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Archive for the ‘existential’ Category

The falls on Stepback Brook

It’s a beautiful, mid-September morning. We reverse the little blue car from the garage, and let the top warm in the sun. It folds down easier when it’s warm, and I’m trying to spare it from further cracking. It’s a little frayed around the edges now, and not surprising at twenty years old, but still keeping the water out, so I’m in no hurry to replace it. We fold it back gently, flip the baffle plate, to keep the wind from sneaking up behind our backs, and make ready for the off. Every warm day from now is a bonus, and possibly the last we can get out with the top down, and enjoy the air.

I’ve wasted half the morning trying to load music onto my phone because I want to avoid the radio, but it’s a new phone and I can’t make head nor tail of it, so we’ll make do with the company of our thoughts as we drive instead. It’s a short run today, over the moors to the Royal, at Ryal Fold. It’s cool on the road, but pleasantly so with the heater on just a touch. Of the ongoing national mourning, there’s not much in evidence en-route, a few pubs with flags at half-mast. It’s a different story in the Capital, of course, with all-night queues for the lying in state, and extra trains for the influx of tourists.

The King meanwhile courts an occasional bad press for being grumpy. This is from both the political left and right, and both the royalist and the republican media. Memes are spreading across the Internet, some humorous, some spiteful. This seems to hint at the nature of the future relationship. Meanwhile, dissenters are being arrested. Even holding up a blank piece of paper will get you nabbed.

One broadcaster mistakes a crowd protesting the killing of a young black man by the Met, believing them instead to be well-wishers. It must be difficult trying to keep the commentary up for so long, when not everyone is following the same script.

Anyway, the car park at the Royal is busy, lots of people sitting out in the sunshine, enjoying an early lunch, but the Union Jacks are absent. There is an intoxicating scent of cooking and coffee, mingled with the moorland air. The plan is a circular walk to Darwen Tower, as I have it on reliable authority it is definitely open now after its years’ long refurbishment.

We follow the route up Stepback Brook to Lyon’s Den. There’s been rain recently, and the brook is musical, the little wayside fall running nicely, a generous and shapely mare’s tail. So we sneak down into the dell and try a shot or two, but we’re shooting into the sun, and the lens is flaring awkwardly. We’ll be lucky to salvage anything from it, but no one’s counting, and it’s always fun trying. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the day, and to be out in it, and looking at it the right way round.

Eighteen months retired now, and I’m still not sure if I can call it real, not sure if I’m making the best use of the time I’ve been waiting for so long to enjoy. I’m still aware of time ticking down, but now the deadline is not the Devil dragging me back to work on Mondays. It’s something more final, numbered perhaps in summers, and it needs to be overcome, for the sense of pressing time is the Devil itself.

Climbing the track to Lyon’s Den, we spy a note pinned to the fence. Someone is expressing thanks to the kind soul who found their photographs (we presume on a memory card, or something). We sometimes don’t appreciate how much stuff we have on these things, that their loss would be devastating to us. It is a random act of kindness, then, and a reciprocal gesture of appreciation. The finder gains nothing, materially, seeks no reward. It was a rationally meaningless act, then, yet also the act of any decent human being.

Lunch is served on the bench by the little copse above Lyon’s Den. The view from here is breathtaking. The cooler air of these September days cuts the haze, and jacks the clarity dial up to infinity. The Dales are so clear, it’s as if we could walk to them in five minute, the Cumbrian Mountains, too. Closer to hand is Bowland and Pendle, barely a stone’s throw.

An old timer comes ambling slowly by, trailing a pair of ancient Irish Wolf Hounds. They have the scent of my lunch, and are curious. He’s a pleasant soul, bids me good morning, gently tugs his giant creatures onwards, in the direction of the tower. There’s an air of ease, of gentleness to the day. The tower stands out, way across the moor, a Dan Dare rocket-ship, poised for take-off.

Darwen Tower – Yorkshire Dales beyond

So, a random act of kindness – finding a memory card in the mud, and placing it where the owner might find it, should they come looking. The simple goodness of that act has extended beyond returning those treasured photographs to a grateful owner. It has coloured the morning like a charm. It ripples out in time and space.

I have spent a long time on the trail of something “other”. Those more well travelled say it’s a journey that ends with the realisation there is no “other”. I think I know what that means, now. It grants a certain degree of shape to the cosmos that makes more sense, though it actually has no shape, beyond what we grant it, that subject and object are the same thing.

But the journey is like a long breathing in. And if you hold your breath long enough you get to the point of bliss, and it seems many travellers make do with that, sit on their cushions with their scented candles, and their singing bowls, lost in the emptiness. But you need to breathe out too, and that means bringing something back into the world, a world where there’s so much suffering it’s almost impossible to get anything done, and where nothing makes sense without these random acts of kindness.

But like the breathing in, we make a meal of it, and it turns out to be much simpler if we can only look at things the right way. I’m hoping it’s the same breathing out, breathing something back into the world, that it’s no more than a question of doing the good that you know, as it arises. But it’s a good that must come from an intelligence of the heart, which in turn comes from that journey to the realisation there is no other.

The finder of those photographs felt their loss, because it was they who lost them, they who also felt the joy of their return. I know I’m not making much sense, but it doesn’t matter. The message is in this mellow air, and in the ripples coming out from that little note, the lost, the found, and the random act of kindness.

Darwen Tower

We arrive at the tower to find it is indeed open, and looking in fine fettle after its long refurbishment. I venture inside a little way, take the spiral staircase to the lower balcony. The sun is very bright now and, entering the gloom, I find my old eyes are slow to adapt to the dark these days, so I’m fumbling for the steps with my toes. I’d get there eventually, but don’t feel confident in climbing to the top. The lower balcony will do, and in itself is a stupendous viewpoint.

There are two stories about the origins of the tower. One is that it was built to celebrate the jubilee of Queen Victoria. But there is another story, one about land ownership, and the public’s rights of access to it. Once upon a time, I would not have been able to walk, as I’ve walked today. It would have been an insane trespass, and I would have been seen off by gamekeepers in the employ of an absentee landlord. But it was courageous acts of trespass, defiance, and an ensuing legal battle that opened the ways over Darwen Moor to everyone, and that’s what the tower celebrates. The intelligence of the heart says it was a good thing, securing freedoms we continue to enjoy today. But that is not to say our freedoms cannot once again be lost.

Darwen Moor

Thanks for listening.

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The Shireburn Cottages, Hurst Green

There’s a beautiful light in Hurst Green, this morning. We have strong sunshine, but there’s a mellowness to it, that lends late season contrasts. The oft-photographed alms-houses, the Shireburn Cottages, are basking in it, warming their grand facade. Meanwhile, all around us, the skies are patrolled by ominously towering cumulonimbus. We’ll be lucky if we avoid a soaking.

We’re looking to climb Longridge fell today – a ridge that runs east-west, roughly parallel to the River Ribble, for about six miles. The reward of the climb up the quiet lanes and meadows, from Hurst Green, is the sudden view of the Forest of Bowland, from the summit.

We’ll be meandering up to the trig column on Spire Hill, roughly the mid-point of the fell, as well as its highest elevation. Then we’ll head through the plantations to the easternmost tip, at Kemple End. From here, we’ll fumble our way back across the meadows, and finally through the grand environs of Stonyhurst College, to Hurst Green. It’s ground I’ve not covered before, so I’m expecting a bit of an adventure, adding a few more rights of way to the map in my head.

My thanks to Bowland Climber whose posts are a valuable source of intel on likely routes and ground conditions in this area. Longridge is heavily forested and, as with all such territory, the routes get overtaken as the forest develops, and permissive ways open up in their stead, ways which may not be familiar to a non-local walker. Then you get logging, and storm damage with trees coming down, blocking the paths, or balanced precariously, waiting for you to sneeze before crashing down on top of you. And then of course we can expect the usual difficulties on the lowland stretches, with way markers disappearing, and little used paths across meadows vanishing under crops.

I’d felt a sense of hush, leaving home, news of the Queen’s death still settling in. The hush was self-imposed, of course, and partly courtesy of the long planned and wall-to-wall reverence of the BBC. This vanished as soon as I hit the M6 of course, where the nation’s life still goes on at full throttle, as needs must, with heavies and delivery vans, drivers having to pee in bottles to meet schedules set by machines.

There are, of course, many who feel a genuine sadness, as if they had lost their own grandmother. But there are also plenty, particularly in the under forties bracket, who have no longer the luxury of time, or are too worried about feeding their children to don the sackcloth and ashes.

I am not immune to the sense of history, nor to the symbolism of a fallen monarch, especially now, adding as it does, its weight to a heaviness I already feel for the state of an Albion so besmirched and tattered. I fear it is optimistic to hope this will be one of those historic moments to galvanise the nation, for so much of the nation has other things on its mind right now, and which are hard to ignore. One wonders what next. Were I to suffer a sudden, blinding pulse of light, prior to witnessing a mushroom cloud rising in the direction of Manchester, courtesy of Vlad P, I would not be surprised. Still, one must not tempt fate.

For now, though, the only mushroom clouds are these cumulonimbus. They spread out at great altitude, into anvil heads, and they darken, broody and funereal. Climbing the quiet, rain puddled lanes towards the fell, we lose the sun, and the day turns grey, and sticky. There is the crackle of thunder, but, so far, the gathering storms seem to circle us, their dramatics kept at a safe distance.

I was grouching in my last post about the cost of NHS dental treatment. “Over sixty quid for a checkup and a clean,” I spluttered. However, as a friend later pointed out, I’m fortunate still to receive NHS treatment, and should be more grateful for it. Dentists are shedding our sort like unwanted fleas. That same check-up and clean will cost me over two hundred quid, under the private system many have now fallen victim to. More serious work – fillings, extraction, bridge-work – and it can easily run into thousands. This is beyond the means of so many in poverty-pay jobs, paying sky-high rents and energy bills. It’s little wonder, then, DIY dentistry is on the rise. I’m not sure how, or when, this happened. It just sort of crept up on us while we weren’t looking.

Spire Hill, Longridge Fell

We pause at the trig point, rather sweaty now, to rest and clean our specs – all the better to take in the panoramic sweep of the Bowland hills. They are most movingly beautiful under this rapidly changing light. There is mixed sunshine and cloud to the north, though the skies are turning an ominous green to our backs, now. There are para-gliders, launching from the precipitous north face, and seem to be defying the weather, as they defy gravity, circling and swooping like slow motions birds. I hear Vaughn Williams in my head, then another rumble of thunder.

Eastwards now, following the line of the ridge, and plunging quickly into the forest’s gloom. It’s mostly coniferous plantation, but with the occasional stretches of beautifully twisted Scot’s Pine. Then, amid the gloom of the conifers, there lurks the occasional, defiant deciduous giant, one of which I discover hung with curious trinkets. Coniferous forestry is an affront to nature, and she shows her displeasure in that eerie monocultural, mossy silence.

On Longridge Fell

The way is far from straight forward here, as we encounter damage from last winter’s storms, stacks of fallen trees laying across the path. There has been some ad-hoc clearance, plus a splintering of unofficial diversionary ways, leading off into the gloom, but no concerted effort to clear passage. So, it’s with a bit of hit-and-miss, aided by the occasionally more helpful long stretch of forestry track, we make it down to the eastern tip, near Kemple End. The Bowland fells still look balmy, while an evil looking storm sweeps the Ribble Valley, trailing rain. Was that a flash of lightning? We pause and count to ten for the rumble of distant thunder.

Logging near Kemple End, Longridge Fell

Here, we descend into the pastures along the rights of way where a helpful sign, posted by a local resident, tells us we’re probably going to go wrong here. There are some well-intentioned instructions, which we follow to the letter, but the path is little walked, and we go wrong anyway, meandering about in shin-high wet grass for a while, until we spot a possible exit.

We ford a stream where it looks like there was once a crossing, and we come up to a rusty old gate that hasn’t been opened since Tolkien last passed this way, pondering his Hobbits. I’m walking with the latest OS map, which tells us we’re bang on the right of way, at least in theory, so we plod on, following the GPS across a meadow, freshly planted, and ankle deep in soft earth. There are no markers here except the prints I leave behind, hopefully for others to follow. It pains me to do this but, as usual, a little more clarity by the landowner would not go amiss, and I’d be glad to oblige. One never knows in these situations if we aren’t simply digging ourselves deeper into the confusion of lost ways, or if a helpful marker will pop up of a sudden, and see us safely through.

More awkward stream crossings follow, more rights of way missing their markings, and no evidence of footfall on the ground. We seem to have found one of those routes long abandoned, yet it is the quickest way from Kemple End to Stonyhurst. With patient attention to the GPS, though, we locate the wobbly stiles, now slowly rotting in deep hedgerows, and the rickety stream crossings. Plucked by thorns, and stung by nettle, we come down to our way-point on the road, where a single finger post points us back to perdition. From here, a short walk brings us into the grand environs of the Stonyhurst College, where we can pass without fail or interference.

The doors of St Mary’s Hall are open, the sombre sounds of a Requiem Mass for the Queen spilling out, and following us some way along this last stretch to Hurst Green. We must ring a bell here, as there is occasional shooting across the path. There’ll be none today, I would think, but I feel obliged to ring it anyway. The jarring clang so soon after passing the spiritual music from the chapel feels irreverent.

Millie’s Pantry, our usual watering hole, is just closing, so we find ourselves in the Shireburn Arms, instead, with a large, sweet coffee and the feel of nine miles, and twelve hundred feet of ascent in our legs. I wonder if JRR himself ever sat here, nursing a pint and smoking a pipe. The bar is empt, except for a couple of ladies dressed like wedding guests. I hope my dishevelled appearance does not offend. The fates were with us, and the rains held off, but where we go from here, amid these gathering storms, is far from certain.

But there’s always another hill, another day in the outdoors to call us onwards. And the hills ask nothing but that we respect them, while they reward our efforts ten-fold.

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Living responsibly in an unfinished world

The idea of a purpose to the universe, and our individual place in it, has mostly lost out to a rational world view that relegates the whole of creation to an accident of nature. The only mystery left is how consciousness can arise from within a system of physical matter. This is called the hard problem, but lately there has arisen a breed of fundamentalist scientistic thinker claiming to have solved the problem by claiming consciousness does not exist. We only think it does, and by doing so, we are trying to make more of the cosmos than there really is. How depressing! The only miracle is how we do not all go mad, when faced with such pointlessness.

But there is a view that such scientific fundamentalism is actually dangerous, and in this book, Gary Lachman argues we urgently need to move ourselves back to the centre of the cosmos, and realise our role as its caretaker, before it’s too late.

As in all his other works, Lachman writes as a champion of consciousness. He assures us that not only is consciousness real, it is primary, and he reminds us of the reasons for such belief with the aid of a tour through a long history of ideas and thinkers.

While the scientific consensus has moved towards an ever more hardened and eliminative position, as if drawing the shutters on the light of consciousness, other thinkers have been trying to keep them open, and to let the light back in. The book opens with the Jewish, Kabbalistic concept of Tikkun. This views creation as imperfect, that man’s place, man’s purpose, is one of seeing to its ongoing repair.

The world is always going to hell in a handcart, have you noticed? But it could always be worse. We might feel we cannot affect significant change in the world, as individuals, but if we all did the little bit of good that we know, and feel, personally, then the world would be changed. This might sound twee, but as we work our way into the book, we begin to see the profundity of the concept. The question arises, though, what is good? Can man decide, rationally, and make laws to define it? Or is the idea of good something that comes from within, and an inherent property of a fundamentally conscious universe? Or is it neither? Is it not so much an action or a prohibition anyway, as a way of seeing, and being?

Another powerful idea is that of evil, and the perennial question: why does it exist? Here Lachman turns the argument around and asks instead: is evil, or rather an amoral “might is right”, “survival of the fittest” world, not the default position? And if so, why is there good in the world? His answer is that in all of evolutionary history, there was no “good”, until man came along.

There are so many references here, so many springboards for further thought and study, it’s difficult to know where to start, but one of the more striking quotes comes from the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz who says: “we live in the worst of all possible worlds in which there is yet hope.” The suggestion here is that the universe is an experiment in existence, an experiment that would be pointless unless carried out under difficult conditions. Similarly, it would be equally pointless if all hope were extinguished, for then we would be justified in taking the nihilistic position, simply giving up and lowering our necks to the block, bowing to the axe of an irresistible evil. But the world is not like that. It is always on the brink,… and we work, argue and even at times fight to keep it in balance and moving forward.

This is an idea also reflected in the work of Gurdjieff who once remarked that the earth is in a very bad place in the universe, almost the worst… that everything we do is difficult and costs a great deal of effort, but it may be the only place where we can get things done.

At this point we encounter the work of Ian McGilchrist, whose book The Master and his Emissary, describes the differences between the left and the right brain hemispheres, and the types of attention they each bring to the world. The right hemisphere is geared towards observing reality with a kind of patient, broad brush attention, while the left is geared more towards control and manipulation of details. As an example of this we’re given the grain of sand in which the poet Blake, in an extreme right brain mode of attention, sees a whole world of wonders, but which, in left brain mode, others might see more as being insignificant, or worse, an annoying piece of grit in your shoe.

The kind of attention we must bring to bear in order to realise the good within ourselves, is of the right brain variety. The act of Tikkun, or repair, then, is not so much a specific act, or an intervention, but a way of looking at something while we are doing it, and it doesn’t matter what it is we’re doing. It is the kind of attention we employ that’s the important thing, because the kind of attention we direct at the world, determines the kind of world we encounter.

In the Master and his Emissary, McGilchrist argues that the right brain is the proper, natural master. It is like a King who must rule a nation. The King has a broad grasp of many things, but favours and retains no specifics. When he needs to pay closer attention to something, he deploys an emissary, the left brain, to deal with the details, to summarise, and report back for the King to act wisely. But as time has passed, human consciousness has evolved in ways that have allowed the left brain, the emissary, to dominate. We have become immersed in details, we drown in them, and can no longer see the broader picture. Thus, the kingdom suffers as the scientistic emissaries shut the King out, and work against him, decrying him as incompetent, and fuzzy minded. The prediction of this kind of thinking, should it come to dominate, is pretty much the kind of world we have now, one that denies the very existence of consciousness, and treats people as objects, as dumb machines, to be exploited, dominated, controlled.

Returning then to the idea of “doing the good that we know”, this sense can only arise in us with a right brain dominance, also when our basic needs are met – food, shelter, warmth, intimate relationships,… once all these things are in the bag, so to speak, the way becomes open for a person to self-actualise, to become, in the words of Abraham Maslow, more “fully human.” Then the sense of what is good arises spontaneously from a kind of intelligence of the heart.

Of course a great deal of harm has been done by people imposing their ideas of good on others, but the more fully human “self-actualisers” tend to be less concerned with other people, and seek instead to apply their instinctive sense of the good in their own struggle to develop. And such development leads to the conclusion that while we are in the cosmos, in a physical sense, we are not entirely of it. Metaphysically, we are “outside” of it, looking in.

When we study the works of early civilisations, in particular their art, there is a sense that they did not differentiate themselves from their environment, or from nature, that self consciousness was as yet nascent. Their art is curiously two-dimensional, and child-like. Only later do we see a change taking place, and art separating man from his world by the use of perspective. The world and nature becomes “object” and through our sense of separateness, we start to wonder about our place in it.

Objectifying the world has had its downsides, and may yet bring us to self-destruction, but the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, and there can be no return to earlier, pre-conscious modes of thinking. Evolution does not run backwards, so the task facing us is both critical for our own survival, but also for the cosmos, since, in a sense, we are the eyes and ears of the cosmos waking up to itself. If we stuff it up, the cosmos, as we know it, and therefore as it knows itself, will cease to exist.

The way ahead appears to be to achieve a greater understanding of the powers that we have. This means re-orientating ourselves back to the centre of our personal universe, to become more fully human, then to recognise and to do the good that we know. We bring the kind of attention to bear that we would like to see reflected in the world.

A thought-provoking and uplifting work, broad in scope but engagingly written. Fully referenced and with a lifetime’s worth of side reading.

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Photo by Jem Sanchez on Pexels.com

Why creativity matters now, more than ever

My energy company tells me today there’s good news and bad news. First the good: based on current estimates, I can lower my direct debit a fraction, so I’m only paying twice what I paid for energy, compared with this time last year. The fact I’m also using half the energy, due to drastic economies, takes a bit of the shine off this small concession, and points to the damage caused by the first phase of our so-called energy crisis.

The bad news comes when we factor in what we know about that mysterious body ofgem, and their arcane ruminations regarding the price cap, and its upward trajectory, kicking off in October. The energy company illustrates this neatly with a graph, which has my balance going off a cliff, unless I double what I’m paying again. This applies to me, and everyone else in the country, but even more so to those who have shirked on economising. However, given the scale of this next price hike, I venture that any economising – short of requesting actual disconnection – is futile.

I can pay, though the bill for the year will be the equivalent of the purchase of a used car. Many will be unable to pay, indeed are saying they won’t, or that they will have to enter loan arrangements they’ll be a long time paying off, while still afraid to switch the lights on. It seems insufficient then to call it an energy crisis. It’s more of a social emergency, and our political system seems, at best, unable to avert it. At worst, it seems callously unconcerned by it.

Opposition politicians have been vocal this week in calling for the price cap rise to be scrapped, that massive profits should be investigated, and monies redistributed to hard-pressed consumers. But they can be as vocal as they like, when not in power. Even if we have a mild winter, it will be the coldest for generations, as the thermostats are dialled back, and the cold creeps in. The most sought after lifestyle bloggers and vloggers, will be those offering advice on how to keep warm on zero kilowatt-hours. If only we could bottle up the excess sunshine of this current heat wave, and warm our homes with it when we need it, later on!

In a broader sense it points to a collapse of the privatised energy market, as we enter territory that was predicted by those economists of a more statist bent, decades ago, this being one of runaway high prices for a utility no one can do without, while profits soar. And a service that is too expensive to use already, while becoming all the more expensive, is effectively broken. But where is the repairman when you need him?

These are strange days, impossible to make sense of. We seem to have lived through one crisis after another, for years now – and all of it is very unsettling. I walk through my home village after sunset, and the houses are mostly in darkness, people perhaps thinking to economise by not switching on their lights. Yet I hear the sound of TVs. Such economising makes no sense, given that even a bright bulb of the contemporary LED variety requires six watts of energy, while a big screen TV requires a hundred. Better to switch off the TV, turn on the light, and read a book.

This tells me the rules of the material world have become so opaque to people, we are no longer capable of saving our own skins. Who among us knows the wattage of their fridge freezer, their toaster, their kettle, their ceramic hob? Who among us knows how much their electricity actually costs – answer, in my case, 28p per kilowatt-hour. Such things will have to become second nature.

But much as it surprises me to have reached six hundred words already, the state of the energy “market” is not what I wanted to write about, and I present it only as an illustration of the paucity of warmth and meaning, and the diminishing returns we get from indulging our purely material natures. We surrender our well-being to the market machinery, to politics, and to the chattering of the billionaire presses, at our peril, but only if we believe in the totality of the materialist paradigm, and only if we believe we are robots made of meat.

We are more than that. There is an immaterial side to us, one we explore through the imagination, though this immaterial side is one we seem increasingly reluctant to indulge, indeed one we are even discouraged from exploring. Imagination, we are told, is for children, and something to be outgrown as quickly as possible, then we can take our place as reliable citizens in this rational, material world, in this “real” world.

Of course, imagining cheaper energy bills isn’t going to bring those bills down. But that would be applying the imagination to the level of the gutter, when what we’re going to need over the coming autumn and winter, is a means of rising above it. Anyone who writes or paints, or is into crafts, lives to explore the world of the imagination. They bring the inner world into being. They grant it expression, and are rewarded for it in intangible ways.

Politicians will not solve the coming crisis, and, materially we’ll all be a lot poorer this time next year. That seems to be inevitable. But you needn’t let it take your spirits down too. To this end we are better reading a poem by Blake, and pondering his meaning, than by scouring the Guardian for rays of hope amid the million useless facts of the material world.

Anyone who writes stories, goes out into nature and writes it up for others to follow, anyone who crochets and blogs their patterns, anyone who writes poetry, makes pottery, takes photographs, paints pictures, I beg you to keep doing so. Indeed, you must redouble your efforts. You are each a warrior wrestling the zeitgeist back from the materialist monkeys who have delivered us electricity at 28p per kilowatt-hour.

This is not as futile a fight as it might seem. It all depends on how you define victory. Those materialist monkeys might be raking it in, but they have already paid with their souls, and that’s not really a victory at all. Let’s make sure they don’t take the rest of us down that path with them.

Thanks for listening

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On Brinscall moor

After several hot days, with temperatures pushing into the high thirties, we wake to grey skies and twenty degrees. Lives resumed, we venture out of doors. So, today, a short run brings us to the moor-side village of Brinscall, where we park near the Victorian swimming baths. By noon the day has grown a little sultry, but nothing on the scale of previous days, and we should be fine for a short walk.

As we make ready to change into boots, a couple of lads come walking by, early teens, singing along to a song on their phones. It’s not what one expects of kids these days. They are singing freely, and unselfconsciously, and have fine voices. The incongruence is striking. I could be cynical and say it’s the Insta generation, that everyone wants to be a pop star,… but they sing so well, indeed beautifully, so good on you, lads.

Speaking of phones, mine broke, refused to charge and now lies dead in a drawer with years of map-notes and useful waypoints entombed within it. I’d thought I was saving them to the removable card, for security, but it didn’t work, and now I’ve lost them, but I dare say I’ll manage. I have a new phone today, a waterproof one that weighs a ton, and I’m struggling to make friends with it.

It says we’re in Brinscall, which of course I already know, but I’m just testing its sense of direction. And so far, so good.

The woods here have grown thick, and dark, and eerily quiet over the summer. The balsam and the ferns are seven feet high, the latter sharply pungent. The Balsam is rampant, finding its way along the arteries of civilisation, and strangling all in its path. We are encouraged to pull it out, to stamp on it before it sets seed for next year.

We take the track up the brew as far as Well Lane. Here, over the wall, we glimpse the giddy drop and the rocky top of the Hatch Brook falls. But there’s barely a trickle, today, and it makes no sound. So, then it’s on up the little road to the moor, in search of a path I once knew, along the edge of the Brinscall fault, which leads to the Coppice Stile House.

There is not a breath of air, and it’s hot of a sudden after, that stiff ascent. The sky is heavy, and the moors are all damp grass, bilberries, and tumbled lines of ancient walls. There is a curious lack of contrast between earth and sky, such that nothing I photograph looks promising. Also, I cannot find the path.

Where are we, exactly, phone?

The phone is supposed to come on when I show it my face, show me the OS map and my position. At least that’s the deal. But it reneges, makes me punch in the pin. I can’t be bothered. I’ll manage, so navigate across the bilberries by the mind’s eye – not always a good idea in my case, since the mind’s eye is as myopic as the other two. But we find the path. It’s not used much these days, just a thin thread alongside a mostly levelled wall. But it’s clear enough now we’re on it, and we make way more confidently south.

On Brinscall moor

Over our right shoulder we have the whole of Western Lancashire, the Ribble and the Fylde. Over our left, the moor rises, Great Hill dipping in and out of view. The stillness and the silence are suddenly broken with great fuss and bother as the Lancashire Constabulary chopper comes buzzing by. It’s on a parallel course, all glittering and purposeful in its midnight blue and yellow livery. We have the unusual perspective of looking down upon it, the rooftops of the towns and villages spread beyond and below, as it patrols its patch. It seems an expensive way of going about things, in these straightened times – coppers flying about, I mean – but I suppose an eye in the sky is worth ten on the ground.

And speaking of the town, I called in on the way over, seeking miscellaneous items, but struck out on all counts. I shall have to order my things online, as usual. The old town continues to dwindle, becomes less relevant, less useful. It was with regret I noted another old café had gone. I used to treat my kids to breakfast there, on Saturdays. It doesn’t seem that long ago. It’s now another cheap boozer, flying a Jolly Jack as its calling card. Betting machines illumine the gloom, and beckon the skid-row chancers within. And slumped within these no hope saloons, a clientele, each resembling a tired iguana, with a pint pot stare. It was barely eleven of a midweek morning, and they were already on their way to a comfortable oblivion. In such places is the future glimpsed, yet at the same time so surely lost.

The moorland grasses and the rushes are slick with overnight rain. It steams gently, and finds its way through the stitching of my boots. The scent of the moor is rich and earthy. Lone uprights of gritstone appear. They are old gateposts, or the corners of enclosures, but which look to have been repurposed from prehistory, their founding myths lost to us. The Stile House, once a farm, is now just another tumulus of ruin, kept company by a twisted thorn tree. Here we intersect the broad way from White Coppice over to Great Hill, and Picadilly beyond.

We’re down hill now, down to the Coppice, and a welcome break by the cricket field. Here all is manicured perfection, in the carefully mown emerald of the sacred twenty-two yards, and then the little white cottages as spectators, in a bowl of shaggy hills. A notice tells me the team is struggling for players. I suppose it’s a commitment fewer are willing to make- to play every weekend of the season, April until September. And of course the burgeoning service industry, with its unsociable hours, is no facilitator of the traditional village cricket scene.

I was always hopeless at cricket, could never lob a ball the right way, and at the crease, with the bat, though eager enough, I always delivered it directly into the fielders’ hands. Naturally, when picking teams, no one wanted me on their side, so I dare say White Coppice can manage better without me.

So now we follow the sleepy watercourse of the Goit, back towards Brinscall, eventually to enter the steam heat of the woods again. A man could disappear for months in here, so dense has it become, a heavy green with an impenetrable and creepy shadow. Only the winter opens it up a little to scrutiny, and then it reveals the ruins of past lives, in the mossy gate posts, and the outlines of dwellings, both humble and grand. It all looks so ancient, but you can find these addresses in the census records, speak the names of the people who once leaned upon these disappeared gate posts.

The riot of spring wild-flowers is too soon a memory. The flowering of deep summer is more subtle now, save of course that blousy balsam. But of a sudden, in the secret, light-dappled parts of the wood, we discover sprays of delicate white flowers, lancing tall from the undergrowth. They seem to paint their own light, where otherwise all would be gloom. This is enchanters nightshade, Circaea lutetiana – Circaea, being from the mythical Greek enchantress, Circe, who had the knack of turning people into swine, wolves and lions.

As with all myths, there are many versions of it. Myths are meant to stimulate the imagination, and thereby live through the generations with each retelling. In my own version, Circe merely holds up a mirror, and the people transform themselves, become whatever is their base nature: swine, wolf or lion. So then the wolves eat the swine, and the lions eat the wolves, and then lions eat one another, or they just starve for having eaten everything else.

It would be a fair assessment of the human condition, and of our future, except, of course, for the memory of those kids singing, and the realisation we need not choose our base nature as our life’s vehicle. In song, in art, in culture, and in the magic of imagination, the mirror cracks, and the spell is broken.

It’s in there, in imagination, as it is when we walk that faint line of the moorland paths, even perhaps in the footsteps of our ancestors, far above the broken towns, we find another, a better way ,to see and to be.

The little blue car awaits, welcomes us back with a flask of tea.

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Midsummer from the Pike

My thanks to fellow blogger Ashley, for his evocative Haiku this morning, and from which I stole the title of this blog. My thanks also for inspiring me to get out up a hill this evening, Ashley, and what a golden evening it was. It is of course mid-summer, and the longest day. As I write, the sun has now set, so, in a way, I suppose we have made the summit and already taken the first of those hesitant steps back down. I say hesitant, because the summit is so beautiful, and the air so balmy, and the sky so blue, and nights like this are few.

My nearest hill of any note is Rivington Pike, so that’s where I headed. Early evening and the Hall Avenue was almost as full as it might have been on a busy weekend, so a lot of people had the same idea. Mid-summer clearly means something to us, as a population, as a people, though we may not know exactly what it is. Yet, still, it draws us out. We speak of energy, of peace, of beauty, of dreams, even – dare I say – of the Faerie. To be sure, June nights are often the gentlest, and have about them an air of magic.

Rivington Pike

I made the top of the Pike by around 8:00 pm, still nearly two hours from the sunset. The Pike was filling up, but in a quiet sort of way. There were couples, families, a trio of young women in spandex with new agey trinkets and Yoga mats, and a couple of strapping lads with little pug dogs. All were settling down to see the sun out. There was an air of festival, and – it has to be said – a smell of weed. Druids and other modern pagan groups would be celebrating at Stonehenge, also at Glastonbury Tor. In my neck of the woods, we have the Pike.

As traditional Christian religious observance falls away, there is a tendency to assume we westerners are losing our religion, but all we are really losing is our dogma. People cannot help but be spiritual, for to be moved by a sunset is a spiritual thing. To make an effort to catch a sunset at a turning point of the year, this is a spontaneous religious observance, one for which no church bell needs to toll.

That said, I didn’t actually wait for the sunset, but just rested a while, rested in the subtle energy of those also quietly gathered. It reminded me of something from my childhood and put me in a loving frame of mind, I suppose. All my fellows were my brothers and sisters this evening. I took a few shots with the camera, but felt self-conscious. The DSLR is a noisy thing – one of its downsides. Everyone else was happy with the quiet little cameras on their ‘droids and iPhones. So then I came away, descended the leafy terraced gardens, beneath the Pike, all of which were by now illumined by the golden hour.

Leverhulme’s terraced gardens

There’s probably a wild party going on up there now, with the young ones, and if there is, then good on you, kids! That’s it with the hill of summer, once you make the summit, you feel mellow. I recall, in the I Ching, or Book of Changes, Hexagram 20 speaks of a tower, raised on a hill. It’s a place of contemplation, where we rest from a point of vantage, and survey the paths we’ve taken on our journey, also the paths that lead on from here. The energy of the sun has peaked, raised us up. So now what?

Well, to think of the nights drawing in, the days shortening, autumn and winter approaching, is perhaps to jump the gun a bit. We have the rich splendour of the ripening seasons still to come, when our labours shall bear fruit, or so one hopes. It depends on what one has sown, thus far. And of course, we don’t have to wait so long for the golden hour of light, that precedes the sunset.

Anyway, I retire now, with the clock pressing for midnight, wishing you all good night, and I hope to dream of the Tuatha de Danaan. That’s the other thing about the solstice – that air of the faery and Titatnia, about it.

What’s that? You don’t believe in the Faery? Of course you do. You’re just afraid to admit it.

Thanks for listening.

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The Wharfe, Langstrothdale, Yorkshire Dales

I thought I might as well visit Langstrothdale, while I was up this way – this way being the Upper Wharfe, in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s evening, the shadows are long, the light is pure gold, and the Wharfe is the prettiest I’ve ever seen it. We’re nearing the source of the river here, so there’s not much breadth to it, but it makes up for that with vigour, and a charming little waterfall every couple of yards.

It’s my first time, actually, but it will not be my last. A narrow road brings us up from Buckden, by the George Inn, at Hubberholme, and on, via a series of dramatic dips and bends, to the farm at Yockenthwaite. We’ve left the car near there, at a roadside pull-in. The river is close to hand, easily accessible, and looking like a favourite picnic and paddling spot for those in the know.

The George Inn, Hubberholme

The drive would take us on to Hawes, eventually, but we’ll save that for when we’re in the little blue car, and then we’ll get the top down, so we can feel the drive, as well as see it. This is such a gorgeous, timeless place. If you wanted to film a drama, and needed a location that could pass for the 1930’s without much fudging, this is where you’d come – as indeed they did for the later series of Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small.

One of the downsides to carrying the phone everywhere is your emails can catch up with you, and I’ve just had one from the energy company that threatened to spoil my day. I’d been feeling pretty smug, actually. Draconian economies at the old homestead had cut our energy use by a third, so I was thinking – crisis or not – we were quids in. Then I get this email telling me my bills will still be fifty percent higher than they were last month. And, then passing the filling station, near Grassington, this morning, I noted the price of fuel had hit £1.76 per litre, which was around 10p a litre higher than when I filled up a few days ago. There is a feeling of poor old Albion careering into disaster.

Everyone’s struggling with it, and the poorest will be crucified by what’s coming. It grates, of course. We’ll be washing in cold water next, and banning the Lady Graeme from baking cakes (the last straw!). But an evening like this, by the Wharfe, up Langstrothdale, laughs out loud at such things. The world, as we’ve made it, and I mean the world beyond this gorgeous fold of a dale, seems a universe away, now.

Yockenthwaite, Langstrothdale

Not a long walk today. Just a mile up river, from Yockenthwaite farm, to Deepdale, then back – a bit of a scouting mission for future expeditions. The meadows are bright green and splashed with broad strokes of yellow from the buttercups. A closer look by the path-side as we make our way reveals the tiny blue faces of germander speedwell, and the little white stars of common mouse ear. Lower down the valley, in the meadows by Hubberholme, this morning, I found the bolder saxifrage, mayflower, butterwort, and campion, all in profusion, and then a lone early purple orchid.

It’s a little cold, and many of the gnarly trees by the river are looking haggard, but I guess they’re just a bit late putting on their leaves. It’s summer at home, down on the Lancashire plain. Here in the higher dales, though, it’s still spring, and looking a little uncertain of itself.

The Yockenthwaite Cricle

There’s a small stone circle along the way that I’ve been wanting to visit for a while. I’d wondered if it would be difficult to find, as many of these small antiquities sometimes are, but there it is, plain as day, and beautifully located between sparkling river and fellside. Given its size, I’m wondering if it’s more likely a ring of kerb stones for what was once a burial mound, or if it marks the site of a hut. The fact it’s on the tilt, is also curious.

So, yes, I’m missing the little blue car on this trip. She’s in for a tidy-up. I first brought her up the Wharfe the summer I bought her, 2014. I was only going to keep her a few years, get the open-top roadster thing out of my system, but we’re still together. A marriage made in heaven, you might say. The back wings are blistering out, like they always do on this marque, but I’ve managed to find a man who restores cars, and that wasn’t easy. Welding skills are becoming rare. Fingers crossed, though, my man will have her back in fine fettle with some more summers ahead of her. Then, sure as eggs, we’ll be up this way again, and we’ll drive that road from Buckden to Hawes, just like we said.

The Wharfe, Langstrothdale

This evening, I’m wondering about old Albion, down there, beyond this fold of dale, and am almost reluctant to return to the madness it has become lately. I’ve been keeping company with J B Priestly throughout this trip, reading some of his short stories, and in one of them a character describes people as either asleep, or dead. It seems a cruel thing to say, but I think I know what he means. We’ll not hurry back. We’ll settle by the river a while, and watch the light moving across the fells.

Thanks for listening.

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On Spitler’s Edge

You catch up with me this afternoon, on Spitler’s Edge, in the Western Pennines. It sounds precipitous, like a mountain arête, but it’s not. That said, it’s still quite an airy aspect, in a dun coloured, tussocky, bog-cottony, sky-scraping, moorland sort of way. Indeed, the views are spectacular, from the hills of eastern Lancashire, to the west coast. Southwards, we have the porcupine ridge of Winter Hill, and its cluster of transmitters, while to the north we have Great Hill. The crossing from Great Hill to Winter Hill is always a treat, not to be underestimated in bad weather, but much easier now the route has been paved to spare erosion of the precious peat and bog habitat. The highpoint here is around 1286 feet.

I’ve not come over from Great Hill, though. I’ve come up by an unfamiliar path that snakes between Standing Stones Hill and Green Withins’ Brook. Early maps tell us there was always a track here, though aiming a little lower, for the coll, and the pass to High Shores, then down to Naylors. Naylors is a ruin now, and the current map shows the track petering out in the tussocks of Standing Stones. But there’s still a clear and well trod footway that carries on, though aiming more for the featureless summit of Redmond’s Edge.

It’s a hot day, down in the valley, with a dazzling, head-bursting sun. The sky is streaked with great fans of whispy, stratospheric clouds like white dendrites against the blue, and I’ve been photographing them with various foregrounds on the way up. There’s a cool wind on top, now, and a dusty taste to the air. The moors are ripe for burning, but so far so good, and the idiots have spared us their perennial pyromania. We’re a little later setting out, having waited in for the Tescos delivery man, so it’s getting on for tea time. The light is turning mellow, and a poem is gnawing at me, wanting me to remember it from way back.

I was crossing Spitler’s Edge,
With the sun touching the sea,
When a stranger on a dark horse,
From the distance came to me.

So I took myself aside a-ways,
To let the traveller pass,
And leaning on my staff, I paused,
Amid a sea of grass.

2002, I think. No strangers on dark horses today, though – just the occasional mountain-bike going hell for leather and with an air that suggests a supreme confidence I’ll be stepping aside for it. Although we’re in a post CROW access area, this isn’t a bridle way, so, strictly speaking, bikes have no place on the edge – walkers only. It could be worse, though. It could be motorcycles. You can’t police stuff like this, though. It relies on conscientiousness, hillcraft, and good manners.

So where was I? Standing amid a sea of grass? Okay,…

From there I watched the sky ablaze,
Above a darkening land,
Until I felt a chill and spied,
The stranger close at hand.

He stood upon the hillside,
While his horse about him grazed,
And with his eyes cast westwards,
On that same sunset he gazed,…

Yes, an old poem of mine, insisting on rhyme, at the risk of meter. It came out of an odd feeling, when crossing this way, late one evening, forty years ago. It was the antiquarian John Rawlinson, in his book “About Rivington” who wrote of the origins of the name “Spitler’s Edge,” it coming from the Knights Hospitaller’s of the Holy Order of St John, who had holdings in the district – this being in medieval times – and who, legend has it, would pass this way en route. So the guy I meet in the poem is a medieval warrior-monk. So what?

He wore a cloak of coarsest wool,
Around his shoulder’s broad,
And, across his back was slung,
I swear, the mightiest of swords.

But I did not fear the stranger,
When at length his gaze met mine,
For I knew we shared that hillside,
Across a gulf of time,…

And, speaking of time, the evening I’m thinking of was some time in the early eighties. I’d had a bad day at work, plus the realisation the girl I had the romantic hots for had the romantic hots for someone else – a colleague of mine, and a decent guy I was friendly with. So I’d driven up to Rivington, and set out to mull it over. And in mulling it over, I’d walked, and walked, and walked. Thinking about it now, I would have been better just walking home that night, which would certainly have made for a shorter walk, but I turned around and came back to Rivington over the edge, as the sun set.

It was a beautiful night, a perfect stillness across the moor, a faint mist rising after the heat of the day, and I was kept company by a long eared owl whose silent, broad winged flight was the most beautiful and eerie thing. All right, I didn’t actually meet a Knights Hospitaller, but if you believe in gaps in the fabric of space-time, that would have been an evening to encounter one. The walk did me good, cleared my head. There was no way I was going to fight over the girl, and I reckoned I had it in me to find a way of finally letting her go. As for the stranger,…

I nodded my slow greeting,
And he duly did the same,
Then he climbed upon his patient steed,
And ambled off again.

But turning back, he caught my eye,
Then slightly cocked his head,
And smiled to me a kindly smile:
“Fare thee well, pilgrim…” he said,..

Not as long a walk today, but then I’m forty years older, and I feel the miles differently. Just six miles round from the Yarrow Reservoir, to which we return with the sun sparkling upon it, and the oak trees of Parson’s Bullough, with their fresh leaves luminous against the blue. I still think about that girl from time to time. She’s still married to that guy and, in retrospect, she was always going to be happier with him, than she ever would have been with me. Sometimes it’s the ghosts, and the shadows who let us in on secrets like that, but you need a vivid imagination – a mind’s eye sort of thing – and the faith in it, even if it sometimes works backwards way, and is never any use to you at the time. Still, we get by.

Fare thee well, pilgrim, and thanks for listening.

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I’m not sure if the author had any say in the cover design, or the title, of this book, both of which, to my mind, speak to a different audience to that perhaps intended. Talk of an afterlife is pretty much a taboo subject in polite secular, and even some religious circles. Those expressing belief in it are dismissed as naive, and in thrall to woolly minded thinking. Pastel shades, fluffy clouds, and soft focus apple blossom sums up the popular audience to whom such works as this might appeal. Those wishing for a more sober, scientifically minded approach might be put off, as indeed I was. Had it not been recommended by other trusted writers, I would have passed it by, and that would have been a pity because I think it makes a valuable contribution to the literature.

Many works on this subject deal with anecdotes of the near-death experience (NDE) itself, but, whilst interesting at one level, even compelling, such accounts lack intellectual impact, when taken in isolation. They require us to have faith in the bona fides of the teller, and actually do little to further our understanding of the phenomenon itself. And it is a phenomenon, one very much a part of the human experience, with reports going back to the beginning of recorded history, but more-so in recent years, as resuscitation techniques have improved to the point where we are reviving more and more people who, would once have died. And some of them are telling us strange stories.

Jens Amberts trained in philosophy, and is not an NDE experiencer himself. Philosophy strikes me as a subject in which nit-picking is honed to a fine art, and nit-pick, expertly, he does. In order to explore the subject, he sets up a thought experiment in which he likens the NDE to a sealed room into which people are chosen at random to enter, and explore its contents. They are not able to make recordings of what they find in the room, and must rely entirely on word of mouth in describing what they saw, to others, when they emerge.

Taken at its simplest then, the proposition is thus: how many people do we require, coming out of that room, and all reporting similar findings, for the people outside the room to believe those accounts to be the truth, given that some people are honest, while others are liars, fantasists, attention seekers, easily confused, and so on. Will it take a thousand? Tens of thousands? Millions? As the title suggests, Amberts concludes it is no longer philosophically, or even rationally, reasonable to doubt.

He points out four characteristics of the NDE supportive of the case for their authenticity:

One: in the entire history of the research we can pinpoint nothing, psychologically, sociologically or physiologically that will predict whether a person close to death is likely to have an NDE, or how deep that NDE will be. So, we don’t need to be sympathetic towards the idea, be religious, agnostic or atheist, in order to have one. It’s entirely random.

Two: Of those who have had an NDE, whether they were previously sceptical or not, the overwhelming majority are convinced their experience was indeed what it purported to be, i.e. a glimpse of some form of psychical continuation of life after death.

Three: Those reporting an NDE often describe the experience as “more real” than real life, in the same way that waking reality is more real than the dream state, that the NDE is an experience of being, of cognitive bandwidth, and sensory awareness, that is a quantum leap beyond anything previously known. Indeed, regaining ordinary consciousness after an NDE is likened to seeing the world in black and white, after having first seen it in colour.

And finally, four: We return to how common NDEs are, and the estimates are somewhere between 4 and 15% of the world’s population, or 320 million to 1.2 billion people, have reported an NDE. This means an awful lot of formerly rational, sceptical people are now convinced there is such a thing as an afterlife state, who would never have contemplated holding such a view before.

But for all of that I find myself still very much on the fence, at least as regards what it is we are seeing, exactly, in that room. But this is not to detract from the power of Amberts’ argument. It is more perhaps to illustrate, through my own doubts, the persistence of a perhaps defensive scepticism that will disregard even the strongest logic, and which also lies at the root of human experience.

What is not in any doubt is that something psychologically profound happens during an NDE, an experience that has, as yet, no rational physiological explanation, yet which has a deep and lasting effect on the psyche of the experiencer. What we don’t know, of course – should the experiencer not return to tell the tale – is does the NDE persist? Nor do we know if the 85 to 96% of those not reporting an NDE do so because they were denied entry through the Pearly Gates, and if so, the odds aren’t looking too good for the rest of us, no matter how well we conduct our lives, or swear allegiance to the various religious faiths who profess to be keepers of the gates.

The book was a fascinating, thought-provoking read, and Amberts’ argument will be of interest to believer and sceptic alike, also to students of philosophy who might have no interest in the subject one way or the other, but are looking for a case study in the diagnostic power of a thought experiment.

As the serious literature on this subject mounts, I find myself growing cautious of where the affirmative NDE arguments might lead, I mean socially and even politically. Indeed, it takes very little imagination to foresee societal structures emerging that will precipitate our departure for the next world on grounds purporting to be humane, whether we like it or not – and we don’t know anywhere near enough to be taking risks like that.

If it is true, it may be we’re not supposed to possess any certainty about it. Indeed, I suspect we may be psychologically predisposed to doubt, no matter how convincing the argument, be it religious or secular, and for our own good. Because, again, if it is true, we’re here because we have a contract to fulfil to our own being, and knowing for sure there’s a sure fire get-out clause, if things get tough, well,… that might defeat the whole point of us being here in the first place.

And if it isn’t true, well, it doesn’t matter anyway.

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The arts put man at the centre of the universe, whether he belongs there or not. Military science, on the other hand, treats man as garbage – and his children, and his cities, too. Military science is probably right about the contemptibility of man in the vastness of the universe. Still – I deny that contemptibility, and I beg you to deny it, through the creation of appreciation of art.”

Kurt Vonnegut -1970

Unless you’re already some sort of celebrity, it’s a well established fact the arts are no way to make a living. But what they do for the ordinary Joe and Joanna, is make living meaningful, or even just bearable. It brings each of us back to the centre of our universe. It may be there is nothing to life and death, nor anything beyond it, and all our stories to the contrary are wishful thinking. But the person who takes up a pen, writes a story, or a poem, paints a picture, sings in a choir, dances, performs in amateur dramatics, or even – as Vonnegut once also put it – makes a face in their mashed potato, performs an act of defiance. If there’s art, creativity, inside of you, you have to let it out. Do not deny you have a soul, or the soul will become a demon, and it will eat you.

Trying to write for money nearly killed my desire to write in the first place. It’s likely there’s a good reason my novels never tickled an editor’s fancy, but an inability to court the art-world or write like a Hemingway or a Vonnegut is no reason not to write. My novels have taught me, and shaped me in ways that would not have happened if I’d spent every night in the pub, or watching trash TV. I dabble in watercolours too. I’m no good at it, and can only marvel at the masters, but I do enjoy working with colour. Poetry, comes and goes. Photography is more constant. I spent a good bit of yesterday setting up a shot of a watering can and a garden fork, then waiting for the sky to turn interesting. I don’t know why. Art can use technology, too. It all depends on how you use it. The picture isn’t going to win any competitions, but it’s what I saw and felt, what I was looking for, and what I was trying to express that’s the important thing. And I don’t always have words for that. Nor does it have to please anyone else.

I mention this to illustrate how when we get stuck with one form of expression, we simply turn to another. There’s an endless list of creative means. I’ve just adopted the ones that appeal to me. Thus, we cycle. If we’re not performing for money, it doesn’t matter. The work gets done, effortlessly, and the work is about you. It’s about building you by whatever means come to hand.

I enjoy reading blogs. But the blogs I follow are of a particular sort. They’re not selling anything, and are written by people with no agenda, other than to give vent to their creative energies. And what interesting personalities they are, each of them worthy of a glossy, hard-backed biography on the shelves in Waterstones, and these individual perspectives have shaped me too. But, other than through the semi-anonymity of the blogging medium, these authors have discovered the secret of contentment in being unknown. They do it because they enjoy it, and seek no explanation for it. But they’re growing their souls, and mine, all the same. They are, to quote Kurt Vonnegut again, “becoming”.

I remember an old trades union leader telling of looking up at a monolithic block of Brutlaist flats. To others, it would have presented a grey, depressing vision of “the masses”. But behind any one of those hundreds, or thousands of little windows, he said, was a potential philosopher, mathematician, writer, actor, social activist, or an inspirational leader, and to deny them the opportunity of “becoming” is the tragedy of a regressive society. To treat people as contemptible, as trash, is to diminish all people, everywhere.

I like the way Vonnegut put it in that opening quote. Yes, maybe the materialists are right, there’s no soul, no purpose, consciousness is an illusion, and we’re all just robots made of meat. Who am I to deny it? Yet, I deny it anyway. The soul is a work in progress. The tools we use are the whole panoply of creative expression. And if you don’t feel yourself to be naturally creative, you can always feed upon the art of others. Read. Look at pictures. Watch a play. Listen to music. But try not to fall for what is shallow – you can usually identify it by the fact its purpose is more to empty your pockets for little return, or to make you hate. Try to go deeper, into the sublime, and feel it. And what you will feel there, that is the only reality. Yes, there is certainly a world, a universe, without a soul, where we can erase all feelings with a pill, but it’s one we’ve created. I never said we were perfect, and perhaps it’s integral to the human condition that when it comes to the journey of the soul, we will always have a long way to go. So be creative for its own sake. Every day. It’s good for you. And it’s good for everyone else.

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