Is there a point to all this? (4)

 “Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend, Before we too into the Dust descend. Dust unto Dust and under Dust to lie, sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer – and sans End!”

Is there a point to all this? – probably not. Not in any conventional sense. Not in the sense that there will ever come a time in your life when you can sit back with a smile on your face, a gin and tonic in your hand, and say to yourself, “That’s it. I’ve done it! That’s what I came here for.” Then spend the remainder of your days in a warm fuzz of achievement, and die happy with that same smile on your face, surrounded by the proud looks of admiring loved ones gathered around to see you off. That aint gonna happen.

In the first place, whatever you ‘achieved’ – a great commercial enterprise you built up over the years, a stunning piece of architecture that brought you world-wide acclaim – it will, in the fullness of time, disintegrate, fall apart and be forgotten. Indeed, it will have been falling apart from the moment of its completion. If you’re lucky, it may get a mention in the art history books. The prized certificate, awarded to you and signed in person by the local Mayor, for the biggest marrow at the village fete – that too, in its frame on the sitting room wall, will fade and become illegible with age. Even so, it might outlive you, because you too will fall apart and exit the stage. You’ll be remembered – in a fading-away sort of way – for a generation or two. Beyond that you’ll be little more than an entry in a census form. And even that census form – but there’s no need to go on. Buildings, mountains, civilizations, even the planets and the stars and everything else we can possibly know or conceive of, including our own individual selves, are all in the process of disintegration and becoming dust.

Which, on the face of it, is all pretty depressing. But true, nevertheless – for this is our world.  So where is the point?

Well – maybe the first thing to do is stop looking. For a point, that is. Because you’re almost certainly wasting your time. Perhaps even wasting your life. As a child you never looked for a point. Why would you? And many of our happiest times were in our childhoods. It’s only later, when the ‘world’ gets to us – education (so-called), work, etc. – that we start needing ‘points’ and reasons. If you’re seriously religious in a conventional sense, then I suppose you believe the point of your life to be service to God. If so, then hopefully you’re at peace with that belief. But if, like so many people, you don’t understand who or what ‘God’ is or was, that’s not going to do it for you. And you’re left flailing around, confused and maybe even a little despairing.

Sit in a quiet corner and go over the occasions in your life so far that have moved you – not just made you ‘happy’ – but moved you and maybe brought the tears to your eyes. Like Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto; like the look in a loved one’s eyes when they look into yours and tell you they love you; like wondering at and sensing in your heart the grandeur of the Grand Canyon or the vast, impersonal beauty of the Sahara Desert; like hearing the very first cry of your new-born child; like looking from your window and wondering at the ever-changing colours of a sunset; like peering into the heavens on a cloudless night and seeing in the darkness above you those countless billions of twinkling points of light and feeling all around you the something that is beyond the little You but of which, nevertheless, you are part.

Not one of those things has a point. But they stay with you; they touch your soul. They stir in you and release from within you something which is timeless and nameless. They open you out to the miracle of what Is. And that will not fade, nor will it fall apart. So instead of looking for a ‘point’ that doesn’t exist in a future that will never arrive, perhaps we should be still, here and now – be still, and just ‘be’. Use our minds and think only when something needs thinking about. Then leave thinking to one side and just ‘be’. Like we once were, as children. ‘Unless ye become as little children’, a man once said. Misunderstood, as he so often has been down the centuries, he got it right.










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Is there a point to all this? (3)

To recap two of my earlier posts on the same subject – do you wonder what this is all about – this life? That’s of course, if it’s about anything at all. All the rushing here, rushing there, have I done this, that, everything I have to do? Will I catch the train, the bus, the plane? Where’s my ticket?? Have the kids got everything for school? Come on! We’re going to be late – and no, we can’t afford that – the mortgage is due this week, and the gas bill, and my dentist’s, and it’s nearly Christmas and I still haven’t got a present for – oh, God – what is the point?

We go about life like everything we do has to have a point, some more or less desirable end result – even life itself needs to have a point. As a result, our minds are so much of the time set on the future. ‘My goal is…’, ‘What I want to achieve is…’, ‘My dream is to become….’ And once I’ve arrived at that magic point then, so the assumption goes, I will be happy and fulfilled. Then what?

I’ve never climbed a mountain – at least, not a physical, geographical one –  but isn’t it a bit like that? Once at the summit, what then? Clearly, an enormous, exhilarating sense of achievement; a while spent in wonder at the view from the top of the world; taking photographs; then the turn around and the long trek back down. You wouldn’t want to sit on the summit for ever. The mountain has now to be consigned to that thing called memory. And memory is notoriously unreliable. With time, it fades into the mist; bits of it simply disappear; its chronology becomes doubtful, often impossible to disentangle with any certainty.

What doesn’t seem to fade however is the joy you had – however difficult, challenging, painful it may all have been – in getting there. That seems, in some indefinable way, to be still with you; to have contributed something permanent to some inner part of you.

Look back – what were the happiest times of your life? Or really I suppose I should say the most joyful times of your life – for ‘joy’ is a lot more than just ‘happy’. Some special time in your childhood? Something which moved you profoundly – like the birth of a child perhaps. Like watching the pulling down of the Berlin wall and seeing those people with tears in their eyes reunited with family members from whom they’d been separated for years.

Things  like that bring joy. But what was the point in any of them? Watch a beautiful sunset – listen to a piece of music that moves you to tears. Where is the point, the end result? To paraphrase the inimitable Alan Watts, you don’t go to a concert, a gig, in order to wait to hear the final chord; you don’t stand there, in awe of the beauty of that sunset in order to see the sun disappear over the horizon; you don’t join in a dance in order to arrive at a certain point on the dance floor. You do those things in order simply to do them and to be part of them. And when they’re over, they’re over. The thing, the act, the event was sufficient unto itself – and to you as the partaker in it. There was no ‘point’ in any of them.

Neither the ‘future’ nor the past are real; they are ideas, thoughts. The past is memory; the future a mental concept. When the ‘past’ was actually here, it was the present; when the ‘future’ gets here, it too will be the present. Our one and only reality, the only part of our lives over which we have any genuine control, is here now – the present. As the American journalist, satirist, H.L Mencken said, maybe a touch – but only a touch – tongue in cheek, “We are here and it is now. Further than that all human knowledge is moonshine.” Everything, without exception, happens only in the present moment.

Given that, it seems only natural that even if you’re never going to find a ‘point’ to life, the only place it makes any sense to look for a clue as to what it might ultimately be about is in the present moment.

The following, on this subject, is from my book of meditations –

If this present moment be out of true  –  then rest assured, leave it unattended to and the one which follows will also be out of true. Then the next and the next and so on in an ever-steepening curve until you stand at great distance from the wisdom of your own heart. Continue even then as you are – and the resulting distress to your Self will, in the short or long term, resolve itself into disturbance of the mind or illness of the body.

Within each moment is how to live it. Look well and without fear, then do as you find there. It requires eternal watchfulness regarding Now. But Now is all we have and all we know.


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Is there a point to all this? (2)


The following is based on my own personal experience. It may work for others  – I hope it does. But it may not – as Jiddu Krishnamurti, one of the world’s revered spiritual masters, warned – “Truth is a pathless land.”  


Weary of the struggle? – the mortgage, the rent, the insurance, rising prices, the cost of running the car? Long hours, late home from work? Overcrowded trains, buses. The costs of childcare. The long wait for a doctor’s appointment. The weasel words of the politicians. Increasing debt. The whole stressful, anxiety-ridden merry-go-round – when all you want to do is forge a meaningful and mostly enjoyable life for yourself and your family. Is it too much to ask? Is there a point to all this? And if there is, where is it?

Why do we ask the question? Why don’t we just accept that this is life – period? It’s a bit tawdry; bad things happen; we get ill; have problems with our kids; we lose loved ones; go through divorces; we struggle to make ends meet. It’s leavened from time to time with a few sunny periods of laughter, a few good times; but in the end we’re all going to die – so what on earth is the point?

I think the reason we ask at all is that somewhere inside us, buried deep beneath the accumulating confusion of our everyday living, there exists a sort of certainty that there really is more to it. But if that’s the case, where is it? Why can’t we feel it? Was there ever a time in our lives when we could feel it?

If you start to get a sense, an instinct that there really is, or just may be, deep down, something else – something which might illuminate life’s ‘point’ – and if you feel a genuine urge to find it, where do you begin? Well, there’s the mindfulness/self-help books. But there are so many of them – it’s a profitable business these days. How would you know a good one from a bad one? And you can bet your life that although some will have been written by someone coming from exactly the right place and with the needful curiosity of the serious seeker in mind, there are others that will have been written with the primary aim of cashing in, for the benefit of author and publisher, on a growing trend. How would you know one from the other?

If not the books – then what? Church on Sunday? That doesn’t seem to quite fit the bill. Join some spiritual group? There are many. Or become – for example – a Buddhist? How do you do that? And in any case, isn’t Buddhism a bit – well – odd? The Quakers? Now there’s a thought. But haven’t they, sort of, been around since the Flood – like they’re almost part of the establishment? And of course, lots of people – probably millions of them – become devotees of some big international guru or other. Same thing though – how to know a good guru from a tricky one? There’s been quite a few of the latter.  

Many years ago I was in India researching a film I was to direct for US television on Hinduism in general and the guru Sai Baba in particular. In the course of this research I met and interviewed an extraordinary man. He was perhaps in his mid-fifties and lived in a cave – literally – on the thickly wooded lower slopes of the mountains that rise up out of Rishikesh where the Ganges first emerges from the Himalayas. Living with him in this cave, were three devotees who regarded him as their guru – the one who would help light their own spiritual path.

In his interview – which my Producer in fact conducted, she being the only one who spoke his language, Sanskrit – he was asked by her if the huge numbers of Westerners who came to India searching for a guru should actually look around for gurus in their own lands. He looked at her, then said, very quietly, “Why? Why would you look for that which you are holding in your hand?”

It wasn’t until I got the interview back in the cutting rooms in London some weeks later and was studying it in detail that the import of his words really hit me. What he was actually saying was that he knew very well what was being searched for – and that it’s not ‘out there, somewhere’. If you want to find that elusive ‘point’ to life, don’t go looking ‘out there’ – look instead inside your own self. In me that touched a nerve.

We in the West are not used to doing much serious introspection. It’s sometimes even thought of as being – well – not quite nice. And organized religions have, for millennia, told the faithful, on pain of retribution, that they should look beyond themselves for salvation. So that today, we seem to regard looking at ourselves and what goes on inside us, mentally and physically, as not really our business. It’s the province of the doctor, the psychiatrist – they’re the ones who know. But while it’s obvious there are times when only the skills of the doctor, psychiatrist etc. can cure or ease our pain, it seems quite bizarre that we spend so little of our everyday lives in conscious touch with our bodies and our minds. They are, after all, uniquely ours as individuals; they belong to us, and for the whole of our lives, they are in our keeping; and between them, they add up to the most mysterious and complex of all entities in the observable universe. Isn’t it likely there’s something in there worth looking at beyond science’s concern with labels, measurements and that rather dry and lifeless thing known as ‘knowledge’?

Sit straight upright in a chair, place your hands loosely in your lap and close your eyes. Then be as still and as quiet inside your own head as you can, and just be aware of what’s going on there. The usual stream of thoughts appear. Disconnected and more or less random – with which you identify and get momentarily carried along in their worries and concerns – for problems are what they mostly deal in.

Now try and step back from them. Try to just watch them as they drift across your mind, one after the other. Don’t get caught up in them. And if you really can remain that concentrated, an odd thing happens. There are no more thoughts. They arise only in the absence of something which their own absence then reveals – your awareness. Don’t try and think about that, i.e. don’t allow your mind in here, because if you do you’ll be caught up in thought and you’re back where you started. Just be aware – of being aware.

That awareness is – in the true sense of the word – real. It won’t go away. It has been there, and will continue to be there 100% of the time as the background to all you ever do and all you ever are. Like a cinema screen on which the transient images come and go, it remains ever there. As the Western master, Eckhart Tolle has said, ‘You are the awareness, not the thought.’

Is this maybe a signpost to life’s elusive ‘point’? Like the Tao says – “Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things?”

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Is there a point to all this?

A few days ago, I came across a newspaper article discussing how, in recent years, sales of self-help/spirituality/mindfulness books have burgeoned in the UK. Given the present state of this country – and a few others around the world – it’s hardly surprising. People are looking for something – something they sense should be part of their lives and isn’t; something which – who knows? – they may once have had but have now lost. And whatever it is, there is a belief that, in a world where things seem to be unraveling and falling apart, it would knit things back together again. Life, after all, should have a point. So often, there hardly seems to be one. Even making money and buying ‘things’ which – if you watch the TV commercials and read the ads in newspapers and on outdoor hoardings, you’d think is the point of most people’s lives – hardly nourishes the soul. And what’s needed is something that does just that.

There was a time when organized religion was the answer – albeit often by dealing in fear. But for increasing numbers now, that just doesn’t work. And science is turning out a soulless substitute. So the emptiness deepens. And the urgency to find that ‘point’ increases. But where do you turn when you don’t really know what it is you’re looking for?

Some years ago, I was invited to a party in rural Sussex – a party given by a university student, mostly for his fellow students but with a few older people such as myself invited along. It was held in his garden on a beautiful summer’s day, with the lovely soft hills of the South Downs as a backdrop. The wine flowed and at some point in the afternoon, one student, a man I’d guess in his very early twenties, collared me and started to bemoan what he saw as the lack of point in the life he was living – a life which, in society’s eyes, was one of some privilege – halfway through his course at one of the ancient universities, with the hope after that of a well-paid career of his choice.

He’d had a few glasses. But what he was saying he clearly felt deeply. “Where,” he asked, “are the elders?” Where are they, those people – older people, experienced in life and with gravitas, whom you’d expect to be around somewhere – to whom, as a young man or woman, you can look for guidance as you step out into the world? In his voice, there was an edge almost of betrayal.

I believe that what he was saying mirrored what the people turning for guidance to the mindfulness/spiritual books are feeling. That something quite fundamental is missing from their lives. And that money, status, possessions, Facebook,  and iPhones are not part of whatever that something is.

A few weeks back, I was watching a nature programme on TV. The presenter kept referring to ‘the natural world’ and ‘nature’ as though it were something that starts only when you step outside your door – something that just sort of – ‘goes on’ out there on its own, needing no help from us. And which is therefore, by implication, separate from us as human beings.

But stop. Take a look at your own self – who or what, at this moment, is controlling your breathing? The beating of your heart? Something is – but it’s not you. Who or what is managing your digestion, the replenishment of the cells of your body, your immune system, the ageing process of your body? All those, and a great many more mind-bogglingly complex things are going on within you, right at this moment, in an exquisitely organized manner and without any contribution whatever from you. And when that final day, whose moment will not be in your gift, comes along, those things will stop – and you won’t have had any input to that either.

We are cyclical. Just like ‘nature’ and ‘the natural world’. The sun rises then sets; and we – broadly speaking – go to bed and rise with it. As the seasons come and go, so do we; we’re born, we live, we fade and die. In fact everything you can possibly think of, is cyclical. Nothing is for ever. The mayfly, the elephant, the mountains, the continents, our very civilizations. The stars, even. All things have their moment, then leave the stage.

We are all participants in a single process. The atoms that comprise us, comprise the stars. What drives the natural world, drives us. Any distinction is one of outward form only. Out to, and beyond the furthest receding galaxies, everything – our own selves included – is one indivisible entity.

OK – intellectually, that is incomprehensible. But that’s part of the problem – humankind’s intellect. It has dominated our society for thousands of years and has little response in the face of the present situation, beyond that of staring at its own reflection. In this matter at least, it has led us down a dusty path to nowhere very much. That is not however, the fault of the intellect; the fault is ours for having paid so little heed to its limits, thus granting it almost total exclusivity.

And now we’re starting to yearn. We want back the heart, the soul, the inner reality of life – that elusive ‘point’. Where to find it? Where to look? That’s the question.

The words of Lao Tsu, writing two thousand years ago – “Stop thinking and end your problems.”

To be continued –


I need to add something to the above. Where I speak of organized religion not doing it now for so many people, I do not include in that, the words, as reported, of Jesus Christ. I believe that if more Christians generally spent their time doing their best to live his message  – a message identical in import to that of the Buddha, Krishna, Lao Tsu and many other sages down the centuries – rather than spending so much time worshiping his person, they would be powerful contributors to a better world.

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Virtual Reality (Genuine)


W and I have just returned from a few days at a Caravan Club campsite a few miles outside London, less than an hour’s drive from home. Due largely to various family and health reasons – along with a major operation of mine,which I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog – it’s the first time in two years that we’ve done one of those trips – the sort of thing we used to do regularly and which took us to various parts of the country.

But now, as we seem to have got our lives back in at least some sort of order, we thought it time to get into the camper van again and give ourselves a break. It was wonderful! To awake in the morning to the sound of the wind in the trees; to eat breakfast watching two blackbirds, male and female, pecking around in the grass only metres from us; to sip a whisky as you watch the sun, seen through a dappling curtain of leaves, slowly reddening as it dips to the horizon, throwing hugely elongated shadows along the grass – all that is a reconnection with life – real life. You feel in it your gut and in your soul. And you come away recharged, reinvigorated – and settled.

On our second day, we made a trip to a nature reserve we’d visited a number of times in the past. There is a big lake there – ‘big’ as far as UK lakes go, anyway! – which is used as a base by a sailing club. The premises of this club seem to be little more than a large prefabricated building in which there are showers, changing rooms – and a little cafe which is open to the public – in this case, us – W and myself.

It turned out to be one of those quite unexpected and fascinating peeps into other people’s worlds. In a rather bleak, white-painted little room overlooking the lake, we sat at an aluminium table eating excellent bacon rolls – cooked for us almost as a favour (they didn’t officially sell food to the public on weekdays) by a very helpful young man who seemed to wield some sort of authority in the kitchen. While we ate, we watched the comings and goings of whole tribes of young people, male, female and no doubt anything in between, aged from about ten to early twenties as they came in from sailing on the lake, soaking wet (it was raining) with their instructors. Despite their recent exertions, they were neither boisterous nor particularly excitable; instead, they all exuded that sort of quietly contained excitement that comes not so much from having done something hugely ‘Wow!’ dramatic as having done something that has touched their inner selves.

The only other members of the public in the cafe were a woman working on a laptop while she waited for her young sailor son, and a much older woman, who sat at a table in a corner on the far side of an empty cold drinks cabinet. With her were two little girls (not part of the sailing groups) of whom she took no notice whatever unless one of other of them made some remark about her loud enough for her to hear, or she caught a glimpse of the faces they pulled at her. And even then, she looked up and barked at them only for the few seconds she could spare to be parted from her smartphone. That’s what had her in thrall. Fingers swiping, poking, prodding, she was consumed by it. For the whole time we were there – about forty-five minutes – she hardly looked up from it.

It was a bizarre exhibition. And a bit unsettling. But although it was maybe a bit extreme, I guess it’s not uncommon. A short while ago, on the way from my own flat to my son’s via the London Overground, eight of the eleven people – ages ranging I’d guess from twenties to sixties – sitting in close proximity to me were likewise buried in their smartphones. One or two were no doubt doing something relatively important – like checking emails. But as most of the others had heads bent (some with ear-buds in ears), fingers a-picking and a-swiping for virtually the entire twenty minutes I was on the train, I doubt they were doing anything more important than playing games, reading on Facebook of someone’s trouble opening the cornflakes packet that morning, or checking a selfie on Instagram.

And outside the windows of the train there was a world happening. Clouds going by, trees, hedges, houses, people. Wake up! You’ve never seen this day before. And it won’t come back, either.

In a programme on the radio the other day, the interviewer asked this man – in his late twenties/early thirties – how often in a day he checked his smartphone. ‘Oh,’ he replied. ‘Don’t really know. A lot. Definitely a lot.’ The interviewer then asked him when would normally be the first time in a day that he would check it. ‘Soon as I’m awake.’ replied the man. ‘It’s the first thing I do.’ Then added, ‘And probably the last thing at night too.’

So his whole day is enclosed, book-ended by the contents of his smartphone. Ouch. Consisting of what? – casual observations of friends, acquaintances, opinions of opinion-formers, journalists, politicians, pornographers, mopings of the tired, the bored, the lovelorn, titillaters, freaks and weirdos, the sad and lonely, detailed cinema listings, train and bus times, the prices of the latest heart-rate monitors and every bizarre shade and level in between. And each minuscule detail of his browsing, along with every byte of his own personal input to this cornucopia of mostly drivel will be checked, traced, sifted through, analysed and manipulated by mammoth commercial corporations who do so, not out of philanthropy, but out of the simple desire to make money out of him. Which they do with startling efficiency. Ouch!

What does a daily dose of all that do to the psyche of the smartphone junkie, man or woman? Where has their real world gone? The disconnect between that real world which holds in its embrace their own natural selves and the specious role into which they are being so subtly moulded can only add more stress to all the other work, financial and domestic stresses the modern world – God help us – produces. And to our shame, we’re even allowing our children and young people to drift into a similar neverland where their own natural young instincts are commandeered and subverted by those same multinational mammoths. If we are not careful – and we show little sign of it – real life for those young people – the life to which they aspire – will come to be thought of as existing at some further end of a virtual signal. And maybe many think that way even now.

And now we’re creating robots. Humanoid robots. Ones who can book us into a hotel; ones who will show us to our rooms; ones who can diagnose our minor ailments; ones who can reason; ones we can discuss with; ones we can flirt and have sex with.

This is borderline insanity. The sign of a society taking leave of its senses and abandoning its self-respect. The barbarians are quietly massing at the gates.

And outside the window, the day goes on, the birds sing, ants scurry, the sap rises in the plants and the trees, the seasons come and they go, the clouds drift by and if you’re lucky, the sun shines. As darkness falls, W and I draw the curtains over the windows, unroll the sleeping bags and retire. There may come the last piping call of a bird; a gentle stirring of the leaves on the surrounding trees; even the weary chatter of the magpie who’s been strutting around all day; and if we’re lucky, there could be a parting of the clouds to reveal, visible through the small skylight in the roof, a pallid moon to light us to sleep.

That’s real.









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A Summer Morning’s Entertainment

I haven’t blogged in a while now. Depression, which has dogged my life since my early forties, has been having a go at me in recent weeks. So much so that with the three hours every morning that I dedicate to writing, I’ve been too tired mentally to write anything beyond that. But today – life feels about right; I feel almost normal. I know only too well I might have to retract what I’m about to say, but the clouds seem to have broken. I don’t imagine for one moment that they’ve broken never to obscure the sun again – but now is now and that’s enough. I’ve done my three hours on the book today and it feels good to still have the energy to want to turn my attention now to the blog.

 I‘ve written elsewhere in this blog that I live in a flat – or apartment – that overlooks a very pretty park in South London. I get up any time between six and seven in the morning, and first thing I do – or almost the first – is look out of the kitchen window. The overnight long haul flights are turning into their final approach to Heathrow – British Airways, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Qatar, Emirates, Virgin etc., etc. And I often think back to my time in the film industry and that awful feeling after a twelve or more hour flight from somewhere in the world and you haven’t really slept (I never could) and maybe you had a glass too many of something or other the night before and you’re unwashed and unshaven and feeling pretty inhuman. And when you get down on the ground you’re going to have to stand and watch those interminable baggage carousels going round and back, and round and back while anticipating the business of getting home through a London whose morning rush hour is just winding itself up. I wouldn’t want to be doing it again. Even so, when I was doing it on a regular basis, I sort of revelled in it – I was part of the ‘in’ crowd. At least, that’s how it appeared – and it seemed important then.

However – that’s not really what I was going to say. What I was going to say was, that as I look out of the kitchen window first thing in the morning, that which has delighted me almost every day now since the 7th of May when they first appeared, is a group of up to about twenty swifts which have obviously nested close by, and whose aerobatics over the park have been wonderful to watch.

They are amazing birds. Just over six and a half inches or 16.5 centimetres, they are basically dark brown all over, but looking black against the sky – which is the only way most of us are ever going to see them. For they spend 99% of their lives on the wing, sleeping and even copulating in the air. They’re often mistaken for swallows, but in fact they’re not even of the same family. They have long, swept back wings, and their silhouette against the sky is like a sickle. They fly at enormous speeds, with periods of steady flight alternating with sudden very fast flickerings of the wings and almost instantaneous changes of direction. They’ve been encountered at altitudes of at least 10,000 feet. They are consummate acrobats. They’ll dive, sweeping from a hundred feet or more above the ground, right down sometimes to not much above head height. They can often be seen flying at colossal speed – up to seventy miles an hour – low around the housetops, in and out, skimming the chimney pots in screaming, screeching bands of a dozen or more – just for the very joy, it seems, of being alive. In their search for food for their young and for themselves, they are reputed to fly up to 500 miles in a day – that’s right, every day. Like – London to Inverness! As I watch them from my window, every few minutes, in the background will be a gargantuan Airbus 380 or Boeing Dreamliner coming in – and however technically impressive those mechanical flying machines are, they are still, by comparison with the swift, little more than befuddled, lumbering dinosaurs.

 The swifts come to northern Europe from Southern Africa every year. Whereas most summer migrants to our shores stay here about six months, swifts are away a lot earlier, usually in August, having arrived only in late April or May. Although there are reckoned to be around 85,000 pairs nesting in the UK, sadly and like so many birds on the British list, they appear to be declining.

They’ve entertained me – and hopefully a lot of others in their extraordinary airborne treks – since early May, and I guess they’ll be on their way back in the next few weeks to southern Africa. How do they do that? How does any migrant bird do it? No-one really knows – either how they know the route or how they survive the journey. And how, when they come back the following year, so very many of them return to exactly the same street or farm building – even nest – where they spent the previous summer. No-one knows. And I’m glad they don’t.

I dread the scientific know-all who pops up on TV and with a smile of triumph on his or her face, breezily announces that another ‘mystery of nature’ has been solved. If we’re not careful, before long we’ll have ‘solved’ life itself. And if we think we’re in trouble now – which we are – it’s nothing to what that’ll be like.









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Do what you like!

A few weeks ago, I was eating with a friend in my favourite Indian restaurant in Crystal Palace, here in South London. We got talking to the couple at the next table – both, I’d guess, in their early thirties. The conversation eventually got around – as it so often does – to what the four of us did for a living. When it came to me and I told the couple I’d worked as a freelance writer/director in the film industry, there were the usual reactions. Their faces lit up. “That must have been really interesting!” “Bet you worked in some fascinating places.” “What famous people did you work with?” etc., etc. And the final question, “How on earth did you manage to get into that?”

I told them I’d known from the age of about sixteen that making films, along with writing, was what I wanted to do. One Saturday afternoon, I’d seen at a local cinema, an extraordinary French film, now a classic of world cinema, ‘Le Salaire de La Peur’ – ‘The Wages of Fear.’ It stunned me and left me with a really burning desire to work in that business.

The couple looked at me, and the man said, rather wistfully, “So you really did spend your working life doing what you wanted to do?” And he looked at me almost like I was a being from some gentler, nicer world. “That must have felt wonderful.”

It did. It still does. OK, I was very lucky – whatever that means – that I had the feelings inside me that connected with that film that afternoon in the cinema. I was also very determined. I wrote letters to various people in the film industry telling them I was prepared to work for nothing and sweep floors if they’d give me a job! I don’t think they were impressed – nothing came my way from that. It was some years later when I was at university that I managed to get a job at a small documentary company in London, simply on the basis of an interview.

I loved my time in the business. I worked all over the world. I worked with some great film crews – many of them really unusual people. I worked with many celebrities. I won international awards for both writing and directing. As the man said, it felt wonderful. But why, I got to wondering, was my experience so rare?

Among young people, there is a huge variety of latent talent. Yet the vast majority will end up doing jobs and pursuing careers, in which they have little interest beyond that of paying the mortgage. Is that what we bring them up for? Is that all we can offer them? Their untapped individual talents could be benefitting society, and in the process giving each of them a sense of fulfilment and genuine purpose. That in itself would avoid much of the tension, stress and anxiety so many adults live with now on a day-to-day basis.

Our education system takes little serious account of the innate and latent talent out there. The original meaning of ‘education’ is not to sit young people down in a room five hours a day and cajole them into ingesting a whole series of pre-digested opinions about this, that and the other, and then take a few examinations at the end of it – with the prime purpose of getting a job. That’s not education. At best it’s cultural conditioning; at the worst, cultural brain-washing.

I used to say to my children when they were young, ‘I don’t mind what you do when you grow up, as long as whatever you do is what you really, really want to do. Be tramps if you like; as long as you’re happy tramps.’ In every individual, there is some innate talent – however modest. And the original meaning of education was to find out what that talent is and to bring it out and nurture it – ‘educere’ – Latin for ‘to lead out’, ‘to bring forth.’

Yes, I know – the implementation of such a system would be quite beyond the scope, the vision and the courage of today’s politicians – it would mean pretty well overturning society as we now know it. But society is not doing too well at the moment, is it? I think it would benefit from a bit of overturning. It’s beginning to look and feel like it’s been taken over by madmen, and run by them in the interests of other madmen.

However, some instinct tells me that we are already not too far from a seismic upheaval; that the present turmoil is like the crust above a fault line in the earth being tossed aside prior to an earthquake. A new way of thinking and of living is, I believe, beginning to force itself up through this present crumbling fabric like a chick breaking out of the egg. I really hope so. Then perhaps a time will come  – however far hence – when our young people are taken seriously and the huge fund of genuine talent that at present goes largely to waste in our societies will be used to the benefit of us all. 


The following is a meditation on the above subject. It’s from the book of meditations I’m working on – albeit on a sporadic basis.

“Few of us are educated in the true meaning of the word. Nor do we truly educate our children. For if we would do that we would be concerned not only to teach them the essential skills of literacy and numeracy, but to draw out from them and encourage to flower in this world, that which is in each of them by nature.

Blocked entrance in wallFor every one of us is a piece of the jigsaw and has his or her unique contribution to make. That way, they would grow toward wholeness and balance. As it is, we pay scant regard to their inner selves, imposing on them from without a system of essentially short-term, superficial disciplines whose primary purpose is to prepare them for future employment and the illusion of ‘security’. Thus confined to the shallows and distanced from their own hearts, they grow out of true. What they most profoundly are is pushed aside to bide its time in a locked room. And there it will work mischief. For be in no doubt, God denied becomes the Devil.

As we do to them, so it was done to us. Do you wonder there is resentment and disillusionment among the young?”

(If any teacher reading this is affronted, please accept my apologies – you may be totally dedicated and doing a magnificent job. The fact remains however that you’re still working within a basically two hundred year old system designed primarily to condition for employment and to ‘fit in’, rather than to elicit talent, and nurture the soul).


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