Perhaps everything fits together

Things fit together, said I. That’s what they are supposed to do, said K. If only we have faith, said I—in the right things, of course. We were having our morning tea in bed while doing the cryptic crossword, where things always fit together, if you puzzle over them enough. The clues fit the answers and the answers fit each other (by intersecting), perfectly every time, like the counties of England and Ireland. The border of one exactly fits with its neighbours. She’d just got the answer to “County party with right clique (6)”: it’s Dorset (do-R-set). Then I got “Nobleman accompanying unknown girl somewhere in Ireland (6,5)”: it’s County Clare; y being an algebraic symbol for an unknown quantity.

And as for the idea of the counties fitting together perfectly, it derived from England, England, by Julian Barnes. My daughter gave me it a while ago but I’d never got on with this author, left it on the shelf for months and hoped she wouldn’t ask about it. But then its time came, and I found it to be a magnificent satire, about one of my favourite places. A jigsaw puzzle of the counties of England runs as a leitmotif through this tale, in which a big businessman somewhat reminiscent of Donald Trump buys up the entire Isle of Wight to run as a theme park for international tourists, so that the sights worth seeing can all be bunched together, instead of separated higgledy-piggledy across the often dreary stretches of mainland.

Thus imagery can coalesce in our minds, in dreams or daydreams. Perhaps it embeds cryptic clues, symbols of truth that would stare us in the face, if we didn’t unwittingly blank them out. Perhaps things do fit together, exactly  as they are supposed to. Fortunate then, are they who have “. . . eyes to see them, And lips that we might tell How great is God Almighty, Who has made all things well”—to quote from Mrs Alexander’s children’s hymn. Especially when we grow out of childish ideas about God.

Yesterday we were at the hospital for nearly six hours, for an investigation. There was some waiting, then an ultrasound scan, which turned out blurry. At first they suggested we come back the next day for a CT scan, as they didn’t have a slot available. Then they were able to rearrange things, and I was scanned both sides, front and back, neck to groin. After this I lay for a long time on the scanner, no sound in the room but the roaring of the machine, a bit quieter now that it wasn’t moving. I guess they were studying the scans, looking for the best spot, avoiding  blood vessels. They could see these because they’d put in a dye through a tube in my arm. It made a warm feeling spread to various parts. “Now you know what it’s like to have hot flushes,” said the nurse.Finally, a biopsy needle was inserted. A small piece of flesh was extracted and put in a little jar for analysis, so that I can go back next Wednesday, and hear the good news. Then I was wheeled to the Recovery Room to rest for a couple of hours.

I’m confident in saying “good news” because these people in Stoke Mandeville Hospital are so completely on the case, so dedicated, kind, caring & professional, that I put myself in their hands without reservation. Some of those hours were boring, others uncomfortable. Yet I refuse to call the visit merely an investigation. It was positively therapeutic. Trying monitoredto grasp afterwards what could have happened, how boosted I felt, I momentarily wondered if that dreaded biopsy needle, which I never saw and barely felt, could have unwittingly performed acupuncture on some vital meridian, & triggered a cure. Who knows? But I don’t believe that, same as I don’t believe that the curtain which gave us privacy in the recovery room had magic qualities of its own. 

Or do I? In a way, it was magic, because it had a design showing the undulating Chiltern Hills, amongst which we live. Dotted around this landscape were places of interest that we know and love, such as the Guildhall, whose cupola supports the weathervane on which my Centaur avatar rides. Next to it was the Falcon pub, unrecognized at first because I saw the pattern back to front. And there was the Church of St Lawrence with its Golden Ball—even the Mosque with its dome and minaret, a few yards from our house. Nurse said I must lie on my back & not move. So I gazed at the curtain, which conveyed to me that I was not far from home. In fact, it was home, in a kind of extended sense.

The curtain was constantly being moved, whether for someone to peep through, or close tight, or adjust, or brush past as they walked the narrow space behind. And there were such conversations on the other side, between each nurse and her recovering patients! One was clearly Jamaican from her broad patois. She chattered and cajoled without cease and I think she could have brought a smile to the lips of a coma case. Mine was from the Philippines: quiet and tender-hearted. I pretended lightly to disobey her, but she stood firm, and I learned the risks of haemorrhage and infection from the procedure I’d undergone. She must be obeyed. She gave out strict rules, to be applied for the next 24 hours.

How does everything fit together? Corridors, theatres, waiting areas, gyms (we saw patients in a “spinal gym”), all these people in various uniforms, moment by moment encompassing the unexpected with carefully rehearsed life-saving routines; rearranging schedules, opinions, diagnoses in real time; skilfully avoiding piercing an artery . . .  I don’t know how they do it, only that they must be in receipt of inspiration, and find themselves enfolded into a team by common endeavour. And you’d think in situations of emergency that our politicians and their voters also would know how to co-operate. Whereof I do not understand, thereof I shall not speak.

So when I go back on Wednesday, assuming the appointment isn’t shifted, I know it will be good news because I’ve entrusted this body’s welfare to them, and they’ll have looked at the angles, & worked out a plan. And all that’s demanded of me is to stay positive, and see a pattern where everything fits together, I have no idea how.

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England’s green and pleasant land

I’ve been agitated lately, it started a day or so before Polling Day. I was astonished to find how much this Referendum mattered to me. In the end I went to the favourite spot I’ve written about before (England Have My Bones) with camera & voice recorder; recalling as I went Ellie’s comment on a recent post “Referendum”:

I like it when you let your unconscious mind have its say. . . . stick(s) in my mind speaking more loudly than well-chosen words.

So I went into the fields on the evening of that fateful day, June 24th, 2016, looked across the valley, and talked. Edited transcript below.

I find something superbly English in the UK’s collective democratic decision to leave the EU. I have to say that it’s a very scary one and I don’t know whether it’s the right thing to do. I’ve heard all the dire warnings—how xenophobic, how it would ruin us, and the EU. They may be right. Now that I and the others have voted, one way or the other, it no longer matters if we were right or not. There was a lack of facts to guide us, just propaganda, one way and the other. How could there be facts, anyhow? Only the future can tell and the future’s not ours to know. The past is fact, a coherent set of facts, all of them forged from hopes and fears. Our Prime Minister gave us a democratic choice. A self-selected jury of 33 million voters delivered their majority verdict. That was the deal on offer. There’s something a little mad about the whole affair—mad, generous and eccentric. Maybe it will have ghastly consequences, as many are no doubt thinking. Everyone has been shocked, many saddened and appalled. All of us are surely scared.

I feel immensely proud to have become English, for I wasn’t born that way. Slowly England embraced me, convinced me this is the place I belong, with its wild, generous gestures. I think people misjudge others, think ill of them for having different views. Truth and reconciliation is the thing to aim for. Yet there is a perverse pleasure in being enraged by ideological differences, to use intemperate language & mental imagery. I am not exempt from it, that is how I know. But it’s a low-grade pleasure, one of the lowest. It’s so easy to hate the wrongness we see in others, the bullshit they (we) let themselves (ourselves) believe, in place of worthwhile ideas. If we don’t stop ourselves, it’s an Augean stables that fills as fast as we try to clean it out.

But—the gesture of defiance has been made, and so we have to go from where we are now. Collectively, we did it to ourselves; a familiar story in my life, I’ve done it to myself so many times: scary leaps of faith—marriages, rash commitments—and ended up here, in this, a living part of this living beauty. There is nothing to regret. The heart makes its gesture, not on some momentary whim, but from its own stored-up, hardly-understood, often denied and repressed but profound nature. Of all the hell that people create in this world, what was this referendum? A mere folly, if you will, in one of its meanings:

Folly, n.A popular name for any costly structure considered to have shown folly in the builder

Except that those who voted Leave wanted to escape by any means possible from what they saw as a folly, one they’d never signed up to and whose main rationale for Remaining would be the risks and costs of escaping.

Here I am in Saunderton Lee, just wandering around, not another soul in sight in this much-loved part of the countryside, adored by me and available to be adored by everyone. No one can guarantee it won’t be defaced or destroyed— so be it, change is the one certainty—but meanwhile it is worthy of being kept as it is.

The big thing I see now is that the politicians will have to serve the people. They will have to take up this thing. They will have to see the bigger picture. How can we make this thing work? It’s like a war. We have declared a bloodless war on ourselves. It doesn’t need to hurt any of us, merely engender a spirit of togetherness, of the kind that our nation spontaneously felt in ’14-’18 and ’39-’45. A war with no enemy—a natural disaster, if you will. The aim is to save our country, the place that we love. Our votes were expressions of hope, fear, resentment, self-interest, whatever moved us. I cannot speak for others. I can’t analyse my own motivation, only that I voted with my whole self, and never for a moment contemplated putting the X in a different box. For a day or so I considered abstaining, stepping back from the conviction I felt. But I couldn’t do that. When you feel something deep in your heart and do nothing about it, you harbour a poison in the system. A black cloud obscures the sunshine of your joy.

The worst thing you could do, in the absence of simple joy, is to substitute something inferior, to force yourself to be satisfied with pursuing that: money, jobs, ideals, the solution of petty problems that our grandparents never had the luxury of griping about. The worst thing is to harbour a nameless discontent and take daily doses to numb the pain.


St Botolph’s Church & Bradenham Manor, where in 1967 I attended a computer course, & Queen Elizabeth stayed in 1566

I cannot see anyone else from where I am standing in this beautiful place, only trains speeding through the valley, the busy rush of economic activity. It surprises me how empty the landscape is, yet perfectly manicured, the meadows planted or left fallow, the hedgerows regularly trimmed, trees planted, footpaths well-trodden, stiles kept in good repair. And since I was here about ten days ago, ears of barley have grown where you could only see tall stems and leaves before, and not be sure what crop it was. Here you see the works of man and nature, so strong together, constantly regenerating; not laid out by any designer, but the creation of centuries of anonymous husbandry. This valley speaks louder in mute testimony than the old gothic cathedrals which took a century to build.

The future generates itself. The unknown hardens into facts, facts into immutable history. We have to move forward. What makes the present worthwhile in itself is not the pursuit of any distant fugitive goal. The true fulfilment can only happen now. It’s here, I feel it—don’t know what to call it, not sure if it even has a name. Nor do I want to give it a name. Whatever is named can be cheapened.

So I find myself here, on June 24th, 2016, at ten past seven in the evening, looking across this little valley, watching the trains go past, some of them from London to Birmingham, some of them on shorter runs, stopping at villages. I reflect that I live in a beautiful country that has taken a step, right or wrong, foolhardy or guided by a mysterious principle that we may not understand, just as this Earth has been guided somehow, to get all the way here from its Big Bang when the laws of physics first unfolded. It couldn’t have been completely random, can’t believe that. And if it was completely random, then how can we criticize randomness? Look how fruitful it has turned out. And imperfect.

There is beauty, and there is horror, destruction, hate, cruelty, murder, which we don’t know how to contain or neutralise: either actual and violent, or latent and insidious. The people who have voted to leave the EU are mainly the English, by which I don’t mean white people, or those who can trace their native roots on our island. You can become English, as I have done and my beloved has done after arriving later in life from Jamaica. There’s a process. I imagine those who most appreciate being English are the ones who don’t take it for granted; they’ve been somewhere else first, great effort was made to get here. Tourists and other temporary visitors like to come because we are generous and welcoming. I mean no slight to anyone else. It is a fine and precious thing to be proud of your native or adopted place on earth. This island became what it is from immigration.

At this moment, on this day, we need some confidence, and to be in harmony with the forces of love, perhaps through prayer, whatever people do that works, the contemplation of beauty.

Freedom comes at a price. We have not had to fight a war of independence or a bloody revolution. This deed was done gently, with a stub of pencil tied on a string, uncertainly, fearfully, no sense of triumph. I don’t know which was the “right” box, only that a new fact has come into existence. Our Government trusted us, we trusted ourselves to do what we felt in our hearts and not what we were told to do.

As for those who advised us, with their campaigns, leaflets and speeches, they were just as passionate, even where the passion came from narrow or short-term self-interest.

Now there is a need for goodwill, and for people to feel blessed. The only way I know is to live in harmony with the cycles of existence: sunrise and set, the growth and decay of everything, the pattern of our own lives from birth to death. As for survival, we’ve been through world wars: this thing done in peace with blunt pencils requires much less of a sacrifice from us, to go forward and do the right thing by everyone. Now we need a sense of solidarity, not just within England but our neighbour north of the Border (Scotland) and across the English Channel. We stand or fall together. We all must make it work, whatever “it” is.

If England is stripped of its union with Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as its long quarrelsome marriage with the European Union, so be it, for England is a finer name than “UK”.

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

Many Are the Ways

It’s been a busy few weeks, and a kind of milestone. K’s retirement after 42 years’ continuous employment has been finalized; and we’ve had a new kitchen installed. These two events seem to have balanced the scales of Destiny. For on the one hand, we’re no longer tethered to this unique spot on the globe’s surface. Theoretically, we could go anywhere. On the other hand, we’ve committed ourselves to staying put. Putting in a new kitchen, especially when you live in a small cottage, is a bit like moving home. It lingers in the mind as a warning, a kind of vaccination against the full-blown infection. We actually did move out for the first week of the work—rented a holiday cottage six miles away. When we got back, it was a pas de trois, a dance-for-three, instead of our accustomed pas de deux routines, where our physical steps have always needed to be choreographed to avoid collision at the various bottlenecks—the kitchen being the principal one (it being also the passage to the washing-machine, bathroom and backyard). Our fitter had his own key, and even when not there had to leave boxes of tools, plus a redundant piece of worktop so long that we couldn’t close any of the ground-floor doors. Consequently, the dust from sawing down a piece of wall got everywhere. But then, Andrew is such a pleasant fellow that we endured it without trauma, even when the agreed plans for space, time, dimensions, intelligent design vs. evolution were knocked sideways by life. “It’s all good,” as he remarked from time to time, and we didn’t disagree. (Note to self: consider It’s All Good as title of a memoir.)

So I woke early the other morning, when we were back to the ballet of pas de deux, with the new stage scenery in situ, wanting little more than tidying and a lick of paint, which can be done at my pace and indefinitely-extending time. I knew I must write. It’s the only way to find out what’s happening within me. It’s a ritual that has established itself over the last ten years, not to be lightly waived. Writing has been a tool towards clarity of thought. I scribbled my ideas, but they stayed earthbound. I felt the call to wayfaring.

I went to Wickes and bought a tin of paint. It was a sunny morning, the kind that summons me to exercise on Nature’s own treadmill. So I left the paint in the car and wandered where the fancy led, to Gomm Valley, talking to my voice recorder as I followed the route marked up in white below. Little Gomm Wood, in the photo above, is at the northernmost point of my walk, where I turned west.

Here is the edited transcript.

——-

It seems clear that if one is on a path to seek wholeness, to know oneself, and bring forth that in oneself which desires to be born, thinking plays a vital part. The thing-that-happens-within-me, which lies beyond thought, says wordlessly that thinking doesn’t define me. Thinking is an attribute, a capability which I develop; and I improve that skill through use of language. Thinking is a component within a wholeness I call me. And what is “me”?—the only member of my species that I can know from the inside. This knowing-from-the-inside keeps me separate from the others, for my knowing is different from theirs. And yet I can feel one with them. Personal can merge with universal. This species can recognize its oneness with all species, and all creation.

I know the world through feelings, sensations and thoughts. How did I come to possess these wonderful faculties? Only because they have evolved as useful, that is to say vital to the development and survival of my species. Slugs, it is safe to say, have developed and survived on a simpler set of faculties—but are equally dependent upon them. I can use my faculties not just to interact with the world and survive, but also to know myself: both as that-which-I know-from-inside and as just another part of the world. When I observe myself in the world, as one of its moving parts and a component in its whole, I like to think of myself as free. But in truth I am a sophisticated slug. My feelings, sensations and thoughts are like its eyes and feelers, waving about on their stalks, or retracting in expectation of danger. I spend my time pursuing an agenda, or reacting. Sometimes I walk under the sky without an agenda. I simply act. I simply am, as a moving part of the landscape, observing, running on primal instinct. And yet I can speak, I can still use language.

At this time in my life I—this mysterious I—am able to feel myself as I am, inhabiting this body and no other; for I remain bound to it, no matter what thoughts abstract me from it momentarily or for hours at a time. As an “I”, that is to say a conscious human being, I cannot escape being possessed by emotions when they arise in my body, summoned by self-generated chemicals, given colour and shape by imagination. But when these are stilled, and I’m not reacting like a hunted beast, I perceive within me something that feels like an extra dimension, you could call it depth, that seems to resist description in language.

In these writings over the last ten years I’ve demurred at using the word “spiritual”; refused to talk of a “spiritual path” for its implication that there could be any other kind of path through life. “Spiritual” stood in opposition to material, material, physical, sensual, intellectual, bodily and mundane. Spiritual claimed an existence beyond science’s reach. It supported itself on a cloud of belief, whether traditional or New Age. I could not use this word, for I had discovered a wholeness which refused these distinctions. And in this wholeness there was, and is, an ecstasy.

Thus my language was unable to keep pace with experience. Nor was I able to borrow the language of others wherever it relied upon beliefs and practices contrary to my developing sense of wholeness—in which nothing need be rejected, nothing was my enemy. And so I have felt, and feel, that what I am trying to say is everywhere and in everyone. But since it is hard to express, people borrow the expressions, beliefs and practices of established traditions. I conclude that many are the ways to find what I find by certain means peculiar to my own trajectory in life. Indeed, for much of my life these particular means were closed to me, and I sought this dimension of depth by going in entirely the opposite direction to the one I go now.

——-

It’s Friday as I write, and on this little street streams of worshippers come from every direction for communal prayers. Some come five times a day, even long before daybreak, to our mosque, a stone’s throw from where I am sitting now. I sense that for some of them, this is the means whereby they find that depth or that dimension, that I find in my way. I looked up Moslem Prayer, but it merely lays out a set of rules for the visible parts of the ritual. Not a word about anything else. One would have to look further, to a poet, Kabir perhaps, in this or another ninety-nine of his poems (click here to view them):

[XC]
To whom shall I go to learn about my Beloved?
Kabir says : “As you may never find the forest if you ignore the tree, so He may never be found in abstractions.”

Many indeed are the ways, and we may join others in our pilgrimage, but in the end, each has his own path to find.

In the Middle of Nowhere

my horizon

On a perfect day I felt it was time to give my musings some fresh air. So I went wayfaring, to places just over the horizon seen from my study window. Walk a mile and you reach two villages, separated by common land. It’s an easy stroll or horseback ride from one to the other, or these days by bicycle. I’m pleased that there is still no straightforward route from one to the other by car; pleased that such twenty-first century pressures have been resisted. There is only a web of footpaths, bridleways and short lengths of rough track. Yet amongst the woods and open land you will find houses, small businesses and a pub, the De Spencer Arms. The area is a little Utopia (which means nowhere) and an anachronism in modern England. The first of the villages, Downley, is holding a Festival, the visible signs of which are extraordinary scarecrows, dotted here and there above garden hedges and so forth. I imagine it’s a local competition, but looking through allegorical spectacles I wonder what crows they are aiming to scare. I like to think it is the encroachment of the 21st century on their—I mean our, everyone’s precious common land.

Ever since my last post, I’ve had Meister Eckhart on my mind; he who was bound by the rules of his Catholic order and the state of 13th century European civilization, and yet cut through them cleanly, just escaping being tagged a heretic. He also cut through all the Popish & theological encumbrances of the time to reach a timeless essence, wherein lies freedom and an ecstatic way of being. Most of his writings are in the form of sermons, challenging but exciting. Click here to download a pdf copy. Then as now, you would have had to decide whether the price was worth paying for the great adventure that his words inspire. Not everyone could follow. Can I? It is probably easier today, for more people, to achieve the kind of detachment he advocates, to discover deep within ourselves that great connecting principle which unites the whole of creation, which he orthodoxly calls God. (I believe that the path and goal he delineates is identical to those pointed to by the god-free discipline known as Zen. For while there may be innumerable contradictory notions dreamed up by our fecund minds, when you approach the essence, you reach a dimensionless point where truth must surely be singular.)

I passed this pub in the middle of the common

I’m in no position to add further preaching to that of Meister Eckhart OP, that most eminent member of the Dominican Order of Preachers. But I carried him in my mind, through Downley and Naphill. In that web of footpaths it is easy to have no agenda—that’s my modern expression for “detachment”. No desire, no regret, no guilt, no indebtedness, no resentment, no fear. I am not pure in these matters, but the shortfall gives me no care or anxiety. It is enough to feel blessed and give thanks for one’s life, one’s work in progress.

part of Naphill Common

I pass a parked not-very-modern tractor with attachments for digging and bulldozing, painted in brown livery and emblazoned “Downley Common Preservation Society”. I note the absence of licence plates, reflecting its domicile in these hallowed Commons, which lack public roads. In this spot, I’m surrounded by paddocks, orchards, the sound of cocks crowing, dilapidated sheds, aromas of horse-dung and creosote. I reach the end of this short drivable length of rough track, almost blocked by a small horsebox, parked with a wheel-lock, and continue on a narrower path through the woods.

narrow path through the wilderness . . .

I haven’t consciously renounced anything. Advancing age achieves that for you naturally. Knowing what to expect in the future, you embrace gladly that which still remains. I was given a few months’ work to do at home. After some research I worked out I could do it with the aid of Microsoft Visual Studio 2013. I visualized clearly how to proceed, saw the end result in my mind’s eye. But—as I ruefully wrote to my client—“I felt like a passenger trying to take over the controls in an airliner cockpit, after the sudden death of the pilot. One hopes to learn by repetition but I could never manage to retrace my own footsteps. The screen never looked the same twice. It must be a combination of age and never having had enough aptitude even when young.” Realizations like this are salutary and bracing, healthier for the soul than ambition.

. . . then suddenly a manicured lawn

As I proceed from Downley to Naphill, aromas from verdure warmed in the sun evoke memories of long summers between ’48 and ’54, boarding at a small prep school in rural Sussex. I was already then what I am now, drawn to reading, day-dreaming, aloof wanderings in the countryside. I rediscover that child. I accept being the result of that combination of nature and nurture, or whatever it is that shakes the dice on our behalf, deals out our particular hand from the deck of cards. You play with what you’re given. Now, what shall I do with the time I’ve saved by not taking on that project?

Visual Studio 2013 is a fine and versatile toolbox, but then so are the words and grammar of the English language, wherein each sentence can be a handcrafted original; each paragraph an intricate construction, potentially capable of conveying “What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest”. I am content to return to the same topics, year after year, till I’ve managed to say the thing I feel, and point to the thing which cannot be said. Dipping into Eckhart, I see how useful is the word “God”, so long as it’s trimmed of unworthy usages, dogmas and assertions we don’t actually know from experience. If there is to be religion, if it is not to be trampled by ignorance and extremism, let it at least remain a shelter and refuge wherein a person may stay safe, and find God, and others of like mind. Ditch the rest by all means, and I’ll be grateful, but not that.

I was just wondering whether Downley Common merges into Naphill Common, and if so where, when a display hove into view, with a map and accompanying text.

click to enlarge

“Near this point Naphill and Downley Commons run into one another and both reward exploration. While much of Downley Common is still grassland with shrubs and heathland flowers, Naphill Common has an abundance of ancient trees, glades and ponds, the mysterious ‘Clumps’, a Romano-British farmstead and many historic banks and ditches interlaced by a network of footpaths and bridleways.

“These Commons are ancient. Queen Elizabeth I crossed them in 1566 on her way to Hughenden. Drovers grazed and watered their stock on their way from the West to London. Pits show where clay has been dug for brick-making. There are 18th and 19th century sawpits. There are tank tracks from World War II.”

In short, the Commons, like all of creation, are a palimpsest repeatedly inscribed by time. I pay homage to those who acknowledge and preserve such marks from the past, as a minor dissent from the tyranny of consumerism that makes modern life such a strenuous race, merely to stand still.

Maid Marian & friend go . . .
. . . to see the Merry Men

I came back in the early evening to take some photos, and found that the local youth were congregating there, boys and girls with bicycles and dogs. A small fire was lit, and the greenwoods rang with barking and merry laughter as in the mythical Sherwood Forest. To those who labour to preserve these commons, Robin of Loxley wasn’t so long ago, just a few centuries before Good Queen Bess.

The best moment for me that day is hard to describe: a moment when I didn’t know where I was. When you don’t take a map along, and there’s nowhere else you have to be, that is Utopia, the middle of nowhere. And it’s good enough. More than. Your presence turns “Nowhere” into somewhere, because you are truly “someone” when you are mainly occupied just being.


I saw some notable entries in the Downley Common Preservation Society’s annual Scarecrow Contest:

scarecrow couple
sc2
gardening scarecrow, or tutelary goddess
cricket & tennis scarecrow
Neighbourhood Watch scarecrow

The Charabanc of Trippers

I didn’t explain what happened to the book Wayfaring, which was briefly published under Creative Commons in pdf, before being withdrawn from free distribution. I feel no compulsion to give a reason, but here are two. (a) Uncertainty (b) a decision to postpone publication until other books in the series are completed. They will be of uniform length at approximately 29,000 words each. There is no intention to combine them in a single edition. It might be publisher- or printing-cost-friendly, but wouldn’t be in the reader’s best interests. They are written to be read slowly.

On 18th April, whilst the project was still going ahead, I drafted a post about progress, now overtaken by events & completely superseded. Instead, I published the post titled “32 Answers”. But now, after offering a peek to a keen reader, & receiving a favourable review, I’ve decided to publish it here, regardless. It’s called

The Charabanc of Trippers

I saw this in town yesterday, parked in front of the theatre, decorated all over with scenes from the local countryside, and it reminded me of a word I often heard in the seaside town where my grandparents lived: charabanc, already an obsolete term strictly speaking but used disparagingly on occasion, for example, “What did I see but a charabanc of day-trippers from London, all staring into our sitting-room, bold as you please!”. It was odd to think that this town, which shall always remain nameless to frustrate search engines, is slap-bang in the middle of a designated tourist destination; the more so as it has been listed as no. 9 in a list of 10 “crappiest towns in Britain”. I think its teenagers take a perverse pride in giving it this reputation. Anyway, as an excuse for showing the picture, I thought I would say it illustrated what, in my view, wayfaring is not. For more information on what wayfaring is not, see http://walkfreebreakfree.co.uk/walks-in-the-chilterns/chilltern-walks-and-holidays/.

Valuable feedback on Wayfaring is trickling in. One correspondent writes: “As usual I hesitate to speak but I would like for the final paragraphs to have a little more impact”. My first instinct was to defend my infant production as it stood. Later I saw what a just observation my correspondent had made—understated if anything. The last chapter, “Whithersoever”, ends abruptly, on a flat note, a bubble suddenly burst, a bagpipe suddenly punctured. On certain grounds the sudden ending may have merit; but offers paltry reward for the persevering reader who makes it to the finishing-post. After much brooding I came up with the idea of an Afterword, which would reprise some highlights which I hoped the reader & I would have enjoyed together; make some wise generalizations & finish on a sublime note whilst touting for subscriptions to the next volume.

After further brooding, I realized that some of my ideas for an Afterword belonged more properly in a Foreword, which ought to be brisk & to the point. The Afterword could be composed afterwards. “Have alibi, will procrastinate” is my motto.

The integrity of Wayfaring lies in its being 100% derived from the content of this blog, with no added ingredients. Ergo, the Foreword and Afterword must appear here first, for a tryout by writer and reader: just as a tailor invites his client for a fitting, before the final stitching & pressing. So here we go: now read on.

Foreword

This little book is drawn from a collection of pieces written between August 2006 and May 2012. Its origins may be traced further back, to a note I recorded on 21st January 2006, at 1:09pm.

Walking the earth
The sun shone this morning and as I walked through town, the words came to me, “I am walking the earth.” The feeling was something like this: “man has always done this, and here I am, doing it too”. I happened to be striding through the car park of a supermarket. All will pass away, I thought, every supermarket & every car park. But since our species began, man has walked the earth, and will go on doing so till we are all extinct. Every human infant strives to learn walking; unless sad circumstances intervene, it will succeed.

It was a strangely powerful and ecstatic thought, arising from my personal situation at the time. Another person, trying to express the same feeling, might have breathed the one word, “freedom!”. Somehow the idea of walking the earth as significant in itself expanded into this book, along with other ideas, such as “I am Everyman”. Let that one, anyhow, be the excuse for writing so characteristically in the first person, as if it were “all about me”. I felt it was otherwise, as I noted on 10th July 2008: “the most personal is the most universal”. How otherwise could poetry ever be shared? The deeper we dig into experience, the more fertile the ground we find, and the more common to all.

The precision of those dates is possible because the thoughts were journalized, not merely in notebooks but electronic media—published on the Internet, where they can still be seen. “Walking the earth” was published in a forum, now neglected but still live, called destinydiscussion.com, months before I started my own blog, “A Wayfarer’s Notes”, from which the pieces in this book derive.

As a form of literature, blogging has peculiar advantages: instant publication, and a ready interaction with readers. A blog can be improvised day to day, each piece starting from scratch, addressing itself to any new reader who happens by, while mindfully cherishing regular readers, whose influence is subtle but precious. Their commenting is a delight, almost a literary form in itself, opening up discussions ranging from profound to hilariously absurd.

A newspaper column operates under pressure of deadlines and editorial policy. A blog has no such strings attached. It can go on long voyages of exploration, fancy-free, via criss-crossing paths, venturing through almost impenetrable thickets. The most intrepid reader will be daunted and handicapped by the sheer scale of verbiage, and its uneven quality.

Time for decluttering. The improvisations can be improved. The verbiage can be culled. The quality can be edited. The reader needs an anthology. Welcome to the first volume.

One more thing, before letting you move on to the first chapter. Well, two more things.

a) How does one become a wayfarer? —One starts at an early age. See chapter 2, which condenses my life up to the age of 11, into 3 pages which address this question in detail.

b) What is “wayfaring”? What does the author mean by it? —The reader will decide, but I could suggest many definitions. Here’s one, suggesting it is a way of seeing, taken from chapter 5, “beginnings”:

What struck me was not the beauty of anything in particular but a perfection inherent in the moment: or perhaps an embrace between subject and object, man and scene.

There is more to say on the subject, best covered in the Afterword.

(followed by chapter 1)

Cover story

John

Brian Spaeth’s been helping me design a front cover for Wayfaring. His style tends to be low-res—or even ultra low-res. I respect that, but I wanted a picture you could enter, so as to walk the paths it depicts, and see every detail. Up till June 2005, I could only gaze at enticing landscapes, and imagine wayfaring amongst them. Then, at a stroke I was cured from a decades-long illness: “with one mighty bound, Dick was free” (parody of the radio series Dick Barton, Special Agent, that I recall hearing in 1947). And so, if you click on the picture above, and then again to enlarge it, you can enter that scene, in thought. But I can do it in real life now, and the picture gave me a yearning to go there again.

With this in mind K & I returned to the scene on Easter Monday, following the route I’d taken eight years before, as recorded here in two posts: “Country Walk” and “Dwelling in one’s tribe”. I meant to take photos but had forgotten to charge the camera’s batteries. It didn’t matter; in fact the tourist who’s constantly thinking of good shots holds his excursion at arm’s length, missing the opportunity for total immersion, that ineffable re-baptism into life on earth that’s constantly there for us, if we know how to plunge. So I looked for a break in the clouds to go back on my own, while K was at work a couple of days later, to take the shots anyway. This is the story of that visit.


I started from the top of the hill where St Lawrence’s Church stands. The golden ball atop its tower can be seen from miles around.


This is part of the view from that hill.


I’d brought along my pocket recorder as usual. I’d been capturing birdsong and other ambient sounds as I walked. Halfway through Hearton Wood, you take a path to the left, which after a while disappears beneath the trees. When this mysterious entrance came in view, I felt inspired to record these words: “Fabulous (mythical) places can also be real. The real can also be fabulous (wondrous).” It was the best I could do to capture the moment’s feeling.


As you get closer you see the arrows painted on the trunks to guide the wayfarer—the pilgrim, I’d like to say—and stop him straying from the path.


Then you go down some steps to a little gate which opens on to the narrow green valley shown in my cover picture.


Then you come to an inscribed bench which marks the spot more or less where my cover photo was taken, in 2008


You walk down a bit. When you look to the left you can see the church tower again, up on the hill.


When you reach this gate, you are walking within the cover picture, so to speak. . . .


. . . which, allowing for the difference in season, looks the same as eight years ago.

I’ve marked a circle round a stile near the middle of the photo.

That’s where I met a man, and we got talking, about how it was a good day to walk, and so on. He expressed a wish to send me his writings. Neither of us had a pencil to write the other’s address, so he invited me to his house—a short walk away— and got his wife to make coffee whilst he went rummaging upstairs to gather some typed photocopies, perhaps thirty pages in all. He gave me permission to show them to others. I’d like to share one of his pieces with you. It’s headed “To Walk”. I haven’t changed or omitted a word of his manuscript. It describes more beautifully, and in more precise detail than I would, the walk along the very paths for which I’d returned to retrace my steps after eight years.

To walk is to know a freedom when you can choose your own pace, stop and view whatever interests you.

For medicinal and pleasure purposes, I take this walk three times a week. The footpath sign for it is eight minutes from my home. As you pass the sign, the muddy footpath goes alongside and behind Arch-Sheil Farm. Already the traffic is being left behind.

An eerie, weird, almost human whistle-like sound is heard, changing sometimes to a wavering different note.

The flying feathered forms are climbing, swooping, diving, almost hovering. The Red Kites forever circling, hunting for their carrion, while the sun casts their intriguing shadows onto the earth. Their presence, colour and activity make quite an addition to the rural scene.

Continuing upward on the path, I have a hedge either side of me. I hear faint noises and rustling sounds and through holes in the hedge seven pheasants appear. They hesitate for a moment and then scurry away in a flurry of feathered and honking panic.

I walk on until I am on the level top of the hill, either side of the path are large fields with the green of the corn showing three to four inches. In this higher position you are aware of more air movement.

The footpath has another user; the Drag Hunt, the horses and members were on it three days ago, but left it after forty yards.

The path goes slightly downhill for twenty yards where it becomes stony and my boots slide noisily on them. At the wood entrance I step up eight strides onto a bank. In the wood there is a sudden feeling of quietness, perhaps its being combined with the towering trees. Between the carpet of brown leaves, the bluebells’ three or four inches of green growth are appearing.

Recent strong winds have brought down some boughs; three lie at intervals across the path. Another tree has two half-fallen split boughs at a dangerous suspended angle. Fourteen yards away a pheasant makes me glance at it. Instantly above me, clatter, clatter, bang, bang, wings flapping, some pigeons, squawking angrily, noisily, fly off at my intrusion under their tree. Stronger sun is now filtered by the trees, giving a hide and seek to my eyes.

I walk the last thirty yards of the path and then I come out of the wood. My first glance is to the left, where I see the church on the hill opposite me and we seem to be on the same level. The church rather dominates the whole area.

Walking downwards and on a straight path now, the house and park grounds give a spaciously comfortable picture. The cricket ground, traditional and so in keeping, the busy garden centre and village school, the tall trees on the corner hide the village. I have thirty yards left to walk before the footpath ends at the road, which is busy now.

I feel most fortunate that I live in this area and can appreciate all Nature’s gifts that she most generously shares with us all.

JOHN WENTWORTH
MARCH 2007

At the stile on Wednesday we met as strangers. But he mentioned one thing: that he had worked for seven years as a cleaner at a local railway station, and it was the best job of his career.

That’s the moment I realized he was the man I’d met before, on the same path, eight years earlier.

And I’d written about the encounter, here, and referred to an uncanny sense of kinship, for which I had no explanation, so I’d concocted one, that it was some kind of tribal recognition.


Here’s John, at the stile.

How to account for the coincidence of this second meeting? It’s as if we were . . . I’ll let you complete the sentence, in the light of your own beliefs about occurrences such as these. It’s by no means the first that I’ve reported on this blog, with circumstantial and photographic evidence. Were the angels acting for me, or for John? He has entrusted his writings to me, to pass around as I see fit. He has no access to the Internet. His works are signed and dated.

Fabulous places can be real. The real can also be fabulous.


See 14th comment below.

Whithersoever

I went on a small journey in preparation for a bigger one. On Monday I fly out to Amsterdam, so this little trip to Loudwater was to change some pounds to euros at a bureau de change. I set off in walking boots, they’re best for my swollen toe-joint. I might have gone on foot via the Valley Path, but when I passed the bus station there was one leaving for Flackwell Heath, so I gladly leapt on. The warm embrace of a bus, its judder and roar, transports me to the Forties and Fifties of childhood, for in essence diesel buses have not changed, a surviving technology like fountain pens and notebooks. I used all three at once, for there I was scribbling away amongst the peaceful chattering of fellow-passengers, whose cadences hadn’t changed either in the last sixty years. One one side were two white-haired ladies; on the other an attentive mother with her bright toddler. I felt ageless.

I could see the driver from where I sat, an alert young man, apparently half-Chinese, with a pleasant countenance. At the next bus stop a couple with piercings got in. She showed her concession pass; he told the driver he’d forgotten to bring his. “But we’re together,” he added, implying they held their eligibility in common. I’m sure this was against the rules but the driver waved him on, putting the principle of pleasantness before profit. He was sure of himself, his skilful control of the vehicle, his responsibility for everyone’s safety. Thus I surprised myself: seeing as it were through a bus-driver’s eyes.

The toddler had been chattering to his mother, pointing things out right and left, but the motion and noise of the bus put him soon in a doze, and he slumped forward, his little head threatening to bump a metal side-rest. Mother stood up, put her hand in the way like a cushion. Then it was time to get off so I pushed the bell for the next stop. The mother followed, toddler on one arm, pushing buggy with the other, so I helped her lift it to the ground. I was ageless but caught myself feeling like a teenager. Flackwell Heath somehow has this effect on me, wiping out the years. I published a piece about this effect, you can find it dated March 3rd last year. (This blog sometimes acts as my journal, recording subjective states with the time and place of their occurrence.)

Once off the bus, I noted how good my boots felt, ready for a long trek, though it was only a mile to my current destination. It might be a good idea to wear them all the time in Amsterdam. I passed through a housing estate where the lilacs were all out: white, mauve and purple. I saw a couple of birds walking along the gutter, resembling young grouse, but I don’t know what they were really. It was pointless trying to take a photo, birds always flee at the sight of my camera. But soon I was through a gate and into the greenwoods, no forest but a narrow strip planted to drown the sound of cars on the motorway which cuts through these hills, like two fast rivers, with flotsam whizzing in both directions. I saw these roads with their cargo of cars through gaps in the fresh green leaves, through which they appeared bluish and blurry, their rasping roar offensive to the senses as a giant open sewer would be, but with sound rather than stink. I shuddered instinctively at what mankind has done, mankind meaning me of course, despite my detachment in that moment. Some things are necessary though offensive. I suffered this momentary twinge of distaste as anyone unaccustomed would suffer, seeing a production-line of animals on their way to slaughter. The whisperings of those fresh green leaves, the nobility of those tall beeches, were a lullaby to the soul, distancing me so far from ordinary consciousness that I saw the commonplace reality of intercity traffic as a kind of horror.

I looked for the square tunnel under the motorway, built for walkers on the line of a centuries-old footpath, but missed it. Instead I found a magnificent stairway built into the side of the hill from railway sleepers, with a proper handrail, from which I could descend under the motorway where it bridges some local roads. I had to cross one of these: the traffic was busy both ways, but I was in no hurry, looking to right and left, waiting for the moment when I could saunter across at my own pace. I’d never known traffic like this in the Forties and early Fifties. Behind me, though, were some houses in a country style of about 80 years old, above a steep bank, set back behind the road. I imagined their owners keeping large dogs, cooking on wood-fired cast-iron ranges, where they would dry out their boots and wet clothes. I’d never lived that way, but suddenly felt that I could have done, whatever that may mean. For I was in the kind of peaceful state where in moments I could imagine being someone else—that bus-driver, that mother, that toddler; or a house-owner I’d never met, living as I’ve never lived.

While I glanced to the right, still waiting to cross the road, my eye glimpsed a single hair, outside the frame of my glasses, quite blurred. I thus unexpectedly caught sight of me, at least a part of me big enough to carry my DNA, the blueprint of this body. DNA is a special thing. It encapsulates your uniqueness but also your membership of a species. From imagining myself to be someone else, I entered a different dimension, one of agelessness, where time, space and individuality were just constructs. Here was a human being, the thing I call “me”, but my consciousness had escaped it to become an observer, feeling a vast respect for that thing, and its membership of something vaster than itself. The experience lasted half a second at most, so I obviously didn’t think all these thoughts at the time. I probably had no time to think anything beyond “That’s my hair”, but I’m trying to convey that which had no words, for it was a very specific feeling. And the reason I’m writing this piece at all is for the sake of that feeling, to preserve it as a kind of reference point in life.

This sense of individuality we normally possess is a practical necessity like that roaring motorway. It’s certainly not an illusion, but all the same it’s a kind of screen or curtain, hiding whatever lies behind. Sometimes, in a special case, we can see through a chink, and try to comprehend something bigger.

I wasn’t awestruck or anything. I crossed the road safely, thanks to that necessary instinct of looking after oneself. Above me was the motorway, a fine piece of civil engineering, a Leviathan in concrete. Then I caught sight of a cheeky graffito, carefully constructed in mosaic tiles. I looked for others, but it was a lone star.

Someone had taken the trouble to design a smiley star from mosaic tiles, and glue it to a pillar, for a reason, knowing that others would come along, and wonder what it was, and why. As I did. Maybe I found out too, from research on the Web I undertook later, but that’s neither here nor there.

How little we know: whence we came, whither we’re going. Whithersoever, we’re on our way. It’s nice sometimes to take a holiday from being yourself, and catch infinity in a moment.

Seeing from a height

What do you do with the rest of your life when in early adulthood you are admitted to a vision of universal oneness, in which what seems like God’s love is poured down and you can sensuously swim in it?

Paul Maurice Martin wrote notes: diary entries to be expanded later. He went on to study theology and be a schoolteacher, giving extra coaching to those who needed it, outside the normal hours. He would get up hours before dawn, sacrificing sleep in order to write. The result, many years later, is a magnificent book: Original Faith.

Whilst waiting for publication, he started a blog of the same name and gathered a number of readers to discuss spiritual topics of his choosing. I was one of them, a rather argumentative one at times, not sure I wanted to read his book when it finally got published, for I did not see myself as part of his target audience. But he won me over, and since receiving the finished work a few days ago I have been excited by its contents.

It’s not the done thing to write a review when you are only half-way through. So let’s not call this a review. It’s just another blog post, in which I record whatever I feel like. So I have to say that even after reaching page 105, the book still grips me like a “page-turner” novel. What next? I can’t imagine. In the genre of spiritual self-help books, which I have been mentioning here lately, Original Faith stands out from the throng. It certainly needs to, because it’s a member of a populous genre, mostly of little value because lacking originality. They don’t stick to personal experience. Their authors, moreover, imagine that they can tell a reader how to attain fulfilment.

I find Paul’s book to be written with a fresh honesty and originality that makes it a rare pleasure, whether to embrace the words in long-lost recognition of truths not previously articulated, or find something to pick on and challenge. Or simply to admire and absorb the poetry, often in exquisite verse, of his vision.

He writes beautifully about love. He is convincingly confident that what he has experienced can be the common possession of everyone. As a common reader I was lifted up by his vision. I had expected him to write from a religious background, with lots of biblical references, say, or taking some aspect of Christianity as his starting point. No. He is lyrical and flowing about his memories of cycling and jogging in communion with Nature, and the visions and dreams that became the basis of his inspiration. His inspiration, literally: I feel that in addition to the mystical encounters visited upon him, whose memories guide his thoughts, a clear, sure voice seems to speak through his words. I’m so convinced by the authenticity of his source that the other times stand out in contrast, when it seems to be just Paul, enunciating his personal theory, which doesn’t agree with my personal theory. Never mind that: something to take up at another time, another place. I mention the contentious side only to emphasize the sense of authoritative truth (experiential and not scripture-based) that comes from the rest.

The book is brilliant on despair and hope. For this alone it deserves wide popularity, perhaps immortality. In one reminiscence, he is suddenly transported by an experience in an old cemetery.

… a level of despair I had not previously known. I feel as if I could lie there forever, literally never bothering to get up again. Every muscle is lax and unwilling to move. Why bother? seems written across my soul, or in the place my soul had been.

Then something happens—I won’t attempt to paraphrase his account—and he is transformed.

It is hope as outroar—directed to the whole graying sky over that little graveyard, rooted from the floor of who I am and widening to include the whole overarching universe. I seem all at once to become hope for the world called into flight by love for the world.

Paul’s blog is here, and the book can be ordered here. To reiterate, this isn’t a book review. I’ve only read half of it to date and it’s too important to rush through.

—-
The picture is taken from one of my recent walks (see Blazing a Trail). I believe it is a platform from which to shoot pheasants. But I climbed up and sat there for a while, imagining myself some old-time hermit or pillar-saint.

Blazing a trail

“Prisoner”, Michelangelo

In these pieces I have a consistent aim, like a would-be acrobat endlessly repeating the same manoeuvre, aiming at perfect execution, to demonstrate something to the audience, using his entire body and soul in the demonstration, so that the slightest distraction such as a thought or an itch somewhere on his skin would affect the performance. It’s not enough to complete the trick: it must be done live in front of the audience.

It doesn’t seem a good analogy. Surely in writing, you can lay a new sentence beside one written weeks ago and gone cold. You can tinker with a sentence years after the ink has gone dry. Editing, indeed, is the polish added to the marble sculpture when the main shapes have been hacked out rough and refined in the magical process of discovering them in the blind rock, that uncovering so beloved of Michelangelo.

I’ve been thinking of sculpture lately whilst remodelling the wheel-arches of my “Gift-horse” motor-car, given by an almost-stranger who runs a repair and test workshop just down the road. When he first offered it to me for £100, “to tide you over and help you find a proper car: it should last for a month or two”, I took it for a test drive round the block, wondering if it would make it. There were serious flaws certainly, but none I’ve been unable to work on. When you have hours and days to spare, you can fix anything, and learn to apply rust-proofing and filler and metallic spray finish—I’ve had to make do with a slightly different shade, a richer gold on the existing “champagne”, so it looks like a trick of the light. Ah, but the sculpting! With clay, you can go on modelling forever. That’s what they use to design car-bodies, apparently: clay. Computers are all very well but you need to see the light on the surfaces. With sculpting in marble, you need an inner vision to direct the hand-and-eye coordination. In painting and drawing it can’t be much different: the medium isn’t infinitely forgiving. You can’t scrape, erase, start afresh indefinitely. The one thing that must be fresh and at its peak is the inspiration: that combination of energy and vision that makes you ready to tackle the impossible—in this present moment before it’s lost forever.

My computer and notebooks are littered with unfinished word-sketches. My pocket digital thing records hours of dictated thoughts captured somewhere: on a remote path overgrown with July’s profusion of plant-life, or on a well-trodden street where I get to recognise individual pieces of litter in the gutter. Those recordings languish unused because they haven’t captured the essence of the moment, which has nothing to do with the persistent pieces of litter, the rank scent of the nettles and cow-parsley in July; or my thoughts endlessly tackling the questions of Life, such as “What is consciousness?”—that melodic line always accompanied by the bass and drums of unconscious impulses.

Yes, a constant aim, not forgotten or made inconstant by the onrush of words which seem to overgrow the themic path like July undergrowth in the English countryside. We tame that scene by approaching it with a purpose. The other day in a remote valley, with no sounds but the wind in the trees, the bleating of sheep and the calls of birds, I must have lost the Public Footpath without realizing it, so I boldly followed trails which seemed to have been made by human feet, though they kept branching and I had to keep choosing the least unpromising. Perhaps they were the trails of foxes, deer and rabbits for they led me badly astray. But I followed them with precise missionary zeal, to help wear them smooth and clear for others and if I’d had a walking-stick I’d have beaten down the undergrowth on either side as a public service: Vincent the trail-blazer. Unfortunately, they led me into the corner of a wood where the nettles were up to six foot high and getting denser with each step. I had to hack my way sideways with rotten sticks which kept breaking, till I reached a wobbly barbed-wire fence, which I had to climb up and jump over without tearing my clothes. Having done so, I was in the gentle meadow which, the map told me, I could have strolled in for the last mile; though that wasn’t part of the official footpath either.

And this all rather reminds me of an unpublished “how-to” book I recently had the privilege to read: a guide for the retired person. It was slightly entertaining, but tell me this: how can anyone write a “self-help” book? Even if you have been to the destination yourself—achieved Buddhist enlightenment, or accumulated your first million dollars—how can you teach anyone else to follow in your footsteps? If they were foolish enough to try, they could be misled, like anyone who optimistically followed the fresh trail I carefully blazed the other day, which ended in that desperate bed of nettles.

But still I have the urge to delineate this constant aim, this would-be theme of my writing which is so difficult as to cripple me in writer’s block till I take solace in car repair, or get pulled irresistibly into daytime naps, a kind of narcolepsy delicious in the yielding.

All I can do is tell you the circumstance and not the essence. For example, the other day I stepped out of the house for a stroll, in a long evening where the sun had reappeared after a day of heavy rain: a symbol of joy in itself, no doubt. How would a poet describe what I felt in that moment? Should he describe the scene? This is hardly a picturesque part of town, being the poorer district, developed around 1900 with factories and workers’ cottages, nothing much changed since, except for the evidence of successive immigrant “invasions”. Its run-down littered state, with loose bricks not cemented back into place, shows that sprucing-up with middle-class money has yet to occur.

My constant aim is to try and express these moments of ecstasy. Which is impossible. I went out without the digital recorder. The only words I brought back were those which entered my head as I stepped out of the front door into the sunset: “This is the Infinite.”

Frisbee


My favourite and only sport is frisbee. No rules, no training, no special clothing. The only equipment required is a plastic disk available from any general store. It holds an hypnotic attraction for participants and spectators alike. Above all, it’s not competitive. It’s co-operative: you adjust your throw so that the other person can catch it, easy or challenging according to their need.

Coombe Hill is a magnificent place for frisbee. It has wonderful views and good grass cropped short by rabbits. Karleen took the group photo but perhaps two tins of beer had affected her sense of the vertical, which I easily corrected by rotating 4° anticlockwise. She said afterwards that I had played frisbee like a 16-year-old, which pleased me greatly since my son and daughter are 21 and 18 respectively; he looking here like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

In frisbee, three players is best, for the triangle can go in either direction, and keeps adjusting position to deal with hazards like other people, the sun in your eyes, the wind and so forth. But a magical rhythm gets going where you throw and catch in ways you never dreamed possible. Even the missed catches can be balletic, heroic or hilarious.


In my last I was unable to express what has been heavy in my heart lately. Now that I feel lighter again, I can tell you more. I tend to perceive my domestic economy as fragile though it is well above subsistence by most of the world’s standards. Like everyone whose existence is precarious, I depend on good fortune coming my way; or as I see it, angelic blessings. Lately my clumsy attempts to defend my own interests have been weakened by a sense, not so much of others’ greed, but their human frailty, personality flaws if you like.

And so it has felt as if the whole burden of the world’s imperfection has invaded my space. Others are incompetent, but so am I too in a different way. Who pays? So I am trying to be magnanimous. No more can I sit aloof on a cloud as I’ve always tried to do.


My final photo shows my headmaster in some earlier phase of his life, in which a pipe was always clamped between his teeth. He got throat cancer and I think this was a turning point. Behind the men is a tent. He’s the one in the middle, proclaiming himself by posture as cock of the roost, some time in the ’forties. When I knew him he was completely dedicated to the noble ideal of the Christian gentleman-warrior. But let him speak for himself. Here’s a quote from his only published work, Newport Grammar School:

And so this little book will offer to whosoever cares to read not only the history of an ancient and honourable school but a vision of its future. The motto of those who would achieve it is that that our Lord vouchsafed to Joshua, on whom it had fallen to lead his people to the Promised Land: “Quit you like men. Be strong. For I, thy God, am with you whithersoever thou goest.”

Maybe there will be some adventurers who will find herein a challenge to march with us. Such will find a welcome in our ranks whoever may be the leader. Omnes veniant.

Spring 2006

26th April
Spring is the most important thing happening here. I’ve been watching the progress of chestnut blossom at the back of our upstairs flat. There’s no garden, just a communal car park, then a fenced-off slope up to the railway. This young tree hangs over the fence, offering itself as a measure of the advancing season, whenever I come down to empty the kitchen bin.
I’ve never watched Spring unfold so eagerly. It mirrors my own joy. The other day I was reading a piece on Cheerfulness. Here’s an excerpt:

Cheerfulness has close links and affinities with humour. Speaking playfully, one may call cheerfulness a “younger brother” of humour: but there can be humour without cheerfulness, which is serene, good natured, and smiling. Maybe cheerfulness is joy’s younger brother? Cheerfulness opens the way to joy and promotes its manifestations. Conversely, joy includes the state of mind which is cheerfulness. (I shall refer to this later when dealing with Franciscan joy).

I don’t agree with him. My joy is something inside. It doesn’t respond to his analysis.


The piece mentioned is from Roberto Assagioli http://two.not2.org/psychosynthesis/articles/Cheerfulness.pdf I’ve edited the excerpt slightly.


I’m part of the advice industry now, that section of it which helps with “how to live your life”. Pretty lethal, eh? Wrong advice could wreck the recipient’s life or at least waste precious time. Rigorous standards are needed to curb the unconsidered foolishness of ministers of religion, therapists, coaches, gurus of all kinds.

Of course such people have to exist, by popular demand. But one should beware. Please for your own good apply these criteria and make sure your advisor shapes up.

1) Only one kind of advice should ever be given: “Be who you are”.

2) The advisor must make an honest attempt to follow up outcomes and side-effects.

3) Any advisor who says that outcomes are unmeasurable, or claims the advice harmless, or that it has always worked, is unworthy and should be forbidden to practise.

After mentally offering this advice to the entire world, I took time off and renovated this old lamp. Jan Mulder (the man who was not, as I eventually discovered, my father) brought it from Java as a present for my grandfather in about 1936, where it sat beside him in his study, begrimed with pipe smoke, for perhaps forty years. The other day I retrieved it, and put the charity lampshade on it. I’d always known this old man and his dog (?) as having one eye each. Fixing them up with binocular vision seems to be my most satisfying achievement today. If I could make and mend every day, my creative instincts might be satisfied & I’d never write, let alone preach.


I have to give a talk in a few days. Will anyone turn up? I have sent some invitations to experts in a closely-related field. Will they patronise me or try to put me down, for poking my barely-trained nose into their territory? How extempore can I dare to be? I don’t feel like planning it too much, and yet I know that between now and then I will feel so uncomfortable about it that I will have to produce some notes on paper.

Here are some of those flowers that come out in the time of tulips. Oh, what are they called? How could I forget? “Forget-me-not!”


6th May
There are various products of evolution which fascinate me endlessly – the domestic cockerel gallus gallus, the peacock, the cock pheasant, the horse chestnut, especially its blossom; the durian, that aromatic fruit from south-east Asia. There is mystery about their showy natures, their gratuitous glory.

Here the chestnut cycle unfolds daily and there is one at the back of our flat, overhanging the car park. Share with me its extraordinary beauty!


My head said I should be nervous about giving that talk, but I wasn’t at all. In the morning I went to the park and spread the picnic rug near a great swathe of now-withered daffodils. Here in the sunshine I jotted my notes. A couple of cheery grey-haired ladies came past and asked if I was “doing a Wordsworth” – writing an ode, I suppose. I told them about the imminent talk. “Shouldn’t you be in a darkened room for such a serious task?” The banter continued. All I can remember saying is that I might just give a talk on happiness.

Later in the day I realised that whilst the my script for the first part of the talk was OK, the rest was hampered by lack of adequate preparation, and there was no longer enough time. I rehearsed it with K. She agreed with my verdict. Yet my mood of lightness, gaiety, or perhaps I should say profound happiness, stayed unaffected by nervousness. I just knew it would be OK.

As indeed it was. The owner of the venue runs a café, and has an upstairs room for small meetings. She’d laid out a few  chairs and when no one showed up wasn’t bothered at all, but interested in what I had to say. chestnutSo I ditched the script and we did it interactively. You could call it an interview, with me answering her questions; or perhaps it was just a conversation.

Here is an update on chestnut blossom. The buds appear on the frond in groups of eight. The eight consist of four pairs. Within a pair, one is pink centred and the other is lemon yellow. The same miraculous phenomenon occurs regardless of the main blossom colour of the tree. I saw somewhere a tentative explanation. Apparently the colour changes when fertilisation has taken place and this tells the bees that the nectar has been taken. Can you believe such a thing?


I had another blog for a year or two, called Discoveries. I destroyed it and that felt good. This one started off being called “An Ongoing experiment”. I’ve made different rules for myself this time. I can amend any entry! So it’s a constant re-creation. It’s not a memorial. It lives and breathes, like life itself. It bows to the influence of its readers. So I don’t know where it will go.


12th May
Walked from Great Missenden to a wood where bluebells grow in the beech trees’ shade. I’m neither a photographer nor a haiku poet like Basho, who wandered through Japan in the 17th century like a nature-tourist, though he was more of a Zen mendicant pilgrim.

It wasn’t the bluebells themselves which conveyed the sense of joy that I felt in this morning’s sunshine. It was much more a gratitude for my life. And this gratitude and joy, which comes late in life, demands to be shared with those parts of creation which remain in pain and grief even on this day that’s so glorious in Buckinghamshire, England.

There is a flow. I may have trashed the New Age formulas I referred to yesterday, but whatever is true, I let it flow through me. As Douglas Adams said, all we know is, “What happens, happens”. And by the same token, what’s true is true.

As it happens, the calendar on the wall has this to say for May 2006:

“When you are alert and contemplate a flower, crystal or bird without naming it mentally, it becomes a window for you into the formless. There is an inner opening, however slight, into the realm of spirit.”

And it says this comes from Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth. I’m not endorsing Tolle. I haven’t read his book and the calendar was a gift. Like Descartes, I am trying to doubt everything, and I am not sure about “the realm of spirit”. “I feel, therefore I am” would be a good motto for where I’m at.


 

14th May

Am I the only devotee of chestnut blossom in its close-up form? My interest started in about 1992, when I observed the phenomenon in Brent Lodge Park. After that, an illness prevented me from going out and about much. Walking the earth and admiring the handiwork of its creator (so to speak) became a defiant act of imagination, as opposed to a real activity. So now, when the season and opportunity coincide, I can’t get enough of these flowers, gazing in wonder and pondering their mystery.

So let me ask. Why do adjacent blossoms have different colours? If Darwin is right, there is some evolutionary advantage. I wish I knew how to find out.

PS “Many flowers that are attractive to bees have an irregular shape that provides a landing platform. They also have flower markings that guide bees in to land on the part of the flower where it can deliver and collect pollen grains. Horse-chestnut tree flowers are cream colored with a yellow honey-guide patch on the petals. When nectar dries up, the yellow patch turns pink, becoming invisible to bees. Bees visits only the flowers that need pollination.” Thanks to Massachusetts Agriculture In The Classroom But I don’t think this is the full story, because there are at least three colours as in my illustration, and they are like this from the start. I have not seen any blossom clusters where all are yellow or all are pink.

PPS Here is a link to a UK site which provides some clues and some experiments to conduct.