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on pendle hill

Pendle Hill December 2019

 

My novel-to-be “Winter on the Hill” isn’t about Coronavirus. But then, like all other aspects of life, the virus hijacked it early on and, since then, it has become both backdrop and the occasional plot device.

Our protagonist, Rick (followers of this blog will have met him before) is a former left-wing activist and climate protester. But he gave all that stuff up on the night of the December 2019 election when the Conservative party and “market forces” swept to power. He took a look at his country then and decided he didn’t understand it any more, that while he felt he wasn’t wrong in his lefty, middling-socialist beliefs, he was indeed very much misguided in thinking he could ever change anything. So he joined a walking group and, Covid regs permitting, he’s been climbing hills all year. At first, he was angry and scathing about his fellow countrymen for being so damned irredeemably stupid, but as the story progresses, he experiences a strange mellowing when a deeper truth is revealed.

Meanwhile, the pandemic pulls the mask from the Government, exposing an avaricious face familiar enough to those who have been round the block a bit. Self-seeking, complacent, incompetent, contemptuous of the poor, fanatical only about BREXIT. They have presided over sixty thousand dead – official figures – and now seven months in, the death-rate is doubling again every two weeks.
 
None of this is a surprise to Rick but, in spite of the urging of his former activist colleagues, he’s too philosophical now to indulge in partisan argument, let alone direct action. Instead, he’s meditating on the nature of “truth”, and how, in a world obscured by untruths, it might be possible to live the authentic life. Or is that just for the monks, while the rest of us must construct whatever comforting false reality we can while at the same time drowning in poo?
 
There’s nothing truer than boots on a hill, he says. Everything is down to you – the energy, the route, the hill-craft, your eye on the weather. That’s what’ll get you up and down in one piece, not bluff and bluster. But will Rick, in his new-found mellowness, ever return to the political life? Will he return a wiser man, a man with a plan, something that will put it all right for the rest of us? Or will he let the clouds take him, and then his compassionate wisdom becomes lost to us? Has he already decided that in a world dominated by billionaire froth and spin, ever ready to smear him as a crazy-left-Marxist-Commie dooda who eats babies, does it matter what the earnest men and women of Rick’s ilk say anyway?
 
Let’s remind ourselves of the problem by asking a man who knows, someone very much like Rick, but who hasn’t turned away from the front lines:
 
 
I agree with George, but I would add one more thing, and perhaps not surprisingly it’s something Rick might say too. It’s gone wrong because not enough of us care about, or understand enough of what it is George is saying. We are so far down the rabbit hole, all his words can do is further polarize us – those on the left nodding in agreement, while those on the right gather their spittle. And that may be why Rick is tying on his boots and heading up into the clouds again. Election 2024? Forget it, he says. For the things that really matter, environmentally and socially, it was already too late ten years ago.
 
No, come on Rick. That’s not good enough. We want answers.
 
No you don’t, he says. All you want to know is how you can go on living a comfortable lie without the uncomfortable consequences catching up with  you.
 
And there, I think, after several rewrites and dunderheaded attempts, I have the closing lines, of Winter on the Hill – available from all good bookshops nowhere soon, but otherwise free. Just watch for the link in the margin.
 
I thank you.
 

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The Blue Lagoon, Buxton

Picture by Simon Harrod at Flickr, taken in May 2012

This fêted age of infinite information renders us vulnerable to a blizzard of spin. Some of this is deliberate and state sponsored, some of it is mere tittle-tattle. But as Churchill once said, a lie can be round the world before the truth has even got its pants on. It pays therefore to be careful how we interpret what we see, read and hear.

Newspapers are the least trustworthy sources of factual information, no better than gossip. We all know this, yet are happy for them to feed our own particular prejudice. The online gossip-mills too are manipulated to dramatic effect by the same nefarious actors. But at a time of crisis when we’re hungry for facts, such misdirection  undermines confidence and spreads fear.

Some newspapers took delight in reporting the fate of the Blue Lagoon in Derbyshire this week. This is an intriguing little beauty spot, near Buxton – its most striking feature being its beguiling Caribbean-blue waters. The newspapers tell us that to prevent people from gathering there, flouting social distancing rules,  the cops poured black dye into it.

Whilst correct, the facts here are spun by omission. They make it sound like the act of a police-state gone mad. Worse, they sound like a reckless piece of ecological vandalism. It takes a little more digging to learn the cops often do this at the Blue Lagoon. They do it in collaboration with the local council to stop people from swimming there. Why? Because, with a Ph close to that of bleach, the lagoon is toxic. So, the first story aims at shaking public trust in the police at a time when that trust needs reinforcing. The other story shows the police in a struggle to protect us from ourselves. Which story you prefer depends on your innate prejudice and political leanings.

Facts are those things that don’t change. They do not dance around with fancy hats on. This makes them lacking in novelty in a world that craves novelty. We crave it day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, and it makes facts boring. Spinning the facts is what the press, the politicians, the propagandists and the gossip-mongers do. So, we should be mindful never to take anything at face value. Once we deviate from rules and scientific fact, the truth is always something we’ll have to dig for.

Facts – the full facts – enable us to make up our own minds. And what’s so interesting about any form of mass media are the ways in which others can use it to make up our minds for us. One mouth. Many listeners. So, be sure you know who you’re listening to and remember how the omission of certain key facts in the telling can change a story completely.

Lets be careful out there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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