Sunday, April 1, 2018

Heretical thoughts

 'The price of being misunderstood...  They call you devil or they call you god.'
Richard Bach - Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

As I start typing it has dawned on me that I'm about to write a post in praise of heresy - on of all days, Easter Sunday. The gentle irony appeals, for in its original usage, 'heresy' meant to hold a belief or opinion contrary to the orthodox Christian faith. My views would certainly fit that description - though less so than some might assume - but, opening paragraphs aside, it's not religious dissent which interest me.

Heresy, in a secular context, means to question the established order of beliefs. My dictionary describes it as 'views profoundly at odds with accepted opinion', and that's as relevant to politics, the pub or the workplace, as it is to the chapel or cathedral.  More to the point - in a world as resistant as ever to those who venture outside the stockade - I think we need a little more heresy in our lives.

For as long as I can remember I've been interested in why we think as we do - and troubled by how flimsily many of our beliefs seem to be built. As a child I struggled with the platitudes that were offered as rules of behaviour; the supposedly right and wrong ways of seeing and being in the world. 'You'll understand when you're older,' my maternal grandmother would say...   Well, I'm fifty-six now, and at times I still don't get it!

To be fair, my father didn't tow the establishment line. One of my earliest memories is being allowed a day off school rather than wave flags at the queen when she visited our town. On the other hand he held some ridiculous views - everything in the universe is made with carbon - to which he would allow no counter, because he'd heard (and misunderstood) something of the sort on a BBC2 documentary.

Which is not untypical, because chief among our opinion formers is the media. The press and broadcast channels curate which issues we consider important, and more subtly, they promote how we should think about them. Social media makes a dent and occasionally gives voice - not least in blogging - but mainstream opinions and tastes, remain, almost by definition, as orthodox as ever.

The workplace too is awash with conformity - from the quasi-religious faith in 'colleague engagement', to the economists' disconnected pursuit of 'rational man', corporate orthodoxy is founded on the flimsiest of evidence. But to challenge risks ridicule or exposing the folly of those in charge.... no wonder most keep quiet.

And much the same is true of the pub, the golf club, our schoolyards.. even the writing and creative community of which I'm a part. In all walks of life we find opinions so embedded or popularised they resist any counter. I've heard it said that a non believer in the USA could never be elected president; in the UK, I'd suggest the same goes for any politician questioning the efficacy of the national health service. These are not good things.

But for all this, little corners of hope exist.

My long time colleague at work has one of  the best 'antennas' I've ever encountered. On sensing any hint of management bullshit, no matter how eloquent the soundbite I've crafted, she'll raise her eyes to say, 'Really, Mark...?'  -  and invariably I change the sentence and smile.

For this is exactly the sort of heresy we need more of. Not flat earth theorists or holocaust deniers - but the gentle probing of what's taken for granted, and which, with a little reflection, doesn't stand scrutiny, or need to be so dogmatic.

The kind of everyday heretics I like are those who might say, Excuse me for asking, but...

-  you know these local libraries which I keep hearing are essential bastions of learning... could you tell me where I'd find one.

of course, we all love Rugby... but isn't something awry when the England Captain has been banned for a total of 60 weeks... 

-  leave the skin on my kiwi fruit please; they really do taste better that way!

These statements are not meant too seriously, however, they illustrate a point. The value in heretical thoughts is not that they need be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing ...  but that in asking them at all, we become open to different, and sometimes better possibilities.

Conformity is the scourge of reasoning - and no more so than in the stories we tell ourselves to bolster our prejudices and intuitions. Over the last forty years psychologists have revolutionised our understanding of why we do this, and how difficult all of us find it to deconstruct our embedded modes of thinking.

I recently read the Nobel prize winner, Daniel Kahnemen's, brilliant Thinking Fast and Slow -  a sort of psychology equivalent to Hawking's Brief History of Time - and realised I fell into almost all the traps his work exposes. Orthodoxy exploits these failings, promoting only evidence which shores up the norm; heresy confronts it - and is open to change in the light of its discoveries.

So I say lets have more heretics - even at Easter. Apart from anything else I'd have more mates, because the people I like most are invariably those with interesting and different views - some of my best friends have profound faith, nearly all have lifestyles at a tangent to mine. We can't all be Copernicus or Picasso, changing the way the world sees itself  - but in our own little hefts, we can at least make a difference to ourselves. Amen to that.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Six months, no beer and a crossword

The other day I realised it was more than six months’ since I’d drunk any alcohol. The milestone had passed without my noticing, and I might have gone longer unawares had it not been for the morning crossword. 

Its final clue posed: Result of multiplication - 7 letters. 

The answer, for those who can’t wait, is given below.

Quite why the solution should trigger thoughts on sobriety says as much about my lateral mindset as any inherent logic - but it’s instructive nonetheless. For what I've discovered these last six months, is that quitting alcohol is a bit like putting money in the bank - at first there’s not a lot to show, but after a while, the interest compounds.  

And in my experience, I'd say the rates are pretty high.  

For starters I've lost ten kilos. In not drinking I’ve foregone tens of thousands of 'dead calories’; add to that a reduction in associated snacking, and compound the gains by taking more exercise because I have more energy -  and the net result is the easiest diet I've ever been on.

There’s a noticeable financial benefit too. It’s harder to be precise here, but I reckon in my case the saving is around thirty pounds a week after including the odd drink in the pub and wine at restaurants. On that basis if I stay dry for a year, all our utility bills are covered. 

Meanwhile, I’m sleeping better, worrying less, and haven’t had a head ache in months. The icing on the cake - or more accurately, ’off my scalp’ - is that my persistent eczema has almost gone.

None of this should be a surprise.  

We all know that alcohol is a mild poison; that in quantity it induces weight gain, diabetes, cancer.. and in some cases, grips with an addiction that can be life destroying. Second to smoking, giving up alcohol is just about the best thing you can do for your health. 

But let’s face it, that’s not the way most of us view a few beers or a bottle of sauvignon on a night in. 

Rather we see booze as harmless fun; it helps us to relax; it’s part of a good night out - and it tastes great too, doesn’t it?  Even after six months abstinence I’d concur with most of that - so feeling this positive about not drinking is somewhat of a surprise. 

And let’s face it, abstaining is bloody hard - even for people like me who didn’t drink a great deal in the first place. Not only are there habitual cravings to deal with, there are disruptions to our social patterns, and impacts on our partners and friends…  The consequence I found most difficult to deal with was Jane saying how much she missed us not sharing a bottle of wine together.

Alcohol is now so central to our culture that giving it up also invites a surprising amount of resistance. Why not just cut out wine - how about drinking only at weekends - when are you starting again; you’re making us feel bad…  The pressure to justify sobriety is a phenomenon so universal that support websites regularly offer tips on how to ‘come out’ as a non-drinker.  One I read recently  advised telling friends that you’ve taken up a year-long challenge for charity… Really?

But this is a time to celebrate not to analyse.

For despite the challenges, having stuck with it, I’m more motivated than ever to keep going. I guess it’s like any achievement - what at first seemed improbable, gets easier over time. The cravings subside more quickly than you’d imagine (about 60 to 90 days is key); real friends quickly accept your decision (and those few that don’t, well…); there’s even a slight danger of smugness. For in viewing the world unfiltered by booze - especially in the mornings - I've discovered a joy as intoxicating and as achingly more-ish as any good malt whisky.  

And that’s a very fine product* indeed.


*  Result of multiplication (7): Product.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Passing thoughts.

This week I learned of two deaths - they could not have been more different.

On Tuesday I was told that my ex father in law had died.  He must have been ninety or thereabouts; a kind man, gentle, with a wry sense of humour.  I’d not seen him since I separated from my first wife nearly thirty years ago, but I’m grateful still, for the care and support he gave me when starting out on adult life. I hope, that we didn’t speak says as much about distance and life moving on, than any lasting anger on his part.

When I heard of his passing I didn’t shed tears. Death at any age is sad, but there is comfort in the knowledge of a life well lived. We can celebrate what the person gave us, rejoice in shared memory, and - especially if there are descendants - take comfort in a sense of their contribution to the greater life journey.  

For my part, this is as close to faith as I get. 

Yesterday I learned too of the death of one of my son’s best friends. More accurately, I should say ‘had confirmed’, for we knew through the grapevine, and in our hearts, that the skier reported to have fallen 650ft in Oz-en-Oizans, was Jordan.  One slip on the ice and…

As I write these few words, my fingers are tensing at the keyboard; my eyes are wet and it hurts to swallow. I am thinking of the time he came to our house and we played table tennis in the garden -  so vital, so competitive, such fun to be with…  Twenty years of the life force embodied in physical form.

And because of that, and because he was such a good friend to my son, I feel anger as much as grief. Anger at an industry that pretends the mountains are a helter-skelter ride; which revels in putative adventure but diminishes the risks. Its apologists will cry otherwise, but they are wrong… and the litany of deaths every year gives evidence to their self deceit. There’s more to be said on this, much more… but now is not the time.  

Every night this week I have slept badly; troubled in a way by my own distress.  After all, Jordan was my son’s friend not mine; I’d met him only a handful of times. I know that in part, it’s a dread of ‘what might have been'; a parental unease at events that feel too close for comfort - 'but for the grace...' as they say.  But there’s more to my sadness than that. 

For if I’m honest with myself, the first line of this piece isn't strictly true. To a man of no faith, all death is the same - an oblivion, regardless of when and how it occurs. That void is beyond our knowing, and as such, I can just about bear it. What’s harder to reconcile, are the memories cut short, the potential lost - the link to life’s journey, more severed than stitched.

That will take time to pass. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

In North Korea: lives and lies in the state of truth

John Ruskin once wrote that drawing is as much the art of looking as it is of making marks. What he didn't say, was that there is more to seeing than meets the eye.

Anyone sketching a still life will quickly learn that the negative spaces - the gaps between the subjects - are just as vital as the objects in focus.  Something similar goes on in music - listen to any of the great jazz pianist, and you'll 'hear' the pauses between the notes.

Rory Maclean's and Nick Danziger's latest book IN NORTH KOREA: lives and lies in the state of truth is a masterpiece of what writers call 'show not tell'.  Interviewing a carefully selected (not by them) cast of everyday citizens, they chronicle the daily life and hopes of a farmer, fisherman, soccer player, student, subway attendant...  recording the stories, as told by the participants, always in the presence of Government officials, jotting down every phrase, full stop and comma.

A master of sensitivity, Maclean writes without comment  -  transcribing the assertions of love and loyalty to our dear leader, so accurately, and so frequently, that their emptiness echoes with his sorrow. Danziger's photos are a counterpoint to the verbatim: stark, graphical, at times arrestingly banal - they are disconcertingly rich, yet bereft of feeling.

If only those Government observers had been writers too, they'd have understood what's going on here. At face value, the book is a collection of staged photos and stilted interviews; behind this necessary deceit, its truth lies between the lines.  

IN NORTH KOREA (available only on Kindle) is a short work; more of a non-fiction novella. It was made possible with help of the British Council, which facilitated access to the usually closed Democratic Republic. I've no doubt Maclean's easygoing diplomacy was put to regular use too - and the project, of course, is especially prescient given recent events. 

A side of me thinks it's a pity the book is exclusive to Kindle. Another - the one that's a fan of digital media - is pleased, for it demonstrates the format can launch important work from leading authors. The colour photographs are best viewed on a tablet version of Kindle, using the app that can be downloaded free of charge. At £2.99 IN NORTH KOREA shouldn't exclude on the basis of price. 

If there's any weakness, to my mind it's the two-page afterword - the only point at which the authors drop their guard to comment briefly on the rising tensions with the West. Perhaps that's inevitable, but to my mind the stories and pictures are stronger alone - their interpretation best left to the reader, and to time.

In collaborating with such deliberate understatement, Maclean and Danziger have given a subtle and powerful voice to the people they met. For as all writers, photographers - and for that matter, all dictators, know - truth and lies are revealed not so much in what we say, as what is left unsaid.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Giving up and Getting On

Taking part - so much better than watching

One day during last summer’s holiday in France, and much to Jane’s annoyance, our alarm clock went off at 6.00am. I’d set it the night before so as not miss the Olympic diving heats, followed by the flat water kayaking – or was it the modern pentathlon?  It doesn’t really matter – the important thing was the look from Jane as I stole from our bedroom into the lounge…  

Turning on the TV to watch some ‘never-before-heard-of’ backward somersault into a pool (tight tuck; minimal splash), it suddenly dawned on me that I’d lost the plot. As long ago as ancient Rome, the games at the Colosseum were described as opium for the masses. The 2016 Olympics, it seemed, were having much the same effect on me.

And reflecting a little further, it shocked me to realise just how much time and energy I was expending on watching sports. Like many people my age, I was  spending far more time watching and reading, than I was participating.

Modern day spectator sport might not be as toxic as opium but it’s reasonably akin to a soap opera – pulling us in with an ever changing, but never ending, and ultimately arms-length narrative.  Without noticing, I was investing huge amounts of my life sitting on a sofa, vicariously involved in events that have virtually no connection or meaning to me.

So as is my way, I made a resolution to give up watching and reading about any sport for year.

From last September I decided I’d not watch or read about any football, rugby, cycling, athletics… as well as the Olympic disciplines in which I’d recently become such an armchair expert. It would be an interesting experiment; I’d see how long I could hold out, and perhaps reset the balance thereafter.

A year later and I’m still holding true to the vow.

I missed last year’s Premier League, the Six Nations, the Tour de France, and a whole lot more. The hardest of all to give up – I wonder if you can guess? – was the World Snooker Championship; I’ve been glued to it every year since university and Alex Huggins won his second final - more than any other event it reminds me of good times past.

But the truth is, other than the snooker (and maybe a little of the cycling), I’ve not 'missed' watching sport at all. Once I’d deleted a few links from my PC, and stopped turning to the back pages of the Times, it quickly became irrelevant to my daily life. Despite much ribbing and incredulity from family and friends (’re not watching the Six Nations!), I quite enjoyed giving it up.

There's something empowering about leaving behind habits or possessions we don’t need – like a super charged version of the satisfaction we get in sorting the loft and taking our junk to the tip. Perhaps that’s why there are long traditions of self-denial in almost all cultures – they are a means to resetting the balance, reflecting on, and reconnecting to, what’s important. In other words, by ‘giving up’ we allow ourselves ‘get on’ with bigger and better stuff.

So as September approaches, what sports am I going to watch again?   

I suspect very few.

Recently I read that ‘a year’ is a seminal milestone in almost any quest to change our habits. In dieting, for example, the chances of relapse are much lessened if we can sustain our lower weight for twelve months. The same goes for cigarettes, drugs, exercise regimes, and in my case – not following sport!

In fact, so taken am I by the joys of ‘giving up’, that I’ve decided to extend my sporting purdah to other areas.  This year (strange how I still think in academic terms) I plan to write a walking guide to the Haute Savoir – that means finding time for research as well as long hours at the keyboard; I’d like to build a website too, and perhaps learn Welsh.

So instead of starting to watch sport again, I’m going to continue as I am. But to give me even more time and energy, I’m making two further changes.

From today I’m deleting all social media from my PC, phone and Ipad. I’ve realised that despite their many good aspects, Facebook and its like have become one of the biggest consumers of my time and an invidious distractor to getting on with real life. If that sounds a bit snobby, then apologies; but I’m talking of me not you, and being frank, I can’t find a subtler ways to put it.

And secondly, I’ve decided to give up all alcohol until at least Christmas – if it goes well, I might extend the pledge to the full year – but I’m not promising. Giving up the booze is more to do with being healthy but having a clear head won’t hurt with the writing either.

So there you have it – new rules for the Bike Shed: no spectating, no social media and no hooch to console me.  But you know what?  I reckon it’s going to be good here this year – and a lot more productive too.

Who knows, I might even make a splash.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Land of my fathers

Russell's Cairn on the summit of Windy Gyle.

Next winter, it will be three decades since I came to Wales; more than half my life, and a long time more than the 'two or three years' I'd planned to stay. I love it here, and suspect it's where I will see out my time. But the true land of my fathers is Northumbria, at the edge of England, where the sky is sharper, and the sun rises over the sea.

I wrote recently of the backpacking trips I made as a student. That was in the early Eighties, around the time I became closer to my maternal grandfather. He too loved the outdoors, and though in his seventies, came with me on many trips to the mountains. I remember in the summer of 1981, climbing the Simonside Hills on the morning of the Royal Wedding, where we met a group of similarly lost souls, looking for somewhere to escape the madness. And I remember too, around the time I returned from university, me showing him the route to Windy Gyle.

Last week I was there again; this time with my son Daniel. He's just finished his degree and wanted to talk about his plans. I suggested we go to the hills but chose the route without any conscious nostalgia. For all that, it never fails to surprise me, how our histories have a habit of repeating themselves - as we set off, I packed my bag with the same OS map I'd used thirty-five years before.

The walk begins about as far into the Cheviots as you can reach by road. To get there, you must first pass the Rose and Thistle at Alwinton, where Sir Walter Scott wrote Rob Roy. There were cyclists heading our way, waving us through as we drove by the banks of the upper Coquet. It was warm for early morning, only thin trails in the sky; the deepening valley stirring memories of times that that had shaped me, and yet lain dormant for years.

Not everything is the same as it was: there's now a car park at Barrow Burn, and new information signs from the National Park - but otherwise, this place feels timeless. Our route follows the drover's road to the border fence, briefly joins the Pennine Way, ascending to Russell's Cairn on the summit. Like much of the Cheviots the path is soft underfoot, the climbs more rounded than steep; a view that relies on the changing light to give form to its barren beauty.

We reach the cairn in less than two hours and drink greedily from our flasks. My thirst reminds Daniel of a trip ten years earlier, when we had walked together along the Preseli ridge back home in Wales - it was he who stumbled on the hidden stream that allowed us to camp by the bluestones at Carn Menyn.  The story of that journey - and how it helped me see Daniel anew - became the opening chapter of my book, Counting Steps.

You're not going to write about this as well, he asks?

We returned down the valley past Row Hope farm, drinking our fill from the clear water springs. There were skylarks above us, small heath butterflies in the dun grass, and two ravens patrolling the slopes to our left. I check the map and the words on the battered paper invoke a subconscious smile: Headless Clough, Mosie Law, Rough Knowe, Black Braes...  These are names and language of the northern fells; a lexicon that was once as familiar to me as the Celtic equivalent of where I live now.

But I sense there was more to my involuntary smile than a recalled familiarity. The landscape of our childhood - or more particularly, the place where we 'come of age' - has a profound hold on our sense of self. I'm sure that's why so often we define ourselves in relation to where we were born; why so many of us, despite our peripatetic lifestyles, seek to return 'home' in later years; and why, on the occasions that we do, we feel a depth of belonging that transcends the here and now, connecting our presence to the past, and even to lost generations.  As I've got older, I've come to realise, that what in Wales they call Hiraeth, is not unique to the Welsh.

Ironically, my own father did not like the hills, preferring the town, or at a push, the sea. But in fairness, he too stayed resolutely a man of his place. One of his few questions, when I visited before he died, was to ask how it had felt to cross the River Tyne - true Geordies cry, he'd said.  I lied, (though not with intent), telling him that home meant nothing to me now - I'd moved away and wouldn't be coming back.

If only life, and the paths we take, were that simple.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The objects of life #3, monocular 8x30, 8011162

Two days ago, at the summit of Pen y Fan, I reached into my rucksack and took out a small leather pouch. Inside was an old Russian monocular which magnifies at a paltry 8x30; the lens was dirty and the focusing wheel so stiff it required two hands to turn. I've no certainty of the make (Zenith possibly?) but it's serial number is 8011162, and oddly, I've know that by heart for thirty seven years.

I bought the monocular when I was coming up nineteen. It was my first summer as a student and, in between signing on, I spent it backpacking the long distance paths of Northern England. I couldn't afford a proper case so made the pouch myself, hand stitching the brass zip into the mock suede fabric. That long July and August it came with me on Hadrian's Wall, the Pennine Way, and from coast to coast.  

Monoculars were rare back then - they're hardly commonplace now, but this was pre-internet and I remember being delighted to find one in a second-hand camera shop. I think it cost me about £8.00. The reasons for buying a monocular were two-fold: firstly, they were recommended as a weight saving tip by the Backpacker's Handbook; more importantly, I have only one eye that focuses, so binoculars are of limited use.

After that summer I used the monocular less frequently, and more recently it has gathered dust, surpassed by a newer model that offers better light capture and magnification. Jane considers the original to be useless - she says if reason had its way, I'd have sent it to the junk shop years ago. And she'd be right - if that is, our possessions were all and only about utility.  Instead, it has stayed in my desk, beside the pens and brushes and old sketchbooks that hold memories beyond any logical worth.

Recently, I had my eyes tested.  I've used reading glasses for a decade, but two years ago I noticed my distance vision was weakening too. My optician gave me specs for driving and I found myself turning to them more and more. This time round, I asked if I could wear  a contact lens instead - and it turns out I can.

Three weeks later and I'm still pinching myself when I look at the landscape!  It's not just the extra clarity; by correcting a slight astigmatism the new lens widens my peripheral vision, and with only one functioning eye, that makes for a massive improvement. The other day I compared it to the difference between an analogue TV, and a 50-inch widescreen with High Definition!

But if there's a downside to wearing the contact lens, it's that my reading glasses are now too strong. My optician suggested I buy some cheap readers. You won't need expensive lenses, because the contact will already have corrected the shape of your eye. You might find your old glasses work well - if you still have them that is. 

And that's how I found myself sitting at the top of Pen-y-Fan, holding my old monocular to a newly lensed eye, watching the walkers on the ridge. The view, like memory, was blurred at first - but after a while it came into focus. A group of young people were nearing the plateau, most of them wearing university hoodies.

As I was readying to go they asked me to take their photo, and to my surprise a girl passed me a camera rather than a phone. You need to press the button quite hard, she explained. After handing it back, she must have sensed my thoughts.  I know it looks a bit rubbish, she apologised,  but I've had it for years and it still takes good pictures. 

Sticks in each hand, I smiled as walked down the hill.