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Lochan na Eala

After so long hankering for broader travels, these pandemic years, and for the Romantic, I have decided to bring my travels to romantic lands closer to home. Today, then, we venture from my doorstep, to the small lake that is once more appearing on the Lancashire plain, and which I have today named Lochan na Eala. It means Lake of the Swans. I admit it’s an unlikely name to find on the maps of west of Lancashire, but then this place is not to be found on any maps at all.

In summer, it dries to a puddle, so cannot be said to exist, and therefore does not require a name. But over the course of winter it swells to such a proportion it looks embarrassed without one, so I have named it, because the migrating swans have found it, and they seem to like it, and “Swan Lake”, though more prosaic, and “English” and obvious, lacks the romance of a thing that is not always there. One needs the Celtic, bardic tongue, when it comes to dealing with the more subtle levels of reality.

The farmer has tried to drain it by digging a ditch, but the cause is more elemental, this being a general rise in the water table, and what looks like the slow return of the area to wetland. As I understand it, it’s part of the Environment Agency’s planned flood management programme for my locale, this inundation of natural flood planes. I was there some weeks ago, and had noted its return. In the near future, I suppose, it will become permanent, and named officially but, until then, Lochan na Eala it is, or at least it is for me.

So far, the day has not gone well, and we are in need of a change of scene. My good lady’s pipe has been put out by early morning leaks to the media we are to lead the world in rendering Covid endemic in the population. Free lateral flow tests are to end, and no further booster programs are under consideration. The reports are now disowned, but there is a rule of thumb which states one should never believe a rumour until it has been officially denied.

True or not, my good lady has eased her despair with an overly aggressive cleaning of the oven. This has caused the glass to pop out of the door, so we are currently without an oven. The glass was only glued in, and I think I might be able to repair it with a suitable adhesive, so have ordered special oven-door-glue from the aptly named oven-door-glue company. We now await the good graces of the postman, and the goddess of good fortune.

We’ve had a murky few days, and they’ve kept me indoors. I’ve passed the time reading Gary Lachman’s “Secret History of Consciousness”, which is a look at the nature of consciousness, and the ways in which we have come to approach it, over time. It’s rather a tour-de force, building a persuasive argument from the erudite blocks of the more obscure literature, both psychological and, for want of a better word, the theosophical. It’s making sense of other works I have read, but which proved rather heavy going at the time.

One of the remarkable things he describes is the theory of how we represent reality, that what we see is not what is truly there, that our concepts effectively boot up from different levels of the unconscious mind, whose origins lie in deeper, older parts of the brain. We have only to back-track a little in order to see the world in a radically different way. I remember coming round from being gassed by the dentist, as a child, and the way my return to waking reality was presaged by something I can only describe as abstract. At the time, it was explained away as an effect of the gas, nothing more, but I have always wondered about it.

None of this helped, of course, when I was considering the ugly fact of a broken oven door. Indeed, for a time, I was at a loss. The literature may have explained my dilemma in philosophical or neurological language, in addition to my own more prosaic terminology, but it could not help find a supplier for high-temperature adhesive that stood a cat in hell’s chance of working. Like everything else, that was down to Dr Google. The lesson here is that such explorations of the inner universe are all well and good, but whatever our reality is, it makes a good show of presenting a hard and uncompromising face, that if we have a purpose at all, part of it must be to manage the problems it presents us with first, before taking off on flights of fancy – alluring though those fancies may be.

Anyway, it’s rather a cold day, grey this morning, but forecast to break into sunny spells, later on – much later by the looks of it. Indeed, it’s only a few hours before dusk, now, and I’m half-hearted, setting out, having procrastinated most of the day away. But you never know, we may just catch a nice sunset at the last minute.

I am often dismayed by the two-dimensional emptiness of the Lancashire plain, which, these days, I call home. There are just a few trees that excite the senses by their near alien three-dimensional presence, but which would not be noticed anywhere else. The rest of it is reedy ditches and hawthorn hedgerows, and vast fields of black earth. The appearance of a lake is something of a revelation then.

Lachman speaks of an evolution of consciousness, that there is evidence our forbears saw the world in a radically different way, being barely self-conscious at all, but more intimately connected, as a collective, with their reality, which is internally, mind generated. Our evolution into fully self-aware beings came at the cost of a sense of separation, of alienation from the world, one he argues we have compensated for by mostly violent means. These are speculative ideas, but not implausible. The next phase is a level of consciousness that reconnects with that earlier phase, so we remain self-conscious, calculating beings, but also once more fully connected with the reality we represent. At this point we will be able to see, or rather experience, various levels, and various modes of being. This stage is a long way off, and we may of course extinct ourselves before we get there. If we do, by the same reasoning, the world itself too, as we know it, will also cease to exist, so the burden of responsibility is heavy.

The Romantics were on the right path, using the imagination to explore their inner worlds, and the qualitative nature of experience. But many went mad, since reality itself refused to bend to their will; it remained ugly and inconvenient. It was their oven-door moment, and Dr Google had not been invented to provide a source of glue. All of this might be idle speculation, and of only passing interest, but others have wondered and felt strange things, intimations of other levels of reality, as have I.

One of the writers Lachman quotes is the Russian philosopher, P D Ouspensky, who describes an experience he had in 1908, while on a ship, crossing the Sea of Marmora, and how, for a moment, he became everything he was looking at. So profound an experience this was, he spent the rest of his life trying to explain it. It’s the clearest account of a similar experience I had in the Newlands Valley, twenty years, ago, but could not articulate so well as he. Such a thing becomes your life’s work, whether you’re up to it or not. He was. I’m not, so why that doorway opened a crack for me, I’ll never know, since there is, I fear, so little I can do with it, except wonder.

Anyway, here we are, the lovely Lochan na Eala. Just a short stretch of the legs. And what’s this? The sun makes an unexpected, last minute appearance as the sky opens. Nice that. It seems there may once have been a time, like Ouspensky, when I remembered I was it – I mean all of this. And if that’s true, then, whatever we choose to call it, so are you.

Thanks for listening.

Play me out:

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The penultimate movie I watched, in 2021, was a darkly satirical offering called “Don’t Look Up”. Astronomers discover an asteroid on collision course with earth, a mass extinction event. But it coincides with another mass extinction event already well under way, which is the state of our political and media culture, and where it’s leading us. So far, from what I’ve read, it’s being called a sci-fi movie. It’s not. It’s very much of the moment, and what happens is eerily plausible, but then my span of life on earth includes the phenomenon that was Trump’s presidency, and the spectacle of the incumbent British administration. After that, anything will seem plausible.

The message I took from the movie, is those who can still relate to one another as human beings, still look up at the sky and know it’s real, and who value love and fellowship – well – you’d better cling to that, because it’s no small thing, even if your phone is telling you something else entirely. It’s also all you’ve got. It won’t stop you getting mown down with the rest of humanity in its stampede for the material, but you’ll be able to look back on your life, and feel it was worth something. The only other thing there is is this “culture”, for want of a better word, that we’ve built, lets say over the last twenty years, and which can have us look up at an incoming asteroid, and deny its existence, sneer knowingly at the science that’s telling us it’s coming, right up to the moment it strikes, then whimper uselessly, that we were lied to. What we’ve built, then, aspires to something stupid, and which crushes the life out of, well,… life itself.

It’s had mixed reviews, but I thought it was pretty much on the button. It was a sobering note to end the year on, but not altogether negative.

Individually, we’re all facing our own incoming asteroid, our own extinction event. There’s a line in the Chinese Book of Changes, that describes how some of us will approach this by denying its existence, by endless partying, pursuing surgery, drugs, botox and hair dye, all to maintain the illusion of eternal youth. Others will spend their lives crushed under the weight of it, bemoaning the harshness, and the futility of life, weeping over their lot at every chance they get. But to live as we should is to find another way, one that’s becoming harder, like a whisper in a room of noise, and it’s rarely taught, how to tune in how to age gracefully, how to mature as a human being. Part of it at least is to treasure the ineffable in what can be the all too transient and minuscule glimpses of a greater reality.

The movie ends with family and friends breaking bread around the dinner table, and asking the question: what was the best moment of your life? I took my cue from this and asked the question at our family Christmas lunch, not what was the best moment of your life, but of the past year. It’s tempting to see this past year, and the year before it, in purely negative terms, on account of Covid. But in spite of that, each of us could indeed pin-point a special moment, several in fact, and in that light, its not been a bad year at all, just different.

One of my special moments would be reaching the top of Pendle, in September, and having it to myself for a bit. There was something in the fall of light, in the colours of the sky, and the movement of clouds that day. We’re not always aware of it at the time. It’s only when we think back, we realise there was a special quality, a connection with something deeper than the surface of the everyday.

These are the times that give life meaning, their promise pulling us forwards, into life, though we have no idea when they will come again. They’re special because they’re reflective of something timeless, something of the immortal, a memory we are born with, and they don’t cost anything. It’s a glimpse, perhaps, of what the Hindu would call Brahman, the transcendent, or rather the divine consciousness, and that we are, each of us, “it”. What we’re seeing then, in moments like that, is a reflection of our own face in the crowd, and recognising it, even if we cannot name it.

But our vision, our ability to naturally transcend, is mostly hampered by the shallowness and the surrounding noise, and especially now, with the infernal din that is our “social” media, this thing that showed some early promise as a means of remotely connecting us, but which was captured by the big bucks machinery, and is now gamed simply to big us up with its false promises, persuade us the persona we project into it is the real “us”, but which ultimately makes an insulting zero of us all. Then there’s the unwholesome churn of our politics and news media, perpetually beamed into our heads, unsettling us, and purporting to be the only reality there is. But it’s not.

Just look up.

Here’s to 2022

And, as always, thanks for listening.

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The Pike Tower, Rivington

The year has blown itself out. It’s exhausted, its dreams have turned to ash, its spirits are damp with endless rain. Whenever the phone rings, it’s to let us know someone has died. Covid Omicron is circling with bat wings and horns, and the NHS Website is glowing red with demand for boosters. The temptation is to pull up the drawbridge, and write dark poetry. But then the Met office gifts us a brief chink of sunlight, so we fill the flask, grab the camera, and head up the Pike!

Rivington Pike is beloved of millions, a distinctive pimple of a hill atop the moor, and visible for miles. It was a natural choice for one of the network of early warning beacons for the threatened invasion of 1588. Since the late seventeen hundreds, it’s been crowned with this little stone tower. Originally a hunting lodge, the structure was almost demolished by Victorian vandalism, then fortified to its present impregnable status. Its walls bear centuries of graffiti, now eaten by acid rain into deep engravings. One of my lot added their name to it in 1881.

So anyway, it’s a midweek morning, and the causeway between the Rivington and Anglezarke reservoirs is rammed to a single lane. The Rivington Barn eatery is doing a brisk trade, and the Hall avenue is solid from top to bottom with parked cars. I spent a long time working towards retirement, only to find the whole world made it ahead of me, and got the last parking space. Well, not quite – I exaggerate for effect. I got the last one.

A December sun is a peculiar thing; virtually no heat, but incredibly bright. Capturing the dynamic range of a landscape on a digital sensor is a challenge at this time of year. Anything lit by the sun tends to burn out, so I’m experimenting. Then, I post-process at home.

I’m enjoying photography more than writing fiction at the moment, seeing more in what I can bring out of images than I do in words. My characters refuse to live, as if wearied by what they’re trying to say. Thus, the work in progress languishes, limps along a little, then collapses into a heap of uncertainty. It seems at times remote and stupid, like I’m losing my mind, at other times like I’m preaching, at other times like I don’t care, and I’ll say it anyway. But it will not take on a life of its own, as it once used to do.

I used to escape into fiction as a distraction from the day-job, which, like all jobs, involves wearing a face that is to some degree invented, while keeping what I felt to be my truer self incognito. But I also write as active imagination, which is a journey to unravel further aspects of the hidden self. I think I know the nature of that journey’s end now, which is to reveal one’s original face, as they say in Zen. The stories have pointed to the gate, and all that remains is to walk through it. But I’m not sure writing stories is part of that journey any more.

I’m feeling a little strange this morning. I dreamed of a fish – well, two fishes, actually – one large, one small, living in a puddle. I drop them some food, and the little fish pushes the big one right out of the puddle, then eats the food. The big one lies there, remote, sidelined, forgotten, expiring for want of oxygen. Fishes in dreams are thoughts, or at least they seem so in mine. And if they are so, then the big ideas are getting sidelined by the trivia, which is consuming all the energy. Or you could look at it the other way and say the old and the listless is being displaced by the fresh and the new. So which is it? The dream wasn’t explicit. They never are. It just asked me to think about it.

We start our walk with a meandering ascent through the terraced gardens, gradually working up to the summit of the Pike. You can get three or four miles out of it, and seven hundred feet of ascent. It’s not a long walk then, but a fairly stiff one, if you go for the Pike.

The seven arched bridge, Leverhulme’s terraced gardens, Rivington.

The first point of interest along the way is the so-called seven arch bridge. Like everything else here, it was built in the early nineteen hundreds, purely for fancy. It’s part of the then Viscount Leverhulme’s “palace in the clouds”, a collection of now mostly grade two listed historic structures. Picks, shovels, an army of men, and horses gave shape to it, and years in the making. It was the brainchild of prolific garden designer Thomas Mawson.

Once a year, Leverhulme would throw open his garden to the hoi polloi. They’d dress in their finest, and come wander. Times change, as do fashions. Now, it’s mountain gear, like we’re ascending Everest, instead of cloth caps and gaberdine. A fuss over trifles. But at least we can come and wander whenever we please.

The Great Lawn Summer House. Rivington Terraced Gardens.

I save my soup for one of the beautifully restored summer houses. Here, also sunning himself, I recognise a man I knew vaguely from the day job, and who retired some years before me. I cannot remember his name, though. Likewise, I can tell by his expression, he thinks he should know me, but cannot remember my name either. We avoid unintentional offence by the peculiar social dance of pretending not to know one another at all or, knowing each other so well, we need no introduction beyond “owdo”. Thus girded, we pass the time of day, and in hope of the connection making itself known, but it does not. So, we comment on the brightness of the sun, and the lack of warmth when out of it, on the wetness, and the windiness of previous weeks, and what a good job the heritage trust have made of restoring the gardens. We part with a nod and a “sithi'”, still trying to remember each other’s names.

So, on to the Pike, now, always a good indication of how fell-fit one is, by the amount of puff left when you hit the final flight of steps. As usual, I’m middling, but we’ll do, and of course it does you no harm to get out of puff now and then. A mountain biker, a girl with her phone, and an elderly couple, are my companions for the moment, here, all socially distanced of course. The elderly lady wears a surgical mask. She’s taking no chances with this bat-winged, horned monster that is Omicron, and judging from the reported “R” value, I don’t blame her. I wait for them to depart before I get the camera out. The girl lingers, dreamily, lost in her phone.

The Pigeon Tower, Levelhulmes terraced gardens, Rivington.

There’s much to see from the Pike: Manchester, the Peak District, North Wales, Liverpool, the coast as far as Blackpool, the Lakes beyond that. Sometimes you’ll see the Isle of Man, but that’s very much dependent on the atmospheric conditions, and has rather the appearance of a mirage when it appears. Speaking metaphorically, it’s a pity we can’t see further out, say two years from now. But given recent events, would we really want to?

It’s a beautiful afternoon. I take the long way back: Pigeon tower, Italian lake, cross the top of the seven arched bridge, then meander down to the car. It gets late early at this time of year, and the light is turning golden, now, the sun already flirting with dusk. The phone pings a notification from the BBC, an earth-shattering announcement to be made at tea time.

It’s fine. Just some more dead catting. I’ll wait for the bullet points in the morning.

We’ll pick up wine and cheese on the way home. Celebrate the midweek, why not? There’s nothing quite like a hill for straightening you out. Dark poetry be gone.

Thanks for listening.

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Fifteen minutes

The UK National Health Service is severely stretched, and about to enter its second winter of Covid, with a new variant on the loose. You can’t get a face to face doctor’s appointment for love nor money, and you’re as well to avoid A+E, unless your life depends upon it. Covid is taking its toll in ways other than infection. That said, I was invited for my Covid booster at the weekend, and found the whole thing calm and well organised. The staff were friendly, and welcoming. I turned up a little before the allotted time, and got the jab straight away. Then I was asked to wait fifteen minutes before leaving, just in case of an adverse reaction. And while I waited, I got to thinking.

There was a big take-up, both with booked appointments and walk-ins. The nurse who saw me was in her sixties and had a manner that would have made light of any indignity she ever had to inflict on her patients. She was the epitome of the NHS: professional, friendly, and efficiently competent. There was also a sympathy about her that’s often nine tenths of healing. She was more than a nurse, then, she was your aunt, she was your mother, she was your sister.

We’re used to having the NHS around, and we expect it will last forever. Everyone benefits from the same level of top-notch care. We all chip in through our taxes, and then we all benefit. Those who can afford to pay little or nothing are looked after by those who can afford to pay more. I think it’s a good system. It’s civilised and decent. But there’s a class of economic fundamentalist who hates it, and would rather see it sucked into the toxic world of the global market-place, where the price is everything and human values are of no consequence.

I’m aware bits of it are already privately run. One of my local GP surgeries was recently bought out by a “for-profit” global brand. They bid to provide services for the NHS and, through the NHS, and our taxes, make vast sums of money for people we’ve never heard of, instead of that money being ploughed back into care. The next phase, through the current Health and Social Care Bill, paves the way for an insurance based system, like they have in the United States. This is where the insurance companies dictate whether we get access to treatment. And in a system run for profit, it’s not in their interest to grant it.

All of this seems unthinkable, but then, until recently, it was unthinkable we would ever have food-banks in the UK, but now we do. We have them by the score, because the welfare system is no longer serving the people who need it, and wages are suppressed to a level well below what’s decent, so even people in work are having to use them. We’ve grown used to having foodbanks around, used to the fact there are more and more of them. That’s just the way it is, we say.

I guess it’ll be the same with the NHS. Though it’s hard to imagine it, one day, all of this will be gone. The ambulance man will turn up to transfer your ailing, aged parent to hospital, and you’ll have to swipe your debit card before he lets you on board. He won’t want to do it. It’ll seem inhumane to him, but it’ll be the system, and he’ll have no choice, because he serves a master for whom care is no longer primary. And we’ll get used to it being that way, and we won’t complain about it.

Our healthcare will be tiered. The more we pay, the better care we get. If we can’t pay anything, we get nothing. And if the insurance company finds a way of wheedling out of paying for your surgery, you’ll either have to sell your house to pay for it yourself, or go without. That kindly nurse? She’ll be gone too, replaced by a slave to tick-box managerialism. Global health brands will be running ads at us, talking about “choice”, and “excellence”, and the corporate drone-bots will be pinging you emails to “kindly rate your experience today”. And we’ll accept it all as being just the way it is, because that’s just the way we are. But is it really who we want to be?

My fifteen minutes are up, and just as well. I’m good to go.

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I am taking shelter in a bamboo house which stands above a road, on tall stilts. Access to it is by ladder to a trapdoor. The road leads off into the distance, both ahead and behind me. To the left and right are impassable ranges of forested mountains. People are processing along the road towards me. There are many of them, like a column of wartime refugees. As they pass under the bamboo house, some try to climb the ladder, wanting to get in. At first, I resist, preferring safety in isolation. But then I relent, open the trapdoor, and lower my hand to help the people up.

It’s a fragment of a dream I’ve been pondering for a few days, and it’s not making any sense. I’m also out of the habit of remembering dreams, and this fragment is the best I could rescue from a much longer dream sequence. I like to write dreams down, and mull them over. Sometimes they chime with my preoccupations, but even when they don’t, I enjoy them for the surreal imagery they serve up. Once you fall out of the habit, though, it can take several days for the dreams to start sticking again. And we’re not exactly there yet.

On the one hand then, this could be a dream about dreaming, and my neglect of it. You know? It could be an allegory about my looking to haul the dreams up into consciousness again, like I haul the people up. But the people do not strike me as representing dreams. They are people in distress, escaping a crisis, from what appears to be my future. Since all dream elements are aspects of the dreamer, what aspects of my future self might they be? What aspects of my self are migrating from a future crisis, to the past, which is (currently) my present?

I fear I am missing a significant punch-line here.

In other, not unrelated, matters, I have been pursuing this apparently new-fangled thing called “the meaning crisis”. Various learned authors are pontificating on it, and I’ve been hitching a ride with them, looking for answers, doubling down on my reading. And I’ve been listening to lengthy lectures on You-Tube. It is the main talking point for the so-called Intellectual Dark Web.

The meaning crisis is something afflicting the western world in particular. But any nation that becomes “westernised” will inevitably fall victim to it. It sounds very serious, and has to do with the individual’s loss of meaning in the midst of material plenty, including such technological wonders as the Internet and Android telephones. But then it strikes me of a sudden, I’ve been writing about this for twenty years. What seems to have happened is I’ve forgotten all of that, and allowed myself to be bedazzled by charismatic intellectuals into thinking the meaning crisis is something new, when it isn’t. Its effects are simply more prevalent now.

The Jungian school of psychoanalysis bottomed it a century ago, Jung himself describing mankind as hanging by a thin thread, that is the psyche. The poets, particularly the Romantics, nailed it too. I came to the gist of it, intuitively, through my reading in the late nineteen nineties, as my own psyche began to mature and to pick up on these things. Through that maturation, I began to see materialism not as a panacea, but for the spiritual poison that it was. I explored it in my first novel, the Singing Loch. I was clumsy and naive, though, and fudged the conclusion. I’d not a clue how you went about solving a problem like that. The clever men who write books about it now don’t know either. I think we have a better idea of the causes, not least from our understanding of Jung. But knowing the calibre of bullet doesn’t help you, when it’s aimed at your head.

A good metaphor, is the right-left brain dichotomy. The left hemisphere of the brain deals with what’s in front of it. It’s logical and mechanical, and it jumps to conclusions. Our ego finds its most natural home there. Meanwhile, the right brain hemisphere is more holistic, deals with ambiguity, and is the source of our creativity. It’s more nuanced, and can bring intuition to bear in situations of complex ambiguity that will stump the left brain. But in a materialistic society, the left brain dominates. Indeed, it shapes society in its own image. Thus, our world becomes unimaginative, superficial, materialistic, and pointless.

This is the nub of the meaning crisis.

The left brain should not be in charge. The right brain is the better master, and without it, we’d be sunk. The left brain’s proper place is as the right brain’s gopher. But the gopher has staged a coup to the extent we don’t even know what the right brain is for any more.

The left brain also killed God. This was sometime in the Victorian period. Neitzsche called it out, and said we’d never be able to wash away the blood. We can interpret this as meaning that when we stop believing in God, we discover we need a material replacement. So, the left brain presents us with any number of man-made ideologies to choose from. The downside is, the history of the twentieth century teaches us all those ideologies end in terrible suffering. The twenty-first isn’t shaping up any better.

A little before his death, Jung had a vision of the end of humanity. His daughter wrote it down and left it in the care of his associate, Marie Louise Von Frantz. If we take it in the context of its times, we were in the midst of the cold war, only a few years away from the near nuclear catastrophe of the Cuban missile crisis. Perhaps he had projected himself into an alternate future, where that particular incident went badly. I don’t know. But the thrust of his thesis was always that man is the greatest danger to himself. And his greatest danger is his inability to deal with his own shadow.

One of the great psychological conundrums concerns the most evil acts in history – there are plenty to choose from, but it’s basically this: what is it that can drive basically good people, into doing very bad things. What is that transforms the ordinary baker and candlestick maker into the mass butcher of men? It has to do with the shadow, at both the personal and the collective level. And we only spare ourselves the shadow’s excesses by realising everything we label as evil, is actually a part of us. Refusing to accept that, and to integrate the shadowy parts of us into our awareness, it takes very little for us to begin acting out what we say we are not. A group is labelled as “other”, thereby dehumanised, trumpeted in the collective-shadow-tabloids as vermin, and we too are but a heartbeat away from killing.

Religion is important in tempering the shadow. Or rather, it’s not any more. Religion is easy. You learn the lines, and you pay your lip-service once a week. Anyone can be religious. It’s the spiritual journey that tames the shadow, and spiritual matters, once upon a time the purview of religion, are more difficult. We can’t ignore the spiritual in us, though the left brain has been trying to eradicate it.

It was the Jungians who demonstrated the need for human beings to grow, spiritually. How we deal with that en-masse is a complicated business, but religions used to handle it reasonably well, until the left brain of religion decided it was all about power and influence, and to hell with that airy fairy business of the spirit. But ignoring the religious function – the spiritual function – the need to grow, people lose direction, become sick in the head, start believing in stupid things, and then they start killing each other.

The spiritual path, however you define it, is about dealing with the personal and the collective shadow. The modern psycho-spiritual types call it “shadow work.” But who has the time and patience for that, when the most pressing issue for many westerners now, is how to pay the rent, or the gas bill?

Jung hoped enough would wake up to spare the total extermination of the species, but we seem a long way off. It’s not exactly talked about, let alone taught at a level aimed at capturing the popular imagination. And of course any mention of Jung, even sixty years after his death, is still enough to trigger the shadow-splenetic of all manner of left brained intellectual and cultural punditry.

But what has all this to do with my dream of the Bamboo House? Well, given that this is an outline of my current thinking, it’s a fair bet it has something to do with it, because such is the stuff that dreams are made of. I trust another dream will come along and clarify it, that is, if I can stick around long enough to remember the punch-line.

Thanks for listening.

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I have been an amateur novelist since I was a teenager. The stories had to be fitted in around the day-job. Sometimes I enjoyed the day-job, sometimes I didn’t. What I reliably disliked about it, was the sacrifice of freedom to live as I chose, in exchange for the means to live as I had to. It is a source of suffering common to many of us, and nothing unusual in it. But the question is: were the novels an escape from those aspects of life that caused me to suffer? Or, was having to suffer, in fact, the fuel that powered the novels? And now I am retired, and therefore free to live as I choose, where does that leave the writing?

The writing began as a search for self-validation. I wanted to know if my thoughts, my feelings, indeed my very being, were valid in the world. It’s a risky gambit to do this through writing, and I do not recommend it, since rejection by publishers can be problematic for one’s self-esteem. In this sense, I was indeed roundly rejected. But, through writing, I also discovered the psyche, and was able to grasp the idea that the value of writing as a mostly unpublished amateur, lies in its potential to transform the writer, and if necessary, to heal them. As for the validity of one’s being, the simple fact of our very existence vouches for that. This is something else the writing teaches us.

Now I’m retired, and there is no real stress I can think of, other than what I invent for myself. Decades of angst are dissolving out of me. I no longer suffer the working life, and I bask in my freedoms, living, mostly, as I please. It’s a blessed feeling, but can one still be a writer, without the fuel of at least some suffering to power it?

I once believed anger could help drive the work, since anger is a form of suffering. In this respect, I tried the partisanship of politics. But through the writing, I came to understand politics better. As such, it no longer angers me. Observing political polarities at work, one realises how slick a trap it is, this ready anger we possess, that the world does not come in the shape of our own liking, that others do not see things the way we do. But anger, whilst granting the illusion of impetus, only holds us fast in a trap of meaninglessness. To escape to a more meaningful life, we must let it go. Using suffering, as a way to power writing, is like running on dirty diesel. To take it further, you have to go green.

I am still writing in retirement, the blog, obviously, but also the fiction. In the fiction, I create imaginary worlds, but these were never escape-pods from petty suffering. They have always been settings for exploring what one’s current reality does not readily facilitate. They were, and are, experiments in thought. They were and are dialogues exploring the feasibility of ideas.

The will to explore the world through writing is still very much present, but the gearing has changed. I am no longer screwing the nuts off the engine. I have engaged cruise control. The energy is coming from somewhere, but I have to be careful with it. It’s like the wind. I have to read the weather and accept that, on occasion, I will be becalmed.

So that’s fine, we’re still moving. But what’s our general direction? What is the destination?

As well as discovering the psyche, the writing has uncovered a secret. I mean this in the intellectual sense, like one discovers a map of buried treasure. Intellectually, the secret makes sense, at least to me, but I can’t simply tell it for it to be of any use to anyone else. You have to discover the map for yourselves, and there is a path to be walked.

It starts from the first question, and goes on until you get the answer. I have walked the path through the writing of a dozen novels. I understand the symbols, and I can read the map. X marks the spot. But what’s lacking is the belief anything is truly buried there. This might sound strange, but I think it’s a necessary part of the journey. It prevents us from believing in every shiny thing that comes our way. The rational senses hold sway, and will not permit me to believe, except in moments too few to build an overwhelming and possibly megalomaniacal momentum, but sufficient to keep the idea alive. Thus, we still approach whatever it is, but gently.

Rationality then holds us to the values of the world, as we have constructed them, but not to the way the world is in itself. And I suppose what I’m writing towards now is the trigger that will have me believe in the world as it really is, in spite of all the dazzling distractions of the material life. Such a thing is probably beyond my skill, and my powers of insight, I mean without retreating to a cave for twenty years under the tutelage of a Zen monk, and likely not even then. But the search itself is purposeful, and grants its own kind of meaning. Anyway, the journey is more beautiful than being boxed in by the dreary, graffitied red-brick that is the endgame of diesel-chugging materialism.

I’ll tell you a part of my secret: it’s not a secret, but I’ll tell it anyway: that the sense of self you feel, looking out from behind your eyes, I think, it’s the same sense of self looking out from behind mine. We are the same in that respect. The only difference between us is our life-story, our memory, our history. These are significant differences, you might say, and fair enough, but we have to reckon with the likelihood they are transient and therefore individually meaningless. I may be wrong in this, I don’t know. At root, however, we are each of us an aspect of the Universe awakening and becoming aware of itself, through the perspective of our personal senses and our unique situation in time and space. This tells us there is less value in our differences than we like to think. We are all different, but we are also, more fundamentally, and much more importantly, all of us, versions of the One same thing.

Now, if we could believe in that, the world would already be moving towards a much better place. But the world is a mess of suffering and, worse, attempts to address any aspect of it have proven futile. Cure mankind of his immediate ills, and he will at once invent others to suffer from. He does not do this to spite the goodness in others, nor the tireless efforts of the saintly and the beneficent, but only to satisfy his own need to suffer, for only through the lens of a man’s suffering does the otherwise sterile, material life make sense to him.

Without the stress of the working life, I invent other things, trivial things to fret about. Is the boiler going to break down? My fences are looking like another winter will blow them away. There is an unfamiliar noise coming from the car’s transmission, and the mechanic cannot diagnose it. What if it breaks down and leaves me stranded? These are small matters, but rapidly inflated to calamitous proportion, if I do not spot them before they have gathered sufficient steam to sink my mood. Their energy is dirty, they have the potential to foul the atmosphere, to cloud the mind.

The world, as we have built it, is high on diesel fumes, and the lesson appears to be it’s a mistake to think any one of us can make a difference to it, other than by first addressing the suffering in ourselves. We must each of us consult the story of our lives, and, by whatever means comes to hand – in my case, by writing – learn the lessons of it. We must find a way of ditching the anger, of addressing the causes of our own suffering, down to the finest of detail, and we must learn to be vigilant as they morph and shift their angles of attack upon the serenity of one’s mood.

We do it, as best we can, by going green.

Thanks for listening.

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Dear George,

In answer to your query, when we write long-form fiction, interesting things emerge. Whether the story ever sees the light of day or not, it is an exploration of ideas, of events salient to our attention, and to our sense of being, at least at the time of writing. It clarifies what it is we think, also what we think we think, but in fact do not. Thus, it points the finger at our bullshit, and our vulnerability to the subversion of our thinking by invasive memes.

Memes sweep the culture, inculcate it, shape it. They cling to our coat-tails like briars, and we must be careful of them. Are these the things we really think? Or are they infections we have picked up and would be better seeking a cure for them? And is there really any difference?

In our current work in progress we have picked up a few threads familiar from previous writings: the secret state, neo-pagan spirituality, depth psychology, the politics of inequality. This is normal, a kind of narrative continuity. But you are right to point out a meme I have missed, and which might be harmful to us both.

As near as I can tell, it is the meme that says the man’s too big – the man being any authority we labour under, or against. The man deploys his authoritarian tool-box to crush dissent, he twists every instrument of the law to protect himself, he is made of Teflon, nothing sticks, and no lie is too big. Indeed, lies are no longer lies in contemporary political parlance; they have become tactical deceits. As for that most urgent issue of global warming, it’s too late to alter the course of it, and since we’re all doomed anyway, why bother even talking about it?

My last hero, Rick, turned his back on climate activism and politics, and went to live with a magical woman in the equivalent of a walled, Edenic garden. I wasn’t happy with him for doing that, but given the nature of the woman, I couldn’t entirely blame him. But it was also a return to the womb, which is hardly a healthy state of affairs. The world is where we live, not the womb. That we are born at all means we have a responsibility to shape the Zeitgeist. Heaven or Hell? The choice, as you say George, is ours.

In my defence, I might argue I wanted others to be angry with Rick as well, for who else can we rely upon to put the world to rights if not our heroes? And when the heroes quit the field in despair at our apathy, it should be a wake-up call for the rest of us that something is seriously wrong. It was, then, a small gesture, rooted in reverse psychology, and probably futile. But, you ask, is there not also a danger I have fallen for my own meme, and begun to believe in it? The man’s too big, the man’s too strong. Go contemplate your navel.

In “a lone tree falls” Rick is reborn as you, George. You are a former intelligence officer, a man of middling rank, intimate with international affairs, familiar with facts that are kept from the rest of us for reasons both fair and foul, familiar too with facts that have been spun to the inverse of their original meaning. But now you too find yourself in the path of the bulldozer, and the big man bearing down. Like Rick, the solution I am suggesting for you is defeatist. You’re knocking on in years, you see the future of the UK as a kleptocratic failed state, buffeted by an increasingly violent climate, spiralling levels of poverty, and an infrastructure always on the verge of collapse. But since – forgive me George – you’ll be dead before the worst of it hits, why worry? Keep your head down. Pour yourself another G+T and salute the sunset.

However, I note your objection, and agree all of this is convenient for the kleptocrats. One wonders if such “resistance is futile” memes can be seeded in the mire of social media to purposely sprout invasive blooms of defeatist nihilism. I also note that to be accepting of what we cannot change is also touted, in the emerging self-help literature, as being psychologically mature – this particular meme coming out of the man’s misappropriation of Buddhist mindfulness techniques. We are taught now to move on from contentious issues as a form of self-preservation. We should not interfere to change the madness, says the man, but employ age-old psycho-technologies to merely cope with it, and therefore remain obligingly docile and economically productive, as we spiral down the vortex of heat-death.

Why do I suggest that you, dear George, escape your responsibilities by making off with a muse half your age, disappear on a canal boat into the sub-cultural wonderland of England’s inland waterways? Is this not another metaphor of the womb, like Rick’s Edenic garden? Have I not worked out yet that the man holds the plug, and can drain any medium of true flight? There is no escaping responsibility.

But what, exactly, are our responsibilities to the world, and to the species? To whom, or to what are we held responsible, and to what standard? I hear your complaint, George, that, though we men of senior years feel no longer capable of action ourselves, we should at the very least take care we do not infect the young, for there is nothing worse for a young person’s confidence than seeing a defeated old man preaching the nihilist memes he learned at the knee of his masters and economic betters. Who then can blame the young for retreating into the virtual worlds of their computer games, drawing their curtains against the light, and subverting intelligent activism into vile shouting matches on Twitter?

Do not be defeatist, be determined? Do not be bitter, be better? Do not resign, be resilient? I hear you, George. My powers are limited, but I’ll see what I can do to preserve your honour and dignity.

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In spite of the ongoing pandemic, there are local elections taking place in various areas on May 6th. For anyone on the left, politics can seem like something of a lost cause these days. There is the hope we still have a shout in the locals though, and the Party cheerleaders, and their friends at the Guardian this week, are certainly keeping their peckers up in that respect. Locally though, we’re a little more realistic and expect a drubbing.

Once in a blue moon, I drop leaflets for the local constituency Labour Party. It’s a mystery how I’ve ended up doing this. My son was (briefly) a party member, so it’s his job really, but he resigned in dismay, post 2019, post Corbyn. And what with Bad Boy Boris still sailing high in the polls, on the strength of 130,000 dead, he’s lost faith in the topsy-turvy world of politics, and that anything can ever change for the better. That said, we managed to squeak our guy into the borough council chamber last time, which meant a Labour majority. But now the boundaries have been changed to include a larger swathe of blue, and he’s not so hopeful of being re-elected. When he accosted me over the garden hedge, sounding me out about the leaflets again, I got the impression we were just going through the motions, but he’s a nice guy, and I have the time, and why not?

So I’ve been out in the spring sunshine, wandering up garden paths with all the confidence of a man on official business. There are about a hundred properties, some of them remote. The boss-class Jags and Beamers on the driveways confirm this is not your natural Labour heartland, but I don’t want the Blues thinking they’ve a clear run. And one never knows.

Letter boxes are interesting things, at least they are if you’re in a philosophical frame of mind. Those up-tight double flapped draught excluder ones (like the one I have) are the worst. They scrunch up your neatly folded leaflets and trap them somewhere between the inside and the outside. Postmen must really hate them. And if you try to shove your hand through to lift the inner flap and get your stuff through cleanly, they’ll trap your fingers, if you’ve rings on them.

Then there are the old-fashioned easy lift-up type with the busted return springs – the type that rattle and squeak a bit in the wind. They’re the best, suggestive of a relaxed household, one that’s garden gnomey, with a cosy cat curled up somewhere. Your leaflets just sail through those. Then there are the posh mail-boxes that stand like sentries, keeping you at a distance from the door.

Long, scrunchy gravel driveways, electric gates, electric fences, keep out signs, beware of the dog signs, and the plethora of security cameras that protect wealthy egos, they’re all intimidating, but I’m on official business. I’m representing your local councillor, so I shall pass!

After the rout of the general election in 2019, we’ve entered a strangely post-political era, Orwellian in many ways, post truth, post fact, and with a media either powerfully in support of the incumbent, or shamelessly supine in not calling out even their most egregious transgressions. The left too, is in a pretty hopeless state, something self-neutering about it. On the plus side, I’m impressed by the various independent media – Novara, Double Down News, Byline Times, but they’re preaching to the converted and I don’t see them getting much traction in the main-stream. My own position these days, while still left leaning, has somewhat transcended the fray.

I’m working on the assumption the coming years will be turbulent as Brexit bites, and the Union disintegrates. There’s also the chance of a return to sectarian bloodshed in Ireland, and for which History will judge the British harshly, unless, as seems likely, History will be abolished, unless it can be proven to be Patriotic. Meanwhile, the right-authoritarians consolidate their grip even further on hearts and minds, by blaming it all on someone else. Politics is one of the most complicated stories there is, but all we want are simple answers, which is why many of us would sooner get our information from the crass soundbites of Youtube and Facebook pundits, making us all suckers for disinformation and spin.

A handful of leaflets for the locals isn’t going to change any of that. But it gets you round the houses, and it’s nice to see the various ways people make the approaches to their homes homely, or otherwise. Almost everyone I met was pleasant. The two ladies taking morning tea in their sunny front garden were charming, and received my leaflets like they were the most important missives they’d had in weeks. Just the one curmudgeon told me where to shove them. Then there’s the party member, and conference vet. If he sees you out and about, that’s it for an hour on the subject of where the left is going wrong, like I really care any more. He’s talked to this person and that person (drop name here) “at conference”, lets you know he knows infinitely more about politics than you ever will, as he may well do. But I do wonder why he isn’t he taking the leaflets round instead of me.

Anyway, May 6th. Whatever your political stripes, do read those leaflets. I know they’re cringe-worthy and my lot managed to wiggle in a few typos, which will have raised eyebrows among the keener eyed. But they’re the only info you’ll get unless you’re lucky enough to be door-stepped by your local candidates, and they tend only to go for the known floaters. I know, politics is mostly bullshit and name-calling, but votes count. So let’s have your votes.

And now after all that dirty politics talk, I need a bath in something slow, repetitive, and with lots of reverb:

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Lone tree in a puddle

I don’t know what sort of tree this is. I’ll have to wait until it’s in leaf for a clue. I see it once a week or so on my rambles across the plane, as I continue hiding out from Covid, so I’ll get to know it in all its seasons. While it wouldn’t stand out in a crowd, it has the distinction here of being alone, so it can be more expressive. It’s also a valuable way-marker through the confusion of drainage channels and boggy potato fields that make up this part of the world. And to top it all, there’s this puddle, shaped just right, that reflects it. I think it tells a lonely story.


There’s a school of thought among photographers that scorns the use of filters. They don’t like fancy post-processing techniques either. You should tell it like it is, they say. A skilled photographer doesn’t need software to make an impact. A skilled photographer reads the light, squeezes the shutter and bang. There’s your dinner! And fair enough, if that’s your thing. But there’s also a school of thought that says no two people will see a scene the same way. We always overlay it with our mood, with our imagination. The camera sees things one way, and we see it another. And if we want to bring what the camera sees closer to how we saw it, we use whatever pre and post-processing techniques there are to achieve that.


So, I shot this five times in rapid succession. The first image is correctly exposed, the others are under and overexposed to varying degrees. The underexposed ones exaggerate the texture of the sky. The overexposed ones bring the details out of the shadows. Then I used some free, open-source software on the computer called Luminance HDR. This overlays the images and lines them up for you, then adds some tone-mapping to bring out detail and colour. It also changes the mood of the scene, depending on the tone-mapping algorithm you use. This one is Mantiuk ’06. It adds a bit of noise, which I didn’t like at first, but now I do. Then I use RawTherapee, another free open sourced tool for cropping and fine-tuning. RawTherapee also seems to convert images well for displaying on a screen.


Bleak and wind-blasted. That’s how the scene appeared to me this weekend. A single, normally exposed, shot told a different story, but Luminance seemed to reach in and pull out that ragged lonesomeness for me, one that struck a chord with the times.


Given the turmoil at home and abroad, I should perhaps be paying more attention to current affairs than gawping at trees. But these days trees make more sense. To an old left-libertarian like me there’s much about our direction of travel that pains me. As a pragmatist though, I’m persuaded there’s not much we can do about it while the Zeitgeist is pointing so firmly in the other direction – meaning right-authoritarian. But since I’ve drifted onto the subject, are we English really expected to wrap ourselves in the Union Jack at a time when the Union has never been more precarious? Are we really to play the patriotic card at a time of spiralling food-bank use, a time when even cripplingly long hours of work are no guarantee of avoiding poverty? Are we to pretend that’s okay, a good example to trumpet on the world’s stage? And all that was before Covid, of course, and a response that has left so many dead, yet so many well-connected types in serious profit. I think my nameless wind-blasted tree, reflected in a muddy puddle, has more to say about where we are right now. Anyone wrapping themselves in the flag at a time like this is using a strange kind of reality-bending optic, and certainly one that stretches this photographer’s credulity way beyond reason.

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Someone else’s MGB, Glasson Marina, February 2014

The last Friday of February, this year, was also a full moon, thus seeming especially auspicious. Previous years would have had me and the small blue car at Glasson Marina, enjoying the year’s first hints of spring. From Glasson, I like to walk the quiet lanes to Cockerham, then back up the Lancashire coastal way, over the green sward, by the remains of the abbey, and the Plover Scar light. I’d have lunch at Lantern O’er Lune, then return home via the garden centre at Barton, for coffee and cake. A grand day out, as they say.


I first did that trip in 2014 in an old grey commuter mule called Grumpy. I’ve done it every year since, except last, and this. On that first trip there was a guy at the marina in a gorgeous red MGB. He looked to be in his seventies, living the dream, with his Irvine flying jacket. At £850 a go, that jacket was as much of a statement as the car. Cynics might have said he was menopausal. But in your seventies? Not likely. Okay, he looked a bit eccentric, but the guy had spirit, and he inspired me. The next year I was in the small blue car, an old but reasonably well-kept Mazda roadster. All right, she’s no MG but, forgive me, I never held the same faith in British motor cars as others. I’d thought to keep the car a year or so, get her out of my system, and sell her on, but we’re still together. I drew the line at an Irvin jacket.

My MX5, Glasson Marina, 2015

This pandemic year however, the car is under covers, and I keep my steps local. On Friday, I walked a pleasant circuit from my doorstep, instead, just clipping the next village. I was hoping to see a particular buzzard, thus scotching rumours the bird had been shot. I didn’t see it. As I walked I was thinking of Glasson. I was picturing the crocuses in the churchyard, and along the canal bank. I was also thinking about writing, and the answer to a question I’d posed: Why have I not decided upon so much as an opening sentence of new fiction yet, months after putting up my last novel? I have never been without a work of fiction for company. But time is ticking.


Things are pretty well upended, was the answer to my question. You’ve had a big change of circumstance, what with early retirement and everything, so let it ride, don’t rush it. And fair enough, I’m not. I’ve bought a 3D printer to tinker with, and I’m designing and building bits and bobs for myself. I’ve made a clock case, a watch case, and some quick-release clips for stashing Alpine poles to my rucksack. Ironic, I thought. For most of my life I have been writing as a distraction from the trials of engineering. Then I retire, and I take on personal engineering projects as a distraction from writing. I am, if nothing else, perverse. But the answer goes further, deeper. It takes in the ruins of the world, and how best to move on from them.


I understand that in one sense I’m in a good place. A final salary pension helps enormously, but most of all I’m lacking anger. However, I’m also lacking passion, which is possibly less good. I look upon the corruption of political high office, and I don’t care any more. I read how the cost of BREXIT is now roughly the same as our contributions to the EC since 1972, and I don’t care. The Labour Party is veering once more to the right, purging itself of even moderate old lefties like me, and I don’t care. I’m fine, I want everyone else to be fine too, but I’m waking up to the nature of the world as being one of ineradicable inequality, indifference and self-entitlement. Money makes you mean, and since money buys power, you can plot your course from there to the most logical outcome – which is pretty much the ruins of where we are.


The Taoist texts talk of clarity. They use the image of a lake. If we are emotionally aroused, they say, it’s like the perturbation of the surface, and the stirring of sediment. Then we cannot see through to the bottom of things. Only through calmness, through stillness, does the sediment settle out and clarity is restored. But while in stillness, there might indeed be a kind of clarity, I find there’s not the energy to power a hundred thousand words of fiction. It strikes me therefore, I might have already written my final novel. On the one hand I’m surprised by that, since I’d always imagined my retirement as a time I could spend writing to my heart’s content. On the other hand, again, I don’t care. The muse has been slipping me the occasional idea, but I can tell she’s not serious. She has not once lit the blue touch-paper. All of which perhaps goes to show the Universe is not without a wry sense of humour.


Then, as I write, my son brings news of a pair of buzzards circling my garden. He’s rummaging in some excitement for the binoculars. It’s an unusual sight, a pair of them like that, and a bit of a shock, actually. I break off for a photograph, snap-on the long lens. I’ve been stalking buzzards in my locale for a while now, trying to get a nice sharp image of one, while lamenting their vulnerability, and suddenly there are two over my house, as if they had come to look at me and pose. It’s surely an omen. Of what, who can say? Light or dark, we take our choice. Myself, I’m optimistic. It seems you don’t always need to venture far in seeking what you want, also that we needn’t go chasing every shadow. Indeed, perhaps what we seek is actually seeking us, and all we have to do is find sufficient stillness of mind to let it in.

Glasson, on the last Friday of February 2022? The small blue car will be twenty years old.

It’s a date.

One of a pair of buzzards, circling over my house

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