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tmp_2018071515122033598A bit of poetry for a change, and a book that seems to have chosen me rather than the other way around – a charity shop find, and a casual purchase that’s been well worth the fifty pence I paid for it. It’s a paperback version from 1963, much scribbled in by lit students and contains a love letter, secreted there long ago, from a time when men used to write such things to girls. It adds mystery and charm,  hints at unknown lives. But that’s second hand books for you. They are multidimensional, multi-layered things trailing the history of their readers as well as the work of their writers.

But does anyone buy poetry any more when they don’t have to, I mean other than having to study it in order to pass an exam? Like writing love letters, does anyone actually do poetry? I mean read it, live it, follow it, even write it themselves? Of course they do. Indeed, in a world dominated by hateful commentary, poetry provides the perfect antidote, lowering us back into a place of thoughtfulness and calm.

Collected and published after his death in 1958, Miscellany One contains perhaps Dylan Thomas’ most famous poem: Do not go gentle into that good night/Old age should burn and rave Rage/Rage against the dying of the light.

It was quoted by Michael Caine in the movie Interstellar, this as an exaltation for us to quit an ailing earth, one that we’d pretty much destroyed, risk it all on one last shout, then presumably we could go and destroy somewhere else. It wasn’t the context in which the poem was written of course, nor intended. It was actually written upon the death of Dylan Thomas’ father, and Thomas’ intent here, urging struggle in the face of the inevitable troubles me. But that’s poetry for you. It rises from the subliminal depths of one mind and settles to work in the subliminal places of another. And there’s no telling what the effects might be.

I reference “Miscellany” in my current novel in progress – an outrageous liberty, I know. I might be accused of borrowing something of depth in order to disguise the shallowness of my own work – a bit like Interstellar. I use it to connect a pair of characters, to draw them together in conspiracy by using the book as a basis for encoded messages in order to avoid web-snooping and other tropes of the modern surveillance culture. But that’s literally another story – and one that isn’t finished yet.

There are other poems here of course, also short stories, and radio scripts. And I find the writer is an intriguing one, immensely popular in his own lifetime but with critical opinion divided as regards his actual literary merit. Personally, I find the poetry lyrical and powerful, and I’m bewitched by the use of odd and at times deeply obscure language. He can also be rousingly alliterative, rhythms loosely punctuated by internal rhyme. There can be a formal structure to the work, but one that’s not always apparent. The poem “prologue” appears to have no structure at all, but in fact consists of a hundred lines of rhyming couplets that start in the middle and work outwards. It’s a form that appears to have no form, yet hides a startling symmetry, like ripples moving out upon the surface of a pond, from the epicentre of a tossed stone.

This day winding down now
At God speeded summer’s end
In the torrent salmon sun,
In my sea shaken house
On a breakneck of rocks,..

I know virtually nothing about Dylan Thomas, therefore I must tread lightly in my speaking of him, speak here perhaps only of first impressions. And my impressions are of an infectious use of language. There is also the passing glimpse of a curious existential view. Born in 1914, in the thick of war, his poem “I dreamed my genesis” has him as the rebirth of someone dying in the carnage of France, at least in the sense that as one wave breaks upon the shores of our mortality, another is already forming behind it, ready to break in its turn – life and nature cyclical, repetitive, unstoppable.

As an artist he was courageous to the point of self destruction, driven even from boyhood to be a poet, and determined to make a living at it, instead of settling to a more secure profession. But in spite of attaining the near impossibility of popular acclaim in his own lifetime, he spent that life largely penniless, indeed indebted to the tune of writing begging letters to other literary figures. He was also heavy drinker, a hell raiser, and a serial philanderer who burned his candle at both ends, and died following a spectacular drinking binge while on tour in America – the stuff of myth and raucous legend.

Speaking as a non poet or a wannabe poet, or just as a reader and lovers of words, I find his words enchanting, a powerful voice that must be listened to, in the best bardic tradition. It may be that we hold a special place in our hearts for those who have fallen while trying so hard, and we project something more of the hero onto them than onto those who make their success seem all too effortless.

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durleston wood cover smallIn the dreams of men, encounters with an unknown woman are significant in that she represents a meeting with the image of the man’s soul, and sets out the state of development of his psyche, also the state of his relations with, and his knowledge of women. A sickly soul-image in dreams is an obvious sign something is wrong, similarly if she is wearing chains, or in some other way restrained or imprisoned.

We see it depicted in art as St George, come to release the maiden from where she has been chained to a tree and is harassed by the phallic dragon. George kills the dragon, more metaphorically the Ego, which releases the maiden, the soul, into a more constructive relationship. Without undergoing this fundamental mythical journey every man is going to struggle with aspects of himself later on, and not just in his relations with women.

The chained and sickly soul-image is a symbol. It does not mean she is lacking energy, quite the opposite in fact. But the energy is misdirected by a man’s lack of understanding of himself. It is a powerful force erupting from the unconscious and being projected out into the world, affecting the way he sees things, the way he sees women.

He notices a female, is attracted, besotted, obsessed, unaware what he’s seeing is a manifestation of something inside of him. This is partly how attraction between sexes works. But say we hit things off with the object of our desire, make love, get married, come to know her as a mortal woman, you might think we had then slain the dragon, that is until the soul projects herself onto someone else. Time and time again. If we have by now settled on our life mate, such serial infatuations can be troublesome, even dangerous. But rather than acting on them and potentially ruining our lives, the soul is inviting us to withdraw the projections, to dissolve them, and in doing so restore the power inwardly, allowing her the means of manifesting herself more in consciousness, thus aiding us in seeing the world more clearly and with a little more wisdom.

All of this sounds a bit odd. But there are precedents in stories, in myth, and in practice.

In Durleston Wood, the protagonist, Richard, has returned to his home village after a failed marriage, and takes up a teaching post at his old school where he finds himself in love with his headmistress. For a time he recognises this infatuation for what it is and does not act. Instead he basks in the sweet melancholy of its futility while taking long, lonely walks through the titular Durleston Wood. But in the wood is an old house, part ruined and overgrown, and living in it, kept prisoner there, possibly, is a woman he’s seen wearing the cuffs and chains of BDSM role-play. She’s apparently the sex slave of another man, and she invites our hero to rescue her, to take ownership of her,…

Houses are significant in Jungian psychology. They are the place of abode, both physically, and psychologically. In Jung’s own dreams, the rooms of the house represent aspects of the self. If your abode is dilapidated, as it is in Durleston Wood, it suggests a psyche in distress through neglect. Work on restoring such an abode is likewise suggestive of work upon the psyche, a process of healing. Thus Richard moves into the house in Durleston Wood, performs his restorations and releases the chained woman. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Work on the psychological aspects of the self do not in themselves guarantee the correctness of one’s direction thereafter. Indeed it can be a bit of a roller coaster. For certainty in navigation, you need wisdom as well, but it certainly gets things moving.

In Durleston Wood, free to your e-reader, sometimes sold in mangled form by pirates on Amazon – oo-arrr!

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mooncard

Tarot cards have an interesting history, most of it the invention of nineteenth century occultists, thus lending them the darker tones of diabolism, at least in popular culture – all of which makes them even more interesting of course. Still, today, the merest sight of the Tarot is enough to cause palpitations in the breast of any God fearing Christian, so deeply scarred is the ancestral memory, and that’s also interesting because the origin of the cards is quite innocent. Fake news, fake narrative has a lot to answer for.

Pictorially intriguing and often very beautiful, the earliest reliable records place the Tarot in Italy in the fifteenth century where it was simply a popular card game. Predating the printing press, each deck of cards was hand made, hand-painted, so each deck was an original, making them rare and powerful symbols of the status of their owners.

Unlike a modern deck of 52, the Tarot has 78 cards, split into the major (22 cards) and minor (56 cards) arcana – arcana meaning secrets. The minor arcana are split into four “suits” of 14 cards each which comprise the number (or pip) cards from ace to ten, and four royal cards of King, Queen, Knight and Page. The major arcana are also known as the “trumps”. This structure is roughly familiar and suggests somewhere along the line card games simply evolved away from using a full deck, requiring instead only the minor arcana, so the rest were ditched.

The early cards had no associations with occult practices. This was an invention of mostly Victorian mystics and ceremonial magicians who adopted them for their own purposes, and it’s easy to understand why when you look at the images of the major arcana. These can be interpreted in an allegorical or an archetypal sense, that to draw certain cards might have a deeper meaning for the individual, or be suggestive of a future fate. But occult writings on the subject go further, attempting a complete revisioning of history, tracing the origins of the Tarot to the mythical, alchemical and hermetic traditions of ancient Egypt. It’s an evocative thesis, and one that’s often picked up by uncritical scholarly writings, but there doesn’t seem to be any actual historical evidence to back it up, which means most of what you think you know is probably wrong.

Most of the earliest Tarot decks, restricted their pictorial artistry to the major arcana with the exception of the Sola Busca Deck, dated around 1500. This was prpbably use as the basis for a later popular deck, the so called Rider-Waite-Smith version, which came out around 1910. Brainchild of the occult writer A E Waite, it was created by the illustrator and mystic Pamela Coleman Smith, and is very much in the esoteric, mystical tradition. Indeed if you’re into alchemy, cartomancy, dark or light path magical traditions, you’ll most likely be familiar with this deck.

The anxiety caused by the Tarot arises from its use as a fortune telling device, also its association with occult magic, with occasional diabolism, and with controversial figures like Aleister Crowley, also an over-literal interpretation of the meaning of the Death card. I’m open minded about the paranormal in general but personally sceptical regarding anyone’s ability to foretell future events with any great accuracy, and suspect our futures are more probabilistic than fixed anyway. It would therefore be unnecessarily dangerous to assume a too literal interpretation of one’s future in the cards, especially if that future did not seem fortuitous, and we did not feel able to avoid it.

Where I have found cartomancy and other forms of divination useful is in understanding the complexities of the present moment. But I’m of the opinion this knowledge comes out of the personal unconscious. We already possess the information we need for understanding a particular situation, but it’s jumbled up and we just can’t get at it. But by judicious use of archetypal imagery, and thinking metaphorically, we invite projection from the unconscious and a corresponding “aha!” moment, a moment of insight.

In this way the Tarot might yield some practical wisdom on an issue we’re facing, a bit of lateral thinking, an angle we’ve not considered, but it’s not the cards themselves that wield the power, nor some omnipotent diabolic entity that’s called down upon their shuffling. You can believe that if you want, and many do, but it’s not necessary in order to read wisdom in the cards themselves. There is mystery enough in the phenomenon of unconscious projection without inventing devils and angels as facilitators.

Sadly, popular media hasn’t helped. All too often in film and fiction the death card is drawn and strikes fear into the heart of the receiver – or even strikes them dead on the spot. Interpreted metaphorically however, the death card can mean change and renewal, sweeping away the old to make way for the new, abandoning old ideas when they are no longer useful, all of which is quite different to being actually struck dead. There’s also the “Live and Let Die” James Bond outing in which the Tarot touting Jane Seymour draws “The Lovers” for a swivel eyed Roger Moore. The only likely outcome of that of course being their future coupling, and one that’s far from metaphorical.

I’d probably spend some time writing more on a common sense approach to the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, but that’s a big job, and it’s already been done here. I’m not sure what use or what answer the cards have for me, if any, nor if the question is one I’ve already posed, or has yet to crop up, but I’m glad at least to have blown the dust away and brought the cards out, if only from the shadows of my own mind.

They get a bit of a raw deal in popular culture, one that’s not entirely deserved.

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solarIan McEwan isn’t always an easy read, often challenging in the depths he takes us, and at times brutal in his picking apart of human nature and all its attendant frailties. In Solar we meet surely one of his most monstrous creations, Professor Michael Beard, Nobel Laureate, author of the Beard-Einstein Conflation – something about light and really hard physics. He has a brilliant mind then, but he’s also a serial philanderer and insufferably vain, not an easy man to be around which is what I felt made this one of the more challenging of McEwan’s works, given the company he forces us to keep. Worse still, the third person perspective is kept entirely on Beard, so not allowing us even temporary respite in the intimate company of other characters.

Although at times darkly comic, I found Beard so loathsome, so pompous and amoral, I failed to find any of his scrapes funny, but for all of that I found the book to be a compelling read, which is quite a feat for an author to pull off. How do you get your readers to relate to an anti-hero like this? What is it that keeps us hooked, when surely we would much sooner part company? Is it anticipation of a spectacular comeuppance? Or do we long for a glimpse of a redeeming facet of character, or do we anticipate an incident that will cause Beard to finally see the light and achieve some sort of redemption?

The story charts his misanthropic ambitions in the field of synthetic photosynthesis, a process aimed at providing a limitless source of energy from sunlight. But his patents are based on research stolen from a junior colleague, and his motivation appears to be no more than self aggrandisement rather than the moral imperative of actually saving the planet. Indeed when challenged about the likely interest in his work in the face of opposition from the oil and gas lobby he quotes the approaching inevitable climate catastrophe with glee as a guarantor of his inevitable success, as if even God were on his side wrecking the planet to suit Beard’s ambitions.

Of course things don’t go smoothly and, over the years of his egotistical excesses we witness the slow disintegration of the corporeal man, his decline into ever greater depths of slovenliness and physical decrepitude. It was a challenge to understand what it was in Beard that his long line of lovers found so attractive, other than the hope they might be the one to finally rescue him from himself.

Beginning in the cold, cash-strapped breeze-block labs of British academia, in the year 2000 and ending in 2009, in the fierce heat of a privately funded New Mexico solar farm, Beard’s past misdeeds finally gain sufficient momentum to catch up with him. So, what will become of him? Will his obnoxious ego keep him one step ahead of calamity yet again? Will he find true love? Will his creaking frame give out on him before he gets to prove to the world, finally how appallingly and ruthlessly magnificent he is?

Loved it.

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flolI can’t believe it’s twenty years since this book came out. I was in the Lake District on a walking holiday. A bill for car repairs the week before had left me a bit short and I calculated that after food and petrol I’d have about a tenner to spare. I spent £5.99 of it on this book for company in the evenings. It took me close to the wire, but it was money well spent. I don’t remember any of the walking now, I just remember reading this book in the B+B.

One part is set in a rural suburb of Dublin and describes the relationship between young Nicholas and his father, a man who gives up a steady but uninspiring career in the civil service in order to paint. He believes God has called him to do it, but it’s a calling that also plunges his family into poverty. Then we have Isabelle, growing up on a small island off Ireland’s west coast, her childhood overshadowed by an incident in which her musically gifted brother was struck down by a life-changing seizure, and for which she nurses a deep, though irrational, wound of guilt. She’s a bright girl but flounders when away at boarding school in Galway, squanders her chances of university and settles instead with a cloth merchant, Peader. By turns passionate and cold, tender and violent, Peader is not a good match, but Isabelle goes along with it, thinking of it as her punishment for past sins.

For most of the story Nicholas and Isabelle live entirely separate lives, and it seems impossible they’ll ever meet. But we know they must because in the opening of the book we are told, somewhat enigmatically, Nicholas was born to love Isabelle. It’s a mystery why or how, but all that’s just what’s on the surface, the bare bones, if you like, and it’s a tiny fraction of what this novel is about. The author’s characters are drawn from humble lives, the kind of people you wouldn’t second glance on a bus, yet through their struggles they take on such noble and god-like proportions it’s hard to see the world in quite the same way again.

We have Nicholas’s father, on the edge of madness, gaunt, white haired, messianic, striding into the west in broken old boots with his paints and his easel while his family starves back home. Ordinarily we’d dismiss him as a selfish old fool, but through Nicholas’s eyes, though at times he hates his father for what he’s done, his overriding love for him elevates their story to the rank of an Homeric Odyssey. And Isabelle’s father, a small-island schoolmaster, sometime poet, and semi-drunk, raising his pupils with kindness and compassion, and a dedication such that they will not be looked down upon by their mainland peers – another small life, but for all of its obscurity it is also heroically huge and inspirational.

Religion runs strongly throughout the book, God being ever present in the workings of fate, in the lives of the characters and the events that touch them. The characters wait on signs that will tell them what to do, they interpret them as best they can, and they have visions, see ghosts via the medium of dreams or delirium – all of this in the sense of a folk religion that’s been overlaid with a tradition of Catholicism. You can read the universe and your life as a meaningless, or you can see it as something more, something epic in which fate and love are bound together, a visionary experience of life in which we are invited to take our part. The choice is ours. The latter adds colour and meaning to our days on earth, and makes a kind of mysterious sense of things, if only in retrospect, while the former adds nothing.

There is only one priest in the story, and he shuns the idea of miracles, is afraid of them, would rather the Bishop had the pleasure of them, and when the miracles start to happen, the protagonists literally shut him out. It’s more that God is in every stone of Ireland, in the breath of the wind, in the mist over mountain and bog, a God that is immediate and personal. It’s a book that stirs the spirit and ravishes the senses. It is not a romance, but it is deeply Romantic, and the language is lyrical, pellucid, utterly mesmerising. This is one of the most powerful and compelling works of fiction I have read, and I have re-read it several times now, always something fresh leaping out – a passing observation, a few lines of description triggering an avalanche of revelation.

The moment when the author reveals how Isabelle and Nicholas are finally going to meet will take your breath away and it’ll have you laughing as much out of relief as anything else. But this is not your usual “will they won’t they” kind of story, the kind to be forgotten as soon as the last page is turned. The ending is subtle, powerful and, like the rest of the book, rich with meaning, and it leaves you wondering.

It’s a story you’ll be carrying around in your head for a long, long time.

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the outsider

The Outsider is another thrilling read from one of Britain’s best known, best selling authors. It’s filled with intrigue, betrayal and danger. It’s also his autobiography, and as such is especially interesting to other writers. Even writers like me.

I mean – how the hell did he do it?

He wrote his first novel, The Day of the Jackal, because he was down on his luck and needed the money. I was once in a similar bind, stuck in a job that was shedding its workforce year on year. It was only a matter of time before I was potted. I needed an exit, and fast. So I wrote the Singing Loch and posted it off in naive expectation. It was rejected at every turn and has never made a bean.

The story of how the Jackal was published illustrates how getting picked up by the big-boys takes more than just a good manuscript. All writers come to this conclusion eventually. What we do about it comes down to sheer grit and self belief, or we decide not to bother and do something else. Me? I avoided the potting, and have never needed the money. Fair dos.

Fluent in five languages, he was flying Vampire jets with the RAF at 19. He began a career in journalism, got mixed up in the Nigerian civil war, at odds with the official pro Nigerian line. He’s been shot at, mortared, strafed by a Mig, and more than once fired by the BBC. He’s been an occasional odd job man for HM’s security services, and was once seduced by an amorous Stasi agent who was supposed to be tailing him. Politically well to the right of centre, outspokenly traditionalist, Conservative, and euro-sceptic, Freddie and I are clearly not natural bedfellows but, through his stories at least, I find him good company.

So anyway,… the day of the Jackal was hacked out under pressing financial circumstances, then did the rounds, but like the Singing Loch it got nowhere. Unlike me, Forsyth weighed up the situation and reckoned you had to skip the publisher’s slush pile and find a direct way to the top otherwise you were stuffed. Through his circle of contacts, he established nodding terms with an editor, sufficient to bluster into the guy’s office one day on pretext of a social visit, oh and – while I’m here what do you think of this? The result was a three book deal. The Odessa File, and The Dogs of War made up the other two. Forsyth was suddenly a professional novelist making a lot of money.

The lesson for other would-be writers here is obvious. Simply dropping your manuscript through a publisher’s letterbox, the odds of it getting far enough up the chain of command to make a difference are about the same as coming up on the lottery. You  need good contacts and a lot of brass neck. For those with both the talent and the connections, it’s still possible to make money from your writing, but for those without, the choice is smashing your head against a brick wall, or self publishing.

The title, “The Outisder” refers to a particular frame of mind that always puts one outside events, makes us an observer of life and a withdrawer to the silence of a closed room, and the space to think, to write. That’s me too, but not all writers are known as writers, our outsiderly ways forgiven on account of the tangible goal of the next best-seller. Some of us aren’t even known as writers at all.

My life’s path rarely takes me out of Lancashire, let alone Britain. My vision is macroscopic, seeking a life and interest in the parochial details of the humdrum. No guns, no knives, no steely eyed assassins, nor beautiful Stasi agents. Yet I am a writer. I can’t help it. More than that I am a novelist, in so far as I am a person who writes novels, though I’d never say so out loud. I suppose it’s that “success” thing, and how you measure it. No sense calling yourself a writer to people’s faces without anything tangible to show for it, like maybe be a best seller or two, and a Jag on the drive to prove your net worth.

But life is also about understanding what you’ve got, changing what you can if you feel you must, and making peace with whatever you feel you cannot. I think few men would object to being seduced by a greater number of beautiful women than has been the case, but being strafed by a Mig? That would probably have been the last straw for me, followed by a one way ticket back home to the quiet and comfort of my Lancashire bolt-hole. Nope. I wouldn’t change a thing.

What’s most striking, throughout reading Forsyth’s life story, is his confidence, his courage and his total self belief. In addition to his obvious talents as a writer, that’s how the hell he did it.

 

 

 

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100 year old manA quirky title for a quirky book.

Set in Sweden, the story opens with Allan Karlsson on the eve of his hundredth birthday. He’s recently moved into an old folks home, having blown his own place up with a stick of dynamite – it was an accident and a long story, which we get to eventually, but for now Allan can’t abide the thought of attending the party that’s being organised in his honour, so with moments to spare, he climbs out of the window and heads for the bus station.

He has no clear plan, but then such is the story of Allan’s long life – no clear plan, yet a series of outrageous events that has seen him at the pivotal moments of twentieth century history, often on the wrong side of it, and armed only with his native wits and a happy-go-lucky optimism to see him through. The story is at times darkly humorous, at times absurd, Allen’s engagingly quirky insights into the true workings of the world providing the punchlines along the way.

The story has been likened to Forest Gump and the fortunes of a naive simpleton similarly turning up at iconic moments of (American) history. But although Allan’s outlook on life is refreshingly uncomplicated, and completely accepting of whatever simply is, he’s definitely no simpleton and is at times ingenious in his understanding and outwitting of authority. Also, unlike Gump, his adventures take in the entire sweep of world history, gathering the globe together and presenting it to the reader as a complete basket case.

Following his escape and arrival at the bus station, Allan, by a mixture of outrageous chance and mild indignation, manages to relieve an incompetent motorcycle gangster of a suitcase containing a small fortune in cash, then makes off with it on a bus. He doesn’t know about the money yet and is rather hoping to find instead a decent pair of shoes to replace the carpet slippers he’s currently wearing. What follows is an incompetent chase given by both the bad guys and the supposed good guys, Allen managing always to keep one step ahead, though mostly without trying and leaving an unwitting trail of mayhem in his wake. Along the way he picks up an eclectic mix of friends, accomplices, and an elephant!

But this is just one side of the story. The other side is the story of Allen’s life-long adventures in the world where he has been instrumental in The Chinese Revolution, the Russian Revolution, helping to invent the atomic bomb (for both the Americans and the Russians), in the death of Stalin (a stroke brought on by exasperation), saving the life of Winston Churchill (unintended consequences) in the complete destruction of Vladivostok (a diversion that went better than expected), and in the Korean war. He has befriended presidents and dictators, escaped torture and execution and all without a passion for anything except an occasional drop of the hard-stuff.

Allen’s romp through history presents the world’s leaders as incompetents, poseurs, megalomaniacs and fools, in pretty much the same light as Allen’s contemporary encounters during his flight from more petty scoundrels, self important officials and violent motor-cycle gangsters – all of this I suspect only half in jest. The plot is utterly insane, but magically engaging, the story as a whole suggesting the world itself, its pivotal moments and its key players cannot be described in any other way than utterly absurd.

One of Allen’s few penetrating observation on power and politics, to his one time companion, Einstein’s lesser known look-alike half sibling, the eternally dim Herbert (don’t ask): “the nearer you get to the top, my friend, the better the food and drink!”

Endearingly mad. And very glad to have discovered it.

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