Pebble Way

I’m on a section of the “Round Aylesbury Walk”. If you go clockwise, the town is on your right and level countryside is on your left. I talk to myself as I go, into a digital recorder. The edited transcript is here:

‘Suppose everything is just as it should be, already? Suppose everything goes on being just right, no matter what? So that no matter what the creatures do—mainly mankind, for the other creatures don’t disturb Nature much—then Nature as a whole (which includes mankind) bounces back, fixing the consequences as best it may? This is what James Lovelock calls Gaia, the intelligent Earth trying to heal itself despite all our efforts to the contrary. Isn’t it a vast freewill machine? Yes! That’s it! So when the things come which cause pain, we cannot accuse, saying “This is God’s fault”—because it just goes on being as it is, trying to right itself. And suppose that all the religions are product of freewill too, trying to fix the fallen state, the loss of Eden’s innocence. I don’t believe that religions are God’s gift to man, a ladder to escape original sin.* They are just part of the general freewill, nothing more than that. They have no holiness above anything else: just people trying.

‘I hear a crackling in the power-lines hanging down over me. The sky has gone black. I wonder if it is man’s electricity responding to God’s electricity, or vice versa. The crackling is faint and almost constant, like hailstones bouncing off a small drum.

‘So, in this model which appears quite clear to me now, it’s not even for us to identify the problems. It’s for us to disturb as little as possible the workings of Nature, which constantly tries to clean everything up. Technology has become overwrought. But then, reason itself has become overwrought. Can technology and reason save us from technology and reason? I, for one, refuse to say “Yes”.

‘Suppose I eliminate from my thought, the phrase “We should …”? The next thing would be to eliminate the phrase “I should …”. It doesn’t come easy, because this is my culture, to constantly see problems and the need for me to participate in their solution. Then I must help fix the problems caused by solutions; and so it goes on. I don’t deny that the word “should” properly belongs in the English language. But I challenge its power over my life. I shall merely follow instinct, which is Nature in action.

‘I walk freely, because it is part of God’s gift: God’s gift of this body that’s a little awkwardly, yet quite definitely, designed for bipedal locomotion.

‘And as I speak these words, striding across a meadow under the powerlines, I see shining in the grass at my feet a £1 coin. I stoop to put it in my pocket, thinking, “This is my deserved reward. I can buy something with this.” And as with the four-leaved clover that day with Michael, I ask myself, “Will there be another?” I look for another pound coin, as if there were going to be a trail of them. This too is Nature, human nature.

‘If only I could convey the manner in which, as I walk, I think these thoughts and feel my feelings. It’s as if I’m leaping up to a ceiling that’s suddenly become reachable, and I touch Heaven. Then again, and again. And because the ceiling is not low enough, or I am not tall enough, I can only do it with little leaps. But this is all, or enough. I don’t ask for more. I’m not impatient. Why should I be? To touch Heaven once might be enough for a lifetime. But as soon as we discover a pleasure, we want to repeat it. Addictiveness is a human trait.

‘Suppose we didn’t ask for the same pleasure again, suppose we didn’t try and make it happen again and again. Would that improve things? It wouldn’t. We are made that way,  programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Why would we try and escape the cycle of that? Or if we find ourself drawn to self-sacrifice and renunciation, welcoming the hair shirt and eschewing the ice-cream, why shouldn’t we go for it, if that’s what we want to do?. Surely there is value in accepting our nature.

‘I arrive at the heavenly Pebble Way cycle path. I feel close kinship towards all, not exactly to embrace every person I see today, not literally. But in imagination I slip out of my skin, of being this particular white man aged 68, to be one with people of all ages, people who cycle on this path, walk along it, live in houses alongside it, who live in the cottage in my illustration below, with its beautiful back garden—and all, who like me, don’t live anywhere near this cycle path.

‘I feel myself near enough to this Heaven. Because there is some sort of realm, maybe 14ft above the ground, maybe wafting over this place, where Heaven is. Then it (the heavenly Pebble Way merges with the Gemstone Cycle Route as it goes into town. I have no cycle, but it’s OK, it’s a footpath too. Signs keep counting down the number of estimated minutes left to reach the town centre, if you are travelling by bicycle.

Bourg Walk Bridge (thanks to bhbizzle23, flickr)

“10 minutes to Town Centre”. Then three minutes later, “5 minutes to Town Centre”. I must have lost my sense of time. Surely I’m not going faster than a bike. Anyhow, nothing would tempt me to get one, whilst I can walk on two feet which don’t have to be chained up against theft. All the same, remembering when I first rode a bicycle—how fast! how free!—my soul goes in sympathy with an imagined cyclist, riding from one of the poorer suburbs to the train which will take him to another town where he is apprenticed to the future he desires. Perhaps that is his vision of Heaven.

‘I pass the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints. Reading the name Jesus Christ, my heart lifts a little as if I am one of their number.

I want to be   In that Number   When the Saints go marching in.

’But it’s a fabricated dream-Jesus, not the historical one whom nobody knows; or a restored version, like a fresco whose original has crumbled, as in Leonardo’s Last Supper. Even though it has never happened to me, I don’t deny that one could have Jesus in one’s heart, and be utterly transformed by that presence.

‘Others will find the object of their quest, their ideal, in some other form. It’s a peculiar Western cultural thing, from which I am not immune, to confuse the boundaries of sex and religion in the true fairy-story of romantic love. It is orthodox to speak of “the woman of your dreams”. In fact at this minute one walks before me, dressed all in black. Specifically, she reminds me, I don’t know why, of a certain long-ago, never-forgotten dream inspired by the book Alice in Wonderland, itself about a girl dreaming.

‘We have one word, dream, for two quite different things: the hallucinations of sleep, and the waking fantasies and might-have-beens. So now, as I cross the real-life Bourg Walk Bridge in Aylesbury, I let the cine-camera of imagination keep running, without ever calling “Cut!” from my director’s chair.

‘I could be the owner of this little house near the railway station, with the crooked chimney and well-tended garden. Or that young woman in black, clothes and skin both. Maybe this yellow and white cat with a wounded tail that sprawls soaking up the warmth on this footbridge.

Cottage seen from Bourg Walk Bridge

‘It’s the long summer holidays, and in August the young find things to do. I might be any of them. A gangling boy, aged about sixteen, waiting for a rendezvous by a privet hedge on the Pebble Way. He and his friend overtake me later, hastening to their destination. I eavesdrop the earnest conversation. One confides all his half-formed ideas to the other, who listens and offers a few sage words in response. I could have been either of them, speaker or listener.

‘I reach Penn Road, Southcourt, where several houses are empty, fenced off for building works as part of an urban regeneration project. Here is a group of little children in a scruffy front garden, sitting on a lawn bleached by drought. Some have their bicycle helmets still on, their bikes flung down randomly. About seven of them are clustered around a Monopoly board, together with a neglected plate of sandwiches. They too are in Heaven. I could be one of them.

‘I can’t decide if Heaven is all this, the world of the senses, including my sore feet—or the construct of my waking dream, hovering a few feet off the ground, with my individual identity blurred and melted into some of what I perceive. Is it my Heaven to live in a mystical cloud, or to be right here, in the body God gave me? I shan’t choose one way or the other. All I know is, I have touched it. I have touched it in my good times. I have touched it in my worst times. And that’s enough.’
* Re original sin: see my comment below.


15 thoughts on “Pebble Way

  1. I saw a man later in the day, whose black T-shirt had this on the back, in letters four inches high: “John 3:16”. I guessed what verse from St John’s Gospel it was referring to; correctly, as verified later. Here is the verse, in the King James I Bible version:

    For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

    A verse which summarises the Christian case, and also exposes its weakness: being an unverifiable sales slogan.

    [I’ve taken the liberty seven years later, July 12th 2007, of adding to this comment, after seeing a young woman in town wearing a black T-shirt with “WORLD PEACE” in large white letters on the front.

    Perhaps what they had in common was the idea that there’s an answer so simple, so unarguable, to the perceived “problems of the world”, that it’s our virtuous duty to be walking billboards, informing or reminding anyone who can read. Perhaps it is, who am I to tell anyone else what’s best?]


  2. Another fine essay. It is a task to try to separate the sales slogans in religion from those aspects that have phenomenological validity, meaning one can directly experience their authenticity.

    This is excellent: “I don’t deny that the word “should” properly belongs in the English language. But I challenge its power over my life. I shall merely follow instinct, which is Nature in action.”

    “Should” is what is called “the law” in the Christian Bible. The writers are quite at odds with each other about whether or not the law “SHOULD” be obeyed.

    Paul's “faith not works” can be interpreted as “forget what you should do, and have faith in Jesus.” Paul has discovered what you have discovered, but he has not gotten to the heart of it, which is actually simply the experience of depending on intuition, or as you say, “instinct.”

    But due to the placebo effect, Paul will also experience something similar to what you and I experience when we follow instinct. There is a hint of this in the Christian bible: “The truth that sets one free.” Paul almost got this.

    (By the way, Paul's words scared the devil out of James who quickly adds, “faith is dead without works.” James completely misses the point. He is much too busy to know how to appreciate an Aylesbury walkabout)

    Yes, the seagulls were in my book.


  3. well vince you must have had your eyes to the ground finding the pound as i did when i found the clover .also we have here in new zealand posters around town saying nathen 3%16 now i cant think what they mean here


  4. Michael, I found some answers about Nathan 3:16 but you would understand it better than I. Connected to a mayoral election, apparently, and a reference to a famous wrestler called Austin who wanted to mock his religious opponent.

    So it does all come back to John 3:16.


  5. Thanks for link Bazza. I have seen you since that occasion 4 years ago, on Bob's Tolkien's Tree site, and have occasionally lurked on yours!


  6. Thanks Raymond. When you say

    “Should” is what is called “the law” in the Christian Bible. The writers are quite at odds with each other about whether or not the law “SHOULD” be obeyed.

    it reminds me of a strict Catholic view which I discovered on a Catholic cable channel EWTN, whilst in Jamaica. According to someone pontificating there (not the pope but some American priest of a highish rank) the voice of conscience is not to be listened to at all. Only “the Law”.

    In the context, it makes sense. The voice of conscience would have you using contraception or even, ultimate horror, have you conspiring to admit women to the priesthood.

    But it demonstrated clearly that EWTN could not be a channel for evangelizing the non-believers. It was an electronic sheepdog harrying the faithful tempted to go astray.

    Any self-respecting non-Catholic seeing a little EWTN would be immunized against that religion for life.


  7. Thanks, Ashok. In fact, the sense of unity wasn't with all I encountered on that walk. It was a resonance I felt with any other beings who shared my sense of Heaven at that time; or who might share it. This may be why I felt particularly aware of younger people. Not that it's for me to judge based on appearances. The cat with an open wound on its tail might have that sense too. It's a quirk of mine never to deny the highest consciousness to any animal.


  8. Ahh, Aylesbury…I was born there, not that I recall it really. I wasn't there for long, apparently. Yet it's always strangely with me…in my passport, online bank seccrity features, applications for things.

    You know it strikes me, what with the distant rumble of thunder (no, not “struck” in that sense) and you finding that one pound coin…at that very moment you were stood at the end of a rainbow! Perhaps you should have dug deeper.


  9. Lehane, I much like your comment. Perhaps I should always go wayfaring with a trowel, in case of four-leaved clovers and crocks of gold.

    Enough of shoulds, explicitly abjured in the piece itself. Let the reader dig deeper, with metaphorical trowel, as the fancy takes him or her.


  10. a feast, Vincent, a feast. I feel the surfeit, the satisfaction along with your words….. contentment.

    it often seems to me that the world got rid of the 'shoulds' and simply immersed itself in “I am.”


  11. Heaven all around… you can pick it up like a dropped pound coin, like a four-leaf clover, you can hear the angels communicating in the crackle of the power lines – power lines resonate with angelic voices, did you not know? And if you live in a two-storey home, merely climbing the stairs will bring you into the heavenly realm.

    As for the shoulds – I love Gerard Hughes' notion (in 'God of Surprises') of 'hardening of the oughteries' – a very serious condition which can be helped by reading this blog.


  12. Vincent, I like the moments of grappling and peace throughout your essay. I also envy your lack of self-consciousness in walking and talking into a recorder. I’ve done that a few times, but only inside, in private. I came across a couple of tapes a few months ago while I was cleaning. It was interesting to listen to myself muse about my dreams and about what was on my mind then. I could tell in my voice that I felt giddy—that sense of self-consciousness of talking into something. I talk to myself, the elements, etc., often—not too often. I’ve thought of getting a digital recorder.

    When I was driving the other day, I don’t know what it was about the day—the sky, passing the Church, my usual route. It was days after I originally read your blog, but in that moment, my mind ceased on the image your created of the “cracking in the power-lines…” I love that paragraph. It says so much.

    “I shall merely follow instinct, which is Nature in action.” Yes, and often the action is in the stillness.

    It was nice entering your reverie.


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