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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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