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Archive for the ‘health’ Category

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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Dance

I’m walking in town tonight. There was rain in the day, the streets are still glossed, and puddled in places. I pass an alleyway, warmly lit, and there I spy a small group of people, waiting outside a doorway. I’m curious and venture down the alley to see what’s going on. Normally, I’m afraid of the darker places in town, wary of the night creatures who, I’m told, stalk them, but there’s an air of charm about this group, something in the ease of their posture, and the soft cadence of their conversation. Others arrive, and the numbers swell. They are a polished crowd, well groomed, and fragrant. Some men wear suits and bow-ties, others wear silk shirts. The ladies wear shimmery dresses, and stockings.

The door opens, and we are washed by a cosy fug which escapes the warm interior, and dissipates into the cool of the night. There is music – an infectious rhythm, part jazz, part tango. It takes hold of one’s hip and has them swaying as if by remote control. Inside, the people dance, while a man plays piano with a magician’s skill. The waiting crowd enter, greedy for the vibe. I remain where I am, longing to join them, but I am too casually dressed. I have not shaved, and my shirt is unironed. It would be good to dance again, but I’m a mess and these are no longer my people.

I’m dreaming, of course.

So many metaphors to explore here, so many thoughts and feelings to unpick! It harkens a little to the past, visiting a dance hall in town by night, long ago. Dance, music, rhythm. I remember, it was the greatest of joys. One transcended everything, at least for the duration of the music.

Normality? Yes, the dream harkens back to a time of what was once normal, to the well groomed, fragrant crowds at their ease, seeking transcendence. Then there is the dark, and the cackling night creatures, real enough and ever-present. But they and their attendant, multifarious sufferings, are held at a safe distance by the soft cadence of a greater number of the sweetly voiced.

There is nostalgia then, or perhaps more specifically, there is the realisation of the magnitude of change, from the way we were then to the way we are now. There is a sense, too, that we no longer have access to the rhythm of the dance that drives us, or at any rate we’re no longer smart enough to gain admittance to that particular world, to the world of smooth, waxed dance-floors and infectious music. In such a place one does not step, one glides. And one does not move, one flies.

It’s true, I’ve not been ironing my shirts. I’m thinking to save electricity. But a clean, ironed shirt was once also normal. This is something else the dream is showing us, a parade of sorts, but not out of vanity, more out of respect for the company one is keeping. There is also a dignity in it. Ah, dignity! Now, that rings a bell. Let’s explore that one.

As I ponder the dream, I recall a quote I heard the previous day about how we are no longer in the business of heating our homes, but “heating our selves”. We have no longer the energy, the spirit needed to afford our own dignity, as in the metaphorical dignity of a warm home. We have bowed too long to the pressures of the manifest world, the world whose will is to strip away all dignity. So we turn the heating off and sit in a sleeping bag, or something equally grotesque. It’s an allegory for the degree to which normality has shifted, the way things have grown narrow, the multitude of ways the music, both the metaphorical and the literal, have grown faint for us.

Oh, I know,… it may just be I am the downhill side of sixty now, and slightly deaf, that the twenty-something’s can still hear, can still ride any storm, still dance to the point of rapture, and thumb their noses at the world of their parents for disgrace it has become. Like many my own age, have I merely traded my Mojo for carpet slippers and a keyboard, and dreams of a past that never actually existed? And yet,…

There is this place I pass in town, a flight of steps, and an old weathered sign with an arrow pointing optimistically upwards, to a disused, dusty attic room. “Dance”, it says. And I wonder. Shall we ever? A clean, pressed shirt, a lady in stockings, skirt split to the thigh? And we shall dance again? Shall we dance like nobody’s watching?

Without the music, without the dance, the world simply is, and what it is, is pointless. To be born into such a world is surely a mistake, for all there is is the blind, grasping will. It manifests through everything, including us if we allow it, and its name is suffering. Without the moderating influence of our desire for transcendence, that’s all we shall ever know. But we were not born to merely live. We were born to dance.

Thanks for listening.

Beautifully acted, and dramatically cut, and the line: “Be this alive, tomorrow,”

But the prize for dance goes to this couple: Be this alive, always:

Header photo courtesy of Pixabay on Pexels.com

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The Dam at Drybones, Birkacre, Coppull

I’ve done something I’d normally advise against. I’ve bought second hand walking boots off Ebay. They’re army surplus, advertised as having seen hardly any use, and it’s true, they’re like new. My Scarpas have been leaking, off and on, and I felt I needed back-up. They look to be a good boot, decent leather, and no inner membrane. So they’re old-school, and, at £45, a bargain. What could possibly go wrong?

On the first try-out, I walked to the local shop, a quarter of a mile or so, and they were so uncomfortable, I thought I was going to have to come back in stocking feet. Anyway, a fresh insole, and here we are at the Birkacre visitor centre, at Coppull, ready to give them another go.

I grew up around here, and it always beggars belief how busy it’s become. It’s a midweek morning, a welcome bit of sunshine, and looks like the world is on holiday. Home to a bleaching and dyeing works in the long ago, all that remains now are the mill lodges, a popular spot for dog walkers, and bird-watchers – not always an easy mix. It’s handy for the carpark, but we need to get beyond the lodge, into Drybones wood, and the horseshoe of the Yarrow, before nature can get to work on us.

Sitting at home, assailed by rocketing energy bills, record petrol prices and news of wars, we can all too easily feel that life is becoming narrow, that the walls are closing in. A walk in the countryside can push the walls back out again.

There’s a dam on the river at Drybones. It was built to raise the water-level to feed the mill race and is very picturesque after heavy rains. Some nights, I would hear the thunder of it from my bedroom as I drifted off to sleep. I always slept with the window open, summer or winter, one ear to the outdoors, to the meadows, the woods and moors beyond. The rumble is still familiar, something deep in the bones, a sense of OM in its eternal reverberation, a reminder of my Coppull years, and home. So far, the boots are doing okay. They’re heavier than the Scarpas, but no hint of blisters, yet.

Around Birkacre Lodge

Beyond the dam, the path meanders past the ruins of Drybones cottage. This is a remote, off-grid place – something to do with the mines here in Victorian times, and which remained firmly in the Victorian period until about fifteen years ago, when it burned down. Since my last visit, the land has been cleared and stoutly fenced off, the path rerouted. The muddy track to the property has also been gravelled – about a half mile of it – presumably for a luxury land-rover.

It’s a lonely spot, and always something dark about it, I felt. I presume someone’s going to develop it into a des-res, but I wouldn’t want to live here. The original house features in my novel Durleston Wood as “the old Willet place”. I picked it for its symbolism at the heart of a mysterious personal darkness, a demon lurking there, to be negotiated, while holding prisoner a femme fatale, whose seduction had to be survived, before we gained redemption – all very Jungian. And while the world has moved on immeasurably since I wrote it, I’m still pondering the story. I remember how much I enjoyed writing it, how deep a connection I felt with the characters, one that seems lacking in my fiction these days.

The lone tree

Beyond Drybones, the path follows the river upstream, through a stretch of woodland that’s just coming into bud now, and we have the first of the anemones about to open. A little later in the season, there’ll be a lush pallet of bluebells, and the pungent, starry alium. We’re on an ancient way that links up with the old Duxbury estate, and which threads by the ancient beech, again featured in “Durleston Wood”, and, more recently, as the fallen tree in my present and forever halting work in progress, “A Lone Tree Falls”.

The latter story is turning out to be a struggle. The characters feel remote, dazed and numb, like they’ve all had the stuffing kicked out of them, since the days of Durlston Wood, and what I’m longing for is the deeper connection of those earlier times.

As I’ve written here before, they’re going to build houses on the meadows around Durleston, because people have to live somewhere, even if the solution is the destruction of the very reason why we live at all. To a town mouse, this might not seem like such an issue, not much of an argument – it’s progress after all, and the world moves on. But speaking as a country mouse, I know there were once spirits here, spirits of place. I’ve talked to them, and knew them as our kin. They are not literally true, of course. They are subliminal, imaginal, but all the same, without them, we are a rootless, soulless people.

The protagonist of my work in progress is a former intelligence analyst, now on the trail of the meaning of his life, but he keeps getting waylaid by the corruption of his former world. I’m not writing a spy story – I wouldn’t know where to start. What I’m trying to do is get at is how we’re so bound up in the complexity of appearances we fail to recognise the simplicity of our path. But as usual, I feel I’m groping towards something I don’t understand well enough to make much of a meaningful accounting of it. All I know is the beech tree was an old friend; I had known it since I was a child. It came down in storms, which seem as metaphorical as real, and since no one saw it fall, it fell without a sound, and the thought of that haunts me.

The Oak Tree, Birkacre

It’s mostly beech in this part of the wood, some sycamore. Coming out of Durleston, though, we see the old oak on the skyline, above the meadow. Another decade or so and it’ll be gone, obscured by the saw-tooth profile of little houses. The tree falls, the spirits flee, and the landscape is smothered, to be retained only briefly in human memory. But then we too fall, and it’s all gone, within a couple of generations, and all of it without a sound; it never was, it never fully existed, except in the eye of the mind, which suggests our imagination alone is the emotive essence of life, so we had better be careful what we do with it.

Not a long walk today. Just three miles round the horseshoe of the Yarrow. We leave Durleston, and imagination behind, return to Birkacre to the Big Lodge, to the carousel of dog walkers, and bird-watchers, and kiddies feeding ducks, and back to the car. The boots feel okay, I’d forgotten they were there, actually. You know what? I think they’ll do.

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On reflection, the Covid years haven’t bothered me much. I worked through the first year, which helped retain some semblance of normality. The second year, I retired into it, and the restrictions were irksome for a time, but the local area provided sufficient diversion as things eased, and I’ve enjoyed walking, exploring Bowland and the Dales with the camera. Covid’s still around, of course, but that story has moved on, and no one’s really talking about it any more.

There are some who haven’t been so lucky. Even if you’ve avoided catching it, certain types have been plunged by fear of Covid, and by media reporting of it into an anxiety-induced agoraphobia. While others are out shopping and pubbing, the anxious ones are still shirking company. Supermarkets, pubs, and restaurants, are still a long way away off for them. We, who are inching ourselves back into some semblance of normality, need to be mindful of that.

I’ve not been without a touch of neuroticism over Covid myself. I remember now I helped pull a woman from the river, after she’d fallen in. She was freezing cold, and really struggling to get out, and I had to get a good grip, so to speak, all of which was against the very strict rules on personal contact with strangers at the time. I worried about that for days afterwards, worried about the health of the others I’d involved in the rescue, all this while it later transpired our leaders were having “bring your own booze parties”. I feel terribly foolish that I even thought about it, now.

While we hear much less about Covid, other things have rushed to fill the void. To whit, the mainstream media seem to be ratcheting up for war against a nuclear armed state. So I’m thinking about nuclear war, and it’s a long time since I did that.

I remember my father was with the Royal Observer Corps (ROC). They had a bunker up near Brindle, part of a network that covered the UK. They were there to monitor nuclear bursts, and levels of radiation. Coupled with the weather forecasts, the aim was to give HMG some element of planning around the ensuing catastrophe. He took me to see it once. Its weird concrete protuberances frightened me. It was like a ready-made grave for the duty team who would be incarcerated in it. The ROC was disbanded long before the end of the Cold War. There is no defence, no contingency, no survival, and it’s dangerous to suggest otherwise.

The bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were relatively small, compared with the weapons we have now. It would take very few to reduce the UK to an uninhabitable wasteland. We seem to have forgotten this. The danger subsided for a time, but it’s growing again, and we need to resist the media of usual suspects and their crass headlines, with a different, and more nuanced narrative. In such febrile times, the last thing we need is the equivalent of a banal Twitter spat pushing things over the edge.

But since there is nothing I can do about it, I tell myself to chill out, to read novels, watch movies – preferably without guns, or bombs, or ‘f’ words in them – and to dream dreams, as if there was no suffering in the world. Of course, there is immense suffering, but, in the long ago, we were aware of only manageable doses of it. Now we drown in it. It pours from our devices with every bleeping notification – an endless symphony of sorrowful songs, and the human psyche is only capable of so much compassion before we lose our minds.

I saw a recent interview with the former general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbchev. He spoke of the urgency of nuclear disarmament, because he says the kind of people willing to use them are still around. It was a sobering analysis. We came ever so close, during the Cuban missile crisis. It was only doubt in the mind of one Soviet officer, and his persuasiveness, that prevented the commander of his submarine from launching a nuclear torpedo against a US warship. They thought they were under attack, that world war three had started, and they should let loose Armageddon. But it was a misunderstanding, a hair’s breadth thing, so the story goes. But in a parallel dimension, the decision went the other way, and the earth is a barren cinder.

The west has been living in a blip of relative peace and security, perhaps since the later 1980s, since Gorbachev’s glasnost, and the formal ending of the Cold War. Since then, there have been good times, boom times. We have tanned our skins on the beaches of credit-card opulence, driven our SUVs with attitude up the rear end of those we see as lesser beings. But there is something in us also that seeks the periodic red-mist of war. I remember the newspapers egging on the invasion of Iraq. It seemed an easy thing to do and, given the might of the forces unleashed, it was. What came next was the disaster so many humanitarians predicted.

Thus, I pine for a more sober approach to our present predicament, for a wiser take on the inflammatory headlines of the media with its calls for even more dogs of war to be let loose than are already in the running. As if by way of reply, my phone pings with news, of today’s horrors, and what are we going to do about it? Phones were so much better in the olden days, when all you could do with them was ring people up and say hello.

We should limit our intake, do you think? Impossible, you might say. But there’s only so much we can stand. At the very least we should not be so browbeaten we are ashamed to sing, dance, and make merry, or at least switch off and read some lighter material. It does not make us bad people. What’s more important is we remain level-headed, that we might then see through the fog, as far as we possibly can, that we make sure the wasteland of our world remains in another dimension of space and time, and is never visited upon this one.

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Cartridge Hill, Darwen Moor

Another walk on the Darwen moors, this time taking in Lyons Den, Cartridge Hill and Hollinshead Hall

We’re standing by this small ruin on Darwen Moor. It’s a low, mossy, grass covered mound, and hard to tell if we’re looking at stone or brick underneath. We’re near the head of Stepback Brook. Lower down its steep, rocky course, is where we found the enchanting little waterfall, last time, but which is today reduced to a disappointing trickle. We’ve come up from Ryal Fold in deep shade, over a frost hardened earth, and in the teeth of a bitter wind that severely tested our resolve. Now, though, we’ve popped out into dazzling sunlight, with a bit of warmth in it, so the way is slightly more encouraging.

This is Lyons Den. I was expecting more, but perhaps less is more. I imagine it’s a fine spot in summer, with the moors dusty, under the heat of a noonday sun, and these trees providing shade for the traveller and a whisper of stories as the wind stirs their leaves, and the brook tinkles its way down the valley. Today though, even in the sun, it looks and feels rather bleak.

According to legend, it was a man called John Lyon who gave the place its name. This would be around the last decade of the eighteenth century. He lived here, not in any ordinary dwelling, but in a crude shelter made of turf. A shaggy, giant of a man, he was seen to emerge from his rustic lair on all fours, the Lyon emerging from his den, so to speak, and the name stuck with the locals, or so the legend goes. He gets a paragraph in Shaw’s 1889 book, “Darwen and its people”, which is the most definitive account I have of this enigmatic character. The place was sold on in the nineteenth century, and became the more conventional, small farm we see on the early OS maps.

Lyons Den, Darwen Moor

The maps also suggest it was less of a lonely place then. There were mines and quarries all around, and we can imagine the sound of men toiling at, and in, the earth, and the sound of carts creaking over the rutted moorland ways, with their loads. A profusion of Victorian shafts dot the moor, ominous depressions by the wayside, and caution is required. Some are fenced, others not. Shafts weren’t always securely filled from the bottom up, and that curious depression in the earth might easily conceal a rotting cap of planks, with a terrifying void lurking beneath.

The plan for the day is to take in the top of Cartridge Hill, then walk down to the woods at Roddlesworth, to the ruins of Hollinshead Hall, then circle back to the car at Ryal Fold. I’m not feeling on top form, so we’ll have to see how it goes. I have what looks like an infected tick bite on my foot, which itches like blazes. It’s been keeping me awake, so I’m tired and lacking energy. Either that or it’s the start of Lymes’. I’ve tested negative, so I know it’s not Covid.

I didn’t get to show it to the doctor, who remains elusive. I had to send the surgery a photograph instead, and the practice nurse rang me back to say it looked more like ringworm, that I need an antifungal ointment. I hope she’s right. Neither Lymes’ nor Covid are attractive alternatives, though of the two, I’d sooner take my chances with Covid.

Perhaps that’s why the moor feels strange today, empty somehow. Or it could be a bitterness over the recent party-gate revelations. I had thought I’d risen above all the polarising politics of recent years, but am occasionally brought back to the boil by its craven lunacy. Today, I’m remembering how the cops came down really hard on ordinary folk for infringement of the social distancing rules, how we were encouraged to dob our neighbours in, how lone walkers were spied upon by cop-drones, and shamed for being out of doors, “admiring the view”, like it was the new sin. It’s all proving a bit hard to swallow.

Anyway, Lyons Den is at the junction with the track coming up from Duckenshaw Clough, and which winds its way down to Hollinshead. We follow it westwards a short way, locate the path that cuts back to Cartridge Hill, then follow the line of a fence over open moor to the summit. Although an understated hill, as a viewpoint it’s outstanding, and well worth a visit. Southwards, there’s Belmont and Winter Hill. To the east, it’s the Holcombe moors. Westwards, it’s Great Hill and Anglezarke. We have a faint inversion in the valleys today, which we try to capture with the camera, but the cold soon nibbles at the fingers and has them aching for our pockets again.

I have an irrational thing about ticks. They’re a metaphor of something I can’t pin down. It’s nature, no longer welcoming, but turned predatory. If that thing on my foot is a tick bite, it can only have come from this neck of the woods, where ticks are unheard of, and it’s the middle of winter, for heaven’s sake, when ticks aren’t active. But then we have climate change, mild winters, and a burgeoning wild deer population,… I don’t know. Perhaps it’s an age thing, but there’s this sense of change, and all of it careening downhill to nothing good.

In roddlesworth woods

We retrace our steps back to the main track, then wander down to the woods at Roddlesworth. Here we seek out the extensive, and fascinating ruins of Hollinshead hall. Flattened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I’ve always found it curious that the well house remains so stubbornly intact. It’s the setting for a very fine ghost story, whose origins are the eerie memoir of Richard Robinson, of Brinscall, also known as “a moorland lad”. Out of print now, I found a pdf copy of it, titled “The Wishing Well” on the website of the Chorley and District Archaeological society, and a very good read it is too, as well as being of significant historical interest.

The Well House, by the ruins of Hollinshead Hall.

Lunch today is lentil soup, which we enjoy in the sunshine, sheltered from the wind, in the lee of a wall, whose original function we can only speculate about. Kitchen? Lounge? Study? In the seventeenth century, the hall was home to the Radcliffe family, of Royalist leanings in the civil war. There’s speculation the well house was used as a secret baptistry, the Radcliffes being of the Catholic faith, at a time when priests were being murdered by the state, and the Vatican was having to smuggle them in through Ireland. But my favourite story of Hollinshead Hall – also told by Richard Robinson in his memoir – comes from the eighteenth century, when it passed to one Lawrence Brock-Hollinshead. Brock-Hollinshead installed a special circular room, here, as part of an experiment concerning time, and determining the exact length of a calendar year. This was prior to Britain’s adoption of the Gregorian calendar, in 1752.

Britain was still relying on the less accurate Julian calendar, in spite of the rest of Europe, by that time, having changed, the result being we were 11 days behind everyone else. The experiments involved timing the sun as it shone through a series of apertures, over a period of six years. Brock-Hollinshead’s studies proved Pope Gregory was right about the precise length of the year, and the new calendar was duly adopted. This meant catching up the 11 lost days, which gave rise to riots, people believing they had been robbed of life. And on that note, given also the febrility of the present day, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn there were moves to abolish it, and have our pre Gregorian exceptionalism restored!

Hollinshead Hall 1846 – Cartridge hill in the background

So, down through the mossy woods now, to the bridge over Rocky Brook. The sun is slanting nicely through the trees, but I’m not in the mood to linger. I’m definitely feeling off, and wanting a sit down, somewhere comfy and warm, with a large mug of hot chocolate. The little blue car is up at the Royal, and it’s a bit of a pull out of the woods from here. We’ll see how we go. Itchy feet for sure, though, today, which of course could also be read as a metaphor which bodes well, for the coming year.

Thanks for listening.

References:

Image of Hollinshead Hall in 1846, reworked from a public domain print, acknowledgement www.albion-prints.com

“Darwen and its People” J.G. Shaw 1889

The wishing Well – a moorland romance. A Moorland Lad – Richard Robinson 1954

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Tree and puddle

The lady in the pharmacy is upset. Her mother is ill, and struggling to get her medication. The lady wants to know if the pharmacy can arrange for her mother’s prescription to be delivered. Normally, yes, this can be arranged, but the prescription needs to be signed off by the doctor. But the lady explains, in a tone of rising desperation, that she is unable to get through to the doctor by telephone, that she has been ringing the surgery for hours to no avail. I had heard appointments were difficult to come by. Now it’s impossible even to get the surgery to answer the telephone. The pharmacist cannot help, but, unlike the doctor, she is at least available to speak to and, sadly, to field the invective she does not deserve. The lady leaves with her life still in crisis.

My own quest involves the search for Lateral Flow Tests. Last year you could order these things online, and they would be delivered, or you could walk into a pharmacy and pick up a week’s supply. Now, official online kits are as hard to come by as the proverbial manure of rocking horses, and before you can get one from a pharmacy, you needed a code from the official website. I have the code, but the pharmacist has no kits.

“We’ll get a small delivery tomorrow morning,” she tells me. “But they’ll gone in an hour.”

Looks like an early get-up then, tomorrow. I do not need them for myself. My habits are once more reclusive; I no longer work, have no elderly relatives to support, and I can keep myself to myself. But my son is working for an employer who has decided the pandemic is over, that Covid is reduced to a sniffle, and “prefers” everyone return to the office. This is notwithstanding the fact hospitals in my area have declared states of emergency.

There is nothing to be done. The world is upset and things are broken. The newspapers report our formerly free lateral flow kits are now selling online for hundreds of pounds. I don’t know if this is true, or if it’s just the newspapers being newspapers, stirring things up for the clicks.

The last word from our leadership was characteristically laissez-faire, and seemed not to take account of the rising sense of crisis, or at least as it is felt in the pharmacy queues of greater England, and more specifically, Northern England. Muddle through is the motto, and fair enough, we’re good at that. After all, things could be worse; the world is not at war, and asteroids are not falling from the sky. But the waters we must muddle through are muddier of late, and it’s harder to see the depths ahead.

Still, the sun is shining. My boots have dried out from their soaking on Withnell moor. There is a tree, and a puddle on the plain I have not visited for a while. And while the built world, the world we have thought into being, shudders and grows less sure of itself, the natural world, in pockets at least, remains to provide a clearer reflection of our true nature. That said, the potato fields are sprouting rubber gloves and face masks these days. In the coming millennia, archaeologists will scan down to the level of this detritus, and use their findings to answer the questions of how well we coped with these particular pandemic years.

These too are the years before we solved the vexed problems of perpetual war. They are the years before we stopped burning fossil fuels, and discovered how to stuff the carbon dioxide and the methane back into the earth, the years before we found our more harmonious balance with nature, cleared the oceans of plastic rubbish, greened the cities, and rewilded the wilderness, turned back the earth from grey to green, and ended poverty. It was a miracle. And how did we manage such a thing, they’ll wonder, those future archaeologists, sociologists, anthropologists and historians, for things were not at all apparent from the evidence of our times, such as they are, and from the records we left behind, including those long archived newspaper reports of black marketeering in lateral flow test kits.

I shall have to go and ask it of the tree – how we did it, I mean – because I forget now. But trees have long memories, and it might just remember how we managed to squeak through to better times.

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Fifteen minutes

The UK National Health Service is severely stretched, and about to enter its second winter of Covid, with a new variant on the loose. You can’t get a face to face doctor’s appointment for love nor money, and you’re as well to avoid A+E, unless your life depends upon it. Covid is taking its toll in ways other than infection. That said, I was invited for my Covid booster at the weekend, and found the whole thing calm and well organised. The staff were friendly, and welcoming. I turned up a little before the allotted time, and got the jab straight away. Then I was asked to wait fifteen minutes before leaving, just in case of an adverse reaction. And while I waited, I got to thinking.

There was a big take-up, both with booked appointments and walk-ins. The nurse who saw me was in her sixties and had a manner that would have made light of any indignity she ever had to inflict on her patients. She was the epitome of the NHS: professional, friendly, and efficiently competent. There was also a sympathy about her that’s often nine tenths of healing. She was more than a nurse, then, she was your aunt, she was your mother, she was your sister.

We’re used to having the NHS around, and we expect it will last forever. Everyone benefits from the same level of top-notch care. We all chip in through our taxes, and then we all benefit. Those who can afford to pay little or nothing are looked after by those who can afford to pay more. I think it’s a good system. It’s civilised and decent. But there’s a class of economic fundamentalist who hates it, and would rather see it sucked into the toxic world of the global market-place, where the price is everything and human values are of no consequence.

I’m aware bits of it are already privately run. One of my local GP surgeries was recently bought out by a “for-profit” global brand. They bid to provide services for the NHS and, through the NHS, and our taxes, make vast sums of money for people we’ve never heard of, instead of that money being ploughed back into care. The next phase, through the current Health and Social Care Bill, paves the way for an insurance based system, like they have in the United States. This is where the insurance companies dictate whether we get access to treatment. And in a system run for profit, it’s not in their interest to grant it.

All of this seems unthinkable, but then, until recently, it was unthinkable we would ever have food-banks in the UK, but now we do. We have them by the score, because the welfare system is no longer serving the people who need it, and wages are suppressed to a level well below what’s decent, so even people in work are having to use them. We’ve grown used to having foodbanks around, used to the fact there are more and more of them. That’s just the way it is, we say.

I guess it’ll be the same with the NHS. Though it’s hard to imagine it, one day, all of this will be gone. The ambulance man will turn up to transfer your ailing, aged parent to hospital, and you’ll have to swipe your debit card before he lets you on board. He won’t want to do it. It’ll seem inhumane to him, but it’ll be the system, and he’ll have no choice, because he serves a master for whom care is no longer primary. And we’ll get used to it being that way, and we won’t complain about it.

Our healthcare will be tiered. The more we pay, the better care we get. If we can’t pay anything, we get nothing. And if the insurance company finds a way of wheedling out of paying for your surgery, you’ll either have to sell your house to pay for it yourself, or go without. That kindly nurse? She’ll be gone too, replaced by a slave to tick-box managerialism. Global health brands will be running ads at us, talking about “choice”, and “excellence”, and the corporate drone-bots will be pinging you emails to “kindly rate your experience today”. And we’ll accept it all as being just the way it is, because that’s just the way we are. But is it really who we want to be?

My fifteen minutes are up, and just as well. I’m good to go.

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I have been an amateur novelist since I was a teenager. The stories had to be fitted in around the day-job. Sometimes I enjoyed the day-job, sometimes I didn’t. What I reliably disliked about it, was the sacrifice of freedom to live as I chose, in exchange for the means to live as I had to. It is a source of suffering common to many of us, and nothing unusual in it. But the question is: were the novels an escape from those aspects of life that caused me to suffer? Or, was having to suffer, in fact, the fuel that powered the novels? And now I am retired, and therefore free to live as I choose, where does that leave the writing?

The writing began as a search for self-validation. I wanted to know if my thoughts, my feelings, indeed my very being, were valid in the world. It’s a risky gambit to do this through writing, and I do not recommend it, since rejection by publishers can be problematic for one’s self-esteem. In this sense, I was indeed roundly rejected. But, through writing, I also discovered the psyche, and was able to grasp the idea that the value of writing as a mostly unpublished amateur, lies in its potential to transform the writer, and if necessary, to heal them. As for the validity of one’s being, the simple fact of our very existence vouches for that. This is something else the writing teaches us.

Now I’m retired, and there is no real stress I can think of, other than what I invent for myself. Decades of angst are dissolving out of me. I no longer suffer the working life, and I bask in my freedoms, living, mostly, as I please. It’s a blessed feeling, but can one still be a writer, without the fuel of at least some suffering to power it?

I once believed anger could help drive the work, since anger is a form of suffering. In this respect, I tried the partisanship of politics. But through the writing, I came to understand politics better. As such, it no longer angers me. Observing political polarities at work, one realises how slick a trap it is, this ready anger we possess, that the world does not come in the shape of our own liking, that others do not see things the way we do. But anger, whilst granting the illusion of impetus, only holds us fast in a trap of meaninglessness. To escape to a more meaningful life, we must let it go. Using suffering, as a way to power writing, is like running on dirty diesel. To take it further, you have to go green.

I am still writing in retirement, the blog, obviously, but also the fiction. In the fiction, I create imaginary worlds, but these were never escape-pods from petty suffering. They have always been settings for exploring what one’s current reality does not readily facilitate. They were, and are, experiments in thought. They were and are dialogues exploring the feasibility of ideas.

The will to explore the world through writing is still very much present, but the gearing has changed. I am no longer screwing the nuts off the engine. I have engaged cruise control. The energy is coming from somewhere, but I have to be careful with it. It’s like the wind. I have to read the weather and accept that, on occasion, I will be becalmed.

So that’s fine, we’re still moving. But what’s our general direction? What is the destination?

As well as discovering the psyche, the writing has uncovered a secret. I mean this in the intellectual sense, like one discovers a map of buried treasure. Intellectually, the secret makes sense, at least to me, but I can’t simply tell it for it to be of any use to anyone else. You have to discover the map for yourselves, and there is a path to be walked.

It starts from the first question, and goes on until you get the answer. I have walked the path through the writing of a dozen novels. I understand the symbols, and I can read the map. X marks the spot. But what’s lacking is the belief anything is truly buried there. This might sound strange, but I think it’s a necessary part of the journey. It prevents us from believing in every shiny thing that comes our way. The rational senses hold sway, and will not permit me to believe, except in moments too few to build an overwhelming and possibly megalomaniacal momentum, but sufficient to keep the idea alive. Thus, we still approach whatever it is, but gently.

Rationality then holds us to the values of the world, as we have constructed them, but not to the way the world is in itself. And I suppose what I’m writing towards now is the trigger that will have me believe in the world as it really is, in spite of all the dazzling distractions of the material life. Such a thing is probably beyond my skill, and my powers of insight, I mean without retreating to a cave for twenty years under the tutelage of a Zen monk, and likely not even then. But the search itself is purposeful, and grants its own kind of meaning. Anyway, the journey is more beautiful than being boxed in by the dreary, graffitied red-brick that is the endgame of diesel-chugging materialism.

I’ll tell you a part of my secret: it’s not a secret, but I’ll tell it anyway: that the sense of self you feel, looking out from behind your eyes, I think, it’s the same sense of self looking out from behind mine. We are the same in that respect. The only difference between us is our life-story, our memory, our history. These are significant differences, you might say, and fair enough, but we have to reckon with the likelihood they are transient and therefore individually meaningless. I may be wrong in this, I don’t know. At root, however, we are each of us an aspect of the Universe awakening and becoming aware of itself, through the perspective of our personal senses and our unique situation in time and space. This tells us there is less value in our differences than we like to think. We are all different, but we are also, more fundamentally, and much more importantly, all of us, versions of the One same thing.

Now, if we could believe in that, the world would already be moving towards a much better place. But the world is a mess of suffering and, worse, attempts to address any aspect of it have proven futile. Cure mankind of his immediate ills, and he will at once invent others to suffer from. He does not do this to spite the goodness in others, nor the tireless efforts of the saintly and the beneficent, but only to satisfy his own need to suffer, for only through the lens of a man’s suffering does the otherwise sterile, material life make sense to him.

Without the stress of the working life, I invent other things, trivial things to fret about. Is the boiler going to break down? My fences are looking like another winter will blow them away. There is an unfamiliar noise coming from the car’s transmission, and the mechanic cannot diagnose it. What if it breaks down and leaves me stranded? These are small matters, but rapidly inflated to calamitous proportion, if I do not spot them before they have gathered sufficient steam to sink my mood. Their energy is dirty, they have the potential to foul the atmosphere, to cloud the mind.

The world, as we have built it, is high on diesel fumes, and the lesson appears to be it’s a mistake to think any one of us can make a difference to it, other than by first addressing the suffering in ourselves. We must each of us consult the story of our lives, and, by whatever means comes to hand – in my case, by writing – learn the lessons of it. We must find a way of ditching the anger, of addressing the causes of our own suffering, down to the finest of detail, and we must learn to be vigilant as they morph and shift their angles of attack upon the serenity of one’s mood.

We do it, as best we can, by going green.

Thanks for listening.

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I was going to write something grumbly today, something about the decline of real blogging, the decline of writerly bloggers who blog for the sake of it, and without giving themselves the airs of entrepreneurs. You know the type? They’re always offering six easy steps to financial success, and a set of perfect white teeth along the way, the sort of entrepreneurial bloggers who tag my blog daily now as if I’m even remotely interested in what they’re selling. If only they would wise up, admit that, in the great scheme of things, like all of us, they’re simply nobody, going nowhere, and then open their eyes to the world and tell me what they see and feel, in original prose or poetry that seeks no remuneration. Then I’d be interested, and I’d follow back. But I’m not going to write about that.

In truth, I’m a little grumpy because I have the beginnings of a toothache. A bit of filling has dropped out, and my dentist won’t see me for a month. The place was taken over by a corporate brand, a few years ago, the original staff all fired off and replaced with younger, cheaper versions, who now offer botox treatment, white smiles, and other questionable cosmetic enhancements. I sense they now rather look down on the humble, unwashed NHS patient, who simply wants competent dental care and an annual checkup. Anyway, there’s nothing like a bit of naggy pain for refusing admittance to the higher realms of imagination, for imprisoning one instead in this denser version of reality. So we’ll distract ourselves as best we can with the ironing and an exploration of Zen.

How to iron a man’s shirt? Well, first you take the cuff,… or so begins one of those Youtube instructables. It’s a job I’ve taken up more seriously, now I have the time, ironing shirts, trousers, handkerchiefs. I always used to rush it before, and with mixed results. As a kid I had to pick skills up fast, like how to handle a turret lathe, or a milling machine without losing a finger, and all that was before they’d let me near those dangerously sharp pencils in the engineering office.

Once you’ve got the basics, it’s just a matter of practice and focus, and with ironing there’s as much of it to practise on as you want. It also grants an hour or so out of the day, to plug in and listen to lectures on You-tube, which is the main reason I like it, but don’t tell anyone. In particular, I’ve recently discovered a rich seam of wisdom in Alan Watts (1915-1973), many of his recorded interviews, lectures and radio broadcasts being now online.

When plodding a personal metaphysical path, we come to realize there’s no one person who has a monopoly on wisdom. More, there’s always been a succession of teachers throughout time who were able to communicate, or not, in different ways. We might encounter the works of one person and find them too advanced, or too difficult or irrelevant, but we might circle back to them when we’re ready. I think that’s what happened with me and Alan Watts.

Watts had (and still has) an immensely popular following in spiritual and philosophical circles, though various biographies I’ve read suggest he was somewhat shunned by the more orthodox intelligentsia of his day. I find he has a fascinating voice, a compelling manner, an infectious humour, and a canny way of getting across complex ideas, shedding them of their mystique. His topic area is the whole of eastern spiritual thought and seeking a synthesis between it and western metaphysics, but at the moment, it’s his lectures on Zen I’m finding most interesting.

Zen, fares well in the pop culture of the west, with books on “Zen and the art of this, that and the other”. What Zen is though, actually, is a tricky thing to pin down, its subject matter being so ineffable. I’ve read western books on Zen, but none made sense, and the eastern works seemed always to be either laughing or throwing up the shutters at my ignorance. The nearest we can get to it, in western terms, says Watts, is the field of psychoanalysis. This makes sense, suggesting the nature of the mind is bound up with the nature of being, and reality. Watts has opened the door there a little.

The nature of the self – our true self – is generally unrecognized throughout our lives, being too easily mistaken instead for the story of our lives. But, says Watts, when two Zen masters meet, they need no introduction, because each of them knows not only who they are themselves but who the other guy is as well. Each understands there is, as such, no “other”. Both are “it”.

The awareness that grants one’s sense of being is the same awareness as everyone else’s. That’s not an easy thing to grasp. Indeed, it’s somewhat troubling, and near impossible for a materialist to even grant it an audience, since it posits the fundamentally “conscious” nature of reality.

Many pilgrims come unstuck at this point, either unable to accept the universe is thinking itself into being, or they think it’s them, their mind, that’s at the centre of everything, that they are somehow omnipotent. Then their world collapses into a solipsistic delusion with their megalomaniacal ego at the centre of it. The nearest I can get to what Zen, in part, is saying is the western idealist philosophy which suggests the universe is thinking “us” into being and not the other way around, meaning the thinker thinking you, is the same thinker who’s thinking me.

If we can at least work with the possibility reality is structured in this way, it grants us a fresh perspective on life. It allows us to explore reasons why such a thing might be the case, and what it means to be human in the world. It presents also the paradox of waking up to the transcendent nature of reality, while at the same time being trapped within the limitations of this particular version of it. We have our personal functional limitations – like how it’s taking me an age to iron this one damned shirt, when the dude in the video says I should be able to do it in three minutes – but also the fact that the whole of human endeavour is so prone to suffering, and no matter how carefully we build our societies up for the greater good, we cannot help but sow within them the seeds of our own destruction.

As for what Zen has got to with ironing this shirt, I don’t know, except,… just do it, maybe? Nor does it explain the purpose of my toothache, which perhaps only goes to show I know nothing of the true path of Zen, that if I did, I simply wouldn’t mind it.

I’ll tackle ironing a pair of trousers next. Damned tricky things, trousers.

Last word to Alan Watts (audio only):

Keep well all.

Graeme out.

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I took this picture of a buzzard a few weeks ago. It made my day, actually, felt like a good luck charm. They used to be a rare sight in the UK, but are now making a bit of come-back, except for this one, which is now dead. I was out with the camera recently and I met a fellow walker who told me he’d found a buzzard, shot, in that same area. It was alive, but had a broken wing. So he took it to the vet, but the vet couldn’t do anything, so it was put down.


It wasn’t a good start to the day. I’d set out to get some more miles under the belt, and to photograph trees along the way. I was after experimenting with a thing called high dynamic range. It’s a trick in photography that simulates the way the eye sees the world. I like the effect. Other photographers think it’s an abomination. I think the same thing about shooting birds. But we were talking about photography, except we weren’t. We’re talking about vision, and different ways of seeing the world.


When we look at a scene, we see everything – colour, brightness and so on, all of it perfectly rendered, but a camera’s different. Take a good picture of the foreground, and you might find there are no details in the clouds, because the sky has burned out. Take a good picture of the sky, with lots of dreamy texture in the clouds, and you might find the ground is too dark to make out any details.


The trick is to take several pictures of the subject. The bright areas, the dark areas and the middle brightness each have their own photograph. They call it bracketing. Then you overlay them in a piece of software that’s clever enough to compensate for the little bits of movement between shots. Finally, you apply a thing called tone mapping. This makes the colours brighter, more vibrant.

Anyway, I’d hoped to see the buzzard again while I was out, but from what the guy said it seemed unlikely. So I lined up my trees, and took my pictures. And no, I didn’t see the bird, so I’m assuming the worst, and the day was all the poorer for it. Indeed, it lent the landscape an air of doom and threat. The photography wasn’t a success either, other than getting the exercise in. The light was too flat to take advantage of the technique. But most of all I’d messed up with various settings along the way and my shots wouldn’t line up.


Even the best results I got were peculiar, and noisy, a far cry from the images you see by professionals. But one step at a time. We’ll try again on the next walk, different light, different settings. After all, I’m not looking to sell to National Geographic here. I like to stumble upon the occasional shot of my travels that makes me go “wow”! That’s the nature of amateur photography and the limit of my aspirations.


Seeing an egret the other day had perked my spirits up. It had me wondering if we weren’t turning a corner, after the darkness of 2020, and what I interpret as a gravely flawed mindset that’s resulted in over 100,000 dead. But the loss of that buzzard has left a hole. It’s made we wonder if we’re still subject to dark forces oppressing us, even now, with a vaccine being rolled out.


All wild birds are protected in the UK. That said, it’s okay to shoot some of them under licence by calling it “pest control”. Which birds are classed as pests, and why they’re considered pests is very much the subject of debate. On the one side you have the RSPB who don’t like to shoot birds. Then you have the legislators in the middle who make the rules. And on the other side there are the lobby groups like the Countryside Alliance, who represent those who do like to shoot birds. Buzzards can be shot legally under licence – mostly around airports where’s they present a clear danger to life and limb – but the terms are very strict. I’m guessing the majority of birds elsewhere are shot on the sly, either due to ignorance, or more likely moneyed interest.


Personally I’d rather observe, and protect wild birds than look for loopholes so I can shoot them. I’m sure whoever shot that buzzard felt they were justified and could give me a heated dressing down regarding my naivety and ignorance in the ways of the real world and proper country living, which is fair enough, and better for me to think they didn’t just do it for fun.


But this isn’t getting to my point, which appears to be hammering my attempts at photography into a metaphor of sorts. And I think it has to do with degrees of awakening. As I said, not everyone likes the high dynamic range look. Colours can seem over-blown, airy-fairy even a bit trippy. They can take a dull, flat-lit scene and explode it into a Van Gough. But as with light, so with thought. The fact we’ve come up with rules to protect wild birds suggests we’re capable of attaining a much higher dynamic, even though a narrower and near monochromatic attitude persists, and will always find ways and means of undermining the best efforts of those more awakened. It’s a complex argument, and the other lot have guns, but I’d sooner be on my end of the spectrum than theirs. I’d sooner look for ways a creature can avoid being shot than contriving reasons for why it should.


I’d been looking forward to getting more pictures of that buzzard over the summer, getting to know its territory, its favoured vantage points, then I could sneak myself within range of a sharper image. Looks like I’ll be sticking to trees for a while though, trying to make them look Van Gough and trippy. It’s an interest, and it gets me outdoors. And yes, I still like high dynamic range photography, even when it doesn’t quite work.


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