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hartsop barn

When he was writing his iconic guidebook series, Alfred Wainwright gave the region east of Ullswater, Patterdale and Kirkstone, the rather exotic title: the Far Eastern Fells. It has something of the romance of old Empire about it, suggesting a region both aloof and mysterious. For two years he explored it in his characteristically painstaking and solitary manner, finally penning the last full stop of this, his second volume, in the Autumn of 1956. On its completion, he said, he felt like a man who had just come home “from a long and lonely journey”, describing a land in which he had walked from morning till dusk without sight of other human beings. It’s not quite so lonely a place now, but still a good choice for anyone wanting to escape the queues on Striding Edge.

“They are for strong walkers,” these fells, he says, “and should please the solitary man of keen observation and imagination”.

far eastern fellsIn the 50’s this region was very difficult to get at, especially for anyone, like Wainwright, without a car, and that means most people. Overnight accommodation was sparse, still is, being mostly restricted to the Patterdale valley. He relied on bus services from Kendal, and wild-camps overnight. But over-nighting on the fells for Wainwright did not involve a tent, just a blanket and endless smokes until first-light. He walked in tweeds and hobnails, and his waterproof was a button-up plastic Mackintosh. Today’s mountain rescue teams would feel obliged to consider him mad and deliver a stern lecture, but his was a more rugged, unassuming, and self-reliant generation, one that brushed off hardship. It was thus, lightly attired, he explored every nook and cranny, and of an evening he would settle down at home with pen and ink and fashion for us entirely by hand these neatly intricate and fastidiously detailed guidebooks which, like no others, are a timeless love-song to the land of the lakes. They are also of course a lasting inspiration to the generations who have followed him up the English mountains.

As he wrote his guides he worried they would soon become dated beyond use, but many an experienced fell-walker still defers to them when planning an expedition. They provide a wealth of detail, all of it conveyed with great charm. For once though, I found Wainwright of little help. I was planning a walk over Satura Crag by way of Hayeswater, then on to Angle Tarn, but the crag only manages a footnote in book two, it being really neither here nor there, just a neat little crown of crags on the way from one much bigger place to the next. It’s more notable for the view than for the climb – as we shall see – but let’s pocket our Wainwright for company anyway, and off we go.

We begin in Patterdale, at the beautiful little hamlet of Hartsop. And it’s here, I read with some sadness the notice beseeching visitors to take their bags of dog-poo home. It seems the plague of bagged-and-scattered dog-poo has reached even Hartsop now! I have imagined the spread of a crass urban greyness in many ways over the years, contaminating the sublime green with something unwholesome, but discarded bags of poo were not anticipated, nor even imagined, yet they do sum up this socially degenerate phenomenon very well, both in its physical manifestation, but also metaphorically, and even spiritually.

The climb begins at once on an unrelentingly steep track by Hayewater Gill, which, after an hour or so, leads us to the somewhat troubling revelation that is Hayeswater, a post-glacial lake, nestling in a valley at nearly 1400 feet. Why troubling? Well, it’s hard to say, but I’m not the only one to have thought so:

ENFOLDED in the mountain’s naked arms,
Where noonday wears a drearier look than night,
And echo, like a shrinking anchorite,
Wanders unseen, and shadowy strange alarms

Visit the soul ; there sunshine rarely warms
The crags, but only random shafts of light
Flit, while the black squalls shrilling from the height
Shudder along the lake in scattering swarms.

Cradle of tempests, whence the whirlwind leaps
To scourge the billows, till they writhe and rear
Columns of hissing spray ; the wrinkled steeps

Scowl at the sullen moaning of the mere ;
And luminous against the dale-side drear,
Ghostlike, the rainstorm’s scanty vesture sweeps.

hayeswater

Hayeswater from Satura Crag

So wrote Alfred Hayes of it in 1895. And the watercolourist, Heaton Cooper, writing in 1960, agrees it can be rather a sombre place. Heaton Cooper also writes of an abundance of wildlife here but that seems nowadays lacking: deer and pine-martens and birds, including cormorants, fishing for the lake’s salmon. Indeed it has an altogether more barren look about it this morning – not even sheep. There are sketchy paths that trace its shore, but it’s not a place that invites closer acquaintance and I have never been tempted by it. So we avoid the “sullen moaning of the mere” and keep to the sunnier path that winds its way up by The Knott. Here at around 2000 feet, we encounter the path connecting with the Roman Way on Highstreet, and head north. Far below us now, Hayeswater still broods, while the southern sky thickens and dissolves the warm, cloudy-brightness of the morning into something altogether more gloomy. The Met office forecast rain for 15:00, and it looks like they’re going to be right.

I realise that, like most of my walks in the Lakes, I last did this route many years ago. I also remember it as being rather easier than it feels today. As we age, we trade our fitness for “experience”. Yet it’s experience that enables us to savour places such as these all the more and it’s unfortunate then it’s this lost fitness that’s required to carry us up here, thereby curtailing our opportunity for over-indulgence in the Lake country’s mystical delights. But such convolutions aren’t getting us any further along our path, are they Michael? On we go then, the hard work of ascent behind us now, so we can enjoy an undulating and entirely unambiguous path all the way to Satura Crag. From here, northwards we get a view of one of Lakeland’s most secret valleys: the seldom seen and ever so lonely Bannerdale.

It’s a mostly deserted place, just the one lone farm at Dale Head, a white sentinel against the green, and around the corner, at the opening of Rampsgill, there’s the historic hunting lodge, built in 1912 for a visit by our game-mad cousin, Kaiser Willy. The lodge is for hire. It boasts “interesting plumbing” and costs £1400 per week at peak. As a base for exploring this remote region, I can think of nowhere finer! However, I do admit to preferring my plumbing as boring as possible.

angletarn

Angle Tarn

Continuing our way, we come down to Angle Tarn for lunch, an altogether cheerier prospect than Hayeswater. Indeed Wainwright declared this to be one of the finest tarns in Lakeland. Even in gloomy weather, it never fails to make me smile. There is something truly heavenly about it, un-shadowed by soaring crag, it reflects the mood of the sky perfectly, speaking of which, as we settle by the shore, the sky darkens, and a wind stirs the surface to an animated silver.

I was probably twenty five when I first came this way, living at home with my mum, and just a rusty old Cortina to my name. Now I’ve got kids as old as I was then, my mum’s gone, and my whole life down there in the mad churn of the world is completely different, yet right now, and from this elevated perspective, I’m reassured a vital part of me remains the same, that there is little to separate that earlier walk from this one, for such is the magic of the fells, always stripping away the egoic delusions of who and what we think we are, and dismissing too the imaginary constraints of linear time.

The best walk is always the next one, and all walks are equally memorable, yet remembered in no particular order, so for a time, we are indeed ageless. Wordsworth wrote of this in more penetrating form in his “intimations of immortality”, that it is indeed possible to recover what we feel we have lost to time. But for that to mean anything to us personally, I think we need to have a spent a life-time wandering the high-ways, among these gaunt cathedrals and echoing amphitheatres, listening to, or rather feeling, what it is they have to say to us.

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, its fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give,
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Thank you William.

But we’ve burst seventeen hundred words now, which puts us considerably to the north of verbose, so far as this particular medium goes, and here we are still, up by Angle Tarn, munching on a butty like we’ve not a care in the world. It’s also looking like the rain’s going to catch up with us any second. We don’t mind that, though we might give the Pikes a miss, and just shamble our way down to Boardale because, although we’ve only done about four miles so far, it feels more like eight, and we’ve another three back to the car which are going to feel like six. And maybe it’s time we bought a better pair of boots, maybe even a pair of Scarpas like our old ones. But it took us twenty years to wear those things out, and they still weren’t worn in by the time they fell apart, and have we even got another twenty years of blisters in us?

Sure we do.

A fish leaps, lands with a splosh and focuses down our attention to the mindful moment. Then the rain comes on, its “scanty vesture” advancing earnestly, across the fells, raises a hiss from the clear waters of the tarn. Hat’s off to the Met office; they forecast this five days ago, and they’re only half an hour out. How do they do that?

It’s a firm rain, but soft on the skin and warm. Then comes that rich scent from the earth, something fecund and exhilarating about it, like a fine malt whiskey. Sure, there are worse places to be than the Far Eastern Fells in June. Even in the rain.

Three miles still to the car, did you say?

They can wait.

Hartsop vire to threshthwaite

Hartsop

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writer pasternak

Well, if you’ve made it this far you probably already are a poet, though you may not know it. But wait, let’s check! Do you know what iambic pentameter is? How about an Italian quatrain? A Shakespearean sonnet? Yes, okay, they’re definitions of poetic structures; beats per line, order of rhyme, number of lines, that sort of thing. How about a foot? That’s the basic unit of measurement of accentual syllabic meter. Of course it is! There are different types of feet too: iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, spondee, and pyrrhic, all to do with the stress on the syllables.

Still want to be a poet? A poet would be well up on all that stuff wouldn’t they? Except, I write poetry, which makes me a sort-of poet, but to be honest I had to look all that terminology up on Wikipedia. If I’d been a Lit student having to field questions on it, I’d surely have failed. Well, I did fail actually – not that I was ever asked those questions, specifically. Log tables made more sense to me, but I still liked writing poetry. Log tables are obsolete now, while poetry remains pretty much a constant throughout time. And do you really need to know about all that structural theory stuff anyway? Well, the poet Robert Frost thought so. He said: there can be no fair tennis without a net, that without proper structure, poetry seldom yields works of beauty.

And he may have a point:

He watched with all his organs of concern
How princes walk, what wives and children say;
Reopened old graves in his heart to learn
What laws the dead had died to disobey;

That’s W H Auden writing in 1940. Plenty structure and rhyme there, and a silken beauty in the flow of it.

But then how about:

A shattered army, Thames’ filthy tonnage, tumbrils of carrion,
Not a beautiful spectacle
For the drinkers of history, or for me
Or my friends, this island’s parallel issues.

That’s Ted Hughes, writing in 1963. No structure, no rhyme, like being hit in the face with a plank of wood, leaving you with multiple splinters to pick at, which I presume is what he intended. So, maybe Frost was just an old fuddy duddy traditionalist and you can play tennis without a net after all, that indeed certain poetic themes demand a freer form if they’re to achieve their desired impact.

I used to strive for structure in my own poetry, but sometimes the struggle took over from what I was trying to say. Rhyme and structure are satisfying to achieve, like completing a literary puzzle, but they can also cheapen a poem, so why push for rhyme if you don’t have to?

How about this:

I remember sitting together in parks
leaning over bridges
counting trout and swans
holding hands under arches
kissing away suns
and moons into darkness.

I remember platform good-byes
last-minute trains
slamming us apart
and my non-self walking back alone.
I remember smaller things:
a pebble in my shoe
and you throwing a match-box on the Serpentine

That’s Phoebe Hesketh. No structure, no rhyme except for that last poignant hook between “shoe” and “you”. A friend of Herbert Edward Palmer, an English poet and critic, his advice to her was never to let the conscious mind force a poem into shape. That’s important, I think. It can be pleasurable exploring traditional patterns in poetry, and good practice trying them out, and if a poem falls into such a pattern, then let it be, but if doesn’t want to, don’t make it.

According to certain psychological theories, we exist upon a seething mass of unconscious energies that seek to become conscious through us. They are our life’s work, whether we know it or not. And poetry, indeed any form of creative expression, is a good way of achieving that, and it’s not like we have any choice in the matter. For a creative person to ignore the pressure from within is a very bad thing, and will backfire with more neuroses than we know how to handle. But to sit a while with pencil and paper, jotting the lines that are offered up, seemingly from nowhere, is worth years of therapy, whether you know an iamb from a trochee or not.

Poetry has always been an important aspect of any civilised culture, and not just for the professional – if indeed there’s such a thing as a professional poet any more. But can anyone really write poetry? Well, okay, not everyone wants to, not everyone gets it, but I suspect if you’ve a hankering for it, you can write it well enough. As a way of expressing the seasons of your life, there’s no finer way of honouring your self. How to start? Start with your life. Imagine you are a bit of the universe seeking to discover the meaning of itself through your eyes. So you capture a moment in time as if to bookmark it, and you say to the universe, okay mate, this bit’s important. Let’s remember this. Then you look back over the stuff you wrote twenty, thirty years ago, and you can see the change in yourself, the smoothing out, the growing up.

However we should beware the trap of thinking poetry is a road to fame and fortune because of course it’s not. Even the Poet Laureate only makes £6000 a year, which doesn’t get you much of a mortgage, does it? Fame and fortune are their own path, with their own rules, and only about one in ten who seek it, by whatever means, succeed at it. But in the business of writing poetry what we’re really looking for are glimpses of meaning, which boil down to those occasional and all too often elusive personal gifts of insight from the unconscious. Sometimes those insights are beautiful, sometimes they’re ugly, and mostly they’re of no interest to anyone else. But as always, in the writing of anything, the person most served by the effort is you, the writer. Poetry, however you define it, helps us grow a little. It’s just occasionally we’ll hit upon something that’s of a more universal appeal, so it’s not always true we should give up on the idea of publishing altogether. But as ever my advice these days is just to blog your stuff, thus calling it “sort of published”, and be done with it. Poetry can heal all wounds, but pursuing, through poetry, the eternally precious bane of fame and fortune is pretty futile, and worse, it will tear your heart wide open again.

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southport pier sunset letterbox

A languid sun sinks low and seeps
Into the wide horizon’s reach,
Bleeds then into a watery stain,
Now smoothing out the wounded sky,
And soothing all our heads for sleep.

Through blunt anaesthetising rays
I squint, forgetting now the day
And its long, weary labours drawn,
Daring instead to harbour hopes
That from this heavy-limbed fatigue
Tonight, I’ll find respite in dreams.

Meanwhile, I sit entranced and still,
Allow the sun to finger through
The clutter of my memories,
Brush back the sleeves of ancient tunes,
Whose sweetness I had long thought gone,
Though each now shudders back to life,
Beneath the needle’s crackling pass.

Then, slow, into a coppered sea,
The suns departs this fractious day,
And with one final spark, is gone.
The day is done, its length is run
And as I start my little car,
And turn at last my wheels for home
I know, for all the life on earth,
We feel each setting sun alone.

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IMG_20190412_223801

A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 1918-2006 was a Russian writer, intellectual, and Nobel Laureate, also a decorated officer with the Soviet Army during the Second World War. He was arrested in 1945 for comments he made in a letter to a friend in which he criticised the prosecution of the war, and Stalin’s part in it. Although he counted himself a patriot and was loyal to the revolution, he was betrayed as a subversive and spent the next eight years in a prison system that amounted to slave labour, one in which millions perished. Solzhenitsyn survived and wrote about it, an act for which he was eventually exiled.

His magnum opus, a three volume work called the Gulag Archipelago, appeared in 1973. It was not intended as a political work, though it certainly earned him the rank of political dissident, and made him a fresh target for the Soviet authorities who even tried to poison him. It was more an historical expose and a careful analysis of the Gulag system, also a study of mankind, and of himself.

The work is important because Solzhenitsyn teaches us the Gulag and the system that gave rise to it is not a peculiarly Soviet thing, rather it’s something at the heart of us all. Call it a weakness or an inherent tendency, given the right circumstances, the Gulag can occur anywhere. Also, not only can we all fall victim to it, but – important point this – we can all fall in as perpetrators and accomplices.

Solzhenitsyn observed that evil could not simply be identified in a small percentage of the population, because then the bad people might easily be isolated from the rest of us, then destroyed and evil along with it. But it doesn’t work like that; evil persists throughout time; the camp-guards, the interrogators, the torturers, they could be any one of us, and the trick of evil is to prevent us from imagining a scenario whereby we might indeed be drawn into committing those extremes of harm to our fellow beings.

The Gulag system was a vast network of camps spread across the entire Soviet Union, and from which no one was safe. If labour was needed, quotas would be sent out, the state security apparatus would then pursue the necessary arrests, and victims would be found, guilt concocted as needs be and verified by confession signed under torture. Incarceration would then last eight, ten or twenty five years. Terms were nominal though and in reality many were worked to death in unimaginably harsh conditions.

We learned of the camps in 1966 on the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s first book, “A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch.” This is a short book, but sharp, like a lance through the brain, and tells, as the title suggests, of just one day in the camp-life of prisoner Ivan Denisovitch. The men wake, they march out to work on building a power station, then they march back. Falsely accused of being a German spy, Denisovitch has lost everything, or has he? What is it that defines a human being and grants him purpose, and meaning? What is it that redeems him?

The story could merely have been a raging indictment of the system, which in part it is, but in the main it’s an observation of humanity, of its adaptation to extraordinarily harsh circumstances and how small things can take on a massive significance in a man’s life. On his return march, Denisovitch comes across a scrap of broken band-saw blade and smuggles it into camp. It’s a triumph, one that lights up his day, and he will spend the coming weeks painstakingly grinding it on a stone to fashion a knife – not to harm others, or to facilitate his escape, but merely because a knife is a useful tool to have in camp life, and under such reduced circumstances, it bestows more dignity on a man than a fancy car or a beautiful house.

Remarkably , “A day in the life” was published in Russia, with permission of the State. But by then Stalin was dead, and there was a change of mood, a certain rapprochement between the State and its people. But Solzhenitsyn was already working secretly on his next book, the altogether more explosive Gulag Archipelago.

The three volume, unabridged version is perhaps a little too much for the average reader, though an important source for scholars, in that it goes into great detail. It names names, places, dates. But there is also an “approved” abridged version, and this is more suited to the general reader. The book documents Solzhenitsyn’s own confinement, the horrors and the humiliations he both suffered and witnessed, also what he learned by a process of self reflection and from the observation of his fellow prisoners, how they coped, how they held body and soul together, how they protected their dignity. His conclusion was as profound as it was unexpected, that he could not view the Gulag as an alien system, one that had been unjustly imposed upon him by some external agency, that indeed he was in some way responsible, not only for his confinement within the system, but for the very existence of that system in the first place.

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung, warned us that man himself was the danger, not just some men but all men – that we carry within us the seed of our own destruction, that evil follows us around because we are unable to see it in our own hearts, and that without at least a rudimentary process of self reflection that dark seed will grow to do untold damage either to us, personally, or to those around us.

In the absence of religion, we think we can entrust the development of the psyche and the control of our excesses by a secular ideology, be that Marxism or Free Market Capitalism, but there’s something in us that seeks what, for want of a better term, we must call spiritual growth. There is a religious function within us that seeks knowledge of ourselves and our place in the universe. If ignored, we fall prey to the shadow forces within us; we are easily seduced, easily manipulated by the darker archetypal patterns of behaviour; a newspaper headline screams “death to the traitors”, and we see red, and wish death upon all traitors, however loosely they be defined. Only reflection bids us pause, bids us think, and grants sufficient space for the better side of our nature to win through.

Religion once fulfilled that role, but given the mess of the last few centuries it’s clear it didn’t do a very good job in sparing us from ourselves. In the absence of religion, psychoanalysis and various self help movements offer an alternative, but we’ve had a century of those and things only seem to be getting worse. Perhaps then evil is like any other pestilence that circles the world. It’s simply a fact of nature and, like Solzhenitsyn achieved, by a process of strenuous and unrelenting self analysis, all any of us can do is recognise the potential for evil in our own hearts and find the best way of subverting it, even if it takes us to the end of our days.

 

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Cyma gstp (2)

I was after the GSTP pocket-watch, actually, the one with the Ministry broad-arrow on the back. My dad had one, army surplus, from the ’40’s. He was a Colliery Deputy and preferred a pocket watch down the pit. I don’t know what happened to it, but I guess the pit ruined it in the end. GSTP is short for General Services Trade Pattern, various makers working to a specification laid down by the government, all good quality Swiss makes. Even broken ones fetch good money now, which is why I had to let it go but I was in the mood for a punt, and then I saw this one:

english lever.JPG

This one’s an English Lever, about a hundred years old. I have a few in my collection already and none of them are any good. They were a century out of date even when new. You’ve only to strip one to see the decline in English watch-making: lack of investment in design and technology, a staid conservatism and a misguided belief in our own superiority, even as the Swiss and the Americans were racing ahead of us. It’s a far cry from a GSTP, and I suppose it was the watch-case that drew me, three blurry impressions I took for hallmarks. The seller said the case was nickel, but you don’t hallmark nickel, so it was more likely a silver piece, I thought, and worth twenty five quid at least, even as scrap, so that’s what I bid, and I won. The seller clearly didn’t know much about watches. Ha! But then the watch turned up and the seller was right – the case is indeed nickel, and those marks are just there to fancy it up a bit. Hard luck, Michael. Serves you right.

You wind an English Lever from the back with a key, like a clock, and you set the time with a key from the front, or more often you can’t be bothered because it’s fiddly so you just twiddle the minute hand with your finger, which is why you see so many English Levers with the minute hand snapped off. The best you can say is they’re simple. And this one was both cheap and simple. It was also dead. Not much going for it then.

english lever dates.JPGBut then I opened the back and saw a list of dates, microscopically inscribed by hand. The earliest one is April 1918, the latest September 1923. These could be service dates, they could be dates when the watch was pawned, but either way it was suddenly starting to tingle with its own history, and my imagination was filling in the blanks. So I took another look: the ceramic dial was in good condition and that nickel case would polish up well. The mechanism was awash with what looked and felt like engine-oil, but otherwise looked okay. It had a somewhat sturdy jewelled balance and lever, and the hair-spring was still a pristine spiral, just aching with potential. Usually that spring’s a rat’s nest and the watch is gonner. Given its history, and the times it had known, could I not do something with it? (I know, I say that with all the old watches I rescue from Ebay)

So I stripped it, cleaned the bits, swirled them gently in a jam-jar of white spirit, left them to dry overnight, cleaned out the pivot holes with a toothpick, passed them over the demagnetiser, then rebuilt it. There’s something meditative about assembling a watch, at times a bit fiddly, but that’s all part of the pleasure. Then I oiled it with a needle dropper and some proper watch oil, lowered the balance into place, gave the key a few speculative winds, and,..

Away it went!

english lever balance.JPGBy now I’ve had it ticking in my pocket all day and it’s not lost a minute, so I’m thinking to myself I’ve misjudged it; it just needed a bit of care and it’s back working valiantly again just as it was about to be written off as scrap. And I’m thinking too it’s a very English thing, actually, that maybe English Levers like this one are indicative of the spirit of Albion: far from perfect but generally reliable; they’re like an MG sports car, a little basic, certainly obsolete, and outclassed by just about everybody else, but there are still plenty of them around, still attractive to a discerning audience. So I take it up again, thinking maybe, like my dad’s old Swiss-made GSTP, this is a watch I could actually use.

But the damned thing had stopped!

So then I’m back to cursing it for a worthless piece of junk, and asking myself: how did Englishness, with all its shortcomings, its clunky lack of sophistication, its bad taste and its frigid conservatism manage to come through two world wars and survive a century of upheaval that laid waste to the rest of Europe? The answer, I suppose, is we did it with stubbornness, and luck, and it’s not like we had much choice. But we also had not a little help from our friends, when we needed it, friends who, for one thing, made all those GSTP pocket watches for us. As for our unshakeable sense of superiority in spite of all evidence to the contrary, well, that’s just the English way too, and perhaps not a bad thing if it keep our faces turned to the wind when the odds are against us and others are losing their wits. And is that not the truest test of time anyway?

I give the watch a little shake and it stutters to life once more, settles to a steady beat. Maybe it just needs another look, but for now, clearly you wouldn’t want to bet your life on it. Still, it has a certain something, don’t you think? Or should I have held out for that GSTP?

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childhood

He lost the Faery tongue aged five,
Lost it to chalk boards
And vague threats of God.
It was the Gulag then for him,
His life now frozen for want of sun
And green. And where, when
He was not afraid,
Boredom was the name
Of his routine.

Bare-toothed and baying,
Grey wolves circled and chastised
All vestige of the Faery from his eyes,
Their faces hard, but for those times,
And times again, of false grace,
When he observed they bowed
At every mention of His name.
This God, beneficent of the angry
And the cruel, but no friend to the reticent
Or the cowed.

So, he sought solace
In the prettiness of girls a-while,
And pined.
And thinking what he felt divine,
Put all his hopes in Love,
And thereby came to see,
Amongst all flesh, at least,
The fact of his invisibility,
This Faery child,
Alone among the chained
And shuddering freaks,
Trapped in the darkness
Of an all too swiftly run mortality.

Thus one by one they fell.
The reticent, the cowed,
The lovers, and the wolves, and all.
All into the abyss were swept.
While he, invisible to the last,
Unknown and untouched still,
Watched each one fall in turn,
And wept.

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jbp+12+rules

Pitched perhaps a little tongue in cheek as a self help book, 12 Rules for Life weighs in as something altogether more substantial, so much so I note there are now books that summarise it. Although clearly and compellingly written, I found I could only digest it in small bites, but these are big ideas, and worth mulling over. They’ll also lead you into other avenues of thought, some of them very old and which seem to be coming from so deep inside of us we’ve forgotten they’re there. Psychologically speaking then, these are archetypal patterns, in the Jungian sense, which, when we encounter them afresh like this, they join certain dots in the psyche and light us up.

Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the university of Toronto, rose to fame when he refused to obey a law that compelled the use of gender neutral pronouns when addressing members of the transsexual community. Viewed by some as an intolerant stance, the resulting furore was also evidence supporting Peterson’s thesis that many of our most intractable societal problems are the result of low resolution thinking, and ideologically half-baked responses to highly complex questions.

It takes only a little research to uncover the fact it was the compulsion of speech by law to which he objected, rather than the actual use of particular pronouns, that by submitting to such we risk sacrificing our freedom of discourse on a bonfire of indiscriminate political correctness. What this also tells us about Peterson is that if, on any given subject, political correctness is pointing in the opposite direction to the psychological reality, he will not hesitate to say so. This can be labelled courageous or provocative, depending on your point of view and has certainly won him both friends and enemies in equal measure.

He also draws fire for his view that in any society there can be no equality of outcomes for individuals, that there will always be a hierarchy. This is as pre-programmed into human behaviour, as it is into lobsters. Therefore, he argues, ideologies that promise egalitarian utopias are inherently doomed, that the important thing for the individual is to accept the reality of hierarchies, understand how they work, understand one’s place in them, and work towards ensuring those hierarchies do not become corrupt and tyrannical for those at the bottom.

Peterson is also known for his Youtube lectures, in particular the series on understanding Biblical stories from a mythical perspective. Much of that material, along with similar analyses of the works of Jung, Freud, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Solzhenitsyn, also anecdotes from his own life, and from his long clinical experience are all bought together here in a powerful synthesis. But, as happened with Nietzsche, psychological theories can be misrepresented to suit a notably right-wing agenda and to a degree, the same thing is happening with Peterson.

His outspoken criticism of left-leaning ideologues, gives succour to ideologues of the right, which, in turn, results in simplistic media support to the idea Peterson is himself right-leaning, when in fact he warns us against all ideologies, left or right. It is holding to ideologies, he says, in the absence of something else, that has resulted in the deaths of countless millions over the course of the twentieth century. It is what that “something else” is – the true essence of being, how we realise it, and how we can bring it to bear in our lives – Peterson tries to get at here.

Popular with young men in particular, who Peterson argues have been left behind, undervalued and to some degree even demonised in recent decades by a more strident feminist Zeitgeist, the book provides guidance on how to mature successfully, how to face the world in all its complexity, tragedy, absurdity and horror, as a competent, powerful and self motivated individual, without needing to seek support in otherwise seductive and simplistic ideologies. Ideologies might promise clarity and equity, but always fail to deliver on their particular Arcadias. The reason? People are not machines, they will often act contrarily and irrationally to authority, to rule and dictat. That’s when the trouble starts and the ideologues in charge turn to oppression, authoritarianism, and eventually to killing in order to maintain control.

Twelve Rules is intended to help us rediscover a sense of personal empowerment and to find the courage to face a chaotic world without the risk of harming ourselves or others in the process. The result is a psychological, philosophical and quasi-religious treatise that aims to put us back on our feet, essentially by reacquainting us with the underlying mythological, archetypal bedrock of our culture. I certainly feel I understand my own shortcomings a little better from reading it. Whether I have the courage to do anything about that is another matter, which I suppose is the challenge Peterson sets us, either to overcome the malaise of the secular west, first by overcoming it in ourselves, or to go on as we are and allow it to sink without trace, and ourselves with it.

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