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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Death of a Salesman

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It seems strange that I should get so far into (and out of) a teaching career without having read this play.

To be fair, although I started off teaching A Level, a lot of what I have done since is the bread and butter stuff of secondary qualifications. The tall and the short of it was that I landed a role in a college of further education to teach A Level Literature. If had hadn’t been so worn down by recent events, I would have cheered. Life has had its way with me and turned the eternal optimist into a stoic.

To cap it all, the position was very last minute which meant that I had to either cut ties or burn bridges with the agencies of my enslavement. I chose to burn bridges.

I was taken with Willy Loman’s portrayal of the tragic hero; an ordinary man, with dreams that are too extraordinary, brought low by the weight of them.

I read about his downfall. I read about Miller’s thoughts on classical tragedy. I thought about my own role in this. More than that, I considered the fact that a tragic hero is one, regardless of status or rank, who has a dream and pursues it in spite of the impediments that stand in his way and unconcerned about the unsustainable nature of that dream.

The true tragic hero goes to his grave convinced of his right to have that dream.

I thought about me writing. I thought about my complete and utter disregard for authority (the type that  wishes to quell any thoughts of freedom). I thought about my career that had careered off course.

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And I was drawn to the possibility of some unseen hand writing my lines.   

 

Madness, meditation, and madness.

She stops and nods at some of the patients come to stand around and stare out of eyes all red and puffy with sleep. She nods once to each. Precise, automatic gesture. Her face is smooth, calculated, and precision-made, like an expensive baby doll, skin like flesh-coloured enamel, blend of white and cream and baby-blue eyes, small nose, pink little nostrils – everything working together except the colour on her lips and fingernails, and the size of her bosom. A mistake was made somehow in manufacturing, putting those big, womanly breasts on what would of otherwise been a perfect work, and you can see how bitter she is about it.

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, P11 copyright © Ken Kesey

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We are all constructs of our environment and upbringing. Murphy got caught up in a mental institution whilst some of us just get trapped in the other world.

I have watched madness close up. It looks like normality. The people who purvey it appear to be super-normal. These folks are the projections of a society that truly believes in what it is told. Everything is real, everything is as we see it, everything should be taken on face-value. And the androgynous being, striding the corridors of our chosen institution, is there to provide guidance and direction.

The basic fact is that once we are in, once we have bought the ticket, it’s hard to get out.

Meditation. That’s the answer. So I checked the digital world for help. I was met by beaches and gentle waves, trees and gentle leaves, streams and gentle flows. In the midst of all of this was the course, and the accompanying books, to help in the quest towards owning an empty mind. Nah, it’s just putting face cream over the wrinkles.

I have disconnected with the madness of all that I see around me. Going into schools and teaching as a supply/substitute teacher has opened my eyes to something that I long suspected, the world is going mad. Inparticularly, many of our younger citizens are now so anti-social that it is difficult to communicate with them. I have been in one school for just over a month and have watched its deterioration as groups of students roam unhindered along the corridors during times set aside for lessons.

I was told that it was, until recently, a good school. Then came a change of management. Then came the dilemma, how do we improve such a good school. The answer for many in that position is to bring about change, leave a mark, set down a better path to follow. In less that a year the school would be unrecognisable. It’s Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge ridding the world of adult reason and allowing unfettered anarchy to fill the vacuum.

The irony is that it was a strong, unswerving individual who made the school a good one in the first place. Not Nurse Ratchet, but somebody not to be argued with.

This is the puzzling crevice through which falls our reasonable understanding of freedom and democracy.

Too little and we are prisoners, too much and we lose the integrity of our reason.

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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.

Newsweek

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?

Exercise and Exorcise

Sunday morning has come around again; much too quickly. It came with two possibilities: a passive, meaningless stretch of twenty-four hours or a moment seized and gently squeezed of its goodness. We chose the latter.

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After a two year battle with the world, I appear to be content. Contentment is so different from its superficial cousin, happiness. Contentment doesn’t wear a showy smile. Contentment doesn’t belly laugh. Contentment doesn’t leave without warning, leaving a grey vacuum that swallows the pain of having to live without it.

Contentment just is.

So here is me, content. And this morning, to build upon this feeling of being here, we went for a run in the countryside. We being my lovely wife and me.

To start with, as we drove to our route, we chunterred a little about aspects of our lives. Our middle daughter has completed her A Levels and has put off university for a year. She now sits with her smartphone, sits and sits. Her bedroom is the stuff left by hurricanes and her mother is reaching the end of her patience. My wife’s workplace is undergoing change (the type of change that has become the byword and trite idealogy of educational institutions, “We must get better and better!”). She is feeling the stress from that and I, having gone through my own psychological wildfire, am on hand to offer a comforting  perspective.

As soon as we reached the area for our run, the world began to lift.

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It’s a difficult run but so rewarding. Up and up and up with calves straining against the effort. A desire to stop to ease the rapid breathing but a continuation in order to reach the top. Once there, the panorama is reward enough.

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We run in a rough circle that takes us along trails in fields and ones in woods. It is the woods that I most like. There is a stillness about so many trees so close together. They stand and watch our passage without comment. On more than one occasion I have been on the receiving end of an arboreal prank with hidden routes reaching up from the ground to catch the toe of my trainers and send me on a slow-motion tumble. Now, I keep an eye on them.

When our run has brought us full circle we are allowed to descend the steep climbs and make our way back to the car that is parked up by one of the most picturesque churches one could wish to see.

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Fully evercised and fully exorcised, we are content.

The Long, Lost Summer.

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In my prime, in my youth, salad days…they all go.

It’s a clear blue sky with just a hint of cold. The long-awaited summer did come and is now going. Its last hours are being played out before the curtain of autumn is pulled across the stage.

And here is me, this ingrate wishing for it to never end (summer).

It’s been a good, a very good summer. In all respects it has made up for the terribly dark winter that never wished to end. May arrived and brought some sunshine. June was better. July was a blast. August, well August was just seriously warm, seriously ‘cool’, seriously summer. September knocked on the door just over a week ago and we had to let it in. The next stop, as my wife said yesterday, is Christmas.

For now, it is a run in the early autumn. It is a moment for moments, for the NOW.