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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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the outsider

The Outsider is another thrilling read from one of Britain’s best known, best selling authors. It’s filled with intrigue, betrayal and danger. It’s also his autobiography, and as such is especially interesting to other writers. Even writers like me.

I mean – how the hell did he do it?

He wrote his first novel, The Day of the Jackal, because he was down on his luck and needed the money. I was once in a similar bind, stuck in a job that was shedding its workforce year on year. It was only a matter of time before I was potted. I needed an exit, and fast. So I wrote the Singing Loch and posted it off in naive expectation. It was rejected at every turn and has never made a bean.

The story of how the Jackal was published illustrates how getting picked up by the big-boys takes more than just a good manuscript. All writers come to this conclusion eventually. What we do about it comes down to sheer grit and self belief, or we decide not to bother and do something else. Me? I avoided the potting, and have never needed the money. Fair dos.

Fluent in five languages, he was flying Vampire jets with the RAF at 19. He began a career in journalism, got mixed up in the Nigerian civil war, at odds with the official pro Nigerian line. He’s been shot at, mortared, strafed by a Mig, and more than once fired by the BBC. He’s been an occasional odd job man for HM’s security services, and was once seduced by an amorous Stasi agent who was supposed to be tailing him. Politically well to the right of centre, outspokenly traditionalist, Conservative, and euro-sceptic, Freddie and I are clearly not natural bedfellows but, through his stories at least, I find him good company.

So anyway,… the day of the Jackal was hacked out under pressing financial circumstances, then did the rounds, but like the Singing Loch it got nowhere. Unlike me, Forsyth weighed up the situation and reckoned you had to skip the publisher’s slush pile and find a direct way to the top otherwise you were stuffed. Through his circle of contacts, he established nodding terms with an editor, sufficient to bluster into the guy’s office one day on pretext of a social visit, oh and – while I’m here what do you think of this? The result was a three book deal. The Odessa File, and The Dogs of War made up the other two. Forsyth was suddenly a professional novelist making a lot of money.

The lesson for other would-be writers here is obvious. Simply dropping your manuscript through a publisher’s letterbox, the odds of it getting far enough up the chain of command to make a difference are about the same as coming up on the lottery. You  need good contacts and a lot of brass neck. For those with both the talent and the connections, it’s still possible to make money from your writing, but for those without, the choice is smashing your head against a brick wall, or self publishing.

The title, “The Outisder” refers to a particular frame of mind that always puts one outside events, makes us an observer of life and a withdrawer to the silence of a closed room, and the space to think, to write. That’s me too, but not all writers are known as writers, our outsiderly ways forgiven on account of the tangible goal of the next best-seller. Some of us aren’t even known as writers at all.

My life’s path rarely takes me out of Lancashire, let alone Britain. My vision is macroscopic, seeking a life and interest in the parochial details of the humdrum. No guns, no knives, no steely eyed assassins, nor beautiful Stasi agents. Yet I am a writer. I can’t help it. More than that I am a novelist, in so far as I am a person who writes novels, though I’d never say so out loud. I suppose it’s that “success” thing, and how you measure it. No sense calling yourself a writer to people’s faces without anything tangible to show for it, like maybe be a best seller or two, and a Jag on the drive to prove your net worth.

But life is also about understanding what you’ve got, changing what you can if you feel you must, and making peace with whatever you feel you cannot. I think few men would object to being seduced by a greater number of beautiful women than has been the case, but being strafed by a Mig? That would probably have been the last straw for me, followed by a one way ticket back home to the quiet and comfort of my Lancashire bolt-hole. Nope. I wouldn’t change a thing.

What’s most striking, throughout reading Forsyth’s life story, is his confidence, his courage and his total self belief. In addition to his obvious talents as a writer, that’s how the hell he did it.

 

 

 

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tmp_2017072309511689647November is National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo – and though it’s only September, there’s already a buzz among online writers who are getting ready for it. It’s now no longer a national (USA) thing of course, and has swept up vast hoards of wannabe authors from around the globe. I admit to never having bothered with it, mainly because at the rate I write, it seems unrealistic I could produce a novel in just four weeks. But that’s not really the point.

The point of NaNoWriMo is fifty thousand words in thirty days. We’re not talking about quality of writing or a well plotted story here, more a significant quantity of words that hang together in some form of narrative. The point is not to ponder the details but to blast out the words, producing if necessary nothing more than a stream of consciousness. The end result might be implausible, poorly written, even unintelligible, but we can always go back and revise.

So, we can perhaps guess that many of the varied outputs of NaNoWriMo, frantically hacked out in those thirty days are unlikely to produce a Booker prize, at least not without significant revision, and so long as that’s understood we can see the constructive nature of the effort: you’ll never have something worth revising if you can’t get the words out in the first place. NaNoWriMo is a way of encouraging writers to get down to it. It’s also useful in that it allows us to gain energy for the task from like-minded members of an online group. Think of it as a vast writer’s workshop and supporting network.

But having said that I still won’t be taking part in it. It’s a serious commitment and for me at least would serve no purpose, since I’m not writing for anyone else. It also seems somewhat perverse encouraging writers of fiction when the market for our produce is in decline. Simply put: fewer people are reading stories. There are already too many words, and fiction is out of fashion. We would be better encouraging reading fiction instead.

The term “geek” should be outlawed as an abuse to intelligence, but it is regularly used to besmirch the bookish. And no one wants to be a geek. No one wants to be seen as anything other than fashionably sexy, even if that means pretending to be dumb as well. Amongst young males in particular reading is considered seriously un-cool. I know it’s a challenge with so many alternative forms of entertainment around – check your Facebook stuff, or spend and hour with a novel? Those who love reading will take the novel every time, but they’ll be mostly older people, like me who don’t know what Facebook is.

Does it matter? I think it does. I’m a long time writer of stories. I create characters, have them interact in ways I find intriguing, and I present ideas on the nature of relationships and our purpose in the world. I may be completely wrong in my views but that doesn’t matter. What matters, as with all art, is that it provokes a reaction because it’s through the reaction the beholder gains an intelligent independence of thought and an instinctive appreciation of what’s right and what’s wrong. Reading fiction is good for the soul.

Fiction is a peculiar thing, an elaborate lie, an account of something we’re all agreed never happened, and we happily step into the fantasy, become immersed in it far more than we could ever be immersed in a visual drama, say a film or a play, because with fiction we get inside heads where the business of thinking takes place and we see things as others see them. Reading fiction therefore can render us more sympathetic and empathic towards others. Such things are not strictly necessary of course if all we need as a species is to function at the unconscious level of a machine, but one day we’ll have robots for that and they’ll be far better at it than we are.

In spite of the concerted effort of materialists over the decades, human beings can never be adequately defined as machines. There’s always going to be more to us, and one of the things that sets us apart is our relationship with stories. The story teller has the skill of invention and the holding of attention by playing upon the archetypal substrate from which we all rise. This grants him a unique place in society. But if no one’s listening any more, the story teller might as well go chop wood. So by all means, do your fifty thousand words in November, but for your sins, you should then spend the whole of December reading a book – no, four books. And then, to show you were paying attention to them, write a blog telling us your impressions of each one.

 

 

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A small market town up North, far less prosperous now than it once was. It was the place to go when things were needed that the corner shop in my outlying rural village could not provide. But nowadays the town does not provide that either. I mostly order my needs off the Internet, and the postman delivers.

In memory, probably rose tinted, it was a prouder place back then. Do I imagine that on Saturday afternoons people would dress up to go shopping? Men would wear clean shirts, jackets and aftershave, ladies their fashionable dresses, high heels, and lipstick. Film actresses have walked Market Street in their finery on the Saturday afternoons of my childhood, crossed the road by Woolworths on their way to Boots. Marylin Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall. I have seen them all on the catwalk that was the pelican crossing by the old Town Hall.

There were innumerable family businesses here, names over doors that had stood for generations – bookshops, shoe-shops, florists, shops for artists, photography shops, all gone now and the town has dissolved into a place of thrift, of bookmaking, of pawn-brokering, e-cigs and of bargain booze. And in their passing something has happened to us.

I don’t know when it happened, or how, or why, or even what I mean exactly. It’s more than money, more than the economy. It’s hard to put a finger on it. I could use a word like respectability, but risk accusations of elitism and a hankering after the nineteen fifties, when working men still doffed their caps to toffs.

As I walked Market Street this afternoon, I heard a group of women plainly from a hundred yards away, fag-raw voices much amplified by alcohol. I thought they were fighting, but they were simply talking, oblivious to the obstacle and the spectacle they created on the pavement. Of course such unselfconsciousness can be argued as a virtue, not caring to live one’s life through the eyes of other people, and hurrah for that, I suppose, but at the risk of sounding like an insufferable snob, there was something unpleasant about their laddishness, something embarrassing, even threatening. Oh, I’m sure had they read my mind, intuited my feelings they would have given me the finger, and well deserved.

Grace. I think it’s the loss of grace I mean – the grace of the actress, of the ballroom, of the dancer – it’s gone from all our lives now, though I’m aware of how ridiculous that sounds. Yet I still search the crowd for it – in vain mostly – seeing only rags instead of finery, and stout, hideously tattooed stumps in place of dancers’ legs. I have largely withdrawn such sensibilities into imagination, hesitate to express them.

And charity shops.

We have a lot of charity shops now, a dozen at last counting. They are the only places capable of thriving, the only reliable landmarks on the high street – all else is pitifully feeble, ephemeral. They smell, don’t they? I used to find it off-putting – something unclean, I thought, and for a long time resisted the plunge – just one more step in my own fall from gracefulness.

It helped I could find decent books in there, good novels, literature, a handful for a fiver and just as well in straightened times – for such an appetite would cost fifty quid from a bookshop and quite out of the question. But there are no bookshops any more.

I like the Heart Foundation. Their books are well ordered, easy to scan, always a generous selection. And that’s where I saw her.

She was tall, slim, a voluminous cascade of seemingly luminescent blonde hair falling down her back. She had an upright posture, head balanced with a dancer’s poise, chin up, directing her gaze as she swept the titles with a leisurely, bookish grace. She wore a pair of snug blue jeans and a green shirt over a cream camisole – not a young woman by any means, forties perhaps,… and so far so much of a cliche.

The movie cute-meet would no doubt have been our fingers reaching out for the same title, something by Sebastian Barry perhaps – always a hard find in a charity shop. Our fingers would brush, then we’d each draw back with an embarrassed laugh.

“After you,” I’d say.

She’d smile, blush, reveal endearing dimples and a row of Hollywood perfect teeth. “No, you first. I’ve read it anyway. You like Barry?”

And thus we would connect, two lost, bookish souls finding succour among the cast offs in this wasted northern town, which seemed at once less wasted for her presence in it.

Poise. Yes, it was her poise that caught my eye, her arm gently reaching up to the book-shelf, something of a reserved curve to it, ending in a languorously relaxed hand, only the index and middle fingers forming a stiffly extended double pointer as if to aid in this most delicate act of intimate divination, or to bless.

Stillness, grace, presence. She had presence. But what was she doing there, a woman like that? She was quite, out of place, out of time.

I was beside her at the bookshelf, but only for a moment. No cute-meet here. I felt my presence as a vulgar intrusion upon such grace and visceral femininity. I feared her effect on me could not go unnoticed, that I would disturb her, make her uneasy, that her grace would stiffen, become angular with suspicion, that by observing it, I would destroy it.

I felt stung then by something very old, a feverishness overcoming me, ancient but familiar. I have taught myself over the years of useless infatuation, successfully I believe, to see women as human beings. It’s what they want, they tell me, this elimination of objectification. But without the object, the symbolism also dies, and love is next to divinity. Yet here was one out of the blue coming at me as a goddess again.

I melted away unseen.

What was all that about?

Chapter one, I think, that’s what all that was about!

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durleston wood cover smallIt was Mark Twain who said: “Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.”

I disagree, but then I would – having been writing willingly without pay for considerably longer than three years. Indeed I write these days without actively seeking any pay at all. As a round rebuttal of Mark Twain’s opinion on the matter, I offer instead the five rules of contemporary independent authorship:

 

 

1) Writers write.

2) If you can’t get anyone to pay, it’s okay to write for nothing, for as long as you want.

3) Publishers pay writers. (Sometimes).

4) Writers never pay publishers. Anything. (Ever).

5) Writers need not saw wood.

Most of us who write online for free are doing more than avoiding sawing wood. What we’re doing is bypassing a system that stands in our way. We’re seeking readers without having to negotiate the quaint arcana of the commercial publishing world. We write for free because experience has taught us that to seek payment from others is to close the door on our self expression, that to persist we might as well slide our work to the bottom of a drawer where it will remain for ever unread. Perhaps we lack the necessary persistence, perhaps we lack the talent. But neither of these cautionaries matter. We do it because we can. And in doing it we will find readers.

We can do it in a number of ways:

In the first instance, we can pedal our wares from the margins of our blogs. Click the cover-pic and you get a download from the public folder of our Dropbox thing. Simple. This way our work is completely independent and virtually immortal. Our stuff stays online until the sun goes supernova. The downside is unless you can game the system to achieve a monumental blog following, downloads are likely to be small. I manage a few per week. Not great, but who cares?

For more readers, you sign up to websites who grant a bigger exposure in exchange for plastering your stuff with advertising, or by tempting you into paying for “author services” like editing, proof reading, or marketing. Need I repeat my advice not to pay anyone anything in order to publish your work? It’s one thing to write for nothing, quite another for it to cost you money. The other thing to bear in mind when considering such sites is how many downloads you’re likely to achieve. There’s no point in signing up if their download rates are no better than your self served blog.

I use Feedbooks, Smashwords, and Wattpad. Feedbooks was always the best for downloads – even stuff I’ve had on there for years was still getting ten or fifteen downloads a week. I say “was” because it looks like Feedbooks is now dead so far as indys are concerned. Smashwords is less successful, but still garners a steady, if more modest exposure to potential readers. Wattpad,… well, Wattpad is a strange one. Put a novel on there in one lump and you’ll be lucky to get a single hit, ever. Put it up a chapter at a time over a period of months and you’ll do much better, at least until that final chapter goes up and then you’ll get not a dickie bird again. There’s a social media angle to Wattpad of course. Virtual networking. You like theirs,and they like yours. You need to use it to get the best from it, but I’m usually too busy with other stuff, like writing. I’m also an unreformed introvert who finds anything “social” a bit awkward.

Just recently I’ve been looking at other avenues, namely Free eBooks.net, putting my novel “In Dureleston Wood” on there by way of an experiment. The Free eBooks’ business model requires both writers and readers to sign-up. Readers are limited to five downloads per month unless they pay for VIP membership. Writers who contribute get VIP membership automatically, which suggests to me this may end up being a writer’s only hangout.

But anyway,..

Unlike Smashwords, there’s no option to charge for your work, but that doesn’t bother me. You can add a donate button so readers can tip you via your Paypal Account, should they feel so inclined, but let’s not fool ourselves over the potential of that. The site is heavy on advertising and it’s keen to sign us up for a premium marketing package, but again that violates my principles, so we won’t be going there.

Upload is simple, requiring a .doc formatted manuscript and a cover pic. Then you fill out your blurb and it’s done. Publication isn’t immediate – the info says it can take up to three working days for a submission to be “considered”, but a quick scan of what’s already on offer reveals there’s a lot of crap on there so I wouldn’t worry too much about being rejected. I wasn’t overly optimistic regarding my potential for downloads. I’ve tired various sites like this before and managed no more than a dozen hits in a year – but I achieved my dozen here after the first day. The rate will probably dwindle over time, but so far it looks like Free eBooks and I can do business without violating too many of my principles.

And without sawing any wood.

 

 

 

 

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the martian - andy weirFirst of all this is the book I’m talking about, not the film. I’ve not seen the film yet but I’ve heard it’s very enjoyable. Like all my movie purchases these days though, I’ll wait until I chance across it in a charity shop. Speaking of which that’s where I found the book, a steal for £1.00. I should also say the fact I found it in a charity shop, I mean even before all the hype for the film has died down, in no way detracts from the quality of the story. Sometimes you find a real gem, which is why I like digging around in charity shops.

Anyway, the book is interesting on two fronts, first for the story it tells, and second for the genesis of that story, it being entirely self published. Andy Weir was no novice to writing, but earlier attempts to publish his stories met with disappointment, so The Martian began as a labour of love with no intentions of it doing the usual demoralising rounds of literary agents. Instead it first appeared as a series of blog entries given away online, and from where it garnered a respectable cult following. Fans then asked for the whole thing to be pieced together as an ebook on Amazon. Since you can’t give stuff away on Amazon, Weir set the price to the minimum allowed (about 67p). Thereafter the story caught fire, first of all ending up in the Amazon top seller list, where it caught the eye of an agent who landed a conventional publishing deal and a movie contract. So there we have it: from a blog give-away by an unknown writer, to a movie starring Matt Damon – that’s quite a journey!

So, we have a lone astronaut stranded on Mars – he’s the Martian. His mission was aborted during a cataclysmic storm and his crewmates cleared out, blasted off for home, thinking he was dead. How does he survive? Well, it’s by no means certain he will, but he thinks it all through and blogs it out for posterity as he goes along. And the reason for the book’s success? Was the author just lucky? Well I’m thinking luck played some part in it, and no shame in that, but we can’t get away from the fact that a story has to be readable in the first place for it to take off at all. This is a regular sized novel and I finished  it greedily over a weekend. I couldn’t put it down.

The technology for landing people on Mars exists now. All that’s preventing us is the will and the cost. But given the extraordinarily unforgiving conditions on Mars, could a man survive alone, with existing technology and how would he do it? This is the problem the author set himself the task of solving. The technology, the science,… these things are very much what the book is about. It’s incredibly well researched – the author clearly knows his subject – but the technicalities also benefited from feedback generated by his blog, so in a sense crowd-sourcing expert advice. All of this results in a very plausible backbone for the story. The heroics depicted are triumphs of ingenuity, and all delivered at a page turning pace.

I don’t want to give too much away here, but eventually satellite surveillance of the Mars base reveals the guy is still alive and looks like hanging in there, at least for a little while. This allows a broadening of the story to include the reaction back on earth, and the second big technical challenge of how you go about rescuing someone with existing technology – i.e. no warp drive – and a flight time to Mars of about a year. Again all of this is handled in a well paced, plausible fashion, the story resting firmly on that solid foundation of realistic science and technology.

I think another reason for the story’s success is that it possesses hidden dimensions, that on top of being a good story well told, it provokes a deeper thinking in the reader, and leaves a lingering impression long after we have finished it. For me it was a reminder of the incredible engineering challenge of putting people into space, a thing that seems almost mundane now, with guys and gals regularly whizzing over our heads in the ISS. But it’s hardly without it’s dangers and it’s of great credit to the organisation, the international cooperation, and the sheer technical excellence behind space exploration that more people haven’t been killed doing it. It’s a measure of what we can do when we’re all pulling in the same direction and in the service of a common cause that’s basically altruistic.

The story hasn’t much time for philosophical musing – but towards the end our hero does reflect upon the sheer scale, cost and human involvement that swings behind the effort to bring him home. We’re reminded of the real life Apollo 13 emergency here, and I couldn’t help going off on my own tangent and asking the question what is it that makes saving one life worth the cost and the effort, when thousands of other lives are lost, knowingly, every day because the world is apparently indifferent to less favoured individuals? I guess for me the message was if we think we can save a life we’ll do it, no matter what the cost. But if we’re persuaded we can do nothing, that we’re absolutely powerless, then we’d rather not think about it at all. We shut it out. This is not the same as indifference; it’s a survival mechanism, something to keep us sane. But who is it, or what is it that persuades us in the first place which lives we have a chance of saving and which to discard?

But I digress.

There’s a risk of course that with the undoubted success of the film, the novel on which it’s based will be overshadowed, even forgotten, that in the longer term, most authors, even published ones, risk becoming the unknown seed of other people’s glory. And that’s a pity.

So,.. if you’ve not seen the film yet, do look out for the book.

It’s awesome.

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I CHingThe notion of a life’s path is central to ideas of human development, be they secular or religious. But it’s not obvious what that path is, especially when we can only say we’re on it when we’re not deliberately trying to steer our course. And our Ego likes to steer, likes to gain knowledge, skill, and to compete against other egos in order to secure wealth, power and sex. These are the aphrodisiacs of the material world, a world that divides us, as it did in primitive times, into mere predators and prey. There can be no other way, we’re told – no surviving life without combat. It’s evolution. Simple.

Not true, says the Book of Changes.

The Book of Changes, also known as the I Ching or the Yi Jing, is a strange, beguiling text, evidence of which first appeared in China’s Shang Dynasty, around 1600 BC, though it certainly predates this period. It came to the west in the late 19th century via the translation by James Legge, and largely ignored except as a cultural curiosity, but was taken up by the Jungian psychoanalytical movement on publication of the influential Wilhelm edition in 1929. There have been many editions since the Wilhelm Edition, but none so influential, striking as it did at the heart of European intellectual thought.

It then became a companion to 60’s counterculture, and is still widely used today. While its core structure has remained untouched since antiquity, the language of its interpretation changes to suit whatever culture it finds itself taken up by. I have several versions of it, and wrote my own interpretation, The Hexagrams of the Book of Changes, available here, as a way of furthering my grasp of its curious concepts.

What we normally think of as our life’s path, says the Yi Jing, the path we can see and plot and manage, isn’t really our path at all, but simply our life situation. Our true path is more of an internal journey towards awakening. Our life situation is only relevant to the extent that we are able to adjust our relationship with it in order to prevent it from subverting the more vital inner path. The material world is a world asleep. Hold solely to material values, and you will remain asleep also. To awaken is to realise, viscerally, the deeper nature of reality and our place in it. To this end the Yi Jing is an indispensable guide.

What makes the book unique is its interactive nature. You talk to it. You can ask it things, and it answers. The answers are complex, perceptive, and personal. There’s a lot of debate about exactly who or what it is we talk to when we talk to the Yi Jing. Some deify the book, picturing in their minds the spirit of a wise old sage, like Lao Tzu perhaps, and that’s fine if it’s how you want to see it. But everyone’s relationship with the book is going to be different.

My own feeling is that when we consult the book, we open the way to a deeper part of our selves. We ask our question and are then directed to certain apparently random passages and subtexts, the combination of which forms a narrative for reflection and interpretation. The answers then emerge in our own minds, riding in on a wave of sudden insight. In some sense the book can be seen as an oracle, but this is to seriously underestimate its potential, and for me its real strength lies in its use as a psychological tool, a thing that shakes the unconscious mind in order to release personal insights.

I don’t know how it works, and I no longer think about it. The ego cannot crack it, but neither can the Ego accept the Yi Jing without explanation, so there opens a divide. On the one side we have explanations from devotees of the book that range from the vaguely plausible to the frankly crackpot, and on the other a sour scientistic rejection of the book as merely the work of an emerging, pre-rational culture. Others say we simply read into it whatever we want to hear, and that’s also fine, though this does not explain the fact that if one is open enough, one always rises from the Yi Jing knowing or feeling something one did not know or feel before. Another of its useful characteristics is that it will never shy away from telling us what we don’t want to hear. It’s not an easy book to know, certainly not without devoting time to developing a relationship with it, and many may find it simply impenetrable, banal, or even repulsive.

When I read back to my earliest conversations with the Yi Jing, I come across as a very different person, my questions very much concerned with my place in the world: job, relationships, house, kids, cars, holidays, financial ups and downs, struggles for publication,… and the answers read like repeated attempts to make me see I had the whole world upside down, that actually, none of it mattered, that the confusion and the frustration we so often feel in life is based on faulty thinking, our anxieties arising purely from a resistance to events over which we have no control.

While we have no choice, as beings in flesh, but to operate at the material level of reality, the Yi Jing tells us we should always do so in cognizance of the inherent limitations of material being, and in the knowledge that a greater understanding of the meaning of “being” comes from exploring the shifting patterns of our inner selves. As a guide to such things, I have found the Yi Jing is without parallel and is one of the most insightful guides to life ever conceived.

Not bad for a book coming to us from our Neolithic past.

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