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Archive for the ‘existential’ Category

moorland ruinIt’s impossible to disconnect oneself from the current political turmoil, though I have been trying hard of late. In the UK, our politicians enter into vote after vote as we near the deadline for separating from the European Union, yet seemingly without clarifying anything, and now it looks as if they intend delaying the deadline, pushing out the long anticipated car-crash until the summer.

They give the impression of an orgy, splashing about in mud, hurling bread at one another, while people go hungry. There is something deeply unsettling about it, a sense of the solid ground giving way, that shortly I will be swallowed up, plunged into an unforgiving underworld where bad people rule, and the good go in fear.

It’s like when I’ve been walking over the moors, the mist comes down, and I’ve been lured from my course by a siren sheep-track that ends in bog. My next step could take me ankle deep, or waist deep – there’s no way of knowing –  the only certainty being that I’m going to get dirty. I look around but I’ve been travelling this way for so long now I can no longer remember where I went wrong, or if the safe path is even there any more, or if, like the rest of the world, enclosed by this impenetrable mist, it was consumed long ago by muck and cold water.

In the mean time we have all grown angrier. We have sharpened our knives and our tongues and grown cruel. We have been taught how to hate again, turned back the clock, generations of harvests of an increasingly rich diversity now ploughed under for a return to  the days when old men with red faces told wicked jokes at the expense of one minority after the other. And in the way of the herd, we were all expected to laugh.

I’d thought the old men with red faces had died out, taken their jokes and their bigotry and their anger with them. Many have, I suppose, but their seeds remain, and now the land seems drained of nourishment, sown thick instead with tangled weed and a myriad blood-letting briars. It’s a bleaker harvest now, overseen by the Hydra of intolerance. And then we have its stunted minions, the trolls with their wickedness and their ignorance all polished up like a shield to deflect reason.

What sense now in still groping for the gates of Heaven, when behind us the gates of Hell have opened wide? The darkness has spilled out, and all the fell creatures are gaining ground, clawing at our heels. If only the mist would lift a moment we might get our bearings afresh, stare them down, turn all to stone who would do us harm. But it’s a bad day in the hills, and the mist has settled in.

We spy a ruin in the gloom, a black gritstone pile, dripping wet and oozing metaphor.  It’s the ruin of our future, I think, the shape of it unrecognisable, suggestive of nothing now, its stones tumbled, softened by the elements and eerily cold to touch.

What am I saying? I’ll be okay. After all, I’m not exactly living on the street, as many of my fellow countrymen are these days. I’ll still be scribbling in a year’s time. But how can I be comfortable with such a transformation as this when there is not a single institution left that lends a hand to the fallen, without first searching their pockets for gold?

Time passes, and all shall pass with it, this being our only hope, that the mountains shall be ground down and the valleys filled with their dust. But in the mean time we are left wondering, if it’s true the spark of consciousness in each of us is the universe coming into awareness of itself, though us, and judging itself by our reactions, I give notice to my creator this current state of affairs is decidedly not good.

But there is something I can do, something we all can do, and that’s shield our flame against the coming storm and hold to the good as much as we can define it, also resist this pernicious permission that’s been seeping back into the Zeitgeist, a sly, wheedling little void telling us it’s okay again to hate, okay to laugh at those wicked jokes of the red faced men.

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great hill dec 2014 sm

Great Hill – Western Pennines – UK

I take the path by Dean Brook,
Follow in my father’s footsteps.
Fifty summers gone, he led the way,
But there’s no trace of him now,
Beyond imagination.

The moors lay quiet in a steamy heat,
Exhale soft scent of ferns and earth.
Narrow here, the path,
Above a deepening
Water rushed ravine,
There’s a leg twisting tangle of heather,
And all the tricky snares
Of grass.

Hesitant of foot.
I fear more to fall
Than I did back then,
Cock-sure-footed
And safe in the cradle,
Of my father’s imagined
Immortality.

Now I fear the void of empty air,
And the cold embrace of peaty scum,
Then to be denied deliverance,
From the drowning pools,
For lack of saviour.

Today, the journey speaks
Of emptiness
Among sheep ruined hills.
And rising now to pulled down farms,
Hungry ghosts whisper tales
Of grinding lives, eked out
And gone,
Names unknown,
Scattered by the wind as leaves,
All dried and scratching brittle,
In soured dust.

And on top of Great Hill,
There is litter.

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mazzy at glasson 2019

Small blue car, Glasson Basin

It was unseasonably warm, this, the last Friday of February, temperatures nudging seventeen degrees and a spring tide almost cutting off the village of Glasson. The little blue car and I are here again for our annual groundhog day. I first came in 2014, but that morning was a cold day, a winter’s day, and there was ice on the car park. Today was summery, balmy and weird. There have been years when I didn’t get the top down until April. That’s natural, today wasn’t.

I’m dressed for winter, five sensible layers and a hat. I have binoculars, camera and a Lion Bar. The plan is the same as always: walk south across boggy meadows to Cockerham Marsh, then pick up the Lancashire coastal way which leads us back to Glasson, then a brew before we paste it back home.

I’m not feeling too good, a bit of a cold breaking, so my head is woolly and there’s a fatigue hanging over me, but I’ll manage. Yes, the weather is weird, and I’m tying my coat around my waist before we’ve gone a mile, but the warmth in it is undeniably cheering. A few weeks ago we had snow.

marsh end farm

Bank End, Cockerham

Cockerham Marsh never fails to impress, one of Lancashire’s jewels – the glittering expanse of it, the greenness and the dendritic channels all patiently fished and swooped over by oystercatcher and curlew. There were murmurations of dunlin and starling too, animating a sky lit generously by a low winter sun, and with all the warmth of spring in it. I’m thrilled by the rapture of birds here as they wade and gambol out of reach of man. As I watch I find myself wondering if, when we’ve poisoned ourselves from the last corners of the planet, the birds will find a way to survive and preserve in themselves what is truly beautiful about the world.

And then it’s the coastal path and the green sward by the old abbey where the land stops and tumbles sedately into the sea, then the call of lambs in sheep-thick meadows, and the final push up a summer-sleepy Marsh Lane to Glasson. All of this in February.

lancashire coastal way

The Lancashire Coastal way, Cockerham

I get a brew at the Lock Keeper’s Rest, by Glasson Basin, settle on a bench in the sun, among the born-again bikers. I’m joined by an old dude who tells me it’s a shame they closed the pub. He speaks with the direct intimacy of an old friend. He’s just lonely for a chat, I suppose. He goes on to complain about the salt water he’s had to drive through on the way into Glasson, as if it’s someone’s fault, and how it’s no good for a car. Then it’s the price of a pint and a football ticket, his opinion amply expressed by a weary shake of the head. I ask him how long since they closed the pub, not that I’m interested, but it looks like he’s settling in and thus far it’s been a bit one-way. He seems not to understand the question, bites his lip and looks at me askance, as if I’ve offended him and he bumbles off to sit alone.

On the drive home there’s a near accident on the humped bridge over the canal at Garstang, a learner driver is approaching it cautiously, but then caught unawares by an insane hardcore wagon which appears suddenly, rising like Poseidon from the deep and steaming over the bridge at full tilt. The wagon screeches to a halt, inches from disaster, sends up a cloud of dust and is unable to move unless the learner reverses, but the learner is frozen with shock, as am I.

The hardcore driver is not a patient sort and is effing and blinding at once. The passenger gets out, the learner hastily slides over. The hardcore man continues to sully the air with foul and insulting language: You can’t drive, you’re an idiot, you shouldn’t be on the road – that sort of thing.

“Learning, mate,” says the passenger, hands wide, in a placatory tone, then points out the L plates. You know? Cut us some slack. Be patient.

But the hardcore man takes this as a challenge to his superiority. The cab door is flung open, and a tense standoff ensues. The queue for the bridge is dozens of vehicles deep in both directions by now, but we must all await the pleasure of the hardcore troll, captive audience to his vile strutting. Does he commit assault on an innocent man? mangle his car for good measure and expect us all to applaud him? The learner car backs up as quickly as possible in order to avoid fisticuffs. The hardcore man, still puffed up hurls parting curses, then thunders away to wreak havoc elsewhere.

I follow the L plate into Garstang, thinking to myself the learner will probably never want to get behind the wheel of a car again, scarred for life by an ill timed encounter with the troll. A troubling day of sorts then, mostly beautiful, but in a weird sort of way, overlaid by something surreal, courtesy of my being under the weather, and there’s an aftertaste of threat that’s been hard to shake – the un-seasonal weather suggestive of climate catastrophe, and the latter incident indicative of an increasing and vociferous intolerance among our people.

The principal threat to the natural world of course has always been the human being which seems incapable of acting in harmony with it, while the biggest existential threat to the human being, apart from an asteroid impact, has always been human beings themselves, and their propensity to act first in preservation of their own misguided sense of superiority, to the detriment of more altruistic virtues.

Anyway, mind how you go and beware of those thundering hardcore wagons.

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southport sunset

Resisting now this jagged mess of days,
Brings on the dark assassin’s migraine knives,
When even to tread the softer, slower ways,
Exhausts me long before the weekend has arrived.

Thwarted then, both inside myself and out,
Suspended, void of time and space and thought,
I ride an inky blackness of self doubt,
Until to cloying stillness am I brought.

The windows of my soul are growing old,
Long papered o’er by fools upon the make.
Their ragged posters many lies have told,
The perpetrators slippery as snakes.

Here then, shall I submit? Is it too late?
No wisdom in the wind, no maps extol
The seamless passage through that gateless gate,
Just a bloodied mess of thorns I’m fain to hold.

The season of the inner light grows dim.
And with it hope I’ll ever once more know,
That place of perfect harmony within,
The place I have for so long ached to go.

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man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A MillsThis life’s dim windows of the soul,
Distort the heavens from pole to pole,
And leads you to believe a lie,
When you see with, not through the eye.

The Eternal Gospel – Blake.

A man enters the forest to cut wood. He hears music, discovers a beautiful woman dancing. She invites him to join her, and he has the time of his life, returns, stars still in his eyes, to find decades have passed, that all who knew him are gone, and he no longer has a place in the world. It’s a classic encounter with the Faery, and the meaning of it – for there is always a meaning – suggests that having once experienced the limitless bliss of the other-world, you have to find a way of forgetting it, or you cannot live in this one.

Or it might have happened the other way around, because there’s always an inverse to these things. A man enters the forest, encounters the dancing woman who lures him into an eternal life of merriment, romance and where all is wonderful. Decades pass before he tires of it – for humans will always tire of endless pleasure – and he craves a return to life, craves its imperfections, even the time bound nature of the human condition. He’s thinking all who knew him will surely be gone by now but, on his return, he discovers no time has lapsed at all and he merely picks up where he left off. The story here might be telling us the world will always find a place for those who grasp that crucial insight regarding the value of limitation in human affairs.

I’m not sure where these ideas come from, but they’re nagging me to attempt a contemporary story along similar lines, and I’m resisting it. But the more I resist, the more they nag and intrigue. I’d thought they were from Irish Faery lore, but in the main it’s mortal women and children the Celtic Faery are fond of kidnapping, suggestive of a different kind of moral altogether.

Then again it may have been something imagined or dreamed, and it’s a beguiling concept, that such ideas are eternal and floating about, waiting to be picked up by the passing mind, and it’s helpful if you can understand them. All myths come from an archetypal substrate and speak to us in a symbolic language, apparently seeking influence over human affairs.

The Faery were once understood as daemonic entities, not literally existing, but still real, visible only through the inner eye, as Blake once put it, a vision overlaid with the filter of imagination. It takes a kind of madness then, seeing fairies – indeed Wordsworth did say Blake was mad and he may have right – but not all daemonic expression is mad in a bad way. It can also be visionary. On the downside though, daemonic rumblings can spread like wildfire, leading to a dangerous shift in the Zeitgeist, to orgies of rage, to mindless persecution of the “other”, and to killing.

We needn’t look very far to find evidence of the daemonic at work in the contemporary world and have only to listen to the voices coming at us from formerly sane quarters, voices of unreason that can both pedal and believe in lies, even knowing them to be lies. For just as one half of the daemonic possess a heavenly form and fey, courtly manners, the other half knows no bounds to its depths of depravity, duplicity and ugliness. An obvious place to find it is in the comments of any social media, for once we discover the cloak of invisibility, it is the darker daemons that speak through us, and their language is foul.

This ambivalence of the daemonic is perplexing, and not something we can control nor every wholly trust in. When the genie is out of the bottle the story never ends well, except in Disneyland, because humans are outwitted with ease by the daemonic mind. Better then to ram the cork back in, cast the bottle into the sea and hope no one else finds it. Except it is the genii, the daemons themselves that seek us. And we just can’t help falling under their spell.

They require far more circumspection than we possess, especially at times of crisis, for they are the crisis, as if the daemons have gone to war with themselves, and it’s only when the Godly win out do we find peace again. But it’s never lasting, more cyclical, and I fear every other generation must learn these lessons anew.

So my guy goes into the forest, dallies only for a moment with fey beauty, because it’s infinitely preferable to the ugliness of the world he’s living in. But the world he returns to, decades later, is even worse, a world where voices threaten murder at every turn, and he witnesses a population cowering in fear and paranoia. But what’s the lesson in that, when there seems no solution to it? Are we merely to lay down and submit to such a fate, while the daemons rage war in our heads?

If we only knew them better, might we find a way to petition for a more lasting peace? But they’ve been with us since the beginning of time and if we don’t know them by now, will we ever? Or did we once, but in the rush to embrace reason, we have forgotten the Daemonic within us all, and thereby offended them?

I’m ill equipped to understand where any of this is going, lacking both the Blakean vision to see what I’m talking about, and the language to express it. And I fear in the end it doesn’t matter, because wherever the daemons lead, we follow, even if it’s off a cliff edge, and it’s really no comfort to be able say you had the eye on them all the time, and that you saw it coming.

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tmp_2019020318023776334.jpgThe bothy was built of stone, all randomly coursed, with a chimney and a neatly pitched, though slightly sagging slate roof. The door and windows were in good order, the woodwork showing a recent lick of green paint. It stood a little inland, but still within sight and sound of the sea. At its back rose the darkening profile of the mountain, though the precise shape of it was as yet only to be guessed at, it being capped by a lazy smudge of grey clag that wasn’t for budging, not today anyway.

It was the thing they all came here to climb, a multitude of guide books singing its praises, but I was only interested in it as background. Maybe tomorrow I’d get a better view of it.

It had been a few hour’s walk from the road, where I’d left the car, and a lonely stretch of road at that, five miles of single track from the cluster of little houses down by the harbour, this being the only settlement on the island. Then it was a mile of choppy blue in a Calmac ferry to the mainland, and a region of the UK with a population density as near to zero as made no difference.

It had been a shepherd’s hut I think, a neat little place kept going by the estate, a lone splash of succour in an otherwise overwhelming wilderness, a place that, even then, centuries after the clearances, still spoke of an awful emptiness and a weeping. It’s a scene that remains in my mind fresh as ever, and I have to remind myself this was the summer of  ’87, that an entire generation has come and gone since then who have never seen or known such stillness. But time stands still whenever I think of it. I’ve only to close my eyes and I’m there.

It was clean and dry inside, just the one small room, some hooks for wet kit, a shovel for the latrine, a rough shelf of fragile paperbacks. The floor was swept, a little stack of wood and newspapers by the fireplace, a half used sack of coal, and there was a pair of simple bunks, one either side of the fireplace. As bothies went this was small but relatively luxurious.

I lit the fire and settled in. It was late afternoon, June, cold and blowing for rain – typical enough for the western highlands that time of year.

There were only about a hundred bothies in the whole of Britain, all of them in lonely places, and I’d set myself the task of photographing every one. Don’t ask me why. It wasn’t like I was going to write a book, or pitch a feature to the National Geographic or anything. I’d tried all that, and was already waking up to the somewhat sobering conclusion I was irrelevant in what had become an increasingly hedonistic decade. This  wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because all of that was looking set to burst any day now, and many of us were braced for it, wondering what the hell was coming next.

I’d just turned twenty six, and if I’d learned anything of use by then it was this: establishing a purpose in life was everything to a man, whether that purpose seem big or small to him, or to others, it didn’t matter, and we all get to choose, but here’s the thing: the best choices always seem to run counter to the Zeitgeist, and it’s that problem, that paradox and how we deal with it that writes the story of our lives.

Me? I’d chosen this.

I always shot the land in monochrome because I had a notion you saw more in black and white. I used an old  OM10 with a Zuiko prime lens, still do in fact. But the camera was just an excuse really, like a magnifying glass you use to get a closer look at a thing. I didn’t know what I was looking for exactly, still don’t really, but I’ve a feeling I was closer to it then than I am now, sitting here in 2019, over thirty years later. Now, I’ve no idea where I am, feel lost in time, actually, and finding it harder every day to convince myself I exist at all.

Anyway, I’d gone out and I was squeezing off some shots of the bothy against a grey sea, just playing with compositions and line for the better weather I’d hoped would be on the morrow. And quite suddenly, was so often the way there, the clouds tore open a hole, loosing from the eternal gold beyond stray javelins of what I’d hoped was a revelatory light, touching down upon the water as if to illuminate the very thing I sought. It was all very dramatic,…

And that’s when I saw her.

 

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tree paintingIf we ask: ‘what is the meaning of life’, we’ll get different answers of course, depending on who we ask, but most will talk of happiness: to be happy, to attain happiness, to spread happiness – because happiness is a good feeling, so why not?

We pursue it in various ways but always indirectly, by pursuing something else we believe will ‘make’ us happy: money, the perfect relationship, the acquisition of fancy stuff. And though we seem willing enough victims to this fallacy we all know it doesn’t work.

Stuff? No sooner have we got that new thing it’s no longer desirable and we’re on to the next. Relationships? Sorry, but there’ll be good times and bad. There’s security and warmth in a good relationship for sure, and love if you’re lucky, but love isn’t a one way ticket to happiness either. Indeed there are times when there is no misery greater than being in love. Money? Well, we all need a little money if we’re not to go hungry, and we need a key to our own front door, but that won’t make us happy for long either. It’ll just stop us from hurting, which isn’t the same thing. Indeed it seems nothing ‘makes’ us happy for long. Happiness keeps its own counsel, it comes and goes as it pleases.

It can be dispiriting once we realise how fickle happiness is, and how much effort we’ve already spent in hope of its eventual attainment, that while we may have had fleeting glimpses, it never settles in. We might even have risen to become stupendously successful, at least materially, yet there we are, sitting on the deck of our super-yacht, surrounded by golden stuff, fawned over by the world’s most beautiful partner, and still as miserable as sin. Is happiness then even worth pursuing, when its pursuit seems so self defeating?

I’m no stranger to happiness. Hopefully none of us are. But I’ve noticed I find it more often in small things, in quiet moments, in unexpected places, and without really looking for it. It’s sporadic, unpredictable, and I enjoy it while I can, but its comings and goings are impossible to predict and one must be sanguine when we are without it. No sense running after a thing, when we don’t even know where it lives.

One of my happiest moments, and certainly one of the most memorable,  was sitting under the pavement-awning of the Glenridding Hotel in pouring rain with coffee, having just walked the length of Ullswater. I remember taking a breath and seeing the rain fall – I mean the individual droplets, as if frozen in motion – and feeling time stop as the moment opened out as seemingly perfect as it could ever be.

It had been a beautiful walk, yes, but there was no need to be so ecstatic about it, surely? All I can think is the walk had given me a sense of purpose for the day. The boat drops you off at the far end of the lake and then it’s ten miles back under your own steam or nothing. Sure, I’m always happy after a long walk. Everything looks and tastes and feels better. It focuses the mind, grants one a tangible purpose, and makes us work for it.

Purpose,… now that’s an interesting word, and one worth exploring – this idea of defining a goal and working towards it. It seems to colour our lives in brighter tones. Even the cheery ring of a teaspoon in a cup can bring us joy if life provides a sufficient sense of purpose in other areas. And it doesn’t seem to matter what that purpose is. It doesn’t have to be a long walk. Anything will do it, big or small, so long as you feel that in doing it you’re making things better, or even just a little bit different than they were yesterday. You could be improving yourself perhaps, or helping out in some way, or painting a picture, or making something, oiling a squeaky hinge, fixing that puncture on your bike, or that ultimate of domestic challenges: tidying up your shed! I always feel great after tidying my shed!

We’re wired for purpose, for challenge. We like to ‘do’ things, set things in order, we like to make things, explore things, we like to look back and see where we’ve been. Nothing gives us greater satisfaction and opens the door to personal happiness more than a sense of purpose. But purpose is a slippery eel, especially in a society that measures everything in terms of monetary value. Many of us would like to find purpose in our work, and this makes sense since we spend such a long time doing it, but it also renders us vulnerable should we find ourselves turfed out of it when others think our work is no longer worth it. Whole industries have gone that way, casting adrift generations, condemned them to living without practical purpose, or pressed into jobs that seem thankless, pointless and spiritually toxic.

We can’t rely on society then to provide our sense of purpose. Each of us must define it for ourselves, perhaps more especially now society, zombified by a decade of economic austerity, finds so little value in the individual human beings of which it comprises. There are so many challenges facing the world, but one of the most overlooked is this loss of all sense of the value of the individual in society, also any reasonable expectation those individuals might have that things can one day be any better than they are now. There’s nothing like a knee in the balls for making one question one’s purpose in life.

I suppose solving that one is a thing worth working towards, that the grand, collective purpose seems subverted nowadays, and how do we put that right? But in the mean time, there are personal missions a-plenty to unlock the secret of at least little happiness for each of us.

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