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Archive for the ‘philosophical’ Category

Our elementary teachers taught us the world is made of atoms. Atoms have a middle bit called the nucleus. The nucleus is made of protons and neutrons. Then there’s a cloud of electrons that orbits the whole thing. That’s an atom. But I’m losing you already. No need to be polite, I can feel it. There’s a resistance to these matters, I know, especially among the poetic, and the romantic. The material world, for us, is all oceans and trees and fluffy clouds. It’s birds and bees, and fancy red wine. It seems impertinent, even a bit dangerous, to enquire any deeper, but I thought I’d have a go anyway, see if at the bottom of this rabbit hole, there is any poetry.

Here goes then:

If we make it to higher school physics, we learn the number of protons, neutrons and electrons decides what type of atom it is – iron, titanium, helium, zinc,… whatever. Atoms of different types can combine to make molecules. Molecules make more complex materials.

College physics goes further – and here we start our journey into a realm of exotic language. Electrons, says our old, white-coated lecturer, are stable elementary particles. They are indivisible, and have an independent existence. But protons and neutrons are made of ephemeral things called quarks. Quarks come in six varieties, or “flavours”. Someone with no sense of humour called them: up, charm, down, bottom, top, and strange.

Then we meet the spaced out post-grad, high on weed, who explains things further: on their own, quarks are flaky and useless, but they combine into groups called hadrons. Hadrons are like teams. You’re stronger and last longer, as part of a team. The hadrons come in two varieties: mesons and baryons. The mesons are pairs of quarks. These are unstable and gone in the blink of an eye. It’s always an early bath being on team meson. The baryons are three quarks in various combinations, and they fare better. We find our protons and neutrons in this group, and they’re the most stable, especially the protons. Well, they last long enough at least to make atoms, and the world, and therefore a party worth us showing up for. The rest of the baryons are little better than the mesons in being here today and gone tomorrow.

Protons have two “Up” and one “Down” quark, while neutrons have two “down” and one “up” quark. It’s a tough job, being a quark. If you want to hang around for long enough to make a difference in the world, you need to be on a team of uppers and downers.

But you remember the electron? It’s not alone in being a stable elementary particle. There are five others: the electron-neutrino, muon, muon-neutrino, tau, and tau-neutrino. These form an independent super-team called the leptons.

So, where are we? I’m getting lost now. We have leptons, and hadrons. The hadrons consist of mesons and baryons. The leptons and the quarks, which form the hadrons, are all known as fermions. The fermions are what can manifest as matter. Everything else is a ghost. But just when you were thinking you’d had enough, and your head’s starting to spin, you discover there’s another team that gives rise to the forces of nature, and these are the tough guys, the bosons.

There are five bosons: the Higgs, the photons, the gluons, the W bosons, and the Z bosons. Each force has its own boson. The strong force has the “gluon”, the electromagnetic force has the “photon”, and the weak force has the “W and Z bosons”. The Higgs is a special case, and gives rise to the mass of any particles it interacts with. Particles have no mass of their own and have to borrow it from the Higgs, which is harder to describe as a particle because it isn’t one. It’s a field that pervades the entire universe.

In fact, says that stoner post-grad, the thing is, there are no particles as such, even though we say there are. It’s just an analogy, something we can visualise, but that’s not to say particles are what they are, literally.

A better, though more mysterious, description is a field of potential. Like the surface of a lake, when you apply energy, by swishing your hand in it, it causes a ripple. The ripple is the particle. But the particle isn’t a particle, it’s a localisation of energy. It’s all energy, you see? Or rather, you don’t, because there’s nothing to see. So, the punchline is the more you peer into the materials that make up the world, the more you begin to realise there’s actually nothing there. And that’s the only way anything can be said to exist at all.

Now that’s poetry!

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A week of heavy rain and brutal winds defeats the lead flashing around the chimney, and the roof begins to leak. Again. I hear it dripping into the buckets in the attic, as the wind roars in the chimney. I called a roofer out, and he turned up, which is always a surprise, but his face was covered, and he kept ten paces away. A touch of flu, he said. I felt guilty then, asking him to go up on the roof, but he said he could see the problem from ground level, then disappeared back to his bed with promises to return when it stopped raining. It’s been raining pretty much for a week now. I wish him a speedy recovery, a clearing in the forecast, and hope he’s not forgotten me.

I never used to fret about the integrity of the old homestead. The former day-job tended to exhaust my allotment of anxieties. But take away one set of problems, and a mind that’s so inclined finds others to occupy itself with. Now, in retirement, I imagine the house gremlins undermining the place, so it’ll fall down around my ears, in spite of all efforts at maintenance over the decades of my residence. It doesn’t help when the foul weather keeps you indoors. There are home-birds who’d happily never set foot outside their gate, except to walk to the corner shop for a paper, but I’m not one of them. Being indoors for more than a few days drives me nuts. And it’s been over a week now.

But we were talking about writing. And of that imaginary world, the writing world, doors open and close. We cultivate the dream life for clues, we sit at the desk each morning like we’re still working from home – like during those covid lockdown days – and we tickle the keys, then delete the nonsense that comes out. The dreams are beguiling, but it’s anyone’s guess what they’re trying to say: the muse wishes to be seen as something other than what I have thus far always thought her to be, or something like that; the storm lamp I use to navigate my way through complex change has lost its wick and all its fuel; then I am required to make a sworn statement by a shallow, pompous official, who I tell in no uncertain terms to “f&*k off”. Dreams are quite the thing, aren’t they? But mostly hard to fathom. No matter – just keep stirring the pot. See what bubbles up.

Thus, we await the muse’s midnight pleasure. I’m hoping for something of a change from the usual existential rumination – a powerful romance, say, or a murder mystery, or something with a bit of humour in it. We could all do with a laugh, though the times are weighed agin’ us on the latter score, which is all the more reason to laugh at the absurdity. Shall we talk then of back-ground music?

Britain starts the new year in such a peculiar state of crisis, one that’s impossible to ignore, yet seems also pointless to mention because it’s been going on so long there is no novelty left in it that’s worth exploring. I have deleted the BBC News app from my phone, because it insists on trumpeting the Murdoch front pages. Facebook and Twitter I have never entertained. I spare the Guardian only a five-minute glance in the morning, which is plenty. It tells me the health service is in ruins, and you’re stuffed, unless you can pay. There is what amounts to an ongoing national strike, as wages are so poor workers literally cannot afford to live. Meanwhile, the government drifts into authoritarian territory, in thrall to the most cravenly disruptive elements within it, and is therefore unable to govern. And BREXIT, BREXIT,… no we dare not speak of BREXIT. Same old Muzak, then.

But that’s the thing with permacrises, I suppose, they’re – well – permanent. We adjust to the new normal, and thank our lucky stars we only have a leaking roof to deal with. But mostly I gather the media is presently obsessed with a gossipy book by an exiled Royal. I know this because everyone I know is talking about it. Well, not everyone, but enough to remind me how easily we are distracted by cakes and ale.

Oh, there is a feast of material here for someone of the stature of an Orwell, but an Orwell I am not. When on my soapbox, I am but a little dog growling at the moon, and the muse gently coaxes me back down. But where to, I ask?

Then my elusive GP sends out a questionnaire, asking me to rate his performance. There could be some material in this, for it strikes me as both obtuse and ironic. The questions don’t allow me to indicate I have tried to see him on a number of occasions, one of them urgently – or so I thought – and was rebuffed with directions to the warzone that is A+E. I throw the Byzantine missive away, his officious receptionist reminds me by text. I ignore it. We have built a world of bullshit and fantasy performance indicators, while allowing all substance to fall away. Plenty of material there – but again that’s for an Orwell.

No, the muse is drawing me to an island, or a remote valley. But we’ve already been there, and done that to death, I protest. No, this time it will be different, she says, as she relights my lamp. Trust me.

Such is the writing life, and the little gaps between.

The forecast is for dry next week. I hope that roofer turns up.

Thanks for listening.

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My thanks to fellow blogger Ashley for his mention of this book, which I was inspired to read over the Christmas and New Year period, and what a wonderfully hopeful message it offers. Indeed, what better way to start the New Year than with an entirely fresh view of humanity, that if we could only realise our true natures, so many of the problems plaguing societies the world over would be solved.

Sounds too good to be true? What is this magical formula? Well, it’s a simple idea, and not particularly radical. It’s an idea backed up by centuries of data, yet somehow conveniently ignored. What is it? Well, it’s simply that most human beings, deep down, are not self-seeking individuals with scant regard for the welfare of others. They are decent, and will go out of their way to help you.

An aircraft crashes on takeoff. Do people panic and make a mad stampede for the doors? Or does everyone help each other, make sure everyone is okay and gets out alive? If asked, we’d say the first scenario, the mad selfish panic, is the most likely outcome, because that’s what happens in the movies. And the media is daily full of examples of the selfish, indeed the downright nasty natures of our fellow beings – so be on your guard because all strangers are out to get you, trick you, scam you, or at the very least get ahead of you in the queue for the door. But, in fact, studies show we’d be wrong, that it’s the second option we’d most likely observe in reality. By far the majority of people really would help one another, even at the risk of their own lives.

Rutger Bregman is an historian, a left leaning intellectual, and a powerful advocate for a Universal Basic Income. His YouTube TED talk “Poverty isn’t lack of character, it’s lack of cash” is up to nearly four million views. His opinions regarding the positive nature of human beings are at times counter-intuitive, to the extent of being hard to swallow, and he triggers much invective from the right-leaning. But his argument runs that our “intuitions” have been poisoned by the media we consume, that the data alone should be convincing enough, and he draws upon several fascinating examples to illustrate his point.

One of the motives behind the civilian bombing campaigns of the second world war was the already discredited theory it would inflict such terror in the minds of the population, the state wouldn’t be able to function. London would empty, the country would become ungovernable, and fall apart. However, the lesson of the blitz was that, in spite of the most appalling loss of life, life went on, the population adjusted to the new normal – terrible as it was – and their resolve deepened. And this was not a peculiarity of the British character, either. The same thing happened in Germany, under allied bombing, and in Vietnam under American bombing, and it’s happening now in Ukraine.

There is nothing better for forming bonds of fellowship, and bringing out the finest and the bravest, and the most altruistic in human nature than adverse circumstances. So the mystery is why our societies are organised on the assumption that we’re all greedy, dishonest, and self-seeking. It’s an urgent question, too, for this pessimistic, and endlessly competitive view of human nature has brought us to the brink of disaster, with massive levels of poverty, and inequality.

Bregman boils his thesis down into ten rules that he says we should all follow, to put things right:

1) When in doubt, assume the best in others.

2) Life is not really a competition where there must always be a loser. The best scenarios are where everybody wins.

3) Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Ask them first. Their needs may be different to yours.

4) Do not simply empathise with the suffering of others. It’s useless and you’ll go mad. Be compassionate instead.

5) Try to understand others, even if you don’t get, or even like, where they seem to be coming from.

6) Love your own as others love their own, while remaining conscious of the love others have for their own. This will close the distance between us, and allow us to see others more as we see ourselves.

7) Avoid the daily news, and all push notifications from social media – they only serve to distance us from others. If you want current affairs, read in slower time from journals – monthlies, weeklies, for a more considered analysis. Ditch the news cycle.

8) Don’t punch Nazis. Meaning, don’t lend your own energy to the provocation of others, and resist the trap of cynicism regarding the fallacy of the entrenched nature of human folly.

9) Don’t be ashamed to do good.

10) To be truly realistic about the facts of human nature, we must discount the myth that most people are a bad lot. They’re not, and the facts bear it out. So, be true to your nature, offer your trust and act from the goodness of the heart.

But who among us has the courage? To be street-smart is a badge of honour – how not to get bushwhacked, or scammed, or mugged? We must basically expect the worst from strangers. We teach stranger danger to our kids. How dare we not? There is, after all, an epidemic of violence and crime against our persons. Or is there? Are we not simply being taught to fear?

Bregman tell us that, yes, of course, showing trust, we will occasionally be taken advantage of, but it’s a mistake to allow ourselves to become poisoned against the rest of our fellow man as the result. Reflecting on his message, uplifting as it is, I doubt I have the courage to live all ten of those rules, even though my own life experience does bear out his thesis. I have fetched up more than once as an innocent from the sticks, in Liverpool, a town that has the reputation – in the media at least – of the wild west, and each time I have been aided by perfect strangers, with genuine heart and feeling. But my transactional experience with people also suggests that, although a person’s primary instinct may be open and altruistic, if they are given any excuse for thinking they have been slighted, they will turn against you very quickly.

A very uplifting read, from a fascinating author.

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Sunset pier #1, by Deep A.I.

One of the interesting things to pop up online recently has been the subject of art generated by so-called artificial intelligence (AI). It’s a subject for contentious debate: can something really be considered a piece of art if it has been “created” by a computer program, rather than a human being?

My interest was piqued by Lee McAuley of the Cuckoo Club Archives, who mentioned it in a recent piece, and to whom I give all credit for spotting it – I’d no idea it was so advanced. In order to explore the question, is it art? I’ve been playing around with a version called Deep AI – available to try here, and I fed it the following text:

An old pier running out to sea, sun setting, people walking towards the sunset, blue skies and tobacco coloured clouds, light rays, romantic, impressionistic style.

The result was the header picture. Then again, same input:

Sunset pier #2, by Deep A.I.

And again:

Sunset pier #3, by Deep A.I.

So, each image is unique: same words, different output. There’s also a remarkable alignment with the textual prompt, whilst maintaining the look of something definitely painterly, rather than a pastiche of images brutally cut and pasted from around the Internet. There’s something interesting here and, though there’s a temptation – as a human being who likes to think of himself as “creative” – to be dismissive of it, I don’t think we should be too hasty.

The freebie images are a modest 1024×512 pixels, but useable, say for blog illustration, or, with a bit of Photoshop enhancement, as e-book covers, or simply for pondering. I find them quite haunting and, in spite of their unique nature, strangely familiar in that they combine elements I feel I have seen before, but which are just out of reach of memory.

There are other online generators, free to try, but they all have some kind of limiter, or a token system, to prevent over-use of the servers. I also like Nightcafe Studio, which I fed the following prompt:

A young woman wearing a long, red dress. She is reclining on a chaise lounge. Victorian and romantic in style.

To which it responded:

Young woman in a red dress – by Nightcafe Studio A.I.

The result is somewhat lush and stylised, though not unpleasing, and nicely lit. She has an oddly shaped thigh, strange hands and what appears to be the stump of a third arm, but for all of that it would not look out of place on a gallery wall, given a suitably pretentious blurb. It’s also unique – sort of. No image will ever come out quite like this again. However, once you’ve got the image, you can copy and paste it as many times as you like, of course, which, like all digital art, renders it nothing more than a worthless and disposable curiosity, right?

Well, that brings us to non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which I looked at last year. NFTs and digital art go hand in hand. Digital art, whether it be by human or AI, is – by our normal calculations, based on supply and demand – of no value at all, because we can copy and paste it as many times as we like, and the result will be indistinguishable from the original. However, AI generated art can come with a unique digital token, which proclaims you as the owner of the original file, which is something that, in our topsy-turvy world, can then be traded. And, though it might sound unlikely, it being essentially the value of nothing, some tokens are trading for millions of dollars – or at least those that receive the most hype.

Here’s another one. Input: Man writing at a desk, background of bookcases. Lamplight. Studious, romantic atmosphere. Impressionistic.

The result:

Man writing – by A.I.

The debate over AI generated art also throws up the old chestnut about the nature of human consciousness, and the belief among the so-called “hard AI” scientists, that it’s just a question of time, and a critical mass of artificial neural complexity, before we create a sentient computer. But this kind of thinking is bourne out of a strictly materialist paradigm, and goes too far for me. Our machines are breathtakingly intelligent, but that’s not the same thing as saying they might ever become sentient. Like a chess playing computer, it does not arrive at its moves by thinking about them like a human player, but its moves are always good ones. It does the same job, but better. Like an electric saw, it’s better than a handsaw in certain applications, but only because we have made it so. And even then, we wouldn’t use it everywhere.

AI sentience also rather presupposes the brain is what generates consciousness, and I do not subscribe to that view either. I’m deeply impressed by A.I. generated artwork, but feel there’s a danger here of setting off down the wrong path in our appreciation of what it means and that, like all A.I., we should not be tempted to make the retrograde leap from master to servant. A.I. serves a purpose. It can protect, it can run complex services on our behalf better than we can ourselves, and it can entertain, but it cannot be allowed to control and delimit, either our actions as free beings, nor supplant our imaginations.

Another one: Input: A young woman in a long red dress, fantasy forest setting, backlit, lush greenery, light rays. Output:

Woman in a red dress, in the forest – by A.I.

A human artist invests time learning how to paint. Then, having mastered the art, a large painting might take months, or even years of the artist’s time to complete, and the end result is always going to be fragile. It’s likely then, a very old painting by a recognisably competent artist will have survived any number of potential calamities, and is worth all the more for its rarity, and the simple fact of its survival. By comparison, a computer generated artwork takes seconds to make, and the result can be backed up digitally so many times as to be virtually immortal. NFTs not withstanding, I know which artwork possesses the greater intangible value, the greater allure, to my own taste and I would care nothing for who owned the digital title to an AI generated artwork. All of which is to say, while AI can produce some stunningly beautiful and provocative images, let’s not lose our heads over what it means.

Is it truly art? Well, yes, I think it is, but certainly not like anything we have known before.

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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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This one’s not about cars. It’s more about bending life into art. Allow me to illustrate:

Soon, yes, and for a time, I am no longer thinking of Grace, but of Maggs. Again. I am sinking into Mavis, tapping with futile distraction at the ABS light, which is taken metaphorically now as a sign always of trouble ahead. And I note, these days, the light is on more often than it is not.

What is Mavis trying to tell me, then? What else could ABS stand for, other than Anti-lock Braking System? Abandon Bull Shit? Yes, that’s promising. Nothing worse than bullshit, is there? All Begins Somewhere? Hmm,… obviously true, but a little too philosophical for me, right now. So, how about: Avoid Bad Sex? The chance would be a fine thing, but actually best avoided completely – the bad, the good, and the mediocre.

From my story: Saving Grace.

Sometimes life imitates art, sometimes life becomes art, or it can be twisted into art. I drive an old car, my protagonist drives the same one and calls it Mavis. This is Mike Garrat, who volunteers at a charity bookshop run by his muse, Margaret (Maggs) Cooper. Throughout the writing of this story, I recall my car was driving me nuts, the ABS warning light coming on then going off again. It’s a common fault on my model of car, once they’re of an age, and is usually the sign of a failing sensor.

ABS means anti-lock braking system, an innovation that prevents the wheels from locking, and therefore skidding, when you hit the brakes hard, so shortening the stopping distance. When the light is on, the brakes still work, but the ABS doesn’t, so you risk coming a cropper in the wet if you slam on at high speed. It’s an MOT failure. So I’d think about taking it to the garage, but then the light would go out, and the car would be fine for weeks, and I’d forget about it, and then it would come on again. I did eventually have it repaired, and it was expensive. I wrote it into the story as a device through which Mavis would caution Mike over the things he was thinking or planning.

I’ve had a good run with mine, but the ABS light came on again this morning so, if I was Mike Garrat – which, fortunately, I am not – I’d be watching my step. Unlike last time, it’s a fairly unambiguous fault, the light staying on all the time. There are four sensors to go at, one for each wheel, but by scanning the engine control unit, you can find out which one’s on the blink. We’re booked in for a repair, and I’m hoping it’s not as expensive as last time. But whatever the cost it’s a lot cheaper than a new car, plus of course mine, ancient as it is, is irreplaceable. And then the longer she’s around, the more she justifies the carbon footprint of her manufacture.

She will eventually bite the dust, of course, and that’ll be a sad day, time to put my open-top roadster days behind me and get a grown up car again. But, like my protagonist, I seem to have conflated the notion of my own mortality with the reliability or otherwise of my car. It’s not a sensible thing to do, and certainly not rational. But threading a willing little roadster over the moors, or the high roads of the Lakes and the Dales on a fine summer’s day is worth all the frustration of ongoing maintenance, and is a dream worth preserving.

Life isn’t art, of course. It’s not an episode from a romantic story, or a movie with a soundtrack. Cars do not talk to people. Neither do the gods talk to people through their cars’ warning lights, any more than they do through other portents, or oracles, unless we choose to let them. So let’s explore the metaphor: Brakes. The brakes won’t work as well as they should. Go easy, then Mike. Not too fast. Don’t push your luck. I was planning a major expense in another area. The car is telling me not to rush into it. Warning duly noted. We’ll park that one for a bit, give it some further thought. I’ve a feeling we were going to do that anyway, but this confirms it. And we’ll also park the car, in the clutter of the garage, while she waits her turn in the workshop.

And since I’m feeling playful, I’m going to spoil Mike Garrat’s story by telling you the ending:

She’s looking a little anxious now, a little unsure of herself, as if her nerve is failing. She’s not ordered anything from the counter. Perhaps it’s just a passing visit, then. Perhaps I should ask her if she’d like something, so I might at least have the pleasure of her company over soup.

Don’t disappear, Maggs. Don’t leave it hanging like this. Let’s work something out.

“Listen,” she says, “I’ve taken that cabin in the Dales for a bit.”

“Cabin?”

You know, Mike. ‘The’ Cabin?

She clarifies: “Our Cabin.”

“Really?” Did she just say ‘our’ cabin?

“I’m going to take some time out, relax, catch up on my reading, you know?”

“Always a good idea to catch up on one’s reading, Maggs. Em,… so,… what exactly are you reading these days? Not another of those dreadful spank busters, I hope?”

She laughs, blushes.”No. Right now I’m reading the Joy of sex.”

“Really?”

“You were right, it’s rather good.”

“Précis it for me. One sentence.”

“Oh,… let me see. Taken in the right spirit, sex can be really good fun.”

“Ha! Nice one.”

“So, speaking of fun,… I thought it might be – well – fun, you know, if you joined me at the cabin, for a bit. Could you,… manage that, do you think?”

“I’m sure I can manage that, yes. “

She sighs, but only I think to cover the tremor in her voice, to steady it. “Lovely.” And then: “I,… I heard you’d built your house at last?”

“Yes. Would you like to see it?”

She nods, dives in, steals my bread roll and takes a bite of it. “Sorry. Starving. I’d like that very much, Mike.”

So, there we are,… a better place to leave it. I’ll be asking her to move in I suppose, eventually, but since we’re still pretending we’re not even in love, that might be a while off. There’s no rush, though, is there? Long game, and all that. But for now,… Cabin, Maggs, Joy of Sex,…

What more could a man ask?

Thanks for listening.

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The day begins with a scam text message purporting to be from the courier, Evri. It wants us to “Click here” to re-arrange delivery. I’ve not ordered anything. The sender intends emptying my bank account. I wonder how many poor souls have fallen for it, and thereby helped swell the coffers of an organised criminality the world seems unable to outwit. I wonder how they came by my number, since I am ever so careful with it. We block the sender for all the good it will do us, and, while we have the phone in our hands, we turn to the news.

In the UK, right leaning ministers of state are spurring hot-heads to violence with intemperate language. Internationally, the UN reports the last eight years were the hottest in recorded history, and that limiting global temperatures to what is calculated to be a relatively safe 1.5 degrees is now a forlorn hope with, thus far, no realistic plans in place, anywhere. In America, Trump looks set to begin a return to the presidency, following the mid-term elections, while various armed MAGA hatted militias are discussing outrages which threaten civil war. Back in the UK again, the pollster, Sir John Curtice, reports significant buyers’ remorse over BREXIT, with a 15% lead among the public for those in favour of now re-joining the EU, but the political debate has closed on that one, BREXIT being the one thing no one talks about. All this and we have only scrolled half way. What other grumblies await us down there? Shall we doom-scroll some more, and see? No, that’s quite enough.

We set the phone aside, rise into the cold of the house, make coffee and check on the washing machine.

Current affairs hold a significant fascination, dare I say even an addiction. We imagine, by keeping ourselves informed of the various goings-on, we gain a greater understanding of the world, that it is a virtuous thing to do, the mark of an intelligent, well-balanced and educated person. At least that is what I was encouraged to think at college, forty years ago. Now I’m not so sure. The media landscape has something of the nature of quicksand about it. Perhaps it always had, and I am simply less sure-footed than I was, for I suspect the older one gets, the more it seems the world is going to hell in a handcart. Things no longer conform to one’s personal expectations, and perhaps, too, one’s expectations begin to narrow, thus alienating us from life still further, whatever our disposition. And we find in media whatever data we need to support our personal hell in a hand-cart hypotheses.

There are plenty of things in life we should be wary of – alcohol and other drugs are the obvious ones, but also this connection to fast-food and short sell-by media. They each poison us, make us less useful as the eyes and ears, and the heart and soul of the universe. Our phones suck us down into a sorry world that is void of imagination, and creativity. They land us among the sterile refuse of data, where we become much less than our selves, as the spark of individual value drains from us. Then we merely subordinate our selves to a tribe who holds certain data to be sacrosanct, other data to be heretical, and thereby we become mere unreflective data-points ourselves, so we might be served more of the same unwholesome junk.

So now, the washing machine has finished its cycle. There are clothes to dry, and the maiden is still full from last week. Things dry slowly these colder, autumn days, and it serves to remind us there are only certain kinds of data that are unequivocal. Your clothes are still wet, or they are dry. Other data requires nuance. It requires a more right brained, wholistic approach in order to separate the wheat from the chaff. Anyway, after sorting that one out, we take up our coffee, pick up the phone once more, note that in the meantime there has been a glitch. The phone has rebooted itself, and come back with a curious error message in which, with brutal honesty and admirable self-flagellation, it tells me it is corrupt, and cannot be trusted.

Many a true word and all that.

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Birkacre visitor centre

Autumn is a slow burner this year. The woodland paths are thus far scattered with only a modest fall, while the canopy remains predominantly green. This was so of Roddlesworth, a few weeks ago, and is still the case with Birkacre and the horseshoe of the River Yarrow. It’s also unseasonably warm. Only the early fading of the light reminds us we’re on the eve of November, with the clocks wound back to GMT.

Which also means it’s Samhain, at least by the telling of the Gregorian calendar. I suspect, though, the ancients would have been more flexible, and gone by the moons, the dark of the moon seeming appropriate for Samhain, or the first crescent, which we passed a few days ago. The full moon on November 8th seems too late, and its bright energy inappropriate for what feels more naturally like a time of internalisation, of hibernation and contemplation.

So, today, we find ourselves at the Birkacre visitor centre. We’re looking for a short walk and some air, after a week of being confined indoors by rainy days. Autumn woodland photographs would also be nice, and to which end we are equipped with some fast glass, and an inside knowledge of the compositions, this area being where I grew up.

I prefer the traditional name Samhain, for what we now call Halloween, which seems a dowdy corruption, I mean the way it is celebrated, with its cheap plastic mummery, and the overtures of horror. I have always felt it was more a time for remembering the ancestors, for flicking through the family albums, tracing things back in time from the faded colour snaps, to the sepia of photography’s golden dawn. I used to think it was amazing that if just one of our ancestral boys had failed to meet the ancestral girl, we wouldn’t be here. Or maybe it’s inevitable we’re here anyway, and it’s just our back-story that would be different.

Drybones Dam, Birkacre

Anyway, speaking of photography, there are some long lenses out around Birkacre’s big lodge, shooting the itinerant water birds, and the resident swans. Impressive and expensive, those lenses, but they must be a devil to use hand held like that.

I read an article recently concerning a trend in America where photographers are being targeted in places such as this, our gear stolen under threat of violence. Those long lenses are worth a few months’ salary. The cops are uninterested, says the report, and the feeling is one of acceptance that certain types of crime will be carried out, nowadays, with impunity. If this is true or not, it does us no good to read such things.

Other than birders we have dog walkers, grandparents with toddlers, buggy pushers, and lovers from eighteen to eighty, but we leave them behind once we’re upstream, past the dam on the Yarrow, where we head into the damp silence of Drybones wood. The paths are softening now under persistent rains, and the mud is clinging to our boots. From the capped shaft of the old Drybones colliery, behind its rusting steel bars, we seek the path to Lowe’s Tenement. The markers are missing, and the path looks little used these days.

Footpath marker attrition

It’s odd how those green footpath markers are so fragile. No sooner does the council tack them up to guide our way across the sometimes obscure public network, they crack and fall off into the mud. Stout finger-posts, too, seem to snap and fall into the hedgerows at the slightest puff of wind. Conversely, the “no trespassing”, the “no footpath” and the “private” signs are indestructible, unmissable and a vulgar blot on the landscape. It’s so important our paths are walked, and every obstruction challenged. The land may not be ours on paper, but the right of passage is, and these paths connect us with so much more than merely fresh air, and a convenient place to empty the dog.

Footpath marker attrition

Thus wears the month along, in checker’d moods,
Sunshine and shadows, tempests loud, and calms;
One hour dies silent o’er the sleepy woods,
The next wakes loud with unexpected storms;

John Clare – November

We follow Burgh Lane now, to the edge of Chorley’s suburban sprawl, then cut down the meadow path to the former Duxbury estate, to the tree that fell into the Yarrow, and made no sound. This was a familiar tree from childhood, which came down in the winter storms of 2019. Losing it was like losing an old friend. The novel I thought it had inspired is turning out to be something else, and deeply puzzling. We plod away at it.

The tree that fell alone, and made no sound

I find woodland photography challenging. The eye, the mind, they prefer a story in shape and colour, and to that end they extract patterns from the chaos of the woodland. But a photograph reinstates at once the visual noise, and the organic riot of arboreal forms. We see photographs everywhere, but finding compositions that will not dissolve on contact with reality is the challenge, and adds another dimension of enjoyment to a woodland walk.

In Drybones Wood

From the tree that fell, we now take the ancient way through Coppull Hall Wood, towards Coppull, following the horseshoe of the Yarrow. The river is eroding the path here, so when it is high the water renders the way impassable. Today we’re okay.

The strangely subdued colours have me wondering, as with the lack of heather on the moors, is this another harbinger of crisis? I read the new PM has shunned attendance at this year’s climate conference, and speaks instead of “difficult decisions”, this being an all too familiar euphemism for stripping out the state institutions that support life. It’s a wonder anything is left, this having been inflicted, without remission, for over a decade, and upon a populace which seems, by now, stunned into submission by the perma-crises of Brexit, Covid, weird weather, worries over energy bills, and war. We don’t expect things to get any better, indeed we seem conditioned into accepting they must always get worse.

In Drybones Wood

The horseshoe of the Yarrow brings us back to Drybones wood, and some of the best compositions of the walk. It seems to be a question of framing, of watching the curve and tilt of trees – that they direct the eye into a scene, rather than away. Colour helps to balance a composition – autumn gold, or spring wildflowers against the greens and grey. A wide aperture blurs and simplifies unwanted background visual noise, and helps with shutter speed.

Just here, early OS maps show the river much wider, with an island mid-stream. Now the island is bypassed and accessible, and the beech trees upon it form pleasing frames and root patterns, with modest leaf-falls cradled among them. There are squirrels. The sun makes an effort, and the Yarrow ripples tunefully.

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

W H Davies – Leisure

Then we’re back at Birkacre, and the schools are spilling out. Kids in Southlands uniforms sit among the apparatus and the sandpits of the play area they probably knew as infants in more innocent times. They have stopped off on their walk home from school, as I used to do, a hundred years ago. There was no play-area then, of course, and you could still buy used cigarette-scented televisions from the repair-centre, which operated in the remains of the mill. All gone now to make way for car-parking, and amenity.

I’d better pick up a bag of sweets on the way, in case we’re visited by ghosts and ghoulies this evening. A short walk, if you’re passing and have an hour to spare. Just two and three quarter miles.

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In Roddlesworth Woods

It’s not the first time I’ve arrived at the start of a walk to find I’ve left my boots behind. But it’s okay, we’re not climbing mountains. It’ll just be some soft, dew-damp meadows, and gravel tracks, so the cheap hiking-trainers we’re wearing will probably be okay.

We’re at Ryal Fold again, in the Western Pennines, and the plan is to explore some paths we’ve not walked before, so we can add them to that mental map of permitted ways. We’ll be wandering through extensive woodland, towards Abbey Village, returning along the reservoirs and Rocky Brook, and maybe to finish we’ll come back over the moor by Lyons Den, to check on the heather.

We’re looking for signs of autumn’s advance, now, looking to enjoy some woodland photography, but as ever, it’s about enjoying the outdoors. The scent of an autumn woodland, all mushroomy and damp, early leaves composting where they lie, all of that is a delight to be savoured. The walkers’ café at Ryal Fold is busy, lots of people sitting out with coffee, enjoying these intermittent days of warm sun, and there’s a party of ramblers setting out for Darwen Tower, all noisy with well-met chatter.

Of current affairs, our new Chancellor has gone and there are rumours the PM is to be ousted too, in the coming weeks, only having been in the job five minutes. Much of the mortal thrust of last week’s “fiscal-event” is to be reversed, but the crash it precipitated is still reverberating. Retirement nest eggs are now ten percent down, and pensions are once again under a cloud as the Bank of England winds in its support of the long term bond market. And no, I don’t understand any of this either. I would subscribe to the Macbethian world view of current events, that it is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing“, but that requires a philosophical leap when life-savings are going down the plug hole, and they’re putting security tags on tubs of butter.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

I don’t know Shakespeare at all, other than the fact we can always find bits of him to suit whatever the occasion:

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.

The man definitely had a way with words. So anyway,… before we’re “heard no more”, off we go, and plunge into the woodland. It’s still mostly green, just a thin carpeting of gold from the first fall of leaves. There’s sunlight pooling in the clearings, illuminating the canopy, spilling along the still lush sprays of beech, to be caught at last in outstretched fingers of ferny fronds, now sinking into a softening earth. There is Birdsong, but otherwise an absolute stillness, shoes and trouser cuffs already wet from their licking, as we crossed the meadows. There’s a plane of water glittering, glimpsed now and then through dense woodland as we walk. And, yes, that autumn scent.

In Roddlesworth Woods

“Have you taken any nice photos?”

It’s a large man, well padded in fleece and parka, his beanie set at a jaunty angle. He has a muddy little dog with him that looks to be having fun. I judge both to be friendly. Cameras were once a more common accompaniment. Mine now marks me as a die-hard geek. Most people are happy to make do with their phones.

“Not yet,” I tell him. “I’ll probably get some as I go up by Rocky Brook.”

“Oh aye.”

He doesn’t know Rocky Brook. I can see it in his eyes. His accent is local, but he wasn’t brought up around here. The familiar names of places no longer stick as they once did.

And no, so far I’ve been making all the same mistakes, so there are no “good” pictures in the can. I have a slow lens in a shady woodland, which means shutter speeds are dropping to 1/8th of a second, which even image stabilisation struggles with. So, it’s all motion blur, poor focus, and the usual mystery of how the eye filters out the messy confusion of a scene, which the camera subsequently reveals.

The Roddlesworth reservoirs are pretty much full, these being the first in the long chain of water-gathering that forms a semicircle around the Western Pennines. On the highest, there are rowing boats at rest, these being for use by the Horwich angling club, but which today form convenient perches for cormorants who are also fishing, and not known for returning their catch.

Fishing cormorant

And speaking of tales told by an idiot, I’m beginning to suspect the current fiction-in-progress is moribund, and I am in danger of losing touch with it. There are two types of writer. One roughs out a structure of the entire storyline, knows where he’s going before he starts, then sticks to that plan and writes to suit it. The other type, like me, doesn’t. We open with a scene, a feeling, and a handful of characters, then see how it goes. Sometimes it goes well. But sometimes you hit a hundred thousand words and things dry up, and you’ve no idea what you’re trying to say any more. Your characters get distracted by current events, so your story starts weaving about and losing momentum.

My story started off in a quiet woodland like this, with the discovery of a fallen beech tree and the age-old philosophical question: if a tree falls alone in the forest, does it make a sound? The way you answer that question puts you into one of two camps. Most people will answer yes, of course it makes a sound. How can it not? But if you think about it more deeply, you realise it doesn’t, and that’s a rabbit hole from which there is no escape.

There are several trees here in Roddlesworth that look to have come down in last winter’s storms, perhaps over-night, or otherwise, when no one was around to see them fall. And there are older trees that fell long ago, now with mushrooms growing out of them. None made a sound as they fell, which is to say we create the world of experience entirely through the senses, but that’s not how the world is in itself. How it is in itself, we don’t know. This is not woolly minded new-age thinking. You simply meditate upon the tree that falls alone, and you follow the question to wherever it leads.

My fictional protagonist is exploring the meaning of such a world-view, while trying to ignore the sound and fury of the world, and he’s trying to work out where true significance in life lies. But I think it’s led me on a bit too far, and it’s opened another door, one that requires a new story, and cannot merely be tacked on to the old. And I’m not sure I can be bothered finishing the old one, either, since it seems to have served its purpose. Or worse, I’m tempted to close it in a hurry, like: they all woke up, and it had been a dream, sort of thing. Best to let it settle, let the characters decide if they’re done or not. But it’s been all summer, and it looks like they are indeed done. I don’t know, if you write, is it best just to let a project go when it no longer resonates, even when you’re within a shout of the dénouement?

Anyway, it turns out cheap walking-trainers aren’t the best of things for walking in. After a couple of miles, you start to feel every pebble. Stand on a coin, and you can tell if it’s heads or tails. We slow the pace and linger for some shots by Rocky Brook, but here the dynamic range is more than we can capture, even bracketing the exposures. There’s a bright sparkle of sun from the little falls, and then deep shadow. The Nikon I’m using will bracket three shots automatically, but I need more, and for that I’d need to fiddle about with a tripod, and I can never be bothered carrying one. Higher up the brook we find a more shady dell and another little fall, one that that’s rarely visited, yet it’s one of the most attractive. Here the dynamic range is more within our means.

By Rocky Brook, Roddlesworth

We settle into the dell for soup. The falls too make no sound, when there is no one around to listen. Imagine that! All the beauty in the world, the sound, the scent, the vision, we do not experience it without the mind first creating it.

We pop out onto the road by the Slipper Lowe car-park. The car-park is empty, closed off, now. From here the moor rises, bright in the sun, pale as straw. We’re perhaps too early for the heather, but I had thought we’d be seeing some by now. We make a start on the climb, but the feet are burning through these thin soles, so we cut it short, contour round on another unfamiliar but beautiful path, towards New Barn, then back to the car at Ryal Fold. A splendid day, early autumn, five and a half miles round. Note to self: next time, don’t forget your boots!

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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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