Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Keep calm and carry on writing

Evening light

Last week I drafted some reflections on the Coronavirus lockdown, suggesting that a little more generosity – and reciprocity - would be no bad thing. My opening hook was a farmer’s call for the footpaths in Wales to be closed – and its contrast to the thousands who are working to keep supply chains open, serving us in shops, supporting and for that matter subsidising rural communities…

As is my way, I slept on the piece and before some final edits, explained its theme and tenor to Jane. Do you really want to wade into all that, she asked?  For the first time in more than in a decade of Views from the Bikeshed, I didn’t press the button to ‘publish’.

You might think that this period of isolation would be a delight for a writer: solitude, the time to reflect, a ready audience for their words... The reality, especially for essayists, is somewhat different. Writing - or at least, that worth reading - thrives on our openness to difference, a willingness of the reader to be challenged; at its best - whether it be poetry, fiction or a reflective blog post - writing helps us to see the world afresh.

Yet, at a time when that quality is arguably more valuable than ever, debate is not what's wanted. Rather, the wish is for our hopes to be confirmed - the reassurance that our preferences may be more than that alone. As a writer, the pressures to conform, to withhold all but the positive, are tangible - and intimidating. If you doubt me, take a look at the comments meted out to Matthew Pariss by the usually genteel readers of the Times.  Never in my writing career have I felt so stymied by the zeitgeist.

The week before last, two of my neighbours were fined for driving a mile to walk their dog – their trip considered by the police as 'unnecessary travel'. Evidently, the officers were embarrassed to issue the ticket, and no doubt did so under instruction. In the scheme of things, it's a peripheral incident - my neighbours have probably shrugged it off - and yet it leaves me with a lingering unease.

For have we really come to this? 

What became of the 'exercise of discretion' that's so essential to a sense of proportion?  Are we – even in these extraordinary times - comfortable that our law enforcement officers should lie in wait for a middle-aged couple on a midweek afternoon?  Are our reasonable concerns in danger of morphing into a public hysteria that fuels - and justifies –potentially more sinister measures? 

Already, I’m concerned about the paragraphs above.

Do they read as a rail against a lockdown that must be vastly more tolerable for those of us living in rural areas?  Should I perhaps add that we’re clearly in uncharted waters?  And acknowledge that all of us – police officers included - need some leeway to account for the lack of maps? 

The paragraphs are actually lifted from my original draft; their relevance now is only by way of illustration.  It's not so much their logic or even their message that concerns me – but that any comment now risks misinterpretation; that within days – hours even – it will look out of place, jar with the public mood; appear as an ill-timed and ill-advised utterance that was best left unsaid.

My old painting tutor was fond of paraphrasing Cezanne – if you’re stuck, then paint the stove.  His point was that despite our creative blocks we must maintain the habits of practice; and that in this regard, the ‘process’ is as important as the ‘subject’. For many writers, commonplace books are the way through. Julia Cameron, the author of the best-selling The Artists Way recommends ‘morning pages’ - a daily routine of thirty minutes non-stop, pen must not leave the page, quasi-stream-of- consciousness journaling… The author Haruki Murakami, on the other hand, claims that he runs an hour every day to be fit enough to write.

There are some, of course, revelling in the angst – from the ‘pour it all’ brigade, to those keyboard warriors, who having feasted on Brexit seem never replete. And – I say this with real sadness – too many voices from the environmental lobby, smug in a sort of ‘we told you so – phooey to the airlines – let’s all plant veggies’ zealotry. 

But – dare I say it – few of these are writers in the true sense, or at least of the type that interests me. What, I wonder, would George Orwell make of our situation – and how would he have approached it? The Road to Wigan Pier has some of the most visceral and yet carefully crafted observations of the last century. Orwell's genius was not so much to debate, as to persuade us that his perceptive reflections are just what we've been thinking.

We have some modern-day equivalents, at least in their thoughts if not quite his eloquence. Yuval Noah Harari is a leading voice of persuasive reason - and at times dissent – as, in spanning different faiths and perspectives, are thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, Justin Welby or the Dalai Lama. Less academic, but just as enquiring, my friend Rory Maclean is sensitive portrayer of the human side of conflict, crisis and its consequences – his recent Pravda Ha Ha is well worth a read in this lockdown.

I’m hoping this post – now so different from its beginning – will be a sort of catharsis; that it might free me from the head spin that leads to (wrongly and ironically, somewhat ungenerously) calling out fearful farmers and the actions of our under-pressure police  Perhaps, from hereon, I can return to writing about my own square mile – not literally, though I guess I might do that too – which draws its strength more from looking at my past than to the future. 

If, in doing so, I avoid the fray, then it’s not for lack of care or trying.

We all of us – writers included – need to keep calm and carry on.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Blogging - and how words have a life of their own

Red dots and the unexpected joys of blogging

Early in my writing career - long before I was a 'published author' - a friend and mentor advised me to share my work in whatever ways I could. The reason, she explained, is that once you put your words out there, all manner of coincidence and possibility will emerge.  Shortly afterwards, I started Views From The Bike Shed, and the rest, as they say, is...

I retold that story last week to some students at the University of the West Of the England where I was giving a lecture on blogging. There's no better way, I suggested, to achieve a professional online presence, and commit to the adventure that is the shaping and sharing of your thoughts. What follows, I said, may not be fame or fortune, but I guarantee it will surprise you.

By way of example, I described how from those humble beginnings, this blog became foundational to my degree, to my books, to articles being published elsewhere. Crafting the posts taught me the skills, and the care, I needed to be a serious writer - which I've since applied to both the corporate and personal sphere. To my amazement, writing is now what I do now for a living - and in ways I could never have imagined when starting out.

But perhaps, the greatest joy of blogging is its 'message in a bottle' capacity for our posts to wash up on unexpected shores.

More than ten years ago I wrote a piece about (I thought) a long-forgotten outdoor writer named Derrick Booth - it touched a chord with hundreds of others in the backpacking community, and still today I receive kind comments and occasional emails in response. To my great delight, Derrick himself once wrote to me from California. I have dozens of other examples, from pieces I've written on bothies and wildflowers that somewhat inexplicably still have a high online ranking, to articles that were later published in journals, books and magazines. The most exciting - and frustrating - thing, is that you can never tell what is going to resonate - some of what I think of as my best pieces languish long forgotten, others seem always to be making new connections.

I've made dozens of those through blogging too - including a friendship with my all-time blogging hero, who ironically,  turned out to live down the road. From similar tentative beginnings, Michelle at Vegplotting now writes for several magazines and newspapers, has a huge following and - being more sociable than me - international friendships that have taken her to the US, Canada and more.

Last week, after a long lay off, I wrote a short piece on of all things, my collection of vacuum flasks.  There were only a couple of comments on here, but I received dozens on a Facebook cross-post - that's a development I need to ponder. And I will. Because I've always approached my blogging as seriously as I do my other work. When I wrote above, that there's no better way 'to achieve a professional online presence...' the operative word was aimed more at our attitude than any prospect of payment.

For when we publish - online or in print - we have a responsibility for our words that's fundamentally different from journaling or notebooks.  It's not legal considerations that I'm hinting at here - it's that when we publish, in whatever form, we must care - and take responsibility for - the quality of what we say, as well as the tone of how we say it. Because, one way or the other, those words will find their way back to us, often in the most surprising of ways.

Yesterday morning I went to my favourite caff - a little converted canal boat that I happened to write about last year.  It's owner Kelly had been pleased with my quasi review, but little did I know she'd since followed more of my writing.  As I ordered two eggs on toast, she rummaged in her bag, handing me a tiny plastic pouch: I bought you this after reading your piece on introverts - it made me smile.  

You'll have to read the post to understand the significance, but inside the bag she gave me was a red button badge.  I think that's the oddest way that anyone has ever said thanks for something I've written - and you know what, it absolutely made my day.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Collections 20 - Flasks

A selection of flasks - and of hopes and dreams?

It's seven years since I wrote a post about my collections - a reflection on my lacklustre blogging rather than any absence of quirky accruals. But today, as I ripped open a package from Amazon to get at what I've since realised is my fourteenth vacuum flask, I thought, it's time I put my fingers to the keys, if only by way of catharsis.

I love flasks - odd I know, but there you have it. There's something of the 'last of the summer wine' about them; something that reminds me of my grandad; of days in the park, picnics in Northumberland's hills; childhood fantasies of camping and fishing and running away...

My first was a birthday present. I must have been about thirteen and I remember devising little expeditions to take it on: I tramped to the dunes at Seaton Sluice, caught the train to the castle at Tynemouth and cycled to Durham on my three-speed bike, lining its saddlebag with a jumper for fear of the silvered vial shattering. Which inevitably, one day it did - for it was of the blown-glass Thermos design, cheap and effective at heat retention, but too delicate for the comings and goings of a would-be Huckleberry Finn.

Not that he could ever have used one - for the vacuum flask wasn't invented until 1892 when James Dewar came up with the idea as a means of maintaining constant temperatures in chemical experiments. Ironically, he was most interested in keeping the contents cold.  It was the Germans who took it further, creating the Thermos brand, now a generic term for vacuum bottles - while in the US the Stanley Insulating Company came up with its iconic all-steel unbreakable design. Today, these companies remain market leaders - and deservedly so, as I found recently when my green Stanley Classic was replaced under its lifetime guarantee after fifteen years of hard service.

In truth, I'd wavered about sending it back - for these are objects of life and could just as easily be included under my blog series of that name.  But I'm consoled by my latest acquisition - the TK Pro from Klean Kanteen: a thing of eco-friendly, BPA and toxin-free beauty that will keep my coffee hot for 28 hours or ice-cold for more than four days.  I was so impressed I bought two!

Because you see, flasks to me are a little like shoes are to Jane - you need different ones for each occasion: family outings (1.5 litres) backpacking (wide neck, no cup), skiing (easy opening)...  And to be fair, my fourteen variants are spread over two countries, with some being kept more for nostalgia than regular usage.

On the subject of which, that first flask had a special feature that I've searched for in vain ever since; its bottom section unscrewed to reveal a little bottle for carrying milk with room for some sugar cubes and a tiny spoon. I used to keep in there a list of places I'd been and girls I wished had been with me. Forty-five years on and I still try twisting the bottom of every flask that might conceivably have the same design. Strange isn't it?  But then...

How funny are the things we love. Of course, it's not the objects themselves but the memories they hold that we care for - or in the case of the new, the promise of what we wish them to bring. This weekend, I shared a flask with Jane as the rain beat on the windscreen of our car, clouds scudding over Yskirrid, the fields sodden from the storms. I'd used my new TK Pro. That's a nice flask, she said, very hot.  She meant the tea, but I smiled anyway.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Not the Sky - a memoir

Not the Sky  - a memoir.  Author Gail Ashton
Brilliantly done - my book of the year
A few months ago I resolved not to buy any books until I'd whittled down the ever-growing pile by my bedside. And in the main, I've been pretty good, catching up on a host of 'must-reads' including Chris Arthur's sublime Words of the Grey Wind, Robert Macfarlane's somewhat overrated Underland and Rory Maclean's distinctively human perspective on Eastern Europe, Pravda Ha Ha. But like most folk on a diet (even if mine is a literary one) I've had the odd lapse - and in the case of Gail Ashton's Not The Sky, boy was I glad I did!

This deceptively unassuming little memoir chronicles a working class childhood in Sixties and Seventies Birmingham, the premature death of Ashton's mother and subsequent loss of her father to a new partner, emigration and eventually cancer. Using dialogue to drive much of the narrative, she recalls her lost parents - and through their voices, explores not only the deprivation and abuses she endured but also the tensions of education, class and gender, that were a defining feature of those decades.

In a sense, Not the Sky is the antithesis of nostalgia - even allowing for the times, it's clear that Ashton had a particularly tough childhood, and while her father takes much of the blame, she is too intelligent a writer to moralise. Indeed, he comes across as one part victim - shaped by his own miscellany of expectations, sense of self, masculinity... a toxic cocktail of diminished self-worth that quickens fists and sharpens tongues. The feuds and secrets in the extended family add wider context,  even humour, to what in many ways is a compound tragedy.

As I read the book in a rather swish hotel in Keswick, I was struck by how so much of this would seem another world to my children - the past, as they say, being another country - and yet for my generation, these experiences were relatively commonplace, if seldom as intense.  Like many memoirs, Not the Sky is ultimately a story of coming through, but its resonance lies not only in the overcoming of ordeals (shocking though they seem now), as in its resurrection of the language, attitudes and behaviours of her family and community, which those of us of a certain age will recall.

The dialogue is internal too, transcending time as Ashton's parents continue to address her in the present. I laughed at her mother's description of her recent marriage to a female partner as a right funny how d'you do - closely followed by, I wonder what happened to that green duster coat I used to have?  And so, for all their faults, they remain ever-present; nudging and shaping her life, long after they've physically gone.

I find the questions of who we are and how we came to be, fascinating - more than that, they are a constant in my life and writing - which perhaps explains why I'm in awe of this brave exploration of those themes. Not the Sky has echoes of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; it reminded me too of Blake Morrison's When Did You Last See Your Father? These are lofty comparisons, but worthy. For this is a book which surpasses the ordinary - it is not so much about the past as it is about the present, and though rooted in particular experience, like all good memoir, it is really about us all.

Brilliantly done - my book of the year actually.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Red dots and the quiet life of an introvert

#reddotting on Helvellyn

Last week the Sunday Times carried an article that caught my eye. A gathering of academics at a conference on transgender issues had suggested delegates might apply colour codes to their name badges. A green dot indicated the wearer was happy to be approached for discussion; amber, that they would prefer to speak first; while a red dot signified a wish to keep one's counsel.

This struck me as a fabulous idea. Transgender might be a controversial topic, but frankly, I'm just as uncomfortable at the over-friendly chit-chat of the ladies in Waitrose. Corporate events are even more toe-curling - some years ago, until they took the responsibility off me, I set my firm's budget for client entertainment at zero! And as for any occasion with the mention 'networking'...

Just off to the shops..😂
My friend agrees - I sent her the article and suggested we could glue red discs to our respective front doors. Why restrict it to home? she replied. How about a badge for schoolyard mums, and maybe another for walking in the hills? Good shout, maybe we could launch a campaign: #reddotting - for those who don't want to be mugged...  or hugged for that matter!

The possibilities seemed endless.

And yet, when I mentioned the idea to a different friend, they were horrified. Another example, they said, of the narcissistic over-curation of our lives; why can't we just talk to each other without artificial interventions?

Putting jokes aside, I reflected that there's much truth in this. Transgender is a prime example of an issue so politicised that even curious exploration is now fraught with anxiety; colonial history is arguably another, and views on climate change are in danger of acquiring an evangelical purity. Certainly, we've come a long way from the old pub maxim that the only topics to avoid are politics and religion.

But my attraction to 'red dotting' - that hashtag idea isn't quite dead yet - is founded on a subtly different notion: that too much of our culture - and especially those behaviours we consider socially polite - are shaped by extrovert values. The line between shyness and perceived rudity is gossamer-thin, in contrast to the robustness of commonplace assumptions that silence confers a lack of interest, or not mingling at a party makes you a miserable sod. To make matters worse, many extroverts, whose preferences so dominate our norms, are constitutionally resistant to seeing it differently.

Malcolm Gladwell touches obliquely on this problem in his recent podcasts, Talking to Strangers. Why he asks, are we so poor at interpreting the feelings and intentions of others? Using examples from Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler to the trial of Amanda Knox (as well as her trial by media), he explores how our cultural norms lead to errors of judgment. Among our chief failings is what he calls the 'illusion of transparency', an entrenched preconception that a person's outward appearance is a mirror to their soul: smiling means you're happy; hesitation that you're lying; eye contact shows you're trustworthy.

But if this is an illusion, it's one that stubbornly persists.  Discussing Gladwell's podcast with Jane - who's a champion mingler and extrovert in the very best and kindest sense of the term - she countered that surely our instincts are 'right most of the time'; that these types of shortcuts make for a more efficient and smoother sociability. I sense there's truth in this too - except why do we default to the extrovert view?  Why not see silence as reflective, hesitation as truth-seeking, and eye contact as deception?
Shhh... Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash
My mother in law, bless her, kisses every family member who comes through her door, usually clasping their face in both hands. As it happens I don't mind (truly I don't), but it would no more occur to her that some people might find cheek kissing mildly uncomfortable than she could conceive of a less demonstrable welcome being just as, if not more, friendly. In a similar vein, a good pal has a habit of talking at length - and I mean great length - to random passers-by; I enjoy chatting he says - yes, but do they, I reply!  To a stereotypical extrovert, what they like, and what's socially 'right' or 'correct', are inextricably linked. It's called preference bias - and we all exhibit it to some extent.

I should add here that there's nothing wrong with being an extrovert, just as there's nothing wrong with rain, or trees or choosing pudding over cheese. Extroverts can be brilliant and funny and a million things more. The problem is not being an extrovert, it's presupposing that everyone else is too - or more to the point, establishing an orthodoxy that assumes the same. Introverts are estimated to account for up to forty per cent of the population, so the notion that one's preferences are inherently 'right and proper', or for that matter 'right most of the time', is hard to sustain.

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash
In truth, the introvert: extrovert distinction is more of a spectrum than a divide. Most of us are not wholly one or the other - though the uber-chummy cashier in our local convenience store comes close (tip if ever you're in my town - avoid his queue no matter how short). But this seems to me to make red-dotting even more attractive - for why wouldn't we want to know how others would like us to be? After all, you wouldn't serve only beef at a dinner party without first checking if there were any vegetarians.

I'm not hopeful though.  Even as I write, I can sense my more ebullient friends muttering - fiddlesticks, of course it's more friendly to be like us... 

And perhaps they have a point. For according to Gladwell, our behaviours are intrinsically contextual - even suicide is often specific to location; evidently, those prevented from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge seldom try elsewhere. The workplace is another context where our characters can change. I'm reminded too, of Jane's regular complaint at my silence when she's driving - I feel like a chauffeur, she says - and yet with certain friends, she can't shut me up.

Perhaps it's inevitable then, that in social settings, those who project themselves on the world should take the lead in setting the norms. It wouldn't work to entertain in silence, just as singing in the library doesn't go down a storm. And much though I like the idea, I'll concede that it would probably be weird to don badges in the pub. 

Though, on second thoughts, if they were all red, I'd give it a whirl.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Objects of life #4 - Haston Vallot rucksack

Karrimor Haston Vallot Rucksack
Unless you're a mountaineer - and even then, you'd have to be one of a certain age -  I very much doubt you could name, let alone recognise the significance of, the rucksack in the picture above. For most folk it would be something that's stored in the loft, deprived of light until tipped or car-booted for few quid at best. And yet, in its time, the Haston Vallot was quite the thing, as was the climber, after whom it's named.

I bought mine in June 1980, at the start of the long summer break from university. My parents had recently separated: my mother moving to a tiny flat; my father not really an option to stay with. With nowhere to else go, and some inspiration from the Backpacker's Handbook, I decided to walk from Coast to Coast. And so began a path that, in a sense, I'm following still.

The man in the shop said it was definitely the one to buy. I remember being sceptical: it was expensive, and most rucksacks in those days had metal frames and multiple pockets. This was different, he explained, an alpiniste style which didn't use a structured chassis - the hip belt and straps would do the work, and what's more, if I progressed from walking to climbing, I'd already have the right equipment...

Ten minutes later and I owned my first piece of mountaineering gear.  I bought a sleeping mat too - and a Trangia stove that's still going strong. Somewhera along the way I acquired a tent and sleeping bag; they weighed a tonne, but they saw me from Whitehaven to Robin Hood's bay and afterwards most of the Pennine Way.

In the late Seventies, Karrimor was the UK's leading rucksack brand. They were known for good quality, innovative designs. The model I bought was named after Dougal Haston, the first Britain to succeed on the direct route of the Eiger's north face. His bold style was an inspiration for a generation of mountaineers pioneering alpine style ascents in the Himalaya and beyond. My memory tells me that he designed the outer loop which stows the belt and stops it from snagging if you haul the pack up a cliff - but I can't be sure and suspect I'm getting a bit geeky... What's more relevant is that by the early Eighties all packs looked a little like this, and the sacks we use today owe their heritage to these early designs.

Austria 1983
Returning to my purchase, after that first summer it transitioned with me from walking to climbing, just as the salesman said.  I took it to the Alps, on hut tours in Austria, and for years it carried my rock gear round the crags of Northumberland. It's a regular presence in my photo albums of those years - like a hidden clue, of the sort a TV detective would spot.

And if they ever came looking, they'd not take long to find it - for I never got round to storing my sack in the loft.  In fact, I used it this week to go camping with my eldest son, retracing a walk over the Preseli Hills that we'd first made eleven years ago. He was a teenager then, and the story of that trip became the title piece of my book Counting Steps. It seemed appropriate for our return, though my nostalgic mumblings cut little ice as I fumbled with stiff zips and broken buckles - but that's another story, for another book maybe.

Sadly, Karrimor are no longer in business - they went bust in 2003, though the trademark limps after purchase by Sports Direct. Dougal Haston is gone too; he died skiing in Leysin, not far as it happens from my house in France. But I reckon my old sack has a few years in it yet - there's evidently a repair shop in Lancashire that can sort those zips, and despite the odd creaky joint, I can still smile as I shoulder the weight - and the memories - it holds.

Summit of Mount Serles, Stubai Alps

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Shopping my library - Words of the Grey Wind

Earlier this year, Jane announced that she wouldn't be buying any new spring clothes. Instead, she would 'shop her wardrobe': a strategy, she explained, of restyling, recycling, and in some cases simply wearing the back catalogue of purchases that second thoughts or changing circumstance had left little used the previous years.

It would have been easy to direct a barb at what I've long felt to be the toxic combination of Instagram influencers and easy access - free returns - life will be better - clothing websites. But I wasn't about to risk a reversal, and in any case, if I'm honest, my study has it's equivalent in 'click to buy' purchases.

Though neater than a pile of clothes, and superficially more worthy than the lure of fast-fashion, the stack of unread books by my desk is just as wasteful of our resources as any unworn dress or last year's must have but now oh so passé sandals. For until we read them, printed words are mute - no more than totems of our good intentions (and reminders of their failure to be realised), clothed in fading if feel-good dust jackets.

Sure, there are those who'd claim bookshelves are storehouses of knowledge; research tools, food for the imagination and the soul; Umberto Eco had a library of 30,000 volumes, they'd say - there's proof, if ever you need it...  But really? Quite how is that soul-feeding ever going to happen exactly - other than when we open them?  The vast majority of unread books in my study were not bought for reference - they're simply forgotten notions that deserve revisiting, resorting, and most importantly reading, before they become buried under yet more of the same.

So taking inspiration from Jane, I've decided not to buy any books for at least six months, and instead to 'shop my library'.  For the first time my holiday reading has cost me zilch - at least in the present moment - and it comes with the bonus of a ticking the list / unfinished business  type satisfaction.

Which brings me to Words of the Grey Wind, Chris Arthur's sublime reflections on the interconnections of life, memory, place and time.  I can't recall when I bought this book, but have a vague memory of it being recommneded by a reader of this blog - someone who'd read Counting Steps and made a complimentary connection. Has it sat on my shelves that long?  What a waste if so.

Arthur's essays are not typical holiday fare - they take time and attention - every somnolant nod requires two or three paragraph of rewind. Yet there's something appropriate in reading them at a juncture which allows space for the density of his thoughts. These are marvelously crafted, deeply considered, essays; the perfect illustration of the care I was advocating in my post on words and pictures. They are like the mountains that surround me here - climbing them is never a stroll, but always worth the effort.

The collection opens with Kingfishers, weaving almost all the book's themes into its first 18 pages.  A masterpiece of linked juxtapositions, the narrative shifts from nature, to memory, tragedy -  insanity even - and slowly back to the bird, its and our transcience in the scheme of things. That decription is inadequate to the richness of the writing, for like in so many of these essays, Kingfishers spins question on question, picking away at, if not entirely unravelling, the Gordian knot of what it is to be human.

Many of Arthur's essays take an object or event - the ferrule on his father's cane, a conversation in a bookshop, the fossilised bone of a whale -  from which he crafts reflections on the miriad of  connections which lead to where we are and what we will become. There are frequent references to Ulster and his family roots, but my sense is that these are staging for his main concerns - this is not so much a book about place, as 'our place in the world'.

Words of the Grey Wind achieves that rare feat of being both deeply personal and yet universal in message.  It's evident that Arthur has studied philospohy and theology, and there's a recurring influence of Buddhist teachings in many of the pieces. But mostly, there's an existential underscore to his voice  - a sense of being alone in the enormity of it all - that resonates with me and is perhaps why I liked this collection so much.

I yearn to write as well as Arthur. Few books have stopped me so abrubtly in my tracks - to think that I took so long to open it. And now I want to read it again.