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on pendle hill

Pendle Hill December 2019

 

My novel-to-be “Winter on the Hill” isn’t about Coronavirus. But then, like all other aspects of life, the virus hijacked it early on and, since then, it has become both backdrop and the occasional plot device.

Our protagonist, Rick (followers of this blog will have met him before) is a former left-wing activist and climate protester. But he gave all that stuff up on the night of the December 2019 election when the Conservative party and “market forces” swept to power. He took a look at his country then and decided he didn’t understand it any more, that while he felt he wasn’t wrong in his lefty, middling-socialist beliefs, he was indeed very much misguided in thinking he could ever change anything. So he joined a walking group and, Covid regs permitting, he’s been climbing hills all year. At first, he was angry and scathing about his fellow countrymen for being so damned irredeemably stupid, but as the story progresses, he experiences a strange mellowing when a deeper truth is revealed.

Meanwhile, the pandemic pulls the mask from the Government, exposing an avaricious face familiar enough to those who have been round the block a bit. Self-seeking, complacent, incompetent, contemptuous of the poor, fanatical only about BREXIT. They have presided over sixty thousand dead – official figures – and now seven months in, the death-rate is doubling again every two weeks.
 
None of this is a surprise to Rick but, in spite of the urging of his former activist colleagues, he’s too philosophical now to indulge in partisan argument, let alone direct action. Instead, he’s meditating on the nature of “truth”, and how, in a world obscured by untruths, it might be possible to live the authentic life. Or is that just for the monks, while the rest of us must construct whatever comforting false reality we can while at the same time drowning in poo?
 
There’s nothing truer than boots on a hill, he says. Everything is down to you – the energy, the route, the hill-craft, your eye on the weather. That’s what’ll get you up and down in one piece, not bluff and bluster. But will Rick, in his new-found mellowness, ever return to the political life? Will he return a wiser man, a man with a plan, something that will put it all right for the rest of us? Or will he let the clouds take him, and then his compassionate wisdom becomes lost to us? Has he already decided that in a world dominated by billionaire froth and spin, ever ready to smear him as a crazy-left-Marxist-Commie dooda who eats babies, does it matter what the earnest men and women of Rick’s ilk say anyway?
 
Let’s remind ourselves of the problem by asking a man who knows, someone very much like Rick, but who hasn’t turned away from the front lines:
 
 
I agree with George, but I would add one more thing, and perhaps not surprisingly it’s something Rick might say too. It’s gone wrong because not enough of us care about, or understand enough of what it is George is saying. We are so far down the rabbit hole, all his words can do is further polarize us – those on the left nodding in agreement, while those on the right gather their spittle. And that may be why Rick is tying on his boots and heading up into the clouds again. Election 2024? Forget it, he says. For the things that really matter, environmentally and socially, it was already too late ten years ago.
 
No, come on Rick. That’s not good enough. We want answers.
 
No you don’t, he says. All you want to know is how you can go on living a comfortable lie without the uncomfortable consequences catching up with  you.
 
And there, I think, after several rewrites and dunderheaded attempts, I have the closing lines, of Winter on the Hill – available from all good bookshops nowhere soon, but otherwise free. Just watch for the link in the margin.
 
I thank you.
 

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Well, I tried hard to come up with a pithy take on this pig’s ear of a year that was 2019, also the decade I suppose but found myself speechless in the end. Instead this thing popped up in my You Tube subscription from DDN, and I turned to fellow Brit and seriously honoured fellow Lancastrian, Tez Ilyas – in my humble opinion a truly brilliant, unifying voice who speaks as much for me as I hope for all of us.

These are staggeringly remarkable times, times when intellectuals are left dumbfounded, times when only a gifted comedian can make sense of what’s going on. Tez, my man, you’re so much younger than me, (say like 30 years at least?) you’re sharper, more clued in, cooler, and infinitely more handsome, but apart from all of that, and probably because of it,… I love you brother:

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Jepsons stone

Standing stone – Western Pennines – Nikon D5600 f5.6 1/650 Sec 125 ASA

There are no standing stones on Standing Stones Hill any more. We don’t know what happened to them, nor how many there were. There’s a story told by an old rambler of finding one fallen and half sunk in the peat of the moor – this would have been in the 1950’s – but I’ve spent a long time searching ever since and found nothing. Another story has one of the stones re-purposed as a lintel in a barn. But the nearest farms hereabouts were all dynamited in the 1920’s by Liverpool Corporation, then further bombarded as target practice by mortar and tank shells in the Second World War. You might say the hill has lost its original story then, is now mute and purposeless, except as a vantage point on waste and corruption, that while these more recent stories of the hill are not without local interest, it seems all stories, even the big ones come with a sell by date and, without adequate renewal, they lose their meaning and their purpose.

There are other stones on the moors, but none officially of Neolithic origin. You sometimes find them lurking in long runs of drystone walling. This way they escaped the rampage of pious vandals pedaling their own mendacious tales in more recent centuries. But the walls are hundreds of years old now and falling away to reveal these curious artefacts, and though their original stories have long since timed out, fresh ones begin leaking, all be it hesitantly, into consciousness. Are they not Neolithic? More medieval perhaps? Are they boundary markers? Hard to say, yet potential stories circle them like bees around a hive – it’s just that no one’s there to listen to them.

Your genuine Neolithic standing stone tends to show a lot of weathering, and not much by way of tooling. They tell us someone was here before us in this remoteness, that they had a purpose, now lost, yet perhaps these people knew something we do not. Lacking explanation though, we invent stories to fill the void, but they need a certain spark to truly catch fire, to make a difference and actually,… mean something.

The upright stone in the picture, above, is a fascinating one. It’s a few miles away from Standing Stones Hill, on the edge of the Western Pennines, yet has a good view of it. It  has more of a pillar-like shape than I’d expect of a truly ancient megalith and, though there is considerable weathering and little evidence of tooling, I’m not confident in stating its pedigree. However, its location on this outlying ridge, and its stunning sweep of the horizon, does grant it an impressive presence, all be it mute to its own past. But whether it’s truly Neolithic doesn’t matter for my personal purposes, which are those of paying homage to something immutable and notable, a thing to set ones bearings by, and of course from which to spin this, my own story. Stories are our life’s blood. They regulate the heart, they grant structure and bring calm to the stormy mind. But we need to be careful, because stories can also do immense damage.

The grand, overarching story of human history is that of suffering, of decay and renewal: a new king, a new idea, a new  myth arrives amid hopefulness at the banishing of the old, corrupt order. There is a fanfare and celebration, ushering in a renewed period of peace and plenty. But then the king dies in his turn, and his dynasty becomes corrupt, so a new challenger arises, a new king, a new story,… and so the cycle repeats.

We are living towards the end of one such story-cycle. The time of peace and plenty is over, and corruption dominates. The king is dead, his dynasty rendered ineffective by a mixture of inept and craven officials whose own paltry tales, void of hope, of imagination, are singularly evasive of necessary change, and they ring hollow in people’s ears. So the people turn away in despair, huddle into splintered groups, each inventing its own story in order to see them through, as one might light a candle against the immensity of endless night. And they hold to this guttering light against all reason, because a story, even if it’s a pleasing lie, will always trump the truth, if truth itself does not come with a more convincing story of its own.

This standing stone is an immutable reminder of the abiding reality of human existence, it being marked largely by suffering of one sort or another, and without a story to tell, that suffering has no meaning and human life is pointless. But individual stories are all well and good. I could invent a myth for my standing stone and it might entertain me for a while, get me from breakfast to bedtime, but it’s hardly likely to provide sufficient nourishment for anyone else. To sustain the coming generations we need a much bigger story to rescue the abiding fact of our existence from barbarism, and worse, from oblivion. We need an epic story, one that restores hope and meaning for everyone who calls these islands home, a story that rises above the mere venting of these old white-mens’ foetid spleens, a grim fact of the end-game that is such a feature and a stain upon our times.

Ideas anyone?

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screenshotMy computer is dead! The last update of Windows Ten killed it. I don’t like Windows Ten. It updates my computer every Friday night whether I want it to or not. Then I come to it on a Saturday, thinking to jot down a fragment of a poem, or maybe tickle through an essay, and it says: “Oh, hang on, I’m doing something much more important, you’ll have to wait.”

So you make coffee and sometimes when you come back it says it’s ready for you, but then you find it’s not working right. Sometimes you have to wait all day to find out it’s not working right, or sometimes it doesn’t work at all. The computer grinds to a halt, as if the update poured treacle into the works; the mouse becomes sticky, or sometimes you can’t get past the login screen. Sometimes you have to wait a week for the next update to fix things, sometimes you have to wait two or three. It’s a good job I’m not up against any deadlines.

This time, I’m getting what they call a 100% disk usage error. From reading the self-help forums, I’ve learned it’s a common problem for which the solutions are legion, but I must have tried them all, and none of them work. Basically, the machine enters a state of infinite effort while actually doing nothing at all, the result being a condition of stubborn unresponsiveness verging on the catatonic. I even tried resetting my computer to a state as fresh as the day that it was born – thinking I was being very clever in working that one out – but it won’t let me do it. It’s beginning to sound like Arthur C Clarke’s HAL: “I’m sorry, Dave. I can’t let you do that.”

I’ve forgotten what that poem fragment was now. I woke up with it running through my head, but its leaked away. I should have written it down. After all, Wordsworth never had this trouble did he? He wrote stuff on bits of paper with a quill pen, then sent it all off with a penny stamp, ink blobs and all, and hey-presto, he made poet laureate. Eventually. But no, I had to start fiddling, clicking this, pressing that, and all to no avail. Also, have you noticed, there’s nothing like a sick computer for spoiling your day, for making you realise how much you’ve come to rely on it, and perhaps despising yourself a little on account of that?

So how did I manage to post this then? Ah well, I have this other dead computer. The Internet killed that one too, long ago, but I managed to resurrect it with an obsolete operating system I bought of Ebay for a fiver. It’s now the fastest, most responsive and silky smooth machine in the house, but only because it can no longer connect to the Internet. I’m it’s master now, you see? So I wrote this on it, transferred it by memory card to my Android phone and posted it online that way. It’s hardly convenient, but where there’s a will there’s a way.

It’s also useful to be reminded that it doesn’t entirely serves us, this vast invisible thing we have wrapped the world in. It’s a marvellous invention of course. The simple fact of email was a step change in communications. But then most of the emails we get are junk, sent out by dumb robots, and we have to spend time sorting through them for the ones that aren’t junk and sent out by humans. And we all know our emails are scanned and parsed by the Internet anyway, looking for juicy clues about our likely buying habits. And we know too we’re being groomed and manipulated by its algorithms every day, that the non living, non self-aware intelligence of the machine is becoming far more important as an end in itself than anything we’re allowed to do when we’re connected to it.

So my poem has gone and, okay, it wasn’t going to change the world so there’s no sense getting too upset about that, but the point is the machine robbed me of a moment of human expression, which does not make it my friend. It has something far more important to do now than serve our often admittedly trivial needs, and we need to think very carefully about what kind of unthinking, unfeeling world the machine is leading us into while under the impression it’s serving us, when in fact we’re all in service to it.

Wait a minute,… I remember how that poem went now:

My computer once made me see red,
When it locked up and tried to play dead,
So I cursed it quite rough, cos I’d quite had enough,
Then I smashed it to bits with my head.

 

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slarts1_001I find my dreams are mostly wordless. They are filled instead with an imagery from which understanding and meaning flow naturally, and in a way that suggests it is the verbal language we adopt in waking life that slows cognition, renders it as something pedestrian and ambiguous. Last night I dreamed I had returned to college, a late middle-ager, older even than the oldest of my tutors. My course materials consisted of a set of antiquated 35mm slides, arranged in a specific order. At some point a young girl in my class, a fellow student, had upset the slides, tipped them out into the dust and was building them up into random piles, losing for ever their original intent, mangling what I had taken to be the coherent run of their narrative, thus denying me what I had thought was progress. I was frustrated by this, but the tutor shrugged it off. It didn’t matter a damn, he was saying. The images had no meaning in themselves, no meaning either in the way they had been originally presented, but there was always the potential for meaning in some new way of seeing. Later I drank whiskey with him in the late of night. We were joined by the janitors of the college who had left their brooms, and we sat together simply as men around a table, thus transcending the usual order of things, at ease with one another in the shared intoxication of a higher truth.

The imagery of dreams renders the message itself at least vivid. Whether we interpret it correctly is a question of experience, openness and self-honesty. There was much more to this dream that I have recounted here – or indeed that I can remember – but for now the bit about the images seems clear and is the impulse behind this latest flurry of words. The dream speaks not only of itself but of the way the mind, steeped in the material world, often-times loses that looseness of interpretation, a looseness that would render the meaning of much we see about us equally and transparently numinous.

Instead, we are presented daily with a procession of imagery, ever brighter, ever sharper in detail, yet we remain lost to its deeper meaning and fall victim instead to a form of blindness, a form of corruption in which we are all complicit, as both viewers and suppliers of that imagery. To whit: my blog gained a new follower at the weekend. The Gravatar, the image, was of a pretty young thing, but alas her blog was not a blog but an online emporium selling “lifestyle”. I was supposed to click, to fall in love with her, to want to share in the myth of her promises, and buy something. This was imagery corrupted into the service of commerce, and follows on, with a curious serendipitiousness, from my earlier meditation on the corruption of our thoughts, and how we are supposed to trust and interpret things, how we are supposed to know what’s true.

The dreaming steals imagery from waking life, in the case of my dream here, from my distant past, but presents them as a reflection of something contemporary, of a pattern of thought or emotion that is emerging or seeking recognition within us. Time spent in contemplation of the dream image will usually yield an insight that is true and which will free us, while imagery of the real world, taken literally as it is, seems only to ensnare and enslave, seems only to bind us up with its falseness, with its corruption, because such images do not come from the deep collective well of the unconscious, but from a far shallower place. Still, they can be useful, if we can only see through them.

Have you noticed how television soaps occupy the prime times of our weekday scheduling? From seven ’till nine they recycle their circular plots of thwarted hopes, putting on hold the lives of tens of millions who are for ever pining for a resolution to storylines that will in fact never end, to witness at last those happy endings but which are already dissolving into conflict before the kiss of that apparent resolution has dried upon the protagonists’ fevered lips. Winter is indeed a hard time to be living in a household inured of its soap opera – nowhere to escape the fucking things! Drugs, rape, murder, deceit, and all before tea-time; a world without foundation, and in eternal free fall, This is our daily bread.

And then comes the news bulletin, a continuation of the same, a showcasing of sensational imagery: Terrorism, sexual perversion, political corruption, war and economic decline. It’s largely factual, one would hope, but sadly literal in its shallowness, and my how they trumpet and crow, eroding bit by bit our confidence in the comfortable circumference of our lives. They press us inwards, back upon ourselves, then vent us into a closed vessel, imprison us in a world where we need no longer think, and where our every fear is perpetually realised!

How to survive this onslaught of imagery? How to identify the corruption? Well, we can always ask ourselves, as in the interpretation of a dream, what part of me is reflected in this thing shoved daily in my face? Why does it grate upon me so? Or indeed why does it seduce or tease? Thus, as in the dream, the image itself is seen to be meaningful only in the sense that it is reflective of something inside of us. Thus the image, no matter how corrupt, loses both its power and its intended misdirection, and leads us instead to a deeper connection with our selves and the deeper nature of all things.

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coffeecupFrom a corner of this corner coffee shop I command a view of two streets in this archetypal northern market town of mine, and mainly what I see are people lost in thought. And since we all have a habit of thinking in a way that is essentially corrupt, I’d say most of us are in trouble, most of the time. And the troubling thing for me is, I know what those I see are thinking because it’s all around them.

When I say “thought”, I’m talking more in abstract terms, as an outward expression of the human mind in the built environment. I’ve just come back from a walk on the moors, which has rendered me philosophical and still, and observational. Nature has been slowly reclaiming the moors since our forbears stripped the land of its trees in ancient days. The moors are not pristine, not yet a meditation entirely void of thought; you can still see traces here of what we think: the run of a fence, the straight line of an irrigation ditch sliced deep into the peat. There are traces too of the way we used to think: a ruined farm, tumbled now to something that resembles pre-history, thoughts of a way of life that was overtaken by yet other thoughts, thoughts of an economic expediency that rendered an entire way of living in those otherwise bleak wastes obsolete.

I pause at this point and read back over my words, try to decide if what I’ve written is what I believe to be true, or if I’m just plucking strings at random, searching for cute harmonies. I find no discord, find I do believe what I am saying, but then belief is never a guarantee of truth, indeed it’s every bit as vulnerable to corruption as the thoughts that give rise to it.

An image appears on the TV screen, the ever intrusive news bulletin, the ever intrusive informer of a particularly corrupt kind of thinking. It shows a masked man bringing down a sledgehammer, breaking up works of art that were crafted 3000 years ago. This act takes place in what was once ancient Assyria, and we are viewing it in my northern market town, several thousand miles away.

There are two versions of this story – one is that the masked man’s beliefs tell him these works are idols, that the highly literal interpretation of his belief system commands their destruction because they insult his deity. Another version of the story is that the potent imagery is designed to become a viral thought, carrier of a lethal pathogen, fatal to hope, carried far and wide on the winds of an ever hysterical media, greedy for such proofs of the world’s descent into chaos, and our powerlessness to act against it.

Idolatry. I hold with that thought for a moment, reminded of the journal of Margaret Wilson, an early Christian missionary to India who spoke of the love she had for her children being idolatrous, that it distracted her thoughts, tempted her away from the love of her God. In this she did not mean she loved her children any less, but that she was conscious of the difference and careful not to confuse the two. Such were the careful, self analytical thoughts of a religiously devout woman born two hundred years ago. There were idols aplenty in the community she served, and in which she eventually died, but she never sought their destruction. I watch these stone idols fall, smashed to dust in the early second millennium AD, and am saddened by their loss, by the apparent barbarism of our times. I realise too how the value of education lies not in the mere passing on of fact, nor even in teaching the young how to think, but also how to question and to test, independently, and without fear, for the trueness in one’s thoughts and the thoughts of others.

The high mountain is a meditation, crafted not from thought, but by nature. The water falls down the gullies in a way that is at times awe inspiring, yet no human thought, no master landscape designer decided it should fall that way. The lakes in the valleys too take their shape, not from the thought of man, yet they are infinitely pleasing to the eye and the spirit. They transcend us, yet they are also a part of us, triggering within a memory, as if for a forgotten love, a curious longing for that sweet, sublime perfection we have since the days of Eden, lost.

From the corner coffee shop my senses drown in thought. The built environment overwhelms me, with only a narrow slit of sepia sky to hint at greater things beyond. The road, the pavement, the scratty shops, all are the imperfect physical manifestation of our thoughts. The clothes we wear, even the shape of our spectacles are decided by the curious interplay of thoughts, thought somewhere, and by someone. But in achieving an inner stillness, I also see the pavements are broken, that in the side streets there gathers a tide of fast food cartons, that the roofs are missing tiles, that the grime washed render, once proud white, is cracked and coming away to reveal the scars of spalled brick underneath, that a man stands suddenly doubled over as if in pain, while another nearby, and apparently oblivious, holds a bucket for charity. The man is drunk, fails to vomit up his intake, then unsteadily joins the flow of passers by.

What are we thinking? Why indeed am I sitting here, a lone scribe with notebook while my neighbours text to others and play Candycrush to while away the empty time between movement from one place to the next? Are they thinking anything at all? And when they lift their eyes what do they see of the thoughts of the world? How do they interpret, filter, inflate, suppress? Do these thoughts we see inspire or depress the spirit?

What are you thinking, right now? How much of it is true, how much of it corrupt? And how would we know the difference anyway?

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