Category Archives: Writing

A strange peace

Winter is a season of routines. The days pass in almost the same way, especially out here: all we do is work, eat, walk, exercise, go to the pub, sleep. But this winter neither of us has been desperate for a holiday. I feel more and more – and I think S. does too – that whether you do the same or new things every day, see the same people or different people, stay put or move about nonstop, it doesn’t matter. Life is near and fresh. There are no ruts in nature, even in the barest places.

*

The days are getting longer. A strange peace has come over me lately – the kind of composure I used to imagine I’d grow into when I was younger and had no control over my life. I used to picture my future self looking back at his agitated past and cringing. What was being young but an interminable wait to get older and wiser? I was callow and knew it, because I was often reminded of it by my elders. I wanted to get older so I too could benefit from hard-won experience. I suspected that these feelings were themselves experiences I might benefit from, but resented the humiliation of youth, of having to live through a series of frightening tests that only the older self can resolve. And now that I’m growing into my future self, I do indeed look back and thank God I’ve grown older, but with mixed feelings… Composure, yes, but also things I never imagined, slightly frightening in themselves – awareness of the ageing body, the prospect of mental decline, the dawning realization that your time on Earth will come to an end, and that you may even come to feel it was too short.

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Old notebooks

Leafing through another notebook the other day – rarely a good idea – I found this, written a decade ago:

‘Endless work. What’s your real work? You ask the question so often the question itself becomes a form of work. You tunnel through a mountain of other people’s words and smuggle out your own dubious hoard with no destination in sight. Always halfway between your origin and your end.’

And today this, from W.S. Graham:

‘With words my material and immediate environment I am at once halfway the victim and halfway the successful traveller. There is the involuntary war between me and that environment flowing in on me from all sides and there is the poetic outcome. I am not the victim of my environment. History does not repeat itself. I am the bearer of that poetic outcome. History continually arrives as differently as our most recent minute on earth.’

*

From the same old notebook:

‘I wake up tired of waking up. Lured into another endless day, the last day begun again. There’s something I’ve missed, some fatal flaw in my reasoning that prevents me moving from here to the real vantage point, to real life. I see no path to take. What would it look like? Where would it go? It would end up back here, in dead time.

‘Nothing to say and the guilt of not filling time, that makes you speak to yourself in their words. “Stop inventing little hardships to make yourself look interesting. Get a proper job. Get a life. Get laid.”

‘I could take up a hobby to at least look active, like sailing, master wind and tide and all that, grow a big beard. But I’d have to learn and I’m not the learning kind. And imagine all the fuss, all the tarring and rigging and straining. Or maybe I should get a pet, that’s what people do isn’t it? Something to care for, a loyal dog you have to walk. But then I’d have to get up early, hoover more, go to the vet, pick up poo. And I wouldn’t be able to travel – not that I do.’

… So easy to drag yourself down like this, so hard to get back up!

The fullness of time

The wisdom of certain everyday phrases (which writers sniff at). We speak of being in the moment and of pregnant moments. We speak of the fullness of time, of a time that’s ripe.

Beautiful phrase: the fullness of time. What does it mean? In everyday language, when something happens in the fullness of time it happens at a time that has finally come, a time of fulfilment of some event. Something comes into its own, something time has ripened. For Paul it had to do with the first and second coming of Christ and the fulfilment of God’s plan at decisive moments in history. But what if it were taken to refer not to a past or future event, but to time itself? What if the fullness of time referred not to a time that’s ripe for something but to a time that’s ripe with itself, that fulfils itself in the moment?

If the moment is the revelation of the fullness of time, it can’t be part of everyday clock time. It can’t simply be one of a series of separate nows, but rather the felt instant that opens your present out to the future and gives your past meaning; that shows you the breadth and depth and height of time, only to withdraw. How to hold this moment as it emerges, as it lets you emerge with it? It’s bigger than you, once reached can’t be commanded. How to find it? How to remain in it? Endure it?

The giant night

A sleepless night, rarer now. The giant night and the same slow dawn. The sound of the binmen tipping our recycling bin into their lorry, interrupting the birds’ chorus. This same sense of final emptiness. It makes the thoughts I formulate in the day – in front of my computer with my books at hand – seem forced, imposed onto something almost helpless: what Gombrowicz called a ‘furtive childhood, a concealed degradation’.

Completely unacceptable, I think, like the wronged consumer I am: why should anyone be made to deal with this day after day? There’s something to it, I tell myself, the old idea that despair is a seductive sin, a sickness unto death. That’s one thing the Christians always understood, that there are feelings we indulge at our own risk. But when the feeling is this long-lived, this unshakeable?

Later I get caught in a thunderstorm biking back from the shops and curse this backwoods shithole while getting splattered with mud. Of course it stops just after I get home and have peeled off all my clothes and put them in the washing machine. I rummage for washing powder under the sink and mutter fuck off as I realize we’re out. S. says something as I walk to the bathroom but I don’t answer. When I’ve showered and calmed down I ask her what she said. She says she asked me whether I wanted an omelette or porkchops for dinner. I tell her sorry, you chill and I’ll make the porkchops with potatoes and red cabbage, Danish style – comfort food, like my grandmother used to make.

Like an act of fate

The moment behind beneath and beyond everyday time. It waits to give you back your past, like an event long prepared without your knowledge, like an act of fate in the fullness of time. It needs you: your shabby past, your timid present, your whirl of thoughts, your hoard of words. It waits for you to step into the light of the day, where it can find you and let you come into your own.

North

North, to the Lancashire uplands to spend Christmas with S.’s family. N. picks up Rookie in a carboard box, along with a box of cat food. The next morning we get a taxi before sunrise, then three trains. The passengers get chattier as the landscape gets hillier. I manage to sleep a little. It’s dark and rainy when we get to the final station, where S.’s father is waiting for us in the car.
It seems as though every available space has been paved over and built up except for the great dark moors that loom over the cities and villages – many of which are themselves manmade, the results of deforestation by ancient people… Nothing but motorways, roundabouts, malls, petrol stations, business parks, offices, terraced houses… all so grey hard and cramped. I can’t help but think of those lines by Hopkins. Is there anywhere that isn’t seared with trade, smeared with toil, degraded by capital? Is there any escape?
S.’s family is large and fun, and we eat, drink and laugh all night.
It’s the home of the industrial revolution after all, S. tells me when we’ve gone to bed and I’ve revealed my thoughts about the journey. You know how you get when you travel. Don’t judge it just yet, you’ll see.
The next morning is brighter and gives us a fine view of hills on both sides of the house dotted with spray-painted sheep and crowned with mist. I go outside to smoke, feeling pleasantly small. There’s a different quality to the silence here when there’s no traffic on the road. Something to do with the topography maybe. I can hear a stream now. A horse whinnies somewhere, calling for a response as horses do, and it’s as if being itself has briefly been given voice.
S. borrows the car and drives us to Pendle Hill. We walk along the ridge through ribbons of fog to an ancient burial site she wants to see. Not a soul about, at last. As we climb the rocky path, dodging sheep droppings and sodden moss, we relax, stop chatting and fall into a rhythm. Our minds relax and expand as the horizon widens. We stop to look out over a spread of fields, hills, reservoirs and houses all around. This is more like it, I tell S., you need a horizon to think. I love the dun colours, the reddish iron-rich streams, the sheep that bound away when we get too close, the total indifference of the place. It moves us both, and it’s worth a day of rumbling through damp, littered suburbs in crowded, dirty trains.

The double

The construction work on the old farm is coming along. Having demolished the house, barn and cowshed and removed the rubble, they seem to be building a house that looks like a converted barn, as well as a double garage, and have started landscaping. I looked up the planning permission and managed to find the developer’s website, which says: ‘Many people aspire to live in barn conversions. However, the opportunities to convert or renovate an existing barn are limited – there are only so many of them. Moreover, the cost of renovation or restoration can be considerably more expensive than building from new. That’s why a barn-style house is becoming an increasingly popular option.’

*

Gide: ‘It seems to me sometimes that I do not really exist, but that I merely imagine I exist. The thing that I have the greatest difficulty in believing in is my own reality. I am constantly getting outside myself, and as I watch myself act I can’t understand how a person who acts is the same as the person who is watching him act, and who wonders in astonishment and doubt how he can be an actor and a watcher at the same moment.’

*

When did my double turn up? When was he born? There was a carpark and a concrete path between thistle bushes. I shook my father’s hand, turned away and started walking back to my room in the boarding school. A room in a corridor full of strangers speaking a strange language. In that moment it felt as if I split in two: a body walking down a path and an anonymous observer.
I’ve heard of similar experiences, of situations in which people felt as if they were leaving their bodies and looking down at what was happening to them. People who spend the rest of their lives trying to reverse that moment.
I was maladjusted – that’s what they told me years later when I asked why they sent me away. I’d taken up with the wrong crowd, was on my way to becoming a criminal. That was true in a sense. So this was what I needed, I supposed, it was good for me.
When I wasn’t in class I hid in my room or walked in the forest. I barely spoke. I’d forgotten most of my Danish in any case, still thought in English. I’d overhear people saying I was strange. In the weekends I escaped to my grandparents’ farm in the country and cycled to the coast on my grandfather’s old bike.

*

What seems clear to me now is that something goes wrong for everyone. One way or another – suddenly or slowly, of our own will or by force – we go astray. We lose sight of some essential part of ourselves. Hide from being. Yet we can never close ourselves off from it completely, never lose our link to the unity we spring from – how could we?
Michel Haar writes: ‘We are held in being, and no matter how tenuous the thread attaching us to presence – for example in fainting or dreamless sleep – we are never, as long as we are, released into pure nothingness.’
Never released from the impersonal thread of being that lets us become our more or less divided selves and live on the same ground as all other beings, no matter how different from us.

*

It’s freezing. On a walk we find the feathers of a pheasant a fox has savaged and carried away. S. collects the tail feathers and some branches and arranges them in a vase when we get home.

*

Woolf: ‘There was a spectator in me who, even while I squirmed and obeyed, remained observant, note taking for some future revision.’

*

What happened after the double turned up? Didn’t it instantly take the place of my father? One of Blanchot’s narrators talks of being ‘represented in my feelings by a double for whom each feeling was as absurd as for a dead person’. Every feeling: silly, kitschy.
On the path between the thistle bushes there was me, a double, and a haze that began to gather between us – between me and others. When I spoke to people, the words – mine and theirs – moved through the haze while the double stood by with a sceptical smirk. I sat in my room, scared by footsteps in the corridor, knocks on my door.
The haze stayed with me for a long time: when I went to live with my parents again and we pretended everything was all right, when I worked in the factories, asked girls out, went to university… all through a haze, watched over by a dead double.
Then after years of tunnelling through other people’s words, of the turning and returning of words, you found your own, the ones that called you into the service of the moment and drew the double back in, at least for a moment.

(From ‘The Moment’.)

Machinations

Heidegger: ‘The unfittingness of mere beings, of nonbeings as a whole, and the rarity of being, for which reason the gods are sought within beings. If someone seeks and does not find and therefore is compelled into forced machinations, then no freedom for the restrained waiting of an encounter and an intimation…’

Machinations… We see ourselves in animals, nature, other people, in God, cunningly remake them in our own images for our own ends. We diminish and master them, reduce them to almost nothing. Isn’t the path then cleared to replace the whole world with a mirror of ourselves, to a total communication network and a total, false immediacy? We’re forced into machinations that empty our lives of meaning. Many we enable because they feel good. This isn’t only an age of exploitation, but also of fun; the two have become linked. ‘Have fun!’ we shout to each other, ‘enjoy!’ When you’re not busy earning money – exploiting or being exploited – you’re supposed to have fun, do something exciting, be exciting: above all fill your time to the brink with activity. What they used to call idolatry is now almost life in its entirety. We reflect ourselves in the things we buy, eat and wear, our homes, jobs, interests, politics, friends, children and lovers. We stress over critical targets that mean little to anyone outside our workplaces. We claim more and more fraught identities, manage our social media profiles on platforms that manipulate us, and create personal brands (something that’s now being taught in British schools). We try to define ourselves using the tools that dispersed us in the first place.

No freedom for the restrained waiting… For meaningful idleness, a gathering up of your time on earth: what they used to call prayer. Everything seems to conspire against it. Yet everyone knows the unease that comes over you when you’ve spent long enough doing nothing meaningful, at work or in your ‘spare time’. What do we do to hold it at bay? Work harder, have more fun; devise clever therapies and health and fitness fads to administrate it out of our minds and bodies.

Of an encounter or intimation… An intimation of something more, something wholly Other that can take us out of our everyday machinations and show them for what they are. A hint of God in the moment, passing through the innermost heart of time.

Chronos and kairos

Back in Kirkwood we wake up to a warm bright morning. In the afternoon it rains and in the evening you can see your breath. For the first time I can take pleasure in autumn, in the slow waning of the year.

*

The Greeks called the straight line of time from past to future chronos. But for them time was twofold: its other element was kairos, the opportune moment. Chronos was clock time that carries on regardless of us, kairos the personal experience of time. In classical rhetoric, kairos meant finding the right words at the right time.

For the early Christians, kairos had to do with the fullness of time realized in the Incarnation, the moment of conversion and the coming apocalypse. It was the intersection of history and eternity, the time when God acts in the world.

Now on my walks I always stop by the church. I like the routine. I like the heavy wooden door, the cold stone slabs on the floor. There are children’s drawings on the peeling walls, dull notices, faded black and white pictures of the parish. I sit on a pew for a few minutes to catch my breath, look at the altar, the wooden rafters like the ribs of an old ship, the stained-glass window showing Christ with two fingers raised to symbolize the hypostatic union. (How many people argued, fought, lived and died for that idea!) Sometimes I leaf through a hymnbook or bible… Relics, I sometimes think. Yet still here in the ruins, on the same ground as the rest of us.

Eternal God, which makes the moment seem like a grain of sand… Where’s the divine kairos now, when God no longer acts in the world, when the God of men has died? Where’s the intersection of time and eternity? When’s the right time, what’s the right word? I can’t call it him, I can’t call it you. But doesn’t the moment hint at it? Doesn’t it whisper to us of it? Sometimes I think it whispers something too terrible to hear, something I secretly want no part of, that might overturn my whole life.

But you’ve felt it, haven’t you? Its surpassing and sustaining power, which gave you room to breathe, as long as you were shielded by time, held in the moment. How carefully it has to be approached. But maybe approached is the wrong word. Questioned, perhaps, prepared for, undergone.

Denmark

My mother calls to talk about my father. He’s been having trouble walking for years and is now bedridden and losing weight. The doctors say the nerves in his legs are damaged from blood clots: a rare condition. She asks us to visit. I cup the phone with my hand, call S. over and ask her if she wants to go to Denmark. She says yes. After I hang up, we buy train and flight tickets for next week. I’ve been feeling a nostalgic urge to see my old places in Denmark for a few weeks anyway; it occurs to me now that it must be to do with all this talk about repetition and returning.

*

The week passes with work, housework (we clean the pantry and take the fruit and veg sign off the road), gardening, cooking, doing the dishes, making love, watching films and lazing about with Rookie. I’m comfortable, too comfortable maybe, but it’s a good change. I sense the power of the moment and the eternal God always in the backdrop of our everyday life.

*

Arriving at the airport in Copenhagen, it always strikes me how much cleaner and well-made everything is. We buy trays of sushi on the way to my parents. My father eats with shaking hands. In the morning we fix their bikes, which they no longer use. S. cycles to the library to work while I cycle to the central station and take the coastal train up to my old hometown. I’ve wanted to retrace the little groove of my life that I left there. I told S. it would bore her and that we can do something fun for her the other days, find some museums. Everything’s more or less the same, except that all the vegetation has grown and as a result the place seems to have matured, come into its own. It’s lovely. When I lived here as a child it was a rather sterile, newly built suburb. I go into the library where I used to sit and read, cycle down the old paths. The hills seem smaller, as I thought. I cycle through the old beech forest where we used to play as kids, and down to the harbour where I eat a crab sandwich, which tastes just like it used to. This kind of thing used to give me what Burroughs called the ‘fear of stasis’, of being ‘just where I am and nowhere else’ under the ‘dead weight of time’. Today it’s deeply satisfying.

It’s common to sniff at nostalgia. We’re taught – indoctrinated – to look forward, be proactive and innovative, shape our own futures, never stand still. But don’t nostalgia and the fear of stasis have their places as feelings to be undergone, as ways into the Open?

Heidegger says our origin always comes to meet us from the future. Strange saying. What does it mean? Perhaps that time, rather than moving in a straight line from past to future, or from here to the afterlife, describes a kind of circle that always completes itself in the moment and whispers to us of our silent origin.

The next day we go to Lejre, near Roskilde, where there’s a Viking museum. I’ve never been and know next to nothing about it. We take the bikes on the train and cycle through the countryside to the museum, stopping to pick apples from trees along the way. It’s the landscape that impresses most, with its glacier-formed hills and valleys, prehistoric passage graves and the stone remains of Viking longhouses and gravesites in the shape of large ships, designed to carry the dead to Hel. It doesn’t look very Danish but it turns out this is in a sense the mythical and historical centre of Denmark, the seat of the legendary Skjöldung dynasty mentioned in Beowulf, as well as real medieval kings and bishops who presided over busy settlements on the fertile land. I’ve never felt the presence of ancient history as strongly, even when seeing the bog bodies in the Aarhus and Copenhagen museums (carefully preserved and displayed in shiny cases): there’s something about it being left alone in the open, still-farmed landscape that’s surprisingly moving. The star exhibit of the museum itself is a tiny statuette of Odin – or perhaps a Viking goddess – seated on a throne flanked by raven messengers. As we set off on our bikes to go back to the station we pass an unusual number of rooks, jackdaws and hooded crows in the fields. It’s still sunny, they can’t be starting to roost. It occurs to me these may well be the descendants of birds that scavenged Iron Age and Viking fields and middens (møddinger in Danish). Is it possible that they have some ancient attachment to the place?