Sunday, November 30, 2003

On Writing 

This last week, whiskey river has had a whole string of posts about writers and writing. Thought provoking and well worth reading in full - here are some tasters:

"...The only time I know the truth is when it reveals itself at the point of my pen..."
- Norman Mailer

“...There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real...”
- James Salter

“...When you come close to succeeding, when the words pour out of you just right, you understand that these sentences are all part of a river flowing out of your own distant, hidden ranges, and all words become the dissolving snow that feeds your bright mountain streams forever...”
- Pat Conroy

“...The writer trusts nothing he writes - it should be too reckless and alive for that, it should be beautiful and menacing and slightly out of his control. It should want to live itself somehow...”
- Joy Williams

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Wild Geese 

My thanks to Fred for introducing me to the poetry of Mary Oliver:

Wild Geese

"You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things".

- Mary Oliver

Scenes from a railway carriage window 

First heavy frost of the winter. The air is still, the sky clear and blue; ice crystals crunch gently underfoot as I walk to the station. If people still had open fires, the smoke would be rising vertically from the chimneys; instead, steam condensing from central heating boiler flues drifts slowly upwards and outwards, forming miniature clouds adjacent to each house.

On the station platform, condensation also rises in little clouds as groups of people stand chatting. There’s a profusion of hats, gloves, scarves – scarves of every conceivable colour, texture, length (mine is purple fleece). Frost nips fingers inside thin gloves. As the train pulls in, the power pickup sparks and crackles from the ice that forms on the overhead power lines.

With the sun barely yet risen, colours are transformed into pastel shades by the covering of frost; a thin layer of mist hangs over low-lying fields; a few early morning dog-walkers leave a trail of footprints across the frosty grass.

As the sun warms and clears early mistiness and thaws the frost, colours intensify in the clear air. Sky is perfectly-graded blue; cobalt at the zenith, warm turquoise at the horizon; wisps of white cirrus add contrast and depth. Images flash by, the brightness of the sun gives clarity and brilliance to the dullest of scenes: lichen covered tree trunks glow bright luminous green; tarred wood railway sleepers glisten and steam; red brick, cream stone, grey slate – a row of modern apartments painted with colours from a child’s paintbox and with the bold outlines of a child’s drawing; woods in deep shadow, just the very tops of the trees glowing gold; an unexpected shaft of light reaches in and spotlights a mossy rock outcrop hidden amongst the trees; silver birch stands proudly living up to it’s name; a canal boat – primary red, blue, green yellow, polished brass fittings gleaming though the haze that still hangs over the river.

The train stops for a while, waiting for the single track line ahead to clear. This is an unusual stretch of railway. It starts life as the main line out of Paddington to the West Country, but gets diverted by the historical attractions of Oxford and then seems to loose its way in history, meandering through towns and villages of Middle England, reaching Worcester and eventually quietly coming to rest at Great Malvern. Occasionally, the voice announcing the station names has a distinct regional accent which adds to the rural flavour of some of the place names like ’unneeboorne (Honeybourne) and Morrt’n in Marrsh (Moreton-in-Marsh).

There are a few sections like this one where the normal twin tracks have been reduced to a single line - I guess this is part of the Beeching legacy. Back in the 1960’s Dr Beeching, against much protest, inflicted dramatic surgery on Britains railways, tearing up thousands of miles of branch line track, closing perhaps hundreds of rural stations, and ending the age of steam with one giant sweep of the executioner’s axe. Such drastic surgery may have been necessary for the patient’s ongoing economic health, but it was another nail in the coffin of rural Britain. My own childhood memories start just as this age was being drawn unwillingly to a close. Already, a whole set of images were being consigned to the pages of history books; steam-drawn goods trains chuffing merrily down sleepy branch lines, through leafy cuttings, smoke billowing under stone bridges; the Station Master in his peaked cap, king of all he surveyed; glossy painted station woodwork in old colours of cream, forest green, rich brown, maroon; immaculate station flower borders; white paling fences.

Now, the few rural stations that remain are a strange mix. Some still have the old buildings but fallen into disrepair and decay. Brickwork crumbling; paintwork cracked and peeling revealing rotting timber beneath; those flowerbeds of which the Station Master was so proud untended and full of weeds; waiting rooms locked more often than not – there’s no-one to keep them clean. Then those that have become too decrepit are replaced by incongruous modern structures of steel, concrete and glass. The old railway buildings blended, were part of the countryside; they had grown together, interdependent. These new structures seem stuck on top of the landscape, a piece of modernism plucked from the urban environment and dumped here where they don’t belong, standing out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Wait though, here’s a refreshing change – an old station that’s been well kept. Glossy caramel and rust-brown paintwork; a new slate roof, and best of all the original cast iron station name sign – white raised letters against a black background with a white border. So it can be done…

What is it about the so-called romance of steam? The main line from King’s Cross to Scotland runs half a mile or so from our house. On a still evening the sound of the trains is quite clear; very, very occasionally there is the unmistakable sound of a powerful steam engine at speed – perhaps the Flying Scotsman on a vintage run. I’ll run up two flights of stairs to our loft bedroom, with child-like eagerness to catch just a glimpse of the trail of smoke as it flies along just out of view. Why does that feel so good?

Now the countryside going past is changing character, reflecting the underlying geology of the region. We’re on the edge of the Cotswolds here. Gently rolling hills, a patchwork of fields and hedgerows, and the occasional farmhouse of beautiful Cotswold limestone – colours from honey-cream through mellow biscuit to warm grey. A small village, all the houses built of local stone; here a relative mansion – grand by local standards but compact and entirely congruent with the surroundings, with many tall ornate brick chimneys; now the village church, stone tower, yew trees in the churchyard. This is classic picture-postcard rural England.

The landscape flattens, the scene broadens – we’re moving into the Vale of Evesham, the valley of the river Avon. In Moreton-in-Marsh there’s a new housing development – modern construction methods, but thankfully faced in traditional stone and built to traditional styles. I wonder if they are built that way to satisfy local planning regulations, or because they command a premium price, or because that’s what the customers want? Whichever reason, I don’t mind – I’m just thankful the character of the village hasn’t been spoiled; it still retains an identify, it isn’t just one of countless villages blighted by identical off-the-shelf dwellings, the same throughout the land, added in the major construction periods of the 1930s and 1960s. Does their modern construction make them a fake? I don’t believe so. The houses they stand beside were modern in their own time; a century from now these new houses will have weathered, blended and be just as much a part of the landscape as their predecessors.

I have a sudden flashback to a similar day perhaps 30 years ago. I’m on a train going to Cambridge, for an interview at Corpus Christi College; it’s a day much like this – bright sky, clear air, early winter sun on the landscape – and I’m making notes just like today. I’d forgotten… 30 years forgetting to write… I don’t suppose I’ve got that notebook now.

What a landscape now! Looking out of the other side of the carriage towards the sun, the colours become shades of silver and gold; the horizon is low, the landscape wide open, acres of dazzling sky, the form of the few clouds accentuated by the brightness of the light. Rolling clouds low on the horizon are like a distant mountain range – Himalayan peaks and valleys as a backdrop to rural England.

I love travelling.

Thursday, November 27, 2003


This morning, by chance, I found myself sitting in a foyer for half an hour with nothing to do, since the guy I was meeting had been delayed. The foyer had two wide-screen TV sets side by side; the sound was on, but set low and inaudible above the background noise of comings and goings. On one screen was a home makeover programme; on the other was world news, showing a violent protest – I didn’t catch where or what about; it wasn’t the detailed content that caught my attention so much as the rather bizarre juxtaposition of the two contrasting scenes.

Chalk and cheese wasn’t in it – this was molten lava and candy floss. (Cultural aside – is candy floss a peculiarly British creation? Can anyone who hasn’t visited an English fairground or seaside town picture this fluffy confection made from spun sugar? Pink cotton wool on a stick…)

A cosy “ethnic” bedroom makeover, complete with bamboo bed-head, rough timber cabinet and cushions covered in fake fur (I kid you not); this sat side by side with scenes of people engaged in passionate protest for a cause they clearly were willing to fight for, physically if necessary. I have no idea what their cause was, whether it could be said by some standard to be just; that wasn’t the point. It was seeing those two ways of being literally side by side that gave me a jolt. Banality and passion. One in Disneyland clouds, one drowning in harsh reality. Fluffiness and triviality two feet away from violence, pain, anguish. A boisterous, incessantly (and infuriatingly) grinning presenter and a grim newsreader.

I felt a jarring and rather uncomfortable contradiction – like most householders I spend time and money making my home a pleasant place in which to live (not Disneyland though); there are also global issues about which I claim to care. So which consumes most of my time? We live with contradictions like this daily. Usually though we have space and time to move convincingly between the seemingly opposing stances; somehow the separation allows us to keep them far enough apart in our minds that we can move gracefully from one to the other without them ever having to coexist. It’s a clever trick; compartmentalising our lives so that uncomfortable bedfellows never have to meet. Until you see them side by side.

Working in London, I regularly walk past people who live and sleep on the streets, making some kind of living begging. I never give them a penny; I justify it to myself on the grounds that they’d probably spend it on drugs and it’s probably their own fault they’ve ended up on the street. That might even be true, but it’s hardly a compassionate response. Even if I only stopped to talk to them, just to recognise that they exist… but I don’t.

It seems it’s possible – in the sense of mind having the capacity to manage the contradiction - to sit in the comfort camp with just a toe – maybe even a foot - in the water of caring, but I’ve noticed though that people who care deeply, who get close enough to issues to get fully engaged, often get drawn in to the exclusion of all else; no coexistence of contradictions for them. Perhaps it’s fear of being sucked in that keeps the rest of us from crossing the threshold.

Is it hypocrisy to live – or pretend to live - in both worlds?
I don’t have an answer.

I’m reminded of a story I heard from a seminar being given some years ago when Total Quality Management (TQM) was the In Thing. The presenter, earnestly espousing the concepts of all-encompassing quality, was very clearly overweight. When it came to questions at the end a voice shouted out “If you believe so much in Total Quality, why are you so fucking fat?” Not very PC perhaps, but he had a point.

Practice of Peace 

I'm grateful to Chris Corrigan for the link that led to this piece of wisdom:

"Genuine Peace will never be attained with the elimination of chaos, confusion and conflict. In fact all three are essential to the continuance of life. Without chaos, there is no open space for future possibilities. Without confusion, old ideas and ways of thinking stick around well beyond their time. And without conflict, ideas and approaches fail to reach their full potential, never having been sharpened in the intense conversation of critical assessment. Peace of the sort that brings wholeness, harmony and health to our lives only happens when chaos, confusion and conflict are included and transcended".

- Harrison Owen, creator of Open Space Technology

Wednesday, November 26, 2003


"What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?"

- Philip Larkin

Monday, November 24, 2003

Patterns and sense-making 

It’s just over 22 years since our first child was born. It was a strangely peaceful experience – a short and relatively relaxed drive to the maternity hospital on a warm summer evening, surprisingly quiet in the hospital as by chance there were few other mothers in labour there that evening, a short labour and our first son was born at 9.15pm. He seemed to catch the peace that was present then. I can still see quite clearly the look that was in his eyes as he lay in his mother’s arms, taking in his new surroundings. I was astonished at the awareness in those eyes as, for the first time, they held images of his new world. Needless to say, that peace didn’t last, but I hold that look in his eyes in my memory.

It was several years later that I was able to fit that look into the jigsaw of human perception and awareness. In the womb, he was already getting attuned to existence as a set of repeated patterns – his mother’s heartbeat; periods of activity interspersed with periods of quite; who knows what else an unborn child experiences? But rhythm and pattern are fundamental to his, and our, existence.

Then, at birth, a whole new set of patterns present themselves. Dancing patterns of many-coloured lights on his retina where previously he had known only one dimly variable shade of red; a cacophony of harsh, violent noise in his ears where before there had been only the steady beat of his mother’s heart and , muffled and distant, some other deeper, quieter sounds; an environment that suddenly and inexplicably changes form, the physical boundaries of his universe sometimes tightly constrained, sometimes vanished totally; sensations of touch all over his body. And all of these senses bursting in on his world, all at once. Is it any wonder a new-born baby cries? And yet, here he was, laying peacefully, waking to awareness of his new world.

Over the coming hours, days, weeks, months, some of these patterns of sound, light, touch and taste would have begun to repeat and the fact of that repetition would itself register in patterns forming in the cells of in his brain. Associations would begin to be made – sucking and pleasure and the visual pattern of his mother’s face as he lay at the breast and the tones of her voice and the smell of her skin. And, slowly, his world would begin to have form; out of the chaos of light and sound and smell and touch into which he had been born, his own mind began to sort all these patterns into some kind of order, and did so by generating it’s own internal patterns.

So began the process of sense-making; and throughout life and indeed throughout human history, pattern making sits at the very heart of the sense-making process. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors learned to recognise the behaviour patterns of their prey; agriculture depends on knowledge of seasonal cycles; early astronomers knew the power and influence that accrued from knowledge of the patterns of motion of the heavenly bodies. Modern science is perhaps the very pinnacle, the Magnum Opus, of pattern making, describing the very stuff of the universe in that most elegant of pattern-languages, mathematics.

Thus it is that human beings have become pattern-making machines. We can’t help it. Our ancestors lived by patterns; our brains are wired into patterns and create more patterns; it’s the only way we have to make sense of the chaos and complexity of the world that surrounds us. And it works. Mostly.

The trouble is, our brains have been wired by generation upon generation of pattern-making in such a way that it becomes difficult to distinguish the pattern from the experience that gave rise to the pattern. At one time, it was experience that was real, the pattern that was still shaky and uncertain, but every experience that matched the pattern strengthened and reinforced it and made the pattern ever more real. Every time the hunter saw a certain pattern of muscular tension; saw the neck stiffen, the head raise, the nostrils twitch; he knew his presence had been sensed and the flight of his prey would soon follow.

Before long, it is the pattern that becomes reality, and experience is called into question. The experience that runs counter to the pattern is dismissed as aberrant, atypical, a measurement anomaly. The pattern is true; it is the mismatched experience that is false. (If you doubt this, read Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" - detailed synopsis here).

It is undeniable that patterns have served humanity well. Patterns are useful inasmuch as they enable us to think about a complex and chaotic world in simple terms, and to plan and make predictions about it. But they’re not the truth. We can forget sometimes that patterns are a tool that we can choose to use to serve us, and instead we become the tool that serves the pattern.

Racism, sexism, bigotry, religious intolerance – these are all cases of pattern making gone awry. These though are the obvious ones, easy to spot for the most part – at least by those not directly involved. But if our entire perception of the world and everything in it – ourselves and everyone around us – is based on patterns, how do we distinguish pattern from experience; how do we know whether we are using the pattern or the pattern is using us?

Urban wild-er-ness 

This little piece of wisdom from Chris Corrigan is too good to be left tucked away in a comment:

"A while ago I noticed that in cities, weather is really the only piece of wilderness left. Even trees and grass are contrived in cities. Each one is surrounded by intention. The only truly random piece of wild nature that city dwellers experience is the weather.

"Pity then, that it is summarily dismissed, rather than welcomed. I have since moved to a small island in the Pacific Ocean surrounded by wildness, but while I lived in the city, I would welcome every rain shower and windstorm with gratitude that my life was not yet completely cut off from nature".

Thanks, Chris.

Later edit:
There's one other element of wild-ness that reaches cities: birds. The air they inhabit knows no boundaries, belongs to no-one, is tamed by no-one. The sound of seagulls in London, evoking images of wind-blown waves, smells of salt air and seaweed, never fails to lift my spirits.

Friday, November 21, 2003

Genius - Inspiration or Perspiration? 

I’m an avid listener to BBC Radio 3 (the BBC’s classical/serious music station). A few years ago when I was in a different job, I used to drive to work and homeward journeys would be accompanied by a daily topical music magazine programme – news and guests from the current music scene linked with short pieces of music.

On one occasion, the studio guest – I can’t remember now who it was – was talking about some research that had been carried out to try and understand the sources of musical genius. The study was based on students at the Royal Academy of Music – on the basis I guess that if you’ve got that far although you may not be a genius you’re pretty darn good - and involved analysing their backgrounds, skills, personal characteristics and any other factors the researchers imagined might have a bearing on the source of their ability. It was several years ago now and I can’t remember all of the factors they looked into, but they included things like family background – was either parent a musician, age when they started playing – did you have to be a child prodigy, intellectual capacity – did they all have IQs of 130+, physical traits such as long fingers, and so on.

The researchers found that all started with a level of basic competence – but not necessarily a high level; more of an absence of lack of competence. If you could sing in tune or play a recorder, that was about all that was necessary to start work on. Other than that, they found no common factor in any of the individual characteristics or environmental influences. But they did isolate just one element that all students seemed to have in common. No matter what their age, or when they started learning, they had all done something like 10,000 hours of practice in their lives. In round figures, that’s getting on for 3 hours a day, every single day for 10 years. And that, of the areas researched, was the only common factor.

It comes as no surprise that practice is so important, but what is perhaps unexpected – and encouraging – is that no other source of genius was found. Admittedly the research wasn’t exhaustive – they didn’t for example go as far as trying to isolate a musical genius gene – but I find it encouraging on two counts. Firstly – and this is as challenging it is encouraging – it rather nullifies the excuse of not having that particular talent or gift. Sure, they all had a basic level of competence to start with but the indicators were that anyone starting with that basic competence could, with sufficient dedication, achieve a standard sufficient to gain entry into one of the country’s top music colleges.

Secondly, it reinforces the notion that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration (or however the quote goes). 3 hours practice every day for 10 years represents a considerable commitment, and levels of determination and self-discipline well above the norm. Extrapolating the thinking a little, I believe that to gain the benefit of the practice one also has to have a clear vision of the standard one is aiming for, and to have a ruthless streak in one’s own self-evaluation against that standard. I think it’s also reasonable to suggest that to keep up with that degree of commitment requires a strong self-belief.

You might guess where this is heading. Transferring the thinking over from music to writing, it implies don’t have to be “gifted” to be a writer. A basic ability to string a few words together is all you need to begin with, then it’s a case of building on that with practice, commitment and self-discipline.

This, at any rate, is what I’ll be telling myself.

It reminds me of another quote (sorry, I can’t remember the source):
“Most people over-estimate what they can do in a week but under-estimate what they can achieve in a year”.

Thursday, November 20, 2003


Here at this place once more.

Unwilling to tread again the swamps behind;
drawn again to the barricades ahead;
still powerless to defeat them.
Fearful of the numbing worthlessness of stasis.

Purpose vacant,
Feelings barren,
Desire annulled,
Hope dispelled,
Passion cold.

I sought to connect;
I thought I saw
the shadow of your soul.
Or was it
my shadow
touching yours?
For a moment it seemed
that our shadows coalesced;
an illusion of meeting…
A sterile union.

Souls are not to be found
in symbols.

Monday, November 17, 2003

A November Day in England 

Part I

“Though our height was only 14,000 feet, wet snow was falling heavily and the climate had degenerated into a rawness similar to that of a November day in England. For the first time on the expedition we felt really chilly. Up high we had experienced occasional numbness and had narrowly escaped frostbite on two or three occasions, but though one might numb, one did not shiver. In order to experience a really unpleasant form of cold, it in unnecessary to leave Great Britain”.
– F S Smythe, “The Kanchenjunga Adventure” 1946.

London on a damp, grey November morning. I’m standing outside tucked into what little shelter from the drizzle is afforded by the building above, waiting for the company shuttle bus to another office across London, jotting down whatever comes to mind.

It had been such a promising start. The glorious red sunrise had me reaching for my camera, only to find no film in it. I should have been warned though – the early weather-watchers who coined the adage “red sky at night, shepherd’s delight; red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning” knew a thing or two. Now, mid-morning, the clouds have spread, merging together into overcast, shutting out the sun that earlier had lent them such colour; now it’s just cold, grey, damp – a typical November in London in other words.

A few hardy souls brave the chill on the open top of a London double-decker sight-seeing bus. You can get very cold sitting motionless as the damp air discovers and attacks all the weak spots of the best defences – gaps at ankles, gaps at the back of the neck, gaps between buttons, even the gaps in the weave of fabric – and works its way ever further into your bones. As Frank Smythe knew, that kind of cold defies the thermometer.

Who’d be a tourist on a November day in London?

Part II

It’s now raining steadily and the sky has darkened to the extent that it feels like dusk even though late lunchers are still clinging to the tail-end of lunch time. Headlamps of passing cars provide sufficient light noticeably to brighten the afternoon; buses pass, their interiors, although brightly lit, all but invisible behind the mist of condensation on the inside of the windows from dozens of wet, steaming coats. The novelty of such deep mid-day gloom gives the day a perverse attraction – dark grey is at least a change from mid grey.

Louis Armstrong is playing on the radio in this bus singing what a wonderful world it is. Incongruous? Strangely, it seems quite fitting. The song brings a smile to my face; I’m sitting comfortably on a warm, dry bus, with a few minutes to scribble down thoughts without any feelings of guilt that I should be doing something else. The world’s not such a bad old place.

How many times have I greeted someone on a day like this with the words “What a miserable day!” or some such. Odd, really. Or at any rate, peculiarly British. There’s no more misery (albeit no less either) than on any other day. On the worldwide misery stakes, the status quo reigns. I guess the words are meant as an expression of solidarity – recognition that I share the effect of the weather with you, whatever other differences we may have. A shared adversity in the face of a common foe. But the more I think about it, the more it seems a thoroughly perverse form of greeting. To say, cheerfully, “What a crap day”. What are people supposed to believe? The words, or some inexplicit notion of cameraderie? Am I spreading gloom or bonhomie?

I think I’d rather stop sending mixed messages in future.

Friday, November 14, 2003

The Seventh Sense 

I have a paperback book in front of me; the edges of the pages are yellow and crisp with age, and falling out of the cover in handfuls. It cost a mere 75p nearly 30 years ago, and remains one of my favourite novels. There’s a bookmark in this passage, that I’ve returned to many times, both for its depth of insight and for its wonderful writing. The extract is a little long, but well worth the read if you have a couple of minutes.

“There is a thing called knowledge of the world, which people do not have until they are middle-aged. It is something which cannot be taught to younger people, because it is not logical and does not obey laws which are constant. It has no rules. Only, in the long years which bring women to the middle of life, a sense of balance develops. You can’t teach a baby to walk by explaining the matter to her logically – she has to learn the strange poise of walking by experience. In some way like that, you cannot teach a young woman to have knowledge of the world. She has to be left to the experience of the years. And then, when she finds she is beginning to hate her used body, she suddenly finds that she can do it. She can go on living – not by principle, not by deduction, not by knowledge of good and evil, but simply by a peculiar and shifting sense of balance which defies each of these things often. She no longer hopes to live by seeking the truth – if women ever do hope this – but continues henceforth under the guidance of a seventh sense. Balance was the sixth sense, which she won when she first learned to walk, and now she has the seventh one – knowledge of the world.”

“The slow discovery of the seventh sense, by which both men and women contrive to ride the waves of a world in which there is war, adultery, compromise, fear, stultification and hypocrisy – this discovery is not a matter for triumph. The baby, perhaps, cries out triumphantly: I have balance! But the seventh sense is recognised without a cry. We only carry on with our famous knowledge of the world, riding the queer waves in a habitual, petrifying way, because we have reached a stage of deadlock in which we can think of nothing else to do.”

“And at this stage we begin to forget that there ever was a time when we lacked the seventh sense. We begin to forget, as we go stolidly balancing along, that there could have been a time when we were young bodies flaming with the impetus of life. It is hardly consoling to remember such a feeling, and so it deadens in our minds.”

“But there was a time when each of us stood naked before the world, confronting life as a serious problem with which we were intimately and passionately concerned. There was a time when it was of vital interest to us to find out whether there was a God or not. Obviously the existence or otherwise of a future life must be of the very first importance to somebody who is going to live her present one, because her manner of living it must hinge on the problem. There was a time when Free Love versus Catholic Morality was a question of as much importance to our hot bodies as if a pistol had been clapped to our heads.”

“Further back, there were times when we wondered with all our souls what the world was, what love was, what we were ourselves.”

“All these problems and feelings fade away when we get the seventh sense. Middle-aged people can balance between believing in God and breaking all the commandments, without difficulty. The seventh sense, indeed, slowly kills all the other ones, so that at last there is no trouble about the commandments. We cannot see any more, or feel, or hear about them. The bodies which we loved, the truths which we sought, the Gods whom we questioned: we are deaf and blind to them now, safely and automatically balancing along toward the inevitable grave, under the protection of our last sense. “Thank God for the aged,” sings the poet:”

“Thank God for the aged
And for age itself, and illness and the grave.
When we are old and ill, and particularly in the coffin,
It is no trouble to behave.”

“Guenever was twenty-two as she sat at her petit point and thought of Lancelot. She was not half-way to her coffin, not ill even, and she had only six senses. It is difficult to imagine her.”

“A chaos of the mind and body – a time for weeping at sunsets and at the glamour of moonlight – a confusion and profusion of beliefs and hopes, in God, in Truth, in Love and in Eternity – an ability to be transported by the beauty of physical objects – a heart to ache or swell – a joy so joyful and a sorrow so sorrowful that oceans could lie between them: then, as a counterpoise to these attractive feautures, outcrops of selfishness indecently exposed – restlessness or inability to settle down and stop bothering the middle-aged – pert argument on abstract subjects like Beauty, as if they were of any interest to the middle-aged – lack of experience as to when truth should be suppressed in deference to the middle-aged – general effervescence and nuisance and unfittingness to the set patterns of the seventh sense – these must have been some of Guenever’s characteristics at twenty-two, because they are everybody’s.”

From “The Once and Future King” by T H White

Thursday, November 13, 2003


I make no apologies – this feels like one of those good-to-be-alive days. The odd thing is, it was a crow that told me…

My cycle journey to work starts in Hertfordshire, just outside the northern edge of London. It was still misty when I left home; enough to warrant a back light on, enough to need to wipe the water droplets off my glasses at a stop for a red light. Most of the journey requires sufficient concentration that I don’t have a lot of attention left over for observing what’s around, or for my own thoughts. Past experience shows that it’s quite literally at my own peril that I let my attention wander! But just before I get to work comes perhaps the best part of the journey – across the bridge over the Regent’s canal and onto the road that encircles Regent’s Park.

The road is wide, relatively quiet, and flanked variously by London Zoo, the park itself, and some distinctly up-market accommodation. Being a Royal Park, the roads are looked after by the Crown Estates Paving Commission (I’m not sure which particular holder of the crown commissioned them to pave the estate, but they have an air of an organisation that changes little over the generations) and everything about the place is a cut above the normal. Pavements built from heavy stone flags; elegant lamp-posts; impressively black and shiny iron railings; litter bins and traffic bollards bearing a royal crest, solidly built and having an air of permanence – nothing looks modern but all is scrupulously maintained.

Cycling round the park I have a few moments relative relaxation before exiting into the tumult of London rush-hour traffic. I have more opportunity to notice things. It’s funny how something can unexpectedly catch your eye and enter awareness. So much is going on around; it’s seen, but seldom Noticed. This morning, for no particular reason, a crow caught my eye, breakfasting from a discarded Macdonald’s carton. I suppose it was the motion that caught my eye; having finished his meal he tossed the now empty red-and-yellow carton into the air to see what further scraps might be hidden. There’s something delightfully anarchic about crows – the way they strut around, head in air, fearlessly inviting all comers to take them on.

I smiled inwardly at this one as I sped past; he on the other hand ignored me utterly – I provided him no food, posed no threat; I was therefore a totally insignificant other, entirely unworthy of his attention.

Actively noticing that crow was the trigger that set off a whole series of Noticings as I circled the park – the dew sparkling in the early morning sun, glimpsed through the railings and the trees; a dog trotting purposefully amongst the trees, nose to the ground, tail held high – no doubt following some fascinating scent; a multi-hued mosaic of sycamore leaves so firmly attached to the tarmac that they appear as an impromptu piece of art, sculpted by the by the season and the wheels of passing vehicles; sunlight glinting on the crescent frontage of the Nash terraces just south of the park accentuating the precision of their curvature.

Now as I write this it’s later; the sun has gone, the day is grey and the spell is broken. But I’ll remember that crow.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003


I’m feeling rather stuck today.

Several years ago, when I was made redundant and thinking about setting up with a partner in business consultancy (ha!! fat chance!!!) we went to see several people who had done just that, to get hints, tips, advice, a flavour of what it's like to be out there on your own. One piece of advice in particular sticks in my mind: "Start where the client is". It was meant in a business context, but I reckon it applies just about anywhere involving any kind of relationship. So, with me being the client of my own process, I'll start where I am.

Frozen. Immobile. Paralysed. Unable to have an original thought or string a handful of meaningful words together. Way off centre; barely aware of anything.

One or two people have said some complimentary things about my writing, and when a couple of those are professionals it makes me think. By fluke I've discovered that writing is something I enjoy, something at which I may even have some latent skill (on a good day), but more than anything else it's something I've found I need to do.

And there's the rub, as Hamlet would say. It takes time; I'm learning and I have to work at it. Not just the words, but the ideas behind the words. I've blogged before about clarity; I really do have a problem there. A head full to bursting with notions that haven't made it into words yet. If only they would stay still long enough for me to catch them... But catching is only the start; there's essence to be teased out, garbage to be rejected, dead-ends and winding wrong turns from which to back-track, structures to be built, the whole to be wrapped and presented.

So writing takes time. I have to work at the process. Right now, I'd gladly spend all day every day just thinking and writing, but that isn't an option. I have a job to do that is purely technical, ordinary household and family matters take up most evenings and weekends (and I don't begrudge them - ordinary the tasks may be, but my family means a lot to me). The only truly free time I have is when everyone else is in bed - and by then my thought processes are running even slower.

I'm left then with a jumble of ideas waiting to be thought through, but no time, which is intensely frustrating, especially when there are a number of conversations going on at the moment which really interest me and which I'd like to contribute to.

So that's where I'm at today. Stuck. A logjam of intent.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Breaking the spell 

I was intending at some point to blog about how patterns and experience filter perception, but this from whiskey river puts it so much more poetically than I could ever manage:

"We begin life with the world presenting itself to us as it is. Someone, our parents, teachers, analysts, hypnotizes us to see the world and construe it in the right way. These others label the world, attach names and give voices to the beings and events in it, so that thereafter, we cannot read the world in any other language or hear it saying other things to us. The task is to break the hypnotic spell, so that we become undeaf, unblind and multilingual, thereby letting the world speak to us in new voices and write all its possible meanings in the new book of our existence. Be careful in your choice of hypnotists." - Sidney Jourard


It’s a quiet Sunday morning and I’m sitting in the study gazing out of the window at the light of the early morning sun on the rooftops and trees in our little corner of South East England. The sky is almost clear; just an early morning haze and a few wisps of high cloud. There’s a gentle breeze – enough movement in the tree tops to show that time hasn’t quite stood still; the world’s heart is still ticking but mostly it’s still asleep. Except for the birds of course for whom Sunday morning is just the same as any other morning.

The sunlight at this time of day has a special quality; the haze gives it softness, the golden quality of sunrise hasn’t yet been lost, but above all the low angle of the light gives the whole scene a unique feel.

I’ve often noticed this quality of low-angled light. The way the whole world faces expectantly towards the sun – there seems to be an alignment, a unity, in animate and inanimate alike; the way the longer shadows enhance three-dimensionality; the colours more saturated, the contrast heightened.

I must have seen the effect a thousand times, yet the transforming power of light never ceases to inspire.

Saturday, November 08, 2003

Another pebble... 

I have a horrible feeling this is going to come across sounding preachy, but all this talk about personas sets off so many thoughts…

One of the nice things about blogs and bloggers is their generally positive outlook. Perhaps I just have a biased view based on those blogs I select to read, but it certainly appears that bloggers take a deliberately optimistic view of life. By and large they seem to be glass-half-full people.

But trying to be consistently positive can have its risks. Yes, I’d agree it’s good to look on the bright side; and on the basis that what goes around comes around, it seems on the face of it to be good also to want to fill the blogosphere with ideas that encourage and support.

Deliberately being unequivocally positive though can mean we feel guilt about having negative thoughts and feelings and so hide them, even to the extent of becoming ashamed of them, especially if we see no evidence for others feeling that way. Yet negative feelings are just as much part of our being as positive ones; there’s no need to pretend always to be smiling.

Some days are just better than others. It’s OK to have grey days. Even black days. Try and change them by all means, but don’t feel guilty about them. Being real, being whole is about accepting every part of yourself – myself – and if we can’t accept less than positive feelings in ourselves, how can we be accepting towards others?

(Here endeth the lesson…)


Today, the patriarch of the family group initiated his first-born son deeper into the mystic rites of manhood. Further ritual secrets were revealed, passed down through the generations of the male line.

Many years earlier, in the days of his youth, the patriarch had learned these skills at the hand of his own father; now the vanguard of a new generation was ready to receive the wisdom of practical homebuilding, in preparation for the time soon to come when he too would venture forth into the world seeking fame , fortune, and a roof over his head.

In short, I taught the lad how to hang wallpaper.

(And a fine job he made of it too).

(And before the howls of protest at my non-PC post flood in, yes, I know women hang wallpaper as well - my wife does, for one - I was just taking a bit of artisitic (?!) license).

Playing the piano... 

...with a cat sat on your lap trying to rub his head around your fingers is kinda difficult.

Just thought you'd like to know that...

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Who's real? 

There’s a couple of pebbles I want to throw into the pond of the real-vs-online persona debate that is currently going on in various parts of the blogosphere. I guess it will be a perennial topic until such time as the boundary between cyberspace and “realspace” blurs and vanishes.

The current dialogue began here, was picked up here, here, and here, and echoed in a parallel thread here.

To name one of these personas “real” is putting the cart before the horse; I’d rather label these ideas purely descriptively, and call them online and offline personas for now. Having said that, I’m not even convinced it’s valid to talk about separate personas as though they have a well-defined existence. But for the sake of debate let’s make that assumption and see where it leads.

Identity is such a huge area – lifetimes have been spent studying it; volumes written, and now the dabate moves to cyberspace – I can only scratch a tiny part of the subject’s surface here, hence just the two pebbles for now.

The first pebble is about primacy. Perhaps the major distinction between online and offline personas has nothing to do with cyberspace; it is simply that one came first.

Because the offline persona has been established for longer, it is harder to change. It’s easier to become trapped in it, limiting what we might be. Because online has so much less history, we have the feeling of greater freedom – freedom to be authentic or freedom to create masks and facades – as in everything, the choice is ours. Yet maybe it is the straightjacket of the offline habits that is the illusion – offline can be as free as online if we so choose. It’s just harder to change. But the bottom line is that both have many layers to the onion; both can be authentic; both can faked.

The second pebble has to do with the mechanism by which our personas are communicated.

Rapport is built offline by so much more than words. We can’t make eye contact online; we can’t touch. Perhaps the reason that it seems possible to get deeper, quicker with online relationships is that we have to replace these non-verbal cues with written equivalents. If we want to make our feelings known, we have to be more explicit about them, so when compared with an equivalent verbal dialogue, the words suggest a closer relationship. But it’s a rather unbalanced relationship because whilst some elements run deep, others remain completely hidden.

There’s more I want to blog about this - for one thing, it occurs to me that we need a common understanding of what we mean by that term "persona"; to which layer of the onion does it refer? - but it may not be for a day or two as there’s a lot happening in so-called meatspace at the moment. (Job interview tomorrow…)

But as a parting thought for now on the topic, maybe our kids will look back and laugh at our antiquated ideas…

One for Tolkien fans... 

These images by Ted Nasmith, based on The Silmarillion, are simply stunning...

(Discovered via Byzantium's Shores)

Pale Blue Dot 

This betrays my techie background, fuelled perhaps by being a child of the ‘60s growing up with the space race…

I find it quite boggling that a human artefact is now leaving the solar system and heading off for the stars. Imagining where Voyager is now, looking back to its distant point of origin, reminds me of that famous pale blue dot image and the fractal nature of the universe. Just because the scale of human existence, in both space and time, is so much less than the scale of the universe, it doesn’t mean it is less significant. In a fractal, the whole is present in the parts, and the parts in the whole. So it is with the universe.

Even more boggling is that fact that after 26 years it is still working. I can’t help wondering whether the quest for commercial efficiency is now so rooted in the industrial psyche that we’d be unable to repeat that success, even with the mammoth advances in technology that have taken place since. Maybe I’m just being cynical, or indulging in some techie-nostalgia looking back to an imagined golden age. Whatever, I take my hat off to Voyager’s designers.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

"Pull bar to raise" 

When I was a kid we didn’t have a car. If we wanted a family day out, it usually meant an expedition involving dawn starts; multiple buses, tubes, trains; all accompanied by whatever paraphernalia was necessary for our enjoyment. There’s a long-held British tradition of bank holidays spent by the seaside, and who were we to argue with tradition? Living in north London, our nearest "seaside" was Southend – which is actually on the Thames estuary, and has the full name of Southend-on-Sea just to convince you it really is seaside. It had all the authentic seaside sights, sounds and smells; a visit was a real treat to a suburban born-and-bred youngster.

There was a promenade to walk along, backed by neatly tended flowerbeds and with seats facing seawards every so often - although these were usually placed in shelters to protect you from the English seaside weather. Coloured lights hung between the lamp-posts along the sea front; booths sold ice cream and candy floss; shops sold all manner of novelties and seaside accoutrements that would look ridiculous anywhere else but seemed perfectly acceptable in that environment. And the main attraction - the mile-long pier, complete with electric railway, theatre, entertainers, deck chairs, hopeful fishermen. This was the full-on seaside experience, for a day, and all within reach of London.

And of course there were funfairs. Rides and stalls of all kinds – dodgems, ghost trains, helter-skelters, rifle ranges, a hall of mirrors, the crooked house… All finished in brightly coloured paintwork that, by its cracks and heavy layers, betrayed the years of use, abuse and repeated facelifts. You could buy a strip of tickets for a few shillings and each ride would cost a certain number of tickets – I suppose this avoided the need for the operators to have to handle cash.

At the end of one trip I was walking round the fair with my parents, clutching my last two tickets and wondering what to use them on. I hadn’t enough for the big rides and although the try-your-luck kind of stalls only charged one ticket they weren’t really any fun and I was smart enough to realise that it was the stallkeepers who were the real winners on those. Then I spotted a ride I’d never bothered with before. At first sight there was nothing special about it – a helicopter roundabout ride, about a dozen 2-seater cabins that flew round swooping up and down as they circled. Many of other rides looked more exciting, but they cost more than my 2 tickets. But it was getting late, the ride was quiet - I’d certainly get a cabin to myself - and with dusk falling, the idea of flying through darkness watching the lights over the sea felt like a good way to end the day.

I got in, sat down, and handed over my tickets. There was a bar in front that you could pull forward over your knees, but there didn’t seem much chance of falling out so I left it where it was. The ride began; on the opposite side of the roundabout a couple of girls a few years older than I, the only other occupants of the ride, immediately soared skywards, whooping and laughing; my cabin stayed rooted to terra firma. It would be my turn next, when my helicopter reached that part of the circle. But no, a full circuit with no flying. Next time round perhaps? The girls were laughing and screaming, up and down, obviously having a fabulous time. So why wasn’t I flying as well? Maybe the man in the middle controlled who went up and down. That must be it. He was certainly paying those girls a lot of attention; he never looked my way. He’d probably forgotten I was here.

Round again; I could just see the pier lights sparkling in the sea if I craned my neck; the view from the top, over the edge of the fairground and out to sea must have been magical. Not that those girls looked remotely interested in it; they were having far too much fun to notice. And my helicopter continued resolutely in its ground level circuits, whilst I grew ever more disappointed. My hoped for grand finale to the day a lost dream; my last tickets wasted all because of those two girls and their silly laughter distracting the man who controlled the ride.

The helicopters slowed; the girls glided gently back to ground level to join me once more in my flat, two-dimensional world. Dejected, I got out and only then noticed the scratched, almost illegible instruction notice behind that bar.

“Pull bar to raise”

I had been in control all the time, but I didn’t know it.

And it’s taken 40 years to remember that.

Pull bar to raise.

Saturday, November 01, 2003

Being in flow 

Did that seem a little OTT yesterday?

I admit today is a little flatter. Although the step isn’t quite so springy, the memory of yesterday’s energy and optimism remains fresh.

There’s value, I believe, in recording these feelings. It affirms, albeit rather publicly, that it is possible for me to feel this way. It gives me a referent to hold onto when the outlook seem more bleak.

Awareness and acceptance of feelings is part of what Carl Rogers (yes, I’m quoting him again!) called being in flow. You might think “How can I not be aware of what I’m feeling?” Well, for one thing the language I used in that second paragraph reflects a stage of removal from experience. I didn’t use the first person at all – “today is..”, “the step isn’t…”, “the memory of…”. Not once did I say “I” or “my”. That wasn’t deliberate either – I only noticed it looking back. I was talking about experience from the standpoint of an external observer, not as one in the flow of the experience.

A few years ago when I was doing an introductory counselling course I kept a journal, recording all manner of thought, feelings, experiences – similar to yesterday’s post; not always as positive as that but nonetheless an expression of visceral experience. I often wondered whether there might be any value in publishing the journal in some way – maybe as source material for students of client centred therapy.

I don’t necessarily intend to repeat that degree of openness here; not all the time anyway. But taking the effort to describe feelings helps to raise awareness of them; it promotes being in flow. Having taken the trouble to write it all down, sometimes it might be interesting to post it here. The process of writing helps me and, who know, the result might even help someone else.