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Archive for the ‘philosophical’ Category

durleston wood cover smallIn the dreams of men, encounters with an unknown woman are significant in that she represents a meeting with the image of the man’s soul, and sets out the state of development of his psyche, also the state of his relations with, and his knowledge of women. A sickly soul-image in dreams is an obvious sign something is wrong, similarly if she is wearing chains, or in some other way restrained or imprisoned.

We see it depicted in art as St George, come to release the maiden from where she has been chained to a tree and is harassed by the phallic dragon. George kills the dragon, more metaphorically the Ego, which releases the maiden, the soul, into a more constructive relationship. Without undergoing this fundamental mythical journey every man is going to struggle with aspects of himself later on, and not just in his relations with women.

The chained and sickly soul-image is a symbol. It does not mean she is lacking energy, quite the opposite in fact. But the energy is misdirected by a man’s lack of understanding of himself. It is a powerful force erupting from the unconscious and being projected out into the world, affecting the way he sees things, the way he sees women.

He notices a female, is attracted, besotted, obsessed, unaware what he’s seeing is a manifestation of something inside of him. This is partly how attraction between sexes works. But say we hit things off with the object of our desire, make love, get married, come to know her as a mortal woman, you might think we had then slain the dragon, that is until the soul projects herself onto someone else. Time and time again. If we have by now settled on our life mate, such serial infatuations can be troublesome, even dangerous. But rather than acting on them and potentially ruining our lives, the soul is inviting us to withdraw the projections, to dissolve them, and in doing so restore the power inwardly, allowing her the means of manifesting herself more in consciousness, thus aiding us in seeing the world more clearly and with a little more wisdom.

All of this sounds a bit odd. But there are precedents in stories, in myth, and in practice.

In Durleston Wood, the protagonist, Richard, has returned to his home village after a failed marriage, and takes up a teaching post at his old school where he finds himself in love with his headmistress. For a time he recognises this infatuation for what it is and does not act. Instead he basks in the sweet melancholy of its futility while taking long, lonely walks through the titular Durleston Wood. But in the wood is an old house, part ruined and overgrown, and living in it, kept prisoner there, possibly, is a woman he’s seen wearing the cuffs and chains of BDSM role-play. She’s apparently the sex slave of another man, and she invites our hero to rescue her, to take ownership of her,…

Houses are significant in Jungian psychology. They are the place of abode, both physically, and psychologically. In Jung’s own dreams, the rooms of the house represent aspects of the self. If your abode is dilapidated, as it is in Durleston Wood, it suggests a psyche in distress through neglect. Work on restoring such an abode is likewise suggestive of work upon the psyche, a process of healing. Thus Richard moves into the house in Durleston Wood, performs his restorations and releases the chained woman. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Work on the psychological aspects of the self do not in themselves guarantee the correctness of one’s direction thereafter. Indeed it can be a bit of a roller coaster. For certainty in navigation, you need wisdom as well, but it certainly gets things moving.

In Durleston Wood, free to your e-reader, sometimes sold in mangled form by pirates on Amazon – oo-arrr!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lavender and the Rose Cover

Another in the occasional series, looking at the themes expressed in my various works of fiction. 

Moving on, getting on, forgetting the past, embracing change, living in the present moment – and all that. It’s good stuff, stuff I tried to get at in the Road from Langholm Avenue. And to be sure, all these things are attainable, the material world navigated safely as needs be without falling over in despair at the pointlessness of existence. At least for a time.

But as we get older, something else happens, some call it an existential crisis, others simply the menopause. But as I see it, youth, inexperience, and just plain ignorance has us accepting without question the allure of an essentially material life, rendering us blind to the fallacy that it is entirely sufficient for our needs – the pursuit of money, lifestyle, the bigger house, the bigger car, the exotic travel destinations. It isn’t.

If we’re lucky we wake up and realise material things don’t satisfy us for very long, that we can live an extravagant lifestyle, a life all the adverts would have us aspire to, and still be as miserable as sin, still craving the next big thing. But you can’t go on for ever like that. Clearly something is missing. We need a bigger story if our lives are to mean anything.

Some find that bigger story ready made in the various world religions – usually a story about a supreme being and an afterlife to help make sense of the suffering we endure in this one. We can then explain our lives as a trial imposed upon us, the reward for which will be riches in the next life. Or we can explain it as a preparation for a higher level of existence, again in some non-material hereafter. And all that’s fine for the faithful, because religions do provide comfort in times of need, but what if you’re not faithful? What if all of that sounds ridiculous to you? What if the logical inconsistencies of such a set-up cause you to take out that barge pole and prod all religions and their scary religiosity safely out of sight. Life simply is what it is, and then you die. Right?

Well, maybe.

But what if you sit down one day in an existential funk, and something happens? Let’s say the doors to perception are flung wide open – just for a moment – and you’re given an utterly convincing glimpse of a universe that’s somehow greatly expanded compared with the narrow way you normally perceive it? How so? Hard to describe except lets say, for example, time drops out of the equation and you’re given the impression of an infinite continuum in which there is no difference between you and whatever you perceive, that your mind is independent of both the physical body and the physical world, that indeed your mind is a subset of a greater mind that is both you and not you at the same time.

How would you deal with that?

Well, you’d probably think you were ill, or just coming out of a semi swoon or a waking dream where we all know the most outrageous nonsense can be made to feel true. So we come back to our senses and carry on as normal. Except we find our perspective on life is subtly altered. We are drawn to ideas that might explain our experience. We explore it first through psychology, because it was a kind of mind-thing we experienced. So down the rabbit hole we go,…

And there sitting at the mad hatter’s table we discover Carl Jung, sipping tea and reading a book called the Yijing, which he lends to us, saying that if we are not pleased by it, we don’t need to use it, and we’d worry about that except he also tells us famous quantum physicists have used it too, though they don’t like to admit it. Then this Oriental connection takes us to ancient China and another book called the Tao Te Ching, then to religions that aren’t like other religions, to Daoism and Buddhism which are kind of hard to get your head around. But while everything you learn explains some small part of what you experienced, nothing explains the whole of it.

So you put some rules to it yourself, create a quasi-logical structure for this strange new universe you alone have apparently discovered. Before you know it, you’ve invented your own religion and it all falls apart again, victim to the inconsistencies you’ve imposed upon it yourself. It seems the moment you put words to things you limit their potential to within the bounds of your own perception, and what you perceive actually isn’t that much when compared with what’s really out there, or to be more precise in there, because it’s an inner experience that leads us to this taste of the infinite where there’s no such thing as or in or out anyway.

The Lavender and the Rose comes out of this shift in perception, but without structure it would make no sense to anyone else – just two hundred thousand words of mindless drivel that would bore anyone to tears, so we accept the vagueness and the mystery, and we weave a story around it instead, a love story, several love stories, blur the boundaries, throw in some visions, some Jungian psychology, basically a lot of muse-stuff and conquering of the ego, that sort of thing. Add in a bit of Victorian costume drama, play about with characters having more than one identity, play the story out at different points in history, play it out in alternative universes where even the present moments can pan out differently, and then try to make it all hang together as an interesting story – about what can happen when you start living magically, and with others who are similarly inclined. Then explore ways the mystery can be coaxed to your aid, and discover how, if you get it wrong it will shun you for a decade. Learn how to navigate its endless ambiguities, how to see the world as no one else sees it, and still get by without getting yourself sectioned.

Such is the irresistible allure of something other.

And as with all my stuff, if you are not pleased by it, at least it hasn’t cost you anything!

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The road from lamghom avenue new cover - smallThere are two major weaknesses of the spirit – well,… there are more than two but we’ll keep this simple. One is the misconception that change must be resisted at all costs, the second is our inability to move on when everything we believe in turns out to have been false, or when everything we have or hold dear is erased by what we perceive to be an adverse fate.

An early lesson is unrequited love. Part of the  psyche begins to break through and we project it with a terrifying vigour onto an unfortunate member of the opposite sex. We fall in love with them but, hampered by our own pathological reticence, we cannot make our feelings known. Instead we believe the other party must know we love them, because how can they not? This love we feel is so elemental, so visceral, so spiritual, it’s like a sickness we cannot shake. Surely, it’s inevitable they will pick up on it somehow and, as is the way of all true love stories, we will have our happy ending?

Eventually we wise up to the fact the object of our desire is not in love with us, never was and never will be, and worse, that we might have wasted years in sad lament for this one love that was not reciprocated, nor even guessed at by the other party. What we earnestly believed in was one thing, the truth of the matter quite another. We look back wondering what the hell it was all for, and the truth is, actually,… nothing. Worse, unless we can overcome the void it leaves behind, it will cast a shadow over our potential for future happiness, future love.

Another lesson some of us encounter is when we invest several decades in a particular profession, say as an engineer working for a vast organisation manufacturing something we think is important, something we love doing. Then the economic plug is pulled, the era of de-industrialisation is born and our profession goes through a decade of decline – year on year friends and colleagues are handed their redundancy notices. And then maybe we’re made redundant ourselves, coming up on our middle years, having apparently wasted most of our lives establishing and perfecting skills that are now useless.

The shock of change, the shattering of long held beliefs leaves us naked before that ultimate of all existential questions: what am I doing here? And what the Hell was all that about if everything and everyone we ever loved can so easily and arbitrarily taken from us?

The protagonist of The Road From Langholm Avenue, Tom, a designer of marine engines, is facing the closure of the factory where he’s worked all his life, the prospect of long term unemployment and he’s about to go through a messy divorce, so the whole bedrock of his life has crumbled. He’s also haunted by memories of an unrequited affair from his schooldays with a girl called Rachel, as if in calling him back to his past, Rachel holds the key to his future. Powerless in all other respects, Tom sets out to do the one thing he feels capable of physically doing, and that’s finding Rachel and, regardless of her circumstances after a quarter of a century, asking her on a date.

The story of the unravelling of Tom’s life is contrasted by this Quixotic quest through which we learn of a woman, Rachel, who, unlike Tom, has dealt with tumultuous change throughout her life, reinventing herself at every turn. It takes spirit and a certain ruthlessness to avoid getting buried in the wreckage of the past, and Rachel is an expert, still fighting, still making something of herself every day while Tom is imprisoned, overwhelmed by a cloying sense of stagnation and decay.

Only when we’ve untangled ourselves do we see the opportunities in the present clearly enough and realise our purpose is not defined by anything in our past, be they objects or mind-constructed things, or group loyalties, or past loves. More, the one thing we fear to lose as a result of sweeping change, our sense of self, is the one thing we cannot lose. What we do risk though is holding our selves hostage to the past, by our inability to let it go.

Tom has his denouement with Rachel, and rejects his dying profession, sees his past bulldozed to make way for a housing estate, and he steps out into the wilderness of a post industrial, post millennial Britain.

In simple terms the existential quandary boils down to the fact that every time we wake up, we know our life is not over and, to paraphrase a famous movie quote, we can then ‘either get busy living, or get busy dying’. We needn’t take dying literally here, we can read it metaphorically. And most of us, if we’re honest, risk dying a little each day, poisoned by stuff we know to be toxic yet can’t seem to let go of.

 

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

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

Nah, the optician says I’m fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What then?

in martindale

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philosophers

Arithmetic can be interesting and absorbing, even to a non-mathematician, provided we aren’t scared off it by psychopathic maths teachers as kids – and maybe even then, depending on how resilient we are,….
There’s something fundamental about numbers that ties us into the physical world. You can imagine a little lad in ancient times being sent out to count the eggs in a hen’s roost and report back to his mother: how many?

So he counts the eggs he sees on his fingers, returns to his mother and holds up the same number of fingers, and she transfers that information to her own fingers and counts them off – one for me, one for my husband, one for each of my children. Yes, there are enough eggs. Fetch me this many – holds up her fingers.

This is okay for counting small quantities, but anything bigger than ten and we need a more advanced system, something that takes care of the tens, the hundreds, the thousands and so on. And that’s what we have, for general use at least, a system we call base ten. And although we can’t be certain, there’s a convincing argument our preference for working in the base ten number system comes simply from the fact we have ten fingers and thumbs. If we’d evolved with just four, our arithmetic would be entirely different – we’d be working in base eight, what we call Octal. In the Octal system the number nine doesn’t exist. There are units (up to the number 7), eights, sixty fours, and so on – a bit weird really. In fact there are any number of number systems.

In computing, we use the binary system a lot, where the biggest digit is 1. We also use hexadecimal when programming computers, sixteen digits there, but since we have no regular digits bigger than 9, we represent the others with letters. Hexadecimal arithmetic used to really blow my mind. Base ten is much safer ground.

Numbers can do useful, practical things like keeping track of vast sums of money or objects. Arithmetical operations help us divide them up, add other quantities, subtract them,… but those of a mystical bent also attribute spooky properties to numbers. The argument runs we didn’t just invent numbers out of thin air, did we? They already existed. We just discovered them. Where did they come from? God invented numbers, or they’re a fundamental property of the Universe, or something,… either way they hint at its more esoteric mysteries.

Like what?

Well, take any number and multiply it by nine; say 54×9=486.

Now add the digits of 486 together: 4+8+6 = 18

Add the digits of 18 together: 1+8 = 9

This is called taking the digital root of a number, and the curious thing is the digital root of any number multiplied by nine, always equals nine. I was flummoxed by this when I first noticed it, and began to think of those numerological methods where you reduce your name to a number and it tells you what kind of person you are. Adding digits of big numbers together always seemed mathematically meaningless to me, but what about that trick with the number nine, because that’s really spooky?

But that’s not all. If you play about, finding the digital roots of other numbers, even more curious things begin to emerge. Say you take the roots of a series of numbers, like the doubling sequence: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024,….

And if you take the digital roots of each number in that sequence you get a sequence of roots that goes: 1 2 4 8 7 5,… repeating to infinity. And this is curious in that never once do we come across the numbers 3, 6, or 9. Now that sequence may ring a bell, depending on how long and how deeply you surf the whackier fringes of the Internet. And if you’re curious enough you’ll end up on Google and you’ll fall down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories surrounding Nicola Tesla who’s quoted as saying some weird things about the number 369.

But then if you’re lucky, and you survive all of that, you wind up right back with basic arithmetic and number theory, and how the bases work in practice. Yes, they throw up some intriguing patterns like how with base 10, the number nine has a peculiar persistence about it. But if you switch to another system, say the Octal system (four fingers on each hand makes eight), you still get interesting patterns emerging, but the mystical numbers are all different, because they’re not actually mystical at all.

Unless,…

Well, some numbers stick in the mind, don’t they? My favourite is 1881. I see it all over the place but only because I’m receptive to it, physiologically and for some unknown reason. If I’d chosen 247, I’d be seeing that as well because numbers are everywhere, on busses, trains, tickets, time-tables. But we don’t choose these numbers, they come at us from the unconscious and render themselves like dream symbols, the mind triggering our awareness of them. They have personal meaning, but obscure and infuriating. Jung made a study of so called number dreams and came up with some curious results which, as is usual with him, straddle the borders of science and mysticism, but for the sake of brevity we’ll not go there today.

So what use are digital roots? Well, not much nowadays, beyond leading us on a merry dance through the theory of numerical systems. But another curious property once made them very useful indeed, this being in the days before calculators when large arithmetical operations were carried out by clerks in banks or say the accounting departments of big companies, using pencils and paper.

If you multiply two large numbers, for example 5986 by 213, you get 1275018. This is easy by calculator, but doing it by hand I’d probably make a mistake first time round and get fired for it. One way of checking is to reduce the big numbers to their digital roots and multiply them together. The digital root of the roots multiplied will be the same as the digital root of the big answer. If it isn’t you know you’ve made a mistake. The same goes for adding, subtracting or dividing.

So, digital roots do have their uses, but beware following the number 9 down that rabbit hole. You may have trouble finding your way back out.

By the way the digital root of 369 is 9. Isn’t that curious?

I’d forgotten arithmetic could be so much fun!

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flolI can’t believe it’s twenty years since this book came out. I was in the Lake District on a walking holiday. A bill for car repairs the week before had left me a bit short and I calculated that after food and petrol I’d have about a tenner to spare. I spent £5.99 of it on this book for company in the evenings. It took me close to the wire, but it was money well spent. I don’t remember any of the walking now, I just remember reading this book in the B+B.

One part is set in a rural suburb of Dublin and describes the relationship between young Nicholas and his father, a man who gives up a steady but uninspiring career in the civil service in order to paint. He believes God has called him to do it, but it’s a calling that also plunges his family into poverty. Then we have Isabelle, growing up on a small island off Ireland’s west coast, her childhood overshadowed by an incident in which her musically gifted brother was struck down by a life-changing seizure, and for which she nurses a deep, though irrational, wound of guilt. She’s a bright girl but flounders when away at boarding school in Galway, squanders her chances of university and settles instead with a cloth merchant, Peader. By turns passionate and cold, tender and violent, Peader is not a good match, but Isabelle goes along with it, thinking of it as her punishment for past sins.

For most of the story Nicholas and Isabelle live entirely separate lives, and it seems impossible they’ll ever meet. But we know they must because in the opening of the book we are told, somewhat enigmatically, Nicholas was born to love Isabelle. It’s a mystery why or how, but all that’s just what’s on the surface, the bare bones, if you like, and it’s a tiny fraction of what this novel is about. The author’s characters are drawn from humble lives, the kind of people you wouldn’t second glance on a bus, yet through their struggles they take on such noble and god-like proportions it’s hard to see the world in quite the same way again.

We have Nicholas’s father, on the edge of madness, gaunt, white haired, messianic, striding into the west in broken old boots with his paints and his easel while his family starves back home. Ordinarily we’d dismiss him as a selfish old fool, but through Nicholas’s eyes, though at times he hates his father for what he’s done, his overriding love for him elevates their story to the rank of an Homeric Odyssey. And Isabelle’s father, a small-island schoolmaster, sometime poet, and semi-drunk, raising his pupils with kindness and compassion, and a dedication such that they will not be looked down upon by their mainland peers – another small life, but for all of its obscurity it is also heroically huge and inspirational.

Religion runs strongly throughout the book, God being ever present in the workings of fate, in the lives of the characters and the events that touch them. The characters wait on signs that will tell them what to do, they interpret them as best they can, and they have visions, see ghosts via the medium of dreams or delirium – all of this in the sense of a folk religion that’s been overlaid with a tradition of Catholicism. You can read the universe and your life as a meaningless, or you can see it as something more, something epic in which fate and love are bound together, a visionary experience of life in which we are invited to take our part. The choice is ours. The latter adds colour and meaning to our days on earth, and makes a kind of mysterious sense of things, if only in retrospect, while the former adds nothing.

There is only one priest in the story, and he shuns the idea of miracles, is afraid of them, would rather the Bishop had the pleasure of them, and when the miracles start to happen, the protagonists literally shut him out. It’s more that God is in every stone of Ireland, in the breath of the wind, in the mist over mountain and bog, a God that is immediate and personal. It’s a book that stirs the spirit and ravishes the senses. It is not a romance, but it is deeply Romantic, and the language is lyrical, pellucid, utterly mesmerising. This is one of the most powerful and compelling works of fiction I have read, and I have re-read it several times now, always something fresh leaping out – a passing observation, a few lines of description triggering an avalanche of revelation.

The moment when the author reveals how Isabelle and Nicholas are finally going to meet will take your breath away and it’ll have you laughing as much out of relief as anything else. But this is not your usual “will they won’t they” kind of story, the kind to be forgotten as soon as the last page is turned. The ending is subtle, powerful and, like the rest of the book, rich with meaning, and it leaves you wondering.

It’s a story you’ll be carrying around in your head for a long, long time.

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