The Figure of Eight (R6)

The dynamic concept of the Figure of Eight was introduced in my Blog ‘Somatic Markers’ dated 16th November.

The bottom half of the Figure of Eight represents the ground of our being—core self—that which we can become more aware of in meditative exercises of one kind or another: the rush of blood in the ears, the crackling of knee joints, the tingling in the right big toe (notice it now…), the sense of suspension in the limbs when you imagine that all motion has been stopped, the place we go to when listening to the slow movement of a Mozart Piano Concerto—α-wave intelligence.

The ascent into the top half of the Figure of Eight takes us into β-wave intelligence which is needed to sustain everyday living during which there’s a tendency to forget that everything depends on the natural functioning of the Core Self where the laws of one’s own being operate.

And the cross-over point? What happens there at the momentary point of fertile stasis, poised between organism and object—organism and anything in the outside world with special reference to those things which we choose to let distract us from the Core Self. What is like to be just there in total silence—at the Euclidean non-existent point of cross-over? How to describe it? Has anybody been there?

There was an artist in the city of Kouroo who was disposed to strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that, in an imperfect work, time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, it shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life. He proceeded instantly to the forest for wood, being resolved that it should not be made of unsuitable material; and as he searched for and rejected stick after stick, his friends gradually deserted him, for they grew old in their works and died, but he grew not older by a moment. High singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth. As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him. Before he had found a stick in all respects suitable, the city of Kouroo was a hoary ruin, and he sat on one of its mounds to peel the stick. Before he had given it the proper shape the dynasty of the Candahars was at an end, and with the point of the stick he wrote the name of the last of that race in the sand, and then resumed his work. By the time he had smoothed and polished the staff Kalpa was no longer the pole-star; and ere he had put on the ferrule and the head adorned with precious stones, Brahma had awoke and slumbered many times. But why do I stay to mention these things? When the finishing stroke was put to his work, it suddenly expanded before the eyes of the astonished artist into the fairest of all the creations of Brahma. He had made a new system in making a staff, a world with full and fair proportions, in which, though the old cities and dynasties had passed away, fairer and more glorious ones had taken their places. And now he saw by the heap of shavings still fresh at his feet, that, for him and his work, the former lapse of time had been an illusion, and that no more time had elapsed than is required for a single scintillation from the brain of Brahma to fall on and inflame the tinder of a mortal brain. The material was pure, and his art was pure; how could the result be other than wonderful?

Thoreau’s little story (quoted by Herbert Read in The Redemption of the Robot) illustrates what the cross-over point might be like. What are the elements that might serve as pointers to us in the so-called ‘ordinary world’?

●     Focus on Things—what Gurdjieff calls getting the Food of Pure Impressions before left-brain thinking takes over in the top half of the Figure of Eight.

●     Timelessness—which includes but is far more than separation from clock-time; a total dedication to the task in hand that brings about a feeling that there is no such thing as time.

●     Singleness of Purpose—unsullied by temporal distractions of any kind.

●    Remembering Oneself—the 4th Way idea of the moment when ‘the tinder of a mortal brain’ is suddenly inflamed by ‘presence’… There are plenty of examples of the way self-remembering works in Gurdjieff & Ouspensky and their followers.

Above all, not to serve machinery but to go with one’s sense of flow in fidelity to the laws of one’s being to the extent that one’s artefacts constantly expand into meaning and renewal of purpose.

How does all this work out for an artist, a composer, poet, dreamer, thinker, craftsperson, What light can such as they shed on how focus on things, the experience of timelessness, singleness of purpose and Being in the present relate to their processes?

And how might such things apply even to a person who has with singleness of purpose dedicated their life to some daily avocation? What benefit would they get from such a change of focus?

Herbert Read’s ‘drift’ is to wonder how the ‘emotional satisfactions’ of the craftsperson’s work can be introduced into the ‘average life’ beset by ‘divided purposes’—the life of the robot. ‘We have never ventured to say that the machine shall go thus far and no further; the machine shall do this, but not that; the machine shall be put here, but not there…’

In our society, the two halves of the Figure of Eight have become radically separated off from each other: the top half has been hi-jacked by and for the efficient functioning of the machine; education drifts more and more towards the hidden wreck of vocational training, preparation for what they call ‘work’ (what might be construed as ‘slavery’—the life of the robot); the bottom half of the Figure of Eight has been forgotten except when it starts malfunctioning when it is simply offered drugs by the health machine.

I ask again: how does all this work out for an artist, a composer, poet, dreamer, thinker, craftsperson? What light can such as they shed on how focus on things, the experience of timelessness and singleness of purpose relate to their processes? What would an ordinary ‘worker’ gain?

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HAIKU – another fifty-one

walking now where
those who passed the café window
walked ten minutes ago


from the train window
glimpses of village streets
I shall never tread


brief conversation
at breakfast during which
a whole life is aired


for the fountains that play
in other people’s gardens

(Fernando Pessoa)


today a colony
of rooks has moved into
the tall sycamore


a raven
pecking at red apples
high above the valley

(at Woodchester 16th August 2010)


blackbirds sing
for rain and four dogs
all swap seats


—less clear across the valley
than they used to be


sitting by a peacock
slumped in a garden tub
—sunshine & mountains


they defend their beliefs
while I just
look at clouds


the judge makes neat points;
the audience thinks
of everything else


an argument about
the dates of bad behaviour
itself not addressed


a double whisky—
as though it could heal


all night the moon moves
round my library
book by book


wanting the strength
to believe that life
is after all so fragile


I teach my father
how to interpret
the death notes he left


—what’s this? she asks
my discordant musical choice
stops her in her tracks


long midnight
in my empty dream-garden


a few yards of sand
where my path used to stretch on
for mile after mile


focus dwindling
but still


on the brink—
watching ravens flap
across the abyss


the last time
in this house seems
not unlike the first


striving to outline
the shape of my feeling
I fall back on houses


so much yet to do—
the gathering up of notes
in the dawn


stripping away
the superfluous on rising—
blackbird’s warning


blue sky & clouds—
sunlight on silver birches
at the hospital gates


the morning after
the endoscopy I raise
my arms to the sun


if you listen
to the sound you may miss
the music

(George Ives to his son Charles)


fresh ploughed sods
facing a silver sky


if childhood is ended
I can no longer be


when the water
is still it can
know itself

(Claudio Naranjo)


what is there between
one thought
and another?



the mind becomes
peaceful when you
don’t mess with it



a soft breeze
swaying curtains
with regret


dust-motes in sunlight
now day is done—
the leftovers


In a Hospital January 2011

the old man’s chest
to make room for a milk-shake


polishing the floor
after a night
of bedlam


Razumovsky One
in my dreams


bare branches
through the hospital window
a flight of gulls


infinite care
for the legless man
fading away


in Italian
at the unresponsive night


rearranges his bedding
over and over again


the unbearable
lightness of nurses
at their tasks


at their interview
lady consultants—chosen
for their looks?


morning light
a release from
fitful sleep


a long rest cure—
opening the first page
of a five-volume novel


at night Antonio
comes alive
pacing the corridors


the surgeon
who will cut me open
becomes a friend



the tortoiseshell cat
moves from the heat of the fire
to stretch out elsewhere


there was a change—
something she had been
quick to notice

(The Furys: James Hanley)


a Haydn string quartet—
three cats stretched
before a log fire


To end of 7/5/10 – 8/2/11 Notebook

Three Poems (R6)

the soul

can either build of itself
a work of art
or sit and watch the Barbarian
inversion of old certitudes—
mask of Evil that entices
into the wilderness of the future;
or it rides out of the Wasteland
tramples the vineyards
demolishes the shrines
giving over soil to sand
and the mind to this awful simplicity
of box & buttons
of fad & fashion—
mere mechanisms of personality
invented by the age

the Barbarian cannot make;
it can only befog and destroy—
but even that it cannot sustain
(as soul would sustain)
lacking limit and boundary
which are essential to all making

and we are victims offered daily
to the cruelties of the moment
with no tradition
to incarnate the gestures of
daily living in song and stone

only wayward mythologies—
an ever-shifting empty hagiography
of temporary heroes
of slogans and the gleanings
of mass culture


the doctrine

of inevitable progress—
the present the highpoint
of cultural and personal development—
the ancestors treated with condescension
the thinkers ignored unread
(those who told it how it really is)—

the present (so they say—the powerful ones
in their powerful ignorance) is
the threshold to a Golden Age—
provided you accept our (mendacious)
version of events…  tissues of imagery
& abstraction

progress is the ghost
of a big black dog
cocking its leg against the lamp-posts
of infinite dark streets—
a convenient construct;
an unsubtle trick of the imagination;
a laying of eggs
in a basket that does not exist


I’m with Hilaire Belloc

who sprayed the English
complacents with corrosive words
to eat away the rust of centuries
of smug: parliamentary democracy
represents not the country of hills
and valleys    not the cottages
and the city streets
but capitalism & wealth;
its supposed incorruptibility is a lie—
bodies bought & sold to slavery
titles bartered for privilege—
we are not all in this together

liberal capitalism will never deliver
the Golden Age—it leads inexorably
towards the Servile State
in which the majority labour
for the good of a small minority
of wealthy owners in their gated domains
or for a government of technical experts
imposing technical solutions—
their expertise in spiritual bankruptcy

the future becomes a refuge for those
who cannot bear to face
the grandeur of the past
in the contingent tyranny of the present

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once upon a time

an angel visited the Earth:
for many years he thought
everybody on Earth was mad
because he could not understand

what it was they were enjoying;
then he caught the Earth disease
and began to enjoy Negative Emotions
just as they had always done

and he could no longer see the madness;
when the heavenly adjudicator came down
to tell him he had failed the test
he got madder and madder…

failed the test and forgotten something
and must remain on Earth until he remembered
what it was and had disentangled himself
from all the curious delights

of indulging in negative emotions:
sinking into the bottomless swamp
of being gloomy or bad-tempered
self-pitying   tart or caustic


I was on a train to London the other day. Sitting opposite & next to me were a couple of blokes on their way to Twickenham to watch a rugby match. When they’d run out of their own conversation about things happening in the construction industry, the more obviously affable of the two turned to me and said, “So where are you going today?”

I asked him if he wanted the five hour version or the two minute one; they opted for the latter so I told them I was off to a Haiku Conference (in fact, it was the Annual General Meeting of The British Haiku Society (12th November 2016) but that didn’t seem to me, under the spell of vanity, to sound quite as grand as ‘Haiku Conference’…) Did they know what a haiku was? One of them did. I just said it was it was the result of looking at the world in a different kind of way without thinking about it too much. A particular way originating in Japan.

“You don’t look Japanese!”

They wanted to know what I was reading; it turned out that since they’d left school (I’d say around twenty years ago) they’d only read three books between them. I said I couldn’t imagine what it must be like not to be reading – “I’ve been called a ‘chain reader’: while I’m reading one book I’m wondering what to read next…”

To reestablish rapport I said how I have a passion for brick-laying. The result of my efforts might not pass professional inspection but, “I’ve been fascinated from childhood by the way the runny stuff you carefully smooth between the bricks in the afternoon goes solid by morning.”

One of them said, “I’ve never thought about it like that. That’s a different way of looking at the world – like writing a haiku, I suppose…” No need for my five hour version! It’s called ‘one trial learning’!

The following day, hunting through a very early volume of Blithe Spirit, the British Haiku Society journal which I’ve often edited, I found an essay I wrote in 1992 which might have formed the basis of the five hour version the two chaps from the construction industry declined. I haven’t advanced much in my thinking – or perhaps I’ve just been rather consistent.

Here’s the essay:-

An Apology by a Westerner Writing Haiku

“Haiku…? What the hell’s a haiku…? Japanese poem…? You’re not Japanese – what are you doing writing haiku…?”

Occasionally you get challenged by people who don’t even write ‘poetry’ to explain why you write haiku: to talk about the influence of Japanese culture, seems to me to be absurd if you’ve never been to Japan; the nearest I can get to thinking about making sense is to explain the attraction of [the Alan Watts’ version of] Zen as a way of thinking, but people are equally baffled when all you can do to explain yourself is to throw your fan out of the window or tip a glass of water on the floor which is, so I understand, the Zen way.

In any case, I’m not completely convinced that my interest in the ‘spirit of haiku’ did really begin when I read The Way of Zen in the early sixties; I don’t think I would have been so captivated by Alan Watts’ writing if my. mind had not already been made a fertile seed-bed in some other way.

Tracing the mind-trails that lead to present moments is always fascinating; while the trail is being blazed you’re too busy doing what they call ‘learning’ to keep track of the evolving pattern – once the pattern is established it’s difficult to unravel: what, for instance, brings one person to see a haiku as a focus for the entire universe while another says dismissively, “So what?” Is there a moment in childhood when some people make a choice to be forever locked into immediacy, concreteness, the Suchness of things, while others fix on, say, money to locate (and therefore lose) themselves in a web of possessions and organised diversions?

More specifically, I wondered if I had read some Western thinker whose ideas might have played on my mind to make it easy to become ‘haiku-hooked’ when Watts came my way. I have always enjoyed the encapsulation of ‘little moments’ in poetry because they leave you puzzled, amazed, contemplative; they reverberate in the mind long time to come: D H Lawrence’s poem ‘At the Bank in Spain’ can serve as a random example:-

Even the old priest, in his long black robe and silvery hair
came to the counter with his hat off, humble at the shrine,
and was immensely flattered when one of the fat little clerks of the bank
shook hands with him.

It is often pointed out that Zen-think, such as this, occurs in literature other than Japanese: it manifests itself in a regard for the moment, for the specificity of objects (sono-mama), allows them to stand without comment to do their work in the mind. The opposite occurs ‘…when we concentrate on a material object… [then] the very act of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of that object…’ Explanations, footnotes, unwrapping ideas (as now) paradoxically work towards the defeat of ideas; a good bit of advice for haiku-writers might be that, ‘…novices must learn to skim over matter if they want matter to stay at the exact level of the moment…’ (Vladimir Nabokov). Matter in itself, left to itself, is powerful to fix and subsequently summon up past moments – my personal list might start thus: knot-holes in fences, curious rock-forms, running water, a back garden manhole cover I called, for some inscrutable reason, a ‘Putney’, a tall fir tree on a distant western horizon…

I recently re-read James Kirkup’s The Only Child. The reading helped to strengthen a tentative hypothesis that some people make an existential choice early on in life to be concerned for the minutiae offered by experience; such a choice can work towards a particular mind-set that, given an awareness of the form, can lead to habitual haiku-writing.

While ‘…other people [were] partially deafened by the busy hum of their own bodies…’ James found himself unable to make a noise in the company of others; the inward-turning sensitivity, ‘lonely but not conscious of loneliness’, resulted in a rich haul of potential haiku-moments: the shining door-knob of the house where he was born, the H-shaped boot-scraper, gas-lamp in the street, slightly stirring shadows of flowery lace curtains, far-off moaning of ships, jam jars of dead wall flowers and marguerites amongst gravestones, the grimy boots of newspaper readers in the library, a chipped blue enamel teapot, vivid blue flashes on tram-wires, granny Kirkup’s porch smelling of Autumn and sea, telegraph poles in the lane, magical labyrinth of white sheets on washing day, the dog Rosie, the milkman’s horse, sparrows hopping in the gutter, seagulls flying over chimneys, the bandstand in South Marine Park, the travelling spark at the end of the lamplighter’s stick, a seagull perching on a rocking buoy, a model ship in a glass case…


Lifeboat in the snow, South Shields

Examining carefully this ‘…rag-bag… that we cannot bring ourselves to part with…’ possessing it ‘…with a fresh and extraordinary strength, we discover at the end of long and tangled skeins a bright pin of truth…’. Haiku is a ‘bright pin of truth’!

Ordinary experience is always fresh and productive when you can relate your soul to it in this way; there, is no chance of being ‘bored’ – ‘…people who get bored are ones who always reckon that something amusing ought to come at them from outside…’ says, Robert Walser [one of James’ favourite authors] in Jakob von Gunten). At key moments of perception the observer becomes the door-knob, the H-shaped boot-scraper, a knot-hole in a fence, and so on; the soul goes out to meet experience, constructing itself from events rather than waiting for ready-made amusements as small as a TV programme, as large as Disneyland.

So, perhaps, the nature of one’s childhood choices and sensitivity makes it relatively easy, or not, to accept the haiku process when it comes your way.

I wondered whether I had, in addition, read something in Western philosophy that might have led to a mild obsession for the idea behind haiku-writing. Tracing this mind-trail ought not to be too long a business for in what I like to call my ‘intellectual life’ there were, at the very most, just ten formative books. Of these, Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy which I read in the late-1950’s gave me, from medieval mysticism, the concept of Istigkeit – Suchness – which, after I had read Watts, translated keenly to the Japanese concept ‘sono-mama’. But, going backwards on the mind-trail, I come to AN Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas. I reach to my bookshelves for a book about Whitehead, recently acquired, and re-discover ideas that I had completely forgotten but which have long since ceased being, in Whitehead’s own term, ‘inert’ in me, and have become my own possession.

Whitehead is against carving experience up into lumps; he denies the conventional division of Nature into apparent and real. Nature is what is given in experience. The fundamental unit of existence is an ‘event’ or ‘occasion’ where subject and object are united, where there is no dichotomy of perceiver and perceived. Promising! Precisely Zen! As I understand it…

For Whitehead, the event/occasion exists momentarily at the intersection of ‘presentational immediacy’ and ‘causal efficacy’: for example, there is a dripping tap in presentational immediacy; for a split second there is a mental construction <dripping tap – ah! – plumber> or <plumbers mend taps – this tap needs a plumber>. ‘Split second’ is a poverty-stricken language attempt to depict the ‘timeless moment’ when the dripping tap is and is not connected with plumber (= ‘causal efficacy’).

Whitehead believes that we come to unique awareness of who and what we are by constructing ourselves out of our contacts with such occasions of experience. Far from our manipulating events, occasions grasp us to become concrete through what Whitehead calls ‘prehension’: the conscious ‘I’ [or set of ‘I’s] is a ‘route for occasions’ to make themselves felt.

I often have the feeling that haiku write me; looking back over a notebook containing a month of haiku I certainly feel that their occasions have made me a route; the momentary awareness we capture in haiku becomes the way we read the world – so it is a constant feedback loop: the frog plopping into the pond constructs the awareness of the poet; without the presence of the poet, no frog, no plop, no pond because no eye to see or ear to hear. Whitehead would say, I think, that there is nothing to choose between the frog and the man whose mind has for a split second become the frog.

At the moment of the occasion I am nothing but the occasion itself. The occasion is a growth of feeling and an ultimate unity and I am that growth and that unity. My actuality, my concreteness, is to be defined by what is present in the occasion, whether derived from the past or conceptually turned towards the future, whether concerned with some present physical feeling or with an idea plucked from empty air.

In Whitehead’s terms, a haiku would be a non-judgemental ‘proposition’ about the world based on pure data without the intervention of any kind of mentalism.

“Haiku…? What the hell’s a haiku…? Japanese poem…? You’re not Japanese…”
“You’re right, I’m not. But there’s this chap called Whitehead – he says… And I made many choices in childhood that made me content with little events and occasions… And then I discovered haiku and everything clicked into place. Hoorah for the Japanese without whom the vehicle for expressing all this would not exist!”

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Thoughts on and a review of HGWells’ The Croquet Player…

What do you feel about the scary crisis of existing in the world as it has become in this glorious New Millennium? Daily news of devastating explosions in market places or at wedding ceremonies, the collecting of blown-apart body parts in sacks, global terrorist activity, maiming and execution, drone strikes on anything that’s moving, the mass graves, rape & pillage on a grand scale, wanton destruction of famous archaeological sites, shots of the dismembered remains of what was once a human-being, whole cities reduced to rubble by blind forces, the columns of refugees, their drowning in leaky boats way out at sea, inhumanity towards those who manage to make it over the sea, little kids covered in flies dying in the streets, photos of grossly malformed babies resulting even now from the American bombing of Vietnam years ago, the hooded hordes. The Kurtzian Horror… Mr Kurtz or Colonel Kurtz. One could go mad either way.

What does the global situation make me feel? “…Nothing – I never really think about it if I can help it…”

Most people (the majority?) have simply become inured, content to choose to pretend that everything is normal: football on a Saturday afternoon, soaps on telly, quiz programmes, Bingo, Christmas and New Year celebrations and continuing support for any bombing labelled as being in aid of ‘The Defence of Freedom & Democracy’. The colossal waste of resources. And there’s always Church on Sunday for a shriving and poppies for remembrance.

HGWells’ novella The Croquet Player will speak to anybody who identifies with the intolerable buffering between the Horror and Normality; to anybody who notices the radio announcer’s swift flippant turning away from a brief report on the accidental drone-strike on an Afghan funeral parade – “…and now for today’s sports news…”

I first read The Croquet Player a year before ‘9/11′ changed the world forever. The intervening years present a bloody cavalcade of systemic destruction that could play on the mind if you chose to let it. If you chose to identify with it instead of setting it all on one side or, at best, maintaining a balanced grasp of the global situation in order to face it and then get on with ordinary life; the media helps by not reporting the full extent of human misery; the Power Possessors know what’s best for us. Their World War 3 is just round the corner.

The croquet player, Georgie Frobisher, a simple soul like the rest of us, brought up from the age of three by an over-protective aunt, equates ‘thinking’ with doing The Times crossword puzzle every day, and playing chess (by correspondence) and bridge; he just wants to get on with ordinary life but Wells’ opening paragraph tells us that the notional story-teller has allowed himself to be thoroughly disturbed; he craves our reassurance that we think he has become unreasonably haunted.

I have been talking to two very queer individuals and they have produced a peculiar disturbance of my mind. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that they have infected me and distressed me with some very strange and unpleasant ideas. I want to set down what it is they have said to me, in the first place for my own sake, so as to clear up my thoughts about it. What they told me was fantastic and unreasonable, but I shall feel surer about that if I set it down in writing. Moreover I want to get my story into a shape that will enable one or two sympathetic readers to reassure me about the purely imaginative quality of what these two men had to say. It is a sort of ghost story but not an ordinary ghost story – more realistic and haunting and disturbing…

The story is told in such a way that we are forced to participate in the first person writer’s distress while noting his desire to get on with his holiday with his aunt in Les Noupets and play the next game of croquet at which he is an expert. He has clearly decided that he does not want to share his state of mind with his aunt who, being pretty straight, as we are told, would probably have told him to snap out of it so he addresses his notional readers in the hope that they will empathise.

On the hotel terrace he has been button-holed by a Dr Finchatton whom he first notices violently throwing library books about. Dr Finchatton is in Les Noupets to get away from the thinking that the books represent for him and from the haunting he has come to associate with a Fenland place called Cainsmarsh where he had acquired a medical practice to escape the stress of London. Cainsmarsh sounds ideal for this purpose – it has ‘…a flat, still atmosphere… translucent, gentle, coloured…’ But he has become aware of ‘…things lying below the surface, things altogether hidden in more eventful and colourful surroundings [which] creep on our perceptions…’

Dr Finchatton has fallen prey to evil dreams. He is as keen to tell his story to Frobisher as Frobisher is to share his with us and for the same reason – both want to get things out of their system.

An Indication of What’s Happened to Dr Finchatton

I would get up and dress, go out either on foot or in my car, in spite of a strong fear resistance. Fear pursued me out of those dreams. The nightmare quality hung about me and could not be shaken off. I was awake and still dreaming. Never have I seen such sinister skies as I did on those night excursions. I felt such a dread of unfamiliar shadows as I had not known even in childhood. There were times on those nocturnal drives when I could have shouted aloud for daylight as a man suffocating in a closed chamber might shout for air.

Before long his daily life was affected: ‘…I would turn convulsively under the impression that a silent hound was creeping up to attack me from behind, or I would imagine a black snake wriggling out from under the valance of an armchair…’

Then his professional practice began to suffer.

I began to find something evil in the silence or in the gestures of some of my patients. And while I sat by their bedsides I fancied that there were hostile goings-to-and-fro and malignant whisperings and conspirings just outside the door.

I could not understand what was the matter with me. I searched my mind for nervous stresses and I could find none. I had surely left all that behind in London. Temperature and so forth remained normal. But clearly there was something askew in my adjustment to these new surroundings. Cainsmarsh was disappointing my expectations. There was no healing in it for me. I had to pull myself together, I had sunk all my little capital in the practice and I had to stick it. There was nowhere else for me to go.

Others in the area seem to be affected by its ambience but they don’t talk about it. Finchatton goes to see the old vicar Rawdon who he imagines might be expected to have a view about things with a mystery attached to them. Rawdon told Finchatton that he was succumbing to the Evil sooner than he did when he first came to Cainsmarsh for a quiet & peaceful retirement. He fears his food is being poisoned. He expounds his theory with gusto:-

The evil was in the soil, he declared, underground. He laid great stress on the word ‘underground’. He made a downward gesture with his quivering hand. There was something mighty and dreadful buried in Cainsmarsh. Something colossally evil. Broken up. Scattered all over the Marsh. “I think I know what it is,” he whispered darkly, but for a time he would not explain… “They kept on stirring it up, he said; they would not let it rest.

It soon became clear who ‘they’ were: ‘those archaeologists’ digging everything up and the ploughing of old pastures where there was a ‘wilderness of graves’ with long-buried cavemen.

You found stones of the strangest shapes. Abominable shapes. “They keep on bringing things up,” he said, “Things that had better be left alone. Ought to be let alone. Making doubts and puzzles – destroying faith.”

He denounced Darwinism and evolution. And then there was the High Church rival with ‘his vestments & images & music & mummery’.

He poured out the festering accumulations of his brooding solitude. His sentences had the readiness of long-matured expression… Out of it all came a suggestion. I doubt if it will seem even remotely sane to you – in this clear air. But it was the suggestion that this haunting… was [done by] a something remote, archaic, bestial…

Finchatton said he ‘…drove back home more saturated with terror than when I went. I was beginning to see visions now everywhere…’ He took to drink.

He doesn’t realise it but Frobisher is already in deep trance in spite of his attempts to stave it off other-than-consciously by contrasting Finchatton’s account with life at Les Noupets: ‘“…sitting here at this table with everything bright and clear and definite, there is a certain unreality – if you understand me?”’ Finchatton agrees that drinking vermouth and seltzer at lunch-time does make Les Loupets seem far from Cainsmarsh, far from the threatening evil to which Frobisher imagines that he is immune. He likes a weird & eerie story like those of Edgar Allan Poe, in spite of his aunt’s objections, but keeps his imagination merely as a tame ‘domestic pet’.

I was oblivious then of the possibility that this story might ever disturb my own slumbers. I keep dreams for waking moments but I like them then. Fancies and reveries. I welcome them. One dreams then but one feels quite safe. There may be shivers in it but no real fear. It is just because they are impossible that I like impossible stories.

Finchatton determines to visit Mortover, the High Church man, to get his side of the story. He turns out to be just as irrational as his rival for God. He

…blamed the Reformation and made great play with the Puritan witch mania of the sixteenth century. Some spiritual control was broken then, he assured me with the utmost confidence. Diabolism had returned to the earth… We have to restore the unity of Christendom and exorcize these devils.

Mortover seems to Finchatton to be caught up in his own final solution.

As he talked I could see that his head was full of long slow processions winding across the marshes with banners, canopies, vestments, boys chanting, censers swinging, priests asperging. I thought of the old vicar peering out of his dirty study window and I had a vision of him running out hoarse and stumbling, with murder in his eyes.

When they should above all have been able to, neither man of religion could offer Finchatton any solace: ‘…They wanted to be at each other’s throats. That was where the haunting poison of the marsh came in. As if to put a final stamp on things, Mortover said, “The Greeks had a word for it… Panic. Endemic panic, that was the contagion of the marshes.”

Finchatton, being already in headlong panic, points out that ‘panic’ was just a label. He decides that a visit to the admired curator of Eastfolk museum where old bones were kept might provide him with a more balanced view of what was happening in Cainsmarsh. The curator explained that the locals mistrusted the archaeological digs and that their fear was contagious – he himself had felt it. Could the skull of the caveman they were looking at have left behind an angry spirit? The curator’s suggestion was to convert Finchatton’s fear into something that could be managed

If we can make a ghost of this fear of yours – well, ghosts can be laid. If we make a fever of it, fever can be cured. But while this remains merely panic fear and a smouldering rage, what can we do about it?

Finchatton is intrigued by the suggestion but not impressed. What the curator had said with a certain objectivity contrasted greatly with the responses of the religious men who had nothing practical to offer but what the curator said required serious pondering.

It was queer theoretical stuff and yet, in a way, it had a sort of air of explanation… The expression he used was that we were breaking the frame of our present… I had not the remotest idea what the frame of our present might be.

The Curator Seeks to Explain the Idea of

“A century or so ago,” he said, “men lived in the present far more than they do now. Their past went back four or five thousand years, their future hardly went as far; they lived for now. And what they called the eternities. They knew nothing of the remote real past. They cared nothing for the real future. That,” he nodded at the cave-man’s skull, “just wasn’t there. All that was buried and forgotten and out of life. We lived in a magic sphere and we felt taken care of and safe. And now in the last century or so, we have broken that. We have poked into the past, unearthing age after age and we peer more and more forward into the future. And that’s what’s the matter with us.”

What is the present? A moment now… and now and now? An emptiness? History since the 2nd World War? My last 25 years? What they call The Present Day? The undifferentiated omnipresence of a God? The feeling of present is different for different people at different times? Perhaps the feeling of NOW incorporates everything that’s led to this moment?

Let’s say that it does: the present includes everything that has led us to this moment now – a historical unity, a personal selection, one unique to every individual, but capable of including a personal collection of all the good (and maybe bad) things from the past, all the I-tags connected with places, events, people, things that go to make you who you are in the present moment; this might include things from the long past – visiting Stonehenge now in 1947, for instance. One puts a personal frame round everything that fits with NOW; within the frame things are just as they always have been; one could rely on this being the case: the present thus defined was preserved and curated by knowledgeable old men who would keep the stones safe and the furniture polished for all time. The trains would always run and on time and there would be a hospital bed when you needed it. But now your painstakingly constructed frame is broken and it’s all rumpus & hooded hordes.


Aleppo – before & after

The carnage that is Syria, the wanton destruction of historical artefacts in Iraq by the Western invader as well, the demolition of Buddhist statues by the Taliban, . The contents of the frame explode and destroy it from within. This is breaking the frame of the historic present.

The magic sphere of security in lastingness is blown apart. The security came from knowing that the present was a completion, the temples preserved by settled institutions, a sure heritage. In The Croquet Player it was the archaeologists who were poking around; now there’s a quite different poking around – the Americans and their so-called allies and the other terrorists whom it’s quite impossible ever to sit round a table in Geneva to negotiate with. Why would they want to negotiate when their intention is to destroy ‘civilisation’? Along with the Americans they seem quite good at it; theirs is a position of strength.

Broken the frame of the present; the past destroyed and the future corrupted; meanwhile there’s the golden pretence that everything is normal: the game of croquet will take place this afternoon.

The old fearful past re-appears in the vacuum of the empty frame and the future ‘opens like a gulf to swallow us’. The ancestral brute returns, resurrected savageries unstoppable. ‘The world is full of menace…’

The curator says it is a matter of the mind. To counter his mental oppression, Finchatton must enlarge his mind ‘…to a vaster world where the caveman was as present as the daily paper and a thousand years ahead was on the doorstep…’ Put things into perspective, see them sub specie aeternitatis, as it were.

The curator recommends Finchatton to see Norbert, a psychiatrist of Harley Street who was one of the first to realise ‘this spreading miasma of the mind’. In spite of the curator’s helpful comments Finchatton’s horrors increased. The caveman’s skull’s descendents like ants made chase.

Swarms of human beings hurrying to and fro, making helpless gestures of submission or deference, resisting an overpowering impulse to throw themselves under [the skull’s] all-devouring shadow. Presently these swarms began to fall into lines and columns, were clad in uniforms, formed up and began marching and trotting towards the black shadows under those worn and rust-stained teeth. From which darkness there presently oozed something – something winding and trickling, and something that manifestly tasted very agreeably to him. Blood.”

Then à propos of nothing, as though his mind was fixed elsewhere ‘…Finchatton said a queer thing: “Little children killed by air-raids in the street.”’ It seems that Wells himself was under the spell of what was happening in Spain at the time he wrote The Croquet Player.

Madrid 1936

Madrid 1936

Comparable is the stray thought about the Syrian boy washed up dead on a beach. “But I never really think about it… There’s nothing I can do…”

Now Finchatton is under Norbert’s supervision in Les Noupets. Quite unaware of the profound effect he’s had on Frobisher, he is grateful for the opportunity to tell his story.

It’s what Norbert wants me to do. He wants me to familiarize myself with what has just happened to me, just in the spirit in which you have taken it, so as to be able to distinguish between the realities of my experience, the realities of life, he calls them, and the fears and fancies and dreams I have wrapped about them. His idea is that I ought to see things unfeelingly… Norbert’s idea, you know, is that I should talk it quietly over with anyone who – who seems reasonably balanced and not too worried about the past or the future. So as to get these facts as facts and not as dreads and horrors. He wants to bring me back so to speak to what he calls a rational insensitiveness, rational insensitiveness, that’s his formula, and so get a firmer foothold for – whatever I have to do next.”

Norbert appears suddenly and says he’s been observing the conversation (like God) ‘from above’. He assumes that Finchatton has told Frobisher about the horrors in Cainsmarsh. He makes a demand that Frobisher tells them both what he thought of the story but he resents Norbert’s air of commanding superiority and refuses; he expresses the hope that he will see Finchatton again so that they can continue their conversation.

The Following Morning
Norbert on his own is waiting to hear a commonsense outside view of Finchatton’s account. Frobisher remains noncommittal. Norbert asks him if he’s ever heard of any part of the world called ‘Cainsmarsh’. He tells him that there’s no such place. ‘It is a myth.’

It seems that Finchatton was certainly working as a doctor near Ely.

… “Finchatton really went to the Tressider Museum at Ely, and Cunningham, the custodian, had the sense to spot his condition and send him to me… Everything he told you was true and everything was a lie. He is troubled beyond reason… the only way he can express himself is by fable… the realities that are overwhelming him are so monstrous and frightful that he has to transform them into this fairy tale about old skulls and silences in butterfly land, in the hope of getting them down to the dimensions of an hallucination and so presently expelling them from his thoughts.”

Frobisher wants to know what’s made Finchatton get to the end of his tether.

“Didn’t he repeat my phrase – endemic panic? A contagion in our atmosphere. A sickness in the very grounds of our lives, breaking out here and there and filling men’s minds with a paralysing, irrational fear?”
“He did use that expression.”
“Yes, sir. And it is what I am dealing with here. It is what even I am only beginning to realize. A new Plague – of the soul. A distress of the mind that has long lurked in odd corners of the mind, an endemic disorder, rising suddenly and spreading into a world epidemic. The story our friend put away into a sort of fairyland fenland is really the story of thousands of people today – and it will be the story of hundreds of thousands tomorrow…

Partly to re-assure himself, Frobisher wonders if Norbert is not as mad as Finchatton. He admits that he was an early case but he was able to use his professional inderstanding to crawl out the other side of the horror and take a firm grip on life.

Norbert repeats the idea of ‘breaking the Frame of the Present’ which Cunningham, the curator, had only half-grasped the meaning of in his conversation with Finchatton.

“Animals,” he said, “live wholly in the present. They are framed in immediate things. So are really unsophisticated people… But we humans, we have been probing and piercing into the past and future. We have been multiplying memories, histories, traditions, we have filled ourselves with forebodings and plannings and apprehensions. And so our worlds have become overwhelmingly vast for us, terrific, appalling. Things that had seemed forgotten for ever have suddenly come back into the very present of our consciousness.”
“In other words,” said I, trying to keep him moored to current realities, “we have found out
about the cave-man.”
“Found out about him!” he shouted. “We live in his presence. He has never died. He is anything but dead. Only… he was shut off from us and hidden. For a long time. And now we see him here face to face and his grin derides us. Man is still what he was. Invincibly bestial, envious, malicious, greedy. Man, sir, unmasked and disillusioned is the same fearing, snarling, fighting beast he was a hundred thousand years ago. These are no metaphors, sir. What I tell you is the monstrous reality. The brute has been marking time and dreaming of a progress it has failed to make. Any archaeologist will tell you as much; modern man has no better skull, no better brain. Just a cave-man, more or less trained. There has been no real change, no real escape. Civilization, progress, all that, we are discovering, was a delusion. Nothing was secured. Nothing. For a time man built himself in, into his neat little present world of Gods and Providences, rainbow promises and so forth. It was artificial, it was artistic, fictitious. We are only beginning to realize how artificial… And when sensitive, unprepared men like our poor friend Finchatton become aware of it, they show themselves too weak to face it. They refuse to face a world so grim and great as this world really is. They take refuge in stories of hauntings and personal madness in the hope of some sort of exorcism, something they think will be a cure…. There is no such cure…

From bawling, his voice sank to a deep heavy undertone. “Madness, sir, from the mental side, is poor Nature’s answer to overwhelming fact. It is flight. And today all over the world, intellectual men are going mad. They are dithering, because they realize that the fight against this cave-man who is over us, who is in us, who is indeed us, is going against these imaginary selves. The world is no longer safe for anything. It was sheer delusion that we had Him under…

What’s to be done then? Frobisher wonders. It all seems hopeless.

Face the facts! Face the facts, sir! Go through with it. Survive if you can and perish if you can’t. Do as I have done and shape your mind to a new scale. Only giants can save the world from complete relapse and so we – we who care for civilization – have to become giants. We have to bind a harder, stronger civilization like steel about the world. We have to make such a mental effort as the stars have never witnessed yet. Arise, O mind of Man!” (He called me that!) “Or be for ever defeated.”

Frobisher has no giant-potential; he’s the ordinary man-in-the-street who just wants to get on with his life without having to consider the larger issues. He dismisses Norbert’s ‘epoch-making rhetoric’.

I suppose from first to last throughout the ages decent people of my sort have had to listen to this kind of thing, but it seemed to me beyond all reason that I should have to listen it on the terrace of the Source Hotel at Perona above Les Noupets on a lovely morning in this year of grace nineteen hundred and thirty-six… I ceased to mark or remember half the things he said…

Thus the majority of the population when faced with the manifold horrors of the world-scene. The media reports are designed to have us think that for the most part everything is just like it’s always been – the process is called ‘hypernormalisation’.

He reeled off a list of atrocities, murders and horrors all over the world. I suppose there is a rather unusual amount of massacre and torture going on nowadays. I suppose the outlook is pretty black. I suppose there may be frightful wars, air raids and pogroms ahead of us. But what am I to do about it? What was the good of bow-wow-wowing at me?

The net effect on Frobisher of listening to Finchatton and then Norbert’s interpretation of Finchatton is to slightly unhinge his mind; he has strongly identified with what both men have said so that he has to admit that

… these two men have in a sort of way hypnotized me after all, and put something of this anxiety and something of this haunting of theirs upon me. I try and get them in a proper perspective by writing down this story, but the mere writing of it makes me realize how much I can’t detach myself. I can no more get rid of it by telling it to you than Finchatton could get rid of it by telling it to me. I did not know that one could be hypnotized in this fashion, by people just sitting about or talking to you. I thought you had to sit still and give yourself up to hypnotism or else there was nothing doing. But now I find I don’t sleep as well as I used to do, I catch myself anxious about world affairs, I read evil things between the lines in the newspapers, and usually very faintly but sometimes quite plainly I see, behind the transparent front of things, that cave-man face.

Like many in our world Frobisher refuses to face the facts. The world may crumble about us, life as we used to know it is over & done for, but we leave the solution to the politicians who are presumably paid to know what to do. But they, of course, are part of the problem – they contribute to the horror.

But I had had enough of this apocalyptic stuff. I looked [Norbert] in the face, firmly but politely. I said, “I don’t care. The world may be going to pieces. The Stone Age may be returning. This may, as you say, be the sunset of civilization. I’m sorry, but I can’t help it this morning. I have other engagements… I am going to play croquet with my aunt at half-past twelve today.”

Yes, I have outlined the whole story of The Croquet Player but I do not think I have ruined it for the reader: re-reading  with the outcome in mind adds another layer to one’s experience of it.

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The Shepherd Boy – Lenbach

In an essay called ‘In Praise of Idleness’, Bertrand Russell says that he thinks ‘…there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous…’ He hopes that ‘the leaders of the YMCA will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing… The road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work…’

Russell’s supremely sensible point of view which would be derided by all those who don’t have to work for a living, relying on inherited wealth and an old boy network, is based on the key principle that ‘…the morality of work is the morality of slaves – modern man has no need of slavery…’ The focus on those who still make the lives of some a misery by submitting them to actual slavery blinds us to the fact that anybody who works for the well-being of shareholders is a slave, producing an unnecessary excess for the sake of somebody else.

In fact, Russell continues, under modern conditions, if somebody asked the right questions, it would be possible ‘…to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilisation. Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labour required to secure the necessities of life for everyone…’

This was written before the advent of the universal computer. One of the questions that desperately needs asking is: Why, with all these ‘labour-saving devices’, has a three day working week with full employment not yet been instituted for all? The answer is: Because the Power Possessors have appropriated the money representing ‘time saved’ for their own amusement, pretending that we ordinary slaves & plebs must continue to keep our noses to the grindstone.

It would come as a considerable upset to the rich & powerful to discover one morning that the headline in the Daily Tibligrop advocated THE DAWN OF THE AGE OF LEISURE FOR ALL!

Russell: ‘…The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich. In England, in the early nineteenth century, fifteen hours was the ordinary day’s work for a man; children sometimes did as much, and very commonly did twelve hours a day. When meddlesome busybodies suggested that perhaps these hours were rather long, they were told that work kept adults from drink and children from mischief…’

Another question which ought to be asked is something like: What do we need to produce in order to ensure a Good Life for All? Russell says that ‘…if the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody, and no unemployment – assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization. This idea shocks the well-to-do, because they are convinced that the poor would not know how to use so much leisure…’

I know people who say they would not know what to do with themselves if they were ‘retired’ – so they go back to being wage slaves after retirement age or they volunteer to work for nothing but the feeling that they are somehow benefiting society. The idea of ‘being bored’ with so much time on your hands is entirely foreign to me; at ten o’clock the day I commenced wage slavery in 1955 I wondered what it would be like when I had the freedom of retirement. I do remember that for two weeks after I achieved early retirement in 1992 I wondered how to plan ‘my time’ – the feeling that I should be running around after people and have people running around after me lasted just two weeks before the blinding revelation of a huge expanse of freedom struck me thunderbolt-wise. I haven’t recovered from it!

Some education into how to manage leisure time might be needed for those whose minds have been dulled into the existing system, those who have what is to me a very alien idea that life is for ‘working’. Some suggestions about the endless vistas, the endless possibilities for grabbing new ventures or reclaiming forgotten (or lost) endeavours, the brave stepping into new ‘I’s and shuffling off old outworn ones.

‘The wise use of leisure, it must be conceded, is a product of civilization and education. Somebody who has worked long hours all life-long will be bored with sudden idleness. But without a considerable amount of leisure you are cut off from many of the best things. There is no longer any reason why the bulk of the population should suffer this deprivation; only a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious, makes us continue to insist on work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer exists…’

What might be the consequences of the wild embrace of idleness? Saving untold quantities of money currently wasted on unnecessary things and ventures. Most of all a relaxation into life and living, ease and security.

More questions that ought to be asked: What do we need to live a comfortable and satisfactory life? What effect would idleness have on society as a whole?

‘…Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for the others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever…’


Reading Russell’s essay (first published NB in 1935) caused me to wonder about the meaning of the word ‘idleness’ and to consider what amount of idleness my life had consisted of. I did an inventory of the times I consider myself to have been ‘idle’ according to my own definition of idleness. The result was very surprising to me and led me to conclude that, as compared with what young people have to put up with nowadays, I’ve led a charmed life, never really having put myself out, never having had a damned CV; there’s always been a kind of calculated absence, being in the world but not of it. How on earth have I done it? What existential (virtual) choices did I make that led me to this NOW? Early morning in late October 2016 with streams of Canada geese hurling their way across the flatlands.

Here’s my definition of ‘idleness’ – it’s doing what you want to do when you want to do it. According to this definition, I am very aware that there were times when I felt that demands were being made on my relish for idleness so that I had to choose to live up to what others expected of me and to make ends meet for self and family – what was the balance between idleness and responding to alien demands?

So here I am after 78 years! How have things divided up?

1937-1954 – Early years and schooling. 17 years of idleness, centred on self, accumulating I-tags, looking at newts, experiencing the effects of World War, writing essays that pleased me, wandering on Wimbledon Common, cycling to Worthing & back in a day (100+ miles), acquiring education by osmosis from the dedicated eccentric heroes of Kingston Grammar School just post-war, beginning to collect books & records, adolescent misplaced passion for Maureen…
1955-1956 – first experience of wage slavery in the Inland Revenue. In Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington (recounting events in 1954 just before I was setting out on my career as a Civil Servant, Martin York offers this advice as to how to throw a spanner in the works of tax inspecting: ‘…send them, out of the blue, a cheque for eight pounds seventeen and three. Something like that. They can never tally up a sum of that kind with any of their figures; your file will go from hand to hand for months and years and eventually get lost…’ I can vouch for the accuracy of such advice though nowadays I suppose a computer would smell a rat and I bet dusty old files have given way to e-filing… One year of wage slavery which contributed to ‘Income Tax Dreams’ for the next fifty years…
1956-1958 – so-called ‘National Service’. For some young men of my age this period was Total Slavery & Misery; for me it was undiluted idleness: the first eighteen weeks was such a frantic & bizarre basic training out of which I emerged as a Sergeant Instructor in the Education Corps, teaching absurdities, free to play hockey midweek, make trips to Farnham & Guildford when I felt like it and cycle the Hampshire countryside. I can still feel the May morning when I suddenly realised with a jolt that all this was coming to an end. Then the embrace of pacifism… Two years of idleness…
1958-1964 – six years: return to the Civil Service, then The British Metal Corporation which I tried to disguise as idleness by attending regular lunchtime organ recitals in St Lawrence Jewry, followed by three years in the Westminster Bank which I tried to disguise as idleness by dashing to hear Donald Soper on Tower Hill Wednesday lunchtimes… Described as a ‘rolling stone’ at my departure interview!
1964-1968 – Teacher Training. The utter idle bliss of four years rolling stones in an academic setting.
1968-1992 – teaching: school, Teacher Training, Further Education. 24 years of a different kind of wage slavery. Let’s call it that anyway… You could subtract a total of 4 years to take account of the academic holidays. Say, 20 years of wage slavery.
1992-2016 – early retirement @ 55 – since 1992 it all seems like some kind of crazy dream, gardens dug, newts observed, extraordinary teaching episodes for Big Money – the Intellectual Life conquering it all somehow. Listening to all my old vinyl records in alphabetical order on headphones at 4am. Music composed, books written, paintings painted… 24 years!

And the totals of all the months & years…? I make it 51 years of ‘idleness’ as against 27 years of wage slavery, 20 of those being tolerably ‘idle’ by my definition. Let’s say 65% of my life devoted to idleness as against 35% spent in an often not too arduous slavery.

How did this charmed life come about? I suppose I’ve always stuck to my pacifist guns. No wonder Bertrand Russell’s essay appealed to me! Around 1960 I wrote an essay in which I described how I had drifted from one thing to another up till then little realising how this would become the pattern of my life for the next fifty years; I didn’t even set about organising ‘a diminution of work’ – it just happened.

Paradoxically, I do more things during the course of a day now than I ever did before – I just don’t call it ‘work’.

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Words matter; the linguistic make-up of discourse is all-important…

One of the reasons for… lack of understanding… is to be found in the language which people speak. This language is full of wrong concepts, wrong classifications, wrong associations. And the chief thing is that… the vagueness and inaccuracy of ordinary thinking happens because every word can have thousands of different meanings according to the material the speaker has at her disposal and the complex of associations at work in her at any one moment. People do not clearly realize to what a degree their language is subjective, that is, what different things each of them says while using the same words. They are not aware that each one of them speaks in a language of their own, understanding other people’s language either vaguely or not at all, and having no idea that each one of them speaks in a language unknown to them or anybody else. People persist in having a very firm conviction, or belief, that they speak the same language, that they understand one another.

GI Gurdjieff (Gurdjieff quotations courtesy of Allan Clews)

‘Social Media’, Chat Shows, the Feuilletons, Pub gatherings ‒ avalanches of words, words, words. From a meta-position one might well ask what any of them signify. And then more generally ‒ What’s the function of language in the ‘conversation of humanunkind’? How do we use words? What do they do for us? What kind of ‘reality’ do they represent? What do they have to do with ‘communication’? Are they anything but a very crude stab at representing what we like to think of as ‘reality’?

In The Glass Bead Game, set in a Castalia of the future, Hermann Hesse calls the 20th Century ‘the Age of the Feuilleton’, when the media served up a trivialities ‘…by the million… They reported on, or rather chatted about, a thousand-and-one items of knowledge. … A torrent of zealous scribbling poured out over every ephemeral incident and in quality, assortment, and phraseology. All this material bore the mark of mass goods rapidly and irresponsibly turned out.’

‘…People have a very firm conviction, or belief, that they speak the same language, that they understand one another…’ The fact is ‒ they don’t. A biased media uses this insight to manipulate minds: it knows it is safe to churn out words and that nobody is likely to be able to piece together all the contradictions involved.

For a lark, I recently participated briefly in a ludicrous Farcebook exchange (something Hesse would no doubt have scorned) with some local Brexit fanatics. I attempted to point out that, quite irrespective of the arguments for and against leaving the European Union, Referendum voters had been bamboozled by abstractions ‒ word-sounds commonly used by demagogues to brainwash people into voting for their cause. For example, in the current context, ‘control’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘democracy’, ‘leadership’, ‘immigration’, ‘our country’, ‘the people’, their ‘will’, and so on. I challenged them to say what they thought these words actually meant in the context of the Referendum. I pointed out that such words easily become unexamined common currency in a so-called ‘debate’ on the assumption that everybody knows just what they mean ‒ thus subscribing to mass linguistic confusion. I didn’t actually use these words but it’s the gist of what I meant! The level of ‘debate’ goes off with the fairies into the heady realm of abstraction while the solid sticks & stones of things are left miles below.

My local Brexit fanatics either would or could not even address the idea, let alone try to offer something of an opposition. They resorted to the usual ad hominem abuse. I pointed out that such abstract words, meaningless in themselves, gave people the infinite space to fill them with just whatever ‘meaning’ they chose to inject into them so that they then inevitably voted for something that was their very own invention.

They voted for something that was their very own invention; they voted for their own idea not for anything that might be called ‘objective’.

It’s Worth Playing This Little Game…

Entertain an abstraction ‒ any one of the examples above will do ‒ and notice how your inner voice immediately swings into action to provide ‘meaning’. An abstraction always offers space to determine ‘meaning’. Meanings are individually constructed. Gurdjieff calls the phenomenon ‘Internal Considering’. When a million voters indulge in this same game the result is a million different ways of ‘thinking’. It ought not to surprise anybody that the Referendum ‘winners’ can’t agree on a way forward ‒ there was no agreement about the reasons for leaving the EU in the first place; millions of different angles cannot be reduced to purely digital alternatives.

After I’d had my amusement playing around with Deaf Ears and after suffering the unpleasant characteristics of others for a length of time that I deemed sufficient, I eventually blocked my assailants. I was described, with what Mr Polly called ‘allitrition’s artful aid’, as ‘boring Blundell’ because I ‘went on about abstractions’ when they were quite clear that my trouble was being in denial about the Absolute Truth of their Brekshit cause.

The crowd neither wants nor seeks knowledge, and the leaders of the crowd, in their own interests, try to strengthen its fear & dislike of everything new and unknown. The slavery in which mankind lives is based upon this fear. It is even difficult to imagine all the horror of this slavery. We do not understand what people are losing. But in order to understand the cause of this slavery it is enough to see how people live, what constitutes the aim of their existence, the object of their desires, passions, & aspirations, of what they think, of what they talk, what they serve & what they worship.

George Gurdjieff

All abstractions (such as, in the current context, ‘control’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘democracy’, ‘leadership’, ‘immigration’, ‘our country’, ‘the people’, their ‘will’) stimulate internal dialogue ‒ they never sustain themselves as ‘just words’ ‒ they require to be filled with meaning.

Abstractions are ‘Thought Viruses’

They infect what passes for thinking. Thinking becomes diseased.

In the turmoil following the absurd vote to ‘withdraw from Europe’ the abstraction ‘leadership’ kept on being thrown about as though everybody agreed on the meaning of the word. It’s only necessary to point out that the authoritarian personality will fill the word with loud mouth authoritarianism ‒ will require the passion of a Hitler ‒ while what we might call the ‘quiet democrat’ is likely to opt for the kind of person who leads undemonstratively from the rear, like the Baggage Handler in Hesse’s Journey to the East. We identify with our leaders.

I’m going on… The description ‘Boring Blundell’ is very accurate as far as somebody who is prepared to be bored is concerned! But I suppose I do go on a bit ‒ it’s been pointed out to me before in relation to my Globs. I’m unrepentent! There are so many angles to pursue. It seems to me that in general, spoon-fed by triviality and idiot-chat, the human race is less and less able or willing to engage in what I’d call small chunk, ‘genuine thinking’ ‒ which perhaps says something about human attention spans in general. I don’t know whether it’s a recent phenomenon, but I call it ‘the Blue Peter Effect’. Blue Peter was a UK children’s TV programme: it featured five minute slots on this & that and programmed kids into expecting presentations on which they didn’t really have to concentrate for too long. I compare its effect on intellectual expectations with that of Children’s Hour; first broadcast in 1922, it was one of the earliest radio programmes and was part of the BBC’s ethos until 1964 and had a satisfying mix of relatively serious plays and talks, including Helen Henschel on music (where I cut my teeth) and Nature Parliament in which a serious panel answered serious questions about things that happen in nature. It was what I was brought up on. I listened enthusiastically daily at five o’clock teatime for an hour for many years. Everything was low key & serious without all the A Influence razzmatazz that it’s considered children need nowadays. Now I think about it, the need to concentrate was more intense: one learned to concentrate for longer periods. The younger generation has been razzmatazzed.

How do we learn to concentrate? Not by being content with sound bites and a sense of ‘always hurrying on’. Needs peace & quiet & time to consider…

On the other hand part of me always asks why should anybody pay attention to what I think; why do I bother to attempt these long-winded word-assemblages? That’s one of my own ‘thought viruses’. For a long time, for fear of being ‘boring’, it got in the way of my ever opening my mouth! I was called ‘shy’.

What is a Thought Virus?

NLP pushes the phenomenon. It’s a belief possessing negative implications whose origin lies possibly long-buried in our other-than-conscious mind; it’s more or less impossible to discover where & how such a belief came from without a lot of delving into our past ‒ we’ve no idea where we caught the virus, it’s an other-than-conscious mental pattern that helps to determine behaviour. We harbour the virus; it feeds off our energies; it can take over when we are required to face a challenge and feel helpless or up against it in some way. It’s the result of programming, upbringing, education, people we’ve met ‒ the rebuffs, disappointments, set backs not resourcefully dealt with.

Abstractions, seeds of disease, facilitate thought viruses; they block thinking, drain the energy out of it.

How do thought viruses work? One has to investigate the things that drain resolve. I can only think how thought viruses have affected me. As an example, I fight shy of producing poems, music, artwork for competitions. I have long rented out space in my being to a thought virus that appears on competitive occasions. Because I’ve done plenty of what in NLP is called ‘time-lining’ I know exactly how, where & when I caught this particular infection. To ponder it in the first place I literally walked back into the past with a question in mind: ‘Where did this avoidance of competitive occasions originate?’

It’s a curious thing but when you get to the moment-when, you don’t discover it ‒ it just leaps out at you. So I walked back down the years. The moment leapt out at me when I got to the age of 16: I had written a few poems; I sent one to Time and Tide, a literary-political journal long since defunct ‒ they sent me a rejection slip. After that, on the very rare occasions when I entertained the thought of presenting any kind of artefact for display or performance it was always accompanied by the mantra ‘I won’t win’ or ‘This won’t be any good’. I did not resolve this till I was approaching 60! The time-line exercise got rid of the virus simply by bringing the process into consciousness. I still avoid competitive events but only because they seem to me to be a waste of time & energy. I do things now from a conviction that they just have to be done; I push things out into the world without bothering about consequences; their production ‘satisfies my soul’. The virus is eliminated. It’s nice when two or three people respond to what I do but external recognition is not important.

Learning to avoid competition had a Positive Intention for me: it was a defensive gesture helping me to avoid ‘failure’.

The pattern was, “Oops, I’m being asked to compete!” trigger thought virus ‒ “I’ll always get a rejection slip!”. Knowing the pattern robs the thought virus of its power to infect.

Since around 1987 I have just made poems, music, works of art and experimental novels without stopping to think about consequences.

This is the way out of limiting thought viruses: ‘anything is possible…’ ‘I can’.

Another example reconstructed from the behaviour I observed in my very disabled sister. When she was a few years old she overheard doctors telling my mother that she’d only live till she was about 40. I remember her waking in the night screaming out that she didn’t want to die. I don’t know how she did it but she developed a dogged determination to defy the doctors’ prognosis. Perhaps we had the same absolute bloody-mindedness that I know I have in my repertoire. I wonder how she managed to avoid the effects of what could have been a killer thought virus. How did she do that? Perhaps by simply keeping what the doctors had said in her mind, facing up to it, and having a determination to prove them wrong ‒ which she did by 25 years.

My old mum had a thought virus she never got rid of: ‘I don’t do long pieces of reading’: it successfully ensured that she always chose to skip long prose paragraphs in novels, trotting her eyes down the page for the next bit of conversation. I suppose I could have been infected by this. Somehow I developed an immunity. How did I do that? I wonder if she said sometime, “I don’t read the long boring bits!” with the emphasis on ‘don’t read the long boring bits!’ which incited me, being what they call a Polarity Responder, to do just the opposite! I jumped to attention at the call of the hidden imperative ‒ read the long boring bits!

An Otherness-thought-virus…

There’s a deeply embedded thought virus which can infect the absolute capacity to be oneself: instead of building on what you have, it creates a lurking desire to be ‘as good/clever/observant/athletic/handsome as other people are. An Otherness-thought-virus plants a constant wish to be other than what you are.

I suffered from such a virus for many years: ‘What will it be like when I function as other people do?’

By the age of 10, apparently, I use to express deviant opinions of some kind ‒ I don’t remember what they were so perhaps they have come to be the norm for me! I do recall standing on the kitchen step around 1943/44 and saying to my mother, “I don’t suppose that Hitler is all bad…” I was whisked inside lest the neighbours heard what I said!

When I was 10, my mother’s mother sought to re-assure her by saying, “Don’t worry, he’ll grow out of it by the time he’s 30…” I became infected by the Otherness-thought-virus there and then: it goes like this, “When am I going to be other than how I am right now?” The corollary was that I ought to have been different from how I was; things ought to have been different. Life was always about to start in some new mode. For many years I found it difficult to face up to my ‘real being’, warts & all. Have I done so?

Accepting various recognitions (as teacher, creative person, thinker, poem-writer, whistler of obscure pieces of music, not to mention a lot of Beethoven) has always been difficult but I have come to laugh at it all as Absurd in the technical Sartrean sense which leaves just me functioning in the world in the only way I know how.

Thought viruses prevent the healthy functioning of the individual. We all suffer from them; like the common cold they creep up on us unawares…

How do we cultivate a immune system? How might a political leader present their case in order to counteract the effect of a thought virus. It was through spreading the contagion of thought viruses that the EU-quitters won their absurd case.


First, we have to grasp fully the concept ‘thought virus’. Think what exactly a virus is. In modern times (since 1728) a virus is an ‘agent that causes infectious disease’. In the late 14th Century it meant a ‘venomous substance’, from the Latin virus ‘poison, sap of plants, slimy liquid’. Sanskrit visam ‘poison’, transmuted into the Latin viscum ‘sticky substance, birdlime’.

So a virus is a something or other with viscosity ‒ a ‘venomous substance’ that sticks to you. If you were aware of it you would take steps to scrub it off.

Since 1972 it’s been a metaphor in computing. A computer virus is a program or piece of code that is loaded on to your computer without your knowledge and runs against your wishes. It sticks there.

Computer viruses are manufactured. A simple one can make a copy of itself over and over again and is relatively easy to produce. Even such a simple virus is dangerous because it will quickly use all available memory and bring the system to a halt.

A ‘thought virus’ is a mental program deriving from something we’ve coded for ourselves sometime in the past in the way that I’ve suggested. We choose to invent a thought virus; it can infect our entire system in a jiffy. Like an original ordinary virus, thought viruses can also replicate themselves in one’s psycho-physical machine. One’s thinking process is hijacked ‒ it comes to a halt.


For a computer system there are antivirus programs which periodically check it for the best-known types of viruses. Can we develop our own anti-thought-virus program? Can we become thought-virus-resistant? What anti-thought-virus mental programs can we develop? Perhaps we need to practise exercises like these:-

Instead of merely accumulating, one must try to keep constantly the organic sensation of the body. Sense one’s body again, continually without interrupting one’s ordinary occupations ‒ to keep a little energy, to take the habit… Wet a handkerchief, wring it out, put it on your skin. The contact will remind you. When it is dry, begin again. The key to everything ‒ remain apart. Our aim is to have constantly a sensation of oneself, of one’s individuality. This sensation cannot be expressed intellectually, because it is organic. It is something which makes you independent, when you are with other people.

GI Gurdjieff

Thought Viruses and Viscosity ‒ processes that stick to us… What is the solvent?

For Sartre ‘…the viscous, that sticky sliminess of the world’, has a way of revealing an individual notion of ‘reality’. Viscosity is a something-or-other in the interface between observation and whatever’s ‘out there’. Stuff sticks to us. Without realising it, we take the sticky qualities of things to express their ‘reality’ for us. Oiliness, sliminess, viscosity become an inchoate metaphor for our being in the world. Remember that oiliness, sliminess, viscosity are characteristics of the common virus!

Mary Warnock quotes from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness:-

The honey which slides off my spoon on to the honey in the jar first sculptures the surface by fastening itself on to it in relief, and its fusion with the whole is presented as a gradual sinking, a collapse which appears at once as deflation… If an object which I hold in my hands is solid I can let it go when I like; its inertia symbolises my total power… . [But the viscous reverses things]. I, the conscious being, am suddenly compromised. I open my hand. I want to let go of the viscous object and it sticks to me, it draws me, it sucks at me. Its mode of being is neither the reassuring inertia of the solid nor a dynamism like that in water, which is exhausted in fleeing from me. It is a soft yielding action…. It lives obscurely under my fingers… At this moment I suddenly understand the snare of the viscous; it is a fluidity which holds and compromises me… The viscous seems to lend itself to me, it invites me; for a body of viscosity at rest is not noticeably different from a body of very dense liquid. But it is a trap. The viscous is like a liquid seen in a nightmare, where all its properties are animated by a sort of life and turn back against me… A sugary viscosity is the ideal of the viscous; it symbolises the sugary death of consciousness, like the death of a wasp which sinks into the jam and drowns.


Here’s another way of looking at this via the concept of identification.

We identify all the time. It keeps us asleep. We identify with our thoughts, feelings and whatever happens in life. Not properly conscious, we operate mechanically. We take this for normality. We become absorbed in things, lost in what we are doing. This is called identification. Whatever you become interested in, or associated with, sticks to you; it takes over your being like a virus and a ‘you-in yourself’ no longer exists.

I am identified now with getting my ideas straight on the screen and suddenly become aware of the music that’s playing through my headphones which had faded into the background. When we’re not identifying with this we identify with that; one identifying event displaces another ‒ adding to the typing/thinking trance, there comes another moment of identifying because I suddenly notice the green-leafed summer scene outside my window ‒ and there’s a fourth when I become aware of my hands jumping up & down on the keyboard and so on. What might be added to experience if/when we became able to focus on everything that comes at us thus with ‘divided attention’. What if I could focus on many things all at the same time? It might increase our repertoire of ways of concentrating.

Whatever else it might do, divided attention enhances discrimination; instead of being stuck in one mode of being it offers the opportunity for making comparisons… I type. I think, I look out of the window, I notice my hands responding to thinking ‒ what is the difference between these experiences?

Asleep in life, we are identified with every thought we have, every feeling and mood, every sensation, every movement. It’s just ‘life’. The way it is. At moments during the day we could learn to challenge ourselves with asking ‒ what am I identifying with right now? What word? what event? what opinion? what favourite idea? There might be things we’re identifying with that are unnecessary to the task in hand. What is it that’s taken me away from knowing who & where I am? What Attentional Virus has attacked my being? STOP! Remain apart!

Attentional Viruses

There are many different kinds of Attentional Viruses. We identify with them. The common feature is that they all get us to look at things askew. For example:-

‘This AV is called getting angry’ = being in Getting-angry-I
‘This AV is called feeling hurt and left out’ = Being-in-feeling-hurt-I
‘This AV is called being disappointed’ = Being-in-experiencing-disappointment-I
‘This AV is called being disorganised’ = Being-in-disorganised-I
‘This AV is called being enthusiastic’ = Being-in-over-zealous-I

Identification wastes energy. Awareness of the act of dividing attention increases energy ‒ the resulting ability to shift attention helps tell us what’s important and what isn’t. Learning to make a shift away from an ‘I’ that’s identifying with something unnecessary (such as trying to win an argument, as I was briefly in my Farcebook exchange) towards something more important. ‘One must not do anything unnecessary’, said Ouspensky.

In a moment of not being identified you seem to be in a quiet, central place in yourself and you are aware of the different ‘I’s and events trying to advance and capture your attention. It’s like keeping a gap, maintained by some invisible protector, (Meta-I, Protecting-I) between you and the crowd of things. This can be called a ‘Work-state’ as opposed to a ‘Life-state’. So, in order to have the blissful experience of a moment of non-identification it is necessary to put yourself in a ‘Work-state’ every day.

There are many ways of doing this including: remembering your aim and remembering yourself at the same time: ‘this is me here and now reviewing something I’ve read in connection with the system that’s not a system; going over in my mind what happened the previous day…’ Or else bringing to mind something you want to be more conscious of regarding another person or a certain situation; trying to see events and people in the light of the non-system.

Struggling against identification needs practice first in easier moments. As PDOuspensky said: ‘You cannot learn to swim if you fall in the sea during a storm. You must learn in calm water. Then perhaps if you fall in you’ll be able to swim…’


Eliminating thought viruses requires breaking their effects down, discovering their origin, making comparisons, forming discrete discriminations. We can do that with the thought viruses of abstractionism.

Take ‘Control’ and ‘Sovereignty’ ‒ two abstractions by which people were conned into voting to quit the European Union’; they identified uncritically with airy nothings ‒ abstractions.

It’s not that abstractions are totally meaningless; they are shorthand terms, pure representations, of a complex set of factors & events; they result in our losing touch with all the variables; they are airy nothings in themselves.

Unpacking abstractions is an intellectually satisfying thing to do: it harnesses the resources of our whole being ‒ intellect, feeling, action.

Let’s do that with ‘Control’ and ‘Sovereignty’. They relate to ‘Leadership’: when you have personal control over events you have power/authority over them; you are able to lead things your way.

It hardly needs pointing out that the immediate result of the Brexiteers voting for the abstraction ‘Control’ has been that things are spiralling downwards ‘out of control’ ‒ markets falling, monetary collapse, companies closing. ‘Control’ has been lost, whatever that means!

And the two major parties in the UK are plunged into a ‘Leadership’ crisis. The ‘debate’ seems to centre on personality rather than policy ‒ ‘who do we want?’ rather than ‘where do we want to go or be led?’ Or even ‘how do we want to be led?’

The sole challenger to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party says he doesn’t have the qualities of ‘Leadership’ which enables her to hide behind an abstraction rather than deal with the question of ‘where do we want to be?’

We need a strategy for analysing the term ‘leadership’. On the Enneagram, a powerful analytical tool said to be thousands of years old, Fixation 8 is about the qualities of leadership. Take your pick!

1. A Top Form leader is one who

• has a charismatic aura of absolute self-mastery being able to inspire others to action
• is seen by others as a benefactor, creating opportunities for peace & prosperity
• inspires loyalty & devotion
• is able, given a high degree of courage both physical & moral, to restrain any tendency to naked power
• is self-reliant so that set-backs become opportunities ‒ always rises to new challenges
• does not suffer from self-doubt and is not given to introspection or concern with identity
• operates with a kind of innocent & balanced impartiality
• is seen as a protector and provider
• inspires others to work for something larger than themselves
• is benign, possessing great intrinsic authority

2. Leaders who act out of self-interest rather than altruistically fail ultimately because they are

• rugged individualists, adventurers, entrepreneurs, intent on own ends
• not cooperative ‒ not good team players
• driven by the profit motive ‒ money is power
• content to make deals
• on the descent from being healthy leaders towards being dominating bosses
• believers that power is not an abstraction but something you have to succeed at
• inclined to feel that expanding a sphere of influence expands sense of self
• literally and metaphorically craving power to express self
• into domination ‒ being the Big Shot with an egocentric view of the truth
• happy to rule by patronage in order to get supporters
• unlikely to back down because pride is at stake
• of an authoritarian cast of mind

3. Then there are extreme cases of so-called leaders who need to be taken out somehow. They

• become ruthless tyrants, belligerent and bullying ‒ leadership is being tough
• believe that might is right ‒ the law of the jungle applies
• think expedience is all
• forbid all questioning of their commands; only intimidate those they sense are vulnerable ‒ have to be sure they can succeed
• are impossible to be intimate with since friendliness and cooperation are taken to be signs of weakness
• have no compunction about lying, cheating, stealing, reneging on promises
• act in a way that suggests ‘More power ‒ less need to justify’
• are desperate to hold on to power
• have delusional ideas about being god-like
• set themselves up as super-people, beyond morality
• lack any capacity of self-restraint
• want to destroy before being destroyed
• believe that survival is all (‘Better Dead Than Red’!)
• defy death ultimately by stamping on others

Such a taxonomy provides a detailed analysis of the abstraction ‘Leadership’. The key characteristic of somebody with top leadership qualities is ‘a charismatic aura of absolute self-mastery’, that is to say, the ability to be a leader to oneself.

Unfortunately, individuals with an authoritarian mentality can only believe that an authoritarian leader of ‘types’ 2 and 3 is worthy to be a leader. Authoritarianism is a very persuasive abstraction. Authoritarianism is rife. The Brexit campaign was run by people of an authoritarian cast of mind; it was voted for by those with a similar cast of mind.

…when the conquest of nature has secured the possibility of nourishment for everybody, and when the growth of technique has made large-scale co-operation profitable, the conflict of man with man becomes an anachronism, and should end in a political and economic unification such as is sought by the advocates of world government. By this means an external harmony of man with man can be established, but it will not be a stable harmony until men have achieved a genuine harmony within themselves, and have ceased to regard a part of themselves as an enemy fo be vanquished.

Bertrand Russell: New Hopes for a Changing World (1951)


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There’s something about the preservation of old notebooks…

I wonder what’s to be gained from keeping a notebook?

My friend Paul Hickey prompted me to hunt through some old notebooks to find a picture I remember preserving there; it’s a page from a book I used to read my kids in the 1960’s ‒ a 1930’s depiction of a street by St Paul’s I once knew very well. There’s a nice eerie emptiness about it. The building will have been destroyed in the blitz. The picture feels to me to depict a vanished world, a kind of stillness I wish were possible now instead of this brash, loud-mouthed and stupid New World.

I suppose it is an illusion – this stillness – says more about me than what then constituted ‘Reality’…


Just a few years after - the 1940/41 blitz...

Just a few years after – the 1940/41 blitz… Aiming for St Paul’s but missing it…

On the opposite page in the notebook there’s a fanciful poem I wrote (1971) when I carefully preserved the page from a child’s reader.

I am not of this time

‒ I should have died fifty years ago;
some fault there was in my birth-time: this scene
from a child’s picture book convinces me (though
there may have been several other indications)

I am content with dingy inefficient lighting;
with incredibly slow box-shape cars;
with stars and moon that never seem to move;
with steam trains winding down inefficient sidelines
(Reading to Redhill under Box Hill for example)
‒ an empty railway platform at Adlestrop…

if I had died with Owen & Butterworth
I’d at least have had the chance of hearing Mahler
& early Schoenberg             Debussy ‒
maybe I’d have contrived to meet Charles Ives

and you might have lived in Ancient Greece
listening to Pericles            wandered in a green grove
disguised as a boy talking with Socrates;
our paths would not have crossed
unless some transparent timeslip
had so confused the lines of time
as to have sent us cycling down the same
Edwardian lanes to a cream tea
in a Cotswold village around the end
of the first decade of the century

but if I’d died fifty years ago
the children to whom I read this book
would not have existed…

With all the world in an empty turmoil on a Summer Sunday morning in 2016, I turn the pages of the notebook haphazardly. Rambling back there, 45 years ago, I enjoy the feeling of escape. Talking of escape…

Scan0028Stuck on another page, here’s my National Service Enlistment Notice! What memories! I suppose that many young lads 60 years ago might have regarded the experience of National Service not as an escape but as imprisonment. Not I! It was a significant turning point in my life; it’s only relatively recently that I’ve come to appreciate how much of a turning point it really was. The whole experience converted me to pacifism for a start. Detached suddenly from life in a London suburb, I entered this remote bubble in time as I enter it as a different bubble from a different age now; its curious events are still lively within me. How easy it is to make all the past live again!

Here’s the poem on the opposite page in my notebook:-


because I lacked conscientiousness

I made no objection ‒
when The Big Day came I waved to my mother
outside Mrs Lewis’s exactly where
I watched my father wave to her
fifteen years before when he went off to Real War

he’d made me an item for shaving (mirror fixed
in a carefully-hinged wooden frame) that I never used

Commander Crabb was dead ‒ the newspapers
contained inquests on the event;
I didn’t know what to say to my father
who took my departure very seriously
having a sort of pride in his unappreciative son:
I wondered if he too was thinking of that earlier time

I was in a state of dream; my train-reading
was HGWells’ Short History of the World
it seemed relevant… seemed to place
my little shattered heroism in a short perspective

before long the entire railway system seemed
full of soldiers coming & going
joining up being demobbed

one group laughed uproariously
when I told them I was just joining up ‒
I supposed they’d nearly finished

at Victorian-built Fulwood Barracks north of Preston
I lost my old self making my way
into a new world put on fresh clothes
staggered across a parade ground
that afternoon with a great weight in my new kitbag

Entrance to Fulwood Barracks Preston

Entrance to Fulwood Barracks Preston

The reference to Commander Crabb is interesting. He was a British Royal Navy frogman and MI6 diver who vanished during a reconnaissance mission around a Soviet cruiser berthed at Portsmouth. He was presumed dead on 19th April 1956.

There were various speculations as to the reasons for his disappearance: that he’d been killed by some secret Soviet underwater weapon; that he had been captured and imprisoned in Lefortovo prison with prison number 147, that he had been brainwashed to work for the Soviet Union to train their frogman teams; that he had defected and became a commander in the Soviet Navy; that he was in the Soviet Special Task Underwater Operational Command in the Black Sea Fleet; or that MI6 had asked him to defect so he could become a double agent.

Did his image (my awareness of it in 1971) appear in the poem as an ironical possible direction for my army career? Now it simply reminds me that people appear and disappear, fading from the collective memory ‒ as though they had never existed though at the time speculation was all the rage and their being was firmly planted in the imagination. Thus the media (who really couldn’t care less) stir things in the False Imagination. What Gurdjieff calls ‘The News of the Day’…

Around the time of this notebook (1971) my daughter Ruth was 3…



…and I was three years into teaching. Here’s a rather strange poem that starts with something a kid said to me as a protest but goes off into what seem now like random ruminations. Perhaps I was just ‘writing everything down’ as an ironic response. Now I’m very glad I wrote everything down!


why do we have to write everything down?
why can’t we just learn?
OVERLAP WITH what Auden said:
how do I know what I mean
till I see what I’ve written?

the old man in the depth of a clock
kettle spurt               spent match
transistor turmoil bursts upon
fluted further world
with aged anger

the best ruse is offhandedness;
head off compulsive noises meant
to fill the gap between generations

CLOCK continues as it has since 1918
when he finished the war;
the old men of the tribe ‒
how much do they know?
they effect to know so much ‒
they fill the gap with rage


At Kingston Grammar School, for homework. we used to have to translate little sentences from Hillard & Botting. They often concerned an odd figure ‘Cotta’; we had no idea who or what he was ‒ during their eccentric, planless, lessons the eccentric masters made no attempt to tell us so that the sentences we struggled with remained totally abstract & remote. Cotta dux fuit copiarum Romanarum.


Kingston Grammar School – the Quad where we used to play British Bulldog… There were no chairs or litter bins in my time…

Now, by employing the amazing services of Wikipedia, sixty years after it might have been of real interest, I now remedy the lack in my adolescent education. It seems that:-

Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta (died 54 BC) was an officer in the Gallic army of Gaius Julius Caesar. The little we know of Cotta is found in Book V of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico. In 54 BC, when Caesar returned from his second expedition to Britain, he found food in short supply so he distributed his eight legions amongst a larger number of Gallic states from which to draw sustenance during the winter. To the eighth legion, which had recently been raised from across the Po he added another five cohorts. In command of this legion and the other cohorts, he put Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta. These two were appointed Legati (Lieutenant-Generals)…

The troops of Sabinus and Cotta were sent by Caesar into the country of the Eburones, in Belgica, most of which lies between the Meuse and the Rhine where they set up Fort Aduatuca in which to winter. The Eburones tribe was under the rule of Ambiorix and Catuvolcus. These two, instigated by the Treveri, collected their men and after a fortnight, fell on a detachment of Romans who were collecting wood. The marauding Eburones went on to assault the Roman Fort. The Roman infantry mounted the ramparts and despatched a squadron of Spanish horse which, falling on the flank of the enemy, routed them in that engagement… Caesar [later] notes that Sabinus lost his mind, running from cohort to cohort and issuing ineffectual orders. Cotta, by contrast, kept calm and did his duty as a commander, in action his duty as a soldier…

What a splendid man was Cotta as compared with the feeble Sabinus lost in history! Cotta, the dynamic, devoted to the airy abstraction Duty. And all this was kept secret from us…

I remember Cotta

under the summer apple tree of youth:
Cotta an athletic guy
leaping from exercise to exercise
in Hillard & Rotting
with his death defying exploits

Cotta will attack the Belgians
Cotta pugnabit Belgas
Cotta has attacked the Belgians
Cotta Belgas pugnavit
(we will attack Cotta
pugnabimus Cottam
if he gets stroppy)
Cotta had attacked the Belgians ‒
pity the poor Belgians:
whose Highway 13
had they been traipsing on?

the Belgians love their country
Belgae patriam amant
how my memory serves me ‒
the Belgians attacked Cotta (hoorah!)

Cotta had reported the battle
(Cotta pugnam nuntiaverat)

they will attack the Vietcong
they have attacked the Vietcong
they had attacked the Vietcong
the Vietcong will not lay down & die
(Vietcongi patriam amant)

and who will report their victory?
one difficult to decline or conjugate:
survival of indiscriminate napalming
of Highway 13            limitless defoliation;
what isn’t destroyed in a VC offensive
gets laid waste in a counter-attack
neat & tidy ‒ but how do you
define ‘victory’ ‒ who reported
the victories of Cotta?

Cotta mortuus est (O Cotta!)








Highway 13 runs from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) via Lai Khe and An Loc into Cambodia…

Other People by Ruth

Happier People by Ruth aged about 3

There is a yard or so of notebooks on the shelf behind me… They mean a great deal to me… Why?
What do they mean?

Why do I keep a notebook as a matter of habit? I suppose I had always intended that they would form the basis of future writing.

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A Secret Mythology (R10)

A Few Preliminary Examples

• Three years running at the beginning of the 1990’s I chose to begin the academic Summer Holidays by cycling solo 1000 miles in a fortnight from John o’Groats to Lands End, from the top to the bottom of island Britain, a different way each time, averaging 92 miles a day. That was when I was very fit. It pleased me greatly to do this eating up of miles – it pleases me greatly now that I did it and can recall, as I often do, mental images of events along the road.

• I stick with old hats, old clothes, find it difficult to throw things away. I want many pictures on the wall to provide anchors for a sense of Being. The things I value seem to be a part of me: the collection of stones on my desk, the oddities I’ve bought in junk shops, a fountain pen from the sixties, remembrances of my dead sister, a large old collection of vinyl LP’s, as good as new, that I listen to with headphones in the early morning before it’s light. I feel so comfortable with all these things around me. It pleases me to find myself admitting all this at last.

• I’ve composed miles and miles of music, most of it never played. I’ve handmade over 10,000 paperback books for other people (and a few for myself) in the last 25 years.

• The amassing of things, words, sounds, paintings, ideas, people, events… “How do you find the time?” people ask. Perhaps I have been well on the way to learning how to escape time.

• I started writing ROOM books in 2001. I’m on my tenth now (March 2016) – they consist of over two hundred pages each containing literary-political-philosophical-Gurdjieffian rambles, no longer arranged in chapters, but in Combologues which are, literally, ‘knots of words’. When I first came across the word I found it intriguing that it contained letters from my name in proper sequence – CoBlu – and decided to replace ‘chapters’ with it. At the end of a section by Jacques Lacarrière in Needleman & Baker’s Gurdjieff – Essays & Reflections we are told that ‘a Combologue is a chaplet used in Greece for prayers as well as for the pleasure of the fingers’. He says

Certain people practise prayer or meditation. I practise writing. It is like an ascetic discipline but also like pleasure, like work that is identical with play. And during all these years… your image [Gurdjieff’s], your thought, your teaching have been like the thread of a combologue along which the progressive experiences of my life have been told…

Progressive Experiences of My Life

– long solo bicycle rides for forty-two years till 1994, the writing of miles & miles of words and of music, the fabrication of books for others, the writing of books for myself, old hats, all old hat things and this house as a museum of life – I love its creaky old floorboards…

Jacques Lacarrière continues:-

I am taking the road again, knowing that, starting tonight, I am going to load myself up with and delight in… emotions and sentiments: the scent of the wind, the cries of children playing in the twilight, the silhouette of a furtive cat on the counter, the silence of an old café where Time itself sleeps and dreams. I love these hours and claim them for myself… They build up in me, day after day, season after season, that part which perhaps will escape Time. Yes, I am voluntarily rooted in the ephemeral (others might say the impermanent), which is a way of being faithful to Time…

…And a way of being true to the secret of one’s inner life, the pattern of which saves us from drawing the most sinister conclusion as a result of accepting the ultimate truth that human existence is completely absurd, has no conceivable rhyme or reason or purpose.

So how does one construct a personal meaning of life? How escape the demolition of self because of a belief in its utter absurdity?

The things I’ve listed seem to me to be deeply charged with meaning and significance related to the minutiae, the oddities – what to other people will no doubt seem inexplicable or even crass eccentricities. I think one must hold tight to crass eccentricities! Have a positive pride in them. I’m with John Cowper Powys in The Meaning of Culture where he defines such pride ‘as an integral feeling of self-respect associated with what we may call a person’s Life Illusion… [which. he says] is that view of one’s self which includes both one’s role in the world as it appears to others and to the part played by one’s self, in secret solitude in regard to the universe…’

The first five paragraphs of this essay I recognise as coming out of my ‘secret solitude’. I’m not boasting about what I’ve done, nor advocating that anybody else do as I have done; the things I’ve listed are just what I have done; they are objective reality; they apply solely to me, to my singular self; they define something of who & what I imagine I am. But in what sense do they constitute a ‘Life Illusion’? Why an illusion? To describe something as an illusion is to make of it a pretence, an invention, a distortion or trick, something that deceives by producing a false or misleading impression of ‘reality’.

And so, of course, the key question is – what is reality? Perhaps what you invent stands over against everything that anybody else might describe as ‘reality’; it’s a determination to redefine things by dint of your own mind-power. Powys says it is to hold

…in deep contempt all the opinions of the crowd and all objective and worldly standards [so that] the ultimate pride of personality within us, this self-respect by means of which we lie back upon an unassailable life-illusion [would make it] perfectly content with itself quite apart from external success, fame, prestige, or any reputation in the eyes of others…

It’s an illusion, perhaps, because it takes us over in the way it does when it could have been different; it’s an illusion if we think it’s a way of dealing with life that nobody else has at their command. And it’s unassailable because, once you begin to run with it, nobody can deprive you of it.

Powys defines Culture as ‘the conscious development of life-illusion’. My ROOM books (which are literally a ‘growth’ I’ve cultured) therefore consist of an area of my life-illusion – what I consider life is about: the things that concern me in the solitude of my innermost being; the interconnectedness of all things, people, events, the memorialising; amongst other things they recount the way books I’ve read have crafted my being. It occurs to me that I must sometime somehow have chosen to have developed a consistently diligent attitude to reading to have persevered with this connecting business – it must have taken a fairly rare bit of dedication to be alert to the existence of connections, to the capturing or forging of them. It’s not that I ever set out to do this: it was an organic process; it crept up on me down all the lengthy years. The dedication grew on me; it wasn’t something I made an oath to but one afternoon sometime in the mid-’90’s I came to the conclusion that the most resourceful ‘virtual question’ I was in the habit of asking myself, entirely self-prompted, was – How can I connect this with that, x with y, in whatever context I might happen to find myself. This brought making connections to the top of my mind – a good place to hold anything that might contribute to what could turn out to be useful for whatever it is that’s deep down hidden away in one’s life-illusion!

I’d have to admit that it might all be an illusion – a rather complicated disguise behind which I’m saying that life is books, philosophy, Gurdjieff and descriptions of things, events and attitudes that I consider to be worth recording in detail; and the illusion that I’ve always suffered most from that life is not about ambition, prestige, fame, money (and all the rest of the A Influences) but about a systematic return to Essence.

Of course, there are many things which disturb one’s life-illusion. The frequent attacks from outside; the dismantling of things by agents large or small at all times of day and night. To counter them one must hold tight to all one’s crass eccentricities. And gather the self into the larger Self and all the selves into just the ONE.

Absolute Joy in Ordinary Things

Crass eccentricities seem to come suddenly from some level of existence one knows not where – part of one’s life-illusion, the dream of life. ‘…What one is wise to do with books is to saturate oneself in their imaginative atmospheres…’ (JCP op cit) and then locate the atmospheres in real life to

gather together the forces of his inmost being as he stands under any sort of tree upon any patch of bare earth or uncut grass, and let him feel himself as a human animal, unique among his fellows in his own peculiar personal sensations, carried through space-time on the surface of this terrestrial orb!… Then will all manner of old obscure feelings, evoked by both sun and wind, warmth and cold, earth and grass, air and rain, rise up in his mind. And he will remember certain street-corners where the evening light has fallen in particular ways. He will remember certain bridges where the rain-wet stones or the mosses have taken on a certain delicate sadness, or have pierced his heart ‘with thoughts beyond the reaches of his soul. He will remember the tarry smells and the salty breaths of this or that harbour-mouth, passed carelessly enough at the time, but returning upon him now as of the very essence of his life. He will remember how he once came up the slope of a far-off hill, following some half-forgotten road; and there will come upon him vague memories of remote gates overgrown with elder-bushes and with tall nettles; memories of bare beech-trunks, God knows on what far uplands, of stranded barges in stagnant back waters, of green seaweed on lonely pier-posts, of glittering sun-paths, or moon-paths, on sea-waters and river-waters, of graveyards where the mounds of the dead were as drowsy under the long years as if the passing of time had been the passing of interminable flocks of sheep. Thus will he tell like beads the memories of his days and their long burden; while the unspeakable poetry of life will flood his being with a strange happiness.

If he waits long enough, thus standing alone, thus staring at earth and sky, there will even, perhaps, come over him that immemorial sensation, known to saints and mystics from the beginning of time, wherein the feeling of all outward things is lost in a singular ecstasy.

This feels like it might be the result of what Jacques Lacarrière described as being ‘voluntarily rooted in the ephemeral’. Rooting oneself in sunshine & rain, the tracery of cloud formations, the trees up on the hill (Chanctonbury Ring springs to mind), the pool in the forest, silent as moon-dust, is to return to elemental certainty.

But the question continues to gnaw away: why is this a life-illusion?

Why is this a Life-Illusion?

In The Art of Growing Old John Cowper Powys says:-

We can now take stock of our situation in a fresh and new way. Both to ourselves and to the world at large we are now no better than the little green grub that hides itself in what is usually called ‘Cuckoo-spit’…

In the grand scheme of things we are pretty negligible beings but we give ourselves airs & graces and act as though we are lords & ladies of creation giving not a second thought to the way we are destroying our living space, treading on the faces of those less able to fend for themselves than we are. We are negligible beings nevertheless. It is because of this that, in order to sustain our Being, we must create a life-illusion of some kind.

If that is what we are [grub in cuckoo-spit], let us boldly and shamelessly accept the situation! We, an abject and contemptible failure, we, a wretched and helpless criminal, we, a laughing-stock for all well-constituted persons, can turn round quietly now, even as the poorest blind-worm can ‘turn’, and enjoy once again the roar of the wind, the rustle of the leaves, the roll of the waves, the lights and shadows on the dust-heap, the waving grasses, the scattered stones!

‘Voluntarily rooted in the ephemeral’…

It will depend on the quality of our imagination whether the feeling that we are on a level with the weakest offspring of planetary life gives us – in addition to the lifting up of our own heart – a never-before-experienced thrill of melting tenderness for all these fellow-entities, children of the same Great Mother, who are as helpless, and often as vicious and mean and cowardly, as we are ourselves!

As a defence mechanism against the possible mental overwhelm that comes from contemplating our status as worthless, absurd and contemptible beings it is perhaps necessary to invent some protective factor – what Ibsen called a ‘saving lie’, as Powys points out, one that hides the brutal truth from people we relate to and also prevents us from giving way to total personal despair. Powys calls it a ‘life-illusion’ which is ‘…our inmost, secretest, personal respect for ourselves…’ He says it is important

…owing to our manifold weaknesses and infirmities – to keep [our personal sense of Being] inviolable to all shocks and to strip it of all pretence and assumption. Get it down – that is the clue-word – to the lowest and simplest level you possibly can! I don’t mean that we should yield up one jot of our natural and legitimate pride in being ourselves. Pride of this sort is twin-brother to that planetary humility which is our sublimest novum organum of wisdom.

What I mean is that we should have the pride, just as we have the courage, of our inherent limitations. And it is here that Nature, with her primordial elements of earth, air, fire, and water, plays so mysterious a part. For there are only four things that render our Life-Illusion absolutely indifferent to the Opinion of the World and completely impervious to our blunders and failures in the Struggle for Existence; and these four things are: absorption in books; devotion to a cause; some special erotic obsession; and the cultivation of a life of pure sensation. Of these four the last-mentioned is the only one completely within the power of an ordinary person’s will.

It’s still an illusion because the reality is that we are worthless as ever, absurd and contemptible beings who feel obliged to overcome that horrifying idea: some of us escape from it into politics or religion or sport or some such invented diversion in order to calm ourselves down; the relief of belonging to a larger organised group or set of rigid beliefs gives us the idea that all is in fact right with the world while we still live in antagonisms and furious rivalry. No progress, says Gurdjieff, till you realise fully that you are a No-thing going no-where,

Oh, what misery we escape, what heart-burnings, what disappointments, what bitterness, what pessimism, what tragic humiliation, by living in our immediate sensations, in place of competing with others or depending on the love, admiration, esteem of others, or on our position in society and our achievements in the Great World!

This is how celebrities of various kinds survive their ultimate pointlessness: ‘…their inmost Life-Illusion artificially blown up, like the rubber tyre of a wheel, by the air-pump of public opinion…’ To avoid such artificiality we need what Gurdjieff called ‘Second Education’ which we have to work hard at to achieve. ‘First Education’ is the standard one we get from parents, schooling and society in general seeking to fit us into patterns and forms that already exist. It is hard to escape First Education and the beliefs and proclivities it lumbers us with: we learn to self-justify, to make accounts tit for tat, to engage in A Influences, to relish negative emotion, making money, paying the mortgage, sport and what people call fun… We have to

…reach by a deliberate cultivation the sort of proud humility… which is absolutely essential if [we] are to face [our] own soul and… senses, and get [our] Life-Illusion down to the ground, where it can neither fall any lower nor be punctured by any sharp flint of reality when it takes to the road!


Not all the ‘mindfulness’ courses under the sun, or over it, will provide you with such an elemental starting point. Examples of a person in their life-illusion are not very sophisticated; simple things suffice; all that’s needed is to be ‘rooted in the ephemeral’. So

It always gave Wolf a peculiar thrill thus to tighten his grip upon his stick, thus to wrap himself more closely in his faded overcoat. Objects of this kind played a queer part in his secret life-illusion. His stick was like a plough-handle, a ship’s runner, a gun, a spade, a sword, a spear. His threadbare overcoat was like a medieval jerkin, like a monk’s habit, like a classic toga! It gave him a primeval delight merely to move one foot in front of the other, merely to prod the ground with his stick, merely to feel the flapping of his coat about his knees, when this mood predominated. It always associated itself with his consciousness of the historic continuity – so incredibly charged with marvels of dreamy fancy – of human beings moving to and fro across the earth. It associated itself, too, with his deep, obstinate quarrel with modern inventions, with modern machinery…

Thus the eponymous hero of John Cowper Powys’ Wolf Solent which I haven’t read for many many years.

As if to confirm the source of the benefits to be derived from being ‘rooted in the ephemeral’, Powys quite often resorts to making bright lists of the things that root him – a ‘conscious banking up’ of observable phenomena, of memorable moments.

Our innermost self, as we grow more and more conscious of it, surprises us again and again by new explosions of feeling drawn from emotional, nervous, and even chemical reactions; but for all its surreptitious dependence on these impulses, its inner report upon its own nature is that it is a clear, hard, enclosed, secretive nucleus with a detached and independent existence of its own… What… denotes the cultured person is the conscious banking up of this philosophy of his own, its protection from disintegrating elements, the guiding of its channel-bed through jungles of brutality and stupidity.
(The Meaning of Culture)

Memorable Moments and the Food of Pure Impressions

A deliberate dwelling on ‘memorable moments’ from the past serves to root oneself in the continuity of one’s Being. What is it that makes ‘moments’ into ones that become ‘memorable’? The knack of saying to oneself, “I shall remember this moment for the rest of my life…” will fix things in the whatever-it-is preserves things in the mind; I suppose that this can start any time but for me it started around the age of four pottering around my father’s garden, looking under stones for small wild life, poking the pond to disturb newts, staring up at the clouds and the moon, wondering how far up the sky was & what kept it in place…


My Father’s Garden

So, early on, with no idea that my experience was of any significance, I consumed what Gurdjieff called the Food of Pure Impressions. Then I began to crave such experiences and bind them together.

Gurdjieff calls the Food of Pure Impressions the highest form of food, that which contributes most nourishingly to one’s innermost life – more than fish & chips and any more obvious sustenance. I think it’s what Powys is achieving in his listing process.

It is a memorable moment in one’s intellectual life when one realizes that it is not learning for learning’s sake, or knowledge for the sake of knowledge that is the object of our secret struggle with inertia and futility. It is simply that we may enjoy the most exciting sensations that life offers; and enjoy them over the longest possible extension of time. Among such sensations one of the most thrilling is that vague feeling of old countryside romance which emanates from certain far-off highways and certain remote villages. Standing upon some old stone bridge where the moss grows green and untouched on the curve of the dark arches above the water, one often feels that there, is a silent unspeakable secret hovering about such places that no writer has ever really caught.

To develop such images by ratiocination into some long prose elaboration would destroy their purity; just a list is all that’s needed – to rescue the minutiae from the oblivion they might otherwise suffer.

Found Poem

Another way of rescuing words from books that I relish is to construct ‘Found Poems’ from a prose text. I’ve found that some writers’ products yield up such poems more than others; in Powys’ prose texts you often suddenly find yourself reading something with a natural poetic style. This from Chapter 3 of The Philosophy of Solitude:-

sink down

deep into your soul say:
here I am a living conscious self
surrounded by walls
streets pavements houses roofs

above me the boundless sky
beneath the solid earth;
all around me are people
of my own kind with their fixed ideas
and their fixed habits

out of my loneliness I stretch forth my spirit
towards all those inanimate things
others are passing carelessly by
and taking carelessly for granted –
towards these stones
towards this dust
towards this brickwork & ironwork
& woodwork on which sun or moon
is shining upon which rain is falling
clouds rolling mist sinking down

I am in a prison – it’s all the same!
I stretch out my spirit
to these walls to that window
to that square of blueness
of yellowness of blackness
which is the window of my place

these inanimates –
inanimate space light & darkness
are my universe:
the world into which this living self
has been flung by an inscrutable destiny

it is in my power
to gather up my forces
and embrace this universe
represented by these material elements

it is in my power
to assert my nature my inmost being
against these things
upon these things

it is in my power
to satisfy my senses upon them
and to feel as I stretch out my spirit
towards them that I am embracing
and yet defying
the whole material world

it matters nothing
how ignorant I am of the great religions
the great philosophies
the prophets & gurus & sages
for here I am – the I am I
within this weak feeble wretched
discomforted body stretching out my spirit
to the great mystery of the universe
as represented by these queer objects
these stones this woodwork
this dark night
these gusts of rainy wind

only in loneliness…
these walls these half-open windows
through which sun or dark night appears
are fringes edges margins
of an unfathomable universe
on the brink of which we stand
while soul grapples with the unknown

In its original context this sequence is an understandable gestalt, a complete isolable notion, that renders itself into a Pure Impression like the circle of trees of Chanctonbury in the South Downs (which I haven’t seen for many years) just seeming to be awaiting release from its chain of words.

This is my secret mythology – entirely mine. It’s part of my life-illusion that one can rescue things from its Absurdity to make novelty.

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Emotions and Neologisms

On the rare occasions when my wife says she doesn’t feel very well I ask her, in order to be of assistance, how specifically she doesn’t feel very well. She usually says she’s not too sure so I suggest that perhaps her ‘gronglins are condibulated…’ or that it’s a sad case of ‘koprinitis’ – something like that.

“How do you think up these words?” she asks.
“It’s second nature,” I say.

So, I ask myself where do I get this kind of response from? Simple! I’ve been ‘moodelling’ for sixty years on HGWells’ very special hero Mr Polly who, compensating for his meagre education by the voracious reading he organised for himself, had come across words that interested him but mangled them when he tried to use them to represent things he wanted to say: so, amongst other things he talked about ‘allitrition’s artful aid’, (alliteration’s artful aid) ‘exploratious menanderings’ (exploring that meanders all over the place) and ‘sesquippledan verboojuice’.

Sesquipedalian, a word you won’t hear everyday, refers to words that are a foot and a half long (Horace). Wells had his hero indulging in a ‘pleonasm’: he meant to say ‘sesquipedalian verbosity’ two words which pretty well mean the same thing.

My abiding interest in words and their relation to external ‘reality’ started when I had to study The History of Mr Polly in June 1954 for the Ordinary Level examination, as a contribution to the rubber-stamping of my educational progress through life. I learned that, when stuck for a word to express your meaning, you could simply make one up and, unless they were interested enough to ask a question, people would assume that you knew what you were talking about. Politicians, especially those of the Right and religious deviants do this all the time. One should be on constant guard against the ridiculous notion that they know what they’re talking about.

GIGurdjieff was the arch neologiser: my favourite invented word of his is sinkrpoosarams which means ‘belief in any old twaddle’; those who go along with Right Wing politicians and established religious maniacs suffer from sinkrpoosarams.


Two thoughts arise: firstly, all words are made up; secondly, the selection of made-up words we each individually choose to add to our repertoire provides a unique invented universe which we run the risk of proclaiming to be the only one of its kind. I later found, like a clap of thunder, that Benjamin Lee Whorf, developing the concept of linguistic relativity, had said something very similar, under the influence of his mentor Edward Sapir who held that ordinary language has a tendency to obscure, rather than facilitate, the mind to perceive and describe the world as it really is.

Thanks to Pat Mason!

I began to think about this once more when Whitehead’s ‘searchlight’ swung round to focus on the subject of words and their effect on what we like to think of as ‘meaning’. This was prompted by a series of interesting questions high-lighted by my friend Pat Mason who is writing a book.

Her questions went like this:-

• Does shame cause anxiety or does anxiety mean that people suffering with it are more susceptible to feeling shame?
• Is anxiety the root cause of feeling shame – or is intense shame the root cause of anxiety?
• Is low self esteem caused by shame or is it that if one has low self esteem, one is more susceptible to feeling shame?
• Is it a matter of Cause and Effect? Or are these things all part of the same continuum as in the Shame Circle?

Pat’s model:-


Quick-click to enlarge…

I suggested that the key bit of this ‘Shame System’ might be ‘Meaning attribution through language’. Naming things lends a spurious kind of existence to whatever’s named.

Language being an intellectual invention – something totally separate from the way things are (in itself an invented concept!) – it is in business somehow to manage the meaning we ascribe to events which just keep happening in spite of the way we try to pin things down with words; things going on around us all the time have a nasty habit of escaping the net of words we try to weave around them; the words we succeed in imposing on ‘reality’ lead us to create a false notion of it but, of course, what would we do without words? Robert Graves’ lovely poem The Cool Web expresses this precisely:-

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

I accept totally Benjamin Lee Whorf’s conclusion that the words we have at our disposal, or have come to deal in because they ‘work’ for us, create the universe we imagine we live in. If we’re diligent we inspect the universe we imagine we live in and adjust the words we use to what we find. Habitual satisfaction with the words we have at our disposal depends on our sense of ‘fit’: what seems to work for us in our context is reinforced over time and so we continue with the pattern of words that appears to represent our working ‘reality’, whether it’s anything like το ὀν (=being, the whole damned shoot) or not. If we’re not that diligent we stick with the old words and rest content to play the same old tracks.

One way of judging ‘appropriateness’ is to notice how worked up people get when faced with something that, through the use of words, causes cognitive dissonance for them: when one’s notion of ‘fit’ is disturbed by a bunch of words that suggest that there alternative ways of constructing a version of the universe one can go into a spectacular tizzy.

A mind more open to other possibilities might exclaim, “How interesting!” which, I suppose, is the emotionally intelligent response. It signifies a person who is capable of, and practised at, rising above identification with a particular point of view to achieve a meta-position, emotionless, except, perhaps, to indulge in a small excitement at the idea that one has escaped identification with a point of view – which would in itself signify a temporary lapse. One must never get too excited about anything!

My Repertoire

All these words I’ve just dragged out of my limited repertoire are inventions that I’ve come to work with down the years. I could go back over them and fill in gaps until my sense of ‘fit’ became relatively certain. I notice all kinds of phrases and expressions that have come to sit comfortably in my minor intellectual prestidigitations.

We have at our disposal all manner of words we have invented as a way of representing what we call ‘emotions’. The concept of ‘emotion’ is, of course, in itself, invented, something plastered on top of the indubitable fact that we are driven by electro-chemical activity which is, to use GIGurdjieff’s splendid getout or coverall, a ‘something-or-other’ that keeps us going between birth & death. In order to manage the activity it’s come to be the case that we invent words to describe what’s happening and then imagine that the words are the things themselves. Philosophers have been trying to nail the truth of this for a long time; the nominalist/realist argy-bargy in the Middle Ages is a handy sort of example of the problem: ‘realists’ argued that words were the things themselves (we have a word ‘unicorn’ therefore there must be unicorns); to the contrary, ‘nominalists’ argued that words were just names or labels for things. The Tory Party is of the first faction – we have the word ‘austerity’ therefore, like a unicorn, it must exist; Corbyn is a nominalist – ‘austerity’ is a political invention, just a label for a way of demolishing the Welfare State. I happen to be a thoroughgoing Nominalist. I’m with Corbyn.

Take a random selection of invented ‘emotion’ words – shame, anger, happiness, horror, frustration, disgust, delight, anxiety, fear, loathing, love… and so on – simply names we have invented for all kinds of behaviours deriving from neuron and/or neurotransmitter activity. If it were possible to chart how one electro-chemical response to events merges, translates, stimulates, hi-jacks, relates to another it would constitute a more accurate way of saying what goes on in the human frame. It’s obviously true that we have ‘feelings’ but words that are supposed to depict emotions are rather dodgy items, or so it seems to me – need treating with extreme care.

I used to base a lot of my teaching on the fundamental idea that it’s confusing to talk about ‘memory’ (‘I have a bad memory’, for instance); it makes such a difference when you substitute the participle ‘remembering’ for the noun. A verb is a doing word while a noun is an immobile abstraction. I used to teach that the upshot is that you have to do something in order to fix stuff in the mental system.

As a parallel way of thinking, emotion is a noun, and feeling is a verb. So ‘feeling’ is what goes on inside us – you can tap it, do something about it, change it – while ‘emotion’ is a plum duff abstraction – you just tip it out of the basin if you can & hope for the best.

What’s in the body somewhere undoubtedly gives rise to feelings while the mental apparatus invents the mental categories we call ‘emotions’.

Scan0002Incidentally, but in a related sort of way, I was told by a Danish lady some years ago that in Danish there are no separate words for ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ – they are indissolubly linked in the one word indlaering: teaching is learning; the best way to learn something is to teach it. Systemic relationship!

Out of all this it perhaps emerges that the question does shame cause anxiety or the reverse? is the kind of question I remember my Latin teacher Mr Richardson (rest his soul & thanks for whistling to me in order to analyse bits of Brahms’ First Symphony – something I was in awe of) saying ought not to be asked because the very question presupposes that there’s an answer. Electro-chemically it’s all part of the Shame Circle continuum; the neuronal activity is the continuum while the words shift around inside the mind’s stunted dictionary playing a different tune. Damasio’s ‘somatic markers’ are relevant but I doubt they can be labelled in the way we imagine they could be.

Gurdjieff had a word for the connectedness of everything: iraniranumange – the universal exchange of substances. One would do well to adopt this concept; it represents the systemic connection between all things both physical and other-than-physical.

I’m quite sure that low ‘self-esteem’ (not thinking much of your self) is a result of not being able to track all this in a thoroughgoing kind of way and connect it all up (not being able to think much at all); people at the mercy of their bubbling brains are unable to view themselves with any sense of certainty about the way the universe really is (το ὀν). Their aims & intentions are never clear to themselves and so are not linked to anything they can grasp: “nothing I set my mind on ever comes to fruition… I’m a hopeless case…”

‘Emotions’ are Tricky Things

‘Emotions’ are tricky things but what can be said about human-beings with relative (felt) certainty is that they have intentions and hopes: I intend to finish making my point now and I hope that what I write comes out in a way that can easily be understood; we have the intention to make things OK for ourselves and for others; we hope that things will turn out as we expect & when they don’t there’s a great clattering in the something-or-the-other that keeps us going and we feel what amounts to being ‘angry’ or frustrated or shamed or anxious depending what we can do about whatever it is that’s flummoxed us and/or how important it might be. So feelings arise from the outcome connected with what we intend or hope for.

I recently composed a little jazz piece with the intention of proving to myself that I could deliberately write something that a jazz combo might take a fancy to – I hoped they might want to play it. My neurons sorted themselves into a feeling of what might be called ‘pleasure’ when I was told how much the group liked it; the neurons re-arranged themselves into what we might call ‘disappointment’ when I found that they couldn’t appear in the concert it was intended that they play the piece in and then the electro-chemical fizz went into a well-known (to me) dismissive gesture that has a strong swear-word attached to it + ‘the story of my life’. That has a somatic marker well and truly established somewhere down the outside of my left thigh. When I succeed in moving it temporarily to my forehead, I can get into a powerful ‘on to the next thing’ feeling which I expect some culture or another has invented a nifty word for – I’m not sure we’ve got one in English.

In the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (a brilliant Webgroup) I found altschmerz, a German compound word literally meaning ‘Old Pain’ – in itself a pain. It’s defined in full as:-

weariness with the same old issues that you’ve always had – the same boring flaws and anxieties you’ve been gnawing on for years, which leaves them soggy and tasteless and inert, with nothing interesting left to think about, nothing left to do but spit them out and wander off to the backyard till the next time…

That might do… Or liberosis

…the desire to care less about things – to loosen your grip on your life, to stop glancing behind you every few steps, afraid that someone will snatch it from you before you reach the end zone – rather to hold your life loosely and playfully, like a volleyball, keeping it in the air, with only quick fleeting interventions, bouncing freely in the hands of trusted friends, always in play.

If there’s no word for a complex feeling – one that cannot be given shorthand shrift – what happens to it? How does it enter into our conscious thoughts to figure in our construction of meaning? Things are impossible to pin down without words: ‘the story of my life’ + ‘on to the next thing’ are quite often linked ‘feelings’ for me. The first could be categorised, without precision, as ‘misery’ or ‘self-demolition’ or ‘hopelessness’; the second as ‘being optimistic’ or NLP-type ‘next-steppery’; but there’s so much more involved: the ‘optimism’ of ‘on to the next thing’ for me always contains the alarming proviso that ‘nothing-will-change’ (another emotion nameless as yet, as far as I know).

Anyway, I later discovered that the jazz group will certainly play my piece at another concert and as a result I was iskoloonitzinernly pleased at the news. I think some of Gurdjieff’s invented words are examples of his infinite larking about! iskoloonitzinernly is supposed to mean ‘blissfully’.


As if all this weren’t complicated enough already, the familiar distinction between what we label ‘cognitive’ & ‘affective’ processes is just as much an invention as everything else we concoct in the attempt to explain things. As I recall, Finesmith (1959) rigged up some machine that measured victims’ cognitive/affective responses to the sound of nonsense syllables – there was presumably some minimal ‘cognitive’ effort to understand them contemporaneously associated with an ‘affective response; the neurons made no such distinction. There was an uprising of physical/mental activity; the cognitive/affective feelings are always first, the labels we call emotions come second and skew us into simplistic categories, a process which distorts thinking; distorts the way we feel and how we construct our sense of ‘reality’. How do we know the difference between the distortion and the actual? Especially since there is a marked proclivity to intellectualise everything, emphasising merely cognitive processes. Gurdjieff, with his tongue in his cheek:-

Hence, during all this time, in order to be able to make anything clear to others, they have automatically been compelled to invent and go on inventing, a great many almost meaningless words for things and also for ideas, great and small; and so their mentation has gradually begun to function, as I have said, according to the principle of chainonizironness

chainonizironness is the act of making intellectual associations without the participation of the Feeling Centre.

Emotion-words representing feelings come from chainonizironness: the words themselves don’t convey the affective complexity behind the words – never ever can. Without the felt complexity what chance of accuracy?

Let’s imagine, for moment, we were permanently ‘lost for words’, or that some embargo had been placed on the use of words, or even that, like the Greek philosopher Cratylus, we made a decision never to use words again because of their imprecision – we would then have to make do with feelings and thoughts about feelings all mixed up together.

Any encounter with the ‘outside world’ would then become:-

In Lawrence Durrell’s novel Sebastian, Constance is a pychotherapist charged with the task of getting through to a young lad who doesn’t talk and is completely unresponsive to what’s going on around him. For apparently no reason at all he suddenly goes into lengthy torrents of tears and begins to react to Constance in relatively ‘normal’ ways. His grandmother tells her that she has changed her perfume to the same as the young lad’s mother wore years ago before the time of trauma.

Constance was dumbfounded, exasperated and professionally delighted – perhaps this is what had given her such an immediate associative transference with the child, had enabled her to penetrate his emotions so swiftly. And the tears … She went back over the old diagnoses in the light of this new gleam of knowledge. How lucky she had been, for her choice of a new scent to match a new hair-style, a new character change, had been quite haphazard. Had it in fact been a key? She turned to look at the small abstracted face beside her in the looming automobile and wondered. And if all human emotions and action depended on such an affective pattern of association-responses … It was a pure wilderness of associations, a labyrinth in which the sources of all impulse lay. Besides, it was after all sound psychology to trace the roots of emotion and desire to the sense of smell – its vast ramifications had never been completely worked out, and never would be…

Significant meaning conveyed by olfactory accident.

On the other hand we might decide to use words again and commit ourselves to the project of inventing new words to label complex ideas. Of the 17,677 words Shakespeare used, it seems that 1,700 were invented – now we take them for granted. Words like accommodation, aerial, amazement, apostrophe, assassination, auspicious, baseless, bloody, bump, castigate, changeful, clangor, countless, courtship, critic, critical, dexterously, dishearten, dislocate, dwindle, eventful, exposure, fitful, frugal, generous, gloomy, gnarled, hurry and so on through the alphabet…

We could model on Shakespeare in this way. This painting by Gaspar David Friedrich cries out for a word capable of encapsulating the profound feeling it conveys:-

Evening: Gaspar David Fiedrich

Evening: Gaspar David Fiedrich

While I was thinking of inventing a word I discovered that there was a Japanese one that would do very well: Komorebi labels the feeling evoked by sunlight filtering through trees – the interplay between light and leaves. In relation to this particular painting one might link it with Eugene Marais’ concept of ‘hesperian depression’, a not well-known emotion we are all supposed to suffer from at the end of day.

Generally Musing

If I’m on a train for a couple of stops I often pick a newspaper that somebody has discarded and run my eye over the ‘news’. This item struck me a couple of days ago:-

Tower plan looms over Blake Graveyard

B. JOHNSON, Mayor of London was today expected to approve plans for a ‘bullying’ 11-storey office block overlooking a historically important graveyard. Bunhill Fields, in City Road, Islington, is the final resting place of more than 120,000 Londoners – including William Blake, whose work includes England’s unofficial national anthem ‘Jerusalem’, and writer Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe.

The graveyard, now protected as a Grade I listed park and Garden of Special Historic Interest, was established in the 1660’s near the site of an older burial ground. It became a resting place for Nonconformists, and also contains the graves of John Bunyan and the mother of Methodism’s founder John Wesley.

A planning application lodged with Islington council in August would involve the demolition of two buildings on the corner of City Road and Featherstone Street and their replacement with four buildings: two of 10 and 11 storeys and two of five storeys each.

The council rejected the plan last October citing concerns about ‘substantial harm’ to the burial ground but the final decision was taken out of its hands this month when the scheme was ‘called in’ by the Mayor. A public hearing on the application from Derwent London was taking place at City Hall today. It is the 15th such hearing on a major planning scheme held by Mr Johnson and to date all 14 have gone in favour of developers. Islington council’s executive member for housing and development, James Murray, said: “Once again, the Mayor has ignored local decision-making for a major planning application.”

Conservationists say the 43-metre block would ‘bury’ and ‘overwhelm’ the graveyard. Tim Heath, chairman of the Blake Society, said the group had been denied planning permission for a full headstone at the poet’s original burial spot adding, “It’s remarkably unfair that an 11 storey building is allowed when we aren’t even allowed to put up a traditional gravestone.”

That the obnoxious Mayor of London intervened to award a developer the freedom to do what they like to a site of some considerable interest, repository of corpses for whom one might have great feeling has me choosing to feel rather more than ‘disgust’. The Power Possessors are subverting the whole world without regard for sensitivities. Reading the article again I invented a word to encapsulate everything I felt about this. So

krungut – is a-feeling-stoked-up-by-reading-a-newpaper-article-about-the-mayor-of-London-sanctioning-the-building-of-tower-blocks-round-the-graveyard-where-William-Blake-is-buried

Then I got into the swing of it…

pertle – is the-act-of-going-downstairs-to-make-a-morning-cup-of-tea-without-switching-the-house-lights-on-carrying-a-small-torch-in-order-to-deprive-the-power-company-of-a-bit-of-profit… The torch becomes a pertle-stick, thanks to my wife for suggesting it!

grundilacious – my novel-reading on a train from Ely to Downham Market was severely interrupted he other day by one of these people who address the whole compartment by talking loudly into their small ‘communalling e-boxes’: half a conversation about renovating his new country residence was succeeded by one about the way the next person on the other end could corner a lucrative market by becoming a professional tutor. Suddenly noticing mid-flow that he was at his stop, he left the train in a hurry abandoning scarf and gloves on the seat. There was time while the doors were still open for me to pick them up and attract his attention but all in a split second I decided not to since he’d invaded my space and, from the way he was talking, would have more than sufficient resources to buy new ones. I needed a word to describe my complex feeling – a new emotion for which as yet there was not a word. I was being grundilacious… An adjective describing a-mean-action-resulting-from-having-one’s-reading-interrupted-by-a-well-heeled-man-on-a-train

And what about a single word for the following unfortunate event (recorded in a newspaper clipping I’ve hoarded since 1995, specially for this purpose)?

A Northallerton postman fined five shillings in 1962 for riding a bike without lights held a grudge against the policewoman for more than thirty years. After he had posted her hate mail on the 33rd anniversary of his court appearance, he ended up back in court and was fined £100.

I think it could be a lestum… The postman suffered a lestum = ‘things-catching-up-with-you-after-exactly-33-years’.

Events have a tendency to bundle themselves up into a whole complex of feelings for which there is no shorthand word. Perhaps our world would be the richer for more words conveying emotion! Emotional neologisms could render thinking/feeling more precise.

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Bread and Circuitry

Back to Napoleonic Times

It has been suggested that the great new Labour leadership under Jeremy Corbyn wants to take us back to the 1980’s while the ‘media’ in general has deliberately failed to head-line the fact that the Tories are intent on taking the country back to Victorian times, or even earlier, to bash us into the shape of serfs under their iron rule; I’m sure that well-provided-for 78-year-olds like myself are past the threat but I just feel deeply for everybody else.

I’ve recently had a reading experience that records in a very graphic way the conditions of ordinary working people in the area where I live prior to 1837 when Queen Victoria came to her throne (not mine). This linked with a study which contains the statement that twenty million people in the UK are currently living in poverty – whilst I note that some ignorant Tory twit has suggested that people use food banks so that they can spend their money down the pub. Then I re-read a novel I first read in 1954 that inspired me to begin to think of myself as a Socialist. These references define the fundamental structure of this Glob.

How to Organise for the Coming Revolution

My wife has a passion for investigating the history of our area, focussing particularly on the local village of West Walton. She’s been reading Portrait of the Fen Country by Edward Storey (1971). Coming to a chapter describing the plight of workers in the 19th Century, she caught my attention by saying, “He could have been writing about England today under the Tories…”

Locked as we are in what has been described as the ‘specious present’, which is quite different from the activity of ‘being present to oneself’ in the NOW, we imagine that the way we live now is specific to us, without precedent, and have become set in the belief that the way things are is the way they have to be – otherwise they’d be different. It’s a belief fostered and backed up by a constant refrain from the Power Possessors: “What we’re doing is right for the country…” And so we are brain-washed into thinking that there is no alternative. ‘Times are hard – we have to reduce the Deficit…’
We only have to go back to conditions as they were in the 1880’s to realise that we are, just now, being shunted by the Tory hooligans out of the enlightenment that came from what’s been called ‘The Spirit of ’45’ – the good years of Socialism which lasted in its original condition about five years before the Tories gradually began to turn the clock back again which they are now doing with a vicious vengeance. The sad thing is that the electorate, having been brought up on easily assimilable sound-bites for years, is not in a position to know what is being destroyed; they would not believe it if it was put to them in plain language; they would not be able to concentrate for more than three minutes on the detailed explanation required to put things straight. Knowing this, it’s clear that the Bully Boys of the Right (always wrong) think that they can do whatever they want. Says Storey:-

There are many old people in the Fens today who can look back on a childhood where meat was a luxury and vegetables were eked out by using wild plants from the fields and hedgerows. A sheep’s head was a banquet and would provide the basis of many meals to come until the bones were as bare as pebbles on a beach.

Those people who can tell you of their own experience of hunger can also remember the stories their own parents told them of even hungrier times. The depression that hit the agricultural community during the early 1880’s drove many people away, not only to other parts of this country, but to other countries as well… to Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Many others, expert craftsmen of their times, took to the roads or went into other jobs that satisfied only their family’s hunger.

What stands as an emblem for the suffering of ordinary people then is the rioting that took place in Littleport and Ely after the Napoleonic wars. Fen-drainage did not fulfil expectations of plenty any more than the so-called ‘communication revolution’ through the use of computers has today relieved people from the drudgery of work as it was thought it might do – voracious employers have simple pocketed the proceeds of the changes in working practices and thrown workers out of properly paid work; in the 1880’s any benefit deriving from additional land for cultivation went into the pockets of landowners and farmers. Storey is of the opinion, which I share, that…

…to defend those who had the power to change things but didn’t is as near as one can get to condoning the acts of barbarity that were just as evil as those that packed Negroes into slave-ships or Jews into concentration camps. Landworkers were starved to death, they were beaten, and they too suffered the inhumanity of man to man.

In the early nineteenth century the death penalty was a routine form of punishment: ‘…hanging was the daily calculated risk that many starving people took to save not themselves but their children. Many felt that a quick death was as good as a certain slow one and stealing could only mean life or death…’ In Tory Britain, in the current absence of capital punishment, as a final act of despair, people throw themselves under trains, for instance. My own journey home has been disrupted thus three times in the last month or so.

Anger & Brain-washing

It’s true that the streets often seethe with the anger of ‘chartered’ (Blake’s word meaning ‘permitted’ by the Power Possessors) protest & demonstration but, with the mass of the population brainwashed by the media into blaming the poor for being lazy, the old for being old, the disabled for being shirkers, the coming revolution is postponed indefinitely and what ordinary anger there might be is calculatedly diverted towards ‘the enemy without’; for reasons that any thinking person finds it impossible to comprehend, ‘the enemy within’ (the Tory Party and hangers-on, the billionaires and the so-called ‘Upper Crust’) simply continues to wine and dine, laughing and joking at the plight of the dispossessed – observe their despicable antics in the House of Commons.

Anyway, Storey says…

Men who had fought at Waterloo were now beginning to wish they had died there. When they came home to the country they had fought for, they returned to an economic crisis which was more demoralizing than the battlefield. Thousands of men were out of work. Pockets remained empty. The price of food rose to a level that made it the exclusive right of the rich. Men who had been heroes were now reduced to the indignity of parish relief, of seeing their few pieces of furniture sold, and being turned out of their homes. Wages for those who could find work dropped, or at best stayed at the old rates…The only people who could afford the luxury of bread were the farmers who had made enough money to pay the miller who had been able to pay the farmer and so on, in one tight, unbreakable circle of ‘what we have we keep’.

By the spring of 1816 it was beginning to seem to agricultural labourers that their only recourse was revolution. But then, just as now, the problem was that of organisation – how to make the masses rise up and revolt against tyranny in an organised way? A strong leader often leads to an alternative despotism; a quiet, determined, principled leader, such as Jeremy Corbyn, has to be capable of weathering sustained abuse not only from the rich and influential but from his own party’s authoritarian wing, with its abject fear of freedom, whose members can only function under somebody who acts as a despot like the War Criminal Blair. How can one assume power without being corrupted by it?

By holding fast to Top Form 8 on the Enneagram which represents ‘leading from the rear’! But that’s another story…

Rioting & Sabotage

Otherwise undirected rioting and sabotage will become the order of the day. In 1816…

…trouble started to flare up in many parts of East Anglia, and in May rioting was reported in Bury, Southery, Brandon and Downham [seemingly such peaceful places nowadays…] By 22nd May the men of Littleport decided that the time had come for them to act. They met at ‘The Globe’ public house for their annual Benefit Club Meeting on the Wednesday evening and their talk quickly concentrated on recent events… If there was going to be an uprising they wanted to be part of it. In their eyes they had nothing to lose and a lot to gain. Most of the men had a few old scores to settle and in the grey, smoky atmosphere of the bar a deceptive flush of heroism must have brought a glow of colour back to their embittered faces.

Just such a warm glow of comradeship, the company of like-minded people with whom you would not mind being stranded on a desert island, comes over me when I join a big march in London. I know it well; it lasts a few days before it settles down quietly with the memory of all the marches I’ve taken part in since 1961.

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Poverty & Deprivation under the Tories

Right now it seems that twenty million people in the UK are living in poverty according to a study detailing high levels of deprivation. Breadline Britain (by economist Stewart Lansley and academic Joanna Mack) shows that poverty has doubled since 1983 – and is set to get worse over the next five years. Thousands of face-to-face interviews done for the book reveal the desperate state in which many families live: one in three Britons is below an internationally accepted minimum living standard devised by the authors; three and a half million adults go hungry so they can feed their children; one in five children is in a house that is cold and damp; one in ten lacks warm clothes; gas and electricity prices have doubled over the last decade while average wages have fallen over the same period; 21% of people are living in debt and a third of people are unable to save any money at all.

The really awful thing is that whole generations are being denied opportunity. And over time this becomes the norm; it’s generally assumed that this is how things have to be otherwise they’d be different. Stewart Lansley points out that ‘poverty is driven by a false political ideology…’ and concludes that ‘…we need transformative politics of the type that we saw in post-war Britain’.


For ‘transformative politics’ read REVOLUTION. Back in 1816, Storey points out that…

…one person that they particularly wanted to get even with was a Mr. Henry Martin, one of the biggest farmers in the area. As a parish officer, he had provoked a great deal of hatred and hostility by declaring more than once that the meagre allowance made by the parish was more than enough for the miserable peasants. Flaunting his expensive taste in dress and wearing shirts for which he boastingly paid a guinea a time, he was fond of publicly declaring that the parish money could be better spent than providing the working class with beer and that if their children were hungry, it was entirely their own fault.

When the price of one of Mr. Martin’s shirts would have paid the low wages for three of the men he had sacked, it is easy to see why he was at the top of the list when the day of reckoning came. So, when the angry men of Littleport marched out of ‘The Globe’ to face their oppressors, Henry Martin was one man for whom death of any kind seemed a lenient sentence for his treatment of the poor. But having spent their Benefit Club money on a quart of ale to seal their resolution and on another to give them courage, their empty bellies soon got the better of their full heads and there was little discrimination about the property or persons that they attacked. Shop windows were smashed in and money demanded from the owners. Houses were ransacked and silver stolen. Furniture was hacked to pieces and food stolen from pantries. When Josiah Dewey, a retired farmer, refused to give the rioters what they wanted, they forced their way into his house and cleared the rooms of bed-linen, clocks, clothes, cutlery and a well-sharpened cleaver, which Thomas South, one of the ring-leaders, was to put to frightening use later that night. Every farmer was visited by the rioters and robbed of money and possessions and their families terrorized.

By the time the rioters reached Mr. Martin’s house they were drunk with their new-found power and easy victories. Martin, they chanted, would be hacked to pieces in the street. But the uproar had reached Martin long before his avengers and when they arrived he had slid silently off into safety, leaving his old grandmother, Rebecca Waddelow and a servant, to guard his house. There was an hysteria now in the rioters’ behaviour that no reasoning could subdue. They ransacked the house, chopped up every chair and piece of furniture they could find, searching angrily in every room and cupboard for the man they had come to kill.

At the vicarage, the Reverend Vachell defiantly stood with his loaded pistol and threatened to shoot the first man that put a foot on his property. What he did not know was that in a mob there is not always a ‘first man’ to do anything, it is often one uncontrollable sprawl of many men surging forward in one common cause. The threat of shooting them, coming from their vicar, incensed their minds and Vachell was knocked aside as the men noisily rampaged through the book-lined vicarage. In fact, the rioters were so busy smashing up the house that they overlooked the vicar and his family, who, in the dust and noise, quickly made their escape out of a back door. Free of the house and the men, they hurried to Ely where they roused the magistrates… to see what could be done. Vachell knew that Sir Henry Dudley had a buccaneering quality and a reputation that would frighten the rioters if only he would act. To begin with the two Ely magistrates must have listened incredulously as the Reverend Vachell related one episode after another…

At midnight, the rioters re-assembled at their headquarters, ‘The Globe’, and made their plans for the attack on Ely and, if necessary, on the cathedral itself. The hours before dawn would also give them time to collect a better arsenal of weapons, for it was now clear that they needed something more than the stolen cleaver and a few hefty clubs.

When the early mist of that May morning cleared there were more serious expressions of determination on the faces of the men who were now aware of their actions. For one thing they realized that after the havoc they had caused the night before it was too late to turn back. Anyone who had fire-arms or ammunition at home fetched them for the leaders to distribute among the men. The man who emerged as the ‘commander-in-chief’ of this make-shift army was John Dennis, at first a reluctant participant, but one who brought a much more sophisticated approach to the conflict. He took charge of the distribution of arms and shot and made sure that those who did not carry fire-arms at least had pitch-forks, eel-glaives or clubs. In addition to their individual weapons the men also had a ‘tank’, a very primitive one, but nevertheless ingenious and impressive-looking. They had stolen a farm cart and horses from one of the farmers and on the cart they had fixed four fowlers’ punt-guns. These muzzle-loaders were anything up to 10 feet long and fired a pound of shot that could kill at a distance of 150 yards. Their ‘tank’ ready for action, and their arms loaded, the men at last led the horses out of ‘The Globe’ yard and set out for Ely.

The frenzy of the previous night had spent itself. There was now no laughter, no banter and very little talking. The seriousness of their action and the possible consequences if things went wrong, were all too apparent. The chances were slim. The penalties were high. But again as Richard Rutter was to explain, ‘you may as well be hanged as starved’ to death. The Littleport men did not embark on the second part of their mission as a drunken mob. They remembered that they had not eaten for several days and, whatever the outcome of their action, they would pursue their defiant gesture to the palace doors at Ely.

The Reverend Metcalfe, forewarned of the invasion, had taken the precaution of sending word through to the garrison at Bury St. Edmunds. He wanted troops at the ready, on the outskirts of the city, to meet the trouble when it arrived. In the meantime, he rode out to meet the rioters – an action which needed no small ration of courage…

About 500 people gathered outside The White Hart Inn and Mr. Metcalfe was now joined by several other magistrates. He asked the men what they wanted. For a few moments the shouts and demands were no more than a babble of incoherent words until the ringleaders brought some kind of unison to their cries of ‘flour’ and ‘bread’. The magistrates were told how the men’s wives and families were starving, how on less than 8 shillings a week they couldn’t afford to buy even the basic foods at the present prices. They complained that when they asked for more money their masters would either not listen or blamed the Napoleonic Wars for the plight of the country. But that wasn’t good enough, they said, some of them had fought in the war for their country and they expected a living. They knew there was enough food if it was shared out properly and they were there to see that some of it came to them…

The magistrates of Ely invited a small committee into the ‘White Hart’ to talk quietly about
the men’s grievances. Typical divide & rule tactics. Eventually it was proclaimed that ‘The Magistrates agree, and do order, that the overseers shall pay to each family Two Shillings per Head per Week, when Flour is Half-a-crown a stone; such allowance to be raised in proportion when the price of flour is higher, and that the price of labour shall be Two Shillings a day, whether married or single and that the labourer shall be paid his full wages by the Farmer who hires him.’

The demonstrators were given free beer and told to go home. A ‘lunatic-fringe’ encouraged the rioters who remained to celebrate their victory by demanding free beer at every pub in Ely.

…pandemonium broke loose. Shops were smashed up and looted. Millers and bakers were beaten and robbed. Private householders were attacked…The Ely and Littleport labourers had been joined by agitators from other towns and they wanted much more than had been granted in the ‘White Hart’ agreement. The magistrates’ only hope was that their appeal for troops had been granted and that soon the army would ride in to restore order and discipline.

There was news that…

…a similar riot was still causing trouble at Downham and that other labourers were preparing to strike. Some of them may have believed, as they trudged home in the heroic and romantic haze of their fatigue, that they had in fact lit a flame in the heart of the Fens which would burn for a long time, that whatever happened now, things could never be as bad again.

No such luck. A detachment of the Royal Dragoons arrived, stimulating uncoordinated anger at the power of authority.


Prisoners should were tried at Special Assizes in Ely. A special Commission was hastily set up to hear the charges and the prisoners were sent for trial in June 1816. Storey highlights the absurd lengths the Power Possessors go to in order to drum up popular enthusiasm for what they hope will convince people they know best, to waste money that could be far more intelligently invested.

A great amount of pomp and ceremony preceded the proceedings and more money was spent on the pageantry, trumpeters, stewards and carriages for the bishop and judges than all the prisoners would have wanted to keep them for a year. It is a strange paradox of human nature and our society that we are always much more willing to spend money on killing people than saving them.

On the morning of the first day of the trial, the judges were the guests of the Bishop of Ely for breakfast and then accompanied him, with several other dignitaries, to the cathedral for a special service. After an anthem, which had also been specially written for the occasion, the Reverend Sir Henry Bate Dudley himself preached a sermon, taking for his text a phrase from the First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to Timothy, Chapter One, Verse Nine: ‘… the law is not made for the righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient…’

Without the ‘laws’ of cricket, the game would not be possible; if people drove vehicles just where they wanted roads would be somewhat chaotic; intelligent laws in general are invented in order to oil the works. But unnecessary laws are invented, not by the righteous but by the Power Possessors in order to keep us under control. The unwritten ‘law’ that people must put up with their lot or face the consequences of a determined challenge needs spelling out and proclaiming from the steps of the townhall in order for it to be obvious that it is inequitable. Kant proposes a different definition: ‘The touchstone of all those decisions that may be made into law for a people lies in this question: Could a people impose such a law upon itself?’

After their prayers the commission made its way through the streets lined with soldiers armed with bayonets. Crowds gathered behind the soldiers and looked on silently as the wealthy procession went by.

It appears that while

…the well-fed and overweight Bishop was at his prayers his coach had been tampered with by some Fenmen…; the bishop … made heavy work of climbing into his carriage. With an autocratic shout he ordered his coachman to drive on and at that crucial moment, when dignity was so necessary for him, one of the wheels came off… There was no laughing or jeering from the crowd; only their dry, narrow smiles and piercing, revengeful eyes, following the carriage [after the wheel had been fixed] until it was out of sight. The pompous proceedings at Ely would have been laughable had they not been so tragic and panic-stricken.

Only a few prisoners were allowed to speak in their own defence. The judge told them that their actions had nothing to do with poor living standards. Twenty-four were condemned to death, some were to be transported for life, some were to be transported for limited periods while others were simply jailed in Ely. During the rumpus that ensued the judge threatened to hang a few more unless they cleared the court.

As a sop to the populace and to keep them quiet, nineteen of those sentenced to death were reprieved but transported for life to Botany Bay. While in a typically underhand kind of way, without reason, those who had only been sentenced to a year’s imprisonment in Ely were transported for seven years without being allowed to say good-bye to their families.

The judges wanted to underline the power of the Church and State by making the hangings something to remember. They wanted to make it clear that any further thoughts of an uprising would only send more people to their deaths.

On Friday, 28th June 1816 … the procession to the place of execution took over an hour to pass and was made up of nearly 300 ‘privileged persons’ willing to add their support to this showy example of ‘justice’. A crowd of several hundred onlookers was there to get the message – men from Ely, Littleport, Bury, Southery, Downham, Soham, March and Chatteris… This was the day when hundreds of Fenmen vowed never to forgive either of those two powers who had been party to these deaths.

William Beamiss
George Crow
John Dennis
Isaac Harley
Thomas South

This in their memory…

Not So Much Forgiven But Completely Forgotten

These days the Power Possessors have managed to distract our attention from the enemy within by providing a dose of Bread and Circuitry and the media daily pretends that everything is fine.

Rise up, England! You’ve nothing to lose but your TV sets and your shopping trolleys.

Things Seem Separate but in fact Everything is Connected

While I was thinking about all this I re-read Venetian Blinds, a great novel by Ethel Mannin (1933), for the third or fourth time since I first read it around 1954. I bought it in Brady’s Arcade in Kingston-on-Thames (long gone probably!) and was captivated by it; it remains as fresh now as it did then. Stephen Pendrick is the central character; he inhabits the same kind of suburban area that I grew up in though I lived in the new outer suburbs of London in Worcester Park whereas he lived in various places around Earlsfield on the line between Worcester Park and Waterloo.

The watercress beds by the River Wandle where the Pendricks moved from Tooting! – I remember them so well staring out from the train as it gathered speed from Wimbledon to Earlsfield; to the right was a very large dump that smoked, with hot ashes I always assumed, during the early morning rush hour and, much lower down, the watercress beds, the river and a band of Victorian houses I used to wonder what it was like to live in.

It’s now a dreadful industrial estate. If there’s anybody still living since the war in the old houses by the side of the Wandle they’ll be full of regret – as full as I am. They’d be in their 80’s or 90’s!

“It’s lovely and open here. As good as being in the country, I always say.” That’s what the Pendrick’s neighbour Mrs Mord said. It was how I saw the place for many years.

Stephen Pendrick was greatly influenced by the Leider family, romantic & revolutionary Germans whose life was greatly disturbed by the 1st World War and with whom Stephen lost touch though they always stayed in his mind.

Reading Venetian Blinds again at this moment seemed to fit rather neatly with the first part of this Glob.

[Stephen] thought a lot about what Fritz said about it being all wrong that there should be rich and poor, and he, too, began to think that it would be fine if it could all be different, if as in the Rubaiyat which Carl Leider was so fond of quoting it could be possible to reshape the sorry scheme of things and mould it nearer to the heart’s desire; through a mighty revolution which would sweep all the bad things away, so that there were no more slums, no more people sleeping on the Thames Embankment at nights because they had nowhere else to go, like Jack London wrote about, no more people singing in the streets for money because there was no work for them, no more processions of unemployed. He had not thought about these things before, but now his waking mind was full of them, and he told Fritz that he agreed with him about the injustice of ‘the existing social system’, and Fritz said that was splendid and that it meant that Stephen was a Socialist, and that he, Fritz, had made a convert to the Cause, and now Stephen must make a convert, because that was the way to help, everybody doing their bit, and he wrote out the words of the Red Flag for Stephen and lent him Richard Whiteing’s Number Five John Street, and Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets, Gissing’s Odd Women, and The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, Robert Blatchford’s Merrie England, Somerset Maugham’s Liza of Lambeth, William Morris’s News from Nowhere. He read them all, and thought about them, and was excited and indignant, and filled with pity and anger and dismay – burned in short, with that pure name of youth looking upon the world and seeing for the first time the injustice and suffering which is part of the social system humanity has devised for itself.

Processions of unemployed with their banner, ‘We Want Work’, and singing some dismal song, frequently turned into Ledstock Street on Sunday mornings – they were more depressing than the Salvation Army, Mrs. Pendrick declared. Fritz said that one day there would be a revolution, for work is the right to live, and that is Man’s first right.

He was fond of quoting John Ball’s famous speech at the time of the Peasant Revolt, “Good people, things will never go well in England so long as goods be not in common, and so long as there be villains and gentlemen. By what right are they whom we call lords greater folk than we? On what grounds have they deserved it? Why do they hold us in serfage? If we all came of the same father and mother, of Adam and Eve, how can they say or prove that they are better than we, if it be not that they make us gain for them by our toil what they spend in their pride? … It is of us and our toil that these men hold their state.”

Stephen looked up Green’s History at the Leiders’ house and copied out the speech in its entirety, and from doing that he discovered that history was not dead facts and figures as it was made to seem at school, but a living saga of human struggle. Swept by a youthful Socialist fire he realised that he wanted to read of the life of the common people from the earliest times, he wanted to know about the Industrial Revolution and how it affected the workers, and how it connected with life at the present day, and reading history for the sake of all this, he became interested in history generally; it fascinated him; he could not understand anyone not wanting to read history. Gradually he wanted to have books of his own. One day, he thought, he would have a fine library like the Leiders had; he wanted to read history, sociology, poetry. In this way, one horizon after another the Leider’s opened up for him.

One day, I suppose I thought, I will have the fine library I celebrate in my ROOM books.

The prison doors clang shut on Stephen’s life and he never achieves the promise of this early revolutionary spirit. But he keeps the memory of life in the Leider’s household fresh in his mind; towards the end of the novel, after various doomed relationships, he reflects on how things might have been.

He had never forgotten how Carl Leider… had talked of Heidelberg in apple-blossom time, of the mountains of the Tyrol, and of lying naked in the sun; and there was that absurd lovely dream of buying a Schloss on the Rhine and living there happily ever after; they were to become Wander-vogel and take ruck-sacks, he recalled, and Leitchen [a Beatrice-figure to Stephen] was to bring her mandolin, and they were to go everywhere; and there was that song they had sung that somehow had the mountains in it, and laughter, and music under trees, and swimming in blue lakes, all romance and adventure, and not caring about to-morrow, and something else, which as a boy he hadn’t been able to define, but which he now knew to be a nostalgia for lost worlds, a clinging to dreams which had no chance of realisation.

The closest Stephen got to such dreams was to write about the pleasures of distant lands in travel brochures which is one of the things he was employed to do.

Stephen’s sister, Elsie, married a very rich older man, being pregnant by him, with whom it seemed likely that she would be able to go all over the world. The irony of life was not lost on Stephen.

It was queer how life worked out, he thought; queer to think that Elsie, to whom beauty meant nothing, and for whom the horizon held nothing but a possible hat-shop or smart restaurant, was to have without particularly wanting it all that he had wanted so much and dreamed of for so long.

Not for him the thrill of boat-trains, cross-Channel steamers, the smell of coffee and garlic and French cigarettes at the Gare du Nord, which, Bowden [his work-colleague] said, was one of the best smells in the world; not for him the night-journey, thundering South, with the sunrise over Avignon and the first smell and glimpse of the South, which Bowden declared to be one of the great excitements of life; not for him the glamour of coming into strange ports, and the journeyings on to new adventure, new experiences, new sights and sounds and smells and colours, as he had so glowingly written of it in the Tendall travel booklets.

For him the walk to the station in the morning and home again at night; strap-hanging in crowded trains, being shut up in an office all day till whatever sun there was went down, day after day. For him as for thousands, as for hundreds of thousands, two weeks out of every fifty-two, three at most, in which to do as he liked – for the rest, the slave of a job, doing nothing that he wanted to do, nothing that really mattered to him, nothing creative, just so many hours per day, per week, in an office for the sake of at first a weekly wage, and then the dignity of a monthly salary.

He might break away, of course; he might revolt and ‘walk out into the sun’ – wasn’t that what they called it? In books people sometimes did it; but not in real life; not when you were married, not if you were just an ordinary person like Stephen Pendrick.

He might go abroad without Alice for his annual holiday, since she refused to leave England. But – she was his wife; it would break her heart; ordinary decent people didn’t do things like that; if their wives refused to travel they just sighed and said “Very well, dear,” and went on going to Bexhill or Broadstairs or Torquay, or wherever it was, for the rest of their lives, and in time learned to forget that they had ever wanted anything more colourful and exciting.

Stuck in the back office of the Westminster Bank in Cheapside in 1963, I remember leaning forward to Dave Adams who sat opposite me and saying quietly, “In a moment I’m going to stand up on my desk and yell WAKE UP, ALL YOU BASTARDS!” So convincing was my threat that he immediately got up and went to the washroom, not to re-appear for another 15 minutes.

Even when I escaped the daily ‘strap-hanging in crowded trains’ by breaking away from office life to become a teacher, I would say to my dear friend Ann, “In a moment I shall climb out of this window and you’ll never see me again…” I think she half-believed I might.

The title Venetian Blinds is meant to represent middle class achievement but the novel might just as well have been called ‘Resignation’. Arthur Pendrick, Stephen’s father, did ‘not ask much of life’ and Stephen follows in his footsteps. Not asking much of life…

I don’t think I’ve ever asked much of life: books up on bookshelves in alphabetical order, music, bonfires, books to make notes in, rummaging in the mind, starlight & sunsets, flights of birds, the same pictures on the walls in the same places for years & years, log-fires, the warmth of a woman’s embrace, a lawn with well-defined stripes on which to sit on a deckchair in summer sunlight, beginnings and endings – that’s not much to ask…

Arthur Pendrick ‘…was not much concerned with what folks might think so that he wore his clothes till they were a ‘disgrace’ and never looked smart as [his wife’s] sister’s husbands did and often she must remind him to shave and get his hair cut…’ Oh, Arthur Pendrick, the very model of existence.

What the Power Possessors Rely On

While they fill their pointless lives with wining & dining and creating lucrative contacts and ‘getting on’ and occupying their sad mansions, the Power Possessors rely on the fact that ordinary people do not ask much of life, being too busy scraping a living to ask the right questions about their nefarious activities.

And then one asks – why should anybody ask much of life? What does it profit anybody to possess more than they absolutely need?

Come the Revolution, I still like to think I’d be up there on the barricades! Maybe we could organise a peaceful one – at my age that might be desirable…

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Peter Weir

‘Some of the main islands are: my garden, the view of distant mountains,
my country place where I withdraw from the noise of city life, my library…’
Carl Jung (1952)

How I Came to Own The Island

The Island by Peter Weir was published in 1949. I lament the fact that I’ll never know the reason why my mother gave me a copy for my 14th birthday. Did she know somehow that it would fit the way I was – that it would resonate with me stylistically, atmospherically and in the way it brilliantly conveys a still, sad, dreamy, ecstatically hopeless resignation? Or was she just attracted by the sublime illustrations by William McLaren? I can see her picking the book up in Bentalls of Kingston and reading the first page.

The sea had fallen, a low tide

The air was very still and clear, so that voices would have carried.
But there were no voices, just the whisper of leaves and sometimes the call of an owl. Sometimes also a twig broke as a deer stepped through the shadows; the foliage stirred, birds closed their wings, and an apple fell in the orchard. And always if one listened one heard the murmur of waves, so that the forest seemed to throb with the distant beat of the sea.

It was here that it really began, in an old, abandoned orchard. Its grass was long, wild, matted like hair, and it lay in the heart of the forest.

I imagine her thinking, ‘that will just suit my son…’ We were never a talkative family but I suppose I must have given away something about myself. She would probably have glanced at the few books I had on my one shelf then – Elia, Selborne, Sartor Resartus, The Aeneid, The Penguin Book of English Essays, Kenneth Allot’s Contemporary Verse, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – now grown in number to what can justifiably be called a ‘library’; she had perhaps been able to gauge something of my somewhat wayward youthful enthusiasms. We never talked about them and I know to my dismay now that I never expressed my gratitude to her for The Island which has been in my library ever since.

And where did I get the burning desire to possess a library of my own? It probably entered my being as a result of reading the description of the library in the island owner’s mansion: ‘…the candle grew brighter. They pierced the shadows of the library, revealing the true dimensions of the room, walls which were lined from ceiling to floor, the tables covered, with books, books that were there in thousands, mostly very old…’ From that moment I had to have a library!

My mother had done well in a conventional way at school; she ‘matriculated’ but never developed herself intellectually in all her 93 years, being more than mentally burdened by my sister’s progressive disability, but she must have known something about my inner being; though for sure she could never have known how The Island would remain just as captivating for me now as it was then – the trance has persisted during all these many years. Such are the accidental events that make us what we are today.

The Island Trance

I want to explore the nature of the trance which has far more to it than I originally imagined.

The dust jacket proclaims: ‘The author is a young ex-airman who on his release from the RAF retired to a cottage in the New Forest to devote his life to writing…’ I think I decided there and then that was what I wanted too: a cottage in the country and the time and space to write; this was an image or ideal that stuck with me during all the distracting years of making a living, being a father and through all the times of domestic uncertainty. I have always thought of myself, in a Thoreau kind of way, as being in the world but not of it – a virtual hermit – and I have written many miles of words, content with a minute but distinguished readership, if I can call it that! I have read and been consumed by Conrad and Lawrence, Woolf and Hardy and so on but, without underplaying their impact on me, I doubt I’d have been the person I am today without a firm anchor in what is still for me the curiously vivid imagery of The Island.

Peter Weir was born in 1915. In this his centenary year it seems very appropriate to me generally to record his unsung achievement and personally to attempt to figure out the effect that The Island had on me at what I suppose was a highly impressionable age when life was pretty well my own unknown island of potential. Just what is the nature of the trance he induced in me sixty years ago?

The ‘old, abandoned orchard’ on the first page – it started there! Immediately the (unanswered) questions: how did it come to be abandoned and by whom? Facing the orchard is the mysterious bailiff’s dilapidated hut or office where he works on his papers behind closed windows – ‘always closed – covered with cobwebs and dust…’

In later years, when such working conditions always struck me, and strike me still, as being ideal – out of the dim and dusty mess one creates temporary islands of order by sorting papers into heaps – I often wondered, since it was said that the author had intended to devote his life to writing, why nothing else by Peter Weir ever appeared in print; I have always hoped to develop my own creative intentions but nothing much comes of them, partly, I suppose, owing to my complete lack of entrepreneurial spirit! But my interest here is more about what can be derived from ‘the words on the page’, in line with what, in the middle of the 20th Century, was called ‘the New Criticism’ in accordance with which I used to teach English Literature but which, in this godforsaken era of the cult of the personality, is in danger of becoming completely outmoded.

Poetic Prose

The poetic prose of the opening tells us linguistically about the interior landscape of Tarn, the central figure of the novel: ‘…Then there came through endless woods and hollows as if from another world – winding slowly far away – the long clear notes of a horn…’ which seem to haunt the whole novel. I was more than happy to assimilate all this for my own interior landscape: my adolescent poetry sang out with absence and the sound of far-off horns; it was full of images of ruin and desolation!

In a flashback, Tarn recalls the moment some time earlier when Noola, a long-time island resident, whose spirit seems to haunt it, had shown him how to find the bailiff’s hut. Why does he want to get there? He has been somehow translated from his own island a month or two before (so he thinks, but is clearly not sure – keeping track of time is a problem for characters in the novel) and initially wants to find out how to make his way back there; on the other hand now he has met Noola it seems that he is more than happy to remain on her island. In the absence of the even more mysterious island owner, Noola thinks that the bailiff may be able to help Tarn, but, as she tells him, not if the only lead he can offer about his island is that

“It’s really rather like this, more rugged though and smaller, with no great woods like these. There too the swallows have left their nest, and larks will be singing now. Butterflies cling to the grass-stems, asleep, and petals fall indoors. A breath of air makes the curtain sway.”

A woodpecker laughed in the trees…

This seems like a rather louder version of Noola’s quiet response. And there’s always the sound of the sea: ‘…its rhythm haunted his thoughts and gently, dreamily, it lulled him back in its broadly rocking arms…’ Tarn’s quest shifts during the flashback to wondering whether he’ll be able to find Noola’s garden which he imagines as consisting of ‘…dove-cots and… pools of water and light… so many trees in it that parts are very dark. And in the light I see beds of flowers, growing luxuriantly yet somehow wildly, in abandon, tumbling over the lawns…’ This is his own fanciful image of Noola, her manor and its garden.

Throughout the novel conversations remind me of those in a Pinter play – inconclusive, they drift off or fade into one another as do the images – very often a conversation fuses with a depiction of the natural scene or else it melds into past times, stream of consciousness style.

And [Noola] began to play. She had no music before her. She played first old childhood tunes and rhymes – of a little girl in the garden, a child who ran on uncertain footsteps talking to the trees, to a broken doll which she clutched in her arms, among flowers of other days. Those days were endless, of cloudless skies, days of a vast, blue calm – Niord [a general factotum], the horses, a little black dog panting in the shade, swallows nesting in the barn, meadows flooded with hay, tall stems that met above her head, then vanished beneath the scythe. Still further back the hours grew hazy, haunted with the sea, grey, rocking days, a storm-thrush singing, nights of long, soft rain.
“You play well tonight.” [Says her mother for whom she is playing…]
Then she recalled other hands which had moved across these keys – the vanished strains of a minuet, carriage wheels in the snow, lamps lit and fires blazing, laughter, many voices – voices which still were heard in those rooms, very softly when nights were calm – and over the distance a trace of sadness, why she did not know, days very quiet, days so far off that her mother was still a girl.
In a cool shower of crystal notes, the long dead years fell back. The pool rippled and was still. And there in the hot and sultry noon were lakes of bog-myrtle, the moors of summer, and a girl who walked through the haze –
A lark sang joyously.
She stopped. Somewhere a canary woke in its cage. The notes died faintly away.
“Noola, whom did you meet today?”
“Tarn, Mother,” she answered, “why?”

Pause. No answer. The mother continued writing. Fade out.

Fade in to the bailiff’s hut. (I wonder if somebody might see the filmic possibilities of the text. It would make a great film or even an opera. I hold the idea in my mind to savour). The bailiff (bass baritone) has written in his daily log WORK I’VE DONE TODAY. It is too dark to read in the shadows of his hut but he records the visit made by Tarn (tenor) to enquire about where the island he came from might be located; the bailiff is unable to help but makes a note to refer the case to the owner (counter-tenor).

Tarn’s visit reminds the bailiff of his youth – how the pattern of his life had been determined when the owner asked him to be bailiff: ‘thus had been sown the seed of his life. And he wondered what seed Tarn had sown by coming…’ The seed of my own life was planted here…

The bailiff turns back to his papers.

Some he had never been able to read; there was not time enough. Evenings came, year followed year. He strove to attend to the present. But the past rose swiftly behind him – and always he heard the sea. It had been over the sea that the owner had gone. “Remember this: I will return. And carry out my instructions.”

This had been no threat, but a statement of fact. And the huge book stood there still, darkly bound, inscrutable, instructions from the owner. It was this which had so dismayed him at first, that some were so hard to follow. Even of these he had not read all, and some could not be read. For the pages were yellow, stained with age, words blotted, erased and then added; cross-references so abounded that often it was impossible to know what was instructed; and some of the references seemed to refer to that part of the book which was blank, to empty pages just faintly stained by those which came before. If only he could have spoken, but once, with his predecessor…’

Towards the end of the novel we discover who his predecessor was. The curious instruction which he had found most difficult to swallow was:-

The bailiff shall have no reward, nor wife,
nor home nor children, save these,
which are his reward, his children:
his work and the island around him.

The predecessor had disobeyed the rule and been expelled. Towards the end of The Island the current bailiff declares his love for Gilla suggesting that he too is running the risk of breaking the rule.


Tarn is gainfully employed in the village school as a teacher of all subjects except geography from which he is excluded because of his ignorance about his place of origin. As though they knew about this, some wag in the class had been probably volunteered to mark on the schoolroom map a little mark with a sign ‘this is the island’! The reader wonders which is the Island of the title – Noola’s or Tarn’s. At another level their possible congruence is perhaps the whole other-than-conscious point of the novel. All islands are connected under the sea!

Tarn’s teaching methods are very congenial to me and I think it might have been here that was born my desire to be a teacher which, after various debilitating office experiences and so-called National Service, I set out to achieve ten years after first reading The Island, not that my classes were ever quiet like Tarn’s!

He made it clear that it was necessary to read exam questions carefully but he found that ‘half at least of the answers did not reply to the questions. They referred, he supposed, to some other question…’ Whenever I set a writing task for children I accepted just whatever they wrote, relevant or not, in the belief that writing should come from the soul and not have to conform to somebody else’s diktat. So it suited me very well when I eventually taught an English Literature A Level course where there were no guidelines for a ‘correct’ answer, no marking scheme, and essays had to be assessed for the quality of a student’s thinking. The course was soon abolished by the Power Possessors.

Tarn has a very good relationship with his class as illustrated in the following passage. Also noteworthy stylistically is the way the conversation about how to get to the owner’s mansion so smoothly becomes Tarn’s exploration itself. There is no sense of authorial intervention in the process; throughout the book, characters do their own transformation of natural images in internal reflection which never comes over as author commentary.

… “Come over here to the board.” He began to draw. “Didn’t you tell me you’d been to the Old Mansion – the owner’s house, you know – and that you looked in at the windows?”
“Oh yes, sir.”
“Well, I’ve been there, too, and I couldn’t get in. There’s a wall all round the park. Here’s the wall – lodge-gates there –”
“There are dogs at the lodges too – huge dogs, mastiffs they are.”
“Then how did you get in?”
Next woods and streams appeared on the board, a bridge, a disused barn – and the path along which Tarn walked through the wind on the following afternoon.

The wind was rising. Harebells rang in the fields. Partridges crouched on the stubble. Hazel nuts fell and leaves raced wildly, preceding him through the woods… The door which Peter had described was hidden by brambles and thorns, so that it might well have been passed unnoticed by all save little boys. And although it was chained, he could just squeeze through by pushing it carefully. A robin was singing above the brambles.

When he gains entry to the Mansion, without having the necessary permit, Liza, who appears to be a maid, shows him round the empty galleries and bedrooms of the huge rambling house, explaining that everybody there was waiting for the return of the owner. In spite of his absence the kitchen is very well stocked for his coming, at which time ‘the windows will be thrown open and all the leaves cleared away’.

Here among utensils of every kind, coppers, sinks and pots and pans, great bowls of milk, and ovens, huge ladles, cupboards crammed with provisions, larders in which he saw cheeses and flour, honey-combs, apples and hams…

and most extraordinary of all, stunning image,

…maidens, dressed all alike in white, their hair tied back, their feet bare. Their movements were swift and tireless, silent, so that the impression was that he had entered, not a kitchen, but a vast, tiled hall in which these maids were dancing.

Once again, Tarn has a fleeting intuition that this kitchen is somehow an emblem for his island of which he was the owner, as he tells blind Mr Ardan, who is in the mansion library with the bailiff. At this revelation the bailiff is as surprised as we are. Once upon a time, he was an island owner – has he been deposed, expelled, or in some other way lost control of his own sense of being in charge of his place? Hence the unexplained move to Noola’s island?


‘Waiting’ is perhaps the central organising principle of The Island: everybody seems to be waiting for something to happen. Waiting for the owner to put in an appearance is reminiscent of Gurdjieff’s metaphor of the house with an absent Master – without the controlling effect of the Master, things fall apart, directionless; we have to achieve the status of Master in order to put our own house in order, re-discover our essential self; it feels as though this is what Tarn is waiting for. He hopes that Ardan, who, temporarily living in the owner’s mansion, is making a study of, and writing a book about, islands, will be able to help; but merely describing a kitchen won’t be much use! Ardan invites him to an ‘uneventful’ dinner during the course of which there’s the one clear statement of the metaphor behind the title of the book: ‘…the three men sat far apart, each with his own thoughts. They seldom spoke. They were, he thought, like three islands, or planets out in space, their faces lit faintly, in silence, with darkness all around…’

Time passes; ‘winter came quickly’. Tarn visits Noola in her manor house during the winter when it is cut off from the rest of the island by the river. A loving isolation.

Now was the time when the forest thundered as the wind rushed through the trees. From the windows of the manor one looked out on a sea of branches, waves which towered above the house, filled the rooms with subaqueous green and swaying, leaning over it, with a flicker of light and shade. In rain these trees which possessed the manor far more than those who lived there, submerged it, invading it with murmurs, an obliterating sleep. Then the forest dripped from the hills to the shore, rain trickled down the trunks and the valley was lost in a blue-grey mist, the river seething with bubbles.

It is suggested that the verger might be able to answer Tarn’s questions about his island. An arrangement is made for them to meet in the ‘The Fish’, the village pub. Tarn approaches the place through the icy weather and, not for the only time in the book, once inside, feels a sense of cold alienation in a crowd: ‘listening to the conversation around him he discovered that he could not understand it… he knew the meaning of each of their words, but their arrangement meant nothing to him…’ Perhaps the deliberate choice of the name of the pub and all the fish imagery is intended to suggest that here is some kind of esoteric knowledge of the spirit waiting to be found here – that which is, for anybody, difficult to understand. In the same way, the reader comprehends each little cameo sequence in the novel but piecing everything together to make a coherent sense is more intriguingly challenging. We are only able to begin to sort things out for ourselves in its last pages; it is constructed with artful vagueness and poetic discrepancies; it is a novel for a reader with a fair toleration of ambiguity

Anyway, the verger turns out to be the ‘little wizened man, dressed completely in black’ sitting by the wall. They discuss fishing – a common interest – but Tarn begins to feel as though this was a dream – ‘as if in that dream he had wandered by accident on to a stage where a play was already in progress’ – a sensation I have been familiar with all my life.


Tarn’s sense of unreality is increased when the verger, as though addressing the parish council of which he is secretary, embarks on an analysis of a problem that he and the bailiff seem to have discussed: because Tarn has been asking questions all round the village, they harbour the suspicion that Tarn ‘…might not have come here by accident. You might have been sent here by some other island…’ Investigations by outside authority have happened before with disastrous consequences as we shall discover. The verger explains their quandary:-

“Now, as a matter of interest – please don’t misunderstand me – suppose you were to be helped to go, not necessarily to your own island, which none of us know, but to some other – say with Mr. Ardan when he finishes his book.” He eyed Tarn curiously to see the effect of his words; but the young man gave no indication of his feelings. “As against such a move there are certain objections of which, as an intelligent man, if I may put it like that, the bailiff cannot fail to be aware. There are in fact two disadvantages either one of which would be certain to arise. In the first place, if you have not been sent here, then your departure would be a waste of time, both for you as well as him – and the owner might learn of it. If, on the other hand, you have been sent here, it might well be construed as a confession of weakness.”

It seemed to Tarn that in thus speaking aloud his thoughts, the verger succeeded only in showing him how unreal and complicated they were.

Verger and bailiff seem constrained by the need not to upset the owner at any cost. The verger’s own solution is simply to keep Tarn on the island either by granting him fishing rights or, with dramatic irony, to get him married to somebody on the island. As Tarn sums it up, the verger was insinuating that ‘the bailiff arranges the love affairs of his community’.

Outside again, ‘a meteor burned its trail across the sky…’

The existence of Tarn’s island is strangely confirmed when he receives a letter from somebody called Gilla (a name which can be interpreted variously as Joy, messenger, boy-servant) which arrives he knows not how. He gives his reaction to the letter to Noola and her mother:-

“… the apples in the orchard, the cattle lowing in their byres and the bees in the ivy-bloom. How then the garden throbbed for me with the endless drone of bees! I saw my window open at dawn on a vast and hazy sea, the falling tide, boundless sands, sea-pools, a schooner [which will appear later on] and far away, another island, vague and remote, great hills that were lost in the clouds. Then her letter grew filled for me with autumn, the gathering of corn, the west wind tossing a young girl’s hair, blowing it into her eyes. And those were your eyes, Noola, and leaves were falling softly, over an island dissolving in mist, in a liquid fruitfulness. Over the land, as I read, fell snow. In a night it was transformed. It was hidden, covered with silent flakes, the branches delicate – woven into a wonderland, white, vaulted, untouched, like a dream. I watched the wind arise on the moors – they mount behind the garden – huge waves of snow-dust toppling – hissing – misty spirals made grey by the heather – deluging the gorse with crystals – waves that flowed down in an endless succession as if to submerge the house. And the wind, as it streamed through the trees in the garden, was calling of days to come, days when the gorse would be motionless, scented, pods snapping in the sun.”

Transformations and merging. Tarn has told Noola that he loves her more than all this now, that her old garden which is described in similar ecstatic terms represents her multiplicity of selves ‘like rings in a tree’, including, prophetically, being a self as ‘a little child running down the path… holding a doll that is blind and she tells it about the flowers…’ And then he sees ‘…nothing – only long waves on the sea…’ by which the garden is haunted – the pattern of their lives in the ‘wild, earthy life of the island of which they were each a part…’

What seems to take Tarn away from a firm grasp of life is the presence of crowds, as when he’s in ‘The Fish’, having drunk more beer than he feels he ought to have done. There is a party at the manor during which he again found himself in a kind of dream: conversations sounded like the drone of insects; he is bewildered by a play and feels that something is about to happen when a distant horn sounds, premonition of thunder, and then the bailiff arrives leading the blind Ardan.

The Arboretum

In his school Tarn discovers a copy of a vast sprawling book, ‘full of sentences so long, so very involved, curling back on themselves…’, the whole thing in the end just petering away. It is called The Arboretum – a book Ardan needed for his studies. Ultimately The Island simply peters away in the most agreeable enigmatic fashion, mystery that has haunted me all these years!

Tarn and Noola visit the Arboretum – a visit that doomed their relationship. Like much else in this thoroughly intriguing novel, the reason for this is never clear.

“This place,” he said as they closed the gate – it seemed natural to speak very quietly – “must surely have some history. I wonder what it is.”
His voice echoed softly.
“I think it has, and there’s somebody working; we might ask him,” she suggested.
Leading off the main ride were two others transepting, like the former only shorter, so that the wood was laid out in the form of a cross. From these rides led smaller paths through groves of rhododendron, among other trees, all huge of their kind although small compared with the red-woods. There were glades of slender, grey-barked beeches, whose leaves were gently rustling, standing like maidens in a circle as they walked slowly on. In some of the glades were cypresses and fir-trees of every kind, silver firs and cedars, trees with several trunks, with pale, grey leaves, blue, brittle foliage, boughs golden and purplish and black, trees whose growth was compact or spreading, contorted, symmetrical. Here and there stood ancient yews in an impenetrable shade, gnarled, dark and patriarchal trees, which might have marked the tombs of kings…

A woodsman they meet explains that long ago the owner had intended to build a house with a walled garden there. All that can be seen are overgrown ruined walls. It was, thought Tarn, ‘…a small forgotten section of that far greater temple, its columns supporting the clouds…’ a mysterious image that causes a bit of a shock to the system since if the ‘far greater temple’ represents the temple of life then Tarn’s view of it is perhaps similar to that expressed by Orwell’s George Bowling in Coming up for Air, ‘the dustbin we’re in reaches up to the sky’?

All work on house and arboretum was long ago stopped on orders from the owner presumably as a result of some great disappointment or falling away of intention. Things just ‘petered out’. It must have been a significant development when it was first proposed because plenty of books have been written about it according to the woodsman who had worked there so long that ‘it’s all a part of us’. The doomed visit to the ruins of the arboretum can be taken to stand for the ruin of Tarn’s plans for marriage: Noola explains that Ardan, like her blind doll, needs her; at that moment a sudden vision of his island fades away from Tarn’s eye like a dream and he knows he will never go to the arboretum again; it’s all a trick of the light.

That nothing more of Peter Weir’s authorship appeared in published form makes me wonder briefly if things somehow ‘petered out’ for him.

That very night Ardan calls for Noola and asks her to go away with him. She goes. Noola’s mother explains to Tarn that it was a big mistake to go to the arboretum before they were married; if they had gone afterwards it would have been ‘different’. The place seems to have infected them with its ruin and decay.

School’s Out

It’s the summer holidays and to rise above his distress Tarn decides to spend a few weeks by the sea with renewed hope of finding out something about his island. So far in the novel, frequent references to the distant sound of the sea have reminded us of its presence but now we are where sea meets land, a potent image representing fluidity and fixity, a magical boundary in mythology where special knowledge can be acquired. Or, in Jungian terms, ‘the unconscious might be compared to the sea, while consciousness is like an island rising out of its midst. The island could reveal what kind of relationship the ego-consciousness of a dreamer has with the unconscious…’

Little waves were lapping along the sands, green, glistening, murmurous, and it seemed that the sea was sleeping, basking lazily, caressing the shores of the island. Its scent floated inland, tinged gold, becoming a part of the gorse-clumps on the hills above the bay. And, as Tarn descended, sounds wove round him, bird cries, voices, fragmentary notes made musical by the distance, bells, flutes and the twang of strings, the beating of drums and cymbals – the sounds of the sea-side town. Soon they clamoured about him. Entering the streets, he was swallowed up by a vast resounding wave.

The transformation of one sound into another reminds me of Jung’s experience with a boiling kettle:-

One evening – I can still remember it precisely – I was sitting by the fireplace and had put a big kettle on the fire to make hot water for washing up. The water began to boil and the kettle to sing. It sounded like many voices, or stringed instruments, or even like a whole orchestra… It was as though there were one orchestra inside the Tower and another one outside. Now one dominated, now the other, as though they were responding to each other… It was soft music, containing, as well, all the discords of nature. And that was right, for nature is not only harmonious; she is also dreadfully contradictory and chaotic. The music was that way too: an outpouring of sounds, having the quality of water and of wind…

The scene in the streets which ‘swallows’ Tarn is so different from the rest of the island. Tarn is once again, as in ‘The Fish’ and at the manor party, alienated by busy-ness and a throng of people invading his peace; the people here seem to have their features painted on waxen masks and ‘…when they laughed or smiled these features puckered as if the wax was melting…’. I am reminded of Pete’s dream in Harold Pinter’s early radio play The Dwarfs:-

I was with a girl in a tube station, on the platform. People were rushing about. There was some sort of panic. When I looked round I saw everyone’s faces were peeling, blotched, blistered…

Pete is similarly alienated by people! He wonders if his own face is peeling…

After this, we ‘normal’ human beings perhaps feel a kind of relief, as though we are suddenly in what we like to think of as ‘the real world’, or at least the world of consciousness:-

Here around him flags were flying, bunting and coloured streamers, roundabouts circled giddily, wheezing, and children were shouting. People were eating ice cream, walking about in beach-attire, racing past him in vehicles of every kind. Here were cafés, each with a different tune, shop-windows filled with picture post-cards, and sea-gulls which dived on the promenade, screaming raucously, to seize morsels of food which were thrown to them by old men and podgy schoolboys. He began to realize that the island was very much larger than he had known.

But Tarn is not fooled by conscious ‘reality’ – even the shadows in his still, silent, hotel are different from the shadows at the manor or in the schoolroom; the lounge with its ferns is full of old people, endlessly reflected in mirrors, dressed as for a journey with suitcases and packages; it has the appearance of a waiting-room.

The waiting image again.

When the steamer arrives the sound of its hooter reminds Tarn of Niord’s horn but the waiting passengers with their suitcases and baggage charge in an unscrupulous melée towards the exit. Compelling image.


At their destination Tarn discovers a train service along the coast built by the owner for the pleasure of visitors; he goes to the end of the line where, across the salt-marsh with its tidal creeks, a vast breeding ground for birds, he can see a tower, ‘crumbling in the haze’. Climbing it, through rooms littered with miscellaneous junk, for what he hopes will be a better view of the island Tarn feels as if ‘…he were climbing out of the perplexities of the town, of Noola and Ardan, the Arboretum, as if in this wilderness he was finding something for which he had sought…’

What is Tarn seeking for but his essential being? A meta-position from which he can assert himself, his own island in space & time representing what he feels he has somehow lost; fulfilment of a need to make up for the loss of temporary solace in Noola with her roots firmly in the manor and the haunted garden; aspiring to the solidity of the Owner’s mansion, even feeling at home in the bailiff’s hut; always after a container for his being, which has to be something quite different from ‘The Fish’ with its crowd of incoherent topers or the hotel with its mad crush of holiday-makers. The tower takes him up out of all this – though crumbling at the base, it represents, at least temporarily, something solid from which to operate. With the immediate agreement of the tower warden, he decides to spend the rest of his holiday there.

Over a number of years, Jung built himself a tower which came to express something of his inner being:-

Gradually, through my scientific work, I was able to put my fantasies and the contents of the unconscious on a solid footing. Words and paper, however, did not seem real enough to me; something more was needed. I had to achieve a kind of representation in stone of my innermost thoughts and of the knowledge I had acquired. Or, to put it another way, I had to make a confession of faith in stone. That was the beginning of the ‘Tower’, the house which I built for myself at Bollingen.

Jung had intended it to be a simple ‘round structure with a hearth in the centre and bunks along the walls…’ like an African hut with a fire burning in the middle round which the life of the family revolves. He comments that ‘…primitive huts concretise an idea of wholeness…’ Jung’s tower was added to as he experienced ‘…the feeling of repose and renewal…’ become more and more intense; he needed to capture this with additions to the building. However. he realised that the central tower was himself, a place of rebirth which he’d built in a kind of dream, a symbol of ‘psychic wholeness’.

In the last forty years I have built four summer houses in different gardens, no more than ‘primitive huts’, small pointed towers, which I’ve thought of as some kind of representation of my self.

There is a paragraph in Jung’s masterpiece Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961) that is uncannily congruent with Tarn’s general sensitivity:-

At times I feel as if I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the plashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons. There is nothing in the Tower that has not grown into its own form over the decades, nothing with which I am not linked. Here everything has its history, and mine; here is space for the spaceless kingdom of the world’s and the psyche’s hinterland.

Of course Tarn’s endeavours to find out about his island, lacking system and stickability, have not been at all akin to ‘scientific work’ but when he arrives at the tower he clearly feels that his experiences of natural events, having become a part of him, achieve a kind of settled climax. This is confirmed when the warden and he spend much time talking, for at last a central mystery is revealed; we feel a sense of recognition, familiar territory, when the warden explains…

You know the office and the orchard. I had been working there all morning and the trees were a mass of blossom. I used sometimes to wonder that trees so old should be so full of life. And I was tired of all those papers and writings when outside the sun was shining. I was still young. So I sat gazing through the window. And then I saw a young girl walking slowly among the trees. The sun and the leaves were playing in her hair. Birds were singing. A torrent of sound swept over me. I went and threw open the door. Even then, standing on the steps of the office, it was not too late. I could have gone back to my desk and nobody would have been any the wiser – if she had not seen me also. That was how I loved her.”

Tarn has forgotten the ‘rules’ attaching to the role of bailiff and wonders how that could have got him the sack.

“I suppose,” the warden continued, “it might have been hushed up, had it not been for the young man who, unknown to me, had been sent to… inspect the island. How even he discovered, I never knew, although I must say he was a very shrewd young fellow. I suspected the verger of telling him; but I didn’t much care then…

So, the warden was the previous bailiff – he’d broken the rules and been exiled. He’d fallen in love with Noola’s mother; presumably he’s therefore Noola’s father and the ‘shrewd young fellow’ who came to inspect the island was a forerunner of the kind of inspector of islands the verger and current bailiff suspected Tarn of being. The ‘plot’, at least provisionally, tumbles into place but we need to read the novel again to get the whole drift of it; several readings are needed to get all the nuances. For instance, it turns out that all the writing Noola’s mother spends her time on goes into letters to the warden of the tower.

A few mornings later, a schooner is observed under full sail. The warden quietly & sadly observes that it’s the owner; he knows that the owner will only return to the island if Noola’s mother dies. A very brief reference tells us that she was the owner’s sister. We are left with the tantalising idea that she had something to do with the owner’s abandonment of the arboretum and the island. He has come for the funeral.

After finishing the last page of The Island and reluctantly closing the book, what impressions are we left with?

• The seamless flow of natural events through the seasons and characters’ absorption in them
• Shady interiors where people write: the bailiff, Noola’s mother, Ardan, the warden…
• Authority figures: the bailiff, the headmaster, the owner, the sinister figure of the verger
• The arboretum ‘curse’
• The way the ending peters away in mystery
• The novel seems like a bit of a ramble but actually has a tightly knit ‘plot’
• The theme of ‘waiting’
• The presence of the sea as perhaps as a representation of the other-than-conscious mind
• The notion of ‘island’ as sanctuary
• A library & old collections of books & papers
• Houses & similar structures as containers of the soul
• Tarn’s alienation – constantly seeking, but ultimately giving in to authority

The Return

When Tarn arrives back after his holiday he finds everything changed as though affected by ‘deep autumnal stillness’. The manor was in the middle of a wilderness: ‘he felt that the garden could never really have been as he remembered it; this wild claim of autumn was the natural end of a dream…’ He imagines that his own island will be in a similar state of abandonment.

Noola’s mother had been confident that Noola would return and so is the only remaining resident in the manor, the cook, who keeps a fire burning while she waits.

In the first of the concluding authoritarian diktats, the headmaster announces that Tarn will no longer be employed as a teacher; he is to go to the manor next day. Tarn asserts that he’ll only go on his terms.

There Noola has taken over her mother’s position writing at her desk and, not seeming to recognise Tarn at first, thinking that they’d been apart for years and years, summers, winters and autumns; Tarn is similarly vague about the passage of time. But anyway, reconciled, He goes to the bailiff’s to ask for the return of her mother’s livestock; he finds the office changed, littered with papers & books, buckets all over the floor to catch the rain leaking through the roof. Noola tells Tarn how important repairs are – a practical observation that Tarn seems to ignore. Perhaps he feels that house repairs are not the stuff of romantic liaison – I recall that Keats says he can’t marry Fanny because he didn’t want their relationship sullied by things like doing the shopping.

Nevertheless they marry and time passes. The owner has discovered the whereabouts of Tarn’s own island and the bailiff demands that he set out for it immediately. Authority wins out. There is a hint that the verger is again machinating to get Tarn out of the way and the owner asserts that Noola’s son ‘is to be my next bailiff’. Another diktat.

The novel peters away in a way that I find most satisfying.

Jung described the relationship between consciousness and the other-than-conscious mind as being akin to a chain of islands which appear to be separate above the surface of the ocean but are really connected below it. When Tarn is absorbed into the ocean we could take it to mean that the individuation process is complete, that he has achieved a conceptual unity with his ‘dark bride’. Consciousness joins up with Other-than-consciousness.

I came across an outline of a dissertation on the Internet by Edward John Federenko called Islands and Transformation: An Archetypal Pattern in Western Literature (January 1, 1996). (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Massachusetts) It explores the literary use of the island metaphor in a way that I think is totally appropriate to Peter Weir’s brilliant short novel The Island. It proposes:-

…the castaway and the island experience as a parallel to the hero and the hero’s journey as a metaphor for what Carl Jung has called ‘the individuation process’. The island setting as a site for the spiritual, emotional, or psychological transformation of a character has remained a constant in Western literature… The typical island story involves a character in many, if not all, of the following ways: removal to a remote island; awakening to, and taking stock of, strange surroundings; initial setbacks followed by increasing adaptation; spiritual, emotional, or psychological growth due specifically to island experiences; a climactic event which challenges growing feelings of wholeness; and escape and return to the home society in a much-altered state. [Federenko traces] …the influence of the island on the castaway story in terms of six archetypes: wanderer, hermit, artist, magician, king, and hero. Jung refers to the influence on the psyche of certain places and situations when he says that ‘only in the region of danger (watery abyss, cavern, forest, island, castle, etc.) can one find the treasure hard to attain… (Collected Works 12:438) …Jung was concerned primarily with describing archetypal figures and their effect on individuation. [Federenko’s] dissertation attempts to extend that concern by considering how the archetypal setting inspires human transformation. The conclusion [he draws] …from examining the function of these six archetypes in island fiction is that they are given impetus by the island setting because of the island’s remoteness from the castaway’s home society and the island’s isolation from all other societies. Jung notes that a particular kind of psychic energy flourishes in isolation resulting in ‘an animation of the psychic atmosphere, as a substitute for loss of contact with other people’ (CW 12:57). The island – a kind of incubator – exerts a more active influence on a character’s growth in island fiction than has hitherto been acknowledged.

When Shakespeare depicts characters who are ‘on the mend’ psychically he takes them off to an island as in The Tempest or isolates them in a forest as in As You Like It for dramatic study.

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Being & Communication

A Facebook friend Joe Van Myers posted a paper by SCRWeightman called ‘The Domains of Discourse’ (Systematics Vol 7 December 1969). A previous paper contained a pyramid-shaped model which was intended to depict the relationship between Language, Speech and Meaning as mutually exclusive contributions to the supposed Unity of the experience of self:-

‘Self-unity’ is the critical issue to be discussed but ‘meaning’ always seems to me to be a construct, an emergent property of the system which might be said to be a contributory factor to the ‘Unity’ of self where ‘meaning’ is inevitably focussed.


E.P. = Emergent Property

According to the pyramid model, which the December 1969 paper seeks to revise, the path from language to unity is related to the competence of the self (the language we have at our disposal creates the universe we imagine we live in, as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has it); the path from speech, or simply using language parrot-fashion, to unity is about relatively effective mechanical performance; while the path from meaning to unity is about conceptual grasp. This follows a pattern in Bennett’s Dramatic Universe.

Weightman acknowledges that none of these categories is watertight. More particularly, he proposes that the model needs to be rebuilt in order to incorporate the role and effect of others in the equation – the relationship between self & society, the interaction.

My own view would be that ‘society’ is an abstract construct, built separately in the mind of each of us, an emergent property from the system of individuals coming together:-

Discourse is made up of utterances (‘the workings of the vocal mechanism’) which in combination and with competent performance become appropriate linguistic behaviour, both individual and societal.

Whether shared ‘meaning’ or ‘understanding’ emerges in speaking together depends on the ‘level of performance’ of participants – depends perhaps on focus, concentration, intention, listening quality, common purpose and willingness. If the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds then what one person’s set of verbal possessions & assumptions & combinations of meanings consists of at a point of ‘unity’ will be different from another’s. For example, intention may vary from cohesive to divisive, say, and the emerging propertieswill be anything from congruence/agreement to conflict & alienation.

Speech is not social in the collective sense but rather depends for its success on the matching & coalescence of individual speakers’, one with another. You have only to listen carefully to an exchange between rival politicians or between an atheist and a born-again to confirm this.

In spite of the political trope ‘everybody agrees that…’ – a clear sign of a half-baked attempt to make it so – , Weightman points out that ‘…meaning is neither a collective possession like language, nor a reciprocal action like speech, but a state of affairs that is shared by those [able to share it for for various reasons – community of intention, common focus or purpose and a kind of willingness to commit – ]… and can lead towards the shared experience that is understanding…’

Understanding is verified by sharing, comparing, checking, which adds a new dimension to the original model which becomes a double pyramid.

The crucial thing here is what is meant by ‘unity’ – it is not a something-or-other with permanency as we might imagine it to be. By Unity, in Weightman’s terms, is meant the experiencing self in the present moment which of course constantly changes with the flow of what could be designated ‘time’ – focal point of all the variables in play in the NOW. In the new model, the lower portion is perhaps ‘…more concerned with the material of discourse – sounds and their structure – while the upper pyramid appears to be more concerned with the social aspects of discourse…’

Weightman then redefines the new model by suggesting that his lower pyramid represents something going on ‘below the level of the individual’ (a ‘Subordinate Domain’) while the upper pyramid (the ‘Supra-ordinate Domain’) represents an ordering ‘above the level of the individual’. The spot marked ‘Unity’ then represents a ‘Co-ordinate Domain’.

I find this a useful categorisation and the ensuing discussion of the Co-ordinate Domain even more useful: it causes me to revisit my own ‘Figure of Eight’ model where the point of Unity between ‘Core Consciousness’ (= the Subordinate Domain) and the Extended Consciousness (= the Supra-ordinate Domain) is labelled ‘Interaction Now’ as an aspect of the Experiencing Self without taking into account other experiencing selves which might be a useful thing to do!


A double-click will obtain a decent version…

Weightman then points out the inadequacy of the point of Unity as being a singularity. It is just not a single point as the word itself appears to suggest, either in temporal terms or in terms of ‘self’. Moments are clearly multiple – in spite of the unthinking illusion of constancy, things have a habit of changing from moment to moment – and what’s more there is no unity of self – there are multiple selves or Multiple-I’s which I’m now inclined to think appear in the wrong place on the upper circuit: they are an aspect of the NOW point – the quality of NOWness all depends on what ‘I’ you happen to be in.

Weightman suggests that his pyramidal focal point be labelled a ‘Domain of Realisation’ – the place where ‘discourse becomes real to the individual who experiences it…’ Real but not necessarily accurate or valid or ecologically sound – just existentially ‘real’ – the way things appear to be at any one moment.

It needs to be emphasised that a notional system built from abstractions like ‘society’ and ‘unified self’ alone is pretty well certain to be very unstable; collectivities of selves, submitted to a thorough-going analysis, can be relatively concrete and handleable.

The ‘present moment’ expands and contracts in time & space depending on what one chooses to focus on. Choices are made by individual ‘I’s (of which there are a multitude) without their necessarily discussing the them with other ‘I’s in the system: one ‘I’ might have a broad focus while another has a relatively narrow one; one ‘I’ might be focussed on thinking while another craves action – deliberation v quick fix.

We each consist of a multiplicity of ‘I’s or selves. In the Domain of Realisation a crucial question to ask is – which self (‘I’) is doing the realising? Realisation in one ‘I’ will, without doubt, be different from the realising done by another.

Weightman has a splendid analogy for what can be defined as the functioning & changing focus of Multiple-I’s.

Let us consider what can happen when one goes to a concert. It is first possible to sit, with one’s eyes closed, allowing the music to fill one’s experience, to move and evoke as it will. If one surrenders one’s attention in this way, the music is one’s experience and one’s experience is the music. It is also possible, however, to listen more actively. This requires the expansion of the present moment in such a way that not only is the music still experience, but one is also able to ‘take in’ the structure and development of the work and the way it is unfolding. Such a widening of awareness also brings with it a heightened appreciation of the combinations of sounds, phrases and harmonies. With such a state of affairs we can say one is experiencing both the music and the work.

Surrendering-attention-to-the-music-I and then Analysing-the-structure-of-the-music-I…

A further widening of the present moment would come when, at the same time, one embraces the music, the work and the performance. When this happens one becomes aware of oneself in the concert hall with the rest of the audience, and of the orchestra and conductor playing the work in their own particular way. In this case the expansion of one’s awareness to embrace, as it were, the whole auditorium also brings with it a heightened awareness of each note, with the particular quality, timing and emphasis that it is given on this occasion. Such, one imagines, is the embrace of music critics. Finally, it is possible for a further expansion of the present moment which can bring the individual’s present moment in contact with the greater present moment which is the universal experience of music in the life of man. Such a widening of the embrace of awareness, experiences the concert as part of the musical life of the community, it experiences the full potency of the coalescence of the composer, the orchestra, the conductor and the individual members of the audience, and sees the significance of this in the enrichment of the cultural life of the community. Such an awareness brings with it a heightened appreciation of the sounds in all the aspects we have mentioned, but also as musical sounds, that is to say having a different quality from other kinds of sound.

Embracing-music-work-performance-I, Grasping-the-universal-experience-of-music-I, Relating-to-composer-conductor-audience-I…

At first sight it must seem that this last mode of experiencing music is the most primitive and attainable by anyone no matter whether he is tone deaf, totally ignorant of music, or standing in a noisy railway station. The difference is whether one is experiencing this from inside the ‘universe of music’ or merely looking in from outside. Only through such an expansion of the present moment as has been described, can the experiencing self be brought in contact with this region, from within, in which the special quality of musical sound, and the cultural role of music within the community, are together seen as aspects of the same universal experience.

The situation that has just been described is one that is, if not familiar, at least easily verifiable. Anyone who recognises what has been described, will also be familiar with the instability of the present moment. At one time it may be of sufficient extent and duration to embrace the whole auditorium and the particular performance that is being given, at another it may contract and be filled entirely with the experience of the music, being then of little more duration than a few bars. Such fluctuations are constantly occuring over very short periods of successive time…

One can flit from ‘I’ to ‘I’ from one moment to the next.

The musical analogy also shows one important aspect of the process of co-ordination that belongs to the domain of realisation. This is that, the more the present moment is able to expand and reach into the supra-ordinate domain, the more it is brought in contact with the corresponding region in the subordinate domain. The more the concert goer was able to embrace the occasion and the performance, the more aware he was of the particular quality of each note. Similarly in discourse, the more one is able to embrace a conversation, its situation and those taking part, the more one is also able to be aware of the exact manner in which each sound is articulated. It is because the present moment expands equally into both the subordinate and supra-ordinate domains, that there is able to be, in the domain of realisation, the co-ordering of which we have spoken.

We talk here of the expansion and contraction of the ‘moment’ – the process itself could be said to be managed by a range of different ‘I’s.

In addition to those already referred to we might note ‘I’s like

Listening-to the notes-I

I’ve been told that I’m sometimes in Humming-very-quietly-I – must be infuriating… And there are many more ‘I’s.

If the present moment is unstable then so is the status of the individual management of it: which ‘I’ is determining what goes on there?

Whatever the answer, the important point is that it is only in the Domain of Realisation that anything ever really happens; everything else in the Figure of Eight is merely a contributory factor; any realising is a result of potential wrapped up in the subordinate and supra-ordinate domains.

In addition an expansion of the supposed ‘Unity’ of the Domain of Realisation can take up options described as relating to both the supra-ordinate domain (Extended Consciousness) and the subordinate domain (Core Consciousness or Other-than-conscious Mind)

The larger the individual repertoire contributing to realisation in that domain, the greater the ease with which the experiencer can circulate the Figure of Eight. The more aware the experiencer is of the workings of its Multiple-I’s the more all the possible relationships between supra- and subordinate realms can become functional.

Additionally, the ‘I’ that relates effectively to other people and their multiplicity is likely to marshal ‘I’s that are likely to contribute to a well-formed society of individuals.

Weightman’s very special musical analogy reminded me of a guided visualisation exercise I used to run with groups. It was adapted from James Roose-Evans’ Passages of the Soul.

Facing into the circle
stand with legs slightly apart
feet well rooted to the ground
like a tree whose roots go deep down
eyes closed
breathing in notice the energy in your breath
flowing up from under the ground
up through the feet… up the back of your ankles…
thighs… spine… until it has reached the top of your skull
pause, lungs full of breath
resting in the fullness of the breath like a surfboard rider on the crest of a wave
…release the breath
going with the wave
the breath flows down your face and chest
back to the base of the spine forming a loop.
…no breath left
now in the emptiness of no-breath
neither breathing in nor breathing out.

Lao Tzu:

The ten thousand things
have their beginning
in absolute emptiness,
in complete quiet…
Energetically growing,
restlessly changing,
all complete themselves
by returning to stillness.

open your eyes and turn around to face out from the circle
…take a breath and move your attention to the walls of the room…
another breath takes the attention to the edge of the garden…
to the edge of the town…
globe… moon & stars…
& now your breath comes from the other side of the universe…
make your way slowly back in the same order
and into this room now knowing that the energy
from the other side of the universe
is yours whenever you choose
to tap into it…

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