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Archive for the ‘Metaphysical’ Category

wordsworthTwo by two they marched into St Oswald’s churchyard, the entire complement of a seventy seater coach. At their head a suited guide, complete with microphone, broadcast his authoritative commentary over the ethereal hush. It was a vast entourage of American tourists, well heeled and,… damn, they were heading in our direction, seeking Wordsworth’s grave. It was a bold flanking manoeuvre, completely overwhelming us few native poetry bums who had gathered there. We took a deep breath, prepared to stand our ground, prepared also for our politeness to scatter us into the shadows.

There were a lot of American accents in Grasmere this afternoon and a busy-busy atmosphere pervading the early autumnal air. In the cafe queue, earlier, I’d been pressed aside by an assertive and impressively articulate dude complaining his sandwich was taking a long time and that he was under “very considerable time constraint”. This poor guy was on holiday, but he was still caught up in the world of work, in the achievement culture. I recognised his accent, his idiosyncratic use of language. It pinpointed him squarely in the nether geography of performance reviews, and endless Powerpoint presentations. I wondered if he was in this queue now, the queue for Wordsworth’s grave, a similar time constraint weighing heavy – Dove cottage and the visitor centre yet to be ticked off. And boy, there were so many graves with Wordsworth’s name written on them. Thank heavens for the tour guide and his live-broadcast commentary to home in on the essentials.

I moved on as the guide came up pointing out the poet’s resting place. Sadly he was pointing to the wrong William. It’s an easy mistake to make, but I would have expected better research from one so prepossessing as this. Willy (1810-1883), had not followed in his father’s (1770-1850) poetic footsteps, but on reflection the faux pas didn’t matter, at least not in the world inhabited by these poor souls. They had done the grave thing, ticked the box. Most would probably not remember and somehow it all meshed perfectly with the achievement culture thing: Britain by tick-box, the myth of old Englandism: a vibrant, if at times raggedy and fiercely intellectual nation reduced to no more than frock coats, bustles and Mr Darcy’s wet trousers.

To think, poor William and his family have to put up with this sort of thing every day!

I have a difficult relationship with Wordsworth. I read him like all fan-boys as if looking for the key to my own enlightenment. I do find him occasionally profound, but also pompous and immensely verbose. He walked the fells as feverishly as I walked them in my younger days, but at a time when they were not so worn out, when the paths were vague, known only to shepherds, and orange peel did not litter the summits. But the Victorians in all their chocolate box glory were also notable that in their fondness for the sublime they also had a penchant for bludgeoning it to death with words whenever it put in an appearance.

Other philosophers, of the Zen Tradition, in lands far away, had already worked out one could not define the sublime by rich, eloquent and, above all, copious wordery. The poet Basho is a case in point, writing two centuries earlier than Wordsworth, and with a stunning brevity, his Haiku verses connected the human mind with the sublime without attempting to describe it. When words fail us, it’s for a reason and it’s best at that point just to shut up and let nature fill the space in our heads.

But when our heads are enamoured of the schedule and all those dubious measures of achievement, when we are for ever under the cosh of “considerable time constraint”, it’s really all the same if it’s Willy or William we’re looking at because by then the truth is of no consequence and bluff and fakery will suffice perfectly well instead for fact.

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requiemSo, I drove into town this afternoon. I had no plan, just wanted a change of scene. I was feeling reflective, a little down, in need of space. I purchased a charging cable for my iPad (original) £4.99 from B+M Bargains. The last one I bought, years ago, cost me twenty quid. Then it was the charity shops, St Catherine’s – easily the best book shop in town, where I picked up Dylan Thomas’ Miscellany One for a pound, ditto Proulx’s Postcards. Then I checked out Age Concern, picked up “The Visible World” by Mark Slouka, and “The Statement” by Brian Moore. It was three for a pound, but I couldn’t find a third, so we’ll say fifty pence each. All told four books for three quid, and a charging cable for a fiver. No one can accuse me of being high maintenance. None of this is relevant.

Actually, my mind has been elsewhere since Friday morning when I learned of the death of an early mentor, a great man the world has never heard of. I knew him best for a year, commencing Winter ’81, through to the Summer of ’82. It’s hard to describe the depth of the connection, nor the awakening into my personal adulthood it presaged. I was twenty one, he was ten years older, an engineer of the first rank, yet a man who’d left school at fourteen unable to read or write. His is the stuff of legend, and inspiration.

When I met him he was a C Eng and member of the venerable Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Astute, courageous, married with a young family, he was everything I aspired to be. We were solving problems in fluid dynamics, trying to equate the physical results we were seeing with theoretical concepts. I was a dullard with maths, until I met him. He joined the dots for me, woke me up to my career. Sadly though I reflect that nowadays someone leaving school at fourteen, illiterate, has no means of bettering themselves – the ladder has been kicked away. He would be considered unemployable now.

But academia aside, he was also a deeply sympathetic man, fatherly, the sort of man who managed to make an insecure twenty one year old lad he’d never met before feel he was worth something, set him down on a path I’ve been following pretty much since those early days. I became a C. Eng myself at twenty six. I would not have bothered had it not been for him. His was the mark I set for myself.

He studied philosophy and psychology later on, and though I’d lost touch with him by then, I think there was still a subliminal connection. This was in the late nineties, around the time I discovered Jung, and the worthlessness of that C. Eng. Even though I was no longer working with him, he was still an influence in many unexpected ways, and I often thought of him.

He retired early, first decade of the millennium, a bit of a square peg in a round hole by then, having grown to the point of seeing the Emperor’s New Clothes, and calling it out for what it was. None contested his going – the truth is often uncomfortable to those who cannot see it. He fell ill with MS shortly thereafter, and suffered a long, debilitating decline, ending with complete immobility and cancer of the lung. I’m told he maintained an unassailable optimism and enthusiasm for life throughout, and is on record as saying how little one actually needs in life to be profoundly happy.

What shook me was the news that in later years he had become a prolific poet. I wish I had made more of an effort, beyond simply asking after his health and passing on my regards through others. I’m sure there was much we could have shared.

He gained precious little time from his retirement. Few remembered him from the old place, just the lifers like me. When I heard the news, I took myself into a side room where I could be quiet for a while, and there I wept. It was for more than his passing, which I felt keenly enough, but also for a sense of lost opportunity. I have often thought about him, gratitude for his kindness, and his presence during that formative period of my life.

I’m not sure what will happen to his poems – if they will ever see the light of day or not. He never owned a computer, never discovered the internet, his intellect unsullied by it, and none the worse. As a man  I loved him, that much is plain. He was the coolest guy on earth, but I remember him with his bushy moustache, his long hair and his sport’s coat, not as he was at sixty six, and looking ninety, his body knackered, distorted into indignity with MS, only the smile recognisable as belonging to the soul I knew and connected with all those years ago.

God rest you man. Those were the days, indeed. The decades since have felt like I’ve been biding my time for something else, but news of your passing reminds me there is nothing else to come, that this is it.

Flipping through the books I bought, though it’s it’s way past midnight and I should be abed, I realise don’t know Dylan Thomas very well. His opening to a Miscellany is a kind of stream of consciousness, reminiscent of Joyce. But I like the Celtic voice and I’ll hear him out, though no doubt with minimal understanding. The years slip by so easily now, so quickly and each one seeming the same and bringing nothing new, it’s incredible the years ’81 and ’82 could have contained so much its remained with me and proved to be of such intensity it was wept out in a private moment some thirty five years later.

I drove home from town with the top up on the Mazda. I did not care to drop it, though the afternoon was fine and warm. I’m wondering about my last blog piece, describing my novel’s drift into polyamory. I read a poem my mentor wrote, and it shames me with its effortless prowess. I’m sure he would have put me straight, like he did with those equations years ago, set me on a surer path.

I need to get my head together much better than this.

Thanks for listening.

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standing stoneThe Ryoan-ji is an ancient rock garden in Japan, in the Zen tradition. It’s a so called dry garden, consisting of groups of large stones place upon a bed of smooth-worn and finely raked pebbles. I’ve studied Zen as an amateur student for years, but it’s an enigmatic subject, difficult to gain purchase and try as I might I still know virtually nothing about it. In a similar way I’m no doubt entirely ignorant of the deeper meaning of this garden. One of its intriguing and more talked about features however is that no matter what angle we view it from we can only ever count fourteen stones.

There are actually fifteen stones, but one of them is always hidden from view by the others, so we can never know for sure that there are fifteen, presumably without flying over the garden and viewing it from an elevated perspective. So, how many stones are there? Answer, obviously fifteen, but how many in our experience? How many from our every day perspective?

I’m not sure if this is an important Zen teaching, or if I’m creating a tangential one of my own, but it’s a useful concept none the less, that reality is always subjective and cannot help  but conceal both it’s true nature and, by inference, our own.

On a not unrelated subject, about twelve hours ago, I ate breakfast in the garden of a cottage overlooking the North Sea, a little to the north of Scarborough. I sipped coffee as I contemplated the changing shades of blue, and I tried to hold on to the scene, to imprint it in memory, both visually and emotionally, because I knew I would shortly be taking my leave of it and it would be a long time before I came this way again, indeed if ever.

Like that fifteenth stone the view is now hidden. I know it exists from some other perspective, but what I’m left with now, as I tap this out are the fourteen stones of a more mundane reality.

The ability to hold on to an awareness of the fifteenth stone is helped by having seen it in the first place. No amount of being told of its existence can substitute for the experience of seeing it. Merely being told it’s there requires faith and trust, when you cannot see it yourself.

Of course what I was looking at this morning was a reflection of my own self in a reality that was closer to the truth of who felt I am, of who we all are when not pummelled into a different shape by the repetitive and habitual lives that normally contain us. For a short time though, on holiday, we escape, we gain a different perspective, we view a different emotional landscape, we see and feel ourselves differently and wish upon wish we could be like that all the time. It is this transcendent essence that is contained for me in the symbolic meaning of the fifteenth stone.

But the truth is we have all seen it from time to time, and even though the evidence of our own eyes mostly denies its existence, we have only to shift our perspective slightly, do something, go somewhere a little out of the ordinary, to reveal its presence and realise it’s been there all along.

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IMG_2745As I sit here in this garden, staring out at the sea, I realise with some disappointment the perfection of the world can only ever be approximated by the descriptive eye. Blue does not describe the sea today, nor any day, nor grey nor green. It is too approximate. The fancy writer can borrow from the artist’s pallet, attempt words like cerulean, indigo or cobalt, but these suppose the reader is familiar with such flowery synonyms and anyway they similarly fall short of being definitive. We also have teal, turquoise, beryl, utramarine, aquamarine. I take a chance on Beryl, but find it comes in two shades – one blue green, like I imagine a clear tropical ocean, and the other closer to sapphire and how I imagine the cold Atlantic on a sunlit winter’s day.

This is a warmer blue, a mid-blue, I suppose, but threaded with sinewy bands of a paler hue, tending towards – all right – towards aquamarine. These bands are also of a finer, smoother texture than the wide expanse of mid-blue which is finely stippled with the grey of wavelets. But in the time I have taken to describe it, it has already changed, a pool of something paler in the broad sweep of the bay opens up as the waters steadies, and the tide slackens. It will be different again in a moment, and in a minute, and in an hour as the light changes and this July afternoon deepens towards tea time. There will never be a moment or day when it is the same as it is now, this moment in time.

On the horizon, gliding south, seemingly on the line between sea and sky, there is a coaster, long and low and white, a handful of pale pixels in the great scheme of things. The sea, this same sea, will be different out there as it butts up against the clanking, rust streaked hull, a different dynamic to the passage of a ship and the turn of water and the way it catches light.

A writer might as well just say the sea was blue, or perhaps grey, if it was that sort of day. More useful is to accept the transience of the moment, its indescribable nature, and instead to read the sea for emotion.

Warm and languid, that’s the North sea on this sunny afternoon, under a long hot, clear skied bake of sun. Just now a pleasure cruiser out of Scarborough, bobs into view. It’s white, with Britannia bunting hung from fore and aft masts, Union Jacks fluttering. It has a jolly, perky feel about it. But when we feel the scene we have to realise we are seeing ourselves reflected in it and that once again we are failing to see the beauty of the world as it truly is, with acceptance and abandon.

I have never seen as many varieties of birds as I have this afternoon, just sitting here in the sun. I have a handful of names for birds but my vocabulary, such as it is is entirely inadequate. I resist the camera. I do not want to capture them for later classification. I try not to want to know their names in case it robs them of their  beauty.

And then we have the scent. To a former anosmic, the reintroduction of scent into the world is a dramatic thing, nothing short of revelatory, and one simply must know the source of every scent as if greedy to restore lost memory. It has a sweetness to it, like a freshly mown lawn, but drier somehow, a little dusty, damp and warm – though how scent can be dusty I do not know. It’s the wheat, I think, the vast expanse of it, like a straw coloured foreground bowl that contains the sea. The wheat is stagnant, stupefied by the heat, animated only by squadrons of wood pigeon that over-fly it in number. It is hauntingly aromatic – haunting in the way it triggers memories of childhood summer dusks at play in harvest meadows, memories forgotten until now, in passing.

Four thirty and the shadows lengthen to a few yards. The eastern face of the house affords cool and shade now. And though I continue to write, to scan my lines, I am not thinking of anything, desiring nothing but the eternal elongation of this moment.

But I suppose I shall have to be thinking soon about what I want to make for tea.

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penyghent from horton irThere were three events at Horton in Ribblesdale on Saturday. I’m not sure what they were exactly but I assume each involved a lot of boots scrambling over the Dales’ three peaks – Penyghent, Whernside and Ingleborough. It also meant the carparks were pretty much filled up by mid-morning. It was a relief to find somewhere to leave the car on the overflow.

You can usually see Penyghent from Horton. It resembles the prow of a mighty ship, sailing a rolling green ocean of moor over Brackenbottom, but not today. It was in a strop over something, possibly all the attention it was getting. There was a riot outside the cafe, start of the three peaks route, an army of excited children, hundreds of them, squealing at a pitch fit to burst eardrums while their minders bellowed instructions. An optimistic notice on the wall urged a more respectful tone in consideration of neighbours. I hope none of them were trying to lie in that morning, let alone nursing hangovers.

Better get cracking then. The last thing I wanted was to get stuck at the back of that lot. I managed a ten minute start before I heard them swarming up the track behind me. It was a more strenuous ascent of the hill than I’m used to then, one lacking the luxuries I normally allow myself of lots of pauses to admire the view and take photographs. I would have let them pass, but there were other armies of pixies, elves and dwarves all mustering in the rear and it would have taken the entire day.

The route ahead was also very busy, in particular there were jams of jittery folk on all the craggy bits below the summit plateau, and then a walking day procession along the paved way to the trigpoint. More squealing children awaited my arrival there, while a party of crusty old curmudgeons cracked open a whisky bottle and splashed out generous measures of amber comfort. It was an eclectic gathering for sure, ages ranging from five to eighty five, the atmosphere one of festival, of celebration. There is no other hill like Penyghent on a weekend afternoon.

Starting out overcast, the weather had turned a bit edgy, a light breeze at valley level stiffening to a bitter easterly. I crouched on the leeward side of the wall, some distance away from the merriment. The wind was blowing clean through it, chilling the sweat on my back, so I used the sack as a windbreak and caught my breath at last – long slow breaths, filling my lungs with that musty, muddy, metallic air of the high places.

Then the army of elves, pixies and dwarves caught up, and the summit was lost to madness as they over-ran it. Time to move on. I pressed, squished and excused my way through the crowd to get anywhere near the stile, then queued for my turn to get over it. Ahead of me, crocodile after crocodile of three peakers headed west into the wind-blown mist, jackets flapping like lubberly spinnakers all along the well trodden way to Whernside. How a mountain can take such punishment as this, day in day out and remain beautiful, I don’t know. If you like your mountains quiet, and Penyghent’s still on your bucket list, come mid week, term-time, and come early.

Three Peakers are a mixed bunch and, yes, they make me grumble. It’s this apparent blindness to the metaphysical dimension of the hills, for how can they be tuned in to that when half of them have phones glued to their ears? They come to do battle, while for me a walk is more of a cooperative endeavour between oneself, the mood of the hill, and the weather. Still, I do admire their grit. I didn’t follow them, I headed north instead, along the line of the wall into a high moorland wilderness, towards the more sublime, summitless solitude of Plover Hill.

Plover Hill is Penyghent’s quieter, less intrusive neighbour. If we include it in our day’s outing it makes for a more significant leg-stretcher, the round from Horton being then a shade under ten miles. It also affords time for a more peaceful contemplation of the Dales. I did not meet a soul again until crossing the three peaks route once more, above Horton.

Conservation work has improved the descent from Plover Hill, which had begun to scar quite badly, recent rock-paving bringing us safely down to the broad valley that carries the Foxup road, a lonely, pathway, linking the villages of Foxup and Horton. If you’re looking to put some miles between yourself and the next person – even on a busy summer’s weekend in the Dales, Plover Hill and the Foxup Road are a good place to start.

Back at Horton, feet on fire by now, I was ready for a brew but the cafe was still besieged by screaming pixies. They looked too fresh to be returning, but couldn’t be setting off so late in the day, the whole three peaks round having to be completed in under 12 hours if you want your badge, and rather them than me, I thought. I gave them a wide berth, retrieved the car from the sheep plopped meadow, and drove to Settle for a more restful pot of tea and a toasted teacake at the Naked Man.

Early retirement from the rat-race features ever greater in my plans these days as the light at the end of my personal tunnel of captivity grows brighter. I have wondered about the Dales villages, of downsizing, of nesting up in an old stone cottage within sight and sound and easy access to these beautiful hills. It’s an idle fancy for now. I’m probably better where I am, just driving in as needs be, but if I did decide to do it, I wouldn’t be moving to Horton in Ribblesdale.

Simply too many boots on the ground these days.

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henry cordierI’ve been struggling with a feeling of shallowness of late, as if all the poetry has died – not just the writing or the reading of it, but the more visceral seeing of it in every day things. The dark lake of the unconscious through which I sift my fingers in order to light upon its treasures has been drained, and like an old canal, reveals now only a muddy bottom strewn with rubbish, chucked in over the decades, and none of it amounting to very much.

I know this isn’t how it really is, only that I am seeing it this way through an habitual downturn in my vision. In past years, in my search for the meaning I have touched on some significant jewels, mysteries, shadowy doorways through which I have glimpsed gardens of delight, all bathed in the ethereal glow of what I believe to have been a genuine spiritual revelation. In my journeys of the mind I have explored the nature of existence, not just on the material plane, but in the deeper places, beyond life and time and death. I have not come up empty but, like pebbles, all lustrous when wet, the visions have dried out now to a less alluring, less tangible patina. I think I understand the process, and must not lose heart. It’s part of the cycle of the creative life.

In the alchemy of the mind we progress from a fledgling stage of intellectual turmoil and spiritual darkness, what they call the nigredo. We apply the heat of the mind’s furnace to the base material, the soul held captive in the alembic of our life’s experience. The impurities rise, the surface blackens, the base undergoes transformation through a process of sublimation to higher and higher stages of awareness and understanding. Or so the theory goes. But in my personal journey, after brief openings in the clag-caked surface, I return again to the nigredo. I glance back over my shoulder and the black dog is stalking, and no matter how startling and real the revelations of past cycles, the attitude becomes one more of: “So what? It doesn’t alter the fact I still have to get up at half past six every weekday morning, and go to work.”

It’s a question then of the way we see things. I understand, I think, the process is not one of aiming for a destination of the mind, a transformation to some kind of super-humanness. We are already at the destination, always have been, so the destination, if that is what we must call it, is simply the realisation we need not have left home in the first place, that home is wherever you are right now, and all you can ever gain, the greatest gift in life, is the vision that enables you to see things properly, see again the depth and lustre in the dried out pebble, and in the world about you poetry, everywhere.

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the sea southportI began my last piece with the intention of waxing lyrical on the notion of loneliness, of isolation, and the apparent meaninglessness of life. But I ended up putting the world to rights on several tangential fronts sparked by the current political situation, and the picture of a gold plated motor car that somehow tipped me over the edge, puncturing what was left of my magnanimity. This is still relevant, but what I’d hoped to touch upon also was a way of seeing the world in which our current preoccupations with the state of it become in fact unimportant.

What I wanted to talk about was Between the Tides.

This was a book I wrote some years ago now, a novel, a story about two strangers, stranded on an imaginary island off the coast of Lancashire. Both protagonists have been damaged by life, both feel isolated, lost and alone. Phil likes to draw, likes to put his pictures up on Flikr. Adrienne writes poetry, keeps a literary blog but both have come to understand how futile such things are at least in so far as they reflect the Facebook generation’s fallacy, that the undocumented life is a life not worth living, that we are only as successful a human being as the number of followers we can boast.

between the tidesWe pass a stranger in the street. They are of infinite worth to themselves, occupy the central role in the drama of their own life, a life that is in each case a miracle of creation. Yet when we pass them by, only rarely do we remember them for long afterwards. As an individual then we are worth little to others, our lives irrelevant them. So what’s the point of being alive if no one really knows we’re there? This is the nihilistic end-game of the material world view. And we know it’s not true. Phil’s drawings and Adrienne’s poetry are important, but not in the way they originally believed.

What makes each of us important, and how can we return to that realisation, and rest easy in it, even if no one else knows we’re alive?

Both Phil and Adrienne are visionaries in that their lives are haunted, literally, by visions. Phil sees things out of the corner of his eye, overlays imaginary entities on reality like Pokemon Go, and receives intimations from them, suggestive of another, hidden dimension to the world. Adrienne has suffered a life changing accident, one that triggered a near death experience so profound she is confident of the reality of the continuation of her life after death, though what that means is no less confusing. She is also developing as a neopagan witch.

Both, in their separate ways are colouring the world through the lens of their imaginations. They see patterns where others see nothing. They can view a landscape, both seeing it, visually, and feeling it, emotionally. In the brief time they are stranded together, each learns not to fear their visionary experience, more to trust in it, and to take it forward. Phil and Adrienne are extreem examples, but we can each follow their lead, since we all possess the faculty of imagination.

In the material world we try to describe the meaning of the universe, but in a language that is entirely inadequate, a language lacking the vital dimension of insight. Contrary to belief, however, through the visionary experience, the world makes even less sense, descends into a kind of incoherent anarchy. But we lose also the childish need to make sense of it. Instead, embracing the ambiguity, we realise at once each our own meaning and our importance. This is our true and real celebrity.

So forget Facebook. It’s doing your head in and those mysteriously apposite little adverts will one day have you dropping your trousers in public. Instead, like Phil and Adrienne, try seeing the world through the lens of your imagination a little more, and don’t be afraid of where it takes you.

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