What looks after us?

I’ve been wanting to write about the role of angels in my life.

Like most words in any language, it’s loaded with baggage going back millennia. Let’s strip off that heavy weight of meanings, leave it in a heap and walk lightly away. I want to go back to a time before I had words for a feeling, never needed such words. Until now, I never had the occasion to tell anyone, not until I felt the impulse to share it.

This was written in November 2018 and never published—until yesterday, by accident. It had seemed too personal at the time. Never mind, here it is.

It happened fifty years ago. It struck me with vividness at the time and somehow I stored it away, never to be dredged up till today. I was working in an office building near Nottingham’s Trent Bridge, working in a sales office for ICL, a computer company, British rival of IBM. We successfully tendered for a large new mainframe computer in Notts County Council, whose offices stood across the road. After which I left ICL and joined this near-neighbour client when they advertised for a System Designer. An old CV tells me it was in January 1969.

What I recall was taking a walk at lunchtime, among the local streets in West Bridgford.What struck me was a sense of Providence. Not in my own life, I had not developed the faculty of introspection. Indeed I would not have cared to look into my own life. My yesterdays were a jumble of catastrophes, painfully survived. Today was a surprise. I had landed into an accidental conformity with the junior professional classes. As for tomorrow, I’d never had what it takes to plan, or even dream of its possibilities. To a drowning man, keeping his head above water is enough.

Providence was what I saw in the bricks and mortar of the houses and shops I passed. People lived there, had roofs over their heads, incomes, families, jobs. These things don’t just drop into one’s lap like wild fruit from a tree conveniently above. In retrospect I realize that the residents might indeed have had it easy, compared with me. Fact is, I felt like a foreigner in Nottingham, so far north. Indeed, I was an alien anywhere.

But in that moment, Providence—had I used any word at all—wouldn’t have meant God, that monolithic organizing power we imagine as being able to look after His creatures. I saw each one of these soul-body mechanisms as interacting with infinite complexity, each with its own limited ration of free will. Imagine putting all their needs and dilemmas into a computer, so as to achieve an equitable outcome for each. No one could write such a program. How could each individual steer his or her life among all the hazards and unknowns? I certainly didn’t think in terms of capitalism, socialism, economics or bureaucracy. These things didn’t represent the reality of actual living. I envisaged these people as descended from miners or shopkeepers. Whatever administrations were in place they would simply adapt as best they could.

It’s hard to reconstruct the circumstance of my mood and thought on that day, especially as I didn’t have the vocabulary to reason it out. It just seemed as though this Providence, that looks after all, acted at ground level like a sort of guardianship. Which today I might express as awareness of an angel protecting me, since angel is a word readymade for the purpose.

Now I shall confess to trying to solve a puzzle about my own life, a mystery about my own past, and the state of mind I must have had.

For this was a time I’d achieved a sort of bourgeois normalcy: a professional job; a modern house with gardens front and back, nothing grand but adequate; an attractive wife; a three-year-old son, another child on the way. We knew many of our neighbours, were part of a baby-sitting circle, had occasional small dinner-parties or were invited to larger parties which went a little wild.

Yet once we properly settled into this suburban contentment, we lost no time in throwing it all away. It seemed to me like a waste land, a living death. I felt we’d missed the fun and freedom of the Swinging Sixties. We had endured much misery instead. Now there was nothing. my wife and I were 28, we were washed up on a remote shore after swimming clear of shipwrecks. I can’t go into the details. We were exiles, we didn’t belong anywhere.

We allowed ourselves to be seduced by the myth of an Aquarian Age, encountered marijuana, LSD, an old friend from university who’d spent years in a kibbutz. We met an American hippie couple who called themselves “freaks”. We learned later he was on the run from the FBI for dealing heroin, but to us he was a Native American wise man, a kind of Don Juan direct out of Castaneda. We joined forces with a couple like ourselves, planned a foursome marriage (!), till it fell apart on 21st June 1971. I only know it was that date because we heard about the Woodstock-style rock festival called Glastonbury Fayre, and regretted missing it.

I resigned my job, we sold our house, bought an old van, lived in a tent when we had to, then found shelter in a middle-class artists’ commune before winter set in. They were kind to us, offered a life of complete hedonism. It didn’t take long to realize that this was worse than anything so far. I decided only God could save me, thought I should study the Bible and let myself be humbled at all my mistakes.

Thus we were ready fodder for the great Guru-trap, joining the thousands of other middle-class hippies who’d discovered the emptiness of drugs and total licence. I call it a guru-trap partly it attracted so many followers who were like us “lost souls”, not well-grounded by proper nurture in childhood. I should have followed the warning signs I felt in my own self, but my wife jumped into it with unhealthy fervour and I wanted to save our marriage. This lasted another ten years but I could take it no more. Her mental state got worse and she committed suicide in 1989, long after we divorced. I only discovered this the other day, talking to my daughter. I’d let myself think it was an accidental overdose.


I’ve tried writing this several times. I’ve talked about angels several times in a Wayfarer’s Notes, seeing them as a more credible focus of the religious impulse than a monolithic God who rules over everything.

I recently found passages about angels from my own writing as well as a book from John O’Donohue: Eternal Echoes: exploring our hunger to belong. I planned to cobble them together into some sort of patchwork of impressions. But when I came to the keyboard, drafting & redrafting, I had to let go of all those intentions. I’ll just add this, from the blurb at the back of O’Donohue’s book:

There is a divine restlessness in the human heart today, an eternal echo of longing that lives deep within us and never lets us settle for what we have or where we are.

For me, that restlessness is over, except that it still makes me want to write.

9 thoughts on “What looks after us?”

  1. ICL a rival for IBM, eh? I picture each letter in the acronyms on little dials, like the combination on a briefcase, with each dial giving nice satisfying click as you click the B down one letter and the M up one letter and, voila’!

    It’s been speculated that the name for HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey was arrive at by this method. One click up on each letter in IBM.

    Anyway, continuing on with the post. The topic was angels, please continue…

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    1. When I joined it was called International Computers and Tabulators. I was actually one of the last intake to train in tabulators, of which there were two kinds Powers-Samas (the punch cards had round holes) and Hollerith (which had slotted holes, on machines designed to count the US Census quickly, in Eighteen-Something.). International Business Machines sold exactly the same equipment. But they were being phased out. Our customers wanted to upgrade to these new-fangled computers.

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  2. Trying to picture you minus the “the faculty of introspection,” like some kind of philosophical zombie that crunches computer code out of a paper sack on your lunch break and emits old dial-up modem noises to indicate satisfaction.

    Again though, I’m interrupting….

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    1. I like your picturing! Actually on my lunch-breaks I would often go to a nearby bookshop with an extraordinary range, and a sympathetic proprietor. And in the County Council building there was a wonderful library, where I found many more. My ideas were inflamed by the futuristic hopes, both technological and esoteric which blossomed in the Sixties and prepared me for the heady realms of the “Aquarian Age” and its followers.

      I was full of eccentric thoughts with few opportunities to share them, but they centred on the world around, people in general. I could not contemplate my own situation. Looking back, it’s plain that this would have been too painful.

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  3. Sorry, but I have to digress again on this subject of the interesting way that you view your past self. Sometimes I think about all the stupid things I did when I was younger, but I can’t say that I feel as alienated from my past self as you seem to feel, like lacking in entire dimensions or something. I feel like it was me, just a me somewhat more blissfully ignorant of life’s many snares and consequences. For better or for worse ….Mostly worse.

    But then again, there was a thought I’ve had about my daughter sometimes. I’ve felt like as a parent raising her that she was kind of starting from the place of maturity and wisdom that it took me many years of trial and error and stupidity to reach, and I’d think, “Who know where she might go from there!” Maybe this is a thought that a lot of parents have, a sense of generational progress. I don’t know. Maybe they don’t know. Maybe they don’t know they were thinking it. Maybe the same feelings drove them to think something else in a different way. So maybe I was thinking what they were thinking and didn’t know.

    Anyway….

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    1. I like very much your notion of generational progress. I’m conscious that my four children and three grandchildren have started off from a far better place than I did, despite my sense of not having been a good father and a sort of general ramshackleness about the situations they were born into.

      You are so right about this alienation from my past self, coming from its lacking an entire dimension. I was a neglected orphan emotionally, a plant raised in the dark. Only the late discovery of true love opened those dimensions you speak of. When I started the blog in 2006, it was an expression of joy and youthful discovery: sunshine without much shadow. The anecdotes from my early life stood out as highlights. These days life has got harder. I feel a profound connection to all suffering in the world.

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  4. Okay, final thoughts: This way of discussing angels makes wonder if they’re somehow born out of the same sense that gave rise to the concept of Karma. They’ve been variously depicted as agents of protection and fortune, as well as vengeance and retribution. They’re these invisible beings tugging on the little invisible strings of fate here and there, steering events into their proper course, making things come out right in the end.

    I think we have this deep seated need to feel like SOMETHING has to be at play there, like there’s some sort of narrative force at work in our lives, that we aren’t going to step out the door tomorrow and have a random, completely undeserved piano drop on our heads just at the moment that all our plans and schemes were just about to come to fruition.

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    1. Yes, I agree with all of what you say, and it’s been a preoccupation over the past few years, I think since I first discovered Etty Hillesum, that at least some of us can rise above the pain. Some of can feel a kind of angel-protection, or connection to their God. So why can’t the others? If the fundamental principle of everything is Love, as I want to believe (it can only be a belief, of course) Why doesn’t everyone have the same access to its blessings?

      I mention Etty Hillesum because she was able to rise above the horrors of the Holocaust, she volunteered to work in the transit camps when she could have escaped the Nazis and left Holland. She judged no one. On the way to Auschwitz, she got the people in her cattle-truck to keep their spirits up by singing, as we know from a postcard she threw out of the window.

      My notion of Karma is like what you say. If it exists (I don’t know anything) I see it like this: that we are all in a classroom together, but we need different lessons. And perhaps those who come out tops by the valuation of this world (multi-talented beautiful people with access to everyting they desire) don’t know what they are missing, because the thing that ultimately counts is the ability to feel joy in the moment despite circumstances. Which at present, because of circumstances, I find to be an enormous challenge.

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