Posts Tagged ‘Atkinson Gallery’

I’ve been reading a lot of Patrick Harpur’s books lately and it’s through these I’ve become familiar with this fascinating phrase: non-literal reality which, so far as I can tell, equates to the world of imagination, a world most of us do not consider to be real – even those like me, writers of fiction, who spend a great deal of time exploring it, and inventing stories in it.

Imagination is strange, entertaining, and very useful in that we can imagine scenarios and rehearse them “imaginatively” before doing things for real. Also by imagining what others will do, it grants us the ability to outwit them, to second guess their defences and thereby defeat them in combat or in competition. Simpler creatures, no matter how physically superior, are ultimately no match for the imagination of mankind, and this has ensured our dominion over them.

But for all of that, once we turn our focus back into the real world, into literal, tangible reality, we do not suppose for a moment that the imaginative, non-literal reality continues to exist. We simply switch it on when we need it. Imagination, we suppose, is confined to the insides of our heads and does not dwell in an independently existing imaginal continuum.

Partick Harpur’s thesis is that the imaginary world does indeed exist, and that much of our philosophy, from the pre CE Greeks to the Nineteenth Century European Romantics describe ways in which we can maintain a healthy relationship with this imaginal world. The imaginal world is what has been called by various cultures the otherworld, the underworld, heaven, the afterlife, or in New Age speak, the non-physical plane – and that once we quit our mortal coil we return to it; it is a real place and we can make our way in it as conscious, self aware beings, just as we do anywhere else.

Chinese Daoist philosophy also tells us that human beings exist at this interface between heaven and earth – the imaginal and the physical, the inner and the outer, the yin and the yang, that we can see reflections of the one in the other and in order to live properly we must be respectful of both. If we focus too much on physical reality, if we become too materialistic, utilitarian, and clinical, it’s bad for us. Similarly if we shun the material world and retreat completely inside our own heads, we risk madness. These are old lessons, like how we are taught that smoking and drinking will kill you, and we know these lessons are true, but equally we ignore them.

So, the imaginal world is real, but we must be careful not to take it literally. The reality of the imaginal world can explain all manner of Forteana – the strange creatures, the fairies, the goblins, the spooks, the demons, even the more modern UFO’s and alien encounters that no one of a rational frame of mind will ever take seriously, but which others have none the less repeatedly spoken of witnessing with compelling sincerity.

There will never be any convincing evidence that these things exist (in literal terms) because in literal terms, they do not. That they do exist is evident  from the things people tell us they’ve seen, but their reality must not be confused with their actual physical existence. This sounds like a paradoxical statement. They do exist. They have always existed, but if we go looking for them, looking to define them in literal, physical terms, if we try to measure or capture them, we will fail because we are looking for literal certainties where there are none.

The imaginal realm is something that exists inside of nothing, as indeed we apparently exist inside of nothing ourselves. The cosmos as we can see it is an infinitely small percentage of the cosmos as it truly is, because the cosmos is infinitely big, and anything divided by an infinite bigness equals nothing, as any pocket calculator will tell you. It has no size. It is therefore just as easily nothing as it is infinitely large, for both concepts have no physical meaning, and therefore all the cosmologies that mankind has come up with must deal with this paradox of something coming out of nothing.

But how difficult is this to imagine, really? In literal terms we seem to agree that life on earth began in the oceans, a long time ago, that it began from nothing, from a mixture of the right physical ingredients coming together by accident  and that the rest, the route from creeping slime to consciousness was simply a steady process of improvement by adaptation. And if the universe consists of a background matrix of purely non-literal, indefinable, non-measurable energy, as quantum physics seems to be telling us it does, then how much greater a step is it to imagine that there might have evolved an underlying conscious plane of non-physical reality that came about by the right twists of non-literal energy coming together,… purely by accident?

Clearly we exist, and if we accept our existence, as we self-evidently must, then how can we offhandedly deny the reality of an inner world as being fanciful? Equally though we have to respect the boundaries and not go looking to establish the physical reality of what is not physically manifest. Each in it’s place, and all that.


The two realms do have a relationship, and it’s this relationship that has granted so much richness to human life. Without it, life is sterile and pointless. The muse, who is the voice behind every written word, including these, is a dweller of these mysterious inner realms, as are other, darker creatures who can wreak havoc in the world by the same blunt instrument the gentler muse employs, namely the hand of man. These are autonomous entities, and they do exist, but you will not find them in the world because, you guessed it, their reality is not meant to be taken literally.

For a creative person, the muse is an unavoidable reality. She seems closely related to the idea of the soul, or the anima of Jungian thought. I am not schooled in these matters and can only go by experience but she seems like a facet of one’s multifaceted soul, for it is a fact that all things in the imaginal realm defy easy categorisation. She is soul, she is muse, she is both, she is none, she is lover, demon, harpy, and then muse again,… all within the same human heartbeat. But she is not a literal being, though sometimes we may project her onto unsuspecting women and pretend that she is..

How does one cope with such metaphysical fickleness? Pretty much as one copes with fickleness in real life: you accept the reality of it, you invite her counsel, but do not demand it. You welcome it when it comes, but do not chase it when it is no longer forthcoming – and above all you accept both its reality and its value to you personally and to some larger purpose of which you may have not the slightest inkling.

It is this acceptance that’s the important thing, the thing that appeases the denizens of the inner world, and grants us an inner pleasure that comes through our relationship with them. They are our kith and kin. They they tap upon the bell-jar of our consciousness, and they grow impatient if we pretend they are not there.

Our understandable incompetence in these matters is no barrier to making way, for the creatures of the inner world are possessed of infinite patience, provided we remain open and trusting, and then they will teach us what we each need to know. Individually, this relationship is essential for our sanity, for our sense of well being, and in maintaining our proper path in life. Collectively it means the difference between a world at peace, and a world on fire.

All of this is very simplistic of course. The imaginal realm is infinite in its scope and its possibilities, yet we can only think of it in terms of the pictures we have taken of our own physical reality, so anything we think or say or believe about the non-literal realm will limit its potential for us when we are eventually drawn back into it. We make what we will of the various afterlife journals that have supposedly come back to us from the likes of Frederick Myers and T E Lawrence, but they both speak of an imaginal realm that reflects very much our expectation.

If this is true I have a cottage waiting in the Lake District, at the foot of Drummaur Fell (you’ll have to read the Lavender and the Rose to know roughly where that is), oh, and a brand new pair of Scarpa walking-boots already broken in. But this otherworldly abode is no nearer a realisation of the ultimate nature of reality than is the physical nine-to-fiveness of the present workaday world. It’s still a literal interpretation, in a sense, and there is a suggestion from reading these curious afterlife journals that one’s progress tends to be further and further away from any form of literal or visually interpreted reality at all – that it becomes increasingly abstract, and even if we dismiss these afterlife journals as the rambings of an overheated imagination, we can still imagine how they might be true.

What I struggle to understand, however, is why the denizens of the other-world, if such there be, should bother themselves with us mere mortals at all. Why should they be so easily piqued by our blatant disregard of them, that they should feel the need to startle us now and then with flashes of their fantastic forms? Surely they can have no longing for the limitations of our literally interpreted reality? Compared with the infinite potential of the non-literal realm, our lives must seem sorely handicapped – worthy of their pity perhaps, but sorey unworthy even as humble pawns in their Machiavellian intrigues?

Why, dear muse, do you feel the need to speak to me at all? To have your voice travel from the world within, to this sterile world? What is it through the pattern-music of your words you seek to achieve? Is it only to remind us to look both ways now and then? Or are you not long gone from this life yourself and seek to impart your newly found wisdom of the wider reality to this enclosed one, from which you are still so freshly estranged and intimately attached? Is your dalliance with us the first stage on your journey to the abstract realms? Or have you never been flesh but eagerly await your turn?

** The picture at the top is Lillith, by John Collier (1892). If you want to see her in the flesh – and I recommend that you do – you’ll find her in all her resplendent glory at the Atkinson Art Gallery at Southport, Lancashire UK.

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Southport was cold and grey and wet this morning, and yet more shops had been boarded up. The massive Woolworths store they cleared out a year ago is still empty, still carrying its cheery red Woolworths logo, but there was little to be cheerful about and in one of the half empty malls there was a character with oiled hair handing out cash in exchange for gold,.. and he had plenty of customers offering their unwanted trinkets for him to squint at.

I’m lucky. I still have a job and can gaze upon this awful spectacle with the air of a detached observer. I wear only two pieces of gold: my wedding ring on my left hand and my father’s wedding ring on my right, and it’s easy for me to say that the oily haired man could go $@#£ himself, if he thought he’d ever be getting his hands on those. But how about when the rent’s due and there’s no money coming in and there’s a bully boy collector at the door?

There but for the grace of God, and all that.

I tried to buy a coffee and was offered more choice than I could cope with: Latte, Mocha, Americano, blah di blah di blah. For some reason this business of “choice” really irritates me now and I long for simpler days when I could just have one bloody thing that actually worked. I hear my politicians speaking of “choice” as if it were the holy grail, and yet I detect a curious hollowness in their words as if they don’t really believe it either and are simply reciting a mantra presented to them by a legion of obscenely highly remunerated political consultants.  Anyway,… I listened to the girl reeling them all off,…. all these varieties of highly desireable choice, coffee-wise,  and to be honest, I hadn’t a clue what any of them were. Feeling a little tired and confused I asked if  I could just have an ordinary filter coffee.  She sighed at my ignorance before replying with practiced patience that they were all filter coffee’s sir.  I apologise dear reader – urbane I am not. I like my coffee plain and strong. It does not come with a label.

I received an infinitely friendlier reception at the Atkinson gallery, where a group of handicapped kids (can I still say that?) were having a delightful sing-song, and the girl manning (can I still say that?) the reception desk  welcomed me up the stairs with a smile that instantly erased the memory of the pretentious coffee incident. Yes, this was “sanctuary”. I was safe, and looking for old friends: Dorette’s sister, the gloriously erotic Lillith of course, and a bewitching seascape by an artist called JHG Millar, whom no one seems to know anything about.

Then I ran into a major synchronicity.

I need to rewind here and explain  I’d just booked 2010’s summer holiday, on the  Northumberland coast. I have a memory of my last night there in August 2003, coming off the beach at Bamburgh after flying kites with my boys. The east coast beaches have a special charm.  The sea was lively and there was a mist overhanging everything. I paused for a second, just to look back  and take it all in. There was something bewitching about it. Then, six years later, I walk into the Atkinson, the day after booking my return trip, and I’m staring at a picture of the same scene, painted from the same spot!

Take no notice of the skeptics, nor the smug statisticians: Synchronicities are important. They are like a glitch in “the matrix” – if you’re into movies – if not then never mind. They indicate a change – that something is changing, that something in the mind is manoeuvering. But you will never understand a synchronicity in literal terms – try too hard to look for the meaning in them and they just smile at you, inscrutable as Alice’s Cheshire cat. The best you can do is feel the current tugging at you, and surrender to it.

After the Atkinson it was Broadhursts bookshop and a browse through the second-hand titles. I trust every major town in the UK still possesses a die hard establishment like Broadhursts. If books, real books, are your bag, then you know the sort of place I mean – they cleared out of the smaller county towns decades ago, to make way for the publisher’s clearance outlets – who really aren’t the same thing at all.  Anyway,… I found myself smiling when I noticed works by Richard Dawkins side by side with those of Derek Ankora here. It was a marvellous irony. But it was Carl Jung who drew my eye, and for a few pounds I came away with a second hand copy of  “Psychological Reflections”, an anthology edited by Jolande Jacobi. It’s a  while since I studied Jung and maybe the memory of that earlier synchronicity forced my hand.

Reading it later on in bed, I found myself a little too tired to do it justice, but one quote struck me between the eyes so hard, I had to write it down: All the true things must change and only that which changes remains true. It could easily have been a line from the Tao te Ching!

Those of us who tread the spiritual path away from the mainstream would do well to remember it. There is no clear definition for what it is we seek. It does not have a name. To define it is to kill it, to make it old and grey and useless. Therefore we hold no clear convictions, no unassailable beliefs, and we are not afraid to change, not afraid to say: I was wrong, not afraid to say: I don’t know.

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Mortgage screwed? Investments collapsed? Does it look like you’ll have to work until you’re ninety, always supposing you can find a job? Cheer up: go and visit your local public art gallery – it’s free and it’ll make you feel better.

I finished work yesterday – having adopted the habit of late years of saving up some leave, so I can get in a good long break at the year end. As is my habit, I used the first of my free days to slip into Southport, without my family, so I could concentrate on buying my wife her Christmas present.

It’s been about as cold as it gets here in the North of England, this past week, the car glazed with frost most mornings, temperatures down to around -5C and the occasional patch of black ice on the roads at first light. The sinking of the year, the draining of the light down to the solstice – these are all familiar themes and part of the natural cycle of our lives, but it seems to be mirrored this year by all this talk of global financial ruin. We seem to be getting the hang of it though, and I only lend it half an ear these days – the stock markets falling, and the BBC bringing us daily news of yet one more financial swindle that looks set to ruin the world.  I find I’m fairly laid back about all of this, and like most folks with half a brain, I’ve been expecting it for a while. My mortgage was screwed long ago, and now my modest stock market dabblings have followed. I’ve been putting a little by in one scheme or another since 1988, the plan being to have enough to retire on by 2015, but the way things are going I’ll be lucky if it’ll buy me a second hand car and I would have been far better just putting it all in a savings account like my granny would have done. Never mind, at least I still have a job, for now – unlike the staff of Woolworths, whose shop front in Southport this morning was plastered with notices of stock clearance sales. There’s something about this sudden torpedoing of Woolworths, a name that is inextricably linked with my own childhood Christmases, that tells me this is more than just your usual downturn – like the ones we’ve seen before.

Anyway, I have a great affection for Southport. It’s probably the only big town I know that does not seem permanently dark and dour, and which it is always a pleasure to visit at any time of year. Since Victorian times, it’s been the butt of many a joke about its claim to be a seaside resort: sure, it’s on the coast, but the beach here is miles wide, mostly mudflats and you usually need binoculars to see the sea. Until recent years it had all been going a little to seed, but it’s impossible to miss the dramatic developments along the seafront, and the Marine Drive now.

It’s a town with ambition, a town intent on rising above the sleazy image of graffiti-ed shop fronts and greasy chip wrappers, and instead it seems to want to embrace the corporate/designer/cafe/convention culture. The buildings going up are modern and stylish, and all the older buildings around seem to be rushing to spruce themselves up in order not to let the side down.

Southport’s  also a town with serious Eco friendly credentials and has for years been coaxing us motorists out of its busy centre  with ever increasing car-parking fees. I succumbed a while ago and now park dutifully at the admirably self sustaining Eco-Centre, to ride the admirable Eco Park-and Ride Bus onto Lord Street, in the heart of the shopping district.

My first port of call was a coffee  in the Cambridge Arcade, but there was a feeling of emptiness about the place that was down to more than just the usual early morning atmosphere of streets not yet aired. The Cambridge is a walk-through arcade that links the Edwardian styled boulevard of Lord Street with the big modern stores on Chapel Street. It’s home to a few cafes but mostly high class – ie generally expensive – shops, a cut above your usual bargain/thrift/clearance/affordable establishments. But many were empty, windows whitewashed or papered over – familiar names already gone. As a result, I sipped my coffee with not much to look at and  feeling that this was just the thin end of the wedge, that more familiar names might follow soon.

Being without my family I was able to indulge myself a little and, when in Southport, this means two things: a trip to Broadhursts Antiquarian bookshop, and the Atkinson Gallery. Broadhursts sells both new and used books and has the air of a proper bookshop because that’s exactly what it is. It’s always a pleasure to lose an hour here in its labyrinthine interior. I generally have no idea what I’m looking for when I go – something vaguely metaphysical perhaps or a bit of unusual poetry, but the point of these visits is more to allow a book to find me.  I came away empty handed though, and headed for the Atkinson.

The Atkinson occupies a fine location on Lord Street, between the library and the Art’s Center and is home to a collection of works dating from the mid Victorian period, through to the present day. Here, I lingered mainly over my favourites: Lilith of course, Dorette’s Sister, and a particular seascape that captures the light in a way that seems more like witchcraft than art. Galleries like the Atkinson were set up in Victorian times by philanthropic individuals for the purpose of reminding us that there’s more to life than work, bed and mortgages. We’ve much to thank these people for.

Sure my mortgage is screwed, my life savings are worth about the same now as they were twenty years ago, and never mind retiring in 2015 – I may have to go on until I drop – but those three pictures I gazed at made it easier to go on being philosophical about the whole thing, in spite of the News Vendors who seem to be trying to convince me it’s time I was reaching for the revolver.

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