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Posts Tagged ‘the singing loch’

In my mind’s eye, I see a cold grey dawn, with a grey city silhouette like a cardboard cut out, set against a grey sky. Grey people sit in grey motor cars, bumper to bumper, as clouds of grey poison swirl around them. They stand on the streets, packed tightly, grey figures without faces, afraid of touching and yet hardly able to move without doing so. They work, they reproduce, and then they die in a slow, painless, soulless cycle.

The City moves. It creeps invisibly, like the hands of a clock, like warm tar, spreading and sprawling. It lives and grows, fed by the souls it steals. But beyond the gloomy boundaries of this strange place, people dance under blue skies, on summer scented lawns. They dress in bright colours and sing songs. Then the skies darken as the City draws near. Their bright faces shine for just a moment before the warm tar engulfs them. They become petrified and emerge as yet more grey people without faces and without souls, while their summer scented lawns become roads and streets choked with motor cars. Then the poison seeks them out and fills their lungs as they too join in the slow cycle of work and death. Their songs are forgotten, and the intricate patterns of their dance are lost for ever.

Some of the grey people manage to hide a piece of their soul. It survives and grows, filling them with horror at what they see. They break away and search for a summer scented lawn on which to lay down and rest, somewhere far from the City where they can breathe clean air and listen to the singing of the trees and feel the good, sweet earth all around them. They imagine themselves free at last. But the greyness is with them and like Midas and his gold, everything they touch turns to grey. The grass withers beneath their feet, concrete springs up as if from wells beneath the ground, and another city is born, poisoning, spreading, sprawling. This inexorable process consumes whole continents, fouling land and sea until there is nothing left but a kind of grey, living death.

Finally, and in despair, the earth splits and great fires shoot out, creating vast lava-flows. Storm clouds gather, unleashing a terrible revenge, while the land undergoes convulsions of unimaginable proportion, throwing up mountains where there were none before and creating new oceans where once had stood grey mountains, befouled and exploited. The storms last for a hundred million years.

But none of this is real. It’s just a dream; something inside my head that brings me pain when I’m asleep. I wake up sweating and then a woman’s hand curls around my arm easing me onto my pillow. I hear her voice, soft and gentle and then she runs her fingers through my hair while I slip back into the dream.

Sometimes, I see the storms subside. The clouds part and I see sunlight playing upon a new world, a world that has become one big summer scented lawn and I see creatures, strange, yet wonderful, flitting about in an unexpected paradise. But this is no happy ending: there are no people here. I travel far and wide and see only simple creatures living out their lives, oblivious to the paradise around them. There is nothing that is conscious of its existence and no one to see the beauty of it all except for me through the windows of my dream.

I cannot look upon it for long, because I too am one of the grey people. I reach out and pluck a flower but it withers in my hand; I have yet to learn I am only passing through; the flower was not mine to pluck. I should have been content with admiring it for what it was and breathing in the scent it freely gave, instead of trying to claim it as my own, guarding it jealously within the palm of my hand. Then my window breaks and there is darkness once more, until I’m wakened by the dawn and the sound of a woman singing in the kitchen, downstairs.

I drag myself from bed and draw the curtains so I might look out across the waters of the loch. It sparkles with gold-dust in the yellow light of sunrise, and beyond I see moors, dark with bracken and heather. Hills rise beyond the moor, low and rounded and then, softened by a veil of blue haze, there are mountains. I see the fold in the land, and the silver thread of water leading to a pool of morning mist. In my mind, I trace the thread to its source, to that place whose lure I find so irresistible, to that other loch whose strange songs have changed my life.

It was through the Singing Loch I glimpsed the summer scented lawns and felt the meaning of its wordless song in my heart. It has much to tell, embracing as it does the mystery and the passion that compels us all. But also, for those who would claim the wild flowers as their own, there is a message.

From my novel, The Singing Loch, first published 2005. I’ve not looked at this since 2014. It must have gone through a million drafts since the first one in 1995, but there’s a typo in the very first sentence. Still, I meant well.

See if you can spot it. Click here.

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great hillI was going to write about the despoliation of Cumbria this evening, of people fleeing lockdown en-masse, and wild-camping on the more accessible tops, leaving behind their trash, their tents, their fires, and their faeces. But those who would be horrified by that don’t need another story, and those who don’t care, won’t care anyway. And it’s nothing I’ve not been saying since The Singing Loch, so we’ll move on. Here’s a bit of me trying to work out “Winter on the Hill” instead:

Chapter Forty Seven:

Life doesn’t always make sense if you measure it in a straight line. I mean, if you take it one event after the other. Sometimes, you remember a thing from the past, but which made no sense at the time. Then it springs fresh into memory, decades later, only now it’s become a key, unlocking a door on a present conundrum.

How to explain?

As a metrologist – not a meteorologist – one measures the length and the breadth of the world. But first we ask how accurate the measurement must be because this determines the method. On the one hand, we have the experienced machinist who can judge accurately to a tenth of a millimetre by no more than the feel of his callipers. On the other, we use lasers and an elaborate set-up to get to within a nanometre of reality. But that’s still a long way from measuring the diameter of an atom.

At the edges of atoms, the world becomes fuzzy. So the question arises, at what point does the world begin and measurement means anything at all? And for measurement, I suppose you can read truth, or logic – that something is either true or false, that a thing is either there or not. Except, in the fuzziness at the edges of the world, truth becomes foggy, and it’s dogged pursuit throws up the phantoms of logical paradoxes. We see their traces in our language, things like:

The following statement is true: the previous statement is false.

What does such a thing say about the world?

It’s nineteen ninety-six when I first ponder these questions. I am speaking at a conference at Manchester’s Metropolitan University, the John Dalton building. It’s a conference I’d forgotten until Molly mentioned it that time on the hill at Holcombe. I am given half an hour on interferometry, and she has insisted not a minute more or the microphone will be cut. She was always a bit of a ball-breaker, Molly – good-looking, brassy. Still is.

My talk feels elementary though, me this measurer of things. I can hear my own words as I speak them – never a good sign. The reason for my self consciousness? I have followed an ancient, white-bearded scientist from the CERN laboratories in Geneva. He has spoken about experiments studying the entanglement of particles of light. These studies have suggested there is no world at all until we come to measure it.

An other-worldly, wizard of a man, his talk garners few questions, but then it’s rather a difficult subject for the audience to get a handle on. Most are from the junior ranks of the nation’s industrial base. Some are only here for the lunch, paid for by their employers. Others are here to raise a career-profile by scoring points off the speakers. Others, the speakers themselves, are here because their employers want to raise their profiles among other employers. In this admittedly ambiguous and mutually narcissistic context, the subject is irrelevant, and few will remember anything of the day, or of him, or of me. Even by tomorrow all will be gone, in my case for decades, when the memory will rise unbidden whilst watching a woman swim.

My cousin Lottie.

At lunch, I find him sitting alone with a cup of tea. No one is talking to him. The only seats free in the bustling conference hall, where suits jostle, are those on either side of him. His intellect is felt like a force of nature, repelling interlopers. He does not mean this. He’s a loner and can’t help it. Neither can I. We have this in common at least.

“There’s me,” I begin. “All this time measuring things,… I mean the millimetres of them, chasing their ever-decreasing fractions. And all along, not realizing they only come into existence when I decide to measure them.”

A joke.

Success. He smiles. He’s human.

“What does that tell us about the nature of the world?” I ask him.

He thinks for a while, shakes his head. “Oh, I’m just a physicist,” he says. “At times, I’m at a loss. These are ultimately philosophical questions.”

We seem, both of us, at a remove from reality now. ’96 was a bad year for the bombings. It was also the year of the Dunblane shooting, which caused many of us to question the nature of existence. Life seemed violent, pointless, our survival arbitrary, a question of statistics, pretty much the same as it does now.

Since I was a lad, I’ve had no room for God, looked at the world early on and decided it was people who made the difference between heaven and hell. Obviously, it was better to aim for heaven, but it was looking like you could never have the one without the other. So, enjoy what you’ve got while you’ve got it. I did not know it then, but I was already groping towards an existentialist outlook. Nietzsche,… and all those other clever souls who looked at the horror of the twentieth century. Sure, they came to the only conclusion they could about that.

“Philosophical?” I ask him.

“Is the world really as we materialists claim?” he says. “Or is it more of a Kantian dream?”

I’d no idea who Kant was then. A philosopher, I suppose. “Dream? You mean like, it’s in our heads?”

“No,” he says. “Not in yours. Not in mine. The Universe is the dreamer. It dreams everything, including us. Shocking thought, isn’t it? Sounds bizarre. It’s also professional suicide to entertain such a notion. But it would explain a lot of what I’ve seen at the quantum level.”

“Like where the world begins?”

“Like how there is no world. At least not in the sense we imagine. Or rather not in the sense we are capable of imagining.”

I don’t know what he means by this, so try another joke, try to appear clever, when I’m clearly not. “So if the universe is dreaming us, who dreams the universe?”

He didn’t answer that one, just smiled politely, finished his tea, excused himself and disappeared into that dense crowd of past encounters. He had perhaps judged from my talk my ability to grasp these concepts was pedestrian at best. I was also hampered by a certain materialist prejudice. I don’t remember his name. Molly will have it, and his photograph no doubt. I must ask her about it. Most likely he’s dead now, but I would like to have his name.

So how long ago is that then? Thirty-four years, and counting? It’s not like I’ve been carrying the memory around with me. Indeed, it seems at times we’ve no idea what we remember of our experience as we go through life. Right now, I’m watching Lottie swim. And it’s while she swims that same stupid question surfaces, like a dream breaking. Or rather not so much the question itself as the memory of my asking it.

Who dreams the universe?

I know the answer, now. You get older, things change, you become less rigid in your thinking, and the answers creep through. It’s in the mood of the morning, in the beauty of it, the beauty of Lottie as she moves easily in the water, and with barely a ripple.

I’m sorry if all this seems bizarre, a little esoteric, but this is me you’re talking to and you should be used to it by now. I mean, here I am sitting, my feet slow-cycling in the warm pool, Lottie swimming and all you want to know is what’s she wearing, if anything, and where do things lie between us now? Yet here I am, off on a whole tangential chapter, talking about the fuzziness of atoms,…

Getting close now. I can feel it.

Thanks for listening.

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