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jackdaw

As the summer heat and the grass-fires fade into the fast scattering smoke of imperfect memory, I feel the usual September blues coming on. They are born of too long spent in the academic grind as a young man. Twenty five when I finished, and still, in my late middle age, am unable to shake off the jitters in anticipation of the fresh term ahead. And even though I’ve not set foot in a place of learning since, all it takes is that first deepening of the light and a return of dew upon the grass to set my nerves on edge. But added to that this year I sense a smouldering anger, an irritation rising from the collective unconsciousness, and it feeds an anxiety in me that is resistant to the various meditations I practise. And of course, what I feel, internally, the world provides confirmation of in the realm of daily experience.

There was a kid driving a car this morning, coming at me on the wrong side of the road, fast, around a bend, the small vehicle wobbling at the very limits of its stability. Fast, fast,… live it on the edge, for tomorrow we may all be dead! I don’t know how he missed me.

Later, on the motorway, an entire string of vehicles were cutting in, one after the other as I approached the exit slip. My assailants were reckless, hurried, impatient to get on and seemingly oblivious to my presence as I tried to moderate my speed, and judge my gap within the usual perhaps over-cautious parameters. But to hell with caution, no time for that now, to hell with everything! Zip, zip, zip,.. squeeze it in, ramp it up. Another moment may already be too late!

And money,… money is in your face everywhere on the roads. Have you noticed? And it’s greedy, bullying, intimidating. I had £50K’s worth of Porsche SUV, tailing aggressively close for long miles down a twisty road. The limit was forty – there have been sacrifices enough to the God of recklessness here – faded flowers by the roadside to mark the fallen – but the Porsche wanted more, wanted me out of the way, slow, lumbering old fart that I am.

Push, push, push,… faster, faster, faster.

And then there was the little boy this afternoon, dashing out between parked cars, right into my path, his mother screaming, both of us thinking it was too late. I stopped dead, stood the car on its nose. He was fine. I wasn’t. He got off with a scolding and wept, as I nearly wept. I pulled over a little further on and waited for the blood to stop roaring in my ears. The car is on the drive tonight and won’t be moving all weekend. There’s something in the air just now and I don’t like it.

News headlines assail me every day. I would ignore them but I’m fixed in their glare like a rabbit, unable to look away. Yet there is so much noise in them now, and so slickly delivered, the delivery of news has become news itself, feeding back on itself until the last thing we hear is this almighty squeal before the very tissue of our skins rupture, and then we no longer see, or hear, or feel, or trust in anything any more. Vulnerable. Invisible, my presence, thinning like moorland smoke. Dissipating into nothingness.

How about a bit of gallows humour: To save money, the light at the end of the tunnel has been switched off! It’s an old saying. I remember it from the downsizing, de-industrialising nineties. But there is no tunnel and there never was a light at the end of it, just darkness of varying shades, a blank wall upon which to project our various and individual fantasies of what we believe our lives to be. And none of it was or is or ever will be true.

A little Zen wisdom for you. It pops up unexpectedly in my Instagram feed, the universe perhaps delivering the teaching I most need right now: You must meditate for at least ten minutes every day, unless you feel you’re too busy, in which case you must meditate for an hour.

Nice one. Don’t you just love Zen?

I understand. Break the cycle, don’t read the news. Its infernally discordant noise will shatter the crystal vision of your soul. And we must mind our souls above all else, examine more closely the present moment and find ways of sinking ourselves into it. It doesn’t mean the world will go away, but we will find ourselves more firmly anchored in it, so its storms can be weathered with greater magnanimity.

And then the world will no longer seem quite so dangerous a place to be.

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rhinogI return from Wales feeling a bit flat. This is normal. Wales was beautiful and silent and very, very grand, but then I come home to find the garden around my ears, at least the bits of it not killed by drought, and there’s a pile of mail already nagging at me like flies, and the shower’s bust at the first twist of the dial so you can’t turn it off and the water’s gushing down the plughole and a drought order hanging over us.

So I’m wishing myself already paddling again like a little boy on Harlech beach, shoes and socks in hand, and for a short time not a care in the world, or walking a quiet stretch of rural lane of an evening, watching the sun set over the Llyn, and then a glass of Malt on the terrace of my little cottage as the moon rises over the Barmouth hills.

I fixed the shower with a blob of glue, which should hold until the next time someone uses it, and then I spent the day researching shower units to replace the broken one without needing to redecorate the entire bathroom and I ordered one off Amazon, thus neatly pushing the problem out in time to the mercy of the oppressed delivery man. And then I sat, and I tried to pick up a few threads of writing, but they were elusive, or maybe it was because the phone was in my hand and I’m glued to it already, like an addict, to the fall of the western world.

I learn that in my absence, it has been decided we are to stockpile food and medicines in warehouses that have not existed since 1945, and we’re to borrow generators from the army to keep the lights on in Northern Ireland. This sounds like fiction, the plot of a Ballardian dystopia, perhaps? It cannot actually be true, can it? It’s merely a ruse of those cheeky tabloids, something to show Johnny Foreigner we mean business, and we’ll damned well live off Spam post BREXIT, if it means we can still wag our Agincourt fingers. Or maybe these are the first Machiavellian priming strokes of a second BREXIT referendum, because who in their right mind is going to vote for Spam when we were promised milk and honey?

Then I’m sucked sideways into an article on the whys and wherefores of writing, and how it’s good for the soul and all that, and how money’s not the important thing, and just as well, and who can argue, except in the last paragraph I discover the writer’s just flogging his book on how to write, which is rather bad form, but not entirely unexpected because that’s the kind of world we live in – everyone a chancer and a spiv now.

Then another serendipitous swerve has me bumping into Vonnegut, a writer I don’t know that well, but he seems like a good egg, and he’s telling me yeah, you know it’s true, Mike, art’s not about making a living, it’s about making the living bearable,… which is something to ponder I suppose while we’re tucking into that Spam and wondering where our next tank of petrol’s coming from. At least we will have our art, except we don’t encourage it in schools any more, so we won’t even have that.

And I’m wondering about rushing out to Tescos to stockpile my own “no deal” BREXIT larder – hint, tins and dried stuff – and again feeling this terrible post holiday blues, and Vonnegut’s talking about just writing stuff because all there is is life and death and inbetween there’s this brief opportunity to grow some soul, and that’s where the writing comes in. For you. Your self. To grow some soul. You see, Mike? And I’m nodding my agreement because I’ve been living that story for a while now, but sometimes,… sometimes you forget, don’t you?

Except,…

I can’t forget that view inland from the Barmouth viaduct – that great sandy funnel of the Mawddach Estuary at tide’s ebb, or again in the evening with the flood roaring around the pilings and covering up the sand with quicksilver again, and the green mountains beyond, the mist and the light playing upon them in endless symphonies of mood.

And there’s been this poem trying to take shape in my head, something about those mountains not remembering, or the trees, or the hoary stones, or the foxgloves nodding in the sleepy lane. Not remembering what? I don’t know, but that’s what the poem’s trying to get at you see?

And it goes:

The hills will not remember,
Nor these scattered, hoary stones,
Nor the foxgloves
Nodding in the sleepy lanes,
Nor the oaks whose leaves,
Turning now their backs,
Anticipate the rains,…

There’s more, but I can’t feel the shape of it yet. It’s being driven most powerfully by the memory of a nearly full pre blooded Welsh moon rising, white as death over green hills and into a queer, luminous turquoise, and the air is warm and the night is still, and quiet. Then there’s the scent of that Islay malt I’m sipping, and it’s reminding me of another country, that’s also my own, a place I’ve not seen in thirty five years, but whose impressions remain strong, a place that doesn’t remember me either. And then there’s that other place, land of my grandfather I’ve yet to visit, and that’s been bothering me awfully of late. But in the main I’m thinking it’s a human thing, this curse of remembering, and those hoary stones and that Welsh moon are all the better for being without it.

Yes,… confusing I know – I’m English and Welsh and Scots and Irish, and I’m a European too, and proud of it. Identity is whatever you want it to be, and it’s best to let it stretch as wide as possible than to narrow it down so much it throttles the life out of us. Dammit what’s happening? Can we not fight back?

So, the poem? Okay, I think I know what it’s getting at now. It’s going to tell me that I am the mountains and the trees and the hoary stones, and all that, and even the foxgloves nodding in the sleepy lane, and that what I feel most keenly at times like these is my separation and a loneliness at the oneness now broken, yet reflected still in the things that are largely untouched, like the hills and the hoary stones, and the trees and the silver moon rising and that view up the Mawddach Estuary. It’s that final realisation on the path to healing the rift with this aching sense of “the other”, that in the final analysis there is “no other”. But that’s a tough sell when you’re drunk on secularism, or scientism, or religion 101, or that petty, petty nationalism, and all that’s holding the whole damned shower together these days is a blob of fucking glue.

(Sorry for the F Word)

Graeme out.

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There was some debate over whether or not the Baby Trump blimp (AKA Hairpiece One) would be allowed to fly over London in response to the visit of POTUS  this week. But permission has now been granted and I’m pleased as it shows that, in spite of the world being in free-fall these days, we British have still not lost our sense of humour. It’s an unflattering likeness for sure, but one done in that age old satirical tradition, a visual raspberry to deflate an arch display of pomposity and bombast.

The thing with laughter is it can defuse anger, and thereby restore a sense of reason that might otherwise be swept away by stronger, darker emotions. Laughter is important . We laugh, then pause to wonder more soberly and deeply where the world has gone wrong in recent years, and why of a sudden there’s so much hate and spittle flying about.

The above Youtube clip is of an interview given by Owen Jones, on the BBC’s Newsnight program. Owen is a regular political commentator, a respected journalist, and columnist for the Guardian Newspaper. Very much to the left of the political centre Owen is here voicing his support for the flight of “Hairpiece One”, against an opposing view from a POTUS supporter.

But what struck me most of all were the comments that followed this clip. I use Youtube a lot, and in return it mines my deepest Freudian cavities for personalised marketing opportunities. Its largely unmoderated and immoderate commentary is also notoriously sickening, therefore daunting for polite company to wade through, and actually quite useless in rational debate,  so I rarely bother with it. Except this time I found it upsetting. The fact of its anonymity of course invites all manner of cowardly and ill judged sniping. But there we are.

In the case of the “Hairpiece One” piece, the comments section predictably acted as a lightning rod for the loud energy of the intolerant, the misogynistic, the racist and the merely ignorant tendencies. In short, there was such a lot of hate – ill informed, indeed juvenile and no one of any intelligence would enter into debate with it, but it’s still worth taking note of because I see dangers in it.

The piece was discussing the rights and wrongs of flying a satirical balloon over London as a means of peaceful protest against a world leader whose policies are controversial to say the least, a leader buoyed along upon comments that seem to come exclusively from the mouths of angry white men, utterly entrenched in their unswerving hatred of almost everything that they are not: towards Gay people, people of colour, people of intelligence, people of left leaning liberal values, people of the Muslim faith – hatred towards British people too, of how our capital is a war-zone, the streets running with blood, of how badly our National Health system “sucks”, and it’s all our fault for being “soft ” on immigration and not taking up the same draconian policies of POTUS, which would make us great again! And more, I read of the visceral hate of “communism”, and it’s usual tiresomely inaccurate conflation with “socialism”, all of these being echoes from recent conservative news-media tropes, and all of them expressed in the most vile, inebriate public-house language. It’s if one had slipped the catch on a huge, overstuffed Bluebeard’s cupboard and been buried in an avalanche of nefarious material that would be better unseen by polite company.

All this the result of a visit to the UK by POTUS.

So is it better in the open, then we know what the incoming tide is bringing with it? Of course, a hundred vile comments do not represent the views of the silent majority of American citizens, some of whom I’ve had the great pleasure of speaking to and meeting virtually via this media. But what shocks me is the subliminal energy behind those comments, and the risk those nominated to lead, or guard our flanks – the policemen, the border patrols, the military, become infiltrated by that same shallow, hateful mindset. In short we should be careful to whom we grant the keys of the nation, lest they go berserk in the lockings up. Some might say it’s too late, that the Genie is out of the bottle now and he’s not for going back in. Naturally I hope that’s not the case, nor that it presages the loss of yet another generation and much bloodletting to flay the demons of hate out of existence for yet another century.

Love and compassion won’t always trump evil. But it’s better than joining in with the hate. I wish Hairpiece One well, and all who sail in her.

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avia-peseus

So, I write this blog and I publish novels online. I do it all for free because publishers don’t want my stuff, and life’s too short to be endlessly promoting it against a tide of whims all running the other way, and it doesn’t matter anyway because there are far too many books in the world and too few of them ever made a difference to anything, and no one actually reads books anymore, do they?

Writers! Well, we’re a pretty conceited bunch, all of us thinking our book, our blog, is going to change the world if only the world would shut up and listen, ether that or we’re thinking it might help us to get laid, or that this small clique of other writers we hob-nob with, will be daunted, if only for a moment, by the size of our gargantuan ego/intellect, as demonstrated by our latest killer piece.

There was an age when books changed the world, I suppose, back when knowledge was first written down and disseminated by copy-scribes – the mathematics of the Greeks, perhaps? Nowadays someone would be making it up, just to get a name for themselves and refusing to blush when the logic fell apart and swearing blind it was someone else’s fault, and everything is fake anyway, and most of us couldn’t tell the difference. And books are hard to take in, aren’t they? Five hours the last one took me to read, and I can barely remember any of it now. As for those seriously droneful fictions of the Victorian era, I’d sooner watch the box-set.

Books simply don’t matter any more. Nowadays we’ ve got Youflicks and Fishwit, and that Tweety-Bird thing and we believe every damned thing they tell us, their psychometric algorithms feeding back on our deepest darkest selves as betrayed by our clicks, and tuned in turn to bend the shapes of who and what it is we love or hate, and even how we vote. The Internet is the thing, you see? For sure it is! At least it is in its most addictive incarnations, where we crave the novelty of that latest notification and all in the hope it’ll finally change everything for the better. And even though you know by now it won’t,… go on, resist it, I challenge you. The Internet for five minutes is the same as all the books in the world on steroids. People walk the street like zombies, glued to it, plugged into it, oblivious of reality, so defenceless are we now against its clever little memes and all its tiny brain-devouring worms.

I mean how else do you explain it?

The fix we’re in.

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malham tarn

Malham Tarn

It was a good day for a wedding on Saturday. I note the Capital was considerably taken up with it, streets lined with people waving their little Union Jacks at the happy couple. Celebrities from around the world descended in their finery. There was pomp and ceremony and tradition, as only the British can deliver it, and I’m informed a good day out was had by all.

I missed it. I was up around Malham, in company with most of the north of England, who’d had the same idea. Perhaps we each selfishly thought the roads would be quieter, that everyone else would be at home, glued to the telly, but I’ve never seen Malham as busy, and this before midmorning when I rolled up in the little blue car to find an atmosphere of celebration. I say this every time I go to Malham, that I’ve never seen it so busy. Best to go early, crack of dawnish, even midweek. But there was no big event, certainly no big screen coverage of the capital’s shenanigans. Everyone had simply gone up for a walk, or a picnic, or to sit outside the Buck with something cold and fizzy, and watch the world go by.

Malham sits at the foot of one of the classic walks in the British Isles, a circular route of limestone country that’s by turns fearsomely dramatic, and heart-stoppingly beautiful. It’s rightly popular, also a small wonder it can take this amount of foot traffic every weekend without wearing away.

I couldn’t park in the village itself and was reluctant to commit to the overflow field, so drove on up to the Tarn where I got the last spot on the little car park. But the as the area’s popularity soars exponentially, the driving is becoming dangerous. The road up is single track and steep. I can thread the little blue car along mostly anything and she’s plenty of guts for a climb, but it’s what you meet along the way that’s the problem. And you’re meeting more and more traffic these days, a lot of it inappropriate for the girth of the road. I met a Renault Kadjar. This is a huge vehicle. I wouldn’t take a bus up here, and I wouldn’t take a Kadjar for the same reasons. I managed to pull in, narrowly avoiding the drystone walls, to let it pass. It wasn’t for stopping and the driver didn’t seem able to manoeuvre it much anyway – just kept going sluggishly and expecting everyone else to move out of the way.

Then I met the cyclists, weaving about, doing one mile an hour crawling up this one in ten gradient ahead of me. The little blue car won’t do one mile an hour uphill, it judders and bucks on the clutch, but you can’t roar past because the road’s too narrow and you’re worried about meeting Kadjars around the blind bends. You have to wait for the straight bits, then floor it and hope for the best. I have the feeling recreational cyclists don’t fully appreciate the risks they take in places like this, nor the hazards they create for others, or they would stow their egos and their single-minded battle with the grade, get off their push-hogs and let us poor motorists pass on little roads like this.

The tarn is the northernmost checkpoint of the full circular walk, and I wondered about doing it in reverse, but this puts the steepest of climbs towards the end, besides it was a hot day and I couldn’t be bothered. I wanted to soak up the atmosphere of the Dales without soaking myself in sweat, so I took a stroll, by the tarn, which was impossibly blue under an equally impossibly blue sky. Then I headed down to Malham Cove, along the Trougate track. At the cove it was standing room only among the clints and grikes, and the cacophony was reminiscent of any mass social gathering in an echoey place.

I returned along the spectacular Watlowes dry valley. Three or four miles all told. Lazy I know, and such a short outing wouldn’t have satisfied my younger self much, but times change and I’m as excited these days by the sight of early flowering purple orchid as I am by the ascent of Goredale. Conditions were outstanding, but sadly walkers were too many, clogging the trails, either powering up behind, sucking impatiently on their Platipus Packs, or loitering in front for selfies along the narrow bits. But I was happy to be out in the sun, celebrating the season, celebrating the country, taking my turn on the steps, calling hello in passing to pleasant strangers. And no one here was waving a Union Jack.

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southport sunsetSo,.. out walking with my phone in my back pocket. Not a good idea, cracked the screen and killed it. On the upside it’s a Chinese ‘Droid, so it didn’t cost much, and all the important stuff was saved to the removable memory anyway. All told then, nothing lost and in true consumerist tradition I threw it away and ordered a new one from Amazon. This was Sunday, just before midnight when I placed the order, standard postage, nothing special. I was thinking it would do me good to be without the phone for a bit – teach me to be more careful. However,…

Next day, Monday, a bank holiday and there’s a white van outside come mid-afternoon: ‘Sign here mate’. Package delivered, and I’m holding my new phone in a state of bemused awe. Okay, this doesn’t happen with everything you buy off Amazon – and you usually have to pay a premium for next day delivery, so I’d clearly hit upon a set of fortuitous circumstances here, but it illustrates how the machinery is gearing up to provide us with an instant gratification. But is this what we really want? Given the direction things are moving in it seems to be what we want, and it’s impressive, but do we really need it? And rather than being served, are we not merely being used, abused and generally hoodwinked into expectations that are ultimately self destructive?

While I was sitting in my garden, sunning myself all Monday, the guy in the white van had been up since dawn, sorting his deliveries out, then sweating on one of the hottest days of the year while fighting his way through bank holiday traffic along with so many other diesel belching white vans, each making their own manic deliveries, and all so we could get our stuff faster than we really needed it. But before doing his bit, it was another guy pushing a trolley in a warehouse to get my thing, his feet and knees killing him, the machine counting him down to a telling off for going too slow, that he’d better hurry up, keep pace, deliver more stuff to replace all the other stuff he found last week that’s already been thrown away.

But don’t worry about the human exploitation angle. In the near future, our stuff will be picked and packed and bagged entirely by machine and given to a drone for delivery. No humans involved. We’ll all be living within an hour’s flying time of a fulfilment centre by then, and the thing will be dropped off to a landing zone in our back yard, or maybe we’ll be fitting delivery chutes to our roofs and they’ll be as ubiquitous as chimney pots. Then we’ll be grinding our teeth if the drop’s five minutes late, berating the quality of a drone that struggles to make time against a howling gale. Total time to fulfilment? a couple of hours, and we’ll be looking to cut that in half. The infrastructure will facilitate it, and we’ll get used to it, and expect it, whether we really need it to be that way or not.

So, safe now in possession of my new phone, having been without one for all of fifteen hours – and ten of those asleep – I drove out to the coast, secure in the knowledge it was tracking my every move and could guide me back home if need be. But the coast, on the evening of a Bank Holiday Monday was like the aftermath of a rock festival – litter strewn as far as the eye could see. The promenades were thick with it, the beaches too. You could even see outlines in it where the cars had been parked and all this discarded stuff had just spewed from the open windows. Fast food cartons, plastic bags, blobs of ice-cream,…

Feral seagulls feasted on all the food waste, and what they missed the rats would get come fall of night. The tide was coming in; scent of the sea, scent of disposable barbecues and recreational weed. In a few hours the beaches would give up their filth, and the sea would gulp it down, vomiting it back up wherever the ocean currents took it.

While the machine pioneers pioneer ever faster ways of telling us what we want, then getting it to us ahead of when we want it, whether we really want it, or need it, or not, the aftermath of a bank holiday Monday provides no better illustration of the price we pay for a society hooked on consumption and instant gratification. And the price we pay is this: we are drowning in our own effluent. And it’s too late to do anything about it because our heads are so far inside this box now we’re losing sight of the light of day.

We all had our phones out, taking pictures of the sunset and cooing over it while stepping around the trash. I took a picture of a waste bin, dwarfed by mountains of rubbish piled beside it. I was thinking to post it here, but it turned my stomach, so I deleted it, kept the sunset, posted that to Instagram, self censored like everyone else, so I can go on pretending the world is still a beautiful place.

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I had a near miss, this morning. I was coming up to a mini-roundabout, another vehicle approaching from the opposite direction, a big car, ostentatious, with its ultra-bright HID “F*$k You” headlights on, even though it was broad daylight. I thought he was going straight ahead, because I didn’t see the blinking amber of his indicator light. So it was a surprise when he cut across my bows, so to speak, and cut across them really fast. I was lucky, had time to react, stood the car on its nose. He had time to react as well, with an offensive finger.

It’s possible he indicated. I don’t know. I’m finding with these really bright headlights, they fuzz out my vision and I can’t see anything else, especially not a relatively puny blinking indicator lamp tucked in close to the epicentre of that laser like HID blast. And that’s in daylight. Meet one of these monsters at night on an unlit twisty road and you’re heading for the ditch. Or maybe I’m just getting too old to be on the road, too long staring at computer screens, eyesight too wasted now to discern the important details any more.

Nah, the optician says I’m fine.

Anyway, those long promised robot cars are coming, and they’ll avoid awkward situations like that. The well heeled finger jabber with the HID headlamps and I will be sitting back, flicking on our phones, while the cars are doing all the driving and the talking to one another. Each will know what other is doing, adjust speed so they manoeuvre smoothly around one another without so much as a dab on the brakes. Maybe those big cars for rich folks will even have superior algorithms capable of gaming the traffic flow to their advantage. I mean, otherwise what’s the point of paying a lot of money for a car if it isn’t going to steal a march on those less well off?

This morning was just a commute in my old Ford Focus, an A to B, and fair enough, they can be a bit of a drag. A robot car would save me time, allowing me to eat my porridge while the computer did the driving, and presumably took all the insults on my behalf. But is that really what we want?

This evening was different, I managed to avoid near misses – true the roads were quieter when I backed the Mazda, my other car, out of the garage. The Mazda is not a commuter mule – I keep her strictly for fun. It was about half an hour before sunset and the temperature had dropped to nine degrees. The vinyl top was too cold to risk folding back, so I made do with the other pleasures afforded by this little car, and I just went for a drive, windows down, feeling the air, tasting it, smelling it.

She’s laid up most of the working week especially over winter, so I like to get her out and give her some exercise of an evening whenever I can. Already I’m anthropomorphising. Cars don’t need exercise like humans do, but it’s as well to keep the battery topped up and the oil lining the cylinder walls, and the belts all moving. Still, I like to think of it as exercise, and she seems to enjoy it that way too.

I have this scenic little circuit that I do. It was a beautiful evening, clear sky, deep blue above, fading to azure at the horizon. And it’s a wide horizon out here in the West of Lancashire, but you’ll miss it if all you’re doing is flicking on your phone, and that would be a shame.

In this car you don’t need to be going fast to feel the thrill of movement – yes, movement! You can take the corners without any degree of body roll, thread your way through a series of left and right-handers, flicking up and down the box as the note of the engine tells you. And at some point, she’ll get into her stride, and you in hers, and you’ll press the gas and she’ll respond with a rush. This is no longer driving. This is dancing on air. No A to B, more a silver fox in an old MX5, dancing in the last light of an early Spring evening.

It won’t be the same with a robot. They’ll never be able to dance for a start. They’re dead things. Nothing human about them at all. Nothing human either in just wanting to get from A to B, yet that’s mostly what we do these days. And when the whole world is robotised and we’re all lobotomised, glued to our phones, flicking mindlessly at all that rubbish, and those times we drove simply for the pleasure of it are but a dim and distant memory,…

What then?

in martindale

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