For Dark Winter Nights 2

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Beyond his window was winter. It had finally arrived.

A long-awaited smile cracked beneath the surface of his leathered skin. He inhaled the cold air that had perpetrated beyond the pane of glass…at Last. 

“So, you have returned to me.”

The empty world gave no response. 

He watched the frozen landscape, and the moon, impaled on the highest peak. This was how it was meant to be.

Finally.

Then, the noise.

He knew that he couldn’t be dreaming because he never dreamt. He was pleased that he did not wander in the nocturnal world of flotsam. He had never read a newspaper nor had he read a book. If he ever allowed the truth to be told, he would have admitted to not being able to read. It was a skill that was beyond him and one that he really didn’t need. A book was paper and it could be burnt, but wood was better.

The noise was from outside. The one that woke him seemed to be distant, but the one that he now heard was much closer. It was close to the house.

A long time ago, in his father’s life, there had been wolves that roamed these mountains. They would pick off lambs in spring; move in groups to worry herdsmen with their charges. And every now and again, at certain junctures of brashness and bravery, they would even attack dairy cows. He had grown up fearing these creatures whilst wishing that he could be given the good fortune to encounter one, face to face, in the open, an even contest of skill and nerve.

There was scratching at the door.

In the room above the cellar’s stairs was his gun.

It had not been used since the dog. Tonight he reached for it, took a box of cartridges, loaded, then made his way to the door. Whatever had been making the noise stopped so suddenly that he heard te echo of the space into which it had gone. He stood for a long while before leaving the night ot itself. He told himself that it was probably a stray mutt from the village below or a tourist dog that had decided to stay on for the winter. None of them went hungry when the tourists were around , but as soon as the season was over they were like vagabonds and scavengers, raiding refuse and even sneaking into homes to steal what they could. Whatever pedigree they were, to him they were vermin. His hand caressed the gun and his finger stroked the trigger.

Alive, he thought, at last.

 

The scratching was getting louder and more frantic.

Whatever was out there wanted to come in. Perhaps the sudden snap in the temperature had caused the creature to search for shelter. Perhaps it could be running from some other; prey and predator. Either way, it would get a shock. The gun was still firmly in his hands, cradled, one might say. He placed his hand on the key and turned it slowly. In response, the scratching increased. The door was now being pushed with a force that he had not reckoned on and he almost stopped, a shudder of apprehension warning him of the unknown. He had climbed the high mountains, survived the worst of the storms when others had not, and had outlived all of those who thought they were his betters. As the frantic activity continued to escalate, he opened the door.

Something pushed hard from without. It was but a momentary force, but he felt it.

“I have a gun,” he warned, regardless of the sense in it. Then he pushed it shut again and turned the key. His old heart beat a manic rhythm and he felt something that he had not encountered for many, many years; fear. He waited and panted away the panic.

Minutes moved as he leant his shoulder against the wooden divide. The beating of his heart was joined by a throbbing pulse in his temples. An urge to shout, to scream defiance, to offload his firearm into the timber, all demanded action. but he resisted.

Time passed and his heart slowed. The throb in his temples was now only a dull reminder of what had gone and the pressure he was exerting on the door eased. There was no scratching, no sound above a vague wind falling down from the peaks.

“Nothing, you stupid old fool. Nothing,” he reassured himself. “It was only the wind that pushed the door. That and your own imagination.”

Yet, he had no imagination.

What he could do, what he should do, was to open the door once again and shoot whatever had caused him to be so afraid. He remembered someone, some time long ago, saying that there was ‘nothing to fear but fear itself’.  That was a good thing to say and that was something that he had remembered down the decades. Now the line came back to him and forced him to act.

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His hand reached out for the key once again. He forced it to be steady. He inhaled deeply and began to turn… 

 

For Dark Winter Nights

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If anyone had told him about climate change in the past, he would have scoffed. ‘Tree-huggers,’ he would have muttered. These days, that was different.

He was awake again. A full bladder told him that he not only had to visit the lavatory, but that he was getting older. This happened to men past a certain age. Things wore out. Things didn’t work. Others became obsolete. If anybody had dared to suggest that this would be him in decades to come, he would have laughed right into their faces.

The house was still. He had never married, never felt the need to have another share his bed. People who did that were weak. He had never been weak. He could look after himself. He always had. Now, at two o’clock in the middle of an unseasonably warm autumn night, he was taking care of himself.

He pissed long and hard into the toilet. These days, his aim was less sure of itself. No matter how well he targeted the big white mouth, there was always an offshoot. That was another thing that he did not expect in his advancing years. Piss pools on the floor. He would clean it in the morning.

Another year without snow. He remembered when it would start to fall as shaken by the hand of a clock. By November there would already be a thick covering on the peaks and ice would beset the higher roads that wound around them. By December, the higher passes would no longer be safe. By January, nothing moved above the summer’s highest pastures. Tonight was mild. Last night was mild. It seemed that the whole of last year was mild, but tonight he shivered a little on his way back to the warmth beneath his covers.

Something had moved. He was awake again, shot out of the oblivion of sleep.

He never dreamt. Some sound had occurred, something from further up the slopes. If his dog had not died, he would have looked for confirmation from its superior senses. The dog had been with him longer than anyone or anything else. In the days when it was alive, it would sleep at the foot of the bed and wake him with its soft mutterings.

Some people loved their dogs and treated them as if they were children. A dog is a dog, he thought. It is loyal and that is its value. To pretend that a dog is anything more is the type of modern madness that the people of the towns and cities indulge in. When he discovered that the back legs were becoming a problem for the creature, when it could not rise from sleep and showed signs of infirmity, he shot it.

Its body, he left in one of the high pastures for carrion.

He listened to the silence of the night and scoured its nuances to discover what had woken him. The night was blank. The rain had stopped falling. He could hear the stream flowing some way off. The waters would be cold, the offshoot of the glaciers that still managed to survive in the face of a warmer world.

He thought of the mountains and tried not to. He had not been up there since the time…

There it was again. The noise.

He had fallen into the first drifts of sleep when it woke him. His eyes opened and he sprung up. He had heard a noise, he was convinced. He wasn’t taken to imagination, never had been. This time, he would investigate. The bedside clock pointed out that it was three in the morning. It had only been an hour since his trip to the lavatory, but the temperature had fallen; dropped dramatically. His breath formed clouds in the cold air. His feet were bitten by the night’s new turn.

At last, he thought.

His slippers were deep beneath his bed and he had to bend to find them. His knees cracked and his spine rung out in alarm. The winter had finally arrived. Finally his exploring hands found what he wanted and pulled them towards him. He had to sit on the mattress and recover before attempting to slide his strangely blue looking feet into the relative warmth of his footwear. And then the noise came again. This time, he was sure of it.

He made his way to the widow and looked out.

The scene had changed.

 

To be continued…

 

 

Read, read and read again…

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‘England is sick, and…English literature must save it. The Churches have failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature now has a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, above all, to save our souls and to heal the State.’ 

George Gordon  Professor of Literature  Oxford University 1922

During the course of my life, I have always believed that to be the case. If God could no longer save souls, then books should. In thinking this, I was not the originator of this idea. Since the nineteenth century, when the influence of the church began to wane, it became obvious that something had to step in to save the day. And it was with a certain biblical irony that books became the vehicle of choice.

Life is a route-planner.

We start our journeys at some particular time and place and finish them at another. Life is similar to a time-out from the general tedium of the omnipresent tedium of not living. But, whatever journey we are on, is never going to be an easy one. Life is best with things that beset life, namely life and death and suffering and the Conservative Party. Without these things, it is difficult to claim that one has ever lived, especially if one is already dead meaning that ones opinion no longer counts as only a very few can hear it. It’s a shame because I think that the dead are possibly in possession of more wisdom than the not dead. If you knew how you were going to die, a wise person would probably do something else on that day. Simple wisdom for simple thinkers.

I honestly don’t know where my route-planner has got to, these days. I think that I can remember having it when I set off. Indeed, I think I can remember setting a destination, somewhere like ‘Contentment’, ‘Peace of Mind’, or ‘Moderately Successful With a Beautiful Wife, Wonderful Children, and a Volvo Estate’. The last one always seemed to accompany the ones that went before.  The problem with these destinations is that they cannot be found on traditional maps. The route-planner just instructed me to point my car in any direction of my whim and then set off to see where I could get to before I died.

At the moment, I am here.

Here is an existential crisis. It is a place betwixt and between. A campsite in a town that one never planned to visit. Sounds good, but I have been here before.

Each and every year (not quite as we sometimes decide to ‘staycate’), my wife and I take the girls on a family holiday. The holiday usually involves packing up lots of things: bikes, tents, sleeping bags, phrase books, and a selection of real books to read when we are not doing the activity ‘thing’.  We do tend to have a destination, but go out of our way to not plan the trip. We regard the journey to our destination as being just as potentially enjoyable as the end product.

We aim to be relatively aimless and land on campsites that we have never visited before in a bid to be random adventurers. What does happen, always happens, is that we pitch-up in a place that slowly reveals itself to be familiar. We are like frogs that have a road map implanted in their DNA. No matter how much time has elapsed since their last journey, no matter how many generations have passed, they still take the same route; inexplicably. And so it is with us.

Ah, Ah! Those knowing human beings would say. Man is not a frog. Man is a work of divine creation. Man needs guidance in the way that mere Anura do not. It would not be proper for many of us to get ‘squished on Life’s highways’. Ah, Ah! I respond. I agree. But then I would point out that I was using the biblical device of hiding a lesson within a story.

And that is my point. Literature is scripture with a number of letter changes. From both, we find out what we need and ought to know about the touring holiday that we like to call Life. As God probably no longer exists, as we can’t be bothered with him/her, we need a new type of route-planner, one that is fit for our cultural needs.

Here are a few suggestions:

             These                       OR                  This

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God on Sex…

God wishes men to make love to their wives regularly. It’s a duty, a religious observance, so why block the bedroom door?

For men of independence, it is every day.

For labourers, it is twice a week.

For donkey drivers, once a week.

For camel drivers, it is once every thirty days.

For sailors, it is once every six months.

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So these are the lessons of becoming independent. Relying on nobody else to put food on your table means a better share in the end.

Blessed be the NUPTUALLED.

Psycho Paths Lead To Greatness

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There is something unnervingly hypnotic about a psychopath. The eyes have it. They stride into ours and rearrange what we think is normality. In some ways it’s akin to having a change of internal scenery with the sofa inhabiting a different area of the room whilst the armchairs are perfectly placed on the ceiling. When that happens, we are left to follow the madhatter down the hole.

Mankind likes a monster. We like the gothics of Dracula, Frankenstein (the real monster being the doctor) and a Mr Hyde (the real monster being the doctor). They tickle our fears whilst taking us into a realm of darkness that we can emerge from at the end of a reading or viewing. Once we leave the covers of a book or the darkness of a cinema, we are free to enjoy the sanity of the everyday. The only problem is that the everyday is more frightening than fiction.

Scientists at Harvard have come to the conclusion that psychopathy is a trait that many of us share. They even go so far to say that the more psychopathy we have the more likely it is that we will succeed in life. A lack of empathy, a conscious effort to make others see us in a false light, and a driving desire to turn everything to our own advantage. Aren’t all the self-help books for success all about this? Ask not what you can do for others but what others can do for you. And the sad thing is that the others find this trait appealing.

Contrary to what the movies might have depicted, they are not the knife-wielding demons of movies like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs or Patrick Batemen in American Psycho.

Many are walking among us, leading completely normal lives, and are even some of the most successful members of society, precisely because of their psychopathy. These are the ruthless business people who do whatever needs to be done, regardless of the human cost.

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Research suggests somewhere between 0.2-3.3% of people have psychopathic tendencies.

We may work with one. One of them may be our boss, headteacher, member of parliament, or church leader. We may even be married to one.

HOW TO TELL IF PEOPLE YOU KNOW ARE PSYCHOPATHS

Antisocial, the medical term for psychopathic, personality disorder is defined as having unpredictable, erratic and overtly dramatic behaviours.

According to the NHS, a diagnosis can be made if any three of the following criteria apply to the person’s everyday personality:

  • Repeatedly breaking the law
  • Repeatedly being deceitful
  • Impulsive behaviour or being incapable of planning ahead
  • Being irritable and aggressive
  • Having a reckless disregard for their safety or the safety of others
  • Being consistently irresponsible
  • Lack of remorse  

 

When studying texts from the Second World War, ones that deal with the death camps, I am often at a loss to explain why decent people sat back and let it happen. Other, apparently normal, folks actively participated in those evil events. I look at my students devoid of explanation and some way off understanding. My job is to inform them, make them the type of decent human beings who will heed the lessons of the past, but I too was part of the generations growing up after the war and we have not learnt. Indeed, we now seem closer to psychpathological politics as we have ever been since then.

Could it be that we are beyond being saved?

Or could it be that we are predisposed to act and think in this Fascist fashion?

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Could it be that this is the path to success?

 

 

Another Brick Out Of The Wall.

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It’s a little hazy. The photograph has lost its clarity. The time has lost its surety. We have all become a little vague in the snapshot of history.

Back then history was being created. The iron fist of Soviet imperialism and ideological subjugation had run its course and the real world was breaking through. Western democracy was drawing out the poison from a totalitarian regime and, along the way, freeing its people to participate in its dream of meritocracy. The world was safe.

I heard that the creative arts fell back somewhat after the wall came down. Writers, painters, poets and dancers suddenly lived in a world that was free. The thing that had covered their skies for so long was now no more. There was, for the masses, that thing called freedom. The Soviet was no more. Life could only get better.

So, in came the nineties. Some of the older despots were pushed into retirement. new politicians took the stage and the people were their audience. Things were possible. There was a chance to marry materialism to socialism. Not only could we be well-off, we could be well-intentioned. Old conflicts such a Northern Ireland were negotiated towards a peace-deal and Protestants and Catholics stopped killing each other.

For a short time there appeared to be hope. We could move forward as a world, destroy inequalities, learn from past mistakes. The wall had truly come down and we were free to simply be.

And yet we can’t be without our blanket of economic security, no matter how flimpsy that protection really is. Another Wall Street. Another crash. And all that was good with the world was gone. From hope to despair within three short decades.

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And we all ought to stop and think about how much this is all worth. As people break through borders to find new hope. As countries rebuild borders to keep them out. As America builds borders with its neighbours.

What is it all worth?