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I was drawn to this book on the strength of Anthony Doerr’s previous work, the Pulitzer prize winning “All the Light We Cannot See“, which I enjoyed very much. Cloud Cuckoo Land is another complex labyrinth of a novel. It is intricate, puzzling, occasionally infuriating, but also compulsive and deeply rewarding.

It jumps back and forth between the siege of Constantinople in the fifteenth century, the Korean War in the 1950s, the USA in the 40s and the present day, then also to a near future onboard a spaceship, the Argos, containing a volunteer crew from a climate ravaged earth. The crew are travelling to an exo-planet that may support human life, a journey that will take almost six hundred years, and of course which none alive at the time will ever see.

What links each of these threads is another story, the titular Cloud Cuckoo Land, an imagined “lost” text by the ancient Greek philosopher, Diogenes. The story tells of a humble shepherd who is tired of his lot but has heard of a utopian land in the sky, built by the birds. Since only a bird can get there, he visits a witch who promises to turn him into a bird, but things go wrong, and he ends up as a donkey, then a fish. He suffers every hardship imaginable, but refuses to give up on his desire to reach Cloud Cuckoo Land. Finally, he becomes a bird, but must face one last test before being admitted,…

Diogenes’ fictional book is first rediscovered in a fragile state by one of our earliest protagonists Anna, in Constantinople, who escapes the siege, and smuggles the book out with her. Eventually, her husband, a humble ox-herder takes the book to Italy, so it might be preserved, but it’s essentially lost again in the archives, only to be rediscovered by researchers in contemporary times. But by now it’s in such poor condition it takes modern technology to reconstruct its pages, though sadly with many words missing, and the pages jumbled up. Posted online as an international treasure of public interest, its cause is taken up by the humble octogenarian, Zeno Ninis, who attempts a translation and a reconstruction of the plot. To this end he enlists the help of a group of schoolchildren who work the story into a play. But on the night of its performance, they are disturbed by the young, autistic Seymour, who is intent on making an explosive statement regarding our mistreatment of nature. Although the main story jumps about in time, the ancient text is revealed in linear fashion as it passes through the hands of the various protagnists, so acting as a kind of temporal compass, preventing us from getting lost.

It’s onboard the Argos, through the eyes of a young girl, Konstance, we learn of the global catastrophe she and her fellows are escaping. The Argos is controlled by an A.I. called Sybil, whose memory contains a record of everything ever written, and which is accessible through a virtual reality experience akin to entering the ultimate library. There’s also a kind of 3D Google Earth one can visit to see what life was like back home, just prior to the calamity. Konstance is aware of the story of Diogenes’ Cloud Cuckoo Land through her father, who has been telling it to her, but she can find no copy of it in Sybil’s memory. As she searches for it, she pieces together the mystery of the translation by Zeno Ninis, and closes in on a final startling revelation regarding the voyage of the Argos itself.

For all the complexity of its structure, I found the story accessible. As with his previous novel, I found the prose beautiful, while maintaining a page turning urgency. There’s a clear warning about the climate emergency here, about the vacuity of the materialism that’s driving us to ruin, about our almost wilful blindness to everything we are risking by our inaction, but there’s also a dig at the techno-utopians who see a solution for us in the stars, instead of trying to solve the problems of a dying earth by righting our own wrongs here and now.

The story of the shepherd ends with him dissatisfied, even amid the luxurious perfection of Cloud Cuckoo Land. He discovers at last that what he wants more than anything is to return to the life he had as a humble shepherd, with all its vexations and imperfections. The moral of that one is that what we already have is always so much better than what we are forever, and so desperately, seeking elsewhere.

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Oh, I really hated this book. Every sentence was like grabbing hold of barbed wire, or like someone spitting in your eye. No wonder it’s been so widely read, so critically praised and canned in equal measure, so talked about for the seventy years it’s been in print.

The story concerns Holden Caulfield, a seventeen-year-old boy recounting his drop-out from an American Prep School. It’s just one of several he’s been ejected from for failing to apply himself. We begin with news of his latest misstep, then follow him through just three days of his return home to yet another disgrace. Caulfield is clearly damaged, but not by his parents, who seem decent enough, the way he tells it, though it’s clear he despises them simply for being adults. Indeed, Caulfield despises just about everyone he mentions.

The adult world, according to him, is peopled entirely by “phoney” characters. His peers are morons, girls are whores, or simply dumb. Even smart girls are dumb. Smart guys are pains in the ass. Only his younger sister, Phoebe, is spoken of warmly, she and his younger brother, Allie, who died of leukaemia. Or, come to think it, any kid who is still of the age of innocence amuses him, and does not provoke disdain. His older brother, a successful Hollywood writer, he calls a prostitute for selling out. Oh, yes, Caulfield’s alienation is total, and one is cautioned from offering him a guiding hand, because he’d be sure to slap it away, accuse you of being phoney, dumb, a pain in the ass, or a pervert, for even trying.

When I picked this book up, I wondered if I was too old to be reading it, having read it was a set text at many a high school. I don’t know, I’d hate to be set the task of reading this at any age. But the older you are, the more you’ll be thinking this kid’s a gonner, and there’s no redeeming him. Maybe that’s my problem, and the book is challenging me to deal with whatever it is in myself that has me so irritated about it. Even as a teenager, though, this book would have annoyed me. My own sense of alienation at that age was nothing like this. My background wasn’t as privileged, I suppose. It was peopled by working men, who either worked or their families starved. There’s nothing phoney about that. Yes, all right, the adult world was, in some ways glossed over with a kind of veneer that kept everything shiny, and moving along, but which wasn’t real, but I felt the adults knew it wasn’t real, that they didn’t call it out because that would have crashed the world. Teens like Caulfield would rather crash the world anyway. Kids like Caulfield are dangerous.

But not all adults are phoney. Some are like angels. I have a list of them from my own growing up, and I know I owe them. None were dumb or pains in the ass, or perverts, either. But Caulfield lacks the sensitivity to recognise an angel, and respect it. His arrogance blinds him, and his manner suggests he’ll always be immature. It’s hard to feel compassion for someone like that. I don’t know if Salinger intended this or not. His world was not mine, and I resent him for suggesting the world was more like his, than mine.

From the way Caulfield talks, Allie’s death was a possible trigger for his delinquency. It was a tragedy, a sad thing to happen, and it affected his mother deeply, but he can’t relate to that or, perhaps more accurately, he refuses to see it. He can’t see past his own anger and alienation. I really hated him. I made it half-way through his moan-fest before setting the book aside, and I said: “so long, kid. Your whining bores me.” I believe this is not an uncommon reaction.

But the really irritating thing is I picked it up again, thinking there must be some sort of revelation, or at least a point to the endlessly immature, foul-mouthed rejection of – well – just about everything. Somewhere in the mess of his mind, one thing must surely light him up and turn him round.

Delaying his journey home, he gets into tetchy exchanges with taxi drivers. He checks into a seedy hotel, attempts to look grown up in nightclubs, gets beaten up by a pimp after a disastrously chaste encounter with a prostitute. He talks big, a child on the edge of adulthood. Is he going to pull through and grow up, or is he always going to be a child, even when he’s an old man? I suspect the latter, but really, Salinger found a way of making is so that I really didn’t care.

One of the few generous things he does in New York is buying his little sister a rare record, which he knows she’ll treasure. But after a drunken night in a bar, he ends up dropping it and breaking it. Instead of throwing the pieces away, he puts them in his pocket, not sure why he’s doing it. That’s fairly typical of the book, that in the midst of Caulfield’s interminable whining, Salinger throws in an acutely poignant observation that stops you in your tracks, makes you think you’re getting somewhere. Then, just as we think we’re finding our feet, off we lurch again down another dark, urine scented alleyway.

Towards the end of the book, after making no progress at all in this odyssey of angst, Caulfield turns up late at night, at a former teacher’s home – the apparently sympathetic Mr. Antolini, one of the few adults Caulfield doesn’t feel too bad about. Salinger reserves some of his wisest lines for Antolini:

“I don’t want to scare you,” he said, “but I can clearly see you’re dying nobly, one way or another, for some highly unworthy cause,…”

And:

“The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”

At this point, I was thinking old Antolini was finally going to turn our problem child around, that at last we were in good company, but then Salinger throws in a peculiar and somewhat ambiguous act that has Caulfield fleeing Antolini’s apartment, thinking the guy was making sexual moves towards him. As a plot development, I found that deeply puzzling, and not a little insulting. An unsympathetic adult is a phoney, a sympathetic one is a pervert. Well, to hell with you, Caulfield.

In the final scene, we have Caulfield take Phoebe to the park where he watches her riding on the carousel, and him close to tears, but from happiness, he tells us. Like most commentators, I agree the whole book was a lament for lost childhood. After all, the title, “Catcher in the Rye” is the main clue here, it being a reference to the Robert Burns poem “Comin’ thro the Rye”, and a line Caulfield tells us he mistakes as reading: “If a body catch a body coming through the rye” and he pastes it onto a fantasy image of thousands of kids playing amongst the tall rye in a field, bordered by a cliff, and Caulfield the only adult who has to catch the kids, and prevent them from falling over the edge, thus symbolically sparing innocence, preserving childhood, his childhood.

And that would be that except for one brief closing chapter that shows us Caulfield in a mental hospital, from where he’s been relating the whole tale, and a suggestion the psychiatrists are trying to straighten out him, ready for going back to school. But good luck is all I can say. As a kid of his age, I would have given him a wide berth, same as now. All teens feel a certain sense of alienation as adulthood approaches. I know I did, but Caulfield’s state of mind was, frankly, terrifying.

A good book? Well, it’s still in print, and it definitely provoked a reaction in me. That’s art, I suppose. But I still hated it.

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The Razor’s Edge mostly concerns Larry Darrel, an American youth who has returned home from the first war. He’s expected to pick up where he left off, marry Isabel, his childhood sweetheart, and take up a position in business with his best friend’s father. His future looks set, and he’s well-placed to move into monied, and fashionable society, partly also by virtue of Isabel’s well-connected socialite uncle, Elliott Templeton.

But Larry’s experience in the war has changed him, and he sets off instead on a journey of self discovery that takes him through Europe and India, leaving Isabel to marry his best friend, the lovable but ultimately dull “Gray”. Maugham plays himself, popping in and out of the various characters lives, and thereby updating us on their progress, as the years pass.

On the surface, it sounds a bit dull, but Maugham draws his characters well and has us believe in them. Although a major thread of the story, Larry’s gradual path to a kind of enlightenment is delivered with a light brush, especially when compared with the lavishness heaped upon Elliot Templeton, who’s outrageous snobbery, tempered by his kindness and devotion to his family, nearly captures the entire book. Templeton’s highly strung obsession with the socialite scene, with matters of taste and position, are however, the perfect contrast to Larry’s gradual, happy impoverishment.

As for Isabel, although superficially happy with her marriage, money and the trimmings of her social position, she has never stopped wanting Larry. She simply couldn’t bring herself to be a part of the humble life he’d chosen, and when Larry resurfaces after many years looking set to marry Sophie, a broken drunk of a girl from his and Isabel’s past, no matter how reformed Larry claims Sophie to be, Isabel is determined to thwart the match by fair means or foul.

There’s a lot going on in this story, and it’s one that lingers for a long time afterwards. We realise by the end we’ve become part of Maugham’s world, sat with him at the pavement café’s of inter-war Paris, attended Templeton’s fastidiously crafted society parties, and hobnobbed with the continental aristocracy. What the main characters all have in common is they are seeking happiness, Isabel through a good marriage, Gray through the making of money, Templeton through the recognition of his social prowess, and his exquisite tastes in fashion and art. And then there’s Larry. Larry’s path is the hardest of them all, unlike the others, not even knowing exactly what it is he’s looking for. He walks the Razor’s Edge, the title coming from a line in the Kathe Upanishad:

Sharp like a razor’s edge is the path, the sages say, difficult to traverse.

But as we follow Larry’s path, we see him grow, become grounded and at ease with life and himself. By contrast Isabel, still bound up with the material trappings, grows brittle for the choices she has made, and ever desperate for the man she loves, while Templeton, ageing yet forever striving to keep up with the times, fears being sidelined by the high society of which he believes himself to be king.

A little daring for its time, sexually frank, Maugham even ventures so far as profanity, though delicately, and in French. But what we also have here is the portrait of a lost world, the story taking place mostly in Europe of the 20s and 30s, a world that was swept away, even as Maugham was writing about it, and so lucidly.

It was the subject of two film adaptations, the first in 1946 starring Tyrone Power, the second in 1984 with Bill Murray, but I can recommend neither. I’ve not read Maugham before, and I’m told this isn’t the best place to be starting, it being rather towards the end of his canon, but I found him nevertheless good company, and an engaging storyteller. A bestseller in its day, I thought it was a terrific read, its message as fresh now as ever, which only goes to show how little we’ve advanced, that while the wise know full well the material life is a dead end, most of us simply can’t help ourselves. Besides, anything else is a path so hard, and so narrow, few have the mettle, or the balance for it.

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From Peewit Hall, Anglezarke Moor

Exploring meaning, purpose, and our freedom to choose.

After a couple of cold, squally days, the weather clears, and we venture outdoors. There is no plan so, as is usual under such circumstances, the car delivers us seemingly of its own accord to Anglezarke’s Yarrow Reservoir, where we find ourselves parking along the Parson’s Bullough road. The trees here are showing their first signs of turning, and the waters of the Yarrow are a cobalt blue, sunbeams sparkling between crisping foliage. There is speculation this year’s drought will gift us, by way of apology and compensation, some spectacular autumn colours. I’m looking forward to it.

It’s been an eventful week. My nest-egg investments dropped five percent overnight. Meanwhile, company pension schemes find themselves a heartbeat from implosion, as the long term bond market collapses. All this following last Fridays’ inoffensively titled “Fiscal Event”. It’s had me considering what kind of employment I would be fit for now, after enjoying barely two years of retirement. Will I have to go grovelling back, after quitting the day job in such a fit of giddy joy?

By the Yarrow on the Parson’s Bullough Road

Paul Donovan, chief economist of UBS Global Wealth Management, likens present UK governance as resembling a Doomsday Cult. I find it hard to disagree. The PM and Chancellor meanwhile hold to the line that it’s all part of a cunning plan, one no one else has thought to try. We can only hope they are right.

Anyway, I’m glad I took the plunge and finally bought those new walking boots I’ve been banging on about, and a fresh walking jacket as well – just for the hell of it – as I might not have felt like it later on when I was browsing the job adverts. Today, though, we leave the new boots behind, having decided to walk our old ones to destruction. But we pack the jacket, because it’s half the weight of my other, and weight is everything to the walker approaching his autumn years.

We have a mostly clear sky, but with some isolated, dramatic clouds, and a bank of something more solidly changeable, coming up from the south. The latter needs keeping an eye on, but we should be fine for a couple of hours.

We take the path, still in warm sunshine, towards Jepsons, and across Twitch Hills Clough. The levelled ruin of Peewit Hall is always the first stop. The view from here is too good to rush, not only the whole of west Lancashire laid out from hill to sea, but the broader arc from Wales to Cumbria. After feasting on it through binoculars, we plod on, still with no objective in mind, meeting a few other walkers, mostly old timers, who all seem buoyed by the day, and cheerful in their greetings. Such pleasantness is infectious. The legs carry us up Lead Mine’s Clough, past the falls, and the site of James Yates’ Well. We seem to be heading for the moor, then, more specifically the Round Loaf, a remote Bronze Age burial mound.

The Round Loaf, Anglezarke Moor

The moor is heavy underfoot, splashing wet, and bog-shaky in the usual places. The heather is in abundance, but of a washed-out mauve, like last year’s colours left too long in the rain. I’d thought it was done for after the drought, but there are isolated patches showing the more vivid purple, so perhaps another few weeks will see the moors carpeted in glory as usual. We’ll be back to check. Expect a moorland scene with heather, all in unashamedly overcooked HDR, enough to make your eyes ache!

Sometimes there’s a cairn on the Round Loaf, sometimes not, and if there is, it varies in size from one visit to the next. The biggest I ever saw it, it was topped off by a sheep’s skull, and a sobering reminder that some neo-pagans embrace the diabolical. No skull today, though, but there are the usual dizzying views of moor and plain, and a choice of paths radiating at all points of the compass: Black Brook, Great Hill, Black Hill, Devil’s Ditch, Lead Mine’s Clough, Hurst Hill; take your pick,….

We choose Hurst Hill on a whim, just 1038 ft, but high enough to be several degrees cooler than when we started out. It’s a cold day up here, then, all the more noticeable after such a perpetually hot summer. Then the banked cloud swallows the sun, and the nature of the day changes. It’s another splashy path, but the boots are holding out, and the socks are still miraculously dry. There’s a more substantial cairn on top of Hurst Hill, and a persistently chill wind. A zippered fleece is of a sudden insufficient, so we delve in the bag for the new jacket. It cuts the wind in its tracks, allows us to settle, oblivious to the elements, and enjoy our soup.

On Hurst Hill

Serious though they are, I’m sure I’m over-thinking Albion’s woes when I imagine even my pension cheques drying up, and investments tanking, like they did in 1929. Still, an interest rate hike would see both my kids at risk of losing their newly acquired footing on the housing market, just so millionaires can pay less tax, and that would vex me enormously. But for the sake of argument, how does a man face his future when the future he imagined no longer exists?

It’s no coincidence I’m reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s search for meaning” at the moment. His thesis is that a sense of meaning and purpose is essential to our well-being. This runs counter to prevailing existentialist, post-modern teachings which tell us there is no meaning, that we suffer, and we do so pointlessly. But once we subscribe to such a view we lose sight of the future, relinquish all sense of meaning, become dehumanised, suffer all the more and without respite. This is the malaise of the western world, and it’s killing us.

Frankl’s views were formed during his time in the Nazi concentration camps. In such hellish places, a man was stripped of everything, until all he had left to lose was his fragile hold on life. Frankl’s observations of his fellow captives, condemned to being literally worked to death, led him to conclude those who retained a sense of personal meaning, in spite of everything, tended to survive longer, even though they might have appeared physically less able than their friends.

Meaning may well be denied both its existence and its validity in the life of a modern man, but the experience of such extremes of suffering teaches us it remains essential for well-being, even survival. It has often struck me how many of my former colleagues were so deeply invested in the working life, they cultivated no hobbies, no interests beyond the office, then fared poorly in retirement. No longer the “big man” but just another grey old fart, pushing a trolley around Tescos, they longed to be taken back.

Do we define ourselves, our purpose, by our means of earning a living? By the badge we wear? It’s possible, even productive to do so, for a time, but there also comes a time when there has to be a transition to something new. Purpose and meaning must evolve as our circumstances change. This is easier for creative types, for they shall always have their art, unless they become too invested in the idea of making a success of it, in which case, they’re sunk.

The problem facing many of us in these strange times, times in which a permanent sense of crisis seems to hold sway, is the inability to live for the future, or even to aim at a specific goal, since the future is rendered opaque. Frankl called this living a provisional existence, a loss of faith in one’s future. To live well, one must live with some sense of purpose, be it big or small, and to transition as needs must from one to the next like stepping stones to lead us on through life. But the sense of purpose, of meaning is not a thing bestowed upon us, more it is a thing we are invited to cultivate internally, in order to animate and enliven our world.

Manor House Farm, Anglezarke

For now my purpose is to find my way off this hill, follow the line of the old lead mines, touch base with a few familiar points along the way, and then, over the coming evenings, weave the whole of it, the financial crisis, Victor Frankl’s book, and this walk over Anglezarke moor, into a coherent narrative – hopefully without the stretch marks showing too much. The way leads us past the Manor House farm, where chestnuts litter the wayside. We pick one up, savour the smooth oiled sheen of it, and pocket it for good luck. Always something magical, I think, about freshly fallen chestnuts.

By Jepsons Farm, Anglezarke

One of my familiar waypoints is the stone that overlooks Jepson’s farm. I have this idea that many megalithic features were hidden in the construction of the dry stone walls, some of these latter dating from medieval times. The walls are tumbling now, and the calling cards from an earlier age are revealing themselves. Sometimes, if you have a sharp eye, you can spot them, still buried in the walls. They bear the marks of millennia of weathering, rather than mere centuries. I may be wrong in this, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t intend making a theory of it in order to convince others. It’s the interest alone, the observation, the connection, the speculation that, in this moment, is purpose in itself.

A stone in the wall, near Jepson’s Farm, Anglezarke

Another thing Frankl wrote that deeply impressed me was to the effect that a man could be deprived of every freedom, and every thing in his life, including his loved ones, and even his name. Yet he would still retain the choice of what attitude to bring to the shouldering of his burden. I hesitate to paraphrase such a powerful idea, born as it was in such a terrible darkness of suffering, but it reminds us we are all free to choose at least our inner path, no matter the nature of the constraints imposed upon us by the external world.

It’s late afternoon when we come back to the Yarrow, and the car. We’re still hours before sunset, but already seem to be losing the light. By the time we make it home, it’s raining.

Thanks for listening

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Rannerdale Knots from The Attermire Scars

Around Langcliffe (and other) scars

My old copy of Eric Langmuir’s venerable “Mountaincraft and Leadership” book contains many a useful tip for the walker, and was a good companion, as a lad, getting me going in the hills. It tells you things like what to carry in your rucksack, what to do if you’re caught out in a thunderstorm, how to ford a river, and how to use a map and compass. But nowhere does it tell you what to do when there’s a bull sitting on the right of way.

We’re in the Yorkshire Dales today, among the many scars and crags above Langcliffe, in Ribblesdale. We’ve had a cloudy start, but the forecast tells us it’ll clear by 2:00 PM. It’s a dynamic sky, lots of textures, but so far the light is flat. Much has been made in recent weeks of the parched brown countryside of the South East, but here everything is green, and there are puddles. It’s warm, but not oppressively so, and there’s an earthy smell after last night’s rains.

We’ve left the car on the road up from Langcliffe, around the 1200′ contour. This little altitude booster brings the walk in at just under eight miles and gets us off to a good start, with some fine views over Ribblesdale.

For the first leg, we head south along the line of the Attermire scars. The plan is for a circuit of the moorland between Settle and Malham, making use of the Dales High Way, and the Pennine Bridleway. We’ll follow it nearly as far as Pikedaw, overlooking Malham, then head North-ish towards Malham Tarn, and finally west, back to the car. It’s not a day of peak-bagging, then, more one for the views of some fine Dales country, and to explore a circuit that’s been nagging at me for a while. First, though, the bull.

He’s a handsome beast, but he looks a bit – well – knackered, surrounded by recumbent cows. It’s that old question, then: can cattle be trusted not to flatten you? The answer to which is: not entirely.

The common sense advice is that, if in doubt, find another way round, but there are no other ways, and anyway this is pretty much open country. If they were in a mood to be frisky, they could be chasing us for miles, and I wouldn’t make a hundred yards. There’s a fence and a gate, a little way beyond, but for that we have to run the gauntlet. What to do? If you ask this question on the hiking forums, you’ll set the Internet on fire with unhelpful opinion. But just like life in general, you can only read the situation in front of you, and it feels okay, so we carry on.

I rarely have trouble with cattle, but it’s still a comfort to put that gate between us. Cattle roam the hills freely here, though, so this won’t be our last encounter. They do seem to enjoy congregating around stiles and gates. My usual approach is to speak to them gently as we pass. It doesn’t matter what you say, of course. It’s a different if you have a dog with you. Then cattle are best avoided, because they hate dogs, and you might find yourself collateral as they try to trample it.

The Attermire Scars and the Rannerdale Knots

The Dales High Way and the Pennine Bridleway coincide at Attermire, and take us up towards the remote Stockdale Farm. The light is beginning to break through a little now, making soft speculative sweeps of the hillsides. The outlook west, behind us as we climb, to the scars, and Rannerdale are especially striking. There are several parties climbing on the crags, by the deep gash of the Horseshoe Cave.

I read there’s a new revised edition of Langmuir’s book, published by The Mountain Training Boards of England and Scotland. I wonder if I should get it, and wonder in particular what it has to say about navigating by Smartphone, and GPS? Probably nothing good. My old copy from 1985 has a foreword by Lord Hunt. These were a hardy breed of men, unlikely to be troubled by cattle. Hunt trained commandos in mountain-craft, during the second war, but is best known as leader of the first successful expedition up Everest in 1953. Postwar there was a rush of people heading into the hills, many of them ill prepared and coming to grief for want of basic knowledge, so there was an effort to set standards, and Langmuir did a sterling job. The Insta generation has brought about a similar rush of ill prepared folk.

Stockdale farm and Ryeloaf Hill

Anyway, I think it’s okay to navigate by smartphone. Mine is waterproof, has OS 1:25000 mapping, a three-day battery, and I carry a spare powerbank. It tells me exactly where I am, all the time. A paper map can just as easily let you down, as anyone who’s tried to read one in a gale force wind will tell you. A compass too can be dangerously misleading in hills that are rich in iron ore.

There are, of course, no simple solutions to every eventuality. You think you’re sorted, well kitted out, got the proper togs, the tech, and you know your Langmuir back to front,… then there’s a bull sitting on the footpath saying: you didn’t see this one coming, did you? Life is never without risk. Venturing into the hills, one accept this, prepares as best one can and takes responsibility for oneself. But let’s not big this up any more than we need to. We’re just out for the afternoon, not exploring the Andes.

The view up the valley is dominated by Rye Loaf hill. This is a remote peak, not walked very often, with as yet no clearly defined route up it. You’d have to make your own way across open country. Through binoculars, I can make out a rough wind-shelter and a survey column on top, all of which is very tempting, but I’ve still got blisters from my last outing, so we’ll stick to the planned route, and no deviations.

It feels like we’ve come a long way, meandering eastwards, up to the high point – this being around seventeen hundred feet. There’s a huge cairn to set our bearings by, here. I’d say it was unmissable, but on another occasion I’ve walked past it in mist and not known it was there. It’s a mystery actually, not marked on the maps, and consists of what resembles builders’ rubble. It makes for good foreground interest in the view over the Grizedales, to the distant splash of Malham Tarn.

The Grizedales to Malham Tarn

The path takes us east of north now, over the Grizedales as far as the junction with the path coming up from Malham. We seem to have left the heat behind at this altitude. The air is fresher and the scent of it is intoxicating. The bridleway bears west at a signpost which carries the daunting news Langcliffe is still four and a half miles away. It’s a long section, this, easy to follow, probably better undertaken on horseback. But, lacking a handy steed, we must make do on tiring feet, the path snaking away over the moor, forever teasing us with how far we’ve still to go. It’s not long before I’m thinking this section has little to recommend it, but then the outline of Penyghent hoves into view.

I think it was Alfred Wainwright who said the mountain Suilven, in Sutherland, had to be seen to be believed, and I agree with him, but that may have something to do with its remoteness. When I saw it, it was after a three-day drive into a sparsely populated area of the UK, soon perhaps to be another country. There is a definite otherness about that region, the wildness, the light, the emptiness. Suilven is an awe-inspiring hill, even getting a mention in a Ewan MacColl song. But it’s recently struck me Penyghent is only around a hundred feet shorter, and equally striking. It rears up dramatically, has a prow like a dreadnought battleship, and is often to be seen sailing over Ribblesdale, on a boiling mist. Penyghent too has to be seen to be believed. It’s just seen a little more often than Suilven.

Anyway, bang on schedule, 2:00 PM, the sky peels open, the sun comes through, and Penyghent starts showing off. We take some time to enjoy the light, but the feet have had enough now, and the path brings us full circle, just in time, delivering us back to the car. Tea and cake in Settle then? That would usually be the next move, but I’m a bit of a tight wad these days, and I’ve brought my own. We open the top to the sky, and enjoy the air. It was a good idea to park up here. The tea tastes all the better for the view.

Days in the sun and the tempered wind and the air like wine
And you drink and you drink till you’re drunk on the joy of living

Ewan MacColl

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In dark and uncertain times, it’s a pleasure to find a book as unremittingly positive, and as (literally) energising as this one. Wim Hof is famous for his feats of extreme endurance, like running up Everest wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, climbing Kilimanjaro in record time, without the normal acclimatisation to avoid altitude sickness, and for sitting encased in ice for periods that would kill a lesser mortal. Not surprisingly, he is also known as the “Ice man”.

Wim Hof claims no special physiology. Medical tests confirm he is not a freak of nature, and he tells us anyone equipped with his methods can achieve the same thing. Moreover, his methods are simple, and they are not “secret”. Any search of the Internet will reveal them. They are based upon his own life experiences, and his researches of ancient eastern techniques. For example, there are stories of Tibetan monks who sit in the freezing cold, and dry out wet cloths upon their backs by the generation of internal heat. It’s a phenomenon that’s been documented, but has left researchers stumped. It’s that sort of thing, Wim has taken on board, honed it to its essentials, demystified it, and applied it to astonishing effect in his own life. While few of us would feel the need to emulate Wim Hofs feats of extreme endurance, the implications for general health and well-being are equally profound.

The method does not require years of seclusion in a Tibetan Monastery. Rather, it involves a daily regime of breathing exercises, followed by exposure to cold water – say a cold shower every morning. The book outlines the exercises, its applications, and some testimonies from satisfied practitioners, but in the main this is Wim Hof’s personal story, and writes like a force of nature, is inspirational, and comes across as infinitely compassionate. He speaks of his early childhood in Holland, and his drop-out culture youth, among communities of squatters. He speaks of adult tragedy, his love of family, and his mission, which is to pass on this same infectious passion for life.

But is he too good to be true? Inevitably, perhaps, many have thought so. Journalists have sought him out with the aim of exposing him, but have ended up becoming converts. His collaboration with various scientific institutions also adds rigour to his claims, and has further silenced cynical naysayers, though his feats still defy conventional wisdom on how the body works, and what it should be capable of.

The difficulty most of us have with any “method”, however, is making the time, or having the motivation, or just the sheer courage, and I for one have yet to take the cold water challenge. That said, my own studies and practice of Qigong lead me to have no trouble endorsing at least the breathing techniques, which seem like an effective précis of the many methods I have encountered over the years.

The aim of breath work, like this, is to dramatically increase the oxygen content of the blood. Breath is, literally, the stuff of life, it is oxygen, it is the Qi of the Chinese, the Prana of the Hindu, but the western lifestyle means we are often living under stress, which interferes with the breath, restricts it, which results in a permanent state of hypoxia, and a resulting chemical imbalance, which leads to inflammation, to immuno-deficiency, and to all manner of sickness. We gradually acidify. Attention to the breath redresses the balance, boosting oxygen intake, and gradually resetting the dial so to speak. Reading this book has reinforced the answers to the questions my own practice of Qigong posed over the years.

Whilst at pains to provide a rigorous backing for its claims, there is an undoubted hippy, new age vibe to the narrative, and Wim’s language is never far away from the mystical – at least in a secular, new age kind of way. Some readers may find this off-putting, but this is not written as a sterile medical textbook, it is the document of a man’s life, his achievements and his passions, told in his own words, which makes his story all the more readable, and I warmed to it at once.

Wim Hoff: I’ll tell you what I do. I follow my inner voice and listen to what it tells me. I trust my soul sense and let it guide me. I ignore, as best as I can my ego. I know it’s going to be cold in the morning and that those first few seconds in the cold water are going to be unpleasant because my ego tells me so. But my inner voice tells me to bloody get into that cold water,…

We’ve all heard that voice. For now mine’s not urging me under a cold shower in the mornings, though with electricity currently at nearly 30p per Kilowatt hour, I can see the benefits to my pocket, if not also my health. It once happened by accident, a guest house shower suddenly running ice-cold, and the shock of that was so great I gasped for breath, staggered out, and nearly fainted. Wim does suggest, therefore, you go easy on yourself to begin with.

Altogether, a very engaging and informative read. I gained such a lot of knowledge from it, answering questions I’ve had for a long time about breath-work, and it effects on physiology. And yes, I’m sure a cold shower would wake me up in more ways than one, but at the risk of sounding cosseted, I’m happy to take it one day at a time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J B Priestly – 1940

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A quick, but not too hopeful scan of the charity shop bookshelves this morning yields an odd find, among the usual slew of well thumbed novels, cook books, and the occasional, but not unusual, copies of a “Souvenir Guide to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee”. It’s what I suppose you’d call something from the popular science genre, a kind of “Special relativity and field theory, for dummies”, with equations. It was written by Leonard Susskind, a professor of physics at Stanford University, and a terrific communicator of very hard science. I was briefly tempted by it but, after a bit of soul-searching, I put it back. As for the Diamond Jubilee books, they reminded me of something I’d read the evening before, my opinions of which were as yet unformed, but forming. More of that, later.

We’ve talked on the blog about the various piles we readers have for books. The common one is the “to be read pile” – books waiting for us to get around to them. We add books to it, as we go along, but we do eventually get around to reading them. Then I have a “books to be read again pile” – books I enjoyed, and tell myself I want to read again, though whether I ever will is another matter. Then there’s the “books which, in all honesty, I’ll never read, though I tell myself I want to” pile. I’ve had one on there, for thirty-five years, called “the makers of mathematics”. I’ve never read it, but keep telling myself, I might, one day. Another one I have on there is “Teach yourself calculus”, similar thing: thirty years, and the spine not cracked once.

They’re books I had the mind for, in my student days, and occasionally fool myself I have the mind to get back into, but never have done, and probably never will, because my mind has changed shape, over the years, and moved on. I’m thinking this book of Susskind’s will end up on that pile. There’s something worthy about it, intellectually challenging, and deeply interesting, but it’s beyond anything I could make use of these days. Plus, you can find a lot of Susskind’s lectures on YouTube, which likely cover the same material, should I feel so inclined. And these books linger on the shelves. They pine for attention like neglected puppies and, given the nature of puppies, I cannot part with them. So, it’s better not to acquire them in the first place. Thus, the decision is made, and I put the book back. Let someone else have the pleasure of it. I have enough to be going on with the “to be read” pile.

Speaking of which, I’m reading “People of the Abyss” by Jack London, prompted by a reader of the blog (thank you). We read him at school. I remember White Fang, and Call of the Wild, but People of the Abyss was never mentioned at the time – this being the account of him basically going undercover as a down-on-his luck Yankee seaman, in London’s East End, around the time of the Coronation of Edward the 7th. Along with Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, and Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, it’s one of the most detailed and damning accounts of engineered destitution ever written.

Hard as it is to say though, such works no longer fire me up, as they would once have done, and, in the case of Tressell, indeed did. I used to think the solutions to the world’s ills were obvious, and easy. Now, I’m realising there’s something contrary in human nature that defeats common sense, and stymies compassion. It causes some to treat the majority appallingly, and with contempt, and for the majority to let them get away with it. Books like “People from the Abyss”, though written over a century ago, remind us of the depths to which we might yet return, because that amoral streak is still there, and it seems there’s nothing we can do about it. There will always be rich and poor, but that there is also engineered destitution, shames us all.

Had I been born into the those times, and that class, my life would have been short and unimaginably hard, but I suppose I would have accepted it, like everyone else, and no doubt still raised my cap at the passing of the King’s coronation. Something about the opening paragraph of the book shot it to the top of my “to be read pile”, nudging aside Dostoyevsk’s Crime and Punishment, which I’m struggling with. Indeed, were the latter not hailed as a masterpiece, I would have to call it one of the most tedious books I have ever attempted, and might have been better placed on that “books I shall never read” pile – except I have read a bit of it. Should there be another pile then? Books I could not finish and set aside for later?

I do not wish to put on bibliophilic airs. I am the product of a comprehensive education system, as it was in the 1970’s, and which I have always felt was not quite as good as it might have been, though I understand it was much better than things are now. I did however pick up a middling engagement with the written word, and a love of books.

When my boys were at school, however, I discovered books were not read as avidly any more. What was more important were the bullet-pointed outlines, from which the key stage questions might be answered. Books, then, were no longer touted as being worth the love invested in them. And then of course, schools cannot afford books any more except – and now I remember those charity shop copies of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – I read every primary school child this year is to be given a book in commemoration of Her Madge’s Platinum Jubilee, this at an estimated budget of 12 million. It is a work of, as yet, unknown content, beyond the diktat that it shall be “patriotic”.

For such an administration as the one we now have, I accept such a thing is more or less obligatory, though whether the children will treasure this gift, as intended, is quite another question. Whether they will read it at all is equally doubtful. All of which suggests another list of books, which, thanks to the subliminal effects of all the other books I have read, down the years, I would want to steer clear of in the first place.

Speaking of Her Madge, back in the heady days of 2012, the time of that Diamond Jubilee, though not a Royalist myself, I saw the pomp as a unifying force for a people knocked about by the crash years, that things could not help but get better after all the jolly bunting, and a stiff cup of tea, served in jubilee china. They didn’t. They got worse. Much worse. Still, there was definitely something in the air that summer, because I wrote warmly of Her Madge as being the ideal of a nation, and something – the ideal I mean – worth polishing one’s shoes for.

We do need something to polish our shoes for, I think, but I have since returned to the straight and narrow in my search for other heroes, not of nationhood, but more elusive. It’s the best in personhood, perhaps, or at any rate a thing well beyond the sticky grasp and ken of the tabloid hacks, “influencers” and the makers of cheap memorial mugs. In 2012, I was a man who enjoyed lunching modestly in my local market town. Now my town has nowhere to lunch, beyond the newly fangled sawdust and spittoon boozers, which I shudder to frequent. Instead, I take what pleasures I can find for the fiver I might once have splashed on coffee, in the charity shops, and the bargain basements, of which there are now many. We are all, in short, a little more thread-worn, our jolly bunting derided on the world’s stage as symbolically empty, and meaningless. We are, as a nation, spent and pointless. Or so it feels from the crumbling market towns of the North.

But we were talking of books, or lists of books. And we began with that book by Leonard Susskind. How about him, or those like him? Are they not far worthier of our celebration? They are, after all, the best of us, and come from many walks of life, both high and low-born. Indeed, I raise my cap, and polish my shoes to men and women of such calibre. I have had the pleasure of knowing, and working with a few. There is a certain bias in my thinking, of course, having been inspired to higher things by the likes of them, and you may have your own candidates. But is it not better, if we are to look to others as an example, we value them in proportion to what they have to teach us. Flags and bunting teach us very little, other than which way to point a gun.

Here he is, talking about black holes, and the seriously spooky nature of the universe as a hologram.

Damn. I wish I’d got that book, now. Thanks for listening.

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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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