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Posts Tagged ‘life’

The funeral of a neighbour brings me to the old church of St Michael’s and All Angels. It looks like the whole village has turned out. He was a well known character, much loved. It’s a hot day and I feel stupid for having brought a hat, this being to spare my bald pate under the fierce sun. But, apart from in gangster movies, is it ever acceptable for a man to wear a hat to a funeral? I had to walk there, so needed a hat, but then what does one do with it when one gets there? Maybe it is acceptable, but no one else had one, and I felt self-conscious twiddling with it throughout the proceedings. Strange, this self consciousness. You’d think I would be old enough now to disregard it. But enough about the hat.

We sang Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer, and Abide with me, read psalm 23, then the graveside thing. It was the full Anglican, so to speak. Then I walked home, in my hat, feeling overdressed. I spoke last time of religious observance being rejected in the west, and the church communities dwindling, yet, when it comes to the great events of life, we still like the church thing. We blow the dust off our childhood, and enter once more the ancient places, summon the priestly, and know roughly what to say in the right, and sometimes also the wrong places.

I’ve not worn a suit for years. It felt strange, strange also seeing so many faces I am familiar with in more casual garb, and all of us looking today, I suppose, like city-slickers. I also had to think about how you tie a tie. Afterwards, I sat out in the garden with tea. My neighbour was very old, and had lived an active life, until Covid, and lock-downs, which seemed to send him into a decline. Final departures are always poignant, but we do not live forever. He was given a good send off, will be long remembered, and by many.

One is always thoughtful after a funeral. There is a tenderness about them, a sadness of course, but it’s also an occasion to see old faces, and catch up. And laughter is never far away as stories are swapped in the mood of fond remembrance. But being myself not a naturally sociable soul, I mean beyond my immediate family, I find myself wondering who would turn up to mine. Certainly not the whole village. Then again, I don’t suppose it’s a problem that will concern me much, when the time comes.

Anyway, all this quiet reflection is arrested by my neighbour on the other side who plays rock music to the birds, and gets out his thundering tractor mower. Life goes on, of course. But must it always be so damned tasteless and ill-timed? Ah, but just listen to me. (apologies to rock music lovers)

Anyway, it’s a beautiful June day, the garden is coming on. My good lady’s tomatoes are showing flower, and she’ll be pleased about that, as she’s been nurturing them like babies since they were but tiny seeds. Then, perhaps in defiance of the inappropriate rock music, I find myself thinking of an earworm of an old song, one I once attempted to translate from the French, as part of my half century of attempts to learn the language. Languages are not my forte, but I should like to one day order lunch in French, in France, without the waiter laughing. Not all ambitions need be great to be satisfying in their pursuit. It goes something like this:

The sea, we see dancing,
Along the clear bays,
With silvery reflections.
The sea, reflections change,
Under the rain.
The sea, which the summer sky
Makes of these white breakers, like sheep,
The purest of angels.
The sea, an azure shepherdess,
Infinite.

Look, near the pools,
These tall wet reeds.
Look, these white birds,
And these rust-coloured houses.
The sea, it cradles them all,
Along the clear bays,
And a love song,
The sea, it cradles my heart for all time.

This, of course, being my own somewhat poetically loose interpretation of Charles Trenet’s 40s classic, La Mer. That’s a beautiful image, “the sea, we see dancing”, and even if you don’t understand the French, you cannot help but feel the sun coming out as it is sung. All of which seems somehow appropriate on this glorious afternoon, and a sweet segue from contemplation of the funereal, back into the light of life.

Thanks for listening

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J B Priestly was a writer with a broad scope. He was also a social commentator, playwright, broadcaster and literary critic. Born in Barnsley, he began his working life as a clerk in a wool firm. Writing in the evenings, he found success with articles placed in London newspapers.

He was badly wounded in the first world war, and indeed experienced much at that time that was to haunt him for the rest of his life. Post-war, he gained an officer’s scholarship to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he studied literature, and from there he went on to become a well known, and rather well-to-do English man of letters.

Published in 1971, Over the Long High Wall is, as he describes it, a reflection on the nature of life, death and time. Time is where Priestly and I meet, both of us having an interest in the precognitive nature of dreams, a subject it’s easy to lose one’s way with, but to which I find him a sober and sensible guide.

He was a powerful dreamer, occasionally stumbling across things in his dream life that subsequently happened, and could not easily be explained away as coincidence. This is a difficult subject to deal with, since there is no explanation for it, and indeed much scepticism. Readers of a hard, rational bent will understandably reject it out of hand. But when it happens to you, you’re compelled to take an interest, which inevitably leads to questions concerning the nature of time and being, and here we need a steady hand if we are not to fall foul of crack-pottery. Better we acquaint ourselves with the thinking of a no-nonsense, pipe smoking Yorkshireman, like Priestly.

If we can dream ahead of time, it suggests the mind is not as firmly fastened down in space or time, as we suppose. It can wander some way ahead, which begs the question, do we have free will? If we have already dreamed a thing, is it inevitable we shall encounter it? Or, being forewarned, can the future be changed? And if it can, what happened to the version of things we saw? It also begs the question, if the mind is not so firmly coupled to brain function, can some part of it survive beyond bodily death. These are interesting questions, but anyone, particularly a famous person, bringing them into the open, is liable to be attacked by rational sceptics, and pilloried as a fool, or charlatan.

J B Priestly – 1940

Throughout the book, Priestly describes the world, as constructed by rational sceptics, and goes on at some length to explain why he doesn’t think very much of it. Written in 1971, he could easily be describing the world as it is now. He calls it narrow, and life-shrinking. These sceptics, these zealous debunkers of all speculative forays of the mind, are the architects of the long, high wall of the title. It is a construct, he says, which prevents us from gaining a view of a higher, more noble, more meaningful mode of being.

His interest in the time question placed him within the orbit of the time theorist, J W Dunne, whose book “An Experiment with Time” (1927) was very popular, and indeed, still is. Like Priestly, Dunne had also run into precognitive dreams. Dunne was not what one might call an artistic, literary or dreamy type. He was a former military man, a man of science and engineering. Building on the theories of the mathematician Howard Hinton, and physicists Eddington, and Einstein – very much in vogue at the time – Dunne suggested the dreaming self operated in a so-called “fourth dimension”, one at right angles to our familiar three dimensions of space and linear time.

The fourth dimension allows the dreaming mind a full view of our line in time, while our waking mind is restricted to awareness of a single slice of space-time, this being “now”. But here’s where Dunne is an infuriating character to get a handle on. His book is fascinating up to the point where he goes on to explain his theory of precognitive dreaming, which, though he claims is simple, has me wondering if I have not suffered some sort of brain injury, since my own college days. His later books, intended to further simplify things for a more “popular” audience, I find even more bewildering. Reassuringly for me, Priestly is of a similar view.

He warns us that Dunne provides little service to brevity, no matter how hard he tries, but their friendship helped nurture the plot of several of Priestly’s plays, in which he “played” with the idea of time. “Time and the Conways” and “An Inspector Calls” are perhaps the most famous, though my personal favourite is the strikingly Ouspenskian: “I have been here before” set in a remote inn in the Yorkshire Dales, and archived (along with the others) as MP3 here.

Setting aside the entanglements of theory, the idea of there being a looseness to time opens up the human psyche to a more speculative field of enquiry, one into which the spirit soars, while the rational sciences tend only to shut it down. There is no such thing as precognition they say, there is a single line in time, we live, we die, and there is no point to anything. They create a closed world, in which the seedlings of spirit find only stony ground. Of course, science is correct to build itself up from foundations of solid evidence. But by this same yardstick, spontaneous cases of precognition in dreams must always be dismissed as anecdotal, as mere stories.

Which brings Priestly to the phenomenon of the professional sceptic. This is a person who sets themselves up as investigator and debunker of phenomenal claims. They are not necessarily of the scientific profession, often conjurers and showmen, or psychologists. He calls them the “camp followers” of science, who see it as their role to ruin the reputation of anyone daring to stick their necks above the parapet. And, whilst often the most shrill, their explanations, explaining away things like precognition, can also be the most tortuous and ridiculous, yet, having the “rational” on their side, the tortuous and the ridiculous are, sadly, the only explanations we are allowed to arrive at. Anything else is dismissed as bunk.

Clearly then, Priestly stuck his neck out, but there was more of an appetite for this kind of thing in the early part of the twentieth century than there is now. As for the evidence, or the theoretical expositions, he writes he didn’t much care one way or the other. He deals in greater depth with Dunne, and his own insights into dream precognition, in his longer work “Man and Time” (1964). Over the Long High Wall is more a rallying cry to the artists, the writers and the dreamers to dream their dreams anyway, regardless, because their lives will be all the larger and the richer for it, and to never mind the debunkers and life-shrinkers. For Priestly, there never was a long, high wall. He used his powers of imagination and intuition to simply walk right through it, and he invites us all to do the same.

Acknowledgements: Photo of J B Pristly by courtesty of – By National Media Museum from UK – J B Priestley at work in his study, 1940.Uploaded by mrjohncummings, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26198117

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Alice Golightly had the misfortune of surviving all her family. Husband, children, brothers, sisters, all of them had gone before her, so she sailed into her nineties alone as friends, too, old and new, fell by the wayside. Among the last of the plotter girls, she’d served as a WAAF, with Fighter Command, during the Battle of Britain. Then she’d worked forty years as a formidable secretary, in one of the great manufactories, now fallen to rust. She’d spent her retirement in the bingo halls, a cheerful soul. There were holidays in Blackpool, and Marbella,…

In wartime, she’d survived a direct hit on her bunker, helped pull others, less fortunate, from the rubble, never wondering for what purpose she was spared, what purpose, this long span of life. Only now did she fall casualty, still unquestioning of the rhyme and the reason of things. A copper broke the door in, found her sleeping the eternal sleep – by now a sleight, malnourished form, under hand crocheted blankets, in an unheated room. Less mobile, and confused of late, she’d been unable to work out how to make the pension go as far as was needed. The coroner concluded she’d been subsisting on a diet of raisins, and thereby succumbed to seasonal hypothermia.

After a blur of mergers and acquisitions, the newly formed, newly fangled energy company that had taken over Alice’s supply, had risen, as if by sleight of hand, and emptied her bank account in short measure. Then it disconnected her, when she could no longer pay. Alice had been sure it was a mistake. She’d always been able to pay her way before. Official letters had couched their threats in guarded and impenetrable legalese. Her own, spidery, handwritten replies spoke of confusion, openness and old age. There was also humiliation in her appeals for explanations in terms she could understand, none of ehich were forthcoming. She had never joined the online world, wary of clever people duping her out of money, and ruining her life. Always outgoing and spirited, the walls of her world finally closed in, and Alice Golightly was heard from no more. She might have made it to a hundred, if only we had let her.

Alice Golightly’s last act was to have the undertaker’s little ambulance block the road by her house, during her removal from this world. The traffic backed up and blocked the neighbouring street, which in turn, like a series of ripples spreading out, caused a minor hold up in the middle of town.

Now, the chief executive who closed the deal that indirectly caused the disconnection of Alice’s energy supply, was an unhappy man. Three times married, he was approaching as many divorces. His daughter, from his first marriage, was in therapy, and hated the ground he walked upon. His son, from his second marriage, was dropping tens of thousands in the casinos of Monte Carlo, and seemed bent on bankrupting him. The renovation of his Oxfordshire mansion wasn’t going to plan, and the taxman was on his back. He’d have to move more of his money offshore. Life really was a bitch right now.

As his limousine cruised through town that day, it hit the traffic indirectly caused by Alice Golightly’s last act, and a sat-nav diversion took him by a line of people queuing for food handouts.

“So many homeless,” he mused.

It never failed to amaze him how anyone could be so feckless, so lacking in the work ethic, or intelligence, or whatever, to say nothing of being so damned shameless, as to line up for charity like that. His driver nodded, not wanting to tell him these weren’t actually homeless people. They were more likely workers, working precarious jobs, yet who still couldn’t feed their families, or heat their homes. It was just the way of the world right now. But the chief was always right.

It did nothing to improve the chief’s mood, of course, seeing the ugly underbelly of the world this way. It always had him wondering by what misfortune he might yet end up there himself. It was a recurring nightmare of his. The limousine slowed to a halt in heavy traffic. He tried to avoid eye contact with the people queuing there, but his eye was indeed caught, briefly anyway, by a young girl in the line. She looked to be of his daughter’s age, and as pretty a girl as he’d ever seen. Scrub her up, swap her cheap clothes for couture, and she wouldn’t look out of place anywhere in his world, he thought.

Was it only money, then, that made the difference? What was the trick that had him destined for riches, and her,… well,… to stand in line like this? The girl’s expression was blank, betrayed no emotion. Except, suddenly, she smiled at something her neighbour said, then laughed out loud, holding her sides as if to contain a surplus of mirth that threatened to rock her entire being off the pavement. Her laughter moved him. It was so open, so light, so genuine. He could not remember the last time he’d felt that way. It saddened him too, that he would never see his daughter laugh like that, and when his son laughed – as he often did – well, that was only out of scorn.

The traffic eased as Alice Golightly’s final journey got under way. The chief’s limousine moved sedately on, and he settled back in the leather, caught up in a moment of deep introspection. Then it came to him, the solution to his unhappiness! What he needed, more than anything, right now,…

Was to buy himself a yacht!

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My last pair of Scarpa walking boots lasted fifteen years. They were never quite broken in, but they never leaked either. They just grew more deeply scarred, and might have lasted longer, but I lost faith in them. I was worried they’d fall apart and leave me stranded up a mountain in my stocking feet. My current pair, comfortable as carpet slippers from day one, have lasted two years. Now they’re opening up, and letting the water in.

All right, it’s a very, very wet day. Indeed, the moor is as wet as a moor can be. The earth liquifies underfoot as we step on it and we’re frequently over the tops of our laces. The sphagnum is drinking the wet down in greedy gallons, and glowing green for the effort. My jacket, too, is letting the water through, at least on one side where a stiff wind is encouraging it. The weather paints me half dark, half light. I am the yin and the yang of things. This could be my cue to start grumbling about the flimsification of the modern day, but that’s not where we’re going. It’s a wild, bracing day. The year is fresh, and it’s too soon for cynicism.

I’m on Withnell moor again, up from Brinscall. I’ve come through the woods, crossed the top of the Hatch Brook Falls, and climbed Well Lane. Now we’re on the moor, approaching the gaunt ruins of Ratten Clough. Its outline is black against the steady drift of rain. Abandoned in the 1960’s, this is the most substantial ruin of the lost farms. The barn’s gables are intact, the rafters hanging on, a watery silhouette, all against the dynamic grey of the swooping sky. I wonder if, in years to come, it’ll be taken for a millionaires des-res. They have a penchant for buying up romantically charged places like this, and throwing a fortune at them to make of them something twee. But he’ll need a taste for the lonely. There’s bleak, then there’s Withnell Moor, and then there’s Withnell moor on days like these.

Given the forecast, I thought it was a waste of time bringing the big camera. I didn’t want to get it wet. Instead, I’ve packed an old, small-sensor compact. It slips easily into the pocket, and I don’t mind it getting drowned. But you can’t expect to shoot in such murk as this without red noise on a small sensor. There’ll probably be no pictures today, then, except the ones I carry in my head.

The gate to Ratten Clough is tied in several places, and intricately knotted. It’s a public way, but we require a deviation to pick it up. I imagine our millionaire will make it a priority to divert the path. Ah,… another perennial thread of mine creeping in: money buying out our freedoms, sticking up no trespass signs. But we’re not going there, either, today. These are tired old themes, and my laments will do little to change them. So much for the power of attraction, then. I seem only to attract to my attention what I most dislike. Time to let them go. Find fresh pastures, with an emphasis on a more positive kind of magic.

Where are we, now? We’re following the line of a tumbled drystone wall into a blank of mist. With a global positioning system, you’re never lost, are you? But things are hotting up between Russia and the West, and between China and US. It’s not escaped my imagination the first thing the militaries will do, in times of conflict, is encrypt the satellites. And then what? How will we find our way with a road-map, and A to Z again? How will I know how far along this wall to walk, before turning down to the ruins of Botany Bay?

The spindly beech answers. I first met it in the spring, spent a while making friends. It materialises from the grey, now. “Here you are,” it says. “Nice to see you again.” The track’s here. So we make our way down to the ruin, touch the megalith for luck, then turn left, to Rake Brook, by the ruins of Popes.

It’s hard to imagine anyone living here, just a tumble of shapeless blocks, and the brook washing by. It’s in spate today, no evidence of there ever having been a bridge, just these few precarious steppy stones at the vagaries of flood. What can we say about that? Transience? Buddhist themes of impermanence, perhaps?

Apple pies were baked in this bleak hollow, with the wind howling through the chimney pots. Wholesome stews awaited the farmer and his boys, on winter days like these. All gone, now, just names in the census records, and a lonely pile of stones. People make all the difference. Without them to bear witness, the world might as well not exist. Indeed, it might already not exist. Strange thoughts today, Michael.

Mind how we go across the brook. Yes, the boots are definitely leaking, something cold encircling the foot, now. I was going to buy myself a new computer monitor, but it looks like it’ll be a pair of boots instead. I’d been looking forward to getting a new monitor, one of those 4K ultra-high definition things, for the photography. How do we prioritise? Sometimes the fates do it for us.

Watsons farm, now, and a strong waft of cattle as we come through the gate. The cows are all cosy in the barn, steam rising from their noses, as they chew. It’s one of the few farms still working the moor. I borrowed it for my work in progress, fictionalised it, changed universes, moved it down the road a bit. I had the farmer renting rooms, and my protagonist moving into one. Here, I court themes of sanctuary, and shoulders to the weather. Then there are stunning summers on the moors, the call of curlew and the rapture of larks.

Speaking of the novel, it’s descending into chaos, and tom-foolery. We’ve reached that point where it asks me if I want to bail out around 80K words, or wander on for another year, make it an epic. I think we’ll call its bluff and go for the epic. Amid this fall of the world, this crisis of meaning, and the impending climate disaster, it’s led me of a sudden to Helena Petrovna Blavatski, to the Theosophists, and all those curious fin de siècle secret societies.

I’ve had a brush with the redoubtable Madame B before, found her intellectually seductive, but also frightening. I bailed out at that first pass, but it looks like there’s something more she has to tell me, and this time I’m ready to listen. Memo to self: order Gary Lachman’s book, and while we’re at it, the one about Trump, and the political right’s courtship of the occult. It all sounds absurd, but let’s just go with it.

Across the Belmont road now, and the path into the woods becomes a bog. The Roddlesworth river is a lively torrent. We’re four miles out, and the woods are busy with muddy bikes, wet families, and happy, yappy dogs. We swing for home via the ruins of Pimms, on the moor, then Great Hill. The rain is blowing itself out at last. There are hints of sunshine, now, but the going is steep. Great Hill has grown since I last climbed it, swollen with rains to Tyrolean proportions. The ground looks like it’s been overspilling for weeks, and squirting water under every step.

At the summit shelter, I’m able to bag the last space among a gathering of several walking groups, all huddled for lunch. Cue mutterings of overcrowding on the fells, paths churned to slime and all that,… but we’re not going there today either. In my new universe, all are welcome. A jolly dame appears from nowhere, offers mince pies, and a nip of rum for my coffee.

The sun breaks through. There’s a low, gorgeous light of a sudden, under-lit clouds, curtains of rain in the distance. Old Lady Pendle appears, a crouching lion beyond Darwen moor. I try some shots with the little camera, but they come out poorly, red dot noisy. Sometimes, the best pictures are the ones you carry in your head, and they get better with age.

A good day on the moors, then, and never mind the wet feet. There’s a pair of dry socks in the car. Fancy a hot chocolate? We’ll drive over to the Hare and Hounds at Abbey, shall we? See what they can rustle up for us. The year turns.

All is well. Bring it on.

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ramblerContinuing with part two of my story, The Choices:

For reasons that should be obvious by now, I no longer fall in love with the woman in the red dress. Love is not always a solution to things, though it’s often tempting to believe that it is. This is not to say it cannot occasionally alter the one’s path for the better. It’s just that the possibilities are somewhat limited on this particular night. As for the woman in the red dress, she is incapable of returning love. I should know, it being a lesson I had to learn many times before I wised up.

For the moment she’s a fledgeling alcoholic and a drug addict, her fate having locked her, long ago, into a downward cycle of repeated self-destruction. For her, escape will come, not through me, but through the solution of the enigma of her own route through time. Should she ever manage it, there will come a time when she no longer props up the bar of the McKinley Arms Hotel and no one will be happier than me when that happens. It’s also troubling, the thought there might come a time when all the other pilgrims in here find solutions to their journeys in time, and disappear – all of them, except me.

I get up and, for want of distraction, sit in the chair next to mine, but I’ve done this before and it makes no difference. In a moment I’ll go and sit in the corner by the clock, but these are not real choices, just trimmings around the edges. The big turning points come from the roads we take, or from our encounters with people. There is nothing random about such things. Only from the perspective of a single expansion might they appear so. But once you see things the way I do, the patterns stand out. There’s the dynamic thrust of the clear path. Then there’s the cloying heaviness of the strange attractors, like this one, this night in the McKinley Arms Hotel.

Some times back there was a woman in blue jeans and a pink tee-shirt. She’d been travelling my way, heading for Fort William. On a couple of expansions we’d met up there, and spent some days together. She was soft and gentle and had a scent of rosemary and sandalwood about her. I should have made more of it than I did, but I always ended up alone after waving her off on the train to Mallaig.

Things had been going pretty well, and we’d started looking at each other like everything was meant to be. But then I stopped to think about it for a moment too long and the opportunity passed. It was not so much love, more a subtle magnetism drawing me towards fresh pastures, fresh opportunity.  The next time, I’m thinking, I’ll get on that train and go with her. But she must have veered off some expansions past, and I’ve not seen her since. Thus, I find myself at times in the unusual position of aching for memories of a future I have not yet had.

Of course, my biggest fear is that that was it, you know? Somewhere in that encounter was my one chance of solving this puzzle, and I missed it! But there would be no point in these continuing expansions, if they no longer served any purpose, would there? Surely something else will turn up! Someone will walk through that door and change everything!

So here I am. Waiting.

There are worse bubbles of time to be stuck in. I mean like those beginning around 1900 and expanding through two world wars. They drafted whole generations into the carnage of mindless, mechanical mass slaughter. I suppose, from one point of view there’s a lot of interesting material there to work with, lots of life altering choices, and it may be that it’s easier to make progress in a sea of such upheaval. But what does a middle-aged Englishman of my generation do? Much of life’s nastiness has passed me by. The most dangerous thing I do is get behind the wheel of a car. Still, since I’ve no choice in the times I’m dealt. I can only work with the times I have!

How long I sit here varies. With some expansions it’s about the time it takes to finish my drink. With others, I linger until “last orders”. This marks the bounding condition, and prevents me sitting here all night.

I’m not sure at what point one wakes up to my peculiar perspective, nor even if it’s a natural phenomenon. I mean, I’ve never met anyone else like me. It could be a freakish delusion, I suppose, except one does have a very real sense of the repetition of things, that in certain situations, like this, you have the ability to predict the probable run of events, based on experience. In a moment for example the woman in the red dress will pick up her glass and there’s a good chance the coaster will be stuck to the bottom of it. Then, the old guy sitting beside me will turn over his paper and begin the crossword. It’s interesting how the clues are always different from the time before. This suggests to me the similarities of each successive expansion are only superficial, that at some fundamental level it’s not possible to cheat at life by knowing it line by line. There are probabilities involved, and it’s a probability I’m waiting on now, a slim chance to be seized before it slips though my fingers.

The woman in the red dress laughs. It’s a haunting sound, reminiscent  of the times things were different between us. But for now she is a prisoner of her own circumstances. I’m the only one who knows it and it puzzles me how I can be so prescient regarding the fate of others, yet powerless to guide my own.

I go up to the bar and order another whisky. There are several fine malts to choose from, but my choices here make no difference. I’ve learned to savour each one without worrying too much about the path it might be leading me down. Remember – one shouldn’t try too hard in navigating one’s expansion! I’m sure there’s a Chinese proverb about that sort of thing. But anyway, while I’m here, I eavesdrop on the patter between the man in the blue suit and the woman in the red dress. I’m thinking to myself I could make a lot of money telling fortunes. Like all things, its obvious once you know how the trick works. You’ve just got to be careful not to home in too much on the specifics.

Things are going well between them, so I sense his fate is sealed once more. I back away, taking with me the memory of her perfume, keeping it always as a souvenir of times past, arousing as it does feelings of hopeless attraction and danger.

She’s very tipsy now. The man in the blue suit leads her towards the door marked “residents only”. Her leg collides with my table and the glasses teeter. This hasn’t happened before, and I’m not sure if it’s significant, not sure if it presages a subtle undertow worth surrendering to – but how? How does one to respond to such a thing, and in a way sufficient to alter the course of an entire life? Before I can work it out it, it’s over. She giggles an apology, and they’re heading upstairs to their usual fate.

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penyghent

Penyghent – Yorkshire Dales

I wasn’t sure what reception I’d get at Horton in Ribblesdale. In the fledgling pandemic days, locals barricaded the car parks to keep visitors away. But things were pretty much back to normal this morning. I wanted to get the winter sleep out of my legs and, it now being August, there was a growing sense of urgency about matters. Walking on the flat is better than nothing, but what a hill walker needs is a hill. And what better hill is there than Penyghent?

Penyghent, isn’t the highest of the Yorkshire peaks but it’s got to be the prettiest. Its ascent from Horton involves a long pull up the Brackenbottom scars, then  a couple of easy scrambles to the top. The downside is it’s a popular route, on the three-peaks circuit, so there’s never a time when you’ll have it to yourself. Today was no exception.

The drive over was busy, the A59 a long snarl of impatient heavies and white vans. I was cut up by a pair of vans at the Tickled Trout doing a hundred miles an hour. Then there were the Hooray Henriettas in their Chelsea-tractors who can’t always be relied upon to signal their intentions when whizzing around roundabouts. And the giant hardcore wagons thundering along the A682 and the A65 seemed even bigger and faster and more thundery than usual. Maybe I’m just too old to be venturing far these days.

As for the hill, it was a slow moving procession. The groups were well spaced out, but several of them were over-large and troublesome on the pass. For a while I trailed an old timer. He stepped aside to let me through, then gave me a shake of the head and told me with a touch of pathos he was not the man he used to be. The guy was well into his eighties, memories of many a mountain trail etched into the lines of his face. We were coming up to the five hundred meter contour by then and a couple of miles out of Horton, so he wasn’t doing too bad. A sit down to admire the view, a swig water, and he’d be fine.

You scramble for a joke at times like that, something to make light. I told him we could all say the same, about not being the man we used to be. I’m not sure where that came from. Sometimes the unconscious speaks its own mind, unbidden.

I saw him on the summit later, making steady progress. He might not have been as fast as he was – which I suppose is what he meant – but he lacked none of the grit. That’s the important thing for a man. Once we lose our grit, we’re done because life will always find a way of testing it, no matter how old we get.

The summit was a busy spot for lunch, crowds and bits of ancient banana skin scattered everywhere. The overlarge groups were annoying. One of them comprised corporate types with iPhones poised, responding to business emails at the tops of their voices. So, it was a quick bite and off. Sadly, the three peaks route was always a magnet for pricks.

If you want lonely on Penyghent, you head north from the summit to Plover Hill. Then it’s back down the knee-breaking length of the Foxup Road. But not today. Today, I was just grateful to be out on the hill, grateful for the aliveness of it, and the scent of the wild.

Penyghent left me with aching hips, but the rest of me was fine. If I have any doubts about myself it’s a waning confidence on the roads. They seem crazy-busy now, or maybe I’m slowing down. Am I the man I used to be? Well no, of course not. But then like I said to the old-timer, none of us are. We can only hope the bits of youth we’ve lost to the inevitable leakage of time are replaced with something else. Call it an eye for the sublime, and a more mindfully placed step. I don’t know.

There was a coffee shop in Horton doing takeaways. Face mask and hand gel, granted access. All is change. We just have to roll with it, and be accepting.

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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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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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surface-hands-ellerbeck-abt-1913

If you and I traced our ancestors back, say a couple of thousand years, we’d find we were related. But that’s the thing with family trees. The further back you go, the branches widen, sweeping up more and more of us. Even a couple of hundred years is enough to ensure you’ll score some landed gentry among your lot. There’s likely the occasional murderer, too. But you’re only one in tens of thousands of souls, all related in the same vague way, so it doesn’t mean anything, does it?

I used to think there was nothing worse than some ardent genealogist banging on about his family tree. On and on they’d go, like you could be interested. I mean, what did it matter that so and so married so and so a hundred years ago? But then you get the bug yourself and you begin to see things differently. You begin to understand the fascination.

First, you simply want to honour your family by getting all their names in order, names you heard as a child but never met because they were long dead. Or maybe they’d branched off a few generations ago and gone to live on the other side of the world. So now you want to get them straight in your head. You want them with the right spouse, the right children. You want to pass them on to your own kids, a neat little package of heritage – like your own kids could be bothered. But then you tap into something else, you experience a “wow” moment,  and you realize there’s much more going on here.

Tracing your family history is like sketching out a story, and stories are powerful things. Suddenly, they can transform those dimly remembered names into heroes, into characters of mythological status, and myths are strange things. Once we tap into them our lives change, because that’s what myths do. They come from our deepest past, and they energise our present.

My Irish grandfather, Michael, came to Lancashire to work the quarries as a farrier. Whilst here, he had a fling with a mill-girl called Lizzie. Then he lost his job and went back to his parents’ farm in County Mayo, leaving Lizzie behind. But Lizzie discovered she was with child. So, urgent letters were exchanged and Michael returned to a hasty marriage.

He settled in a village on the edge of the Western Pennines, raised a family of four, one of them my mother. If he’d been a different kind of guy, I wouldn’t be here to tell the story. I imagine a hard-working, happy-go-lucky character, a bit of a charmer, and full of stories, not all of them true, but when things got serious, he’d always do the right thing.

That mill-girl had a brother called Richard. He married another mill-girl called Annie. Then he got swept up in the Great War, and died of fever in Mesopotamia, never saw home again. Annie struggled for years on a war-widow’s pension, then left for Australia on the promise of a better life. There, she married Fred, a German guy – at a time when German guys were still unpopular. I’ve not followed him up yet, but I’m thinking Fred must have been something special. Anyway, the two of them went on to pioneer land near Pingaring, and they seemed to make a go of it. That’s where her story peters out for me, them living a cowboy and cowgirl kind of life in the vastness of Western Australia.

This is not to say my family is any more or less fascinating than yours. We can all find the archetypal stories if we look. It’s not about the bloodline. Blood means nothing unless there’s money involved. Annie’s not a blood relative, but I think about her story a lot. Romance, tragedy, courage, adventure and triumph over adversity. It’s got everything and I find it inspiring. Even across time, something about her story, played out a century ago influences the way I think today.

But there’s more. I’ve researched the life of an obscure Victorian man of letters. He’s no relation at all, yet I ended up living his story as intensely as if it were a part of my own. So it doesn’t need to be even a vague family connection either. It runs much deeper than genealogy. It transcends blood and kin. It reaches back to the collective from which all stories rise.

If by some magic we were able to meet those people for real, there’s a chance we might not like them very much. We would find them too human, rather than the perfected heroes and heroines of our imagination. What we’re doing then is projecting parts of our psyche upon a bare structure of names, dates and events. What we tap into are latent energies that seek passage into consciousness, and they take powerful form as stories.

As we unearth these stories, we’re not uncovering the literal truth of a past life. Rather, we are exploring pieces of our own selves. Doing so, we grant new life to the mythical foundations of the past, all our pasts because the thing with myths is they seek renewal for each generation who stumbles upon them. And they reward us with fresh meaning and direction.

I’ve discovered no celebrities, no toffs, no great statesmen, in my family tree, at least not between here and the early Victorian period. Any further than that, who knows?  Four generations seems plenty for keeping it real. Four generations, and the stories are still plentiful, still of sufficient resolution for one’s imagination to get to grips with.

The best stories do not need kings and queens to act them out. We find them in the ordinary. That’s why they’re of such universal appeal. Colliers, labourers, crofters, weavers, quarrymen, farriers, domestics, pioneers and conscripted soldiers. That’s my lot. Plus of course life, love and adversity,… the stuff of stories and the bedrock of existence.

It turns out, genealogy isn’t boring after all.

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atlwcsOccasionally you come across a novel that makes you realize you’ve been tolerating some dreadful rubbish in your reading of late. Such novels light you up from the first paragraph, the first line even. And so it was for me with this one. They are like a breath of fresh air after a long incarceration.

All the light we cannot see has great depth and intricacy, both in its subject and in the telling of it. The chapters are short, sometimes just a page or two, but there’s an intensity to them, and they shift about from beginning to end, illuminating meaning, lighting the way as Doerr leads us through a labyrinth of place and time and love – the love between people, and of life itself.  

I’m describing a work of lyrical and literary merit here, to say nothing of being the winner of the 2015 Pulizer prize, yet it also has the quality of a compulsive page-turner. At times you want to rush at it, to find out what happens next, instead of lingering in the silkenness of the words and the power of the ideas. So, those short chapters really save you, punctuating your way through the complexity and the magic.

It sounds like I’m describing a fairy story, not a story of war, yet there are elements here that ring with a mythological resonance.

The story opens in the early 1930s and follows the lives of two orphans. First, there is Werner Pfennig, a young German boy with a genius for building and repairing radios. Through his first radio-set he hears an enigmatic transmission from France, something that lights his passion for the romance of science and discovery. The memory of it is to captivate and haunt him throughout his life. But the war is looming and, longing to avoid his dead father’s fate in the mines, he allows himself to be enlisted in the Hitler youth movement, and from there into the army. There, his expertise with radios sees him as part of a unit that roves the battle lines in a truck, using radio direction methods to locate partisan transmissions. It is a hunt with inevitably brutal conclusions.  

The other orphan is Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, living with her father in Paris. When Paris is over-run by the Germans, they flee to St. Malo, to the house of her uncle Étienne, an other-worldy man, badly shell-shocked from the first war. Unknown to Marie-Laure, her father, a master-locksmith from the museum, has been entrusted with the safekeeping of a magnificent diamond the Nazis would dearly like to catch up with.

Étienne’s house is the source of the mysterious radio transmissions Werner listened to as a boy. The transmitter has lain unused for many years. But as St Malo too is overrun, Étienne is reluctantly caught up in the partisan effort, and begins using it again to transmit coded messages to the allies.

That Werner is destined to meet Marie-Laure we are never in any doubt. But this is far from a simple love story. The events of Werner’s war in particular raise questions of courage, morality and pragmatism. But contrasted with this, we have the love between Marie-Laure and her father, and later her uncle Étienne. Then there is Étienne’s companionship with his housekeeper, the energetically practical Madame Manec,… And then there is St Malo, so beautifully described, almost as a living thing.

Werner’s war takes him first to the eastern front, but gradually, as things go badly for Germany, he and his comrades find themselves travelling westward to St Malo, and the imminent D-Day landings, still on the hunt for enemy radio transmissions,…

You can see all this coming from some way out, but rest assured the writer has seen you seeing it, and is lying in wait for you with a twist that is as beautiful and emotional as it is unexpected. As I grow older I become less patient with writers, and it’s a rare one who can break down the barricades and lance my heart as this story does.

Some critics didn’t like it. They didn’t like the pellucid prose. They didn’t like the genre motifs, the page-turning urgency. So maybe I’m just thick and it appealed to my uncritical and semiliterate tastes. But from a random pick on a charity shop bookshelf ‘All the light we cannot see’ lands easily in my all-time top-ten, and a small list of books to be read again and again. 

 

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