglezarke

The low, shaggy outline of Hurst Hill lies ahead now, the cairn giving us a good point to aim at over the shivering tussocks.  Otherwise, it’s just a featureless knoll, a little over a thousand feet but, as a view point, it certainly holds its own. From here, we’re east of north to the Round Loaf, and one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Western Pennines.

It looks like a huge, Bronze Age burial. That’s that’s what generations of us have been brought up to believe it was anyway and  its scheduled status certainly supports that belief. Owing to its remoteness it’s never been excavated, but then a geological survey in the eighties concluded, and somewhat glibly, that it’s more likely a natural feature. I don’t know, you pick your experts, depending on what you want to believe, I suppose. I know which explanation I prefer.

It’s about five meters high and there’s a little cairn on top which provides a vantage point on a fine sweep of the moor. The monument is also a focus for paths, which converge upon it from all directions.

round loaf top
Round Loaf Top – Anglezarke Moor

From the Round Loaf we now head roughly south, to meet Lead Mine’s Clough, then home. But the multiplicity of tracks here can be disorientating, especially in thick weather. So we pick out the one we’ve just walked from Hurst Hill, then take the one next to it, counter-clockwise to see us safe.

It’s a little over four miles round, but feels further over rough ground, and well worth the time spent. It’s good to be on the moor again, a place changing but slowly, and a reassuring fixture in a bizarre, uncertain world.


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WOTH cover smallAs I continue to work my way through “Winter on the Hill“, the same questions arise as with all my novels: for whom do I write?

I know I have a small readership, because you have written to me and said so, and I am indeed grateful for your company. But in the main, I am writing for myself, and since you’ve not paid any money for that novel, you must forgive my self-centred priorities as I filter what is essentially a personal reality, through the art of my fiction.

Since I began the novel, in December, all our lives have changed, yet many of the themes I thought I was exploring – things like freedom and it’s curtailment by powerful forces, also the nature and importance of “truth”, have all come into sharper focus in recent months, though for none of the reasons I originally imagined.

Our isolation, the mothballing of work, the closure of shops, pubs, restaurants, the mere fact we could no longer travel to the countryside, indeed everything Western materialist culture is based upon – all these things have been called into question, and with them the very meaning of our lives. This has had me turning to philosophy, to the great gabblers of “meaning”, at least from a secular perspective. Also, since philosophers speak a difficult language, I have turned to those who can best translate them into English for the rest of us.

My characters enable me to explore my actual life, through their fictional existence. The storm of my thoughts is filtered back to a calmer essence through their thoughts and their dialogues. Thus, their stories explain my self back to me. This is a long way from “writing for the market”, like the glib writing coaches used to tell us. But since I never could grasp “the market”, and no longer have a use for it, it matters not.

It’s a strange way of going about things, I know. My first novels, written when I was a lad, were of the usual kind. They were a hundred thousand words penned in the naive belief a publisher would fall over themselves to publish me. Then I would be able to show my mum my books on the shelves at WH Smith. That would have been a very fine thing indeed! But, but alas, not to be.

Publishing’s not the game I thought it was, which is difficult for a writer to come to terms with, especially one that can’t stop writing. Needless to say, there’s been a lot of growing up since then.

A novel is a big undertaking. The shorter ones are a year in the writing, the longer ones two or three. To inhabit the world of the story for so long is a very pleasurable and transformative thing. It is meaningful, but not in the same sense as the work can ever mean to anyone else. Others must take from my stories what they can, which is the by-product of fiction. The author is always king of his own domain.

Blogging is another important voice for a writer. Again, I know some of you do read me here because you write to tell me so, and again I am grateful for that. I note however that, although my number of “followers” is inching its way up, the actual reach of the blog – the hits – is declining in line with the general decline of blogging anyway. I calculate I am back now to where I was in 2012, which highlights the essentially personal nature of blogging. You don’t do it to become rich, or famous. You do it because not to do it leaves you bloated with words unspoken.

Writers then are merely channels for thought. We open ourselves, and our thoughts pour through us onto the page. Some of us have millions hanging on our words, others a few dozen, some none at all. It doesn’t really matter. “Reach”, “penetration”, these are words for the sellers of things, not writers.

But back to “Winter on the Hill”. It seems to have led me on a journey through the mass-trespasses and the working class movements of the 1930s, to the songs of Ewan McColl, to the apparent rout of resurgent leftist, collectivist politics in more recent times, to say nothing of that most startling of neo-con inventions: the post-truth world.

For explanations and solutions the novel has led me to the existentialist philosophers. I’m not enamoured of them ordinarily, but it’s hard to avoid their conclusions, and for which I quote Jordan Peterson, speaking towards the close of a lecture, delivered at the university of Toronto in 2016:

“If you lie you corrupt the system. If you lie enough, the system becomes so corrupt, it turns on you and becomes murderous. So, the price of freedom, as far as the existentialists are concerned – and this is buttressed by historical knowledge that they garnered during the 20th century – was that you have a moral obligation to speak the truth, to maintain the integrity of the state, as well as fostering your own psychological integration.”

So that’s what we do when we write; we tell the truth, at least in so far as we see it, as well as define the truth to our own satisfaction, as best we can. Others may not agree with our version of the truth, but if we can avoid deliberately lying, to ourselves and to others, it provides at least an honest starting point for debate. And if we are sincere in what we say, it contrasts sharply with the blizzard of deceit that now underpins the world of contemporary affairs that would deliberately deceive us as to the way things really are. As an individual voice it might not make much difference to the corruption of our futures. But such as the effort goes, and in my own small way, I lend my voice to it. If you write, and you’re sincere in what you say, you do the same.

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Idealist thinking in a material world

I do not believe all there is to the universe is physical material. I do not believe consciousness is the product of biochemical and electrical processes in the brain, nor that the brain is simply a computer made of meat. That’s the materialist position, the one generally held to be true, at least for simplicity’s sake, but you can only go so far with it.

Materialism explains much of the universe as we see it, at least the universe we perceive through our senses. But it does not explain the universe as it is “in itself”. Indeed, as we probe  deeper into the nature of so-called matter, we find matter isn’t what we think it is.

Yet to question materialism goes against orthodoxy. It is to invite the scorn of debunkers and scientistic populists. Thus, scientism replaces religious dogma. And while people are no longer burned at the stake for espousing heretical views, we do have social media for the more metaphorical immolation of character and reputation. Fortunately I am not a career scientist. Nor am I concerned with overturning materialism. I seek only to understand our universe a little better, and my place within it.

The conclusion of centuries of materialistic analysis says there is no supreme being watching over us and life is essentially meaningless. It’s rather a bleak view, but I do have some sympathy with it – particularly the “God” bit. Indeed, it’s a challenge to hold to the idea of a supreme godly being when there is so much suffering in the world. But my own conclusion on that score is either there is no “God” or we have the wrong idea about what “God” is. So while I am repelled by materialists and their bleakness, I have no time for literalist religion either.

Where to then? Well, the only other avenue of enquiry is the philosophy of Idealism. Idealism suggests the universe is a mental phenomenon, something akin to a dream. It’s a controversial claim, first formalized by Plato, then taken up by the seventeenth century British philosopher and theologian George Berkeley, then by Kant, Schopenhauer and the later German Idealists. But after a good run, along with God, it fell very much out of fashion in the twentieth century, and has languished under the burning scorn of materialism ever since.

I’ve been coming back to it slowly through my novels and various life-experiences. Idealism allows the imagination greater leeway in exploring speculative realities, but it also better explains one’s relationship with life – the fact I do not feel like a computer made of meat, that I can be moved to awe in wild places, or by beauty, or poetry, that I can feel love for another human being.

The Lavender and the Rose, The Last Guests of La Maison du Lac, By Fall of Night, and the Inn at the Edge of Light, all these stories take as their point of departure the idea that the world is more than the senses perceive it to be. And if we wish to understand the life we’re living, we do well to approach the mind of the dreamer – at least to the extent that such a thing is possible.

One of the criticisms levelled against idealism is that if the universe is a dream, if we are dreaming our reality, then who are all these other people? Our reality then collapses into a solipsism. This is the extreme egoic viewpoint, that we are the only ones truly alive and aware in the universe, that we are simply imagining everyone else. But nobody said the universe is our “personal” dream. The dreamer dreams it for us, and dreams us, in it.

So, again, who is the dreamer? You can insert God here if you want. Others prefer “Big Mind” or “All that is”. But these are just words after all. Personally, I find the eastern notion of Dao less offensive to my sensibilities, but it’s better not to get too hung up about it.

To describe reality as a dream is, of course, to over-simplify it, and to provide ample ammunition for materialists to barge in and heap scorn upon us. But if the dream contains all the rules of an apparently solid, material reality, all the hurt and the pain and the fragility, as well as the joys and the beauty, then there is no reason to dismiss the idea as nonsensical.

Just as the personal dream convinces us of its reality, because we have no reference beyond it to conclude otherwise, so the big dream convinces us of a material, spatial, time bound universe, and our existence within it. It also answers some puzzles like how big and how old the universe is, though the answers are shocking, and we need to be sitting down before we contemplate them.

In the idealist view, concepts of time and space come as part of our toolkit for perceiving the universe of appearances, the same as with our senses and intuitions. They allow us to relate objects in space relative to one another, and place one event in time relative to another. But they do not define the universe as it is in itself. In the mind of the dreamer of reality, there is no time, no space. Therefore, the universe is not located anywhere. Time does not pass, nor was time ever begun. No “thing” actually exists, nor has it ever.

It’s the only way anything can be said to exist at all.

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german policeI found this thing in a tin of bits and bobs. I’m guessing it travelled from Germany  among the loose change in my uncle’s pockets, at the end of the war. He’d been in the army, fought in France, was evacuated from Dunkirk, then spent years training in the Cairngorms. In 1944, he was fighting in Belgium and ended the war in Germany, at Bergen-Belsen.

He never talked about the war unless pressed, and then he rarely elaborated. There was just that one time when, as  a naive young man, I’d tried to pin him down about Belsen, and got more than I’d bargained for. What he told me of this time there, I could never quite assimilate, let alone repeat. Indeed, I think I rejected it as too complex and too dark a thing for me to deal with. Thus, I discovered there is a psychological disconnect between those of a  peace-time mind-set and those who witness, and must digest, the worst humanity is capable of.

As for this little memento, I’ve always assumed it was some sort of regimental cap-badge. But I recently did some research on it and discovered it’s a souvenir given out in exchange for donations to the German Police. This was in 1942, and the German Police by then were very different to peacetime cops. As if to drive the message home, that same research took me to other images featuring the German Police in action, executing women and children.

As with all holocaust imagery, one wonders what systemic failure could allow such monsters into power? What could turn a police force into brutal, militarized units suppressing unarmed civilians? Was there something particular about the circumstances of those times that could give rise to such an orgy of mass-murder? And is it too naive to suppose we have learned the lessons, and could never find ourselves so benighted again?

That this little souvenir was associated with the very worst in humanity came a shock. I don’t know why I should have been  surprised by that – the clue is, after all, in the Swastika. Not everyone’s of the same opinion of course. There are those who find Nazi memorabilia fascinating, indeed even thrilling. This little thing, cheap as it was, and banged out by the tens of thousands, can now fetch up to £50 at auction. I find that both surprising and revolting.

There were lots of divisions to the German Police. Some were civilian, some military, some political, but all came under command of the Schutzstaffel, the SS, a name forever marked as the personification of evil. But it’s dangerous to dismiss evil as something “other”. It does not come from outside the human race,  but dwells within it.

The German Police were not recruited because they were known killers, with long records of ruthless violence. They came from the rank and file of ordinary life, such as it was in wartime Germany. It was circumstance that robbed them of innocence, and then something of the animal took over, normalizing the violence and the de-humanisation of others. This should serve as a warning to the rest of us: just because we imagine we’re incapable of such atrocities ourselves, it doesn’t make it true. All it means is we’ve never found ourselves in a situation where that side of our natures comes out. Nor does it mean we’re ever free from witnessing such atrocities again.

We have only to flick through the vile things people write on social media to see the seething broil of the dark collective. The only thing more dangerous than glorifying the worst of humanity is the belief we could never repeat the horrors of what the German Police did in wartime. If we need any more proof of that we have only to look at the images of the American Police in action in recent days to see how easily the balance of a State can tip from the protection of its citizens to their oppression by militarized force. Indeed, we need extrapolate contemporary events very little into the future, to find ourselves in very dark territory indeed.

For the time being then, I’m putting this odious little souvenir back in its tin. Out of sight, but not out of mind. Such darkness is a thing we must recognize and own if we are ever to keep a lid on it. Then at the very least we might have a chance of spotting it, before it overwhelms us again.

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people protesting on a street

Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

Truth has value. We can build things upon it that will not fall down. Conversely, lies passed off as truths are like quicksand, and whatever’s laid upon them will fall down, eventually. In human affairs that means a cost in terms of lives, and it means mothers grieving for their murdered sons.

It’s hard to avoid the fact the western world is struggling to see its way for a blizzard of lies right now. It falls to each of us to tell the truth, at least as we see it. But how do we know what’s true to begin with? We have a media and a political class that either lies openly and cynically, or is increasingly afraid to tell the truth. And we have an Internet so awash with lies it’s impossible to discern any truth in there at all.

So, just in case, I have cross-referenced three sources for my news this morning – the Washington Post, The Guardian, and the New York Times. All speak of an America on the brink, of massed protest, of a vicious and militarized police, and of a president poised to send his own infantry onto the streets to kill people.

In Europe, we look on aghast, as this ghoulish man struts and preens, and how, with his trademark of lies and bombast, he has brought a powerful country to the edge of anarchy, and so soon. There were some who predicted it, few who believed it could actually happen.

A global pandemic is the worst most of us have seen, and from which we have yet to emerge. What could possibly be worse than that? Well, how about an America on the verge of civil war? An America with its right-wing guns turned on its leftists, and its police forces still killing black people with impunity, and on the slightest pretext? It is an American president pouring gasoline on the flames he lights daily with his incendiary thumbs, and of restraining institutions seemingly crippled, looking on as the edifice of a nations’ honour and integrity crumbles before our eyes. It is flames reflected in the sunglasses of the rock-jawed secret servicemen who surround and protect the office that once provided the leadership of the free world, an office now apparently vacant of principle and honour, and morals.

Black lives matter. It’s shameful we should even have to say it. And for those who would deny it, look around and see what this currency of lies has bought you.

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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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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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green trees under blue and orange sky during sunset

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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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