Posts Tagged ‘war’

Each new day, since the invasion of Ukraine, I wake, reach for the phone, and dial up the news. The Russians have been shelling a nuclear power plant this week. It seems the height of lunacy. More recently, they have been shelling people evacuating in a ceasefire. Total bastards, then. Total bastards too, the images of entire apartment blocks felled by shelling, by rockets, or whatever. And cluster munitions – the devil’s own choice of arms. It’s not like in the movies. It’s even more depraved than anything Hollywood dare conceive. We know it is, because, if Jung is right – and I’ve always felt he was – it’s a thing lurking at the bottom of us all. That’s why we watch it. That’s why it compels us, and why it so deeply disturbs us.

Media, media, media. We might as well not bother. We know full well we must take everything with a pinch of salt. Images. Words. They mean nothing in relation to reality, and we might as well be writing our own story of events, for all it will resemble the truth of things. We know this of our slickly duplicitous media ecosphere by now, or we know nothing. Only those in the thick of it know the score, and thank God, that’s not us. But what’s the difference? A child in terror of a Russian bomb, or a child in Iraq or Afghanistan, in terror of a Western bomb? Both are children, both are innocent, both are bombs. The answer is complex, does not translate well into sound bites. The difference is time, distance, culture, the amnesia, and the vanity of the punditry, and so on and so on.

I have donated to the DEC . It pays for blankets, for medical supplies, for bottles of water or whatever, to help, in a small way, and helps me, too, with that feeling of uselessness. Please donate too, if you feel able. The total stands at eighty-five million, as I write, so we are short of neither compassion nor feelings of uselessness. But before we feel too virtuous about all that, we must ask how those Afghans felt, not long ago, but already forgotten. They were fleeing the fall of Kabul, having helped the western forces in great hope, and at the risk of their lives, only to find the plane fast departing contained a full complement of dogs, while they were left to the mercies of the Taliban? I know how I would have felt. Remember, nothing is simple, no matter how much we wish to boil it down to slogans.

So, this war in Europe, this latest spectacle. Pundits are talking about it as if it’s different to any of the other wars. I don’t know. Is it? All I want is to save a kid from crying. Others are baying for the West to do more, to enforce a “no-fly zone”. Bring it on they say, like it can be done magically, surgically, virtually, without NATO planes shooting down Russian ones, like the Cold War never existed, like there is such a thing as surviving a nuclear escalation.

Then I see images of captured Russian boys, presumably under duress, phoning their mothers. Are these tearful boys the devil, then? It reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five , in which, contrary to common belief, we discover wars are not fought by men at all. Men – old men – plan them, comment on them, command them, write memoirs about them, become long distance pundits of them, or they become preening news-anchors with fancy hair, who present them as glossy, po-faced infotainment. But it is our children, our boys, who must fight them. It is our children who die in them. It is mothers, fathers, who grieve, whose lives are ended by these wars as surely as if they had caught a bullet themselves.

Stop the War? Does it even need saying? But as Vonnegut also reminds us, we might as well demand we stop the glaciers. Both are natural phenomenon, immune to persuasion, though at halting the latter we are lately proving to be more adept. Of the former, I suspect the news cycle will move on, before we see anything like the conclusion we desire.

Covid. Trump. Brexit. And even now, the shameful and ever-perplexing scandal of Londongrad grinds on. What next? Ah, all right, a war in Europe – we’ve not had one of those for a while, and a fresh media frenzy, while we’re at it, to keep us all terrified, all frozen anew. Meanwhile, we know nothing, though we like to think we do, that we keep ourselves well-informed, through our devices, through our news bulletins. But our emotions, our sense of well-being, our despair, our tears,… all are nothing, or rather all are fair game in this infotainment business. We are hijacked. We are puppets at the command of forces beyond our understanding. We know this, but we keep clicking, keep scrolling anyway. We can’t help ourselves because we don’t know what anything means any more.

If this is the harvest of the rational, the material world, then give me mysticism, give me the mystery of my dreams, give me the black tide of the occult. Let me navigate my life by way of the runes and the tarot, and the yijing, because anything is better than this massively computer programmed, semi-virtual, arrogantly scientific mechanical world that’s driving us all to slaughter. We have nothing wholesome to learn from any of the clever men bestride this world’s stage, and who would command our every heartbeat, except,…

Watch out, and what’s next?

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atlwcsOccasionally you come across a novel that makes you realize you’ve been tolerating some dreadful rubbish in your reading of late. Such novels light you up from the first paragraph, the first line even. And so it was for me with this one. They are like a breath of fresh air after a long incarceration.

All the light we cannot see has great depth and intricacy, both in its subject and in the telling of it. The chapters are short, sometimes just a page or two, but there’s an intensity to them, and they shift about from beginning to end, illuminating meaning, lighting the way as Doerr leads us through a labyrinth of place and time and love – the love between people, and of life itself.  

I’m describing a work of lyrical and literary merit here, to say nothing of being the winner of the 2015 Pulizer prize, yet it also has the quality of a compulsive page-turner. At times you want to rush at it, to find out what happens next, instead of lingering in the silkenness of the words and the power of the ideas. So, those short chapters really save you, punctuating your way through the complexity and the magic.

It sounds like I’m describing a fairy story, not a story of war, yet there are elements here that ring with a mythological resonance.

The story opens in the early 1930s and follows the lives of two orphans. First, there is Werner Pfennig, a young German boy with a genius for building and repairing radios. Through his first radio-set he hears an enigmatic transmission from France, something that lights his passion for the romance of science and discovery. The memory of it is to captivate and haunt him throughout his life. But the war is looming and, longing to avoid his dead father’s fate in the mines, he allows himself to be enlisted in the Hitler youth movement, and from there into the army. There, his expertise with radios sees him as part of a unit that roves the battle lines in a truck, using radio direction methods to locate partisan transmissions. It is a hunt with inevitably brutal conclusions.  

The other orphan is Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, living with her father in Paris. When Paris is over-run by the Germans, they flee to St. Malo, to the house of her uncle Étienne, an other-worldy man, badly shell-shocked from the first war. Unknown to Marie-Laure, her father, a master-locksmith from the museum, has been entrusted with the safekeeping of a magnificent diamond the Nazis would dearly like to catch up with.

Étienne’s house is the source of the mysterious radio transmissions Werner listened to as a boy. The transmitter has lain unused for many years. But as St Malo too is overrun, Étienne is reluctantly caught up in the partisan effort, and begins using it again to transmit coded messages to the allies.

That Werner is destined to meet Marie-Laure we are never in any doubt. But this is far from a simple love story. The events of Werner’s war in particular raise questions of courage, morality and pragmatism. But contrasted with this, we have the love between Marie-Laure and her father, and later her uncle Étienne. Then there is Étienne’s companionship with his housekeeper, the energetically practical Madame Manec,… And then there is St Malo, so beautifully described, almost as a living thing.

Werner’s war takes him first to the eastern front, but gradually, as things go badly for Germany, he and his comrades find themselves travelling westward to St Malo, and the imminent D-Day landings, still on the hunt for enemy radio transmissions,…

You can see all this coming from some way out, but rest assured the writer has seen you seeing it, and is lying in wait for you with a twist that is as beautiful and emotional as it is unexpected. As I grow older I become less patient with writers, and it’s a rare one who can break down the barricades and lance my heart as this story does.

Some critics didn’t like it. They didn’t like the pellucid prose. They didn’t like the genre motifs, the page-turning urgency. So maybe I’m just thick and it appealed to my uncritical and semiliterate tastes. But from a random pick on a charity shop bookshelf ‘All the light we cannot see’ lands easily in my all-time top-ten, and a small list of books to be read again and again. 


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on pendle hill

Pendle Hill Summit, December 2019

It was about six degrees in town this morning, with a light rain. It felt bitter and unwelcoming. The parking machine took most of my change, leaving little for the homeless guy sitting there with the thousand yard stare, but he accepted my bits of shrapnel with more enthusiasm than they deserved, and he called me sir. The coppers were all I could muster as symbols of my solidarity with his lot, and I felt in the “sir” a rebuff, not from him – he was grateful for anything – but more from within myself, the distance it implies, between me and him. I have never been comfortable being called “sir”.

Amid the ruins of this, my little market town, there has risen of late the paradox of a glittering high-rise that promises a “cinematic experience” and bowling, though these attractions have yet to appear. And of the quality-shopping also promised, over the years of this great carbunkle’s somewhat listless construction, only a Marks and Spencer food hall has opened. It sits uneasily like a top-hat among the ragged, alongside the vape-shops and the tattoo parlours and all the charity places.

Meanwhile I note the news-stands speak of war with Iran, the more right wing and tabloidy the title, the more strident and crass the headline, but whether to instil terror or glee I do not know. It will depend on your disposition I suppose. Me? I see only that the social fabric of the UK is in tatters, that it will improve not one jot in the decade to come, and the looming climate catastrophe is beyond help now.

Middle eastern politics never makes for comfortable reading and try as I might I’m not sure if we’ve been brought here by miscalculation or by artifice, for these are dark powers and completely beyond my knowing, but I do know another war played out as infotainment isn’t going to be fun viewing, and it’s certainly not going to fix anything that needs fixing.

Thus the New Year opens and leaves me casting round for a glimmer of hope and I am seeking it in the food aisles of M+S. A week ago I was on the top of a misty Pendle, feeling for a time that all was well. Everyone I met at 1800 feet looked fresh and happy, but that’s the tops for you and always worth the effort. It’s when you come back down to earth the shadows regroup.

I bought something for my tea, browsed the novels in Heart Foundation, but nothing took my eye. I bought a brew for the homeless guy from Gregs and walked it back up to the carpark, but he’d gone by then. So I sat in the car for a bit, watched the people cowed by winter and the flat murk that passes for daylight at this time of year, and I drank the tea myself. Milk and one sugar. That’s how I take it, but I had not stopped to think if it was all right for him.

It’s all very well, trying to help out a bit, but it’s better to pause and consider what it is that’s needed first. And maybe there’s no answer to that, no obvious place to start, which is why we’re going nowhere, and hope is so elusive.

Meanwhile I have snowdrops in the garden, green shoots appearing among the leaf-litter for the first time, and I sold another copy of The Inn at the Edge of light last night, which make two. Then I have seedlings of sweetpea to plant up for the windowsill, for planting out come spring, to bring some colour and the heady intoxication of their scent.

Small beginnings, but the best I can come up with for now.

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It’s November, a bitterly cold Friday afternoon at the little war memorial at Grinstead, and like every year I’m looking for my great uncle’s name: Charles W. Munroe. But the names have faded, softened so much now you only need a bit of rain and they dissolve into the blurry background, a list of just twenty lads, fading back into the dirt of a hundred years as the weather turns foul on all of us.

I don’t know how many of them are remembered – their names I mean – and by people who carry them still in their hearts. Sure, like all villages with a modicum of religious faith remaining, there’ll be a ceremony on Sunday: Remembrance Day. There’ll be cubs and scouts and maybe some old soldiers from the British Legion in their white gloves, blazers and berets. But the names themselves are fading into something more symbolic and less personal: at the going down of the sun, and in the morning,… and all that.

But it’s still personal for me. Uncle Charlie was still spoken of by my mother’s family, though not really known by any of them, other than as an empty place at the table. He was my grandmother’s brother, dead at 25, lost in the war, the great war, that is, the war to end all wars. I remember my mother’s tone in particular, whenever she spoke of him, how that word “lost” carried with it a sense of mystery at a life arrested, a curiosity at the “lost” years, at the potential for a life, for who knows what he might have made of it, what he might have become.

Anyway, I take the plain wooden cross from my pocket, on which I’ve penned his name, and I press it into the soil of the little planter at the memorial’s base – heathers and winter pansies – very neat, colourful, well kept, always respectful. I do this every year and for reasons too complex to get into here. I’m usually alone but this afternoon, in spite of the pouring rain and the cold, there’s this scruffy guy sitting to one side quaffing a can of beer, and his presence is making me want to hurry, to turn my collar to the rain and get back to the car.

“Oh, I know what you’re thinking,” he says.

Really? I doubt that. I don’t want to speak to him. I feel intimidated  actually, this big bloke, unshaven, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, or just drunk. I don’t know Grinstead any more, but I’ve no doubt there’ll be drugs and other bad things here, like everywhere else now, bad characters proliferating since my mother’s day, since this street rang to the sound of her heels on a Saturday night, off down to the station, and the train to Middleton for the dancing. It was always my mother’s village, a place she pined for all her married life and never returned to, changed beyond her knowing, and now there’s this drunk guy sitting at the war memorial in the pouring rain with a carrier bag full of beer.

Me? I just want to do this thing alone like I always do, this private act of remembrance, and something more, something for my mother and her sisters, all gone now; something about the past, her past and by association my own past and, to an extent, the possibly misguided sense of my own squandered potential.  Then I want to get back to my own life as it is now, which I fear is looking rather,… spent, actually, that as I approach my sixtieth year, Great Uncle Charlie might have made better use of the time I was given, and have so blithely wasted. So maybe it’s a little twist of bitterness, a little bit of guilt that makes me momentarily defiant, and I turn to him, this beery slob and I say: “So what’s that then? What do you think I’m thinking?”

“Ignorant bastard,” he says. “That’s what you’re thinking. Remembrance Sunday coming up and you there with your respectful little poppy pinned to your jacket and your cross there and wanting a quiet moment with your fallen, and me sitting here, this hairy cretin with no poppy, quaffin’ a tin of beer.”

“I wasn’t thinking that.”

“Well, ‘appen you should be. So, which one’s yours then?”

I point him out.

“France?” he asks.

“No,… Mesopotamia, 1918, a week before the Armistice. All the others died in France.”

“How do you know about the others?”

“I’ve looked them up over the years. Why? Is one of them yours?”

He shakes his head, drains the tin, crushes it flat in his bear-like paw. “Nah, none of mine’s up there, at least so far as I know.” He’s quiet for a moment, and I’m thinking he’s finished, that I might escape now, thank goodness, but then he says: “Aiden. Falklands. Belfast. That’s where mine fell. Nearly got me too. Belfast, that is. Roadside bomb. Mate lost his legs. I got blown clean across the street, otherwise not a scratch on me. Never can tell, can you? Ears rang for fuckin’ months after that though.”

“You were a soldier?”

He nods. “Invalided out.”

“You were wounded? But I thought you said,…”

“Nah. Survived all that. It weren’t the Provos that got me. In the end I were shot in the arse by one of me own. Accident, like. Live firin’ exercise. Not much glory in that, is there?”

“Not much glory in death either. Just,… well,… death.”

“True,” he says, then pulls another tin from his carrier bag. “It was a good life. The army. Enjoyed it. Not everyone does. Doesn’t suit everyone. You know? But it suited me. Had some good mates. The best. All dead now. You ever served?”

“Me?… no. The army would have made mince-meat out of me, most like.”

“Then you wouldn’t know, maybe, and no disrespect. Hard to describe,… but you’d die for your mates and, make no mistake, peaceable though you think you are, you’d kill for ’em too. Nowadays I work in a fuckin’ shop for this evil, penny-pinching bastard who, incidentally, all your lads up there died for, that he might live, so to speak.” He sighs. “Anyway,… I like to share a drink with ’em now and then, even if I don’t know ’em. Or how, or why they died.”

Okay, I’m ashamed to admit he was right, earlier; that’s exactly what I was thinking: Ignorant bastard. But you never can tell, can you? He offers me a tin and I feel privileged to sit down with him for a while, in the rain and the cold, and to share a sip of beer.

After all, no great story ever began with someone eating salad!




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flint arrowheadStories from the lithic traces,
Fragment of arrow-head and spear,
Washed out from the quiet places,
Whispering of ancient strife and fear.

Flints shaped by hands like yours and mine,
By clever men who knew their tools,
For whom broad seasons measured time,
Yet then as now were damned by fools.

By fools and lies spread far and wide,
By strutting power-hungry lords,
At whose behest that darkening tide,
Turned all the clever hands to war.

And as each season shed its days,
The heavens harvested the good,
While of these flinty barbs and blades,
All trace was lost, cast down in mud.


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Will we crash out of the European Union without a deal? Will we get a deal that resembles staying in but then has us wondering why we came out? Will we get a vote on the final deal, with an option to call the whole thing off? And if we do, will we stay or will we vote again to leave anyway? And what about the Irish border problem? How on earth are we going to solve that? Will there be a general election before BREXIT hits the fan? And will that make things better or worse? And if the other lot gets in, what will they do about BREXIT?

These are just some of the questions boiling in the mix right now and so dominating government and media energy you’d be forgiven for thinking all the other problems have gone away. But your average citizen, having cast their vote, and thereby collectively agreeing to bring this thing on, is now relegated to a position of powerlessness, unable to expend their pent-up energies doing anything other than shouting at the telly. I think this sense of powerlessness is having a demoralising effect on the nation’s soul, or at any rate it is on mine. The lessons of past crises tell us it’s better to feel one is doing something, even if it’s only to grant us the illusion of preparedness, like the way our grandparents melted pots and pans, supposedly to make Spitfires.

But what can we do?

Most of the scenarios I’ve played forward suggest an immediate, short term crisis, followed by a longer term decline of living standards, and that’s without being unduly pessimistic. Come hard or soft BREXIT, there is an overwhelming sense the future will be a lot smaller than it was, while for my children, now young men just starting out, I fear there is no future at all, at least not in terms I understand. At twenty two, I relished my chances, my opportunities, but now the best option for our youth is to put on a backpack and go bum around the world, see what there is of it, because there’s nothing left at home worth saddling up for beyond minimum wage drudgery. But then, even without BREXIT, things weren’t looking too good anyway, so what’s the difference? And maybe that’s why BREXIT happened in the first place.

There’s not much we can do about that longer term decline but, short of running to the hills with all those sharp knived Preppers, we can at least take small, practical, sensible non-weaponised steps to minimise the personal impact of the crash and ease ourselves into that brave new post-BREXIT world. For my own preparedness I began a BREXIT cupboard some time ago, adding an extra meal into the weekly shop: dried stuff, tinned stuff, cereals, porridge, and lots of custard! I’ve also brushed up on things like how to make your own bread. I think we should plan on having two weeks of non-perishable meals in reserve.

Britain’s is no longer self sufficient in producing food, you see?  it’s actually down to about 75% at the moment. It’s not that we’re going to starve, exactly – I mean we won’t – but there’ll be shortages and all of that made worse by the media screaming PANIC, and that’s even before the lorries carrying the stuff we don’t grow ourselves get bunged up at the Dover-Calais crossing. (Even I know Dover-Calais is the pinch point of Anglo-European trade)

But I predict fuel will be a bigger problem. Our refineries have been in decline for decades, so we’re now a net importer petrol, diesel and aviation fuel. The question is how much of that comes from the EU? I don’t know, it’s hard to get at the actual figures, but it doesn’t take much to trigger a fuel crisis – just a whisper in the raggedy arsed press will do it. Anyone in doubt should read back over the September 2000 shortages to get a feel for what that might mean. And roughly, what it means is if you rely on a car to get to work, by the second week after BREXIT, you’ll have run out.

I don’t suggest stockpiling petrol because it’s dangerous. I keep a can for my mower, and I’ll make sure it’s full. I have a spare car, and I’ll make sure that’s full too, but that’s the best I can do. If you’re in work and commuting by public transport, you’ll be okay. Rationing will favour the public transport system. Emergency services will be okay too, designated filling stations being declared strategic and ringed off by cop-cars – at least that’s what happened last time. The rest of us are on our own.

When I’ve run out, I’ll be taking time off work, book some holidays, and I’ll spend them tidying the garden or something, by which time, hopefully, there’ll be some sort of organised rationing. I’ve no intentions of queuing around the block for hours like I did in 2000, and fighting for every last drop.

I haven’t gone the whole hog and factored in prolonged power cuts and such-like (we’re not exactly self sufficient in power generation either), though I do remember the ’74 miner’s strike, so it may be worth stocking up on candles and camping gas. But that’s for a really hard BREXIT and will be the least of our worries. In that scenario, along with empty supermarket shelves and no fuel for transportation, the government’s own planning suggests we’re about two weeks from a state of emergency. I don’t know what that means, never having lived through one.

We managed it in 1939 of course, but Britain was a very different country then, and the enemy was easy to spot, plus we had those glorious Spitfires to rally our spirits. Now it’s hard to say who or what the enemy is, where it’s coming from and what possessed it in the first place. But I’m hoping, worst case, that by the time my BREXIT cupboard is empty the Red Cross will be delivering food parcels – maybe even out of Brussels!

I know that’ll stick in the craw of many, but I’m not proud. In spite of everything, I remain a European man. But another lesson of those power-cuts in the seventies was that I used to enjoy them. If you’ve a candle, you can read a book, and if your car’s no petrol, you can take a walk.

So, chin up. Keep calm, and carry on.




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s-port cafeSouthport, Easter Saturday afternoon. I’m crossing the square in front of the Town Hall, thinking of lunch, when a woman steps out of the crowd and offers to pray for me. I thank her kindly, but tell her I couldn’t possibly put her to so much trouble.  She hands me a leaflet which I fold and pocket with a parting smile.

The town looks poor still, nearly a decade after the crash. There is an eerie Parisian beauty about Lord Street, but it is long past that time when people dressed up for Saturdays in town. Some make the effort but they stand out now, look ridiculous even in their finery, like peacocks strutting among pigeons. Or perhaps it’s me. Perhaps I only notice the haggard expressions and poor pigeon-clothing we wrap ourselves in. Or is it a myth, this hankering after a nostalgic vision of an England that never existed – and really we have always looked and dressed this way?

In Chapel Street, the air is lively, cut by the jangle of buskers. And there’s this wizened beardy guy shouting passages from the Old Testament – the end is nigh, that sort of thing. I note he has a bigger crowd than the buskers. But he sounds angry. It’s our stupidity perhaps he takes issue with, our refusal to be saved? Whatever that means.

It’s unkind to make rash judgements of course but I have an instinctive aversion towards angry, shouty people. And I’m only here for the cash machine, so I can pay for lunch.

Lunch is a ham and cheese and mushroom toastie. They put it in fancy bread and call it a Fungi Pannini. It grants it a certain altitude, but it’s as well not to get too carried away with these things. Obviously, I am not a gastronome. Still, it’s flavoursome, and nicely filling, and the coffee is deliciously aromatic. This is my reward after a week of six-thirty get ups, and long days that are leaving me increasingly knackered. It’s worth the wait, and the sheer quiet pleasure of it revives my spirits.

I take out the ‘droid for company. Out with it comes the leaflet from the lady who offered to pray for me. She’s wanting me to join her Evangelical Church, but it’s not really my scene. They’re heavy on the healing stuff – a long list of things they can cure by faith, but the small print cautions me to seek medical advice as a first recourse. The legal escape hatch is somewhat deflating. Even the religious fear litigation it seems. Does this mean that for all of  their assertiveness this afternoon, they lack the courage of their convictions?

I flick through the headlines on the ‘droid. The Times and The Mirror seem excited by the possibility of nuclear war. Meanwhile the Guardian has its knife in the guts of the leader of the opposition. The collective subliminal message here is that we can forget any realistic prospect of a return to calmer, more reasoned discourse. Instead we shall be distracted from ongoing economic and political turmoil by increasing talk of war. There are historical precedents for this phenomenon and we should not be surprised. These are ancient daemons, hard to outwit, filled with an infectious loathing.

I have no particular business in town other than lunch, but I visit the bookshop while I’m here. I’m looking for something by Sebastian Barry. They have nothing in the second hand section. They might have had him among the new stuff, but I do not buy new books any more – my little contribution to Austerity and my own knife in the guts of the economy. I’ll find the book I want for a couple of quid in a charity shop, when the time is right.

sport pierMeanwhile, it’s a beautiful, sunny afternoon. The trees on Lord street are budding and there is blossom aplenty. But there are more angry voices here, more shouting about God. The words are incoherent but the tone is clear: Fess up, submit, or else!

I escape up Scarisbrick Avenue, heading towards the light and the sea, but there are drunk men here with pints of beer. They are staggering, arguing volubly, incoherently. Fuck this, fuck that. Fuckety fuck it. Fuck, fuck, fuck. It’s not yet two pm, the sun a long way from the yard arm. There is no wisdom in such heroic quantities of beer, no real escape in it from the misery of latter day working lives. Only hope and the dignity of decent wages will cure it, and both are in short supply.

Along the front, by the King’s Gardens, the greens are littered with chip cartons and cellophane wrappings. It’s my eye again, black dog stalking, showing me only the decay, the despair, the sheer hopeless void of it. The pier affords an arrow to the sea. The sandy tide is in, a scent of briny freshness at last. I walk the bouncy boards at a brisk pace, breathe in the sea, take it down deep as the only bit of the day worth holding on to.

Well, that and the coffee, and the toastie.

Small pleasures amid this talk of God and War.










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The Triumph of Death - Pieter Bruegel the Elder - 1562Hardly a day passes without news of another terror related killing, somewhere in the world. As for the largely unreported killings, result of the civil war in Syria, the scale will not be known until the war is over, and then the horrors revealed will be so large as to be barely comprehendible. It must be bad because even our most holy of men are now asking the perennial question: where is God? It’s a common response to disaster, and nothing new in it: this terrible thing is happening, why does God not intervene? Why can God not heal this appalling wound and prevent more killing? Does God even exist?

My own head has been taking refuge in shallowness of late, playing computer games where the sun shines all the time, and no one dies – at least in the kinds of games I play. Until now I’ve resisted lending another voice raised against the violence, mainly because I am incapable of forming a proper judgement when I have only news reports to go on, and these hardly qualify as reliable data. But this sudden call to God is interesting to anyone on the spiritual path, and calls me in turn to reflect.

Terrible things happen all the time. Every second of every day someone dies a terrible death. We forget human suffering is an ongoing story – today’s disaster forgotten, overshadowed already by news of tomorrow’s. And at times of disaster theologians wring their hands; they frown, their sermons deepen, but they are less than coherent in explaining the absence of God.

I saw rather an apposite poster recently. It flashed briefly across the blogsphere, caught my eye, then disappeared back into the collective, and it said something to the effect of: “Your God is too small for my Universe”. I have sympathy with this view – that in order to comprehend God we must look beyond the child-dream of a benign, interventionist deity. We must look to the universe within, through the telescope of an evolved consciousness, and search the inner space from whence our human “being” arises.

And we need to reflect and ask what it is that turns a young man or a young woman into a homicidal maniac – and not one or two, but hundreds upon hundreds, and bannered, all be it perversely, in the name of God? Indeed there seems no end to their number, that every time we sleep, they will come.

They are our nightmares, and like nightmares, we might think of them as self created, as the symptoms of a neurosis arising from a collective insecurity, a blindness to the failings in ourselves, and in the world. If we think of the images on our TV screens cast as symbols rather than as facts, if we read them as dreams, a different story emerges from the one that is told.

What we suppress, what we deny in ourselves comes back at us eventually – personally, as individuals, or collectively as a species. It happened in Europe in the 1930’s. It’s happening now in the Middle East. We reap what we sow. To think otherwise is to think too narrowly. It is to take the images from the TV screen and translate them literally, then to react emotionally and in accordance with a story that is too simplistic to mean anything. It is to view the world as if through a straw.

The human race stands upon a bedrock of inherited psychical energy from which rises all our stories and, thereby, all our behaviours, all our insecurities, our hopes and our dreams. When we look at another human being there is the illusion we are looking at someone entirely separate to ourselves, when in reality every person we see is simply another version of ourselves. Therefore the misunderstandings, the misdeeds of others are a shared responsibility, and to disown that responsibility without thought, without at least a degree of self analysis, of reflection beyond the immediate horror, is to make the mistake of setting ourselves above others, as if we were better, more human than anyone else.

This is unskillful thinking. It is the kind of thinking by which, down the ages, one tribe may survive at the expense of another, at least in the basic evolutionary sense, by the combative might of our egos and our arms, yet we also lose our way in the greater scheme of things by eradicating God from the collective heart. And even if we do proclaim God in our name it is invariably as too small, too literal a concept, therefore more of a danger. We do not do this intentionally, or in as violent and corrupt a manner as when we kill others, but we do well to recognise the call for such a small God to heal our splintered souls at times of tragedy is useless. The God we must ask for help in all of this is the God we find when we look inside ourselves. This is a God who sees what we see, always, and how that God reacts, how that God intervenes in human affairs depends entirely on us. It’s an idea rejected in puritanical circles as a kind of humanistic madness, as the megalomaniacal deification of our own person. But this misses the point. It is one thing to be humble enough to find God within us, quite another to adopt the mantle of omnipotence.

We are both of us – you and I, the eyes and the ears of a universe made conscious and feeling, and appalled at the lengths it will go to in order to inflict suffering on itself, while remaining in ignorance of the true nature of its own reality. We are each of us a part of a universe struggling to awaken from its own nightmare. We can only help it do so by awakening to our own universality, to our own infinite and intricate interconnection with all beings and all things. Until we understand this the only change in the world will be an increase in the killing, as the means become ever more sophisticated and barbarous.

For now I waver between the pessimism of this view and the occasional optimism that, eventually, sufficient numbers of individual minds will light up and thereby enable the universe to awaken sufficiently to banish the nightmares. Only when that happens will the overwhelmingly pessimistic story of human endeavour thus far become a thing altogether more hopeful and marvellous.

The future, as presented nightly on my TV screen is one running permanently into Armageddon. And though it is a half truth, with as much of the story missing as is told, the rest to be guessed at by the lost fragments and the ghost whisperings of our online world, the theme is clear, if not the detail: there is no future as things stand; our collective human heart is broken, and we are thrashing around, beating our breasts in despair at one damned thing after the other, at corrupt ideas, at perverse thinking, and at ideologies both twisted and shrunken into mere pathologies. We can view this as the end of the world – one that is permanently just a few years away and never quite arriving, or we can view it as a call to raise our level of consciousness, our thinking.

At the very least it might spare us from an ignominious extinction at the hands of our own violence, avarice, and stupidity. Who knows we might yet move on and achieve the greatness, and the largeness of spirit we are otherwise so clearly capable of.

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british and german casualties ww1 - wikipedia - Photographer Ernest BrooksOn July 28th, this year, it will be a hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War. Already the commemorative columns and books are hitting the press. This is to be expected and indeed welcomed because the lessons taught by the trauma of the Great War cannot be overstated or too often repeated. But less expected has been an attempt by voices within the British establishment and the media to repackage the war in a less than cautionary light. Of particular note, TV presenter, historian and “personality” Dan Snow writes that most of what we think we know of the war is a myth, and that much of the bad press surrounding the war has been overplayed – that as conflicts go, it wasn’t so bad. Indeed he writes there is much in our (allied forces) conduct of the war to be proud of, and that far from being worse off, most men who fought were better looked after than they would have been had they stayed at home.

You can read that article here.

This came as a shock to me since my own impression of the war comes from other writings, all of which paint a very different picture, one that is much at odds with this rather more “upbeat” view, but the argument runs that the things I’ve read were written by authors equally bent on a re-visioning of the truth, so all we are left with now are the myths.

But what it was really like for the men who fought? Can we no longer get at the truth of it? Was it simply too long ago? Well, let’s not forget the personal accounts, both poetic and narrative. These words cannot be massaged to suit the prevailing mood of the times, and therefore remain for ever the most forcible in persuading us of the horror, the inhumanity and the sheer stupidity of war. In this centenary year, I will not be “celebrating” the conflict in the sense of making a flag-waving Jubilee out of it, but I will be marking it by reading more of the stories of those who fought: the colliers, the quarrymen, the farmhands, the weavers and the tram-drivers. They alone have earned the right to teach us the lessons that a certain class of society seems incapable of remembering for very long.

They are gone now, those men who fired the rifles beneath an unimaginable deluge of shells. The last of them was Harry Patch, who passed away in 2009. He did not speak well of the Great War, indeed he did not speak of it at all for eighty years. But their stories are written down for us, and we should make it our business to read them. The ordinary people of the world do not learn much from the careful analysis of historians and statisticians. We learn from others, like us.

I trust this revisioning of the conflict is not a first attempt at inspiring us still beleaguered Brits to a flag-waving patriotism, as a diversion from our continuing economic woes. Such things will not wash. Anyone who has traced their ancestry will be familiar with those trails lost in the mud of that gargantuan conflict; of grandfathers and great-uncles who did not return. It’s quite plain to me that something awful happened, something on a scale never before experienced, something that has left its mark on the memorials in every town and village in the land, and has left its mark too in the ancestral memory.

How all of this touches me is in part through the story of my grandmother’s brother who enlisted as a private in the King’s Liverpool Regiment, 2nd Garrison Battalion. He died in Salonika, in October 1918, aged 26. In my wife’s family, there are two other young men who served in the war. One was killed at Ypres, aged 19. His name is engraved at the Menin Gate memorial. The other, aged 21, was lost at the battle of the Somme and is remembered at Thiepval as one of the 70,000 “Missing”. Uncovering the stories of these young men still comes as a shock to the gut, even after a hundred years. It makes the remembrance personal and it exposes all historical revisioning as ultimately meaningless.

One of the ten myths “busted” by Dan Snow is the one that says most men who went to the war did not come back. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard that said, but anyway it’s not true say the statistics, and the statistics may be right, for all I know. But what I also know is that of the sons of enlistment age I have chronicled among the ancestry of my own sons’ family, we have three who fought, and who did not come back.

It was Joseph Stalin who observed that the death of a single man is a tragedy, while the death of thousands is a mere statistic. To the politician, to the historian, to the chroniclers of war, sixteen million deaths can be counted and cut and spun at us any way they like. But the real story of war, its lessons, and the measure of its waste, can only be found in the hearts of the individual families for whom each man lost is indeed a tragedy, and one that still echoes down the generations.

I am not so naive as to think that war can always be avoided – sadly sometimes it cannot. But let those who would make war imagine first that it will be their own sons they are sending out under a rain of shells. Let the remembrance Sundays continue to be occasions for solemn reflection. It still matters that we think of this, and keep the lessons close. And let us keep also at arms length those who would paint a rosy picture of armed conflict, seeking to convince us those involved in it had anything like a jolly time. Let us remember too that from the higher human perspective, it is always war itself that is the enemy, the real struggle being against those so often intangible forces within the human psyche that would subvert a lasting peace in favour of yet one more bloody conflagration.


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