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Posts Tagged ‘Victorian’

Lavender and the Rose Cover

Another in the occasional series, looking at the themes expressed in my various works of fiction. 

Moving on, getting on, forgetting the past, embracing change, living in the present moment – and all that. It’s good stuff, stuff I tried to get at in the Road from Langholm Avenue. And to be sure, all these things are attainable, the material world navigated safely as needs be without falling over in despair at the pointlessness of existence. At least for a time.

But as we get older, something else happens, some call it an existential crisis, others simply the menopause. But as I see it, youth, inexperience, and just plain ignorance has us accepting without question the allure of an essentially material life, rendering us blind to the fallacy that it is entirely sufficient for our needs – the pursuit of money, lifestyle, the bigger house, the bigger car, the exotic travel destinations. It isn’t.

If we’re lucky we wake up and realise material things don’t satisfy us for very long, that we can live an extravagant lifestyle, a life all the adverts would have us aspire to, and still be as miserable as sin, still craving the next big thing. But you can’t go on for ever like that. Clearly something is missing. We need a bigger story if our lives are to mean anything.

Some find that bigger story ready made in the various world religions – usually a story about a supreme being and an afterlife to help make sense of the suffering we endure in this one. We can then explain our lives as a trial imposed upon us, the reward for which will be riches in the next life. Or we can explain it as a preparation for a higher level of existence, again in some non-material hereafter. And all that’s fine for the faithful, because religions do provide comfort in times of need, but what if you’re not faithful? What if all of that sounds ridiculous to you? What if the logical inconsistencies of such a set-up cause you to take out that barge pole and prod all religions and their scary religiosity safely out of sight. Life simply is what it is, and then you die. Right?

Well, maybe.

But what if you sit down one day in an existential funk, and something happens? Let’s say the doors to perception are flung wide open – just for a moment – and you’re given an utterly convincing glimpse of a universe that’s somehow greatly expanded compared with the narrow way you normally perceive it? How so? Hard to describe except lets say, for example, time drops out of the equation and you’re given the impression of an infinite continuum in which there is no difference between you and whatever you perceive, that your mind is independent of both the physical body and the physical world, that indeed your mind is a subset of a greater mind that is both you and not you at the same time.

How would you deal with that?

Well, you’d probably think you were ill, or just coming out of a semi swoon or a waking dream where we all know the most outrageous nonsense can be made to feel true. So we come back to our senses and carry on as normal. Except we find our perspective on life is subtly altered. We are drawn to ideas that might explain our experience. We explore it first through psychology, because it was a kind of mind-thing we experienced. So down the rabbit hole we go,…

And there sitting at the mad hatter’s table we discover Carl Jung, sipping tea and reading a book called the Yijing, which he lends to us, saying that if we are not pleased by it, we don’t need to use it, and we’d worry about that except he also tells us famous quantum physicists have used it too, though they don’t like to admit it. Then this Oriental connection takes us to ancient China and another book called the Tao Te Ching, then to religions that aren’t like other religions, to Daoism and Buddhism which are kind of hard to get your head around. But while everything you learn explains some small part of what you experienced, nothing explains the whole of it.

So you put some rules to it yourself, create a quasi-logical structure for this strange new universe you alone have apparently discovered. Before you know it, you’ve invented your own religion and it all falls apart again, victim to the inconsistencies you’ve imposed upon it yourself. It seems the moment you put words to things you limit their potential to within the bounds of your own perception, and what you perceive actually isn’t that much when compared with what’s really out there, or to be more precise in there, because it’s an inner experience that leads us to this taste of the infinite where there’s no such thing as or in or out anyway.

The Lavender and the Rose comes out of this shift in perception, but without structure it would make no sense to anyone else – just two hundred thousand words of mindless drivel that would bore anyone to tears, so we accept the vagueness and the mystery, and we weave a story around it instead, a love story, several love stories, blur the boundaries, throw in some visions, some Jungian psychology, basically a lot of muse-stuff and conquering of the ego, that sort of thing. Add in a bit of Victorian costume drama, play about with characters having more than one identity, play the story out at different points in history, play it out in alternative universes where even the present moments can pan out differently, and then try to make it all hang together as an interesting story – about what can happen when you start living magically, and with others who are similarly inclined. Then explore ways the mystery can be coaxed to your aid, and discover how, if you get it wrong it will shun you for a decade. Learn how to navigate its endless ambiguities, how to see the world as no one else sees it, and still get by without getting yourself sectioned.

Such is the irresistible allure of something other.

And as with all my stuff, if you are not pleased by it, at least it hasn’t cost you anything!

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surface-hands-ellerbeck-abt-1913

Surface Hands, Ellerbeck Colliery, Coppull, 1913

The valley of the River Yarrow has suffered much under the march of modernity. Greenbelt erosion from the north has extended Chorley’s suburbs over meadows I’d once thought sacrosanct. Even the historic and achingly romantic Burgh Hall was flattened to make way for a housing estate. It was there, legend has it, Livingstone spent his last night in England before embarking for Africa, or was it Stanley who went after him? I forget now, but this alone is surely interesting enough a fact to give pause, while in another, entirely irrelevant. I presume the developers took the latter view before sending in the wrecking ball.

All I know is I miss the hall when I walk along Burgh Lane at twilight – often a lone lamp in the window flickering out a morse code of myth across the misty green, now extinguished by the alien orange brick of modern housing. I suppose those massed ranks will weather in eventually and take on a more authentic ownership of the land, but for now the betrayal of my memories by their harsh present day reality is too much to bear. I am left wondering if perhaps I dreamed the past as a prettier place, and it troubles me, the thought the world might always have been this ugly.

Meanwhile to the south, across the Yarrow, at Coppull, there are rumours of plans  for several hundred new homes, this on the 108 hectare site of the present Yew Tree Farm dairy – indeed an entire village addendum, including a school and health centre, overlaid like toy-town across a particularly picturesque run of pristine, sylvan glade. I find the planner’s pastel shaded impressions disturbing in their simplicity, conveying much in terms of bold change, yet nothing of the quiet treasure of green that is to be consumed in the process.

The location also surprises me, sitting as it does atop extensive disused Victorian mine-workings, and in particular the deep shaft of the Coppull Colliery. Unlike the stories of Burgh Hall, disused workings are not so easily dismissed as myth, since a void in the earth has a somewhat uncompromising quality about it. I would certainly be afraid to live there, no matter what assurances I was given. As children there were two risks we ran when exploring that side of the Yarrow – one being the boot of the farmer, the other falling through into old workings. And insurers have always taken a dim view of properties prone to subsidence.

The shafts and tunnels of the Coppull Colliery link up with workings of the similarly vanished colliery at Coppull Hall, just a little to the south of Yew Tree Farm. Coppull Hall Colliery is quite another story, being the site of an appalling disaster in 1852. Here the ground shook and the shaft spat out a column of soot and slack, result of an explosion of firedamp. 36 men and boys were lost, many burned, others suffocated by chokedamp. 90 were pulled out injured.

It was not an unusual occurrence in Victorian coalfields, nor was it anywhere near the largest of our losses to King Coal, at least in Lancashire, that particular grim accolade going to the Pretoria Pit near Westhoughton for its 1910 explosion that claimed 344 lives. But the Coppull Hall disaster was sufficient to have rendered the echo loud, at least in local memory, and especially for later generations of pit-men and their descendants. The combined shafts of the Coppull Collieries are now but dimples in the meadows that hug the river. Unfenced, void of warning, they are ominous only to those with local knowledge. The mine-buildings are gone, demolished, buried under the council refuse tipping that went on here until the 70’s, and now all nicely grassed over.

There is a quietness to this stretch of the Yarrow, and a sweet melancholy in the sound of the river. It’s hard to imagine such horror taking place underground when the environs above are so lovely. The shaft of the Coppull Hall Colliery is over six hundred feet deep, and miles of tunnel fanning out dendritically among the seams, joining with other tunnels from more ancient mines dotted all along the vale. And wandering their traces I imagine the ghosts of lost men and little boys.

One such man was John Turner. He and a friend were escaping towards the shaft that morning, when Turner went back into the mine. Men often worked underground in their smalls because of the heat, and Turner had gone back to where he’d left his clothes, perhaps his dignity demanding he did so irrespective of the risk. He was later found, head pillowed on his neatly folded garments, his clogs beside him, removed as if for bed, sleeping the eternal sleep.

I am struck too by the boys, as young as seven, the so called “pit-lads”, who died that day, and I’m reminded that in a culture of unbridled avarice, the poor man, no matter how brave of heart, is lower even than cattle to the man who owns him.

In the churchyard at Coppull Parish, there is a memorial to the mine manager’s son, John Ellis, a young man of 24, killed in the blast. It’s an unfussy flagstone slab, barely legible now, but with patience one can make out mention of the disaster, as if staring back through the mist of time. It is the only memorial to what took place. Ironic, how I once sang “All Things Bright and Beautiful” in that church, innocent as all the lambs who died. Older eyes tell me now there is but a thin gloss to the world, that while it’s stories aspire to godliness and beauty, we do well to remember it is mostly a vile scramble for loot in a world built upon the broken backs of working men, and their children.

There are no deep mines in Lancashire any more, indeed none in England. Even in modern times they were terrible places to work, and I might be glad they’ve gone except we have only exported the danger and the tragedy to the poor of other countries. Wherever in the world men still dig coal, their stories are the same as those of the Lancashire coalfield and of the Yarrow Valley. In this we find grim fellowship as, in a smaller way, there is fellowship among those who have seen their once precious green sacrificed to the god of progress and little orange houses.

If the development of Yew Tree Farm goes ahead, if my fond memories of place are to be once more betrayed by the harsher reality, I hope at least the story of Coppull Hall Colliery will be remembered, that they will teach it in the new school, that the residents of those new homes will pause in the mowing of their lawns, and the washing of their cars, that they will spare a thought for the likes of John Turner, dreaming the dream of eternal sleep, deep beneath their feet, just one of many thousands of forgotten souls, brave men and boys, all lost in the earth.

References:

Lancashire Mining Disasters 1835-1910 – Jack Nadin

The Chorley Standard, May 22nd 1852.

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henry cordier

When browsing second hand bookshops, one occasionally comes across old hand-written diaries. Now, unless the author was famous, it’s hard to put a value on such a thing. As an historical curiosity they’re clearly worth something, though often contain only self conscious ramblings. So, when I discovered the diary of Thomas Marston at a flea market, I wasn’t expecting much. It’s a thick Quarto sized journal dating from 1870 to 1873 – a lot of spidery ink and faded pencil, pages stained and torn, the cover battered and half missing. Its condition alone suggested a hard life and an epic journey. I was intrigued by it. It cost me £10, and it turned out to be money well spent.

Marston was a captain in the Queen’s Highland Light Infantry, posted to the northern Indian province of Himachal Pradesh. The early part of the diary recounts the minutia of military life on the frontier of Empire, which is interesting enough, but where it gets more interesting is when he describes a hunting trip he made while on leave in the summer of 1873. Since, as far as I’m aware, this diary was never published in print form, the information Captain Marston came into possession of during that trip is now known only to me, and in a moment I’ll be passing it on to you.

Travelling with an Afghan cook and an Indian manservant, Marston spent several weeks working his way up into the Himalayas, along tracks that are now well known to backpackers ascending the peaks and glacial valleys towards Tibet. The hunting was poor, and Marston berates both the weather and the incompetence of his cook. By no means a genial chap, he comes across, at least in the earlier part of his narrative, as a both a racist bigot and an upper class prick.

Eventually, wearied beyond cheering he begs shelter in a remote monastery. Here, a mixture of boredom and curiosity at the “superstitions” of heathen natives leads Marston to observe and describe the meditation techniques of the monks. Though hampered by language difficulties, he is able to make a good accounting of it and, presumably having little else to do, because of the still atrocious weather, tries out the practice himself. At this point the narrative takes on an almost psychedelic tone, as if Marston were suddenly imbibing opium, as he describes the peculiar psychical effects he experiences. What’s also interesting here is the change in Marston’s attitude, as reflected in his narrative – becoming more introspective, and humane, as if we are witnessing the elevation of his consciousness to a more sagely plane.

Marston spent six weeks at the monastery – rather a grand term for what he elsewhere describes as: an unfortunate congregation of mud and stone buildings clinging precariously to an unstable mountainside. He was there from August 23rd, and departed in late September, which suggests either his leave entitlement from the British Army was incredibly generous, or we’re not getting at the whole of the truth here and Marston was in fact some kind of spy. Although this sounds like something from a Kipling novel, it’s not beyond possibility, nor is what happened next.

Marston and his party climbed from the monastery to a ridge overlooking the valley, from where they intended turning West and heading to Kashmir. As they do so, weeks of incessant rain releases a catastrophic mudslide which engulfs the valley below, swallowing the monastery and everyone in it. Marston’s party were lucky to escape with their lives.

From this point Marston seems at pains to detail the meditation method, as if aware now he might be the last man alive who knows anything about it. As a method, it’s very similar to Transcendental Meditation, which aims to still the mind and open the gates to “transcendence” by the repetition of a word or a mantra. In the latterly “trade-marked” Transcendental Meditation, the mantra is considered personal and is passed on to the adept after a period of paid study by the “teacher”, but in Marston’s method, the mantra is derived by taking measurements of the lines on the palm of the hand. The angles between the lines are then reduced by a simple formula into a series of notes or tones that are hummed or even just imagined under the breath. Since everyone’s hand is different, this will yield a different musical “key” to enlightenment for each person.

To the uninitiated, it sounds like an improbable mixture of palmistry and numerology. However, although sceptical at first, I have been practising the method now for several weeks and the results are astonishing. Within the first few sessions I experienced a powerful sense of oneness and transcendence, an experience that has been repeatable and, quite honestly, mind blowing. I could, and probably will write volumes on the potential of this technique, but for now my aim is to bring it to the attention of a wider audience.

Listen up then, all you have to do is this:

Send me a scanned print of your hand, and non-refundable payment (by Paypal only please) of £5000. Then I’ll send you by return your personal mantra as a set of musical notes. I cannot guarantee success of course, as for all I know you may be tone deaf or simply doing it wrong. In the near future I shall also be organising a workshop, by invitation only, to a select group of the most attractive celebrities with whom I plan to share the method for deriving this mantra, since ordinary people are unlikely to possess the qualities necessary for this subtle aspect of the work.

Now, even after swallowing hard at that hefty price tag, I know you really want this method to be true, in spite of your natural born cynicism and the overripe smell coming from the rather cheesy fiction by which I claim to have discovered it. If you’ve not rumbled me yet, then let me say now I have, of course, made the whole thing up, and by doing so hope to have cast a light on our acquisitive natures, and on the all pervading belief that a thing is worthless unless we’ve paid a lot of money for it, also that there has to be a secret special key that will instantly and easily transform what we imagine to be the untidy imperfection of our lives into the solid gold of something infinitely better.

But the good news is you can learn everything you need to know about meditation for nothing. There are thousands of methods to choose from and none worth their salt will carry the label “secret” or a hefty price tag. Simply Google “Meditation Methods”. Explore them, and adopt the ones that appeal to you. Or you can follow my own (again free and fully detailed) method here.

The bad news is there are no short cuts to what we seek, no magic formula. We sit, and we practice, and though we do feel better for it in all sorts of ways, it’s counter-productive to expect transcendence, enlightenment, or any other peculiar psychic happenings, no matter how much we’ve paid our teacher. So, please, to be absolutely certain, don’t send me your hand print, I was being ironic. As for the price tag, there have been bigger scams than that, and always someone desperate enough to pay. So again, just in case: Michael Graeme doesn’t want your money, because, like Captain Thomas Marston, Michael Graeme does not exist, and neither does his secret method to transcendence.

Remember people sometimes might just be telling stories.

So hey,

Lets be careful out there.

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van goughReactions to suicide say much about society’s attitudes to mental health. In Victorian times, suicides were often explained away in order to avoid a social stain on the family. There was also the unhelpful religious belief that those who died by their own hand went straight to hell. So we got things like: he accidentally fell into the pond and drowned, or he accidentally shot himself while cleaning his gun.

There’s still an air of evasiveness when discussing mental illness, but there is at least a recognition now that it is a real illness rather than a weakness of character. When someone known to us takes their life, the reaction is one of shock that anyone so well liked/loved/respected could ever feel that way and we be unaware of it. But there’s guilt too that we did not see it coming, that we did not do more to help. We feel complicit, guilty in our silence at holding to the secret of others’ despair. But what can one do? Not everyone suffering from mental illness wants to talk about it. And when you realise how little others understand your feelings, you can hardly be blamed for not wanting to share them.

There are no easy answers.

It’s an unfortunate fact that high-profile celebrity suicides raise awareness more than any well meaning mental health campaign. They launch tragedy squarely onto the front pages, but even here amid the collective shock, “normal” people can still be dismissive, telling us celebrities are notorious libertines, usually off their heads on drugs and it should be no surprise they kill themselves now and then. But this is to ignore the despair and the sheer existential emptiness that underlies mental illness, an illness bullet-pointed with unshakable, negative self beliefs:

* My life is a mess;
* I am ill adjusted to the place I find myself in, yet cannot escape it;
* I am unequal to my responsibilities;
* People expect more from me than I am capable of delivering;
*I am letting everyone down;
*It’s all out of control;
*I cannot move another step;
*I am useless;
*I am a bad person;
*My life has no meaning;

Do any of the above ring true for you?

Of course people in the forefront of public life are no more likely to suffer mental illness than the ordinary and the poor. Indeed being poor, being unable to make ends meet is a very dangerous place to be in the mental health stakes, more so as you are less likely to have the money to access competent people who can help you. But we all worry, and even when we have nothing to worry about, like having no money and no job, we invent other worries – seemingly trivial things – and inflate them to apocalyptic proportions. If we are susceptible, these worries will plant the seeds that blossom into hideous mental blooms of distorted self image.

We need to talk about it. Even just sharing the secret with someone can help. I spoke of mental health services last time – admittedly in less than glowing terms. Lack of funding means the gap between aspiration and reality is now unbridgeable, at least for 90% of the population, but the important thing here is that we make the effort. We admit our fears by sharing them with as many healthcare professionals who will listen. Even if the person we’re sharing them with has one eye on the clock, and can never get our name right, the process of sharing can be helpful. But there are other things we can do too, things that are even more effective in returning control of our selves back to our selves.

With a little imagination we can think of the human being, metaphysically, as comprising three vessels – the physical, the mental and the spiritual. We need to keep all three topped up. If one of those vessels is leaking, it can be replenished by the others. If all the others are leaking too, then we’re in trouble, but the good news is paying attention to any one of them can help the entire system to restore its balance.

The easiest to fix is the physical.

Among my memories of the darkest of my hours there shine radiant beacons of days simply walking in the Lake District Mountains. I have never felt ill on a mountain. It was when I came back down to earth the problems recurred. Physical exercise of any kind is good for us, good for circulation of the blood and the lymphatic system – getting the good stuff in and the bad stuff out, and you don’t need to do it on a mountain; a walk in the park is good too, or take up dancing, jogging, tennis, Tai Chi,… whatever interests you and suits your abilities. The after-effects of even gentle physical exercise dribble through into the mental vessel, surprising the most depressed of moods with little revelations of relaxation and calm.

It sounds too good to be true, that merely exercising the body can make a real difference the problem is, getting up off your arse when the black dog comes calling takes a monumental effort. We resist it, even though we know it’s good for us. This is another of the mysteries of mental illness; it is as if the pain is itself an intelligent entity dwelling within us and fears for its existence; it sees where we’re going with this and holds us back; it would much rather we vegetate in front of the telly, drink alcohol every night, and drop fatty treats into our mouths. I know, I’ve done it. But we must resist the resistance.

And keep moving.

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pygmalion cycleThere was an article on the radio this morning saying that girls as young as 14 are now having cosmetic surgery in order to boost their self esteem. I find myself wondering about what model of so called bodily perfection they are comparing themselves with at so young an age but I suspect I need look no further than the nearest glossy magazine, or a pop video on you-tube. I’m also wondering if us guys are at fault for having too narrow a definition of what the ideal female should look like, and being too immature in our regurgitation of that stereotype across these various media. It’s more complex than that of course, as the editors of magazines read by young women tend to be themselves young women, but there’s definitely something in the machine that’s driven by the myth of male desire.

I keep returning to the story of Pygmalion – not the musical thing with Rex Harrison, but the original myth of the sculptor who ignored women as they really were, in favour of chiseling out his ideal in the shape of his muse, the heavenly Galatea. In some versions of this myth, Pygmalion falls in love with his creation, and the goddess, Aphrodite, taking pity on the guy, has Galatea come to life and fall in love with him. Thus the myth concludes, Hollywood fashion, in happy-ever-after style. But myths have layers to them, and the myth of Pygmalion can be peeled back to reveal something much darker and which I think helps to shine some light on the calamitous objectification of women.

In the darker myth, Pygmalion is a fool in thrall to the idealised form of his own soul-image, to the extent that he rejects the human reality – reality being the natural variety in the form of the human female, and he rejects it because he finds it imperfect. There’s nothing innocent about this foolishness. Pygmalion knows exactly what he’s doing, and what he wants; he’s a material man, imposing his misguided rules of measure upon the female body. With his rule, he measures out the proportions, and with his chisel he gives form to the awesomely beautiful creature, Galatea. But that Aphrodite then grants Pygmalion his wish, that Galatea should come alive, is not a blessing – it is Aphrodite’s curse, and her most severe punishment for Pygmalion’s stupidity.

Aphrodite, being goddess of love, beauty and procreation, knows a thing or two about relationships; she can see where Pygmalion is heading, and is offended by his rejection of her sisters in flesh, so she gives him a good shove to get him going in the direction of his misguided desires. The shape of physical womanhood that comes to life in Galatea may conform to the mythical ideal, but her expression is disturbingly blank because she has no soul. And she has no soul because she lacks the thing Pygmalion is least interested in: her humanness. Aphrodite has set him up with a robot.

Pygmalion may think he knows what he wants, shunning the awkward fleshly diversity of the human female in favour of the statuesque Galatea, but his quest has led him into an empty place, one of soulless, mechanical rumpy pumpy, a place where you just know he’s going to die a lonely and unfulfilled old man.

The Pre Raphaelite artist Burne Jones captures this story in a series of paintings which hang in the Birmingham city gallery, images that have haunted me for a long time. Looking at his depiction of Galatea we are also reminded of how much the “ideal” in feminine proportion has changed. The “hot babe” of the Victorian era was apparently smaller chested and fuller hipped than she would be allowed get away with now. She’s also significantly more “nude” without her modern splattering of tattoos. She would not pass muster in the lad mags of today, except as an unfortunate example of that most appalling fashion faux-pas: the wrongly proportioned woman.

The latter day Pygmalion, sculptor of the female form, lives on in the machinery of “emotive images” – the print media, the movie industry, and that black-sheep, rarely talked about in polite circles, but of tremendous influence: the porn industry. These are the sculptors responsible for dictating the shape of the women that men are supposed to want to have sex with, all in spite of the protestations of Aphrodite. This works both ways then; the damage of faulty thinking is inflicted not only on women but on men too. Pygmalion, in modern guise, is telling women that unless they fit the mythical contemporary pattern of size, shape and weight, men will not find them attractive, and is telling men that unless they achieve the prize of congress with that Galatean robot, he’s a worthless loser with the street credibility of a squashed gnat.

How do we stop the girls from making themselves ill, worrying over their weight, and the size of their boobs? And how do we convince the guys they may just be passing up on the perfect relationship by not even second glancing a woman, because she looks nothing like what he’s seen on the cover of a glossy magazine? It’s a complex business, one that plumbs the depths of the human psyche, and of course there are no easy answers. But at some point a guy has to wake up and realise the look in a woman’s eye when she looks at him is of far more significance than her cup size. And a girl has to realise that a guy who pulls a face at her muffin-top really isn’t the sort of guy worth hanging around with. It’s just a pity the machinery of image has become so dumb, so all pervasive, and there’s something in us that renders all of us so vulnerable to it.

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I’m conscious that a lot of stuff we write as bloggers soon gets buried, and unless our tags are as hot as the current A list female celeb’s bosoms, our thoughts become like the tired old newsprint headlines of yesterday and which we next see on the counter of the chip-shop being used as fish- wrap. So, I’ve been digging back, meditating on my stuff, and if you’ll forgive me, I’d just like to put a place marker here, a few paragraphs dredged from the archives, and of particular significance to the run of my thoughts this evening. I dust them down, wonder why they caught my eye, and reblog them with a view more to self provocation than revelation:

I believe the turn of the nineteenth century saw us on the threshold of a new understanding of the nature of man, but two world wars blew all that away and an era of utilitarian globalization and consumerism seemed to get sucked into the vacuum that was left behind. Technically we’ve advanced beyond all recognition in a hundred years, but spiritually, psychologically, we’ve gone nowhere at all, and when we look at the stuff the late Victorians and Edwardians uncovered, we’re tempted to smile indulgently and say – well it was all a long time ago, so it can’t possibly be reliable can it?

Basically, I think the world we can see has a flip-side, and that’s the unconscious plane which, as the likes of Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge taught us, is a real place that you can visit if you have a mind to, or you can fall into it by accident, through a gap in time like I did in the Newlands Valley.

We’re all connected to it. We have no choice. We are alive, we are conscious, thinking beings, but this thing we call the brain is not the seat of consciousness, more of a one way valve through which a little bit of us is squirted into awareness when we’re born, and which also prevents us from flowing back into the endless ground of being from where we came. But sooner or later, that valve falls apart, we flow back, and then we wake up to who and what we truly are.

I’ll be pondering further on this in the coming week.

Thank you for your indulgence.

Graeme out.

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Lady of the Lake - Ullswater - 2004In the summer of 2004 I took the old steamer, The Lady of the Lake, from Glenridding, Ullswater, as far as the jetty at Howtown, then made my way on foot into the remote valley of Martindale. There, on a bend, just before the narrow road gives out, there stands a massive yew tree, one of the largest and oldest in England. In its shadow lies the lovely, lonely old church of Saint Martins where, on a plain headstone, I chanced upon the following inscription:

Here lies the body of Andrew Wilson. Traveller. Orientalist and Man of Letters. Author of The Abode of Snow. Born at Bombay April 11th 1830. Died at Bank House Howtown June 8th 1881

I’m guessing many a pilgrim must have pondered this headstone in the hundred and thirty years it has lain there, but  for me it was to become a particularly significant encounter. My later thirst for knowledge of this man’s life was, and remains, something of an obsession. In 2004 I was soaking myself in various oriental and mystical philosophies, and therefore  open to all manner of related connections.  It was for this reason the word Orientalist struck home first, followed by the title of the book, which I recognised as a romantic phrase often used to describe the Himalaya – roof of the mystical east.

The grave of Andrew Wilson - MartindaleI took shelter in the chapel from the sweltering heat for a while, made some notes, then continued on my walk, pondering this odd syncronicity and telling myself I’d look that book up when I got home. It proved to be the beginning of a long journey of discovery. Indeed, it’s fair to say that through his work, much of it now obscure, this lost Victorian man of letters has become a kind of guru to me. I am broader now, deeper, and much less attached to things that simply do not matter than I was when I first did that walk. This is not to say  Wilson alone is responsible for this change in my outlook, his being just one of a company of voices, but he’s certainly been by far the most congenial companion along the way and I still take great delight at turning up yet one more snippet from my researches into his life and work – no matter how trivial.

The son of John Wilson, a famous Indian missionary and founding father of Bombay in the 1830’s, Andrew actually spent much of his early life in and around Edinburgh where he’d been sent to escape Bombay’s terrible insanitary conditions, and the risk he would follow his siblings to an early grave. His education took him to the Edinburgh Academy and then, like his father, along the path of training to be a minister in the Scottish church. But a profound crisis of faith caused him to veer off course, into what appears to have been a very modern kind of European Buddhism – a philosophy espoused by the likes of Schopenhauer and other gurus of the later German romantic period. Deeply troubled, he abandoned his training and took up a career in journalism, eventually editing newspapers in India and China, as well as the UK. But it’s in his personal works, rather than his day-job reportage that I have sought the man, and a very interesting man he turned out to be.

The Nineteenth Century saw many writers who were far more prolific and materially successful than Andrew Wilson, while as a traveller, there were others far more ground-breaking. It’s  for this reason he does not feature at all large in the role-call of Victorian celebrity. He enjoyed some public recognition with the appearance of The Abode of Snow in 1875. Sadly though, increasing ill health prevented him from building upon its  success. While he continued to write to the very end, his later years saw him slip into relative obscurity and disability, his retirement from the world’s dusty byways being funded by the writing of penetrating, and sometime acerbic critiques of other people’s books. Whatever his qualities as a writer, mealy mouthed he was not.

The Abode of Snow is the best introduction to his work, though it catches him at a point in life when he was very ill indeed – barely able to walk and with every breath he took being an effort of steely will. It is an account of a six month trek in the Himalaya, beginning on the sweltering plains of India in the summer of 1873 and rising to the borders of Tibet, then along the valleys and mountain ridges to Kashmir. It’s been described justly as one of the most epic journeys ever undertaken on horseback, a journey he began more in hope than in expectation that the cooler air of the higher altitudes of the northern frontier would restore his health.

Throughout the early stages of his narrative we get the impression he was not entirely confident he would survive, but survive he did, returning temporarily rejuvenated, to pen his memoirs, initially for serialisation in Blackwood’s magazine, but later for publication in book form. The result is at times an intensely personal travelogue, deeply reflective, but it is also typical of his work in that it provides us with  an entirely unaffected description of what was then a very remote part of the Victorian world, including the varied cultures and the people for whom those seemingly inhospitable wastes were home. The book found favour with a pubic greedy for romantic tales of exotic travel in corners of the world that were already fast disappearing under the steady march of Victorian imperialism. He had far more to offer this genre, but his own eccentricity and ultimately a return of his ill health meant the public was to hear no more of Wilson’s extraordinary travels.

Some time after publication, a copy of the Abode of Snow found its way into the hands of the novelist George Elliot, who read it aloud to a gathered company of friends in the drawing room of her home at Rickmansworth. Afterwards, in a  letter to John Blackwood, editor of Blackwood’s Magazine, she said: “But what an amazing creature is this Andrew Wilson,…”

When I first encountered Wilson I was naïve in imagining a linear life’s path, from Bombay to Westmorland, which had seemed curious enough to me, and worth investigating, but in fact I discovered his footsteps had circumnavigated a world of steam trains and sailing ships with  breathtaking dynamism – from India, to Hongkong, to China, America, and India again. He finally settled at Bank House, in those days a humble small-holding, where he rented rooms and penned much of the work that was to become the Abode of Snow. The place is still there, though nowadays it’s better known as an annex of the Sharrow Bay Hotel, beautifully situated overlooking Ullswater. By a strange quirk of fate then, you can still rent rooms there, but at rates I suspect Wilson would have found beyond his means. I also suspect he would find that amusing and worthy of a witty, or a philosophical aside, illustrated, as was his way, with a few lines of apposite poetry, deftly plucked from his prodigious memory.

Bank House - HowtownIt was here, at the age of 51 he endured a long and distressing conclusion to the illness that had dogged his steps for much of his life. Unmarried, childless, he passed away attended only by his landlady and was buried just a mile or so up the road at the Old Church of Saint Martins. This plain and lonely old chapel would be abandoned shortly afterwards, leaving Wilson – Orientalist, writer, thinker and prolific traveller – to rest in peace and final obscurity.

Most of his other works – his earlier travelogues from his days in China, Baluchistan, Switzerland, and Sutherland, also his poetry – are difficult to find, being published anonymously in Blackwood’s Magazine from 1857 onwards. You can uncover them  with the help of Wellesley’s guide to 19th century periodicals but one needs a dogged determination and even a slightly obsessive attitude to get at them properly. Most of those vintage periodicals however are now freely available online,  and I found them well worth the effort – and the tiny font –  not only in fleshing out Wilson’s entry in the dictionary of National Biography, but in experiencing more of that genial charm one encounters from a reading of the Abode of Snow – also his beguiling wisdom, a thing that manages to strike a curious balance between Victorian no-nonsense rationalism, and full blown nature-mysticism.

He was not universally admired in his day, being criticised by The Times as too sympathetic towards the Chinese, perhaps understandable at a time when our armed forces were busy setting fire to large parts of the Orient. Then, on passing through the United States in 1861, when commenting on the opening stages of the Civil War, he dismissed Abraham Lincoln rather sniffily as a small man caught up in large circumstances – a phrase I beg my American readers to forgive as a momentary aberration. Then there was an early stint as Editor of the Hong Kong “China Mail,” during which his journalistic recklessness landed him in court on a charge of libel. Duly found guilty he was fined the eye-watering sum of £1000 and bound over to keep the peace – this at a time a when decent salary was around a £300 a year.

Mealy mouthed, no. Recklessly outspoken,… at times, yes. But among his fellow literati he was much respected, spoken of with great affection, and viewed as something of a wayward genius, even a curiosity, with many a drawing room gathering of his old Edinburgh school chums beginning with the words: what news of Wilson?

I could fill a book on this subject, and probably will do one day, for the half a dozen people besides myself who would find it interesting,  but I’ll end this little homage here with Wilson’s own words. On the nature of life, he was no more eloquent than in this excerpt from a contribution he made to Blackwoods Magazine in March of 1858, titled Stories from Ancient Sind:

Experience and reason assure us that the fabled spontaneity of  perfect life is only a sickly dream; for the law of life is but the law of growth and labour; the golden ages of the past have germed in pain and grown with difficulty into full wide-branched glory; and behind every civilisation we find no primeval paradise but only the seething swamp with its slimy brood, the low tangled jungle with its self destroying life, and the hoary salts and the petrified flames of the pathless desert….

…So the world wends; in the light of life onwards, and backwards again under the cold inevitable shadow of death, and its life is ever beautiful and mystic, freshly joyous or infinitely sad, to the imagination of man, for it is in the nature of the human spirit – its highest exercise and noblest prerogative – not to confine itself within the narrow limits of its petty personalities,…

Andrew Wilson 1858

The Abode of Snow is still in print. You can also get an ebook copy for free from the Internet Archive here.

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