Monday, 11 December 2017

How Regularly Must It Happen Before We Bother to Prepare Properly?

The uselessness of the English (particularly the southern English) when it comes to coping with snow is notorious. Passengers sit kicking their heels in airports around the world, because at Heathrow or Luton we can’t get the snow off the runways. Here, this morning, hundreds of schools are closed, forcing parents to stay at home even if their workplaces are open.
We don’t have the right tyres on our cars, and when we can’t drive any further we abandon them leaving an obstruction for those coming behind. We don’t bother to clear the snow in front of our houses, thus ensuring pedestrians compress it into something akin to a skating rink. A lot of us don’t even own snow shovels or a bag of grit.

There’s something infantilizing about all this and the media play along with it, playing videos of children throwing snowballs. It feels like we’re not living in a serious country. Not in a place where people believe in the value of work. It can get intensely annoying.
However consider this. The amount of time (and enthusiasm) anyone spends preparing for something to happen is a based on a judgement as to how likely it is to happen.
I remember once in Budapest speaking to a couple of Americans in a bar and they cheerfully admitted that though they were working there on long term contracts they had decided not to learn any Hungarian. The relatively small number of people in the world who speak that language meant that the effort of learning it was not justified.
In the same way, here in England we could work hard, both individually and at a government level, preparing for snow and ice. The Germans have all kinds of laws about this, and all around the year, even in 30 summer heat, you can see notices stating who’s responsible for the 'Winter Duty' of clearing the snow away. 

But that kind of rigid discipline is not the English way.
This six inch snowfall only happens every four years or more. (In fact it’s seven years since I’ve seen snow like this outside my window.) It’s an intense nuisance that we’re so little prepared. But, our climate is intensely unpredictable and not preparing is a judgement we make, about the best use of our limited time and resources.

So next time I am cursing the general uselessness of the authorities, I will try and calmly tell myself that this is a judgement we’ve made. And remind myself that, in any decision making, probability and pragmatism should not be neglected. 

Saturday, 18 November 2017


I first read this at 15 and then again in early adulthood and now in middle age once again. It's lifechanging. The moment you finish it you want to inhabit its world - or at least try and write your own story set in that world. There are brilliant descriptions of settings, movement, light and weather. Seton is immensely generous to minor characters, giving them headspace in the story in a way remniscient of Dickens. The first third of the book, Katherine alone making her way in the world, and then married but abandoned to the mad inhabitants of Kettlethorpe, is Gothic. The final third, her spiritual redemption, has tremendous emotional heft and is incredibly moving. I didn't quite cry this time but I have in the past. The middle part (if I was to find a fault) somewhat sags, as the chronicle-sourced narrative of Kings and Great Men takes centre stage. John of Gaunt is a variable character, and somewhat annoying with his self-obsessed fears. Until he mellows in maturity, there is little evidence of his attractiveness apart from his wealth and power. However this is a crucial feature of the book - she's the centre of it, not him or anyone else. Katherine with her beauty and humour and calmness, her vibrant interior life, is a leading lady like few others. And the trouble is, you can look in vain for anyone else like her in the rest of Anya Seton. Years ago I hopefully bought all her other books, but none of them comes close to KATHERINE. This book has launched many historical novelists. There is something about knowing that the world we live in - the ground we walk on, the light and the sky and water - was once inhabited by people whose lives were immeasurably more judgemental, violent and dramtic. The drama of history survives through old beams and old stones and old landscapes as a kind of stage set to drama. Years ago I made a pilgrimage to Lincoln Cathedral and Kettlethorpe in the hope of discovering those textures. Not much is left, but there is something. The rest is inside my head....
 Gateway at Kettlethorpe Manor, the only part surviving from Katherine's time.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

The Big Cover Up

Bruce Robinson's 'They All Love Jack' is, I'm tempted to say, the only Jack the Ripper book you need to read, but it won't do if you don't know the basis chronology of events. There again, nearly everyone does know them by now. Robinson's text is encyclopaedic, his thesis closely argued and proved very convincingly through immense attention to detail, including accounts of many murders ignored by other writers and careful analysis of the many Ripper letters. Whether or not you subscribe to Robinson's rather baroque full theory - there is no mystery, just a cover-up; the Ripper was Michael Maybrick, a senior freemason who left masonic symbols at the sites of his killings, framed his own brother (via 'The Diary of Jack the Ripper') whom he then poisoned, and was assured of his own freedom through the vulnerability of the masonic establishment - it does seem unarguable that there was a cover-up at some level. I enjoyed his argument that the police and judiciary were hopelessly compromised by their loyalty to a Masonic establishment that went from the Prince of Wales downwards. As you might expect from the man behind 'Withnail', the book is written in an enjoyably irreverent style (like Orwell at his most polemical), and extremely readable:
'The English Establishment had a full-blown psychopath still active in their midst - but no problem, they could cope with the odd dead kid or two, even more with the odd dead whore. Their only problem was that if he got caught they all got caught, all the way up to the Grant Glutton. How could this profilgate prance around in his pinafore when he shared one with Jack the Ripper?' Excellent stuff. The only fault with the book is its structure -some 150 pages towards the end are devoted to the death of James Maybrick and the horrendously unfair trial of his widow Florence. Whilst this is undeniably gripping reading - a Stalinist show trial comes to mind - it could almost have been a separate book in its own right (I knew nothing about the case, though I had read about the comparable Charles Bravo case; his widow was also a Florence.)
It's a hefty book, but you'll read it fast, specially if you have any interest in how history can be re-written to suit the Establishment. He is enjoyably cynical about the cult of 'Ripperology' and quite rightly questions the veneration with which even modern authors treat the pronouncements of such as Donald Swanson and Melville McNaghten. I can't help wondering if, given there was coverup, the truth is simpler. What about Thomas Cutbush? After all, he was a Superintendent's nephew, but he did not have any complex psychological motivation beyond being a psychopath and loner.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Tomorrow’s Unknown

I’ve noticed that Procrastination happens much more with something interesting but hedged around with uncertainty, than it does with something boring but definite. This is my own experience but it’s borne out by my coaching clients. Ambiguity and uncertainty are the things we dread, it seems to me, more than boredom or even pain.
When we see the prospect of a change, even an exciting change, with part of our minds we feel an urge to settle back into the comfort of our present routine. You might complain about your bed, but bed is never so comfortable as when the alarm clock is ringing.
One effect of this is a tendency to debate the true underlying rightness of the change. Is it really right for me?  Call it overthinking, call it shyness, call it perhaps (in the words of an old song) Courting Too Slow. And so we are s    l    o    w in taking that first step.
It might be a job application or a holiday or even reaching out to a new networking contact. Ambiguity is the toughest thing. Remaining poised at the start, looking at ambiguity from outside, can have a deep allure. If you have not decided on one destination, you have not closed off the other ones.
But thought won’t solve that. You can only address it by plunging in. Feel the pain and do it anyway. Remember, the search for clear mental patterns, everything fitting into place, is almost always futile. We humans are usually far more effective at than action than thought.

There, I’ve written it now. All I need to do is put up on the web. Maybe tomorrow…

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Trying to live in the NOW (but this is the 10th day of Christmas)

We are just emerging from the most time-obsessed part of the year, when, our buttons pushed by community expectations, we bring complex event management into our homes just because of a calendar date. I favour the old style of twelve days of feasting, and it's something many of us could keep up, in terms of time off from work, but that event management imperative pushes the leave we take earlier, well before the time-honoured 'first day.' In the old pre-industrial days if there was one key date in the feast it was probably its climax, Twelfth Night. And this year, being a Friday, it might feel something like it once again.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Finding the mind’s pause button

THE POWER OF NOW by Eckhart Tolle
For this book, ‘thought-provoking’ is a huge understatement. The book makes you question so much in your thoughts, feelings and even consciousness that it is a slow, slow read, you stop every few pages and wish you had someone to talk to, to share your latest discovery. The only parallel in anything I had read before is Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation  – where getting away from thinking is part of the struggle to move closer to God.
But here it’s much stronger – the mind, the ego, is an absolute tyranny with its self-dramatization, its mental movies about a better tomorrow, and so many more little tricks that distract you from consciousness of yourself, your deep body, your current existence, your immediate problems now.
Achieving all this is a big ask, of course. One of the many annotations I have written, early on in the book, says, ‘If you are saint!’, next to one of Tolle’s calm injunctions to ‘watch the mechanics of your mind.’ For a person with health problems and pain it might be too late to try and adopt the principles of this book, much as Tolle tries to get us to understand pain and tolerate it.
Following this book is scary but liberating at the same time. It chimes very closely with some of my own thoughts as I’ve faced up, this autumn, to a world without my father in it. This grief needed a strategy to make it tolerable. Also he presented a sad example of over-reliance on the mind, even to burning it out while the body limped on.
Since reading this book I have found myself less bored, less frustrated, less impatient. As Tolle says, ‘Waiting is a state of mind. It means you want the future; you don’t want the present.’ (That sounds rather like a late Leonard Cohen lyric – one of those phrases that, like the best coaching questions, are simple but very perceptive.) I have noticed the beauty of my surroundings; even sitting in a traffic jam this morning the sunlight on the frosty field was glorious. I have concentrated more on what I am actually doing now.
The mind is so powerful, it can churn away day and night with thousands of images and sounds and feelings. But it can hold you back from action, too. I remember going to ‘Go Ape’, a tree climbing experience where you make your way through high treetops across wobbly rope bridges and zip wires. Every movement was preceded by a fiddly process of fastening and refastening the three rope slings that were connected to my safety harness. Of course I was glad of the harness, but still all those loops, carabiners and buckles slowed down my progress. In the same way, the mind can surround you with a fog of thoughts, rationalisations and interesting patterns that have to be spotted before the next step can happen.
Also it sets you up with too much self-image, a compilation of image and sound that you have to see coming true. That builds up the pressure to succeed to an almost unbearable tension.
The other problem with these mental movies is that when they are optimistic they are often less vivid than the pessimistic ones. The prospect of change is less easy to imagine than the prospect of staying the same; rejections are intensely familiar because they come so often. If they are allowed to become mental movies then we can gravitate towards them. That’s the trouble.
This book helps you find the off switch. The mind has its essential uses, but like every television, it needs to be turned off at the end of the programme you wanted to watch. 

Saturday, 9 July 2016


8th July 
Many years ago my father contributed a chapter, intellectually rigorous but lucid, to a book entitled ‘Why I am Still a Catholic’.  Nowadays I would broaden this to all denominations. For me the answer to the question lies in the bleakness of death. Death makes a nonsense of all our love-based edifices of family and blood. Eventually all those bonds will be dissolved, and that is inescapable. For many of us death softens itself in the padding of ‘a good innings’ and ‘a full life’. But sometimes it flaunts its cruelty, reducing small children to tears as they walk behind a coffin. Today I was a mourner at such a funeral; a family where a mother and father had lost a child, their little grandchildren had lost a loving parent.
Everything we try and achieve through the people we befriend and mate with, and the children we engender - their vulnerability freighted with the intensity of our love - can seem a completely empty ritual in the face of death’s power. Today, the question loomed in my mind - what is family love, ultimately, but passengers trying to provide comfort to one another on a ship that has already struck the iceberg, and is heading for the bottom?

This bleakness is unsustainable without hope. This may be just a case of wishful thinking, of wilfully holding onto something that exists beyond proof. But we all know that we all feel, we don’t only think: our intellects are often little help to us. As I sit in my garden this evening with vivid colours from the flowers receding away to the lawn and orange sun in my face and a soundtrack of birds and distant sheep bleating, I can feel, just fleetingly, a certainty (not a conclusion, nothing that cerebral) that the loveliness of the scene is not all there is, that our minds and emotions are, in a way we can’t yet articulate, copies and hints of something greater outside and beyond, something of infinite duration beyond the transience of these earthly bonds and loves. Coupled with this conviction that we are made in the image of God, we also have the solid scriptural record of a poor carpenter’s son who defeated death several times and finally rose from his own tomb. In the bleakness of this life’s struggle, these are the reasons why I cling to the word ‘this’. And why I am certain that another life extends beyond.