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Posts Tagged ‘meaning’

From Peewit Hall, Anglezarke Moor

Exploring meaning, purpose, and our freedom to choose.

After a couple of cold, squally days, the weather clears, and we venture outdoors. There is no plan so, as is usual under such circumstances, the car delivers us seemingly of its own accord to Anglezarke’s Yarrow Reservoir, where we find ourselves parking along the Parson’s Bullough road. The trees here are showing their first signs of turning, and the waters of the Yarrow are a cobalt blue, sunbeams sparkling between crisping foliage. There is speculation this year’s drought will gift us, by way of apology and compensation, some spectacular autumn colours. I’m looking forward to it.

It’s been an eventful week. My nest-egg investments dropped five percent overnight. Meanwhile, company pension schemes find themselves a heartbeat from implosion, as the long term bond market collapses. All this following last Fridays’ inoffensively titled “Fiscal Event”. It’s had me considering what kind of employment I would be fit for now, after enjoying barely two years of retirement. Will I have to go grovelling back, after quitting the day job in such a fit of giddy joy?

By the Yarrow on the Parson’s Bullough Road

Paul Donovan, chief economist of UBS Global Wealth Management, likens present UK governance as resembling a Doomsday Cult. I find it hard to disagree. The PM and Chancellor meanwhile hold to the line that it’s all part of a cunning plan, one no one else has thought to try. We can only hope they are right.

Anyway, I’m glad I took the plunge and finally bought those new walking boots I’ve been banging on about, and a fresh walking jacket as well – just for the hell of it – as I might not have felt like it later on when I was browsing the job adverts. Today, though, we leave the new boots behind, having decided to walk our old ones to destruction. But we pack the jacket, because it’s half the weight of my other, and weight is everything to the walker approaching his autumn years.

We have a mostly clear sky, but with some isolated, dramatic clouds, and a bank of something more solidly changeable, coming up from the south. The latter needs keeping an eye on, but we should be fine for a couple of hours.

We take the path, still in warm sunshine, towards Jepsons, and across Twitch Hills Clough. The levelled ruin of Peewit Hall is always the first stop. The view from here is too good to rush, not only the whole of west Lancashire laid out from hill to sea, but the broader arc from Wales to Cumbria. After feasting on it through binoculars, we plod on, still with no objective in mind, meeting a few other walkers, mostly old timers, who all seem buoyed by the day, and cheerful in their greetings. Such pleasantness is infectious. The legs carry us up Lead Mine’s Clough, past the falls, and the site of James Yates’ Well. We seem to be heading for the moor, then, more specifically the Round Loaf, a remote Bronze Age burial mound.

The Round Loaf, Anglezarke Moor

The moor is heavy underfoot, splashing wet, and bog-shaky in the usual places. The heather is in abundance, but of a washed-out mauve, like last year’s colours left too long in the rain. I’d thought it was done for after the drought, but there are isolated patches showing the more vivid purple, so perhaps another few weeks will see the moors carpeted in glory as usual. We’ll be back to check. Expect a moorland scene with heather, all in unashamedly overcooked HDR, enough to make your eyes ache!

Sometimes there’s a cairn on the Round Loaf, sometimes not, and if there is, it varies in size from one visit to the next. The biggest I ever saw it, it was topped off by a sheep’s skull, and a sobering reminder that some neo-pagans embrace the diabolical. No skull today, though, but there are the usual dizzying views of moor and plain, and a choice of paths radiating at all points of the compass: Black Brook, Great Hill, Black Hill, Devil’s Ditch, Lead Mine’s Clough, Hurst Hill; take your pick,….

We choose Hurst Hill on a whim, just 1038 ft, but high enough to be several degrees cooler than when we started out. It’s a cold day up here, then, all the more noticeable after such a perpetually hot summer. Then the banked cloud swallows the sun, and the nature of the day changes. It’s another splashy path, but the boots are holding out, and the socks are still miraculously dry. There’s a more substantial cairn on top of Hurst Hill, and a persistently chill wind. A zippered fleece is of a sudden insufficient, so we delve in the bag for the new jacket. It cuts the wind in its tracks, allows us to settle, oblivious to the elements, and enjoy our soup.

On Hurst Hill

Serious though they are, I’m sure I’m over-thinking Albion’s woes when I imagine even my pension cheques drying up, and investments tanking, like they did in 1929. Still, an interest rate hike would see both my kids at risk of losing their newly acquired footing on the housing market, just so millionaires can pay less tax, and that would vex me enormously. But for the sake of argument, how does a man face his future when the future he imagined no longer exists?

It’s no coincidence I’m reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s search for meaning” at the moment. His thesis is that a sense of meaning and purpose is essential to our well-being. This runs counter to prevailing existentialist, post-modern teachings which tell us there is no meaning, that we suffer, and we do so pointlessly. But once we subscribe to such a view we lose sight of the future, relinquish all sense of meaning, become dehumanised, suffer all the more and without respite. This is the malaise of the western world, and it’s killing us.

Frankl’s views were formed during his time in the Nazi concentration camps. In such hellish places, a man was stripped of everything, until all he had left to lose was his fragile hold on life. Frankl’s observations of his fellow captives, condemned to being literally worked to death, led him to conclude those who retained a sense of personal meaning, in spite of everything, tended to survive longer, even though they might have appeared physically less able than their friends.

Meaning may well be denied both its existence and its validity in the life of a modern man, but the experience of such extremes of suffering teaches us it remains essential for well-being, even survival. It has often struck me how many of my former colleagues were so deeply invested in the working life, they cultivated no hobbies, no interests beyond the office, then fared poorly in retirement. No longer the “big man” but just another grey old fart, pushing a trolley around Tescos, they longed to be taken back.

Do we define ourselves, our purpose, by our means of earning a living? By the badge we wear? It’s possible, even productive to do so, for a time, but there also comes a time when there has to be a transition to something new. Purpose and meaning must evolve as our circumstances change. This is easier for creative types, for they shall always have their art, unless they become too invested in the idea of making a success of it, in which case, they’re sunk.

The problem facing many of us in these strange times, times in which a permanent sense of crisis seems to hold sway, is the inability to live for the future, or even to aim at a specific goal, since the future is rendered opaque. Frankl called this living a provisional existence, a loss of faith in one’s future. To live well, one must live with some sense of purpose, be it big or small, and to transition as needs must from one to the next like stepping stones to lead us on through life. But the sense of purpose, of meaning is not a thing bestowed upon us, more it is a thing we are invited to cultivate internally, in order to animate and enliven our world.

Manor House Farm, Anglezarke

For now my purpose is to find my way off this hill, follow the line of the old lead mines, touch base with a few familiar points along the way, and then, over the coming evenings, weave the whole of it, the financial crisis, Victor Frankl’s book, and this walk over Anglezarke moor, into a coherent narrative – hopefully without the stretch marks showing too much. The way leads us past the Manor House farm, where chestnuts litter the wayside. We pick one up, savour the smooth oiled sheen of it, and pocket it for good luck. Always something magical, I think, about freshly fallen chestnuts.

By Jepsons Farm, Anglezarke

One of my familiar waypoints is the stone that overlooks Jepson’s farm. I have this idea that many megalithic features were hidden in the construction of the dry stone walls, some of these latter dating from medieval times. The walls are tumbling now, and the calling cards from an earlier age are revealing themselves. Sometimes, if you have a sharp eye, you can spot them, still buried in the walls. They bear the marks of millennia of weathering, rather than mere centuries. I may be wrong in this, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t intend making a theory of it in order to convince others. It’s the interest alone, the observation, the connection, the speculation that, in this moment, is purpose in itself.

A stone in the wall, near Jepson’s Farm, Anglezarke

Another thing Frankl wrote that deeply impressed me was to the effect that a man could be deprived of every freedom, and every thing in his life, including his loved ones, and even his name. Yet he would still retain the choice of what attitude to bring to the shouldering of his burden. I hesitate to paraphrase such a powerful idea, born as it was in such a terrible darkness of suffering, but it reminds us we are all free to choose at least our inner path, no matter the nature of the constraints imposed upon us by the external world.

It’s late afternoon when we come back to the Yarrow, and the car. We’re still hours before sunset, but already seem to be losing the light. By the time we make it home, it’s raining.

Thanks for listening

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It was reading the psychoanalysts that introduced me to the interpretation of dreams. But I also read Dunne’s “Experiment with Time“, which said if you make a note of your dreams for long enough you’ll dream of things you’ll later encounter in waking life, like a premonition. If I’m being honest with myself then, it was more on account of Dunne than the psychoanalysts I began a dream journal. I was looking for personal experience of something anomalous, something that would challenge the rationalizing ego, and grant credence to the possibility there was something beyond the face value of the material life.

And you know, Dunne was right. Time is not the straight line we think it is, or at least my own experiments along his lines – basically recording one’s dreams as diligently as possible – convinced me it was so. Sometimes we do dream of things that subsequently happen, as if the dreaming mind can borrow images from both our past, and our future. What do you do with that? Well, you think about it for a bit, then screw the lid back on, tight, because having established the fact there’s something wobbly about the way we view the world, something strange about our concept of time, you discover you’re not equipped to explain what it means and, in spite of his valiant efforts to the contrary, throughout several subsequent books, neither was Dunne. Then I read Priestly’s “Man and Time” which covered some of the same ground as Dunne, though without the analytical ambitions. Priestly, the artist and playwright, was able to look differently on the results than Dunne, who was a scientist and an engineer. He was able to say (and I paraphrase): “yes, it’s a rum one this, and we’ll likely never get to the bottom of it. Best just to go with it then, and don’t worry about solving all the equations.”

So, instead I turned back to the psychoanalysts and tried interpreting dreams. This is something of a hit-and-miss affair. Plus, those psychoanalysts will throw you deep into symbolism and mythology, stuff you’ve never heard of, nor will you ever discover in a lifetime, and I worry if you think long and hard enough there’s a danger you’ll read something into nothing. Personally, I’d rather the dreams spoke in a language tailored to one’s own ability, otherwise what’s the use? Sometimes they do just that, but mostly they don’t.

So while it is indeed possible to glean some insights from our nightly adventures in dreams, I reckon it’s best to simply let the dreams be. By this I mean, don’t try to dismantle them and examine the pieces. James Hillman’s book “The Dream and the Underworld” says something along those lines and discourages any particular practice in following dreams, other than, well, just following them. Sometimes you’ll get a definite “Aha!”, but overall the impression is that the dream has its own life, and we’re giving ourselves airs if we think its business is to interfere in our every waking step along the way.

I’m still in the habit of remembering dreams. Mostly though, I recall only fleeting glimpses. At one time I would have beaten myself up over that, worried I might have missed out on a vital insight, so the most valuable lesson there is to let them go their own way if they’re not for hanging around. I’ve a feeling we dream all the time anyway, night and day. Slip into an afternoon nap, and the dream-life is right there again to pick you up and carry you along in its surreal flow. It’s like a soap opera, no matter how many episodes you miss, you can jump back in anywhere and pick up the threads. Dreaming is one half of our natural state of being, but mostly I’ve no idea what the other guy is up to in there. Sometimes our paths will cross though, and then the one world mirrors the other in ways that mean something.

There’s a school of psychology which holds our brains to be computers made of meat, that we are nothing but biological machines, that dreams are junk, and we shouldn’t bother our waking consciousness with them. But I suspect those who say such things don’t dream very well, or very deeply. Anyone who’s had a big dream and been moved by it knows that, while they cannot always be understood, dreams are certainly not junk. And sometimes, yes, they’ll trip you up with hints of the non linearity of time. And maybe you wished you’d not seen that, because in fact it’s easier to go on believing we are indeed just biological machines with an end-by date, that time is a straight line, and that there’s nothing more to the world than a swirling bag of dust and a black void at the end of it.

True, most of the time that’s the way it looks, and you wonder at the point of plodding on. Then you have a big dream, and you wake up knowing that’s not the way things are at all, and you’d better keep going because there’s a bigger picture here, and while you might not understand it, you’re a part of it, and you don’t want to let the team down by giving up on it. Like Dunne discovered, you’ll never explain it, because we’ve not the language, neither mathematically, nor philosophically. Yet, like Priestly tells us, it adds another dimension to the world, if we’re only prepared to think on it without a view to explaining anything, and rather just accepting that things may just be so. And if we can do that, it’s like opening a door without wondering how the lock and hinges work.

As for what’s on the other side, well that’s more a sense of being, than a way of thinking.

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Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com


Working from home had never suited Jed. Okay, he’d always hated the commute to the office, especially over winter. But now, since the great switch, he missed the companionship of others. He also hated the intrusion of his employer’s virtual presence into his flat. Then there was his employer’s theft of his electricity, his heating, his lighting and his Internet. And for what? Every day he beamed his face into team-space for the sake of listening to the same dreary wombats droning on in meetings he was unable to avoid. And while he listened with one ear cocked for his name, and an invitation to make some banal contribution, he’d try to keep up with the avalanche of emails, so he could still clock off at a decent time. It was an absurd way to live.


Mondays were the worst. It was as if people saved everything up until the end of the week, then waited for him to log off before launching stuff at him. He was sure some even stayed up to the small hours with trivial queries they’d send with a time stamp aimed only at impressing the line manager, whom they’d copied in for no other reason. And come Monday he would open up and be buried in this meaningless dross.


If Jed took a week off, or worse, a fortnight for the summer, it might be several days before he caught up. There were hundreds and hundreds of emails, every day, and most were about nothing. But all required an eyeball for the small number that actually need a response. For years now, he’d felt like he was drowning.
So, he was in no particular hurry to log on this morning, to see what the cat had dragged in over the weekend. He was anxious about it, actually, even retching a little in the bathroom as he’d cleaned his teeth. Still, he’d better get to it. There were debits to pay, and he’d lose money for every minute he was late logging on. Late three times in a row, and he’d lose an entire week’s pay.

This morning though, the machine wouldn’t let him in. It took his password, did the usual security scan, taking pictures of his morning-bleary face to confirm his ID, then booted him out. He’d always passed facials before, but this morning something had changed.

“You’re displaying signs of unhappiness,” said the machine.

“I’m what?”

“All employees must show evidence of positive energy, before entering the system.”

“When did this come in? What evidence?”

He regretted the question. The machine recorded all his conversations, all his mails, for analysis. It would go against him that he’d missed, or more likely deleted, that particular email.

“Lack of a happy smile indicates you are low in spirit,” explained the machine. “You will contaminate the stated company ethos of maintaining a powerful and spirited enthusiasm. You will quarantine while you adjust your attitude. Please cheer up, and try again tomorrow.”

There was nothing he could do. That was a day’s pay gone, and all because he couldn’t muster up a smile when he logged on. Anyway the machine was right. He wasn’t happy. His wife had left him and his dog had died, and he hated his foolish job, answering emails about emails all day. How could anyone be happy about that? How could anyone summon up the required powerful, spirited enthusiasm, unless they were insane? It wasn’t enough the whole world was now operating at this same level of lobotomized enslavement to shovelling bullshit, everyone had to be happy about it as well.

He decided to use his day off to good effect, and to relax, then he’d be in better spirits for logging on tomorrow. So he took a walk in the fresh air. Then he made himself a proper dinner, and practised smiling in the mirror before he went to bed. He practised some more when he got up in the morning, before he logged on. But still, the machine would not let him in.

“Your smile is not genuine,” it said. “It suggests deception. Be warned this is not a positive attitude to adopt, and will count against your employee rating. You will remain in quarantine. Please try again tomorrow.”

There was no way around it. That was one pernickety machine.

Jed wasn’t sure what to do now. It seemed his unhappiness was finally getting the better of him. What puzzled him though was how everyone else had managed to pass the happiness test. Were they right now beaming their positive energies into their emails? But he’d rather got the impression everyone else was as unhappy as him. Could it be they were that bit better at hiding it? And if so, what was their secret?

It struck him, of course, as the days passed, the emails would be piling up, and he couldn’t get at them. Even when he managed to log in, it would be terrible. He would be drowning in them for days and days. Feeling very depressed now, Jed went to the pub. There he met Chris, a former colleague, occasional drinking buddy and barfly sage.

“Hey Jed, why so glum?”

“Don’t you start,” said Jed. “They’ve got this new fangled facial scanner at work. It can tell when you’re unhappy, and it won’t let you log in.”

“Can’t you fake it, like everyone else?”

“Tried that. It didn’t work. At this rate I’m going to be broke.”

“Don’t worry,” said Chris. “I’ve heard of this face reading stuff before. It’s creepy, mate, but it’s not infallible. You need a bit of coaching, that’s all.”

“Coaching?”

“How to pretend you’re happy, when you’re not.”

“But why should I have to go around pretending? I do my job as well as anybody else. Now they’re demanding I smile while I’m at it? I mean it’s just not dignified, is it?”

“It’s a fad,” said Chris. “You know what these big corporate management types are like. They’ll try any shiny whizz-bang thing to impress the shareholders. It also helps if it’ll subjugate the minions. Why do you think I quit?


Because you inherited a fortune from your dad, thought Jed. And we can’t all be so lucky as that.

Chris went on: “Everybody in work these days lies.” he said. “No one says what they really think, or they’d not last a day. The high-fliers in a system like that are the ones who are best at pretending they believe in this positive vibe stuff. Right? Including to themselves. So, tell me,… when was the last time you were happy?”

“Dunno.”

“Oh, come on. Think back. How about when you were a kid?”

An image came to Jed of walking along a beach as a little boy. He could feel the softness of the sand underfoot, and the sparkling cool of the sea as it washed over his toes. It was the first day of his summer holiday, and it had felt like it would go on for ever. There was no sinking feeling at the thought of an email in-box waiting on his return. There was no thought for all the emails wanting to know when he would be responding to his emails, about his emails,… about his emails. Yes, he’d been happy then.

“There you go,” said Chris. “Now you’re smiling. So think of that same thing when you’re logging on tomorrow, and you’ll be just fine, mate.”

Jed was impressed. Chris had always struck him as a bit of an intemperate jerk, but on this occasion he’d nailed it. So the following morning he closed his eyes and summoned up that same image from boyhood. He focused on it until he swore he could feel the pleasure of it tingling throughout his whole being. Then he logged in. But the machine wasn’t fooled.

“Please try again tomorrow,” it said.

Three days now without pay. That meant he’d nothing clear after rent, and he’d need to cut back on some essentials, skip a meal or two. He rang the doctor, thinking to get some happy pills, but he couldn’t get an appointment for weeks. Then a text came through on his phone. It was someone from HR reminding him he’d missed three logins. If he missed another two, he’d be fired as per the terms and conditions of employment he could remember neither reading nor signing.

He looked around him and felt the walls closing in. His flat was rented. His car was rented. Everything he owned, including his phone and even the apps on his phone were all in some way owned by someone else. He merely leased them, rented them, paid subs on them. And if he should ever stop, then everything, his whole material life disappeared. Exactly what did he own, other than the clothes on his back? Wait a minute. Even they were rented now! Was he to go naked into the world and starve?

There had to be a way to turn this around. He had to try harder, focus more on that scene from the beach. He had to focus all day and all night if need be – focus until he was as good as there. But as he focused, he realized, lurking in the background, there had been an imperfection. He’d been ten years old, and innocent, but there’d still been something hanging over him. He would be moving up to big school in September, and the thought had terrified him. He’d been hiding from this fear under cover of that long summer holiday. But it had still been there and, in the weeks to come, it would begin to gnaw away at the seeming perfection of his happiness. He needed to find another memory, one without such a fatal flaw. There had to be something.

What about love? He ran through all his past girlfriends, but discovered love did not cut it at all. With the joy of love there was always the attendant potential of the loss of the other’s affection. Love had always been a striving emotion, never the true, settled perfection of its promise.

What about when United won the Championship then? He’d floated on that for a while. But again there was the accompanying thought about how well they would kick off next season. Always then there was this potential for loss, for the sun to set on one’s joy. As he flicked his way through all the moments of his life, he realized it was never possible to actually be happy for anything other than fleeting moments. Indeed, it was foolish to make happiness the aim of your life. Happiness was both the balloon, and the knowledge the balloon was inflating itself against the sharpness of life, a sharpness that might rupture one’s joy at any moment. More, it was necessary to realize it, he thought, to accept it, and be strong in the face of it. Otherwise, you would always be a slave.

This thought, coming to him in the small hours, after a long meditation, felt like the revelation he needed. He’d been trying too hard. He had to be more neutral in his approach to life and to work. He had to be, if not exactly indifferent to life’s potential for happiness, then at least sanguine over the potential of its loss. As for maintaining a happy, powerfully spirited attitude for even a single working day,.. well that was impossible.


Feeing philosophical and relaxed now, he slept a little, woke early and logged in. The machine scanned his face, analysed it for longer than usual, searching among the millions of facial templates to find the one that matched Jed’s, and which might describe it. The machine failed, then booted him out with the default claim he was not showing enough positive energy. He risked contaminating the organizational ethos with his “unknown” demeanour. So, he was to remain in quarantine until his attitude improved, until he could show the right spirit.

“Please try again tomorrow.”

By now though, Jed was less preoccupied by his lack of success at logging into the damned machine as by the changes he could feel going on within himself. The walls of his flat moved out again. Their colours grew pale, then transparent as they dissolved, and he felt an overwhelming sense of release. The next morning, he logged in without a thought and the machine scanned his face. It thought about it for a long time, then came back with an opaque error message, but let him in anyway. He opened up his inbox, but it was empty, and no faces appeared in the usual team-call. Across entire continents, servers were humming to destruction, eating their own code.

Jed had broken the machine.

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girl with green eyesFrom the outside, the school looked much the same, but on the inside time had left its mark. I remembered drab walls, a sort of uniform eggshell blue, but now it was all pastel shades, and the corridors, which I could still hear echoing to the sound of footsteps and sliding bags, were hushed by coordinating carpets. The classrooms were neater, brighter,… less formal, and of course there were computers everywhere.

It all seemed much smaller. I looked around, puzzled by this reduced scale. Were my other memories similarly distorted? Were those lovelorn moments, those feelings of pubescent despair, also exaggerated, blown up out of all proportion?

The metalwork lab had gone, ripped out, along with the subject to be replaced by something called “technology”. I thought I knew about technology. We had rebuilt vehicles in this room – Mini Coopers, Escorts, even a vintage Alvis, and we’d raced them at Oulton Park,… but technology now consisted of making things from cardboard and coat-hangers.

I picked up a curious contraption made of paper and flimsy dowelling. It had been crudely painted in primary colours and resembled a sort of three-dimensional Picasso.

“What does this do, then?” I asked.

“Well,” said Mr Shaw,… “It sort of flaps its wings.” And then, registering my surprise, he went on defensively: “It’s not so much the object that’s important, as the way the children set about tackling the problem.”

“Right,…” I said.

Working out how to get an engine back into a car was a problem to be tackled. This just looked like,… well,… I don’t know what it looked like, but not much, that’s for sure.

“There used to be lathes in here. And in that room over there, there were drawing boards, rows and rows of them – I got my best GCSE grade in engineering drawing – that’s what set me down the road to being an engineer, I suppose.”

Mr Shaw smiled patiently. “We stripped that lot out years ago,” he said. “It wasn’t relevant any more. We’re not in the business of raising factory fodder now. No factories anyway, are there? And good riddance too. Children deserve better than that. We see ourselves as being more in the business of turning out well-rounded adults.”

Is that what I’d been then? Factory fodder? I suppose it was true. But I’d risen to become  a designer, a professional engineer. Oh, I know the factory had used me up now and was preparing to spit me out as redundant, but it had paid me reasonably well for my trouble, paid for the mortgage on my house, paid for a newish car every four or five years. Isn’t that more what it was about: making an honest living?

We finished our tour back in the reception area, where I was left feeling like an antique. By the age of sixteen, I’d learned the rudiments of cutting metal here, and how to produce an engineering drawing to the stringent requirements of British Standards. I’d stripped a Cosworth engine down to piece-parts, de-coked it, rebuilt it and watched it powering a Ford Cortina around a race-track. But it was all irrelevant now, like me, it seemed: irrelevant, brushed away by a bright new order, crushed beneath legions of brightly coloured, useless flapping things.

“Well, thank you, Mr Shaw. I’m glad I came. It all looks very nice,… very neat,… very em,… stimulating.”

Children were traipsing by, a long procession, hundreds and hundreds of them, heading from the assembly hall to their classes. Where would they go, I wondered, when they left this place? Shaw was right. There were no factories any more to open their doors every September to swallow down the latest batch of fodder. But even well-rounded adults needed jobs, needed money to live. Perhaps more of them went on to college and university than they had done in my day, but what then? They couldn’t remain students for ever? Could they?

“I’ll be off, then,” I said, and then as an after-thought I asked him: “I don’t suppose you remember a girl called Rachel Standish, do you? Same year as me. Dark haired,….”

He shrugged, glanced at his watch. “Sorry,” he said.

“It was a long time ago.”

Sure, too much water had passed, washing away all trace of Rachel and me. The world we had prepared ourselves for had begun to change almost the moment we had walked out of the door. I wondered what she was doing now. Had she found something of more lasting relevance, or was she looking back, like me, and wondering what the hell it had all been for?

I mounted the bike and cycled off slowly. There was a familiar heaviness, like I’d always felt after another day leaving this place without hearing Rachel say those words. I didn’t know if this was good or bad, because my more recent past had been void of any feeling whatsoever. Even my divorce seemed to have left me with nothing but a kind of sickly numbness. This particular pain, of Rachel, was a quarter of a century old, but at least I felt it. It proved I was still capable of feeling something, so I gathered the pain around me and I savoured it.

I retired early that night, lay in bed, twiddling the dial on my ancient VEF radio, tuning in to the static around 208 metres Long Wave. I was straining for the sound of Radio Luxembourg, for Bob Stewart and the top forty. But there was nothing,… just impenetrable white-noise where my youth had once been. What I was contemplating was impossible of course. You can never go back.

I looked over to Rachel’s photograph, a grainy enlargement from an old form taken all those years ago.

“I want to be with you,” I said.

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materialism is baloney

Bernardo Kastrup’s cheeky title here belies a serious book. It looks at the prevailing world view of materialist philosophy and uses materialism’s own logic to argue that it is self-contradictory, and leads to absurd conclusions. What this means is the view most of us have of the world, a place of “common sense” material stuff, is wrong. It also means none of the problems facing science and society today can be resolved from a materialist perspective. Why? Because the world is not what it seems, and neither are we.

Materialism is a mindset that looks at the mysteries of the universe and assumes everything is ultimately knowable through scientific reasoning. More, it tells us everything can be explained in material terms, even apparently immaterial things like consciousness. But the problems of materialism begin with quantum mechanics. This is the study of the nature of the foundations of what we think of as material stuff, or “matter”. But quantum mechanics also tells us matter cannot be said to exist until it is observed. This is awkward to say the least, and we get around the problem in daily life by politely ignoring it. Clearly though, there’s a gap in our thinking, and it will have to be reckoned with sooner or later.

The alternative view, one that might reconcile these paradoxes and explain the nature of consciousness, is philosophical idealism. Here Kastrup builds on the works of Emanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, and brings them forward into the twenty-first century. I’m not qualified to say whether he’s right or not, only that his views support the direction of my own thinking. His robust reasoning also provides a reassuringly intellectual rigour to what might otherwise, admittedly, seem a very strange way of looking at things.

Although a serious book, I found it engaging and accessible, but you’ll still need your wits about you, because the concepts here are so startling. Through the use of metaphor Kastrup introduces us to the idea of the universe as an infinite “thought”, that the material world is a phenomenon dreamed up by the consciousness of the universe itself. This is not to say the universe is “intelligent” or capable of self reflection, more that it is somehow blindly instinctive in bringing to fruition what we perceive of as life.

Philosophers call such a thing “Transcendental Idealism”, and one cannot delve into that subject without also touching on spiritual matters. So, as well as covering the nature of the universe, the book also looks at the purpose of life. From the more familiar Materialist perspective, life is meaningless but Idealism begs to differ. Indeed, it grants humankind a primary role. It tells us we are the eyes and the ears of a universe waking up and exploring its own nature the only way it can – by enfolding parts of its self into discrete pockets of self-reflective awareness. That’s us. Otherwise, the universe would be like an eye trying to see itself.

When we dream we accept the dream entirely as our reality, and it’s only when we wake we gain sufficient perspective to see the dream for what it was. In the same way, in the dream of the universe, we have no choice but to accept the dream of it as real. Indeed, it is real. It’s just that the nature of that reality is not what we think it is. It also means that ultimately we are the same as whatever we are looking at, because whatever is dreaming “it” into being, is dreaming us too. And equally startling, it means the sense of “I”, looking out through your eyes right now, is the same sense of “I” looking out though mine. The only difference between us, is our life story.

This book will appeal to anyone who finds the high-priests of materialism, and their more fundamentalist dogmas, a little too shrill. It will appeal also to anyone seeking to restore meaning to their lives but who are similarly repelled by religion, as well as finding the otherwise seductive language of the New Age at times somewhat anaemic. I think the world according Bernardo Kastrup is a very interesting one, and well worth exploring. It is both plausible and profoundly positive, building on a rich heritage of idealism, and putting us back at the very centre of a universe driven towards the creation of life.

Although essentially blind and instinctive, its evolutionary drift seems to be towards an awareness of itself, through us. So, while things may not be the way we think they are, what each of us sees and thinks and does, and feels in life,… about life,…

Really matters.

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tree on fireHow do you define yourself? What’s your nationality, job, class, ethnicity, religion,… your sexuality? But be careful, for in seeking a label for your group, you also define your peers, those you look to for support. Why? Because, they’re of your chosen tribe and it’s natural to seek protection in numbers. It’s natural to settle where we do not stand out because, throughout history, we have scorned the “other” and banished them to the wilderness.

Writers obsess over labels too. They ask at what point they can call themselves a writer, or a poet, or whatever. My view is that if you write, then you’re a writer, but then we hit this peer-group wall and wonder if we’re allowed in, we wonder if we’re to spend our whole lives dying of thirst in the desert of obscurity.

Will other writers and publishing types recognise us as birds of a feather? Well, don’t count on it, for among the literati, all writers who are not one’s self, are “the other”, all of us then by definition outsiders. Sure, we’re an odd bunch, our labelling systems are complicated, cryptic even. Is it any wonder then aspirants to the ranks obsess over the nuances of a writerly identity, and in doing so miss the point? And the point is this: in striving to be a writer, do we not risk closing ourselves off from the experience of life, from which the writing comes?

I remember sitting with a notebook while looking after my kids when they were small. They were having a great time in a playground, mucking about on the slides and swings. It was my job to keep an eye out, to prevent banged heads but without stifling their play. Now that’s an annoying thing to have to do when what you’re trying to do is be writerly,… when you’re trying to tease out the poetry from your soul while the kids are screaming:

“Dad, dad, look at me!”

“Yea, yea.”

Thinking of the mundanity of life as an impediment to one’s art, we risk resenting its intrusion. So then we seal ourselves off from life to better nurture the writer within us. But then we fail to see how the poetry is reflected in the lived experience. We do not find poetry on the blank page, or in the tweed jacket, or the fancy pen. It’s in the sunshine and the laughter, and the funny way people behave sometimes. It’s even in our quest for identity, but only if we have the presence of mind to question the question: how do I define myself? Because what we all are, regardless of the labels, is human, and the rest is merely the feathers we dress ourselves in.

So if you find yourself asking am I a writer yet, put down your pen and live a little. And while living ask the world how it sees itself through your eyes. What drama, what beauty, what lesson is imparted through the lived experience? Then the pages fill of their own accord and we miss nothing from having our head bent in writerly pose.

I dislike the politics of identity. I dislike labels for their limitation. For in striving so to label what one is we also define what we ignore of our potential to be. My labels tell me I’m a white, British cis male. I’m also a myopic, middle-class, introverted, lapsed Anglican. I’m a husband, a father, a Cappuccino socialist and, yes, a writer. I suspect there aren’t many who fit those exact parameters, and certainly not enough to put up a fight when oppressed by a bigger tribe. So it’s best to go about our business quietly, and be friendly with everyone.

What insights into the lived experience did that moment in the playground with my kids offer me? Well, you don’t always see it at the time. It might come decades later, when those same kids have gone through the wringer of college and university, when they’ve left the formative playground and are setting out on their first day at work. The poetry in that moment is a complex and giddy vortex of emotion. It’s all about time and one’s own mortality, and that can be a frightening thing. It’s like a clock ticking down, but only if you’re so bound up in the notion of your limited, mortal identity you fail to grasp the beauty at the heart of humanity which aspires to shed its labels and to simply be.

 

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man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885

The material life is what it is. We are born into certain circumstances – an ethnicity, a religion, a family, a nationality, a moment in time – and we make of our circumstances what we can. We do this within the limitations of our personality, intelligence, and energy, also the limitations placed on us by history, culture, and by prejudice – our own prejudice directed at others, and theirs directed back at us.

Thus constrained we make way as best we can, always striving for personal happiness. But for all our hopes to the contrary, life is messy, impermanent, beset by tragedy, and there is nothing to suggest what we make of our material lives, whether we find our balance, or we thrive or are utterly crushed, is actually of any importance at all.

For proof we need only observe those among the rich and powerful, people who are the most materially successful and surely want for nothing, yet whose ignorance and cruelty suggests they are operating at a very low level of self awareness, that indeed as human beings, not only have they a long way to travel, that wealth or power or popularity is not the real measure of success at all. But then we all know this, don’t we?

Without a certain level of self awareness, we are like automata, we are as lacking in the essence of life as the material things we crave. Self awareness is standing beneath a starry sky and feeling one’s smallness while also awakening to a deep connection with the mystery of all before us; it is the realisation that without our eyes to see and hearts to feel, there is no beauty, that our exquisitely fragile presence is the only thing that grants the universe meaning. Thus the soul in man awakens.

Many confuse this soul-life with religion, and though it is indeed a spiritual matter, it is not about “getting” religion. Religion is easy. Spiritual matters are more difficult. They develop, not supernaturally, but from the psyche and they grow from enquiry into one’s self. Religions can provide a path to self awareness, but one that is too often subverted by the tendency of all hierarchical structures towards corruption.

As unlikely as it sounds, writing – or indeed any form of art – provides another path. There is in all of us a transcendent function that enquires of life and seeks wholeness, seeks oneness with “something”. We can ignore it, or we can grant it creative expression. It’s not a path for everyone, and really rather depends upon one’s psychological type. But it suits me, so I write.

When we write, we are dealing with the unconscious and its unknown contents. Through writing, we invite these contents to become known through the imagination. Once known, or at least hinted at, they become our life’s work, our life’s story. We work then at a pace in partnership between the forces that support us and our natural ability to assimilate them.

My own story thus far is contained in twelve novels, beginning with the Singing Loch, first penned in my twenties, and ending with my most recent, the Inn at the Edge of Light. It begins with the natural world, with the sublime nature of the hills and mountains of the British Isles, and the realisation that the sublime isn’t “out there” at all, but is actually a thing we project from within, like an archetype, a pattern of psychical energy, that the sublime is an abstract impression of the divine ground of being. We were separated from it at birth and we crave reconnection.

The paradox however is that, once awakened and craving reconnection, we realise the river of unconscious contents emanating from this inner universe we are seeking to re-enter, is flowing against us, striving ever more towards an awareness of itself in the physical world, a world that, to a human life, seems curtailed to the point of frustration and despair. It is as if timelessness seeks the ephemeral, a phenomenon as strange as the thought of a free man seeking imprisonment. This is a hard one to crack, but in writing we state the problem, and we invite the answer.

Sometimes the answers come directly from the unconscious, revealing themselves on the page, often trivial details in themselves but which form, over time, a greater structure of understanding. And sometimes it comes serendipitiously, the unconscious guiding us towards the works of others, works we may have perused many times and seen nothing in them, but through our continuing enquiry we awaken sufficiently to return and take what meaning is meant for us, at the time when we are ready to grasp it.

And finally, with the Inn at the Edge of Light I take my seat at the bar and the landlord pours me out a glass of the water of life and I begin to understand through all this mythologising the role of a man with one foot in the camps of both his conscious and his unconscious life. Either that or I fall victim to my own delusions, and what I have achieved is no more than a voyage of Romantic speculation – take your pick.

But if I can close by paraphrasing Carl Jung,…

To the intellect, mythologising is futile speculation. To the emotions, however, it is a healing and valid activity; it gives existence a certain glamour which we would not like to do without.

Nor is there any reason why we should.

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eyes1

Human cultures the world over traditionally revolve around a defining myth. Myths are stories explaining the nature of being, and they change as society evolves, because what does not change to serve the times cannot be true, so myths that do not evolve inevitably die.

In the west we have lost our ability to mythologise. Also, with the decline in religious observance we are losing touch with that canon of mythology recorded in the old and the new testaments of the Christian tradition. This is a sophisticated system, though rendered opaque by the corruptions of piousness, demagoguery, and our enslavement to guilt. So the myth dies and nothing rises to take its place, leaving only an oppressive void in the western soul.

We might argue that, since we live in an age of reason, there is no need for stories to comfort us, that science explains everything we need to know. Science has, after all, vastly improved our material lives but it hasn’t made us any happier, or any less inclined to cruelty and war. True, there are still some myths kicking about, but they have shrunk, become fractured, taken shelter in a million “New Age” ideas, as people cluster around any fragment that gives warmth.

It was Carl Jung who said:

To the intellect, mythologising is futile speculation. To the emotions, however, it is a healing and valid activity; it gives existence a certain glamour which we would not like to do without. Nor is there any reason why we should.

(Memories, Dreams, Reflections)

Myths are not histories to be proven. In trying to prove the historical provenance of myths, we miss the point and rob them of their power. We do not have to believe in them, but there is something in the instinct that requires we maintain at least some degree of supernatural observance.

Nor do we invent myths. They are not fictions created merely for our entertainment or to frighten our children into obedience. They take shape by a process of cooperation between the imagination and the unconscious realms. Beyond waking awareness, the mind is an unknown country. It is unconscious, and only some of what is unconscious is personal. The rest is shared. It is a sea of psychical energies from which common patterns arise.

So, the myths take shape, and it falls to us to birth them into reality. In the past we have called these patterns Gods, and in more recent secular language, Archetypes. They have an autonomous nature, are rich in both personal and worldly meaning and they seek expression through us, for there is something special about us they do not themselves possess, this being the fact of our existence in a realm defined by limitation, number one of which is our mortality which lends a sharp and urgent focus to our thoughts. And it is this, our exquisitely fragile jewel of being, which causes the Archetypes or the Gods to seek relationship with the world, through us.

But the thing about the Gods is they will have at the world, whether we prepare the way or not, and I speak of Gods here in the classical sense, where they manifest as a pantheon of sometimes benign, sometimes mischievous, sometimes blood-hungry energies. Preparing the way, we negotiate with them our defining myths through dreams and visions. This contains the Gods within certain parameters, allows them a presence in the world and a useful function, but without the risk of overwhelming us. Our ultimate reward is death of course, but we trust also, a smoother passage through the underworld. However, when the Gods arrive to find no myths prepared, they act out their excesses without restraint, drive us to madness and despair. And what follows then are the hell realms of our own most terrible imaginings.

I recognise now a negotiation with my own daemons has been played out across the pages of my more speculative novels, allowing a personal mythology to evolve and to give shape to a thing that is otherwise unknowable. Thus a myth becomes symbolic, a totem for the ineffable – if you like the best of a bad job – yet which, as Jung said, heals the emotions and, by its seeming validity, grants a certain glamour to existence we would not like to do without.

Such personal myths are unlikely to appeal to anyone else, so I won’t go into mine in any detail, though you’ll find the threads of it coming together in my various stories. These are perhaps best viewed as an entertainment, aimed at a certain resonance in the hearts of others by virtue of their collective archetypal nature. But personal myths are important all the same, at least to the individual intent on saving his own soul in the absence of any other trusted option. To do otherwise, would be to ignore the very human imperative to mythologise, tempting madness, to say nothing of ignoring a crucial part of our reason for being in the first place.

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marniesnipUnless we’re keen on recalling our dreams, they leak away on waking. But even if we teach ourselves to hold onto them for long enough to make a note of them, I find most still fade from memory eventually, so when we come to read back on them months or years afterwards, we have no recollection of ever having had these extraordinary dream-experiences.

Thus it was I did not recall dreaming, in April 2011, of a long business trip and winding up in a bland corporate hotel, climbing the stairs to my room – unremarkable, except on one of the landings I encountered a girl I used to know at school.

Our relationship is a long story, romantic, but more one of missed opportunity than happy endings. She was sweet natured, and bright and I was in awe of her but we never dated, and for some years after leaving school, it was something I regretted never acting upon. I last saw her in the summer of ’77, and at the time of my dream, some thirty four years later, I had not thought of her in a long while. We’d both married, had kids and lived lives entirely oblivious of one another.

We did not interact much in the dream, other than to acknowledge each other as if we were familiar colleagues, used to seeing each other every day – a smile, a nod, and that was it. But the encounter did trigger a powerful welling up of emotion, sufficient for me to write about it on waking, and to wonder where on earth it had come from after all that time.

Unknown to me, she had died, suddenly, two years before. I didn’t learn of this until much later, in 2014, when, by chance, I came upon her obituary in the online archives of a local newspaper. The news of her death affected me deeply, that one so lovely from my past was no longer with us, but why she should have popped up in my dream is a mystery. More startling though was this morning, reading through my dream journal and realising that I’d dreamed of her.

Dream figures are either strangers or familiar. But the familiar ones tend to be people we interact with on a daily basis – friends, colleagues, family. The strangers are more archetypal. People we have known in the distant past and not seen or heard of for decades, such characters hold a special significance, and are most striking in their linking us back to the earliest of our days.

I have always believed dreams use these various avatars as characters in a mythic play, which can then be interpreted for personal meaning. While I still hold this to be the case, a deeper reading of psychoanalytic theory suggests the phenomenon is more nuanced, that dreams are windows on a wider psychic life that goes on even when we are unaware of it, rather than simply nightly shows put on for our personal development. But how broad the realm of the dream is, I don’t know, whether it’s a purely personal thing, or if it takes place in a collective psychical field, and can encompass the dreams of others, or indeed if the essence of departed personalities can seek us out.

What’s puzzling is there are people I have known all my life and lost, relationships that ended mid-sentence, so to speak and with whom I would have welcomed an exchange of post-mortem understanding, and fare-well. But these close ones have never sought me out, which makes me wonder why this girl felt the need to reacquaint herself in passing with an old face like mine from her schooldays. If it’s true and she did, she learned the breadth and the depth of me in that brief encounter, because we cannot hide our selves in dreams.

Do we dream of the dead? Well yes we do, but are they truly the discarnate essence of the dead, or just thought forms of the way we remember them, even though we have not thought of them for a long time. It’s impossible to say for sure of course, but one cannot help wondering.

And either way, it’s a mystery.

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canal parbold_edited

The Leeds-Liverpool canal at Parbold, Lancs.

I was out along the canal yesterday with my camera. There were the usual canal-side scenes: houseboats moored-up, ropes taut, cosy curls of smoke rising from squat chimneys. There was a bridge, a windmill, an old canal-side pub, and a low, wintry sun scattering yellow stars across mud coloured water. It was late afternoon with a clear, pale sky, but little energy in it, and it was cold. I took around twenty shots, but none came out the way I saw them. They lacked detail, seemed flat, with a compressed range of tones. Indeed, I might have done as well with my phone – and my phone’s not great.

This tells me two things, both probably true: One, I’ve still a way to go before I learn how to handle that camera properly and, two, my imagination tends to over-paint a scene in ways a camera can never capture, that when we see the world as human beings, we are seeing it through more than just the eyes. There is also an inner vision we project, a thing comprising the warp of imagination and the weave of emotion, like a net we overlay upon the world – and it’s this that breathes life into our experience.

Still, I tell myself the lens was sluggish, that it might be fine in a part of the world with an abundance of light, say in the tropics, but on a winter’s day in Lancashire, even wide open at F3.5, it’s going to struggle, that my pictures will always be as flat and muddy as the canal’s water. So I’ve coppered up, and ordered another camera, second hand this time, but with a much faster lens, indeed the finest of lenses, a Leica lens. I’m thinking that if I can only let in more light, I can get closer to things the way I see them.

It won’t work of course. I already have several decent cameras and another one isn’t going to change anything because what I’m chasing here are ghosts. Only rarely do people photograph ghosts, and when they do, it’s likely the result is faked, like my header picture was faked in Photoshop to bring out the light and the detail to some resemblance of how I remembered it.

And there’s another problem. Take a look on Instagram, or Flikr, and you’ll see great volumes of images that already depict the world in powerful ways, volumes that are being added to every second of the day. I’ve been taking pictures nearly my whole life, yet probably only captured a few scenes that are a match for any of the millions of beautiful images that exist already. Do I really imagine, when I put a picture up on Instagram I will make the world hold its breath, even for a moment?

No. And this isn’t really about others anyway.

What I’m seeking is a reflection of myself in an abstraction of shape and colour and light. I look at the sizzling detail in the finest photographs of yesteryear and wish I could render my world as crisply alive as that. Lenses hand-ground a hundred years ago seem, in the right circumstances, and in the right hands, to far surpass anything I can approach with the most modern cameras of today. I want to get down to the very atoms of creation, you see? I want to focus them sharply and with a depth of field that stretches from the tip of my nose to the edge of the universe. Why? Well, given enough accurate information, perhaps I’ll be capable of understanding the puzzle of creation, or at least my own part in it.

I know, I have a tendency to over-romanticise.

It was a quest that began forty years ago. I sought it in those days with my father’s old Balda, a 120 film camera, from the 1940’s. It had a queer, knocked lens that gave a strange, closely overlapping double image. But as I grew older and began to earn money, I sought it with a long string of 35mm SLRs, through several thousand frames of Fujichrome. And then I abandoned all that for the miracle of digital and a one megapixel Kodak, even though that wasn’t quite the miracle we’d hoped for – just the beginning of another technology arms race I waited a quarter century to catch up to the quality of my Olympus OM10 – which some bastard nicked from my car in 1986. And now, when even twenty five megapixels fails me, I look for it in the gaps, under the microscope of Photoshop, under the shifting moods attainable by all that digital fakery, and I look for it under the soft blown smears of inadequate shutter speed, and the promise of a tripod next time.

But in all of this, the most valuable lesson photography has taught me is the irrelevance of equipment, of technology, of technique, indeed also the fallacy of seeking to record the spirit of the earth at all, to say nothing of the ghost-like reflection of oneself in it. But this is not to dismiss the art altogether, for at least when we settle down, say in the midst of a spring meadow with our camera to await just the right fall of light, – be it with a 1940’s squinting Balda or last year’s Nikon – we slow time to the beating of our hearts, we open up the present moment, and we re-establish a sense of our presence in the world.

Only when we focus down, say on the texture of a tree’s bark, or on the translucent quality of a broad Sycamore leaf when the glancing sun catches its top, do we sense the aliveness of nature and our aliveness within it. Only then do we remember what beauty really is and how it feels as it caresses our senses. Only then do we realise the best photographs of all are the ones we do not take, but the ones we remember. And we remember them because, through photography, we have learned to take the time to look with more than just our eyes, to not just see the world, but feel it in our bones.

Still, I may be wrong, in which case I’ve still got high hopes for that Leica lens.

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