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Posts Tagged ‘learning’

Anglezarke, West Pennines

Oh, dullard brain, why do we push so far?
Who the hell do we think we are?
Three thousand years of philosophy,
And we think we’ll bottom it, over a cup of tea.

But that side of things has passed us by.
Before we catch up, the pigs will fly.
What we learned as a student, we don’t need any more,
All the nuts and bolts, of the physical world.

But the history of thought is a queer old fish.
Who said that, and who said this?
But more than that, what does it all mean?
And is it as hard as their language makes it seem?

In short, is philosophy not simply a curse?
Three thousand years and the world’s getting worse.
Those bearded old chaps, I’m sure they meant well,
But if they did us any good, it’s very hard to tell.

A change in the weather

Okay, I didn’t mean that. I was just tired and grumpy after a bad night with a blocked nose, and assailed by dreams of wasps. After such a hot spell, the forecast was for a change in the weather, so if I wanted to get out for the day, Monday was the best shot, but it was lunchtime by the time I made it out to the car. The wasp dream was triggered by an infestation of the little blighters. They’d been around for a while, making a nest in the attic, and were now pouring out like a biblical plague from a hole in the soffet board, dive-bombing as I loaded up. A few of them made it into the car with me.

I was caught in an ethical dilemma here. On the one hand, the environmentalists would say leave them alone if they’re doing no harm, while the pest men would say just kill them all, before they do some damage. I shooed the wasps from the car and set off, not entirely sure where I was going. I let the car decide, and it delivered me to Anglezarke.

Although the forecast was for cooler weather, it was still in the mid-twenties. But these don’t feel like the summers of childhood. Maybe we feel heat differently as we get older, but I’m sure there’s more to it, indeed something alien about the oppressive weight of summers now – at least those few weeks in the year when the sun really turns the wick up. We’d not be walking far, that was for sure. I let the boots choose, and they delivered me up to the Pikestones.

I knew the rest from here, barely three miles round. I could have stayed at home and walked further by doing laps around the garden, then sitting under the tree and drinking something cold. Except for the wasps. I had to admit, those wasps were becoming an issue, and only a matter of time before someone was stung. What to do, then? Get someone in, or have a go myself? Gor-blimey no, say the pest men. But what could possibly go wrong?

I’m reading about Hellenistic philosophy at the moment, this being the period commencing with the rapid rise of Alexander the Great’s empire, third century BC, and its long, slow disintegration. Those turbulent times had an effect on the collective psyche, which in turn spawned a new type of thinking – one that was concerned more with the nature of being, than the nature of reality. The times were causing great anxiety, and people had a need for philosophies that healed the soul.

We had the Epicureans, the Cynics and the Stoics. My favourite Cynic was Diogenes, who lived in a barrel – a notion I find curiously attractive in its simplicity – but he wasn’t the kind of guy you’d want to have round for a brew. The most famous of the Stoics would perhaps be Marcus Aurelius, who comes across in his writings as a remarkable chap, and worth delving into further, but that brings with it the history of the Roman Empire, and there are only so many tangents I can handle before I dissolve into my own nebulous entropy. Earlier Greek culture had offered an elaborate afterlife, a panoply of gods and a mythic, story-like structure to existence. But the Hellenistic philosophers weren’t much interested in gods, or what followed death, more in finding ways to be accepting of its finality. If you could do that, they said, you lived a better, happier life.

There’s much to be said for it. Too many of us bank on reward in the ever-after, and without actually getting going properly in the one life we’ve got. I don’t know for sure which camp I’m in. I suppose I’m guilty to a degree of constructing some kind of psychical escape capsule, where the summers are perfect, and the corn is always just ripe, and there are no wasps – a kind of dream-land I’ll linger in until I don’t care either way. It’s a comfort, and it’s probably wrong, and the Cynics and the Stoics are right. I get their point, but there’s no harm in hedging your bets.

Hard though. Philosophy. I suppose what I was getting at in that bit of opening doggerel is that my own student days were spent picking up technical subjects; mainly physics and engineering. I earned a living by it, but, now retired, it’s useless to me, most of it forgotten anyway and the rest obsolete. The arts, the humanities – I’ve dabbled in them outside of academia, and though they seem valuable now as an independent, economically self-sufficient – i.e. pensioned – citizen, it’s unlikely I can make much of a meaningful dent in them at this point in my life. A mature brain is not as plastic as a younger one, not as receptive to new stuff. A young brain can sit through a lecture and recall every word, while a mature brain drifts off after the first five minutes, and starts thinking about what the hell he should do about wasps.

The weather broke on Wednesday with thunderstorms, and it’s suddenly ten degrees cooler. Now we’re getting floods because the drains we have were made to handle the climate as it was thirty years ago. Anyway, I killed the wasps, dispersed them first with a shot of WD 40 under the eaves. That gave me a brief window of opportunity to get on the ladder and puff a great gasp of that noxious white wasp powder up the little hole. It did the job, but that’s not to say I feel good about it.

“Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself.” Marcus Aurelius AD 121 – 180

Rock on, Marcus.

Thanks for listening

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Jepsons stone

I understand why they took my father. To most people he was one of the nameless who went out nights, worked his shift, and came back tired. Someone was watching him though, someone who knew what he was really about, and that’s why they took him. He was also a writer, you see? He was an explorer of ideas, a lover of maps and books, but only those closest to him knew about any of that.

They took him long before he’d had time to perfect his craft, long before he became really dangerous to them. He was still coming to terms with his powers, getting into his stride, finding the words. But I suppose, given the course he was on, they felt they had no choice.

At weekends, I’d wake to the sound of his old Underwood typewriter as he hammered out pages of manuscript. The Underwood was what he used to capture words that seemed right to him. But after a while he’d end up destroying them, having decided they were no good. Meanwhile, the rest of his work, the more speculative ideas, he’d write up in his notebooks which he’d consult from time to time, searching back for fresh avenues to explore, for things he’d missed.

He had a neat hand, a draughtsman’s hand, so his notes and diagrams possessed a beauty that went beyond whatever they were actually saying. After they took him, a man came asking for his notebooks. He said he was a friend but, I’d met him before and I knew he wasn’t, not really, and I told him we hadn’t kept them. He came again forty years later, a wizened old man, still on the trail, still something deceitful about him. I told him the same thing. Even after all this time, you see, it pays to be careful.

In the afternoons my father and I would be off scrambling up some nameless gully on the moors. It was in such places, where the rocks broke the surface, the earth hinted at its secrets, and he would scratch at them, peer at their traces under a magnifying glass. He was good at finding pyrites for me – fool’s gold – not that he was fooled by it. He was never a seeker after gold, not the ordinary kind anyway, but he enjoyed splitting the rocks for me to see. And then he’d tell me we should always be careful not to chase after everything that sparkled, because it might not be what we thought it was.

Yes, it was a different kind of gold he was hunting, a secret thing, the philosopher’s gold, I suppose you’d call it, a mysterious thing hidden since the dawn of man. It wasn’t that others wanted to take it from you, more they had to stop you getting hold of it in the first place, because that kind of gold was the key to everything, you see? That’s why it was so dangerous.

Often, my father and I would be out over the hills where the old maps said the standing stones used to be. Balmy days and bleak days, we would seek their traces in the dun-coloured grasses. I could see those hills from my bedroom window, miles away. Indeed, I could see the whole moor spread out like a map, and then there we were, he and I, in the map itself, looking for the stones, solving mysteries.

My father said he believed the stones had marked the passage of the seasons, in ancient times. That they weren’t there any more is the reason we’d lost our way, he said, and that was why no one ever looked at the moon any more, or could name the stars. This was important, he thought, and it was thrilling to me he was on the trail of a thing that could restore such marvels to the world. It was this, I’m sure that roused the same forces that had taken the stones and hidden them away, this same power that had taken my father.

The night they came for him, I hid his notebooks. I would decode them one day, I thought, but I’ve had them fifty years now, and they remain as puzzling as ever. Which of his ideas are worth the smoothing out into clearer prose? Which are the fool’s-gold sparkles of frivolous intrigue? I don’t know. Mould mottles their pages, and they’ve become brittle. It adds a fragility to their beauty. But still, I guard them, though lately I’ve been thinking the secret isn’t in them at all, not like I once thought anyway, not a clear arrow to point the way. I think the secret lies elsewhere, off the edge of the page, and you have to ride the beauty of them, as if on a butterfly’s wings, to get there.

Besides his notebooks, I have his watch but I don’t wear it. We inhabit different times now. He was spirited away to a place where I fear he must walk the moors alone, and without his maps. The watch still ticks, though the date is faulty, settles between days, as if pointing to another reality, one in which my father has been trapped all these years. But I have the feeling that in continuing in the spirit of his work, I am asking the same questions he asked, and if I can reveal the answers, those who took him have no reason to go on holding him, do they? They will have to let him go.

I have written a million words by now in search of answers, and in that time I have grown old, much older than he was when they took him. But I will bring him back. One day I will pay their ransom. Then I might wake again to the sound of that old Underwood, as my father banishes the emptiness of night, and restores to me once more his world of marvels.

Thanks for listening.

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A portrait of a lady reading a book. William Oliver II  1823As children we map our reality using as waymarks the things we touch – the walls of our house, our relationships with parents, siblings, friends, and we map it by the feel of our environment, by the town, city, or green under our feet, by the places we visit – by schooldays, Saturdays, market days, holidays. We map it by the experience of life, and although we are aware of a greater reality beyond what we can see and experience, we feel it more as a strangeness, a reality we can, as children, ignore. And we ignore it because it is a reality that need not be true. Any of it. Truth, rather, is wherever we are in the moment. It is what we can see and touch, right now. It is the story we are living. Right now. This and only this is the truth of us.

My childhood was a small, semi-detached house, built in the 1930’s, bordering meadows which are still mostly there today. It was a village from which the mines had already gone by the 1960’s, fallen to economic ruin, leaving only their sulphurous slag, glowing by night like something volcanic. But mostly it was green. It was corn and it was cattle. And it was big booted farmers selling vegetables door to door. It was duck-ponds in the corners of quiet lanes.

The technology of the broadcast media did not shape this reality much. It was more the window on an accepted fantasy, a world of stories other than my own, and of less importance: Stingray, Thunderbirds, Joe 90, Crackerjack, Jackanory, The Magic Roundabout. I don’t recall teatime news broadcasts using the lurid language they use today. I presume the bad stuff was held back until after the 9:00 p.m. watershed when we kids were safely tucked abed, that it was then the floodgates opened to dose the adult world with its night-time terrors.

I did not know what sex was until I was fourteen, and then only as a theoretical concept, gleaned from the less fantastical speculations of my fellows, and which turned out in the end not to be too far from the mark. And like the sex, the wider world too remained couched in mysterious terms, its unimaginable largeness filtered into more manageable grains through the medium of the stories others told.

Beyond that which we can touch, the world can only ever be a story. And only what we can touch can ever be the truth of our own lives, a thing verified, crystallised by the medium of an immediate, and tangible experience. The truth, or otherwise, of the wider world is always less certain, yet as adults, like imagination, these other stories – lurid, violent, dangerous, frightening – try to convice us they are part of the truth of who we are.

We think, as we grow, we should leave behind the simpler realities of hearth and home, that the world of immediate experience is not enough, that we should grow up, assimilate more of that which we cannot touch, more of the world as presented to us by the pictures and the words of the various media, that we should become conversant in the world of current affairs. But none of these stories are true, except perhaps in the most simplistic of terms and therefore pale into insignificance when compared with the authenticity of our own lives.

It is like those Hollywood movies that are “based on a true story” in which the details making up the whole of the truth are never allowed to get in the way of the telling of the story. This is not to say it is an outright lie, only that a truth can be spun in misleading ways. And stories always have morals, they have plots, they have a meaning and a purpose of their own, while life – real life – may not. We all know this.

And then the choice of which stories we listen to can itself suggest a truth about the world, one less than authentic than reality, creating false emphasis, pushing centre stage some events in favour of others, suggesting importance, urgency. These are the stories collected, edited for our convenience by the master storytellers, by the BBC, Russia Today, Fox News, events selected and spun, and while they may not be lies exactly, they do not tell the true story of the world, but more instead, and if we listen carefully, the story of the story tellers themselves.

But now we can move away from the edited stories. We can dig deep into the eclectic machinery of the Internet, keeper of all video memory, a marvellous, and quite endless source of story. Here the choice of what to feature large, and what to suppress is ours. We choose the truth of the greater world to suit ourselves. But is this any better?

My choices at present are the stories told by Noam Chomsky, Jeremy Corbyn, Julian Assange, Carl Jung, Stanislav Grof, Ken Wilber, Eckhart Tolle, but these choices are of stories no more true than any other. I might have chosen 9/11 conspiracies, UFO’s, David Ike, Donald Trump, and from these spun a story of the world as good or bad as any other, as essentially true or untrue as any other, though perhaps one that did not resonate as well with my own preoccupations.

I fell asleep last night plugged in to You Tube. I was listening to a lecture by Noam Chomsky, but a deep fatigue withdrew me from his story. And I woke this morning to a an autumn sun, and one of the last warm days of the year. I pulled a tree-stump from the garden, took a last cut of the lawn, repaired a gate, washed the car, and as the sun set I drank cold beer. This is my only authentic reality. I am not big enough to know the world in all its colour, in all its shape and size, and for me to try is to be eternally deceived, eternally swept from one incomplete view to another. I become lost in what even as a child I recognised, as being of less importance than the day to dayness of my immediate experience.

I have lived today slowly, measuring each breath, trying to savour each moment of the smallness of my being. It is the only reality I shall truly know. That I experience it, that I at least know my own story, is what I think I am meant to do here, to perceive at least the truth of that one thing, instead of seeking a somehow bigger, cleverer or more complex truth among the duplicitous tellers of all the stories of the world.

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