Sunday, 24 May 2015

The fear of death - Hildilid's Night

If you are much troubled, more than average, by the thought that life will end, I want to see if I can say anything that might be useful to you.

Maybe the first thing to say is that you are not alone. We are people, but people are animals, life forms, and our bodies are vehicles for the force we call a human life.

Because we are alive, we are naturally death-averse; most of us most of the time try to avoid death, the only exceptions being desperately unhappy and self-destructive people. Even people who seek out dangerous activities don't actually want to die doing them, they just want the thrill of getting close. Being death-averse is how a life preserves itself, whether it's a sea-slug or a duke. So it’s perfectly natural, at a biological level. 

So being death-averse works at the level of instinct and action. But being aware of one's own mortality is a different matter. Antelope become particularly death-averse if they sense a cheetah stalking the herd, but they don't, we can be pretty sure, worry about the fact that one day their life will end.

It seems certain that human beings are the only creatures on the planet who know, in advance of the event, that their lives will end. This can be seen as a blessing (we can plan our lives, at least to some degree, and value them because we know they’re limited) or a curse (most of us fear death) or most likely a mix of both.

In any case, we have to live our lives with this knowledge, however we feel about it. It's not just that people die, which makes us aware that we are not immortal; it's also that knowledge of our mortality tends to make us strive against it rather than accept it. Particularly now, in our culture.

Did you ever see an illustrated book for children called "Hildilid's Night?" Hildilid lived "high in the hills above Hexham," and every night she tried to get the darkness of night out of her little house. She would try to sweep it out, wash it out, slam the door against it - in the end, in her frustration, "I'm sorry to say," wrote Cheli Duran Ryan, she spat at it.

The night, of course, was unmoved. It stayed dark until the dawn. That is what nights do. But by the dawn, Hildilid was so exhausted by her futile struggle that she fell asleep, and slumbered right through the day until - nightfall, when once again, she battled in vain against the night....

Poor Hildilid. We're all Hildilids to some extent, because it's natural to be wary of the dark, if not to fear it. It's natural to have some fear of death, but it makes life difficult if we are Hildilids about our mortality, tiring ourselves out by fighting something that can’t be fought, instead of simply living our lives.

I’ll return to this business of our mortality (by which I mean the fact that life ends.) But a thought occurs to me: maybe what is really troubling you is loss, rather than the simple fact of mortality. That is, maybe it’s not death itself that’s troubling you, maybe it’s the thought that you might lose someone close to you. Big stuff, isn't it? I'll listen to the water and get back to you on that....

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Tiredness and mindful moments - Moel Siabod

Moel Siabod is a favourite mountain for the walker who is in the - let's say the prime of life plus some. It stands alone, so it has fine views all round of much of northern Snowdonia's mountains and moorlands. It's quite easy to get at from the A5. It's satisfyingly mountain-shaped, yet not too high at a little under 3000 feet. And as the years go by, every 100 feet less of ascent is - noteworthy.

Much harder to describe, and certainly unphotographable, was my state of mind on the way down Siabod the other day. I was alone for a while, and tired. As I plodded on, my feet seemed to be finding their own way, which is not to be recommended in the shattered rock around the summit, but fine on the path above.

I found myself in the slightly detached, accepting, calm sort of state that can come during a formal sitting meditation. Things seemed right just as they were, although my legs ached and I was weary. 

I was in and with where I was whilst I was there. In the present moment. Impossible to describe, it can only be hinted at.

So it wasn't so much "what Siabod says" as in "what the water says." It was more what Siabod had done, to make me feel so much part of it.

When I caught up with the others, we agreed it had been a wonderful day out, a splendid and not too difficult scramble up the east ridge (Daer Ddu), lovely weather, some of the best views in Snowdonia, uncrowded. All useful categories and responses. 

I wondered if anyone else had entered, for a few minutes, the state I'd been in, but it's not really a topic for discussion whilst you're easing your boots off and looking forward to tea and cake. 

The benefits of being in the present moment lasted until long after the tea and cake. As did the aching knees, but it was worth it.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Why the water? part 2 - The Watercourse Way

"You can't put your foot in the same river twice," wrote Heraclitus. He was reminding us that a river isn't a single thing, it's flowing water, ever-changing, ever moving. You could say that of breaking waves, too. 

You could say it of human beings.

 Listening to the water draws me into the ever-changing, flowing present, of which I am an ever-changing, flowing part. It's somehow easier to feel - to inhabit - that truth alongside water, even though I can feel the same if I listen to trees and grass, especially when the wind moves through them.

Refusing to accept our own mortality sits alongside thinking that each of us is a thing. But we're surely a set of processes, a flow, not a fixed entity. To accept the ageing process, to think and feel that we are changeful and always have been, is to feel at home in this universe of change.

To resist the reality of change is to create an illusion of separateness from the rest of "Nature" (the universe, including each other.) That's an exhausting, hardening, brittle illusion to sustain.

To step aside from all the cultural pressures that reinforce the idea of separateness, of rigid ego, of prefectly preservable self-hood - that's why I listen to what the water says.

Anyone who's seen a river in flood (Eliot's "strong brown god") or the sea in a raging storm knows the power of water on the move. 

Taoism gives us images of water seeking its own way round, beneath, over obstacles rather than battering away at them, yet water wears away the hardness of stone as it finds its level

Alan Watts called the Tao "The Water-course Way." He quotes Chuang-Tzu: "The fluidity of water is not the result of any effort on the part of the water, but is its natural property."

We are not Things, we are Flow. That is our natural property. 

So that's why I listen to what the water says.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Why the water? Part 1, early life

I can hear you simply clamouring to know why it's the water I'm listening to... well, partly it's personal history. I was brought up by the Thames, I swam in it once (an even worse idea then than it is now) and a very early memory is watching the the water bubble and swirl around the stern of a slipper launch in which I was given a ride.

  However, I went to a boarding school, which meant that for nine years I was somewhere else for about two-thirds of the year - right by the sea.

So close you could hear, from the dormitories, the sounds of the sea - the gulls, the breaking waves.

I'm sure the physical environment we experience as children goes deep; otherwise I would certainly find it hard to explain rationally why Eliot's line "the river is within us, the sea is all about us" resonated so powerfully for me when I first came across it at the age of 17 - as it still does. Poems about beaches, seas, rivers, if they're any good, take my ear, as do sea stories. I'm an expert arm-chair sailor.

Many university days were spent within sight of the sea, and on beaches.

For my first job after university I lived on a river and not far from the sea.

But East Anglia wasn't all peaceful estuaries and the sound of waders calling across the saltings. North Sea storms can be fierce and sudden:

After Suffolk I lived by rivers - two Avons:

 And now, I'm
back by the sea.

"The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.
             The salt is on the briar rose,
             The fog is in the fir trees."

Those are voices I want to listen to.

We are mostly water, and I read once (?) that tidal difference, the moon's power, can be measured in a glass of water. Perhaps even in our inner waterynesses we have tides. 

My feeling for the land's edge - stream, river, lake, sea, ocean - is inexpressible. Maybe that's just my literary incompetence - but maybe not. 

Just a little shingly beach by a lake in Snowdonia or Cumbria can put me into a different mental state, let alone a walk by an ocean that's getting itself into a rage. 

And of course, I'm not unique in this love for - no, this essential need to seek out -  thin places, watery boundaries.

"Enough already with the pictures," I hear you cry, " so you connect with the water. And?"

But there's more than just my personal history that makes me stop and listen to what the water says. See part 2.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Stan Tracey and accordions - a great musician and a dry wit

With apologies to accordionists everywhere, I laughed a lot when I read this excerpt from a conversation between the late and truly great British jazz painist and composer, Stan Tracey CBE.

"I used to listen to radio broadcasts from British dance bands. There was a guy called Harry Roy, the king of a dance craze called ha cha cha. Not cha cha cha. Then I saw an accordion in the local music shop, a beautiful, big shiny thing. It was the glitter that did it for me. So I started learning that. But it put you in arsehole-land as soon as you strapped it on, it was such a ridiculous thing. I played with the forces entertainment service, in a Gypsy accordion band with no Gypsies. We toured factories and played to people during their lunch hour, to encourage the war effort. I think they had us to make sure the workers didn't take too long over their lunch. They couldn't wait to get out."

Such a modest man, the antithesis to so much over-hyped musical bullshit around us today, at times. You never heard him say things like "utterly fantastic, completely fabulous, awesome..." And he had that dry, often cutting, throw-away wit which I miss so much in these days of Fckbk and Twatter, that medialand so often juvenile in its hysteries, tribal in its loyalties and enthusiasms, and so very PC - provided you are on the same side as the tribe.

Where was I? Ah yes, Stan Tracey. I saw him in Bristol one evening when a band member started grumbling about the PA.  Stan made shushing noises, looked around him furtively and said "We're lucky to get the gig."

No Stan, we were lucky to be listening to you. 

As I was lucky when I heard him backing another jazz great, Ben Webster, at Ronnie Scott's in 1964. There's now a recording of that evening:
to be found on ReSteamed Records:

and here they are in action, Stan, BW, Jackie Dougan and Jeff Clyne:

But many fans will say that one of Stan's truly classic works was his jazz suite "Under Milk Wood," with Bobby Wellins. The track "Starless and Bible Black" is one of themost beautiful things I've ever heard from a group of British musicians, in any genre. Hold your breath and give it an ear:

Saturday, 9 May 2015

An unwatery political note

It's hard being grown-up about politics, I find. I've no truck with UKIP's policies, but under first past the post (FFTP) the relationship between votes cast and seats won for UKIP and the Greens is so much larger than for Labour and Conservative that it's easy to see why so many people, and not just UKIPpers, are saying FPTP is no longer a fair system. 

It seems that some form of PR would have reduced the SNP landslide somewhat, brought about another Tory-led coalition, saved some LibDem seats and made UKIP a force to be reckoned with.

It's been said for a long time that FPTP leads to more stability and consistency, whereas PR almost inevitably leads to coalitions, which some see as more unstable At this point in the discussion someone usually drags in Italy and jeers at their frequent succession of coalitions, but that overlooks stable and economically successful countries such as Holland.

No electoral system is completely fair, perhaps, but a system which alienates large numbers of voters and results in destructive frustrations must surely be called into question. Democracy only works if people believe in it.

We can hardly expect Labour Conservatives and SNP to be keen on changing the system for Westminster, it would greatly reduce their potential for large majorities and significant power blocks.

PR systems look, to many of us, off-puttingly complex to understand, whereas FPTP is at least simple.