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Posts Tagged ‘time’

 

man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A MillsThis life’s dim windows of the soul,
Distort the heavens from pole to pole,
And leads you to believe a lie,
When you see with, not through the eye.

The Eternal Gospel – Blake.

A man enters the forest to cut wood. He hears music, discovers a beautiful woman dancing. She invites him to join her, and he has the time of his life, returns, stars still in his eyes, to find decades have passed, that all who knew him are gone, and he no longer has a place in the world. It’s a classic encounter with the Faery, and the meaning of it – for there is always a meaning – suggests that having once experienced the limitless bliss of the other-world, you have to find a way of forgetting it, or you cannot live in this one.

Or it might have happened the other way around, because there’s always an inverse to these things. A man enters the forest, encounters the dancing woman who lures him into an eternal life of merriment, romance and where all is wonderful. Decades pass before he tires of it – for humans will always tire of endless pleasure – and he craves a return to life, craves its imperfections, even the time bound nature of the human condition. He’s thinking all who knew him will surely be gone by now but, on his return, he discovers no time has lapsed at all and he merely picks up where he left off. The story here might be telling us the world will always find a place for those who grasp that crucial insight regarding the value of limitation in human affairs.

I’m not sure where these ideas come from, but they’re nagging me to attempt a contemporary story along similar lines, and I’m resisting it. But the more I resist, the more they nag and intrigue. I’d thought they were from Irish Faery lore, but in the main it’s mortal women and children the Celtic Faery are fond of kidnapping, suggestive of a different kind of moral altogether.

Then again it may have been something imagined or dreamed, and it’s a beguiling concept, that such ideas are eternal and floating about, waiting to be picked up by the passing mind, and it’s helpful if you can understand them. All myths come from an archetypal substrate and speak to us in a symbolic language, apparently seeking influence over human affairs.

The Faery were once understood as daemonic entities, not literally existing, but still real, visible only through the inner eye, as Blake once put it, a vision overlaid with the filter of imagination. It takes a kind of madness then, seeing fairies – indeed Wordsworth did say Blake was mad and he may have right – but not all daemonic expression is mad in a bad way. It can also be visionary. On the downside though, daemonic rumblings can spread like wildfire, leading to a dangerous shift in the Zeitgeist, to orgies of rage, to mindless persecution of the “other”, and to killing.

We needn’t look very far to find evidence of the daemonic at work in the contemporary world and have only to listen to the voices coming at us from formerly sane quarters, voices of unreason that can both pedal and believe in lies, even knowing them to be lies. For just as one half of the daemonic possess a heavenly form and fey, courtly manners, the other half knows no bounds to its depths of depravity, duplicity and ugliness. An obvious place to find it is in the comments of any social media, for once we discover the cloak of invisibility, it is the darker daemons that speak through us, and their language is foul.

This ambivalence of the daemonic is perplexing, and not something we can control nor every wholly trust in. When the genie is out of the bottle the story never ends well, except in Disneyland, because humans are outwitted with ease by the daemonic mind. Better then to ram the cork back in, cast the bottle into the sea and hope no one else finds it. Except it is the genii, the daemons themselves that seek us. And we just can’t help falling under their spell.

They require far more circumspection than we possess, especially at times of crisis, for they are the crisis, as if the daemons have gone to war with themselves, and it’s only when the Godly win out do we find peace again. But it’s never lasting, more cyclical, and I fear every other generation must learn these lessons anew.

So my guy goes into the forest, dallies only for a moment with fey beauty, because it’s infinitely preferable to the ugliness of the world he’s living in. But the world he returns to, decades later, is even worse, a world where voices threaten murder at every turn, and he witnesses a population cowering in fear and paranoia. But what’s the lesson in that, when there seems no solution to it? Are we merely to lay down and submit to such a fate, while the daemons rage war in our heads?

If we only knew them better, might we find a way to petition for a more lasting peace? But they’ve been with us since the beginning of time and if we don’t know them by now, will we ever? Or did we once, but in the rush to embrace reason, we have forgotten the Daemonic within us all, and thereby offended them?

I’m ill equipped to understand where any of this is going, lacking both the Blakean vision to see what I’m talking about, and the language to express it. And I fear in the end it doesn’t matter, because wherever the daemons lead, we follow, even if it’s off a cliff edge, and it’s really no comfort to be able say you had the eye on them all the time, and that you saw it coming.

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fallen beech tree

In the opening of my novel “Durelston Wood” there’s this huge beech tree that stands high on a bank, overlooking a bend in a river that runs deep through a forest. The roots are gnarled and mossy and the tree’s origins seem to hark back to a time as near the beginning of time as makes no difference. And it’s this apparent permanence in time, at least in so far as our protagonist sees it, that lends the tree the role of an existential anchor throughout the changes of his life. Whenever he feels he lacks certainty and direction, whenever it seems there’s no sure ground left to stand on, he seeks it out.

That beech tree exists. I’ve known it since I was a boy, carved my name on it in a secret place when I was ten, but unlike my protagonist, I’ve also seen how the bank has been eroding slowly over the decades, the root system more and more exposed. Some years ago, storms felled a couple of my tree’s equally mighty brethren. They’d been undermined by time and grown top heavy, so a capricious wind sent them crashing into the river. It’s a shocking thing to see, a tree of immense proportion spread out suddenly, smashed open by gravity, and I suppose it was just a matter of time before my own tree – I always think of it as my tree – succumbed in the same way.

Its prospect, sitting high on that bank grants it a certain majesty but you can also sense its vulnerability as its roots cling talon-like to an earth that is slowly vanishing beneath it. It’s five or six feet in diameter, and Professor Google says if we multiply the diameter of the tree at chest height, in inches, by six, it gives us the approximate age of the tree in years – so let’s say about four hundred years since that little beechnut first sprouted on the riverbank and crowded out all the other little beechnuts.

But one side of the root system has been getting more and more exposed, starving the tree. Sure enough, I came upon it recently to find a massive section of trunk had failed above those exposed roots. It was taken down by the storms we had in December, sent thirty feet into the river below, its irresistible arboreal tonnage smashing through a footbridge in the process.

So there’s a lesson here about impermanence, that although we all know nothing lasts for ever, at the same time it’s an axiom we seek to ignore by picking as our yardsticks something suitably long lived, like say a four hundred year old beech tree. But, in time, even the mountains are ground down and the valleys filled with their dust, and one day I’m sure to come through the forest to find this tree gone completely into the river, and a crater in the bank ripped out by the roots as it went over. And the other lesson in all of this is I’ve got to find a way of not minding any of that.

And that might even be possible, were it not also for the accompanying sense recently of an acceleration in the destruction of the known world, and the fast erosion of all certainty, like the earth that has supported my tree for four centuries being now insufficient to support the weight of our giddy times.

But perhaps in the true unwritten history of my tree, a more useful tale than its imminent demise has already been told in the beer-can someone wedged into one the boles high in the trunk, or the plastic supermarket bag trapped in its branches and just out of reach – a bag that slapped and flapped eventually to silent rags in the winds over the passage of several winters. Or the inevitable little bags of dog poo someone hung there, or the discarded sandwich wrapper and, one time, the malodorous pile of human faeces, complete with Hoover instruction booklet hastily improvised as toilet paper (well, you never know, do you?). Or indeed the ten year old boy who once carved his initials in that secret place – yes, even that, to other eyes, might have seemed a sacrilege.

All these things from time to time have come to poke fun at this illusion of the tree’s sanctity, at the idea of anything being immortal in this world, at our sentimental nature, at our propensity for hanging onto things, to people, places, even memories, long after the time has come to let them go. To one human a mighty tree and its environs are an enchanted place, a place for communing with the Faery, while to another it’s simply a convenient toilet, or somewhere to leave one’s rubbish, or make one’s mark.

In mythical terms these are the tokens of the jester, the exasperating interventions of an ever playful Mercurius, telling us to get over ourselves, that the successful alchemy of one’s life is a continuing process of coagulation and sublimation, that the falling back into ruin is as important as the rise of a transcendent vapour that follows. The remains of these trees, these icons of the most venerable life on earth, four hundred years in the making, will settle back into the earth now, and there coagulate and rot in slow-time, providing habitat for the shy creatures we do not see when we are encumbered with our yapping dogs – the creatures, like the sprites and the Faery we see only when we settle down in the forest and tune in to the deep motion of its fecund breath, and open up the eye of imagination.

There is no tragedy here, only a falling back into the alembic of my days, a further cycle of coagulation and a separating out the unnecessary from my thoughts, while we await the sublimation of some new mode of spirit, a fresh way of thinking and seeing and being.

Or at least I hope so.

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Survivalcraft for wordpress

Writing stories is old hat. They’re like a wind-up Swiss Watch; beautiful, intricate and hard to make, and no one wants them any more. Sure, you can still get them, but most mass market tickers are of the quartz variety. Technology has moved on. Like cut-throat razors, there’s no need for them any more and anyone still using them is seriously retro. In the same way, written stories died with the age of Television, about the time I was born, which makes it somewhat ironic I should have spent so much time writing them. I collect wind-up watches too. Speaks volumes.

Seems like I was born too late.

In the UK it died early. America hung on for a bit. Indeed, over there, it was still possible to sell fiction, even really poor fiction, well into the seventies. But now, like us, they don’t read stuff any more. It’s all visual drama, and most of it’s so up itself the only thing it teaches us is the art of celebrity.

In the UK you had a few women’s magazines and you had the People’s Friend. They’re still around but they weren’t an easy genre to figure out. I did try, but they get thousands of stories a week showered on them and they have to pick just one or two. Even if you’ve got what it takes it’s still a lottery. No room for also-rans. There were some London literary rags as well, I recall, still are, but you’ve only to read one to see they’re seriously off the strangeness scale, that only very clever people could fathom, so I never wasted stamps on them.

For Science Fiction and Speculative you had Interzone and The Third Alternative. They supported a lot of big names back in the day and were great magazines to read, with engaging and intelligent fiction, but I guess like the rest, it was just too competitive, again no room for second best with those boys. And if you don’t know your cyberpunk from your whatsamacallit, then seriously, don’t bother, you’ll just look like a fool.

I know I did.

I had some luck with Ireland’s Own, a Wexford based publication, quite old fashioned really, like something out of the fifties. I wrote traditional Irish tales for them, which was weird because I’ve never been to Ireland, and they say you should always write what you know, but they didn’t seem to mind that. They had about twenty stories off me, the sum total of my published opus, in fact, and all of them lost to obscurity now. I’ve published nothing there in ages because the market dried me up completely. And what I really wanted anyway was to publish longer stories – novels and such – the pursuit of which finally wised me up to the whole damned publishing business altogether.

I’m reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut at the moment – most recently a book called Timequake, published in ’97, part weird, zany fiction, also part autobiography, in which he was already lamenting the end of the era of pop fiction, the one he grew up in, the one that enabled him to quit his job at General Electric to write full time and make a decent living at it, just like I wanted to do. But Vonnegut was a generation ahead of me and had already concluded it was over at the same time I was still trying to doggedly break in. He was a real writer’s writer, Kurt Vonnegut, God rest him.

When I say writing stories is old hat, I don’t mean they’re no longer relevant or enjoyable, it’s just that fewer people bother with them, that’s all. Stories used to pass the time at a time when we all seemed to have more time, when the evenings after work seemed longer and there was time to just – I don’t know – just be. Nowadays by the time we’ve finished commuting and had our tea, it’s time for bed and work again. So it’s all too easy to pick up your phone in the bits of time that are left and play Candy Crush than it is to immerse yourself in a work of fiction.

Me? Guilty as charged your honour. I can lose myself for hours in Survivalcraft instead of reading or writing. See pic – that’s me! But it doesn’t exactly teach you anything of use outside the game. I’ve built an entire world in it. There are farms and mines and homesteads, and remote islands, all interlinked by tunnels, so I can get about without running the gauntlet of hungry wild animals. Years and years it’s taken me, just tunnelling away, piling up the earth to build more farmsteads, plant more crops, round-up cows. I’ve only to drop my phone and it’s all gone. But it doesn’t matter. It’s just an escape, like doing Soduku.

Stories are an escape too, yes, but they are so much more than that. In the main they present an experience as if it were shared. The writer beckons you in, and says come along with me for a bit. And along you go, finding yourself on a journey peopled by characters as real as any you’re likely to meet in real life. And they talk to you, show you things. They ask you: what do you think of this? You always come away from a story, a good story, with your soul changed in some way – a little deeper, a little wiser.

That’s the way I see it anyway.

For a time, some time post 2008, when our devices became portable and powerful, they seemed the perfect medium for written stories to migrate to, and that’s pretty much where I’ve been as an amateur hack since then, basically giving stuff away, and why not? given that most publications don’t even pay for it now anyway, what’s there to lose? But I’m not so sure about this any more. All I seem to be doing is creating reams of content for others to pepper with their advertising, or to content scrape, or simply bare-faced pirate, all of them like parasites picking at my brains. And then we’ve had the scandals of election meddling through nefarious psychological means, served out of our devices and pretty soon you come to realise our devices are not so much full of wonder any more, as full of shit. Apologies for the “S” word – Vonnegut is a bad influence, but you’ve got to love him.

So is it time we set our devices aside? Sure, if you go searching online you might find some decent stories, like flowers growing on a dung hill, but you’re not going to manage it without getting a lot of muck on your wellies too. We’d all be better going for a walk, a real walk, in the sunshine because it cheers you up, you know? Or go for a coffee and spot how many people still have their heads stuck in their phones and up their asses. Best of all buy a paper book from a charity shop, then sit down somewhere comfy and read, like we did in the old days.

I’m coming up on retirement soon, thinking to duck out early while I’ve still got breath in me for climbing a few more hills. I’ll have all the time in the world to read and to write then, but I’ll probably just sitting flicking listlessly on my phone like everybody else, or ordering tat off Ebay, or playing Survivalcraft. Then I’ll finally have become one more zombie, good as gold, incapable of stringing two coherent thoughts, or words, together.

I hope that isn’t true, but fiction is definitely niche these days, reading it and, I suppose, writing it too. Like Dandelion and Burdock pop, it conjures up memories of long ago. But, like those childhood summers, golden age of the written word isn’t coming back and, like climate-change and Neo-con economics, it’s probably too late to do anything about it. But that’s fine, because it’s still possible to find pleasure in really small things. And it’s just as well, because small things is all we’ve ever really had, or needed in the first place.

So,.. sun’s coming up. Let’s saddle up.

And ride!

Survivalcraft for wordpress 2

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cropped-southport-beach.jpg

In this last settled hour before the dawn,
I dig my heels to slow the flow of time,
And with each measured breath,
Embrace departing ghosts of dreams,
Until at length, and with sad smiles,
They waste into the thinning night.
And the sun rises,
Ignites first light of trembling day,
And burns to clear blue,
Somnambulant mists of sleep,
From whence souls crash their dancing flight,
Become flesh again,
Fallen in this deep befuddled mess,
Of pillow, sheet, and creaking bed.
Then here am I once more,
Slow ache of a man, rising,
Washed back upon this fractured shore,
Of life.

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marniesnip

There is no time,
When from time to time,
We chance across each other’s path.
No chance either,
Not really,
In this,
The scheme of how things lie.
There is only an eternal sense,
Of blessing,
Of stillness,
And sacred elegance.

Today we stand apart,
As always,
Mute,
But across this void of timeless time,
And empty air,
In my heart,
And in my deepest soul,

We dance.

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i chingSo far as I can work out, finding the centre of one’s self is to attain a state of mind in which we are able to view our selves at the centre of a universe rich in personal meaning. We identify events in the external world as reflections of currents within our own psyche. We feel a detachment, virtue of a transcendent perspective, while also sensing our interconnectedness with the universe and everything in it.

We seek signs, symbols, messages of personal guidance, for clues to guide our way, and we receive them – or at the very least we are comfortable in suspending disbelief and acting upon irrational sixth-sensical notions. Everywhere, and everything becomes alive, numinous, our lives suddenly enriched with a sense of purpose and meaning. We feel calm, awed by the beauty and the mystery of both the inner and the outer worlds.

There are many labels for such a state of mind – pathological, perhaps, but more positively, we could call it living the religious life, or we might call it “Dao” or the “the way”, or in more contemporary terms we might call it living magically. Living the magical life we are armoured against calamity. This is not to say misfortune does not befall us, more that we are not harmed by it, psychologically, emotionally, in the same way. We are also less likely to create calamity for ourselves by unskillful ways of thinking and being.

But the journey to the centre is not a straight line. We circle inwards some way towards it, then back out again, gaining and then losing this cosmic perspective as the ego’s dominance over us waxes and wanes. But each time we circle in, we approach a little more towards the centre. Thus we progress in a spiralling, cyclical manner. Each cycle might take a year, or a decade – there is no way of knowing for sure, and no certain method for gaining progress or holding onto it. We move when we are ready. And when the cycle turns back to winter, there is nothing we can do but shield our flame in anticipation of the storms to come, while trusting in the more fruitful season’s eventual return.

I came upon my own guide to this phenomenon by chance in a book called the Yijing, or Book of Changes. It’s not the only guide. There have been many down the ages, and the one that’s right for each of us will show itself when we’re ready for it. The Yijing has a powerful mythic and symbolic underpinning, and through its use we learn the art of acting powerfully by not acting at all, other than by correctly interpreting and negotiating change. Through this art we come to understand our position within a pattern of existential dynamics, a flow of time – the times when we have influence but don’t realise it, and the times when we think we have it, but don’t. It requires a suspension of disbelief, a humble spirit and a faith in the generally benign nature of the universe – but these are not easy things to hold onto in a world as materialistic and cynical as ours.

It was a favourite of the hippy generation, but we can trace its origins back to China’s Neolithic period and the proto-writings of the Shang dynasty. It first came to the west in late Victorian times through the missionary James Legge, but was largely ignored. It came again in 1923 in a German translation, thanks to another missionary, the great sinologist, Richard Wilhelm, and was championed by Carl Jung who recognised its power as a psycho-analytical tool. A later English translation of the Wilhelm edition appeared in 1950 and is still in print. It’s this version you are still most likely to find in bookshops today.

Every generation has reinvented the Yijing somewhat, re-purposed it to its own times, its own myths and symbols. I collected as many versions of it I could find and boiled them down into my own interpretation, which I laboured over long and lovingly, and still use.

After a promising start though, and a significant change in direction as a result of the book’s counsel, I lost my way with it as a consequence of ego reasserting itself and demanding to know how the book worked. And then, as time, passed, ego began questioning my use of it on rational grounds, effectively calling me a new-age flake, and to get a grip.

To be sure, taking the lid off the Yijing is like opening Pandora’s box. You will never understand how it works, and greater minds than mine have been broken by it. To try is to fall into it and then its alchemical vortices will suck you down and tear you limb from limb. But ego tries, because it must, it abandons humility and loses the centre, is recoiled full circle, leaving us bruised and bleeding, the egoic, “poor me”, cast out once more into the demon plagued wilderness of the old life, the old way of thinking. And there we languish, vulnerable once more to the mortal woundings of every day calamity.

But then the season of the heart changes, and we pick it up again, blow the dust from it, somewhat chastised, and seek to remake the old connections. The book is hesitant, testing us for sincerity, but slowly lets us back in and we resume the journey.

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wordsworthTwo by two they marched into St Oswald’s churchyard, the entire complement of a seventy seater coach. At their head a suited guide, complete with microphone, broadcast his authoritative commentary over the ethereal hush. It was a vast entourage of American tourists, well heeled and,… damn, they were heading in our direction, seeking Wordsworth’s grave. It was a bold flanking manoeuvre, completely overwhelming us few native poetry bums who had gathered there. We took a deep breath, prepared to stand our ground, prepared also for our politeness to scatter us into the shadows.

There were a lot of American accents in Grasmere this afternoon and a busy-busy atmosphere pervading the early autumnal air. In the cafe queue, earlier, I’d been pressed aside by an assertive and impressively articulate dude complaining his sandwich was taking a long time and that he was under “very considerable time constraint”. This poor guy was on holiday, but he was still caught up in the world of work, in the achievement culture. I recognised his accent, his idiosyncratic use of language. It pinpointed him squarely in the nether geography of performance reviews, and endless Powerpoint presentations. I wondered if he was in this queue now, the queue for Wordsworth’s grave, a similar time constraint weighing heavy – Dove cottage and the visitor centre yet to be ticked off. And boy, there were so many graves with Wordsworth’s name written on them. Thank heavens for the tour guide and his live-broadcast commentary to home in on the essentials.

I moved on as the guide came up pointing out the poet’s resting place. Sadly he was pointing to the wrong William. It’s an easy mistake to make, but I would have expected better research from one so prepossessing as this. Willy (1810-1883), had not followed in his father’s (1770-1850) poetic footsteps, but on reflection the faux pas didn’t matter, at least not in the world inhabited by these poor souls. They had done the grave thing, ticked the box. Most would probably not remember and somehow it all meshed perfectly with the achievement culture thing: Britain by tick-box, the myth of old Englandism: a vibrant, if at times raggedy and fiercely intellectual nation reduced to no more than frock coats, bustles and Mr Darcy’s wet trousers.

To think, poor William and his family have to put up with this sort of thing every day!

I have a difficult relationship with Wordsworth. I read him like all fan-boys as if looking for the key to my own enlightenment. I do find him occasionally profound, but also pompous and immensely verbose. He walked the fells as feverishly as I walked them in my younger days, but at a time when they were not so worn out, when the paths were vague, known only to shepherds, and orange peel did not litter the summits. But the Victorians in all their chocolate box glory were also notable that in their fondness for the sublime they also had a penchant for bludgeoning it to death with words whenever it put in an appearance.

Other philosophers, of the Zen Tradition, in lands far away, had already worked out one could not define the sublime by rich, eloquent and, above all, copious wordery. The poet Basho is a case in point, writing two centuries earlier than Wordsworth, and with a stunning brevity, his Haiku verses connected the human mind with the sublime without attempting to describe it. When words fail us, it’s for a reason and it’s best at that point just to shut up and let nature fill the space in our heads.

But when our heads are enamoured of the schedule and all those dubious measures of achievement, when we are for ever under the cosh of “considerable time constraint”, it’s really all the same if it’s Willy or William we’re looking at because by then the truth is of no consequence and bluff and fakery will suffice perfectly well instead for fact.

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