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50pI know. I said I was done with BREXIT, but couldn’t help coming back one more time with a word or two about the commemorative fifty pence piece, and this fascinating row about the Oxford comma, or rather the lack of it.

A word of background: if you’ve not heard, the UK government has minted a few million specially engraved fifty pence pieces to commemorate leaving the European Union. On the back of them, there’s an inscription that says:

Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations.

Now that looked fine to me at first pass, but the grammarians say no, it should read:

Peace, prosperity, and friendship with all nations.

Spot the difference? The comma after ‘prosperity’ is called an Oxford comma, and while I’ve probably used it when it felt appropriate in the name of clarity, I’ve never heard it named as such.

The grammarian in this instance is the author Philip Pullman, also an outspoken BREXIT Remainer, who suggests we should boycott the coin on account of its illiteracy. This is worrying because I like to think of myself as a writer, yet it seems people I would otherwise consider fellow travellers, might actually consider me illiterate.

Just think of all the novels I’ve written. And among the millions of words out there, how many Oxford commas have I missed? How obvious therefore my lack of education. No wonder publishers never took me seriously! I’m a great fan of Philip Pullman and I bow to his prowess as a writer, and as an imaginative, educated, and erudite man, but to insult the coin this way I beg to suggest risks insulting more than those who voted “leave”.

I mean, have you heard of the Oxford comma? If not, you’re in good company. Indeed my good lady, a teacher with a quarter century of experience at the chalk-face hadn’t heard of it either, and when she saw it, said it was ‘obviously’ wrong. This prompted further research which suggests opinion is divided, perhaps leaving us to conclude that as with all the more obscure conventions in punctuation, prowess in their application proves only that the writer has been to – well – Oxford.

However, consider the following:

I’m coming to the party with my brothers, John, and Peter.

And then:

I’m coming to the party with my brothers, John and Peter.

In the first one, a careful reading suggests John and Peter are coming to the party, plus my brothers. In the second, my brothers (who are called John and Peter) are coming to the party. The Oxford comma adds clarity.

The Associated Press guide, which American journalists follow, says to leave it out when not necessary, which seems sensible. Other publishing styles say leave it in regardless. So, it’s really a question of form, style, and context. For us lesser mortals who may be getting confused by the whoe business by now, just watch out for ambiguity in your prose and you’ll be fine.

As for that coin, well, I’d argue an Oxford comma would have added nothing and to insist on it regardless seems a bit snobbish. The message is clear either way, though seems to me more appropriate to nations joining rather than leaving the EU.  Personally speaking, given the evenness of the split over the BREXIT issue, it might have been better had the victors taken a more magnanimous view and never minted the coins in the first place, let BREXIT pass with as little fanfare as possible. But I suppose it’s a lesser rubbing of remainers’ noses in it than a compulsory street party.

I’m generally short of change these days so I don’t suppose I’ll be seeing many of them anyway. But if you do find the EU fifty pence piece offensive, might I suggest you save them up and put them in the homeless person’s hat next time you’re in town. Four or five of those, regardless of what’s written on them, and how it is punctuated, will buy a man a brew to keep out the cold. Leaving the EU isn’t going to help him – or staying in for that matter.

The only thing going for him right now, is your charity.

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fireworks

I was travelling the M61 south from Chorley in the predawn murk. I’m not sure if it qualifies as the worst stretch of motorway in the UK, but it’s certainly the worst I have to drive. The lane markings have almost gone and the cats eyes where they exist at all are dim, so these dark, misty, winter mornings have been terrible, with dangerously poor visibility.

What was particularly frightening this week is there was an incident on the hard shoulder and the highway men had shut the slow lane, pushing us all into the middle. Without that guiding line of the hard-shoulder, I felt I was hurtling into the unknown, unable to see further than the feeble cast of my headlights, and barely a whisper from disaster both left and right. Though I’ve been on the road for forty years, and I still drive that crumbling stretch of miserable tar most week-days, I was definitely afraid.

It’s perhaps the perfect metaphor for how I feel generally at the moment, that while I’m told half our citizens will be celebrating our leaving the EU on the 31st of January, it feels to me like we’ll be cheering our own headlong rush to slaughter. Some, of course, have every reason to be happy, like those who truly benefit from BREXIT. But let’s not go there. I’m weary of the argument and can barely raise a head of steam to repeat it.

I’ve moved on, I think, well beyond the crass jubilation, am now beginning to rough out a dystopian vision of mid twenty-first century England by extrapolating current trends to their inevitable conclusion. It’s not looking like a great place to be if you’ve no money, you’re old, or sick but I won’t bother describing it in any more detail than that. Indeed my advice to fellow remoaners is just to shut up and get on with it, and under no circumstances must we ever say we told you so. We live in a post-fact, post-truth world where the bad guy always wins, and where nothing means anything any more, except when it all goes wrong, and then it’s your fault.

Remainers voted to remain because they understood the EU. They knew what it was, had seen and experienced the benefits of membership, had worked with Continental colleagues, learned their languages, visited and admired their cities, the quality of their roads, their trains, their infrastructure. It wasn’t perfect – indeed far from it – but it was better being a little fish in a big shoal than a little fish on its own. I mean that’s why fish shoal up right?

Those who voted out, did so for many reasons, all of which perplex me. I can find no logic, no rationale to any of them, and it’s beyond insanity how even the claims of Brexiteer politicians and their Bond-villain backers – when revealed as pants-on-fire lies – can still be cheered on by the reliably demented wavers of the flag of Saint George.

Yes, it’s over and done now. But I won’t be celebrating.

You can always buy your EU citizenship back with one of those handy Maltese passports, as indeed many of those billionaires who championed BREXIT are now doing. I too have a route back, virtue of an Irish grandfather, which will at least save me having to queue up at the border with the rest of you with your patriotic blue passports, but that’s not going to benefit my children who now find themselves without a country. They’re not alone. There were riots in London on election night, not widely reported. What was trumpeted loud and clear though (and still is) is that the socialist, egalitarian evil of a Jeremy Corbyn led government was roundly thrashed. What’s been less explored though are the implications of being even more securely in the grip of those who sold us BREXIT in the first place. And they’re not saying anything.

It’s easy to lose heart when you witness the overwhelming power of lies and the ease with which people of bad character can tip us over into the void of tyranny. I’ve brought my children up to be decent, honourable young men, and must now witness their first steps in a world I don’t recognise, one I fear I have left them ill prepared to materially thrive in. Or maybe I should just relax, await the milk and honey we’ve all been so glibly promised, pretend everything’s fine.

And go shopping.

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I suspect, like most of us who voted and campaigned on the Left, I’m still coming to terms with what happened last night. As the election results came in and confirmed a robust majority for the Conservative party, my initial reaction was one of shock and profound dismay. But more, there is this morning a feeling I no longer recognise my country, that indeed, both at home, and on the world’s stage, I am ashamed of what we’ve become.

My one comfort is I cannot say I did nothing, I cannot say I sat by, that I did not vote, that I did not stuff leaflets through doors, that I did not talk leftist politics on my blog. In short what I can say is that what’s coming is not my fault. But there’s no real comfort in that, and I’m sorry I could not have done more.

There was nothing wrong with what we stood for. It was just that Brexit overshadowed everything, and “getting it done” turned out to be more important to the nation’s addled psyche than anything else, plus of course an unspeakably vile media that demonised the Left’s every utterance. But the Left ran a decent, wholly positive campaign, and I’m pleased to have played my tiny part in it. As for the other lot, well, what did we expect?

My sense is that the Labour party has lost a good man in Jeremy Corbyn. It was for the ideals embodied in him that I have taken to the letterboxes over the years, and I suppose the danger now is that all those who, like me, were inspired by his more compassionate and cerebral brand of politics will turn away, tear up their membership cards, and cancel their subscriptions to the Guardian and Novara Media. But we mustn’t do that (well okay, the Guardian bears some responsibility and I’m sorely tempted).

Yet if we look back, significant changes have occured and the Left can build on those foundations. Strong, charismatic media voices are emerging, also the independent platforms to support them, though sadly, as yet, far from mainstream. Only if Labour returns now to being a Tory-lite party will I feel I have no one I can vote for, and that, I suppose, once again, is the battle now facing us – for the soul of Labour, indeed the soul of the nation. The Conservative party has no soul – no matter what bland platitudes it will utter today about healing the nation and being the people’s party – it has already demonstrated in spades its utter contempt for both.

The future? Well, the Brexit argument is lost and Brexit will happen now, at the hands of the most mendacious, vacuuous, right-wing administration this country has ever seen. The fallout of that separation will begin in January when the direction of departure is finally set and our passports turn blue. But it won’t actually be “done” for another decade. Brexit is just beginning and the only positive thing to be said about it is the incumbent administration fully owns it, must make it work and lead us all to glory as they’ve said they can.

Everyone else’s hands are clean of it.

As for the rest, who knows? The Conservative manifesto was notably light on detail, but they can pretty much do what they like with such a majority and we can only take the past decade as an indication of what that might actually mean in practice. And in practice it means more of the same, it means the brighter, more inclusive and compassionate future I had hoped for our country, and my children’s place in it, is held once more in check, but on the upside it’s all still there to fight for. Same as it always has been.

No more talk of politics for a while. I’m heartily sick of it.

On second thoughts, I’ll leave the last word to George:

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Mosaic (1)In light of the upcoming UK election, I’ve been poking around the Internet absorbing political discourse outside of the mainstream. But whether you’re skimming the pithy, potty-mouthed missives of the social-media comment boxes, or the more long-form partisan essaying (like this one) on WordPress, it’s apparent there are crackpots at all levels, and on both sides of the political divide. And worse, once we enter the online world, all we end up doing is living in a bubble of our own prejudice.

So who do we listen to for a balanced view when so much of the mainstream print media is unashamedly right wing? Can we even trust the BBC, when their flagship current affairs programmes make a point of “reviewing” those unashamedly right leaning print headlines? Do we go with our brains, or our gut? Is our vote not swung more by the cut of the candidate’s suit, regardless of what they actually say? Is it worth voting at all?

On the one hand, politics is a dirty business, where what is right and proper is often sacrificed on the dubious altar of Realpolitik, where monumental complexities are brushed aside by fatuous slogans like, “Get BREXIT done”. So perhaps we are wise to keep our distance. But on the other hand politics determines the course of all our lives, so is it not as well to at least keep a weather eye on which way the wind is blowing? And anyway, we can’t help but be involved; that gold-plated super-car purring around Knightsbridge, and the homeless man begging in the boarded up doorway of a once prosperous provincial town? both are the consequences of political decisions taken over the last decade, and we have all played our part in that, either by the votes we cast, or by our apathy in not bothering to turn out and vote at all.

Is politics just too complicated to analyse intellectually? Admittedly my own views are partisan and simplistic. In any nominal democracy I see there is a party of the poor and a party of the rich, and then there’s the money. The party of the poor implement policies that direct the flow of money towards the poor and the services that support them, while the party of the rich do the opposite. Since there aren’t that many rich people, the genius of the party of the rich is to convince the poor to vote for it, and to blame their resulting impoverishment, the decay of their public services, and the wasteland of opportunity for themselves and their children on immigration and the scourge of the “foreigner”.

I’ve noticed when my left-of-centre colours are revealed, and particularly in recent times when people have become less reticent about giving offence, I tend to hear the same words: communist, terrorist-sympathiser and anti-semite, all within about ten seconds. The first two of these I find ridiculous and quite shallow, while the latter I find hurtful. But any attempt to deepen discourse and explore what might lie behind these vexed issues is met only by a hardened dogmatism.

It seems that once we have chosen our colours, we tend to stick to them. I have no doubt the party of the rich will do well in this coming election, even though they offer only more of the same. The message of the party of the poor offers far less suffering, but, incredible as it might seem after this lost decade, I fear not enough of us have suffered deeply enough to be receptive to their message, or the boldness of their vision.

Of the party leaders, I am told Boris Johnson is charismatic and affable, and I’m sure he is. But when I point out his widely reported shortcomings, to say nothing of his colourful and often outrageous pork-pies, they are celebrated as merely Boris being Boris. Of Jeremy Corbyn, I am told: “I could never vote for him”. Why? Because he’s useless and scruffy, and not sufficiently “prime-ministerial”. True, his suit, like mine, is more M+S than Jermyn Street, but he seems perfectly well turned out to me, and no one who has held his own fractious party together under three prime ministers while demolishing the majority of the latter administration in the 2017 election can be dismissed as entirely useless either. As for not being prime-ministerial enough, well,… its clearly a matter of opinion, but opinion – ill informed or not – does seem rather set against him.

As for the actual policies proposed by Corbyn’s Labour party – things like free superfast broadband for all, a national education service, re-nationalisation of privatised utilities – I’m told by armchair economists, we could never afford such utopian marvels, that the country would be ruined, that there is no “magic money tree”, which is all to suggest that staggering levels of poverty and the ruin of our national institutions are inevitable and a normal consequence of world affairs, all of which to my eyes suggests we are already bankrupt, both morally and fiscally.

When I ask, did the Conservative party not find the fabled “magic money tree” and shake it down for a billion pounds to purchase the support of the Ulster Unionist Party in 2017, that staggering sums of money can in fact be found under certain circumstances – and all this after denying the health service much needed investment – I find the discussion once again runs foul of entrenched dogmatism. It’s just too complicated. Instead we hear: “Get Brexit done”, “Delay and dither”, “Oven ready solution”. Such slogans solve nothing, but like all slogans they are effective in drowning out intelligent discussion.

The lesson in all of this, of course, is that the majority of voting in this coming December’s election will proceed along the usual entrenched lines, that the outcome – be it another hung parliament or a landslide – will be decided by a handful of floating voters in marginal constituencies who are seduced down from the fence to support one side or the other.

In spite of the late season, and the reported apathy among business leaders and voters in general, the coming election is an important one, both for the UK and, indirectly, for Europe. It’s like a boxing match into round-fifteen when we’re so punch drunk and weary we’re barely on our feet any more, capable of only one last shot, so we’d better make it count. It will determine whether the majority of us continue to limp along the same old lines of interminable declinism, or we try another way. At this stage, I am by no means optimistic. Still, we should vote as we see fit. Indeed, come rain snow or shine, we must all turn out on the 12th and vote or, whatever the outcome, we will have only ourselves to blame.

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The_Massacre_of_Peterloo

 

I would like nothing more than for BREXIT to go away, but I’ve seen enough and heard enough now to understand such a thing is unlikely and that even holding such a view is hopelessly naïve. Whatever happens, “no deal”, “bad deal”, “revoke and remain”, Britain is mortally wounded, shamed on the world’s stage by the demonic rhetoric of a spittle flecked nationalism and its attendant bonkers racism. We have the former party of law and order viewing “law and order” as something to be evaded, the law dismissed as “mistaken”. Then the admittedly oftentimes turgid checks and balances of parliamentary debate – a practice that is surely exemplary at avoiding us going off half cocked into anything – are also subverted, silenced,… prorogued for being inconvenient.

There have been plenty of authoritarian regimes around the world now, all of them studied in sufficient detail for the patterns of their emergence to be understood and recognised, and it’s becoming clear, day by day we’re living in such a period now, both in the UK and the USA. This has happened before, in Europe, in the 1930’s, the same fertile ground of poverty, lack of opportunity for the poor and a rise in populist dictators playing the national card. They were only expunged from the collective psyche after the horror of a long war, a period that left mothers without their husbands and sons, and the whole world traumatised, picking its way through the rubble, wondering what the hell it had done.

The origins of today’s problems lie in the corruption of late-stage capitalism and the stop gap measures of extreme austerity whereby every last penny is shaken from the poor in order to keep the rich in the manner to which they have become accustomed. The last decade has been one that’s stripped the flesh from the bones of the country, left corpses in the streets – not victims to violence, but to starvation and cold. It has stripped the nation (all except London) of its well paying jobs, whole industries in which a people can find vocation and meaning, and replaced them with,… nothing,… and the whole thing blamed, as it is always blamed, by populists and nationalists, on immigration.

A proud, pragmatic and a decent people, the British have been forced to beg, to use food-banks and to accept poverty pay, working insane hours for psychopathic arseholes. The resentment stoked by such humiliation came to the fore in the BREXIT referendum when the Conservative Party, blind to the privations it had caused, made the error of handing the country a devastating means of self-expression, while simultaneously lecturing them on the perils of leaving the European Union. Although I didn’t see it at the time, the result, I suppose, was inevitable.

I could not see how leaving the European Union would improve anything for the poor and the dispossessed, that indeed it could only make matters worse, but I was probably only thinking of myself, my own job, my own savings. For those on the streets, those who had lost homes and livelihoods, those who will freeze and starve to death this coming winter, things really cannot be any worse.

Yes, Brexit is almost too complicated to comprehend, yes, the politicians were handed an impossible task and GDP will undoubtedly suffer, but these are not things the dispossessed care much about; it’s not their problem, solutions don’t matter, the economy doesn’t matter – indeed it does not exist when you’re working seventy hours a week and still cannot afford to own your own home.

What we’re seeing is the revenge of a people upon its ruling class. The torment we all feel while glued to our devices for the next arcane twist in the BREXIT saga, is no more than we deserve, and certainly as nothing compared with what people have been suffering since 2008, and nothing we will lose in the future can compare with what many have lost already.

This resentment had gone deep into the nation’s psyche, a potentially violent neurosis with all the attendant archetypes that are finding a voice in the nightmare that is BREXIT. Nowadays anyone who disagrees with the view of their neighbour is branded a traitor and a saboteur, as if nationhood can only have one face. Wearing the wrong badge in the wrong company will get you spat at in the street.

How do we heal this? I don’t know, but I’m coming to believe it’s no longer useful to be thinking about BREXIT at all. At this stage, and in the hands of such an administration, there seems to be only one likely outcome. But however that turns out, no matter what twists and turns await us in the coming weeks, it’s what comes afterwards we most need to worry about, and heaven help who’s in charge by then for they will need the judgement of Solomon to keep things together and to put the demons back into the dark places where they belong.

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iateol cover second smallA dystopia is a nightmare vision of the future. It is Orwell’s 1984, it is Huxley’s Brave New World, it is the shock of what might yet be, and therefore, like the future itself, never actually arrives. Yet the world of 2019, would have seemed dystopic had we seen it coming in the 80’s, and though the 80’s were by no means the halcyon days, there is still a certain innocence attached to them, give or take the threat of mutually assured destruction. But there were no surveillance cameras perched on every conceivable vantage point, watching ordinary people going about their business, no cameras reading faces and putting names to them and we did not all willingly carry portable tracking devices that could read our minds and influence us by subliminal suggestion. Nor did we have governments willing to suspend the workings of parliament in order to push though controversial policies that might easily threaten our health and well-being.

As sinister as all that would have sounded in the 80’s, it’s perfectly normal to us, living now. We are it seems, an eminently adaptable species and this is perhaps one reason for our evolutionary dominance. We readily adapt to hardship, even those hardships we have created for ourselves, or are inflicted upon us by our fellow man. Today’s outrage is tomorrow’s normality. Yet we go on as if the ever more brutish externalities of our existence are of only secondary importance, for surely otherwise we would do something about them, especially when they start to hurt.

Many of us have long been conscious of a certain pathological polarisation in world affairs, fuelled by the rich man’s ever more desperate scramble for loot. This has led in turn to a Zeitgeistian volatility, aided and in large part amplified by our networked communications technology, a thing that can make a deafening amp-squeal out of even the most trivial dissent, or which can be used to distract us with candy from the contemplation of things others – the data-barons and their masters – would rather we ignored. In the UK, where I live, this volatility has of late of course been focused around the closely contested and highly controversial referendum to leave the European Union. In the three years since the vote, it has caused untold division at every level of society, unleashed the most intemperate language, and ushered in an era of utilitarian, political chicanery like nothing else I can remember.

Personally, I view it as a disaster on many fronts, and it has undoubtedly coloured my fiction writing. My current novel, The Inn at the Edge of Light, follows the life of a man from his twenties, in the 1980’s, through to old age, and his journey into a near distant dystopia, a future not too difficult to extrapolate from current trends. Needless to say his externalities do not improve much with time, but that he weathers such things so stoically shows what truly drives us are the same things that have always driven us – a place of our own to call home, freedom of relationship, of love, and something else, something irrational that gives us hope in the face of adversity, that even at the eleventh hour as the hangman approaches our cell, we hold out for a miracle, a last minute reprieve. Better still we shrug and say it doesn’t matter, that the truth, the essence, the meaning of our lives lies elsewhere.

There’s nothing I can do about the constitutional crisis, a thing so freely heralded this week from all but the usual swivel-eyed right-wing orifi, who, on the contrary, consider it all fair play and a bit of a wheeze. Yes, I can sign the petitions, register my objection, refute here and now, and even with touch of spittle-flecked vehemence, the somewhat condescending Moggian accusation of there being an air of “confection” in my dissent. But having done all that, I then turn back to seek a more soothing music in my words, and in the archetypal chatter in my head, and the ever beguiling images of my dreams.

At what point do we wake and realise we’re living in a dystopia? The truth is we never do, and anyway by the time it’s arrived it’s already too late to do anything about it.

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italian lake

Leverhulme’s Italian Lake

If you wander up the side of Rivington moor, towards the Pike, you’ll come across what looks like the remains of a lost citadel. Is this the ruin of some ancient Lancastrian civilisation? No. It’s the remains of a summer palace, created by Thomas Mawson in the early part of the last century for the pleasure of the industrialist, William Hesketh Lever (Lord Leverhulme). Known as the Terraced Gardens, photographs from the period suggest a stunning arrangement of architectural and botanical wonders, crowned by Leverhulme’s residence, “The Bungalow” which played host to glittering parties for the region’s well-to-do. Leverhulme died in 1925 and – sobering thought this – almost at once, the place fell into ruin.

There have been various attempts since to stabilise the remains and preserve them as some sort of amenity, the most recent being a Heritage Lottery funded project which is making perhaps the biggest effort I can remember, and which I believe has been largely successful, rolling back nature a little and revealing much more of the structures we had thought lost for ever. Not entirely ruinous, there are various summerhouses, the Italian and the Japanese lake (with waterfalls), the stupendous seven arched bridge, and the iconic Pigeon tower, to say nothing of winding terraced pavements, are all intact and accessible for free, to be explored at will.

terraced garden steps

As we wander among these romantic ruins today, it’s hard not to slip into contemplative mode, thus you discover me sitting a while by the newly renovated “Italian Lake” thinking, among other things, about that scourge of modern times (forgive me): BREXIT! The other things, we’ll get to in a moment, but for now whether you’re a Remainer or a Brexiteer, the one thing we can agree on is the disruptive influence it has had on the nation’s psyche these past few years. Internet, TV, radio – the first thing you hear is BREXIT. And everyone is angry about it and with each other, about it.

For myself I’m viewing it all somewhat darkly, though with a grim resignation now, watching as politicians manoeuvre themselves, and seemingly in such a way as to guarantee the coming hammer-blow inflicts the most damage on those who can defend against it the least. If a foreign power had set out to undermine, and collapse the United Kingdom, politically, socially and economically, they could have done no better job than we seem to be doing ourselves. But is it reasonable I should feel this way? I mean is it rational? Not that I am mistaken, but more that I should care at all?

World events are what they are, and while they do seem parlous at the moment, and on many fronts, there is nothing I can do about any of them, and this has always been so for the individual down the generations, and for all time. The world is like Leverhulme’s garden, for ever in need of repair. Take your eye off it for a minute and the stones are coming out, the tiles are slipping, the water is getting in and spoiling the carpet. In short there is no Arcadia, only at best a continual effort to maintain the good, and the progressive, in the direction of least harm.

twin arches

But then there are times when I wonder if it isn’t the other way around, that I am creating the mess myself in my head, and faithfully manifesting what I feel through the decay of the world. So is the solution to the macrocosm’s disintegration, not also to be found in working towards the restoration of the microcosm of my own self? It’s a silly way of thinking perhaps, but such are the run of my thoughts this afternoon, and if you’ll forgive me, I’d like to follow them wherever they take me.

I’ve been reading competing theories of human development – one of them essentially spiritual and inactive, letting be what will be, and the other active, secular and psychological, addressing the flaws of the self which, in me, seem no less abundant than they were decades ago, the same neuroses flaring up at the slightest provocation, the same doubts, the same ignorance.

It’s Ken Wilbur who talks about vectors, though he may not call them that. When a solution to our ills seems to rush off with a certain energy and in a particular direction, and then another solution, seeming just as convincing, rushes off in another direction, it’s likely neither solution is correct but it’s reasonable to assume the greatest gain might be found somewhere in-between the two, so we sum the vectors and see where they lead us. But what if the vectors are diametrically opposed and of equal energy? Then they cancel out and leave us right back where we started, only with one hell of an internal tension – or there would be if, this afternoon, I wasn’t simply watching raindrops fall on the Italian Lake.

He would swim in this lake – Leverhulme I mean. I see him now, coming down the steps from the bungalow, maybe even a cool, wet day like this. A butler follows him at a respectful distance with towel and umbrella. He lowers himself into the water, (Leverhulme, not the butler) and pushes off. The water is peaty and scummy this afternoon, and full of tadpoles, so I’m thinking he must have had a serf in waders skim it regularly. And now, a century later, here I am, thinking about him, wondering what it is he means to me, and most likely it’s nothing other than a convenient lever against the fulcrum of thought, trying to move something otherwise immovable into the realms of a murky understanding.

A week ago, I was up by Angle Tarn in the far eastern fells, remote from the world, my thoughts moving much more freely than now. Now I’m back in the thick of it, and wondering about the pointlessness of so much of the suffering we see, day to day. It’s the default position, I suppose, when we stop believing in God, empirical reason alone just circles the plughole of its own bath-water, leaving us with nothing by way of a sense of meaning, only this gnawing feeling we’ve missed a trick somewhere.

terraced garden trail

True, it has to be said the evidence isn’t overwhelmingly in favour of a benign, interventionist deity either. But I’ve noticed life does go better when we err on the side of caution, and allow room for some form of mystical thinking, if only because it enables us to transcend the noise of our Twitter feed, pull our snouts from the trough for a moment and glimpse the bigger picture.

And the bigger picture is that for long periods of our history we have lived with the expectation that every day will be just like the last, generally peaceful and prosperous, and that such a happy state might last for ever and be passed on to our children. But every now and then events arise that deny us the comfort of familiar times. And while it’s at such times there is the greatest potential for personal and national tragedy, there is also the greatest opportunity for self knowledge and understanding.

It’s hard to say what it is that’s coming exactly, and what kind of harm it will inflict, but whatever it is we’d each be wise to look more closely at the mending of ourselves, for it’s only through such self-healing we discover we are better able to understand and take care of one another. From what I see at present though, and in increasingly vivid colours since the cloud of BREXIT burst over our heads and washed all manner of demons from the sewers, looking after one another seems the least of our priorities. Instead we withdraw to the boundaries, or rather to the fissures, of our respective clan identities, project evil onto the rest and then, for want of a simple bit of maintenance, the whole damned lot comes crashing down.

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moorland ruinIt’s impossible to disconnect oneself from the current political turmoil, though I have been trying hard of late. In the UK, our politicians enter into vote after vote as we near the deadline for separating from the European Union, yet seemingly without clarifying anything, and now it looks as if they intend delaying the deadline, pushing out the long anticipated car-crash until the summer.

They give the impression of an orgy, splashing about in mud, hurling bread at one another, while people go hungry. There is something deeply unsettling about it, a sense of the solid ground giving way, that shortly I will be swallowed up, plunged into an unforgiving underworld where bad people rule, and the good go in fear.

It’s like when I’ve been walking over the moors, the mist comes down, and I’ve been lured from my course by a siren sheep-track that ends in bog. My next step could take me ankle deep, or waist deep – there’s no way of knowing –  the only certainty being that I’m going to get dirty. I look around but I’ve been travelling this way for so long now I can no longer remember where I went wrong, or if the safe path is even there any more, or if, like the rest of the world, enclosed by this impenetrable mist, it was consumed long ago by muck and cold water.

In the mean time we have all grown angrier. We have sharpened our knives and our tongues and grown cruel. We have been taught how to hate again, turned back the clock, generations of harvests of an increasingly rich diversity now ploughed under for a return to  the days when old men with red faces told wicked jokes at the expense of one minority after the other. And in the way of the herd, we were all expected to laugh.

I’d thought the old men with red faces had died out, taken their jokes and their bigotry and their anger with them. Many have, I suppose, but their seeds remain, and now the land seems drained of nourishment, sown thick instead with tangled weed and a myriad blood-letting briars. It’s a bleaker harvest now, overseen by the Hydra of intolerance. And then we have its stunted minions, the trolls with their wickedness and their ignorance all polished up like a shield to deflect reason.

What sense now in still groping for the gates of Heaven, when behind us the gates of Hell have opened wide? The darkness has spilled out, and all the fell creatures are gaining ground, clawing at our heels. If only the mist would lift a moment we might get our bearings afresh, stare them down, turn all to stone who would do us harm. But it’s a bad day in the hills, and the mist has settled in.

We spy a ruin in the gloom, a black gritstone pile, dripping wet and oozing metaphor.  It’s the ruin of our future, I think, the shape of it unrecognisable, suggestive of nothing now, its stones tumbled, softened by the elements and eerily cold to touch.

What am I saying? I’ll be okay. After all, I’m not exactly living on the street, as many of my fellow countrymen are these days. I’ll still be scribbling in a year’s time. But how can I be comfortable with such a transformation as this when there is not a single institution left that lends a hand to the fallen, without first searching their pockets for gold?

Time passes, and all shall pass with it, this being our only hope, that the mountains shall be ground down and the valleys filled with their dust. But in the mean time we are left wondering, if it’s true the spark of consciousness in each of us is the universe coming into awareness of itself, though us, and judging itself by our reactions, I give notice to my creator this current state of affairs is decidedly not good.

But there is something I can do, something we all can do, and that’s shield our flame against the coming storm and hold to the good as much as we can define it, also resist this pernicious permission that’s been seeping back into the Zeitgeist, a sly, wheedling little void telling us it’s okay again to hate, okay to laugh at those wicked jokes of the red faced men.

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Okay, sorry about the puerile click-bait. Welcome to 2019! Don’t you just love those adverts that pop up, missing the punch-line? I must admit I don’t click. If you do you’re guaranteed to enter a sideshow of the grotesque, one that’ll poleaxe your device to a drunken snail’s pace and have it stuttering for mercy. So, I suppose not clicking is the hack. Seriously, don’t click. Resist the bait.

But you can go further: hobble your device. Go on, I dare you: switch off ‘location’! And if you really must carry it with you, carry it in a Kendal Mint-cake tin. The latter ‘hack’ may be a little over the top, and it’s definitely weird, but theoretically effective at stopping the thing from tracking you, even via the cell masts, also preventing it from listening to your conversations, adding them to the daily mountain of data to be mined by those evil Pacman algorithms that are gobbling us all up.

And so what if people think you’ve lost your marbles?

But while we’re on the subject, don’t you just hate that word ‘hack’? It implies a sneaky means of getting ahead of the crowd in some way, when the only true advance is when the crowd moves as one in the same direction, that anything which advances the cause of the individual at the expense of others is ultimately self defeating. Everyone knows that. So, seriously, don’t hack, don’t cheat. Just find a way to love every moment, and every one, and simply be one with everything.

Life is too short for mind-games.

But anyway, I digress,…

The New Year dawns. It’s 6:30 am, minus five degrees and there’s a frost both inside and outside the car. It takes an age to shift. On the up-side, the commute is quieter than usual and, other than the shock of transition from nearly a month of leisurely lie-ins, back to the tyranny of pre-dawn get-ups, we enter the year intact, mostly on our feet and thus far running smoothly.

I have no resolutions – dry January possibly, but I’ve still a splash of Christmas Malt remaining, so that’s off to a shaky start already. I’ve reviewed 2018, listed its highs, glossed over its lows, and in anticipating the year to come I shall similarly look for pleasure in the small things of life, because that’s where the greatest pleasures are to be had. Meanwhile of course, I remain mindful of the inescapable minefields ahead of us, over which we have no control and as yet no map to facilitate our safe passage.

To whit: foremost in the nation’s psyche this year, we have BREXIT. This will become a reality one way or the other in 2019, with only the final details of damage limitation to be worked out and voted through, or not as the case may be. Talk of a second referendum will gather pace in the coming weeks and, as a remainer, I’m tempted to take some warmth from that, but it also strikes me as somewhat naive and dangerously divisive – and there seem not to be the parliamentary numbers in it. ‘The people’ have had their say, and it would be a reckless thing to ask them to think again lest they blow an even bigger raspberry than they did last time – polls showing no significant shift in opinion one way or the other. I’m more resigned to it now, exhausted by it actually, while remaining braced for impact.

There’ll be more disturbing news of course, perhaps weekly, coming from the United States, whom I liken to our bigger, brasher, richer and still much loved cousin, now locked in the downward spiral of mental breakdown, as we are ourselves of course, and while we wish him a speedy recovery, it’s likely to take a while, and in the mean time there’ll be a drift into ever deepening trade wars with China, further international destabilisation and isolationism as the Jenga tower of geopolitical relations is played for broke. Then at some point this year, according to those in the know, there’ll be another financial crash, like in 2008, only worse – or then again it may not happen. And while we obsess over all of this, the planet continues on course for climate Armageddon, but there’s probably not much we can do about that either, even if we could get our act together in time, because whose going to be the first to give up their mobile phones, their burgers, their SUV’s, and their air-travel?

But then,… on the bright side,…

There are still plenty of country miles to be walked. We have the spring green and the summer blue ahead of us, and we have sunsets from the beach. And you know, in spite of it all, we might just be,…

All right

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Will we crash out of the European Union without a deal? Will we get a deal that resembles staying in but then has us wondering why we came out? Will we get a vote on the final deal, with an option to call the whole thing off? And if we do, will we stay or will we vote again to leave anyway? And what about the Irish border problem? How on earth are we going to solve that? Will there be a general election before BREXIT hits the fan? And will that make things better or worse? And if the other lot gets in, what will they do about BREXIT?

These are just some of the questions boiling in the mix right now and so dominating government and media energy you’d be forgiven for thinking all the other problems have gone away. But your average citizen, having cast their vote, and thereby collectively agreeing to bring this thing on, is now relegated to a position of powerlessness, unable to expend their pent-up energies doing anything other than shouting at the telly. I think this sense of powerlessness is having a demoralising effect on the nation’s soul, or at any rate it is on mine. The lessons of past crises tell us it’s better to feel one is doing something, even if it’s only to grant us the illusion of preparedness, like the way our grandparents melted pots and pans, supposedly to make Spitfires.

But what can we do?

Most of the scenarios I’ve played forward suggest an immediate, short term crisis, followed by a longer term decline of living standards, and that’s without being unduly pessimistic. Come hard or soft BREXIT, there is an overwhelming sense the future will be a lot smaller than it was, while for my children, now young men just starting out, I fear there is no future at all, at least not in terms I understand. At twenty two, I relished my chances, my opportunities, but now the best option for our youth is to put on a backpack and go bum around the world, see what there is of it, because there’s nothing left at home worth saddling up for beyond minimum wage drudgery. But then, even without BREXIT, things weren’t looking too good anyway, so what’s the difference? And maybe that’s why BREXIT happened in the first place.

There’s not much we can do about that longer term decline but, short of running to the hills with all those sharp knived Preppers, we can at least take small, practical, sensible non-weaponised steps to minimise the personal impact of the crash and ease ourselves into that brave new post-BREXIT world. For my own preparedness I began a BREXIT cupboard some time ago, adding an extra meal into the weekly shop: dried stuff, tinned stuff, cereals, porridge, and lots of custard! I’ve also brushed up on things like how to make your own bread. I think we should plan on having two weeks of non-perishable meals in reserve.

Britain’s is no longer self sufficient in producing food, you see?  it’s actually down to about 75% at the moment. It’s not that we’re going to starve, exactly – I mean we won’t – but there’ll be shortages and all of that made worse by the media screaming PANIC, and that’s even before the lorries carrying the stuff we don’t grow ourselves get bunged up at the Dover-Calais crossing. (Even I know Dover-Calais is the pinch point of Anglo-European trade)

But I predict fuel will be a bigger problem. Our refineries have been in decline for decades, so we’re now a net importer petrol, diesel and aviation fuel. The question is how much of that comes from the EU? I don’t know, it’s hard to get at the actual figures, but it doesn’t take much to trigger a fuel crisis – just a whisper in the raggedy arsed press will do it. Anyone in doubt should read back over the September 2000 shortages to get a feel for what that might mean. And roughly, what it means is if you rely on a car to get to work, by the second week after BREXIT, you’ll have run out.

I don’t suggest stockpiling petrol because it’s dangerous. I keep a can for my mower, and I’ll make sure it’s full. I have a spare car, and I’ll make sure that’s full too, but that’s the best I can do. If you’re in work and commuting by public transport, you’ll be okay. Rationing will favour the public transport system. Emergency services will be okay too, designated filling stations being declared strategic and ringed off by cop-cars – at least that’s what happened last time. The rest of us are on our own.

When I’ve run out, I’ll be taking time off work, book some holidays, and I’ll spend them tidying the garden or something, by which time, hopefully, there’ll be some sort of organised rationing. I’ve no intentions of queuing around the block for hours like I did in 2000, and fighting for every last drop.

I haven’t gone the whole hog and factored in prolonged power cuts and such-like (we’re not exactly self sufficient in power generation either), though I do remember the ’74 miner’s strike, so it may be worth stocking up on candles and camping gas. But that’s for a really hard BREXIT and will be the least of our worries. In that scenario, along with empty supermarket shelves and no fuel for transportation, the government’s own planning suggests we’re about two weeks from a state of emergency. I don’t know what that means, never having lived through one.

We managed it in 1939 of course, but Britain was a very different country then, and the enemy was easy to spot, plus we had those glorious Spitfires to rally our spirits. Now it’s hard to say who or what the enemy is, where it’s coming from and what possessed it in the first place. But I’m hoping, worst case, that by the time my BREXIT cupboard is empty the Red Cross will be delivering food parcels – maybe even out of Brussels!

I know that’ll stick in the craw of many, but I’m not proud. In spite of everything, I remain a European man. But another lesson of those power-cuts in the seventies was that I used to enjoy them. If you’ve a candle, you can read a book, and if your car’s no petrol, you can take a walk.

So, chin up. Keep calm, and carry on.

 

 

 

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