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It’s been a summer of violent and tragic events here in the UK. Once upon a time we would pause for a minute’s silence to remember the wars and the fallen. It happened once a year, was a predictable, sombre occasion each November, a reflection on the folly of armed conflict. Now it seems we’ve had a minute’s silence every week for weeks in response to the shock of one damned thing after the other – bombings, mass stabbings, vans driven into pedestrians, and of course the terrible London tower block fire.

Such events shock us, pull us from our private lives, reconnect us with the human collective and cause us to question the nature of the incurable malaise from which we apparently suffer. And of course the speed with which events are now reported lends an extra feverishness to the times, a feverishness spun to favour one shameless political agenda or another. We need no longer wait for the ten o’clock news like we did in the old days, the Smartphone tells it all, instantly, and the story it tells is one of perpetual shock, violence, hatred and a corporate greed that verges on the homicidal.

It’s sometimes hard not to view our times from the nihilistic perspective as evidence of an acceleration towards the end of days. Certainly pictures of the burned out Grenfell Tower are as symbolic as they are deeply shocking. But the people who died that night were not victims of extremists. The enemy that sealed the fate of Grenfell Tower was more a culture of institutional avarice, one painstakingly manufactured over the decades to line the pockets of the rich at the expense of the lives of the poor. All of these things, though diverse in origin, seem part of the same unsettling atmosphere of the times, like faces vaguely recognisable from our deepest nightmares, all of them bearing weapons of one sort or another.

But if you can look beyond the violence, beyond the tragedy, it’s possible to discern something else happening, something that suggests less a rush to the end of times and more to a transformation of the collective consciousness. The bigger the outrage and the faster these events come at us, the bigger too the response of the many who awaken and gather, not with violence in mind, but with a compassionate dignity. And the pocket media that disseminates these shocks so far and fast and wide also unites us, brings us together in ever larger numbers, mobilises us to a deeper empathy and reflection.

The world of the technocracy is increasingly machine-like and it has become a proxy for the collective human ego, a thing wrestling for control over every aspect of our lives, measuring even the keyclicks on our computers, evaluating them for the risk inherent in our thoughts and beliefs, to predict and plan in order to subvert bad events even ahead of time. But the more you plan, and the greater the detail to which you plan, the more vulnerable you are to the unexpected, to the uncontrolled, to the irrational turn of events. And the faster we fail, the less useful Ego becomes, and the less useful it feels the more it tears itself apart and adds to the maelstrom of destruction and despair. The greater the shock, next time that we seem so powerless against the nihilistic forces and the ill winds of fate.

What we are seeing almost nightly on our TV screens is a form of collective madness. We are on the couch, and it’s time to talk it out with a competent analyst. All egos are ultimately at the mercy of their shadows, dutifully raising demons from under every stone turned, like the headlines of the Daily Mail. It’s only compassion that spares us, a recognition we are not machines and that for life to have meaning we must recognise and value more our ability to transcend the material, or at the very least to temper its excesses with the better side of human nature.

When events shock us, it’s tempting always to turn to the machine for answers. Through it we calculate our responses, plan future contingencies, establish means of mitigation. But when the shock hits, it’s better to set our machine thoughts aside, if only for a moment for a moment, to remember we are not robots, that it’s better sometimes we say nothing for a while, and simply reach out and hold someone. It’s a long shot, believing in a reactive transformation that will eventually eradicate the dark stain from the zeitgeist, but if enough of us can respond to extraordinary events with compassion, empathy and a degree of stillness, it’s at least a start in the right direction.

man writingThe day before voting in the General Election, I found myself in an unusual dilemma. My current work in progress, a novel of some hundred and eighty thousand words and rising, relies upon the continual negation of hope. It relies on the continuing austerity and declinism that would have been implicit in a resounding victory for the party of the rich, because that’s what my characters are reacting against.

Take all that away, restore some sort of hope and an optimistic trajectory with a victory for party of the poor, and my characters would have had no reason to be. The novel, two years in the writing thus far, would have collapsed as history overtook it. I hasten to add I would gladly have made that sacrifice, finding from somewhere sufficient magnanimity to claim the novel was never meant to be finished anyway.

Right now though, days after the result, I don’t know where I am. And neither does anyone else. Neither rich nor poor have secured a victory over the other, and the only certainty for any of us is a period of continuing uncertainty.

I was on a fairly safe bet, I’d thought – I mean as an author determined to finish his story and still have it mean anything. No one seemed to think a proper left leaning party had a cat in hell’s chance any more, that we were still five years away from an election anyway which was time a plenty to finish my story against the backdrop of a society – at least from my northern provincial perspective – worn threadbare, of shoes busted at the toes and our backsides hanging from our trousers, of racism, misogyny and petty nationalism whipped up by a vile, potty mouthed media and all the while the prospect of a crushingly cruel BREXIT.

The election was called because the received wisdom of the right was that a sweeping victory for the party of the rich was assured, because the other fella, the mutton headed Mugwump, they called him, vilified, shamelessly misrepresented, and smeared for years, was so unelectable you’d be sweeping him and all the other upstart lefties into the dustbin for ever.

And though I liked the cut of the Mugwump’s jib, and I wanted him to deliver an ever so polite bloody nose to the arrogance of the gold plated millionaire political class, I felt overwhelmed by the media opposition, by the voices telling me the Mugwump and I were misguided in our beliefs that even middling Socialism had anything left to offer the country, that even the poor were convinced they must vote for the party of the rich, that this was an age of the self over others, and a race to the bottom.

But the Mugwump’s not looking too bad right now. Sure, he’s been making politics interesting again, drawing the crowds, calling time on the illusion things can never be any different than they are now, that the powerful and the rich will get away with whatever they can, while the weak and the poor suffer what they must. But that the party of the poor narrowly failed to secure a victory means their positive policies must be shelved for another time, and in the mean time it’s more of the same, also more political upheaval, possibly even unleashing dangerous demons from our past, launching the spectre of an ever volatile Ireland back onto our front pages, as the miracle of a hard won peace accord is unpicked in order that the party of the rich might cling on.

But for now my story is still afloat against the same old background of confusion and upheaval. There may be another election in a few months that settles it, time enough maybe to finish, though far be it from me to urge upon society a reality that renders my novel still meaningful. Because it’s just as story and the real story of our times is more interesting and important than any of that.

Perhaps the times are too febrile, too transient for the writing of ponderous contemporary social drama anyway. Maybe the novel is dead, the times more suited to Haiku.

Next time I’ll play it safe and stick to fantasy.

 

 

 

On the Beach

nuclear burst.jpgDear potential leader,

Why should I vote for you if you’re cagey about whether you would ever contemplate pressing the red button to launch our nuclear weapons against another state that’s already launched its nuclear missiles against us?

You mean, you want me to launch first?

Em,… no, that’s not exactly British – I mean, more in self defence,… like.

Well, clearly my friend you misunderstand the nature of nuclear warfare, against which, I assure you, there is no such thing as self defence. If another state has launched its nuclear missiles at us, I have already failed you,  because we are already dead.

Regardless of your faith in technology, I assure you, even now, in this age of wonders, there is no missile that can  intercept those incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles. They are the fastest things imaginable, faster even than an impact prone asteroid, and just as deadly. We are, therefore, already dead, horribly dead, and I have failed you miserably, abominably, in my responsibility as a politician, and a statesman and as a leader.

I should have stopped it. I’m sorry, but that is the reality of nuclear war.

Yes, admittedly, before we die, there is probably still time to press that red button, and to thereby ensure the deaths of millions of people in retaliation for our own demise – and all right you say, but they’re just Johnny foreigner, and don’t count for much – but still that is not self defence, by any description. That is Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD as we used to call it in the old days.

It’s like a game of bluff, I suppose. We each have all these terrible weapons perfectly capable of destroying each other many times over. So it boils down to a game of poker. I bluff, saying to the world I am perfectly prepared to use our nukes, as does the other side. But implicit in this argument is the assumption the other side won’t dare to launch first, because they know they’ll die as well, because sure as hell we’ll launch ours, not in defence, but in revenge.

Revenge?

Yes. That’s a different spin for sure, but it’s what it boils down to. Nuclear war is complicated, but also very simple: we all die.

So you want me to pay lip service to the MADness game and say I will press the button, even if I won’t, because there’s this argument that MADness prevented the nuclear holocaust that was imminent any time between 1950 and 1989. But why should I? What use is there in revenge? I don’t believe there’s anything useful or worthy in revenge.

So,.. we died. But at least we killed the other lot as well. Doesn’t sound so grand when you put it like that , does it?

It seems to me previous generations understood the business of nuclear war better than we do now, certainly better than the angry old white men who read the Daily Mail. Instead read Nevil Chute’s “On the Beach” (1957) if you want a compelling account from a fiction writer and an engineer who knew the maths, and the technology better than any one, even by today’s standards, at least judging by the right wing populist rhetoric. There is no surviving a nuclear war. Ironically, it is the younger generation who seem to understand this better than their parents.

Talk of red buttons and who will press them is fatuous. The guy who says he wouldn’t press it under any circumstances is by far the more interesting and forward thinking. His is the world I want to live in. It’s a struggle of the imagination, and a courageous one, but one worth fighting for.

And he gets my vote.

 

 

I’m still absorbing this one, pretending normality while sitting not thirty miles from the scene of an appalling atrocity. If I was a better poet, a better writer, this is what I would say, and this is how I would say it:

The poet Tony Walsh at the vigil in Manchester tonight.

 

medanaThere’s a debate among collectors whether or not a personalised inscription on an old watch or a piece of jewellery alters its value. The majority view is that it devalues it considerably, indeed on a cheaper piece it renders it all but worthless.

Other collectors, perhaps less concerned with an object’s material value, will say it adds human interest. It can also be useful if the inscription includes a date so we can accurately place the piece in time.

Personally though, I avoid old watches with a dedication. I’m not sure why. I have plenty of old books on my shelf that bear a dedication to strangers, yet I feel I possess them no less for all of that. I mean a book is a book, after all. But a watch is a wearable piece of kit and it will always feel like someone else’s watch if it’s got their name on it and a hint of their history. It wouldn’t feel right to wear it myself. It would be as if I had stolen it. With a book it’s more like borrowing it.

This little Medana is my latest acquisition from EBay. It cost me all of £12.00. It was described as a runner, but the case looked poor, and the lens crazed – and square lenses are impossible to replace off the shelf. But all of that was fine by me because I only bought it for the experience of tinkering with it. I’m certainly not complaining, but a more honest seller would have shown a photograph of the back, which bears the inscription:

To Jack on your 21st Birthday. Love Mum and Dad

I don’t know who jack was, or his mum and dad, but I do know the watch has a fine seven jewel  pin-lever movement, a Swiss MST 374 to be precise, which dates the watch to 1950. It’s a well worn piece, indeed a lifetime of wear by the looks of it, most of the gold plating rubbed off, the case pitted with a million dings, and the plexiglass all finely crazed, but somehow not unattractive for all of that. There is still something elegant about it.

It bears the deep lines of Jack’s life, and as an object in itself, though virtually worthless, it oozes character and old world charm. So perhaps the inscription makes it more than just an old watch. It makes it a story, or rather it has us making up a story to fit it because, without having known Jack, that’s the best we can do. But there are some things it’s reasonable to surmise:

I’m guessing Jack’s dead now, that the watch came from a house clearance or something. Jack would have been in his late eighties, his passing quite recent, his life cleared out, his furniture given to charity, his papers burned, a few items picked up by the clearance merchant and put on Ebay. What else can we surmise? Well, I suspect there were no children nor grandchildren, or they might have held on to the watch, given the inscription, and the family significance, or maybe they just weren’t sentimental about stuff like that.

I find it rather sad to think of this parental gift, marking time for the whole of Jack’s adult lifetime, only to be discarded and wash up anonymously on the second hand market, though I suppose that’s better than it going in the bin. How easily these days we are deleted, our life’s worth scattered to the four winds, how easily we can be forgotten, brushed off, even by kith and kin.

I wonder about him, about his Mum and Dad, and I try to imagine that birthday long ago, when this little Medana was sparkling new, the gold plate unworn and deep with lustre, and Jack was making his first steps into the adult world. Medana was a respectable brand, a sister brand to Roamer, good quality manufacture, though neither of them in the luxury bracket, so Jack’s parents were not that well off, not your Patek Phillipe, dynasty founding types, but they appreciated a bit of quality for a special occasion.

This was an ordinary life, Jack the lad and his mum and dad. Had he any surviving sisters? Brothers? Surely they too would have kept the watch had they known about it. For a reasonable sum it could even have been professionally restored and passed on, kept in the family, but I guess it’s just no that kind of watch. I hope Jack did not die lonely.

The lustre of the case has not lasted a lifetime, but it tells me Jack was loyal to the watch even as it began to show its age, loyal to the gift and the memory of his Mum and Dad. It also carries jewellers marks inside the case, further indicating it was looked after, serviced, loved, valued. I see Jack wearing it from the time he was 21, strapping it on each morning and setting out into the world, his world, and now he’s gone. And I’ve got his watch, a watch that’s worth nothing, and even a little less than nothing for having his name on it, but then such is life. As a story though it speaks volumes, filling the imagination, even though the actual truth of Jack’s life we’ll never know.

But here’s my dilemma: I can’t tinker with it. This isn’t just any old watch after all. It’s Jack’s. So I’ll put it in my little tin of keepers – maybe to confuse my own progeny when I’ve popped my clogs and they’re clearing out my own tat.

“Jack?” they’ll say. “Who the Hell was Jack?”

I don’t know, but I raise a glass.

Here’s to Jack!

the sea southportI began my last piece with the intention of waxing lyrical on the notion of loneliness, of isolation, and the apparent meaninglessness of life. But I ended up putting the world to rights on several tangential fronts sparked by the current political situation, and the picture of a gold plated motor car that somehow tipped me over the edge, puncturing what was left of my magnanimity. This is still relevant, but what I’d hoped to touch upon also was a way of seeing the world in which our current preoccupations with the state of it become in fact unimportant.

What I wanted to talk about was Between the Tides.

This was a book I wrote some years ago now, a novel, a story about two strangers, stranded on an imaginary island off the coast of Lancashire. Both protagonists have been damaged by life, both feel isolated, lost and alone. Phil likes to draw, likes to put his pictures up on Flikr. Adrienne writes poetry, keeps a literary blog but both have come to understand how futile such things are at least in so far as they reflect the Facebook generation’s fallacy, that the undocumented life is a life not worth living, that we are only as successful a human being as the number of followers we can boast.

between the tidesWe pass a stranger in the street. They are of infinite worth to themselves, occupy the central role in the drama of their own life, a life that is in each case a miracle of creation. Yet when we pass them by, only rarely do we remember them for long afterwards. As an individual then we are worth little to others, our lives irrelevant them. So what’s the point of being alive if no one really knows we’re there? This is the nihilistic end-game of the material world view. And we know it’s not true. Phil’s drawings and Adrienne’s poetry are important, but not in the way they originally believed.

What makes each of us important, and how can we return to that realisation, and rest easy in it, even if no one else knows we’re alive?

Both Phil and Adrienne are visionaries in that their lives are haunted, literally, by visions. Phil sees things out of the corner of his eye, overlays imaginary entities on reality like Pokemon Go, and receives intimations from them, suggestive of another, hidden dimension to the world. Adrienne has suffered a life changing accident, one that triggered a near death experience so profound she is confident of the reality of the continuation of her life after death, though what that means is no less confusing. She is also developing as a neopagan witch.

Both, in their separate ways are colouring the world through the lens of their imaginations. They see patterns where others see nothing. They can view a landscape, both seeing it, visually, and feeling it, emotionally. In the brief time they are stranded together, each learns not to fear their visionary experience, more to trust in it, and to take it forward. Phil and Adrienne are extreem examples, but we can each follow their lead, since we all possess the faculty of imagination.

In the material world we try to describe the meaning of the universe, but in a language that is entirely inadequate, a language lacking the vital dimension of insight. Contrary to belief, however, through the visionary experience, the world makes even less sense, descends into a kind of incoherent anarchy. But we lose also the childish need to make sense of it. Instead, embracing the ambiguity, we realise at once each our own meaning and our importance. This is our true and real celebrity.

So forget Facebook. It’s doing your head in and those mysteriously apposite little adverts will one day have you dropping your trousers in public. Instead, like Phil and Adrienne, try seeing the world through the lens of your imagination a little more, and don’t be afraid of where it takes you.

The Machine

mariaThe paradox of human life is the evidence of its apparent pointlessness juxtaposed with our innate sense of infinite self worth. We are each placed at the very centre of our universe, yet we are able to make very little difference to it, and instead seem more often the victim of mischance or the misdeed of others. Thus, at times, we feel acutely vulnerable, afraid of injury or even annihilation.

We also find ourselves in a world pre-made by our collective forebears, a machine of rules, ideas and interactions whose mechanism is so complex it beggars all understanding, but whose purpose is more clearly the distribution of money and power – power over others, from whom the more powerful might extract money. Thus the machine defines its only measure of self-worth: money and power. The more you have the more successful you are. That the weak starve and whither is irrelevant. The machine must discard them. It has no choice. We are complicit in this inhumanity because of a self inflicted fallacy that it’s not our problem, or that somehow we cannot afford it, that there is not enough money for everyone born today to be allowed to live out the full span of their natural lives.

The bank is empty, the credit card maxed out – these being the simplistic metaphors used by politicians and the plutocratic machine minders to convince us of the need for a nation to “live within its means”, while at the same time facilitating the mass sequestering a nation’s means into the pockets of the predatory super-rich and powerful. Thus the machine mimics crudely the principles of natural selection, the evolutionary survival of the more well adapted being – in the machine’s case, adaptation being predicated purely on ego, cunning and greed. But unlike nature, which favours the proliferation or decline of a species at large, the machine produces only a small percentage of winners.

The rest, the losers can aspire only to the role of robotic serfdom, that is until the machine replaces them with actual robots, more perfect versions of the human being, at least in machine terms, in the way they function, for robots do not aspire to anything better than they are; they do not wonder about their purpose; they are not distracted by emotion, by cold, by hunger, by danger, by love. They do not require healthcare. We see now why the development of robots are so important to the machine – they are the perfect player in the “world-as-machine”, mirroring its deadness, a dead facsimile of a being for a dead world.

There was a picture in the newspapers this week of a gold plated super car. I mean, why settle for paint, when you can afford gold? The gold plated super-car is remarkably conspicuous. It is also a grotesquely apposite symbol of the end game of the world-construct as a money-game, when in those same cities we find broken and discarded people sleeping in doorways. But this is only to be expected since such mass economic casualties are written in to the machine’s code as a perfectly acceptable consequence.

As the machine automates its functions and increasingly delegates the human tasks to its robotic serfs, it is inevitable, according to machine logic, more of us will be discarded this way. And, since compassion is not a phenomenon that arises from machines, human beings who are not favoured among the rich and powerful cannot help but fare badly.

For all the shouting in this seemingly endless election season, I see no political solution to the machine’s excesses. The radical, humanistic policies necessary for averting such a grim, inhuman future are shredded daily by a psychological warfare of algorithmically targeted media falsehoods, ensuring our votes are for ever cast in the direction that is killing us.We cannot help ourselves. The machine has entered our blood, our bodies, our brains via the proxy devices we clutch daily to our bosoms, and through them it has infested us with its virulent nihilistic memes.

It is not unexpected, for it is a very ancient and human, and accurate observation that all things tend towards excess. They also contain within them the seeds of their own destruction, and the longer a thing stands, the greater the excesses it achieves, the more sudden and violent its downfall. The machine has facilitated an excess of inequality greater than the world has ever known. It is beyond obscenity, beyond systemic correction, beyond control, but will decay of its own accord, and I am not assured it will pass peacefully.

We cannot prepare for it, other than to make sure we are not so identified with the machine we are damaged by its disintegration. Materially of course, we will indeed be damaged – jobs, savings, welfare, all will be hit. But this is not our life. The machine world, though it seems all encompassing, is only the situation we exist in. Mentally, emotionally, life is elsewhere. It is in the stillness of our souls, it is to exist, to co-exist and to nurture both one’s own potential, and that of others. But the potential to what? What is the truest measure of doing well in the world? Is it really no more than a gold plated motor car? Is that the best we can aspire to?

When, in the near future, a robot looks upon the stars at night, it will do so only in terms of quantifiable data. How many stars? What type of star? It cannot transcend the data and be moved by the vision. The vision, the faculty of “being moved” is something distinctly human, born of the emotion and the imagination. It is a thing of the moment, a connection with that which is great and Godlike in all of us. So, if the world seems unrelentingly bleak and fractious and febrile right now, perhaps that’s because it is, and it remains so because we have lost the ability to imagine it any other way.