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Archive for the ‘Mysticism’ Category

Spies are interested in secrets, and will go to extraordinary lengths to obtain them. But for all their efforts, do spies keep us safe? They protect the interests of their home countries, or at least a certain demographic within them, but, taken worldwide, is the number of innocents lost to violence, any less than if the spies, as a profession, had not bothered to glean their secrets, or is it perhaps even the worse for it?

It’s a question suggested by a line from a le Carré spy novel, and it got me thinking. Around the same time, a beech tree came down in winter storms. I’d known it since childhood and thought it would stand forever. Its loss was a shock, and seemed an ill omen, considering all that was going on in the world, and in particular my own country – politically, socially, economically. And then there’s the old Zen thing – which isn’t actually a Zen thing – about how the tree that falls alone makes no sound.

Corruption in high places, staggering levels of inequality, unaffordable rents and energy, children eating erasers at school to stave off hunger pains. Britain, in 2022. Is that enough of a dystopia, or shall we project it forward a little? 2025, say? Or 2030? It should be easy enough to plot where we’ll be, given current trends, but do we really want to go there?

This is the background music as I sit down to write, in early 2022, and what takes shape over the course of the year is a story called A Lone Tree Falls. It proposes the quest for a secret, and the searcher is a former spy turned mystic. But this is no ordinary secret. This is the Secret above all secrets.

The Secret above all secrets tells us the world isn’t what we think it is, that our obsession with the materiality of it is a misunderstanding of the way things are. It is an illusion, and all we do by our obsession with it is perpetuate it. This is not to say we have any choice. It is our fate that our mortal lives at least are spent abiding in this state, but we do have a choice in how we react to it. We can either persist in ignorance of the deeper picture, in which case we gain nothing, and we finish our lives pretty much where we started. Or we can wake up.

Waking up begins with the lone tree that falls, and the realisation it made no sound, and it goes on to the conclusion that there is no difference between you and whatever you are looking at, that all there is to anything is mental phenomena, though the strict rules, spun out of an evolving Universe, leave us no option but to deal with the world as it appears – as solidly real and (mostly) impermeable to the will. But if that revelation is not to implode into the absurdity of philosophical solipsism, one must also wake up to the notion that the essence of one’s self, like everything else, is dreamed into being by the Universe, and not the other way round.

This is the mystical path. It’s a well trodden one, but what’s the point of it? My guess – since I’m only writing about it, rather than making a career of it – is, once you arrive at that destination, it affects your dealings with other people, who, like you, are dreamed into being. So, we are all the same in this respect, both the dreamers and the dreamed. The feeling you have of your own awareness of self, is the same as everyone else’s. All that’s different is our back-story. The other man’s pain, whether you like that guy or not, is your own pain. Hurt him, and you hurt yourself.

But it’s one thing to be told a secret, quite another to believe it. But such is the quest of our protagonist, this former spy of sorts who is also mostly the Fool from the Tarot, or sometimes the Magician, when he needs to be.

I didn’t want to write this story. I wanted to write a simple boy meets girl romance, but the story had other ideas and wanted out. We’re pretty much there with it now, and I’ll have it up on Smashwords in the coming weeks. As for the conclusion, does my protagonist believe in the Secret? Do I? Can we even get there by a pathway of words and thoughts? Or is that just part of illusion as well? I don’t know. We’ll see.

Next time though, next time, it will be a simple boy meets girl romance.

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A wet week looks like having us confined mostly to barracks. Since the youngest flew the nest, last year, I have acquired a study. It has a view of the garden, and beyond, to a once grand ash tree, now beginning to die back. We resist the obvious metaphor, focus instead on the stripes of the lawn, and the remaining splashes of colour among the heleniums.

I’m thinking about something that happened a long time ago. It was a moment of transcendence, I think, one in which there was no difference between who I was, and what I was looking at. That I happened to be looking at Scope End, a shapely cone of a mountain in the Newlands Valley, made this a very grand experience indeed. And whether it was a genuine taste of oneness, as the Buddhists would have it, or just a bit of a funny do, is largely irrelevant at this stage. I’m inclined towards the former, since it has remained fresh in memory all these years, and has driven a lot of creative efforts in mystical directions, though I readily accept the possibility of the latter.

It’s hard to imagine everything we see as being made of atoms: the lawn, the heleniums, and the old ash tree. We know it to be so, thanks to the elementary science we learned at school, but we still tend not to think of things that way. To do so would lend the world a layer of complication we can manage perfectly well without, day to day. Atoms are mostly space, yet the world looks solid. Go down another level, and atoms are made of smaller particles. Then again, these smaller particles are made from even smaller particles, none of which are actually particles, but more like twists of energy, vibrating in what is called the Unified Field. The field is a thing beyond which there is nothing, because it is nothing, yet it gives rise to the world, to the universe of appearances.

It’s also here, while conducting science at this subatomic level, the consciousness of the observer has an effect on what manifests, on that which is observed, which leads to speculation that the unified field – if not in itself actually aware – is the ground from which even consciousness arises. All of this is simply to say that when I am looking at the ash tree, my relationship to it is more complicated than surface appearances, and certainly more complicated than I am ordinarily aware.

All of this, the last hundred years or so of scientific thinking finds itself converging on the Vedic tradition, which speaks also of a fundamental ground of being, an emptiness, a nothingness, a formlessness, timeless and infinite, from which all things arise. And the tradition holds that this state can be experienced directly, either by diligence in the practice of meditation, or you can even sometimes fall into it by accident.

In my case, the accident occurred at the tail end of a long and very beautiful walk in the mountains, some time around the millennium. It probably lasted only the length of time it takes for the raising of a foot, as I walked, and the placing of it down again, but, internally, the experience was much more expansive, and timeless. It posed many questions, of course, and the subsequent search for answers became a considerable part of my leisure time thinking, thereafter, a search for which one feels poorly equipped, bound as one is by the nine to five-ness of ordinary, suburban circumstances.

Scope End, June 2005

Although I have speculated on it before, a firmer link between Vedic – also to some degree Buddhist – philosophy and the Unified Field of contemporary physics came to me only recently while revisiting some old notes on Transcendentalism – Transcendent meaning a direct experience of the ground of being, or the divine, or however you want to put it. I first heard the term, long ago, when a work’s doctor was interviewing me, after I’d fainted. I was a manufacturing apprentice, and my mate had injured his finger on a machine. He swore, and I fainted. I came round in a sweat, the doc pronounced me fit, told me to get back out on the shop and then, as if he had peered into my soul, added that I’d probably benefit from some form of Transcendental Meditation. It was perhaps the single most sage piece of advice I was ever given, but I ignored it.

And just as well I did, because the “official” Transcendental Meditation (TM) would have been beyond my means. Even if I’d found a teacher, TM costs you serious money, and I’d a long way to go before I was ready, or desperate enough to take any form of meditation seriously, but especially one where they asked you for money. Now, I’ve no reason to doubt TM is as effective as they say it is – even though most of those saying it are celebrities who can well afford it – but there are plenty of other forms you can learn from books, or from inexpensive church hall classes, if you want to give it a go.

As for TM in particular, it’s a technique defined by the use of a mantra, a meaningless word that has a certain resonance in the mind as it is silently repeated. In the official TM that mantra is a secret – specific to you – given to you by your teacher and never to be shared. Naturally, this raises some sceptical eyebrows. Personally, I think you could find your own mantra, and that will do just as well.

I’ve used meditation – though not TM – as a means of controlling stress and anxiety, mostly work related, and found it effective, but it never took me back to that moment in the mountains. Then again, I don’t meditate very often these days, and I’m not sure I want, or need, to go back to that moment anyway, because it raised more questions than I can ever answer, at least in this lifetime. But I’m grateful for the glimpse behind the curtain, so to speak, if indeed that’s what it was. It’s certainly gifted me plenty of speculative avenues to explore over the years, and the mind has enjoyed toying with them in my various fictional writings.

It’s deeply strange to look at a mountain and have one’s consciousness expand until one is both oneself, and the mountain. That’s too clumsy a way of putting it. Perhaps a better way is to say the unified field contains both the manifestation of the mountain, and one’s own consciousness, and that, for a moment, one attains a glimpse of both, from some higher perspective.

Of course the ego resists even this one small concession, that while it might be possible this is the way it really is, Ego denies any certainty of belief, that beyond granting the world is indeed a beautiful place, and at times hauntingly so, it would sooner take anchor in a materiality we know full well to be a serious simplification of the way things truly are.

And now, after all of that, the sun is shining, so we’ll slip out for a walk, while the going is good, and I’ll leave you in the company of David Lynch (Lost Highway, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive) who I think explains it very well.

Thanks for listening

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The falls on Stepback Brook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darwen Tower – Yorkshire Dales beyond

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

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

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

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

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

Darwen Tower

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

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

Darwen Moor

Thanks for listening.

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Living responsibly in an unfinished world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Spitler’s Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fare thee well, pilgrim, and thanks for listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dreaming. 1860. J. Israels

You’re out driving, and there’s a cop car at the side of the road. He’s pulled someone over and is serving them a ticket. You cruise past, glance through your passenger window, and the scene triggers a flash-back to last night’s dream – the same type of cop car, glimpsed through the passenger side window. So you think: that’s a neat coincidence. Right?

It wasn’t exactly the same situation. In the dream, you were parked, and the cop car pulled alongside, and the cop said: “You don’t mind if I park here, do you, sir?” But you were definitely looking at this same kind of cop car, through the passenger side window. And if things had happened the other way around, say you’d seen the cop car, and then the next night it had popped up in your dreams, you’d know where the dream had borrowed it from. But as things stand, it was just a coincidence. Anything else, and the dream had seen your future. And that’s not possible. Is it?

So then, some nights later, you dream you’re out in a part of the countryside you’ve not been to for years. It’s not an extraordinary dream – just your usual muddle of inside out and back to front stuff, the one thing bleeding into the other, and no particularly coherent narrative. Then you wake, and you reach for the phone, and you read the blogs you follow, and a guy has posted a piece on that same part of the countryside, which triggers the memory of the dream, and you think: that’s odd. Another coincidence? Sure. Or maybe you caught a glimpse of that blog before you slept, and you just forgot. Because anything else is impossible. Right?

So then you dream you’re talking to a notorious world leader in your back garden – like you do – but you’re struggling to understand what he’s saying, and you’re worried he’ll think you’re a bit numb, but you can’t help it because he’s contorting the upper left side of his lip in the most peculiar way, which distorts his speech. The next evening you decide to check out a film on Netflix, in which it turns out the lead man is portrayed with a hair lip, which has the same way of moving as in the dream. It breaks the dream, so to speak, brings back the memory of it. Another coincidence? Startling one too, this. Or maybe you caught a trailer for the film before you slept, and you just forgot.

These are all dreams I’ve collected over the last few weeks. And the question arises: how many dreams like that does it take, before the only reasonable conclusion you can come to is that your dreams are indeed previsioning little bits of your future? The thing to note is the banal nature of the images, and the fact we’re seeing in the dream what we will see, ourselves, at a point in our own future. We’re not talking about any dramatic premonition of calamity. Nor are we claiming any paranormal faculty. It seems to be the normal way the mind – any mind, your mind, my mind – Hoovers up observed events and regurgitates them in distorted form, in dreams. It’s just that the dreams seem to have access to events you haven’t observed yet. Only by habitual observation of the visual details of your dreams do you realise it. And who’s crazy enough to do that?

Isolated instances can perhaps be dismissed as coincidence, but the longer we pay attention to our dreams, and the more hits we score, the less likely coincidence becomes. Of course, if you’re of a materialist, reductionist mindset, no matter how many dreams you have, you’ll still call it a coincidence, or you’ll swerve your dreams altogether, believing them to be nonsense anyway, so the problem will not arise for you.

Others have written at length on this phenomenon, namely J W Dunne, J B Priestly and more recently Gary Lachman. Tentative explanations involve additional levels of consciousness, each with its own time reference. I can’t say for sure if this is right, but it does make a kind of sense. Let’s say, as a working hypothesis, it’s plausible, but it also strikes me that, even when science means well by the unknown, it comes across as being somewhat primitive in its toolkit.

So if we are indeed opening a crack in time by paying attention to our dreams, we have to accept there are no definitive explanations about what’s going on. There are only more questions. What draws us forward are the tantalising hints at unexplored human potential. We’ve been a long time evolving, but there’s nothing to say we’re yet done adapting to our environment, even as we shape it. In this light, precognitive dreaming might be a thing we’re evolving towards, an evolutionary mutation still looking for an advantage in the world we’re creating. Or maybe such precognition was an advantage in our hunter-gatherer past, say, warning of the bear we were to encounter in the woods next day, and which risked killing us. But now it’s a faculty that’s atrophied for want of use, like one’s appendix, or coccyx. Still, there are plenty of dangers facing us in the contemporary world, yet my dreams seem more concerned with quirky art-house details than risks to life and limb – so maybe that’s not its function at all. I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

Philosophers paint such a gloomy picture of the human condition, the existentialists having concluded we’re just an accident of nature, and better off adjusting to that fact, than hanging on for something transcendent, or for hints of meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe. Given the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, one can hardly blame them for reaching such a bleak conclusion. Nor is the twenty-first shaping up to be any better. But I think nature has left enough clues in the shadows to hint at a path, which has the potential to lead us from the dark forest the philosophers have abandoned us in. I am confident we are more than we seem, and that there is more to the world, to its space and time.

Then again, before we set foot down this path, we must be sure what beckons is not simply a will-o’-the-wisp, leading us to drown in a bog of groundless speculation. Maybe there is a rational explanation for that cop car, the country roads, and the hare lip, one that doesn’t sound even more far-fetched than the suggestion we sometimes see our future. Selective bias and coincidence are the usual explainaways. Belief in the paranormal is another, as it’s highly correlated with a propensity towards selective bias and outright self-delusion. Still, none of these ring true to me, in this insance, but then I suppose they wouldn’t. From your own perspective, of course, the obvious explainaway is that Dunne, Priestly, Lachman, and me, we’re all making it up, that we story tellers are simply looking for attention, or to fill column space on an otherwise dull day.

That’s fine, until you have such a dream yourself, and then you cannot help but wonder.

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Drybones Dam and the fishpass, Birkacre

This post concerns a dead dog, witchcraft, and the fact there’s nowt so queer as folk. But first, the anemones!

I wrote last time of my attempt to take pictures of the wood anemones around Birkacre and Drybones wood. But I had left my memory card at home, so my camera was useless. Instead, I enjoyed the walk for the opportunity to experience “presence”, and the muse presented me with a poetic challenge: how to turn nihilistic crud into the alchemical gold of enlightenment. I’m still pondering that one.

I didn’t intend returning today, and certainly not so soon after my previous visit. I had intended a walk in the West Pennines, but a massive traffic jam rerouted me, so here we are, as if by magic, back at the Birkacre visitor centre, where there are even more people and more dogs than last time.

On the plus side, it’s looking like a better day for photography, a better light, with more persistent sunshine. As for the crowds, they tend not to venture much further than Drybones dam, on the Yarrow. Ten minutes beyond that, into the woods, and they are forgotten. The woods are pungent today with wafts of spring earth and allium. The anemones are in profusion. I get my fill of photographs, and resolve to return in a few weeks, hopefully timing it for when the anemones are accompanied by the bluebells and the starry heads of wild garlic.

The deep wood for me is that which fills the valley of the horseshoe of the River Yarrow. An ancient highway – actually a narrow muddy track – leads us to through it. I have known this area since boyhood, and used to hunt it with an air-rifle in the days when it was less frequented, and before I knew better. So, yes everywhere is more well trodden than it used to be, but the woodland is still a special, quiet place, a place of contemplation, of calm. Woodlands possess certain liminal properties that put us on the edge of “otherness”.

I have begun to notice a trend for floral tokens, left in discrete places, places near water or in the embrace of trees. They are, I presume, transient memorials to the departed. I have also noticed bolder evidence of folk religion – aka witchcraft – these being items handcrafted from natural materials and hung from the branches of trees. Our organised religions are struggling for membership. Indeed, I predict all but the most fundamentalist Christian congregations will be gone in a generation. But there is still something in many of us that seeks connection with that sense of the “other”, and it finds expression any way it can. Thus, today, we note in passing the budding alder is home to a small woven pentangle.

The way leads us on to the ancient Duxbury Hall estate, once a massive manicured parkland, now reverted largely to nature. At this point we can swing back to Birkacre, or we can continue our way following the Yarrow upstream, and make a loop through the woodland of Duxbury park. We choose the latter.

It’s as we follow our nose here, I am reminded of Beavis, and an unfinished story I began to write years ago, but paused at the punchline, not wanting to intrude upon the original legend with my own version of it. But today, I don’t care, and I’m going to go for it. But first, let’s see if he’s still around. Beavis was, and in some sense still is, a dog, a big, fast hunting hound with a very loud bark.

The original memorial to Beavis in Duxbury Woods

The grave of Beavis has been a feature of these woodlands since 1870, when Susan Standish, of Duxbury Hall, had a memorial stone laid in gratitude for the dog rousing the house on the night of a fire, the year before,1869. Thanks to Beavis, everyone got out, while the house itself suffered badly and had to be partially rebuilt. That’s as far as the story goes, but there’s something wrong with it, and I’ll explain in a moment, see what you think.

It’s a while since I was last at the site, and half expected by now the statue of the dog to have been carried off, or vandalised, as is the way with these things. The original statue suffered that fate, in the early twentieth century, leaving only the memorial plaque to weather the years, and pass on its enigmatic sentiment.

Proceeding upstream, the memorial is on the right-hand bank of the Yarrow. It’s sometimes missed, as there are a profusion of ways through the wood, many of them leading to a quagmire. But if you stick close to the river, you’ll find him all right. And I’m pleased to discover he’s in fine fettle, at least for a dog that’s been dead since 1842.

Did we say 1842?

Well, the memorial stone reads:

“All ye who wander through these peaceful glades,
Listening to the Yarrow’s rippling waves,
Pause and bestow a tributary tear.
The bones of faithful Beavis slumber here.”

1842

This remembrance erected by Susan Mrs Standish, 1870

So, the memorial tells us the dog died in 1842. Then we have the documented record of the fire at Duxbury Hall in 1869, and the story of the dog raising the house, and Mrs Standish’s subsequent laying of the memorial in gratitude, in 1870. Logical conclusion: the beast that roused the house in 1869 was not Beavis, at least not in any corporeal form, because Beavis had already been in the ground for sixteen years. Question: Are we dealing with a ghost dog? Did the Standishes lay the dog properly to rest with a suitable memorial in 1870, because, on the night of the fire, they realised, it had been running the woods undead since 1842. If so, lucky for them it had!

So far as I’m aware, this version of events has not passed into local lore, and, if true, is a story that went to the grave with the last of the Standishes. I prefer my version to the original, even though I’ve possibly embellished it beyond what is decent, and romantic though the original is. But there we are. You heard it here first!

From the memorial, the going becomes more difficult further upstream, the Yarrow having washed its banks out in various places, and taken the path with it. But with a bit of scrambling and thrashing about in the undergrowth, we reach the bridge which grants access to the opposite bank. Here, there’s a better path to bring us downstream, and which completes our diversionary loop through the history – natural and otherwise – of Duxbury wood.

This particular route is popular with visitors, and presents no difficulties. In various places, the refreshing scent of mature pine mingles with the sweet and sickly presence of something more weedy. I remind myself not to be around here after sundown, and not because I’m scared of ghosts – well, not of Beavis anyway. I’ve known him since I was a kid, and I think we’re on friendly terms.

And speaking of dogs, finally, we return to the crowds and their dogs around the visitor centre. On the car park, there is a dirty slouch of a man who is allowing his dog to dash about on the loose. It’s interfering with the dogs of other people, and with the people themselves. Most politely ignore the annoyance. Some make timid remonstrations, to be greeted at once with a stream of disproportionate invective. I do not like the F word in mixed company, and especially not when young children are around, but then I’m knocking on in years, and the world is changing.

People are strange creatures. It’s a wonder we get along as well as we do. Nor is it any wonder why sometimes we don’t.

If you go down in the woods today,…

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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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J B Priestly was a writer with a broad scope. He was also a social commentator, playwright, broadcaster and literary critic. Born in Barnsley, he began his working life as a clerk in a wool firm. Writing in the evenings, he found success with articles placed in London newspapers.

He was badly wounded in the first world war, and indeed experienced much at that time that was to haunt him for the rest of his life. Post-war, he gained an officer’s scholarship to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he studied literature, and from there he went on to become a well known, and rather well-to-do English man of letters.

Published in 1971, Over the Long High Wall is, as he describes it, a reflection on the nature of life, death and time. Time is where Priestly and I meet, both of us having an interest in the precognitive nature of dreams, a subject it’s easy to lose one’s way with, but to which I find him a sober and sensible guide.

He was a powerful dreamer, occasionally stumbling across things in his dream life that subsequently happened, and could not easily be explained away as coincidence. This is a difficult subject to deal with, since there is no explanation for it, and indeed much scepticism. Readers of a hard, rational bent will understandably reject it out of hand. But when it happens to you, you’re compelled to take an interest, which inevitably leads to questions concerning the nature of time and being, and here we need a steady hand if we are not to fall foul of crack-pottery. Better we acquaint ourselves with the thinking of a no-nonsense, pipe smoking Yorkshireman, like Priestly.

If we can dream ahead of time, it suggests the mind is not as firmly fastened down in space or time, as we suppose. It can wander some way ahead, which begs the question, do we have free will? If we have already dreamed a thing, is it inevitable we shall encounter it? Or, being forewarned, can the future be changed? And if it can, what happened to the version of things we saw? It also begs the question, if the mind is not so firmly coupled to brain function, can some part of it survive beyond bodily death. These are interesting questions, but anyone, particularly a famous person, bringing them into the open, is liable to be attacked by rational sceptics, and pilloried as a fool, or charlatan.

J B Priestly – 1940

Throughout the book, Priestly describes the world, as constructed by rational sceptics, and goes on at some length to explain why he doesn’t think very much of it. Written in 1971, he could easily be describing the world as it is now. He calls it narrow, and life-shrinking. These sceptics, these zealous debunkers of all speculative forays of the mind, are the architects of the long, high wall of the title. It is a construct, he says, which prevents us from gaining a view of a higher, more noble, more meaningful mode of being.

His interest in the time question placed him within the orbit of the time theorist, J W Dunne, whose book “An Experiment with Time” (1927) was very popular, and indeed, still is. Like Priestly, Dunne had also run into precognitive dreams. Dunne was not what one might call an artistic, literary or dreamy type. He was a former military man, a man of science and engineering. Building on the theories of the mathematician Howard Hinton, and physicists Eddington, and Einstein – very much in vogue at the time – Dunne suggested the dreaming self operated in a so-called “fourth dimension”, one at right angles to our familiar three dimensions of space and linear time.

The fourth dimension allows the dreaming mind a full view of our line in time, while our waking mind is restricted to awareness of a single slice of space-time, this being “now”. But here’s where Dunne is an infuriating character to get a handle on. His book is fascinating up to the point where he goes on to explain his theory of precognitive dreaming, which, though he claims is simple, has me wondering if I have not suffered some sort of brain injury, since my own college days. His later books, intended to further simplify things for a more “popular” audience, I find even more bewildering. Reassuringly for me, Priestly is of a similar view.

He warns us that Dunne provides little service to brevity, no matter how hard he tries, but their friendship helped nurture the plot of several of Priestly’s plays, in which he “played” with the idea of time. “Time and the Conways” and “An Inspector Calls” are perhaps the most famous, though my personal favourite is the strikingly Ouspenskian: “I have been here before” set in a remote inn in the Yorkshire Dales, and archived (along with the others) as MP3 here.

Setting aside the entanglements of theory, the idea of there being a looseness to time opens up the human psyche to a more speculative field of enquiry, one into which the spirit soars, while the rational sciences tend only to shut it down. There is no such thing as precognition they say, there is a single line in time, we live, we die, and there is no point to anything. They create a closed world, in which the seedlings of spirit find only stony ground. Of course, science is correct to build itself up from foundations of solid evidence. But by this same yardstick, spontaneous cases of precognition in dreams must always be dismissed as anecdotal, as mere stories.

Which brings Priestly to the phenomenon of the professional sceptic. This is a person who sets themselves up as investigator and debunker of phenomenal claims. They are not necessarily of the scientific profession, often conjurers and showmen, or psychologists. He calls them the “camp followers” of science, who see it as their role to ruin the reputation of anyone daring to stick their necks above the parapet. And, whilst often the most shrill, their explanations, explaining away things like precognition, can also be the most tortuous and ridiculous, yet, having the “rational” on their side, the tortuous and the ridiculous are, sadly, the only explanations we are allowed to arrive at. Anything else is dismissed as bunk.

Clearly then, Priestly stuck his neck out, but there was more of an appetite for this kind of thing in the early part of the twentieth century than there is now. As for the evidence, or the theoretical expositions, he writes he didn’t much care one way or the other. He deals in greater depth with Dunne, and his own insights into dream precognition, in his longer work “Man and Time” (1964). Over the Long High Wall is more a rallying cry to the artists, the writers and the dreamers to dream their dreams anyway, regardless, because their lives will be all the larger and the richer for it, and to never mind the debunkers and life-shrinkers. For Priestly, there never was a long, high wall. He used his powers of imagination and intuition to simply walk right through it, and he invites us all to do the same.

Acknowledgements: Photo of J B Pristly by courtesty of – By National Media Museum from UK – J B Priestley at work in his study, 1940.Uploaded by mrjohncummings, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26198117

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