The Not So Obvious

Anselm, who lived during the eleventh century, came up with one of the first Western arguments for the existence of god. Couched as a prayer he argued that nothing greater than god could exist and since a god that did not exist was not as great as a god that did exist, it stood to reason that god existed. Criticised at the outset it remains better as a prayer than as an argument. Because it only argues in a circle, how do we know that existence is a ‘great making’ property of anything, and just because we think it is doesn’t mean he exists at all etc.

But a lot of people love this argument, still use it and they made Anselm a saint to say thank you, and by all accounts is made him very joyful to have thought of it. That is because it fitted his world view and suited his logic. No amount of obvious flaws would ever have dislodged his belief anyway without the argument.

If you and I showed our birth certificates to anyone they would accept that we were born when and where we said we were. But apparently one third of Americans have a world view in which Obama being a Muslim and not being an American citizen (something journalists and his opponents would have known years ago and something the form filling to run for offices would have shown at his first attempts) fits and they will not drop the belief for any fact given to them.

This ability to run from facts because they do not accord with one’s belief has caused most of the bloodshed of the ages.

Autumn Mornings

Painters have often loved this time of year; the bright reddish-pink nights and silver moon mornings. Here in Cornwall if you go out early the air is crisp and you remember after a warm summer that your fingers have bones and your bones feel the chill. I remember my great uncle visiting from Australia in the summer looking at the countryside and sunshine and saying that everyone in Australia talks about foggy,foggy England. He couldn’t believe it was all so beautiful.

The wood pigeon was talking this morning and a few birds – a sad few – they levelled the forests here hundreds of years ago and the subsistence farming on the moor’s edge means ground cover is scarce. Then the Council’s made the farmers responsible for clearing the hedgerows along the minor roads so the farmers did the most obvious thing – they cut them right down so nothing would grow unexpectedly and where there were once shady places on roads there is now open sky.

Of course this means hedgerows are not knitted together by the roots of trees and do fall, but what is clearing up a road on which there is a ton of soil compared to being sued because a tree fell on a car?  The animals have suffered a Depression for hundreds of years but no one cares enough to think about them.

Except for those like me, on chilly mornings who watch as my dogs listen to other dogs barking in the distance and I wonder what it would be like to understand what they know of the world.

Farewell Books

They proclaim everywhere they sell them that e-readers are the new book and old style books are going into decline within years. Libraries are becoming virtual and existing libraries will be frequented eventually by scholars and those interested in the past.

Can this be true? No more the joy of feeling a book in your hands and that first fresh crack as you open a hardback book. No more smelling the inks or colouring the black and white illustrations? Browsing through racks of second hand books all with pages curled and spending your first few minutes uncurling the corners because that makes the book look better and besides curled pages hurt.

No more looking at stacks of books and just rushing to see what they contain, and being surrounded by that old smell of dusty books that is the only dusty smell in the world that doesn’t make you sneeze.  I worked in a library when I was younger and they had the store for the entire region of fiction. In this large room where the public where not allowed to go, were compete collections of Asche, Balzac, Dickens, erotica from France, the original three volume Lord Of the Rings, Zangwill, Sterne, Zola, Disraeli,Elliot the Bronte’s, translations from countries I have never visited. . . a feast of great minds imposing in its presence that reached within two feet of the ceiling.

No more.

And I recall the library at Herculaneum where they found hundreds of scrolls and I wondered what the scribes thought when books took over. A library is one’s personality and an experience. We are saying goodbye to an experience that no one will know anymore until they turn the electricity off.

I Am A Cloud

I am often there above you like a shield or a shadow, that presence that you scan for rain or indications of the coming weather. I can be broken like a torn photograph with gaps that show you the distances that my half-remembered form has you guessing at. I can move with a swiftness that defies all pace-keeping and sweep my shadow overland and sea with humbling rapidity.

I am low and high, cumulus fluffy or strata straight, lazy as a long summer day or busy casting down the rain. You see me. You ignore me. You fly through me.

And now from space you watch me as if clouds were a second Earth, stretched with changing forms across the continents and oceans with a vaporous instinct and near magnificence. And across the Universe now you can see I come in many different colours and have many functions to perform to bring life into being and keep it living.

And you write about me with unceasing interest because you know we exist together. Bound as no things are bound to one planet, growing in shared appreciation of each other.

But I alone know what it means to watch for millennia.

Travelling Steerage

My mother spent many years travelling on P & O liners across the Atlantic and into the Indian Ocean. She once told me that the happiest voyage she ever had was on a one class ship. Most of the voyages were on ships that had first, second and steerage classes. True to the norm of having classes trains here in the UK have first class compartments and all over the world planes have ‘business class’. I recall a man who had won the lottery travelling first class on a plane saying he couldn’t believe they gave one gifts.

This whole idea of class troubles me because we have fought an ongoing battle in society as a whole to break down the artificial barriers of class, a fight which now flows over into the way in which people with money are elevated into a different ‘class’. But this is not about the effects of wealth giving one different places to live, different shops to use, different cars to drive, this is about businesses which serve everyone drawing a distinction because it panders to the ego of the first class.

Of course it makes the young want to strive to be first class but it also makes wealthy people feel above other  humans. The terrible speech in The Third Man where Orsen Wells accurately describes his feelings about people as being mere numbers whose only worth to him was for the money he could make from them is just how wealthy people think about other people.

It is a madness.

Beech Tree Sonnets

In 1998 my dear fiend Annie Ovenden asked me to write a poem to go with each of twelve paintings of a Beech Tree in Rilla Mill through the months of the year. This was the first:

January

The atoms in the soil which grew this tree,
Might once have been a Brontosaurus’ skin,
An early mammoth, horse, a chimpanzee,
Or men who dreamed of mining Cornish tin.
Some planets from a Universe must grow –
Whose life from stars is seeded in the seas;
Where our existence is the ebb and flow
Of trees to people and people to trees.
One day I shall be part of a forest
With Bluebells and moss for my family
For the atoms within me cannot rest
As long as the earth lacks a single tree.

And though you will not recognise me quite
Still, wrap your arms around, and hold me tight.

The Art Of The Mistake

Society is a set of rules. Implicit and explicit. Dr Bruce Perry the child psychologist demonstrated in his lifetime of work how complex the rules and interactions are and how we learn so many of them before we are three years old. Simply walking through a crowd of people has a hundred signals about eye contact, touching, manoeuvering, what we say when we bump into someone, and so forth.

Onto these social rules are added the laws of the country which specify behaviour.  Define expected outcomes not all of which we are aware of but some of which we may assume, arise from our grasp of sociability.

And to these expectations on our behaviour we are able to add another layer, that of family and work, tribe or grouping. The myriad ways in which we become a part of a group within the society. And how our behaviour changes inside that group to mirror other members. We become  a part of something by being non-controversial.

These are complex psychological issues. It is little wonder that some people find them oppressive and it is no wonder at all that a great deal of what we derive as ‘contentment’ and all of what we know as discontent,  flows from them.

Despite this we also have a set of rules for people who make mistakes. Not always very forgiving but none-the-less there. It is comforting to know that although we design intricate social systems we are creative enough to allow shocks to the system.

Perhaps the most important rules are those about what to do when you break the rules.

How Exciting Death Can Be

I remember when the Falklands War started a soldier who had gone AWOL from the British Army because it was boring came back to his unit because at last there was a war to go to, and so corrupt is the army they did not arrest him but sent him out to kill Argentinians.

I am told by many people who do dangerous things that it is the possibility of dying that makes them enjoy the sport, to do something that actually puts their lives on the line is what they enjoy – the ‘rush’ as it is termed. It is a bit like a drug. To we who look on, this may all seem a bit like outrageous boredom except for the fact that some psychologist have stated that not only do men enjoy war, many women love warriors.  Maybe it is the fact that life is such a battle they want someone who can defend them.

Being lost in battle – when men can become almost thoughtless killing machines – when acts of heroism are the hormones pumping out everything they have got – is well attested by those  who have been in war. None of this sits well with the memoirs of so many soldiers who are wrecked by the horror of war and we have to assume that some people are evolving out of this straight-jacket.

But only some.

The War Of Ages

It is the dilemma of generations. You don’t want to go to war but war is brought to your doorstep by others. And worse because politicians know people will do to war to defend their countries they can manipulate opinion to create and dress the enemy in just the right clothes to get a war of attrition which they view as a justifiable action.

There has never been peace between the Christianity and Islam, in part because they both commenced existence as exclusive religions. And just when the Empire phase of Islam was mutating as they always do to the academic, scientific and philosophical phase of redaction the Crusades were visited upon them which hardened their attitude still further.

Throughout the past one thousand years Islam and Christianity have had a religious contest that has brought about something of a political stalemate. Dwarfed by the military might of other countries Islam was ruled by French and British Empirical ambitions. And leaving behind corrupt monarchies when Britain finally left was not the best of ideas.

I once asked a friend why Latin America was not fighting a war with America as they had suffered far worse at the hands of American politics than the Muslim nations. My Latin American friend said, “Yes, but we are Christians.”

We may wish to see ourselves as very modern, as above the ills of a hundred years ago as beyond the inane decision making of war mongers down the ages.  And by ‘we’ I mean the whole human race.

But we are not.

Understanding Gracefulness

When you watch a large bird in flight almost lazily flapping a wing and gliding across the sky even with their slightly ungainly landings on tree tops you can fully understand why people have wanted wings. And even more when you see the size and noise of the machines we have built to fly in do you see how ungraceful we are and even the quiet ones have a rigidity about them because after all they are after-thoughts to our being and not a part of who we are.

Flight is to the bird what using tools is to humanity – something we don’t even think about. In their world we are copyists and in a strange way for all our brilliance, we are players on the field of nature. Nothing we make is truly ‘unnatural’ because the laws of science either enable something to exist or not and many of the things we things we have found we later find have antecedents in nature only perhaps on  a smaller scale and by copying their techniques – spiders walking up walls for example – we find we can do the same (well almost). What insects are teaching us about how to glue things together at a molecular level will change manufacturing.

What we are creating are the toys children play with, the adult world of science is yet to come.

Sisyphus

The Greeks were great ones for summing up human existence in their myths about Hades and the punishments metered out to individuals. Tantalus who bent down to drink to find the water immediately receded and lifted his hand to grab at the grapes above him to find they pulled away. Sisyphus who had to roll a heavy stone up a hill and see it roll down to the bottom again. Ixion bound to his burning wheel and Tityos who, Prometheus like, had his liver eaten by vultures every day.

Of course these stories are the bad things that happen to bad people, people who overstep the accepted bounds of civilised behaviour; they kill guests, lust after chaste women, kill their family and so forth. It is all extreme and designed to show children what will happen to them if they become evil.

The problem with myths like this is that they do not decry all lust or all killing, just certain lusts and certain killing. And these special examples can change with the mores of the nation. There was no time when lust and killing hasn’t follow soldiery around the world and more often than not we give medals for it.

It isn’t by scaring children that we will gain a measure of their obedience; it is by teaching them to understand themselves and the immense bad and the immense good of which they are all capable. Showing them love is the best way to teach them to love.

Autumn

The colder early mornings have been here for over a week now but today the rain came. Lots of it. It can get so heavy here the hill turns into a small river and the piping which the local council religiously clean twice a year but never unblock, spills over very quickly. At the bottom of the hill every downpour the drains in the road set to catch the water from the hill,  spill over.

Ordinarily none of this would be cause for concern but lower down in the village they flood every year now and there are plans to build more houses on the hill, and more cement means more run off and less ground to soak up the rain; and all along the river drainage works on farmland to control marsh means the river has lost its natural places to flood, so it breaks its banks elsewhere.

Here if course this kind of human development is only of concern to insurance brokers and householders who lose carpets and a few possessions or have to break the walls in the gardens so the river floods the road not their homes. In other countries as we have seen, where populations fell trees on whole mountain sides and villages sit precariously even in the good weather, heavy rain kills.

Building is all about water-management.

Getting To The Top

Mountaineers say they climb mountains because they are there, and the pinnacle (literally) is to climb Everest (Mount Qomolangma). They put a lot of training and body building hours to be fit enough to ascend, they plan for years and struggle up that mountain and if they fail they go back and finally they get to the summit and the weather is so appalling they scurry back down as soon as they can. If the weather is so inclement they can’t even take a photograph they shrug and decide to come back and try again in five years when the weather might be better. I would have planned to get some geodesic built so I could stay a week and take rock samples.

In much the same way politicians decide to run for President or Prime Minister or whatever when they are nineteen. They struggle to get political notice, they marry the right person for their job, have the right number of kids, do as many of the right things as they can for forty years and a few of them finally get elected. Years of work and striving, never stopping in their rigid determination to get to the top. And when they get there they have to stay there. They know they are going to make a mess of it but they also know they cannot leave for years.

It’s at that moment of realisation that every leader around the world thinks the same thing.

“I wish I had climbed Everest.”

Artists

Gabriela Sepulveda lives in America and answered my request for artists to illustrate my work. She liked Blueskin the Cat, which is actually also my mother’s favourite story, about a highwayman in the 18th Century who is reincarnated as a cat and his subsequent adventures which finally take him to America.

I received on Facebook this morning her water-colours so far and feel very fortunate that such a talented artist is part of what may be if we are successful, a series of some nine books (cats having nine lives).

Some of her work is here http://gabysepu.deviantart.com/ though she tells me she is creating her own dedicated website.

What I enjoy most about working with artists is seeing their interpretation.  When one works and knows one needs illustrations and art work one does have a certain idea or two, but in working with others I give free rein and ask them just to do what they are inspired to do – hence asking them to choose the work they most enjoy. These water colours add an adult depth to the book, their myriad shadows and capturing of expression are perfect for the story. They will introduce children not just to colour and design, but to art as well.

When she finishes Blueskin the Cat will be ready to typeset and I hope 2011 will see it published. I hope the world is ready for the laughter and the pathos.

Back And Forward

When we are growing up and making choices, some of which may be forced upon us by family, circumstance and society, we are usually defined by what we want to achieve and the paths we choose. It is only when we are much older, when choices become more limited because time becomes fragile, that we begin to see our lives are equally well defined by what we chose not do or by what we sacrificed in making our choices (whether we stuck to them or not).

I often wonder if this is the root of wisdom so often associated with older people; that it is easier for them to see what the young will be giving up as much as what they will be gaining. Something most often the young cannot see because who at seventeen doesn’t think everything is possible. Who but the most rare of human beings.

But this wisdom, which is just greater experience, doesn’t get us very far. For the rarest of all human beings is the one who takes on trust the experiences of others with as deep an understanding as being taught what berries are poisonous and which edible. Living wisely is about knowing how one’s mind will change with the change in years by living with minds of all ages, in all eras.

Wisdom is the great gift of literature.

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