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A small market town up North, far less prosperous now than it once was. It was the place to go when things were needed that the corner shop in my outlying rural village could not provide. But nowadays the town does not provide that either. I mostly order my needs off the Internet, and the postman delivers.

In memory, probably rose tinted, it was a prouder place back then. Do I imagine that on Saturday afternoons people would dress up to go shopping? Men would wear clean shirts, jackets and aftershave, ladies their fashionable dresses, high heels, and lipstick. Film actresses have walked Market Street in their finery on the Saturday afternoons of my childhood, crossed the road by Woolworths on their way to Boots. Marylin Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall. I have seen them all on the catwalk that was the pelican crossing by the old Town Hall.

There were innumerable family businesses here, names over doors that had stood for generations – bookshops, shoe-shops, florists, shops for artists, photography shops, all gone now and the town has dissolved into a place of thrift, of bookmaking, of pawn-brokering, e-cigs and of bargain booze. And in their passing something has happened to us.

I don’t know when it happened, or how, or why, or even what I mean exactly. It’s more than money, more than the economy. It’s hard to put a finger on it. I could use a word like respectability, but risk accusations of elitism and a hankering after the nineteen fifties, when working men still doffed their caps to toffs.

As I walked Market Street this afternoon, I heard a group of women plainly from a hundred yards away, fag-raw voices much amplified by alcohol. I thought they were fighting, but they were simply talking, oblivious to the obstacle and the spectacle they created on the pavement. Of course such unselfconsciousness can be argued as a virtue, not caring to live one’s life through the eyes of other people, and hurrah for that, I suppose, but at the risk of sounding like an insufferable snob, there was something unpleasant about their laddishness, something embarrassing, even threatening. Oh, I’m sure had they read my mind, intuited my feelings they would have given me the finger, and well deserved.

Grace. I think it’s the loss of grace I mean – the grace of the actress, of the ballroom, of the dancer – it’s gone from all our lives now, though I’m aware of how ridiculous that sounds. Yet I still search the crowd for it – in vain mostly – seeing only rags instead of finery, and stout, hideously tattooed stumps in place of dancers’ legs. I have largely withdrawn such sensibilities into imagination, hesitate to express them.

And charity shops.

We have a lot of charity shops now, a dozen at last counting. They are the only places capable of thriving, the only reliable landmarks on the high street – all else is pitifully feeble, ephemeral. They smell, don’t they? I used to find it off-putting – something unclean, I thought, and for a long time resisted the plunge – just one more step in my own fall from gracefulness.

It helped I could find decent books in there, good novels, literature, a handful for a fiver and just as well in straightened times – for such an appetite would cost fifty quid from a bookshop and quite out of the question. But there are no bookshops any more.

I like the Heart Foundation. Their books are well ordered, easy to scan, always a generous selection. And that’s where I saw her.

She was tall, slim, a voluminous cascade of seemingly luminescent blonde hair falling down her back. She had an upright posture, head balanced with a dancer’s poise, chin up, directing her gaze as she swept the titles with a leisurely, bookish grace. She wore a pair of snug blue jeans and a green shirt over a cream camisole – not a young woman by any means, forties perhaps,… and so far so much of a cliche.

The movie cute-meet would no doubt have been our fingers reaching out for the same title, something by Sebastian Barry perhaps – always a hard find in a charity shop. Our fingers would brush, then we’d each draw back with an embarrassed laugh.

“After you,” I’d say.

She’d smile, blush, reveal endearing dimples and a row of Hollywood perfect teeth. “No, you first. I’ve read it anyway. You like Barry?”

And thus we would connect, two lost, bookish souls finding succour among the cast offs in this wasted northern town, which seemed at once less wasted for her presence in it.

Poise. Yes, it was her poise that caught my eye, her arm gently reaching up to the book-shelf, something of a reserved curve to it, ending in a languorously relaxed hand, only the index and middle fingers forming a stiffly extended double pointer as if to aid in this most delicate act of intimate divination, or to bless.

Stillness, grace, presence. She had presence. But what was she doing there, a woman like that? She was quite, out of place, out of time.

I was beside her at the bookshelf, but only for a moment. No cute-meet here. I felt my presence as a vulgar intrusion upon such grace and visceral femininity. I feared her effect on me could not go unnoticed, that I would disturb her, make her uneasy, that her grace would stiffen, become angular with suspicion, that by observing it, I would destroy it.

I felt stung then by something very old, a feverishness overcoming me, ancient but familiar. I have taught myself over the years of useless infatuation, successfully I believe, to see women as human beings. It’s what they want, they tell me, this elimination of objectification. But without the object, the symbolism also dies, and love is next to divinity. Yet here was one out of the blue coming at me as a goddess again.

I melted away unseen.

What was all that about?

Chapter one, I think, that’s what all that was about!

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boxingThe life of every man is an heroic quest. Not all take up the challenge, not consciously anyway and those who do can still go badly astray. But the challenge is there, and how a man deals with it will determine the extent of his happiness and success in life.

By success, I’m not speaking in material terms of course, such as how much money in the bank he has, how big a house, how expensive his car, nor how beautiful the women he attracts. One’s success in the acquisition of such things is determined by external factors, and personal characteristics that are not always helpful, nor indeed constructive towards the greater good. And whilst compelling at first sight, even a cursory analysis will reveal the way of the material world naturally results in the nefarious duality of “me” and “everyone else” and a widening gap that separates human society into those who have and those who have not.

The lure of the material path is the first test faced by all alchemists: whether it be the glitter of a literal gold, or the promise of the purer gold of the soul, and life’s meaning, that drives one’s ambition. And in life, we are all alchemists, transforming the base substance of the conscious selves we are born with into something that can help us stay the course, while hopefully making sense of things and doing as little harm as possible along the way.

In the philosophical sense then, success in life is measured by the degree of a man’s emotional and spiritual maturity, which in turn yields such treasures as contentment, compassion for others and a lack of fear at the approach of old age and death. Such things are not acquired through competition with other males; they are more elusive; they require a man to back up a little and take stock.

Competitive masculinity is driven by egoic thinking. Ego is the layer of the psyche that measures and compares our status to that of others. Ego is that which attaches itself to the material stuff of the world, and the myriad machinations by which that stuff can be acquired. It attaches itself also to the mask of who we think we are and is the source of our fear, that we might at any point in our life lose our imagined status.

Some men are more driven than others in these respects, and such jostling and jousting with others does appear at first sight to have its rewards; their Mars-like attributes, their sporting prowess, and the sheer smell of their testosterone (a mix of stale cigarettes and beer, apparently) makes them naturally more attractive to the opposite sex. Flaxen haired girls with gym honed bodies, beach tans and perfect teeth find them irresistible. They swoon at their feet, and queue up to have their babies – or so I’m told.

As a materially successful man ages though, he faces a number of challenges, any one of which might defeat him, for it is his own mortality in every case that will let him down. Fear is foremost – fear of the loss those material things he has already acquired, so instead of slowing down as he matures, he is driven to acquire yet more self enhancing stuff – be it material wealth, goods, or power over others. Old age is another fear, with its loss of hair, teeth, and physical prowess. A man in the middle of his life might even look at his mate, who’s no longer looking so good, and decide to trade her in for a newer model, after patching up his own appearance as best he can. To a strictly material kind of man, women have no attributes greater or deeper than their material forms. Equally a material kind of woman has no interest in material men who can no longer deliver the goods. The poles become mutually repulsive. You can see where this is going.

In short then, a life such as this might leave a man feeing empty, because the man is so enamoured of his material things he has neglected his soul.

There is of course another way.

But is that any easier?

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