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Posts Tagged ‘europe’

philosophersWe start with Nietzsche and a few pop quotes, like: “god is dead” and “I am dynamite”. I don’t understand him, so I go back to his influences, namely Schopenhauer. But I don’t understand him either – plus he’s deeply morose and repulsively nihilistic. So I go back to Kant. Kant’s a bit more optimistic, but he’s also a life-time’s study. Even the Kant scholars are still arguing over what he wrote, and you’d think they would have settled him by now. So I step back to Aristotle, but I’m in a bit of a muddle, so rather than stepping back in time even more to Plato, I take a breath. Maybe philosophy’s not my thing at all.

The philosophers are certainly a breed apart. They don’t seem to add much to the ordinary life, but if you’re at all interested in what life’s about you can’t avoid them. They’re about “epistemology”, which is the theory of knowledge, and how we know things. And they’re about “ontology” which is the theory being, or meaning. They use a lot of other unfamiliar words as well, and when they run out of actual words, they make words up. Then they all have their take on “ethics” – that’s to say, how should we behave towards one another, and what is “good”?

They approach all this through logic. The Kantians tell us the faculties we’re born with are linked to what is knowable, and this comes out in language. So, by a process that resembles a cross between a word game, and basic algebra, they arrive at a story about what it means to be alive. More than that they try to get a handle on what it is we are alive in. I mean the universe – the nature of it, the nature of space and time, and being – in other words a creation story.

So it’s a big subject, but to the layman it’s difficult, or at least to me it is. Or maybe I’m too set in my ways now to squish my calcifying brain into a new way of thinking. I’m just this old engineer, steeped in deterministic ideas. I’ve always known they’re an incomplete model of the universe, because my teachers told me so. But they work at a practical level, so we use them to do things. And I’ve really liked being an engineer. We put a man on the moon – well not me – I was only nine at the time, but you know what I mean? There’s something satisfying about doing things, making things. As for proving something you can neither see nor touch, like the philosophers do, nor use in the process of making things, or doing things,… what’s the point of that? Well, it’s interesting. And if I have to wait another lifetime to be a philosopher, then so be it, and for now I’ll just skim this stuff, pick up what bits I can and make do.

If we skim Kant, we get the idea we can’t grasp the true nature of reality at all. All we’ve got are our senses, and a mind that’s structured in a certain way to intuit the universe. We can see things as they appear to us, but not how those things are in themselves. But the most challenging idea of all is what Kant says about space and time. He plays his word-game and deduces that space and time drop out of the equation altogether. They’re part of the perceptual toolkit we’re born with, which means we can never get a handle on the way things are when we’re not looking. This is not to say the world is an illusion. It’s just that the way we see it is the only way we can see it, while its true nature is hidden and unknowable.

This sounds like the opening of Dao De Jing, written in China two thousand years before Kant. It says what we can see and touch and put names to is not the same as the essence of those things in themselves. Chinese ideas were floating around in Europe at the time Kant was writing. They’re sophisticated philosophies because the Chinese got themselves organized into a literate culture early on. But to the semi-theocratic west, these were pagan ideas and it was dangerous for philosophers to make too much of them.

Still, I think it’s an important thing to know, this link, that two cultures, isolated, and thousands of years apart could come up with the same basic idea. It suggests they might have been on to something. But its also frustrating I’ve not the nous to make any more headway with it than that. I did try reading Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” once. I wanted to understand it, word for word, like I once understood fluid dynamics. But I couldn’t follow it in any meaningful depth. I was probably in my late thirties then, and no point trying again now.

Carl Jung read it when he was seventeen. He’d read Schopenhauer’s “Will and Representation” too. He understood both well enough to think he’d spotted a flaw in Schopenhauer’s reasoning. It’s schoolboys of that calibre who grow to influence in the world of thought. All laymen like me can do is hold on to their coat-tails, hoping for a line or two of poetry that will stick and sum things up for us.

Most of us don’t bother of course, and are no more enlightened in the philosophical intricacies than mud. Or maybe the essence of life and living are so obvious anyway, we don’t need to learn it from the philosophers, or perhaps it just doesn’t matter. Or should we be content to leave it to those cleverer than we are to make a difference in the world? But when you look at the way the west is disintegrating – our leadership and our key institutions – and how China has undergone repeated convulsions down the centuries, finally to evolve into an authoritarian techno-surveillance state, you wonder if more of us, east and west, shouldn’t be making a better effort with those philosophers after all.

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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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dovecrag

Dovedale

We were later than we should have been, the small blue car and I, slipping over the Kirkstone, already midmorning and by now meeting the tourist coaches lumbering up from Patterdale. We met one at the Inn, at that bit where the tarmac narrows by the Struggle down to Ambleside, a giant German tour-whale, incumbents all filming my humble passing. Thus I imagine myself now immortalised, part of the scenery, a silver fox in an old MX5. There are worse ways to be remembered, I suppose,…

Exotic it must seem, the Kirkstone Pass, to a continental European, as exotic as the Lauterbrunnen sounds to me, a northern Brit, still a die-hard European, though chastened now by this eternal BREXIT thing. All is relative,… or so they say. How many times over the Kirkstone now? Must be into the hundreds. Familiarity in this case though clearly does not breed contempt, for there is still the sense, as Patterdale opens ahead of the tumbling little road, of a spiritual homecoming.

I am here to climb Dove Crag.

So,… Cow Bridge at 11:45, and we pull into the last parking spot. It’s more than we deserve at this hour, so it’s fated, reserved for us by Providence perhaps and therefore a good omen. It’s a blistering hot day, mid-June, wide open sky of Cerulean blue, but a distinct lack of air, and a surplus of humidity. I’m thinking it’ll be better at altitude, but that’s a couple of hours away, the mad dogs and Englishmen hours, and I’m not convinced I’m going to make it that far, me feeling old and drained and unpracticed with my mountain mojo these days. If you don’t use it, you lose it. I lost mine a long time ago and, trust me, Dove Crag is not the best place to try to find it again.

But still,….

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Dove Crag

It’s grown famous of late, Dove Crag, on account of the Priest’s Hole, a slot of a cave, high on the face of the crag, indeed this must now be the most famous secret spot in Britain after being on the telly and gaining mention in travel articles for the urban selfie hungry. I have no desire to further advertise it here, except to say it’s also a dangerous place to get to, and I had no desire to join the surge of casualties, including fatalities, in recent years, making pilgrimage. We think of England as a cotton wool cosseted place, health and safety numpty’s tut-tutting everywhere and always someone to sue with our ambulance chasing no win no fee solicitors, if we so much as stub our toe. But the mountains aren’t like that, even English ones.

Anyway, a promising start was made with a glorious opening stroll along the shores of Brothers’ Water, where, I swear, a pair of sweetly rounded ladies were skinny dipping and giggling joyously like nymphs – I admit I may already have been hallucinating in anticipation of hardships higher up the fell. But even without the water-nymphs the approach to Dovedale is seductive in its loveliness, gentle on the legs too, at least as far as the first of the falls. The falls are a good place to gather breath and wits, because beyond them the going is much harder, and it has a darker vibe about it as the fells close in and the ferns give way to rock.

I seemed to have no power in the legs at all. At the first of the falls, reduced now to a trickle by drought, I paused a good long while, eyes already sweat-stung, hat dripping, shirt-soaked and my head befuddled by a cloud of horse-flies. One of them got me on the back of the hand which provided little by way of encouragement. The pack felt impossibly heavy with weatherproof gear, unlikely to be needed, but foolish to leave behind.

I had barely the spring to get back on my feet, and my legs felt like they were not my own, my feet pointing backwards and about as sure footed as a drunkard. I was encouraged though by vague memories of other walks, where the legs slowly warm and you find your pace, and the breath to keep you going. I stopped a lot on the way, drank a lot of water, talked to myself.

In Wainwright’s day the last bit onto the shoulder of Dove Cag was all loose rock and scree – must have been a nightmare of a pull, and Wainwright, this prolific pipe-smoker, never seeming short of breath. Now its a precipitous, spiralling staircase of set stone and all beautifully crafted to blend into the natural tumble of rock. I was just about able to haul myself up it, and then it was on to the summit, where all was dry as bones and not a soul for miles.

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Dove crag summit

Normally the legs would recover now, and I’d be able to pick up the pace, regain some spring, but Dove Crag had given me a good hiding in the heat, and it was plain it didn’t matter how long I rested by that cairn, I’d be finishing the day on what was left, and it wasn’t much. I’d passed this way a few times before, on circuits of the Fairfield Horseshoe, but those days were long gone, like the youth who’d casually burned the miles in gale force winds and horizontal rain. No,… I was never so robust or bold in the fells, and any of that this afternoon and I was going to die up here. But the day was utterly stunning in its clarity, like a near death vision of an idealised afterlife – and all the fells gathered round of course, their names returning to me as I decoded their profiles from dusty archives. I’m  sure I’m not the only ageing fell walker to have dreamed of a post popped-clogg world like this and the legs to do it justice.

I headed eastwards along the Fairfield route, a fine section of breathtaking views, probably the best weather I’ve ever had up there, and the mountains catching the sun, slanting sleepy shadows into the deep dales and the ravines and raising something of the old mojo magic of the Lakes for me. But I had miles to go and feet for very few of them, and just another good swallow of water left in the bottle. Perhaps I amplify the hardship, but I was painfully aware one slip-up with navigation bringing me down into the wrong valley, and I’d nothing in reserve to correct it. But on such a clear day it would be hard to miss the path for Patterdale.

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Patterdale

I skirted the summit crown of Little Hart Crag, too far gone to waste what bit of breath I’d got on petty peak bagging. Instead I gained the gently undulating ridge towards High Hartsop Dodd, set my head to the task. This was supposed to be a four-hour round, according to the guides. It was going to take me five. But who’s counting? Here, as you crest the last rise, the tip of the fell points like a prehistoric arrow-head down the length of Patterdale, Brothers’ Water blue as the sky amid the multifaceted green of the dale, and the heart swells with delight that there can be such places as beautiful as this, and surely I have known and loved it for more than just the one life-time, for it to have such a profound affect upon the senses.

Yes, it was worth the walk, and the sweat, to say nothing of the emptying of myself to see that view – that last gift of the way before the way plummeted with a brutal steepness to the valley bottom, a twisting slalom of a route, hard on the knees and jelly-legs. Thus I descended like a fragile centenarian, alpine sticks deployed Zimmer fashion, progress slow and cautious. I could see where the car was parked, miles away; I felt it might as well have been on the moon.

The water nymphs had gone, sadly, when, with feet on fire, I made my way back along the shore of Brothers Water, pausing to allow myself a moment of respite where they had bathed themselves. Divested of boots and socks and paddling out gingerly over the pebbles, that blessed water gave me back the mile still remaining to the car, and I returned at last to my reward: that post-walk mindful calm sunk deep into the bones.

It was a memorable day, as all walking days are in the Lakes, and a triumph too, of sorts, but also a reminder of the advance of years and how the fells demand a high degree of fitness, a toughness in the gut, a resilience in the legs, to say nothing of leathered feet. I can accept the ultimate defeat of advancing years, am sanguine about it in many ways, but as I sat on the terrace of the Brother’s Water Inn, sipping on a cold Lime and Soda, first light of evening coming on, I swear Dove Crag was smiling, telling that time was not yet near, telling me also well done, lad, and Dylan Thomas, whispering in my ear, you know,… that line about not going gently into the good night!

She can be a stern mistress, this fell country of ours, but I know of nothing, no other corner of England more inspirational, more building of self-confidence, nor more rewarding to the spirit. Yes, a tough old walk for one grown so lazy of late, also a wake-up call, and a promise that I’ll not leave it so long next time.

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saltire and the jackSo, we’re now just a week away from that referendum in which the Scots will be asked: should Scotland be an Independent country? If the answer comes back “Yes”, the United Kingdom will be consigned to the history books, as will Britain, to say nothing of “Great Britain”. Surely, never has a nation been known by more names than ours? But after next week, I may no longer be British. I will be merely English. The question is, should I feel diminished by that?

The referendum on Independence for Scotland is a consequence of the establishment of its devolved Parliament in 1998, and has been a long stated aim of the Scottish National Party. There was always going to be this debate but, though it’s been a heated one these past twelve months, I suspect there’s also been a complacency among the Westminster elite, a belief that the majority of Scots would prefer to remain a part of the United Kingdom, because anything else is economically, politically and constitutionally unthinkable. I may have thought so too, but as the date for the referendum draws near, opinion polls are suggesting it’s a close run thing, that the nay-sayer’s appeals to “fiscal common sense” are failing to quench a heart-felt nationalist fervour.

Today the leaders of all three UK political parties, all opposed to independence, left their London enclaves to rally the Scots to the pro-union cause, but their efforts have revealed only the yawing gap between the elected, and the electorate. None of have found much sympathy for their sudden outpourings of heartfelt longing that the Union should not be broken. It is as if the political elite have only just decided to look at the map to see where Scotland is. This is not true of course, but it’s a story the Scots are keen to tell as being indicative of how out of touch Westminster is from the rest of the country, and Scotland in particular.

The break -up of the Union is a distinct possibility.

Speaking as an Englishman, I have always felt Scotland was, at heart, a different country. I’ve found its remoter parts to be utterly breathtaking in their beauty, their scale and their romantic desolation, and about as far away from London, and “London-ism” as is imaginable. The further North and West you travel the less likely you are to see the Union Jack, and the more you will find flying in moody isolation, the lone Saltair, the old flag of Saint Andrew. Mind, body and soul, Scotland is Scotland, as England is England but, as an Englishman, should I be concerned by the notion of Scotland becoming, literally, a “foreign” country?

I don’t imagine I will need a passport in order to go there, post independence; I assume there will be some arrangement, as with the Republic of Ireland, whereby the border between nations comprising the British Isles will remain informally transparent. But there will be currency differences, and an inevitable fragmentation of the armed forces. These are serious questions the “yes” campaign has poured scorn upon, while notably avoiding any detailed answers. They are not insignificant matters, impacting as they do upon the security, both militarily and economically, of both England and Scotland. Indeed the implications are immense, but they are not without precedent and are therefore, I’m sure, not insurmountable.

The break away of the Irish Republic from the Union, following the uprising of 1916, was a far more tumultuous affair, born of a violent insurgency whose repercussions are still felt in the continuing rumblings of Irish Nationalism in the North. But even through the height of the troubles, relations with the Irish Republic remained good. Indeed such has been the influx of Irish immigration to England over the years, about one in five English are in a position to claim Irish citizenship – including me. I have never felt the need to do so however; the foreignness of the Irish Republic may be a fact on paper, but I think many of us, both English and Irish disregard it, because there are other bonds, bonds of ancestry and tradition, that are stronger.

Post Independence, I imagine Scotland will be the same, though sadly I have no Scottish ancestors enabling me to claim triple nationality. There is some Welsh in me, but that’s too far back to present a convincing case to the authorities in Cardiff, should Wales also decide to leave us. But at the moment, through my Britishness, I need no such official rubber stamping. My Britishness raises me above the pettiness of national boundaries. It recognises the regional and cultural differences between the home countries, but transcends the limits of mere citizenship, and I think that’s a good thing.

If the world is moving in the right direction, the boundaries between nations should be dissolving, becoming more transparent. A while ago, I travelled to Paris, departed London’s Saint Pancras station and popped up a few hours later at Gare Du Nord. I did not however feel foreign, because as a European man, I carried a European Union Passport, as did the French, the Belgians and the Germans who also rode that train. We were European people going about our business in the cities of Europe.

And in the opposite direction, as well as being English, I am also, regionally, a Lancastrian – and if you want to push the roots of identity to their limit, my accent betrays my birth in the little mining village of Coppull. It is an accent that once had a perfect stranger coming up to me in deepest Wales and claiming kinship. And truly for the ten minutes we conversed, we were brothers, bound by the names of places that were intimately and fondly shared. But we were also British and we were also European. Identity is a flexible thing, expanding and collapsing to suit the moment. To firm up a boundary seems a retrograde step, for in defining the limits of nationality, it narrows also the scope of one’s identity.

When asked their opinion on the matter of Scottish Independence, I think most English will politely demur and say it is a matter for the Scots. Those of us of a romantic bent, aware of the occasionally bad history between us, might even sympathise with the roots of Nationalist fervour. The closer we live to the border – i.e. the further we live from London, the more likely are we to express such sentiments. We don’t teach Anglo-Scottish history in English schools. Consequently my own kids would be hard pressed to know what the battle of Culloden heralded in terms of Scottish identity. Conversely few Scots would struggle for an opinion on it.

As for the official debate aired on the National news, experience tells me the Scots should view it in the same way as all such noisy political debates, believing neither the milk and honey promises of the one side, nor the swivel eyed scare stories of the other. These are merely the ballistic missiles aimed in the short term at influencing opinion, prior to the vote, and mostly they will turn out to be duds after it. My own feeling is, if there is independence it will be a terrible muddle, and it may take a generation to get it ticking along smoothly, but the Irish Republic did not fall into the sea when it broke from the Union, and neither will Scotland.

I think I will feel diminished, post independence, and if I had a vote I’d be minded to vote “no”. But if the Scots say “yes”, I trust the Welsh will stick with us a while longer, and we are, after all, still a nation of some fifty odd million souls, which is no insignificant number. So I will not feel too diminished, nor for too long. The carve up of power and money will be for the politicians and the transnational institutions to squabble over into the small hours of many a coming post independence morn, while for the rest of us, I imagine, life will go on pretty much the same as usual.

 

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