Sadness in the Little Island

In the early part of this week, W and I spent a day wandering around a nature reserve run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the county of Sussex in the south of the UK. The weather was hot, averaging around 32C in a completely cloudless sky. There was a wonderful quiet sultriness about everything. Birds stayed hidden most of the time in the trees and shrubs, out of the heat, only the occasional call giving their presence away. The members of a distant herd of highland cattle seemed virtually petrified on their feet. A flock of fifty or so grey lag geese plodded slowly, meticulously through a wetland, foraging in what remained of the mud. Butterflies of all colours flitted and danced through the air. Apart from them, the only other living things not apparently subdued by the heat were the hundreds of dragon flies – some of them huge – and damsel flies hovering and darting about with apparently undiminished energy.

The paths on the reserve twist and wander around over open meadow land and through wooded glades dappled with sunshine. Stopping at one viewpoint – a large wooden platform constructed on the slope of a wooded hill to give a view over miles of countryside – we talked with a man who was a volunteer worker on the reserve. He had worked there many years. He had at his side a gleaming modern scythe he used for cutting down thick grass and vegetation. He spoke with a quiet enthusiasm of turning up there at seven that morning when it was still cool with the mist lying all along the ground at little more than ankle-height; of the silence at that hour, of the low sun and long, slanting shadows; of the different birds he’d seen. The world is so beautiful at that time of the morning in such places. There is great order in it.

Coming back to London however, a city I love and have lived in for many years, a depressing reality is nowadays inescapable. Although London itself – and a number of other large cities, along with Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted overwhelmingly in the recent shambles known as ‘the referendum’ to remain in the EU, Britain today is Brexit Britain. That is – Britain going it alone; isolationist, xenophobic Britain; a Britain which has demonstrated to the world in a few short weeks, that its long-held reputation for decency, probity, racial tolerance and solid good sense was skin-deep.

As an indirect result of that Brexit vote, we now have a new Prime Minister. She has gathered around her, a new Cabinet. And whom do we have among her list of luminaries? Well, our new Foreign Secretary is a man spoken of by other world leaders world as a buffoon and liar; another new government minister is a man whose basic honesty, a few short years ago, was tried in two very important aspects and found severely wanting in both – to the point where he was forced to resign. Neither man would be employed by any reputable employer. To cap it all, our new Prime Minister herself stated unequivocally in parliament the other day, that she would indeed, if called on to do so, press the button to unleash a nuclear missile on another sovereign state, killing a hundred thousand or more people.

Are there others out there who, along with me, think the human race, in its present form, is seriously insane?  Two thousand odd years of Western ‘civilisation’ have taught us almost nothing. We continue to behave in a way that is criminally lacking not only in morality but in the most basic intelligence. Go back to the nature reserve. Watch the birds, the butterflies, the creatures of the field, the woods, the grasses, the clouds in the sky – learn from them. They have a timeless lesson to teach. But it seems we aren’t listening. Maybe we’re just too clever.

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Letter from a little island

Tuesday June 28 2016

Dear Europe, World,

Hello. I’ve tried to stay away from Shipwreck Brexit, but the few days since the announcement last Friday that Britain had voted to leave the European Union have been among the saddest of my adult life. That this country – or at least 52% of its voters – a country that has so boasted of  its ‘values’ – its tolerance, its championing of the underdog, its magnanimity – should have opted, when the chips went down, for xenophobia, isolationism and some sugar-coated dream of a nirvana that never was – otherwise known as ‘getting our country back’ – leaves me with a deep sadness. Already the all too predictable is happening – there were reports yesterday of a 57% rise in racist/xenophobic attacks on non-Brits in the UK, including school-age young children. What have we come to? What sort of people have been lurking in the shadows of this land?

And now – and if you can’t see the connection, then you need to open your eyes a little wider – the England football team crash out of Euro 2016 in what’s being heralded as the most ignominious of all national team defeats. The Brits, you see, at whatever level and in whatever sphere, do not take to being team players. We’re divas. If we could have stayed in Europe and ordered everybody else about and told them what to do – well, that would have been pretty nice. We could have handled that. After all, we won the war. Which one? Er – the one that ended sixty years ago. When we stood alone. And which, without the Americans, the Poles, the Gurkhas and many others from other lands, we would have lost. That war. It confers on us a sort of universal entitlement.

But now – it’s looking like the illusion, the self-deception are catching up with us. The edifice is crumbling. As one commentator in the Guardian newspaper put it, ‘England has not yet come to terms with its own irrelevance’. And in my view, until it does, it will sink further and further into the quicksand. Profound lessons need to be learned. Humility would be a good one to start with.

 Yours hopefully,

 Besonian

P.S. Is anyone listening?

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They’re cutting the grass!

The grass in the little park which my flat overlooks hasn’t been cut for an unusually long time. In places it must be a metre high. Very small children running through it almost disappear, and small dogs doing the same actually do disappear, detectable only by a fast moving line of waving grass. The grasses themselves look like the surface of the sea as they wave and ripple in the wind. The delicate seed pods on their extremities nod and sway. And all over the park, among the trees, edging the pathways there have appeared carpets of daisies, buttercups, things that look like buttercups but I think are probably kingcups; bright yellow flowers that look like dandelions but aren’t because the ends of their petals are more right-angled and which are often called – I believe – ‘false dandelion’ and sometimes even, ‘hairy-cat’s-ear’! And all that takes no account of the banks of clover flowers that have appeared.

Many years ago this park formed the grounds of a school for the blind, now long gone. I find it extraordinary to think that these flowers and grasses, waving in the wind today, are the direct descendants of the grasses that waved in the wind in those far-off days. The seed develops, produces its offspring which, in turn, produces seed which then, in turn etc., etc. and will probably go on doing that until the sun burns itself out.

Way back in the mists of time, I moved with my mother and step-father into a newly-built house in what was then a small town just to the west of London. It was a little estate of about forty semi-detached houses erected on what had once been a meadow, part of the grounds of a recently demolished big country house. I spent most of my teenage years there. In the mid-eighties, after the break-up of my marriage (and coincidentally, the death of my mother) I moved back into that house with my step-father.

It had a big rear garden about thirty metres long. My step-father, who also died not long after I moved there, had many years ago given up on the vegetable garden to which he’d once been so devoted, and had turned it all over to grass – which he cut every week, come hell or high water, with a hover-mower. When he too had departed this vale of tears I decided to leave at least half that grassed area to grow naturally without mowing it or cutting it back. I liked the idea of having a miniature country field in the garden. 

I was amazed and delighted to see soon appear wild flowers and waving grasses that clearly hadn’t put their heads over the parapet in over forty years. Well – I guess they would have put their heads over had they not been so assiduously mown down before their prime by my step-father. So all that time, despite the ground having once been a vegetable garden, and despite having had a concrete path laid through it, the seeds of those grasses had survived, patiently waiting until they were called on again. And now – here they were, their colours as fresh and intense as though the last time they’d appeared had been only the season before.  

The long grasses brought lots more insects. And the insects brought more birds. I had a burgeoning nature reserve on my hands. I decided to add a pond. It was roughly circular, about half a metre deep in the centre, and perhaps a couple of metres in diameter. I constructed a little waterfall, powered by a pump fed by a cable that ran from the house. It all took a few weeks to settle down, but within a month a frog had moved in. Water boatmen joined the frog. The frog must have persuaded a member of the opposite frog sex to join him/her because before long the place was awash with tadpoles. I bought a few small fish from a garden centre. One morning, soon after that, I had to chase away a heron who was perched on the bank and staring with a fixed, predatory look into the water. And for those not familiar with the UK’s Grey Heron it’s a huge, long-legged bird with a two-metre wingspan and a beak on it like an anti-tank gun. I couldn’t compete with him. When my back was turned he soon disposed of my fish.

Life is endlessly amazing. We so take it for granted. And it’s everywhere, irrepressible. Sitting in the park the other day with W, I saw, making its way across the sleeve of my jacket, some green living thing that was so tiny it was only just visible. Then it stopped for a second, changed direction and continued on. It had made a decision – let’s go the other way. Maybe it had taken a wrong turning – or simply changed its mind. I hope it arrived at wherever it was headed.

And as I write this, though it may appear like a bit of dramatic licence on my part – it’s not – out there in the park there are rumblings of machinery starting up. Looking out the window, I see two huge, petrol driven mowing machines. They’re about to cut the grass again! I hope they leave it for as long next time – then the flowers and the waving grasses will be back. And maybe that tiny green thing as well. 

 

 

 

 

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You are You.

You are a creature not of the streets, the bright lights and concrete of the city; you are not a business opportunity, a number crunched in a computer; you are of the winds and the stars and the flowers of the field and the flowing river.

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You are You, and were here before all this, and will be after. You are of That, which is now and for ever. And your soul cries out that in this your living, you are at a distance from your true nature and from the Oneness out of which you have sprung and to which, one day, you will return.

Knowing these things, know also that all is well, and as it should be.

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Who am I? Who are you?

Some years ago, I was commissioned to write and direct a half-hour film for one of the big motor companies – long gone now – based in the north of England. During my researches which involved, amongst other things, spending a couple of days being taken around their massive plant by a one of their technical guys, I was shown into an odd little room. It was rectangular, about six metres long by three wide, and about three high. There were no windows and just the one door. The walls and ceiling were completely covered in what I can only describe as being like the reverse side of hundreds of egg boxes – thousands upon thousands of small brown pyramids pointing out into the room. The room was an anechoic chamber. Not many of them around. But its name, I guess, is self-explanatory – i.e. as far as can be made possible, no sound whatever penetrates this room from the world beyond its closed door.

What its function was in a motor-manufacturing plant I’ve now forgotten. But I was so intrigued by the idea that my guide offered to let me spend ten minutes in that room, on my own, with the door shut. I jumped at the chance. He indicated to me the one item of furniture – a plain wooden chair – and left me sitting on it, saying he’d be back in ten minutes. The door closed behind him. Th e silence that immediately descended was so thick if felt almost as though it had hit me. In our normal, everyday lives we don’t encounter silence – not a real and total absence of all  sound.   

 A very strange feeling came over me. Not only had the world around me suddenly changed quite dramatically, but it seemed also that my relationship with my own self was shifting in some odd way. Visually, my world was a claustrophobic, virtually featureless brown bunker. And the more I looked around at it, the more it took on a sense of being an intangible, abstract nothing. The only sounds I could hear were that of the blood pumping in my veins, and the strange creak of muscle and bone as I moved my head. Clap your hands or call out – and the sound seems to travel nowhere; it’s dead; it has the bizarre feeling of not having left your hands or to have emerged from your mouth. For nothing bounces it back. Then the mind, in an attempt to make sense of this, starts to go to some strange places – like – as nothing bounces it back, is that because there’s nothing out there anyway??

 This is all seriously weird and disorienting. Some people apparently have come close to panic in these circumstances. I tried hard to get my head around it both at the time and since. And it was with something of a shock I realized that unless you’re one of those among us who are born profoundly deaf, your own view of yourself and who you actually are is dependent to an enormous degree on the echo – aural and visual – that constantly bounces back at you from the world around you. Take all that echo away and – well, who are you? Are you who you thought you were? And are you that person only because of your relation to the world around you?

 OK, I’m John – or Joan – Smith and I’m twenty. Or forty. Fifty, whatever. But when I think about it, I wasn’t John or Joan until my parents gave me that name. Until then, I existed nameless. Yet still very much ‘me’. And I guess my name anyway, is no more than a convenient label; something by which others can identify me. And I can change it – in the UK at least. I can call myself pretty well whatever I like. If the fancy takes me, I can be known hereafter as Heironymous Buggins. So my name is not part of the essential ‘me’. So what is?

 My job? (Assuming I’m lucky enough to have one) My three-bedroom house and my nice car? They’re part of who I am. Or are they? Like my name, those things can change. I could lose my job. Or do some entirely different job. Then maybe we’d move to the Outer Hebrides, get a camper van and sell the car. So those things are not part of the real ‘me’ either. And I suppose by the ‘real me’ I’m starting to think of as that something that has persisted despite all these changes. Because something has.

 OK – got it! My memories! They are permanent. And mine. Nobody else’s. 

I was just thinking of that wonderful summer holiday you and I had in Scotland.

It was autumn. Not summer. The trees were all those beautiful golds and reds.

I’ve never been to Scotland in the autumn.

Yes, you have – don’t you remember? – it was that summer when you had the operation on your foot and couldn’t drive for a couple of months so we put it off to October.

Ah no. You’re getting mixed up. That was the summer before. I know that because your mother came for a couple of weeks in the early part and the three of us spent a week at that lovely pub – The Crown – in Dorset.

Was that the name – ‘The Crown’?

That, or ‘The Kings Head’.

Mmm. You’re right.

Good to look back on lovely memories, isn’t it?

 And so on and so on. What memories? What do we actually remember? What can we recall faithfully? Others there at the same event can be guaranteed to recall it slightly differently. And at best we recall bits here, bits there. Most of the things we remember, we eventually forget.

 So memories are out. But ‘I’ – whatever that is – is still there throughout. In the spaces between the memories, that ‘I’ is still there in the background. Or the foreground – I’m not sure which. 

But if memories are out – what does that leave me with? My body? That’s promising. My body’s been there from the time before I had a name, right up to this minute. And it’ll be there till I die.

Wait a minute – what have I just said? ‘It will be there till I die’. Sounds a bit like I think ‘I’ and my body are two different things. And anyway, why do I refer to it as ‘my’ body? Like ‘I’ own it. I use the word ‘my’ only for things that are mine; things I own. And if ‘I’ own ‘my’ body – like I own my computer and my bicycle – it’s clear that at some level of my being I see ‘I’ and this body as being separate. Oh dear. And as I think about it – the body I have now is not the body I had before I had a name. Nor is it the body I’ll have when I die. The reason being that the cells in the body are constantly being regenerated. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus about how often the whole body is replaced in this way. But it’s clear that the body I live in now is either wholly or partly a different one from the one I had before I was called John. Or Joan. Or whatever. Heironymous.

 Where does that leave me? ‘I’ can’t be my body. I’m not my memories, my home, my car, my job, my name. All those things are just elements in a sort of story. Yet something – some will-o’-the-wisp – has persisted uninterrupted all the time from my birth through all these other events and changes across the years. And it’s here now too as I write this.

 

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One sunny afternoon

England, one afternoon in Spring. It was sunny, with very little wind. I was the only walker on the path that runs along the ridge of the hills at that point. On my left, only a few kilometres away to the south, the sea with a brilliant sun reflecting off it. On my right, inland, a huge stretch of green and rural England.

 I turned off the main path and took a smaller one that led down through the thick woods that clothed the sides of the hills. A few metres down this path, I branched off again onto a very narrow and little-used track that dropped steeply downwards. I often walked this track and knew it well. There was a deep silence in those woods, broken only by the songs of birds – especially at this time of the year when migratory arrivals from Africa were still settling in – and the occasional rustling above me where whatever breeze there was stirred the topmost branches of the trees.

 I knew many of the trees along that path; I knew the eccentricities of the path my feet had to negotiate. In places it was hardly wide enough to walk on, and at one point dropped dramatically away on one side into the deep crater left by a Second World War bomb ditched by German aircrew to help speed their getaway over the Channel after an air raid on London seventy kilometres to the north.

 I was about a quarter of the way down this track that day when I had a sudden sense that I was not alone. I had company. But I’d heard no footfalls; there was no evidence whatever of another person. Strangely too, I felt no need to stop and look around. I just kept walking. And as I walked, this sense of some other presence alongside me grew. There was no dismissing it; I knew – with a knowledge beyond all knowing – that it was there, that it was infinitely benign – and it was real. Tears came to my eyes. I knew not only of its presence, but also that it was not, in itself, an entity – it was a one-ness; it extended through me and into everything around me – the trees, the grasses, the wild flowers, birds, insects, the sky above me and the earth at my feet. Everything was one; everything, I was aware, is interdependent on everything else. It brought to me a feeling which I can only describe as bliss.

 Along with all that, I knew two other things. First, this profound thing, whatever it was, would be with me for only seconds. Also, I knew instinctively not to ‘think’ about it. Not to use my mind to try and understand, analyse and label it. It was coming from somewhere where the mind does not reach. Direct the mind on it, and it would be gone. I tried therefore just to ‘be’ with it, and stay with it until it had gone.

 How long it lasted, I don’t know – I had no sense of time. But looking back it was probably a minute at most. I felt it fading, and with it went my tearfulness, until both were gone. And there I was, once again, just a bloke walking down a path in the woods. But something had changed.

 I can’t explain it. It’s beyond explanation. It confirmed for me what I’d long felt – that we, and everything in the world around us and beyond, even out to the furthest stars, are all one indivisible entity.

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Scuffles in the playground

There’s something going on in the UK at the moment. Perhaps you’ve heard about it. Something that’s exercising the newspapers and politicians no end. But to listen to the banalities spouted by both lots (with a few notable exceptions) you’d think it was some sort of playground spat or scuffle. But no – that’s just the level to which the debate (‘debate’?) has descended. What we’re actually engaged in is trying to decide if this country – i.e. the United Kingdom (bit of a misnomer these days) – should remain as part of the European Union; or if it should get out and – as those who want to leave so nostalgically refer to it – go it alone. You know, like we did during the Battle of Britain. When we stood alone against Nazi Germany – Great Britain’s finest hour. Well, partly Poland’s finest hour as well – many of the pilots in that battle were Poles. Indeed, as it’s reputed they were some of the most accomplished and daring, I suppose it’s possible that without the Poles we might have lost.

Anyway – UK  in or UK out? Who knows? How’s the average Brit to know or form any sort of informed opinion? Half the government are on one side shouting “Yah-boo” to the other half of the same government who, in turn, shout, “Yah-boo” back. It’ll encourage immigration says one lot; it’ll have no effect on immigration says the other. It’ll mean Brits will lose jobs; it will make British jobs more secure. It will set the economy back; it will give a boost to the economy. It will mean – well, you can go and and on. And they do. It’s meaningless.

In the end, I think for most people, it’s going to be a gut reaction. The politicians’ blathering carries little weight. And in any case, who, these days, trusts politicians? So – with such a dearth of trustworthy opinion around, I suspect the average Brit will vote on a gut reaction, and that that won’t really slot into place until the day of the referendum itself. I’m not going to say which side I think will prevail. I’ve no idea. All I do feel, very strongly, is that if we come out, it will shoot the final hole in the hull of an already foundering ship – the S.S. Great Britain.

The original wellspring from which came the idea of a united Europe, was not an economic one. Its origins lie deeper than that. They lie in a movement that crosses centuries and has probably been going on since further back than history can see. Social groups have always been getting together – usually as a result of prolonged conflict – with others to form larger social groups. This very island, at present called the United Kingdom or Great Britain –  whatever you prefer –  was once, a mere two thousand years ago, home to umpteen separate tribes. They fought each other. They slaughtered each other. Until the Romans appeared. Then they fought the Romans but the Romans were better armed, better trained and altogether better at it – and won. They pulled all those disparate groups together – more or less. The island was set on a road to unification on which, despite the eventual demise of its Roman conquerors, and despite being shaken by almost endless conflicts since, it has never seriously turned its back. Would anyone want to return to a tribal Britain?

To my mind, the European Union is one of the most remarkable and positive institutions ever created. After the bloodiest war in the troubled history of this planet, a small group of nations said, “OK. That’s it. Enough.” The continent had torn itself and its inhabitants, physically and emotionally apart in an appalling, insane way for centuries. “Let’s call it a day,” they said. And for the first time in world history, a band of nations agreed to forget fighting each other and to try and find a way of living in peace together. That small number has grown and grown and now stands at twenty-eight.

In the debate in the UK about whether to stay or leave, many, many things are uncertain, even un-knowable. However, one thing – and perhaps it’s the only thing – is certain. It’s unthinkable that any country in the European Union would declare war, whatever the provocation, on another in the Union. If we in the UK remain where we are, we are part of that now huge – population over 500 million – territory of peace. It’s an example to the rest of the world. Remember the London blitz? Remember Dresden? If you’re too young, no problem – look at the TV news tonight or any night. It’s still going on – the killing, the pain, the destruction and despair. Is that what you want? Try reading ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’; watch the film ‘Stalingrad’, or ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’, or ‘Paths of Glory’.

If I have a choice of whether I want to be in that group of peace-seeking nations, or be on the outside, labouring under some nationalistic delusion about ‘going it alone’, having my country back and being able to secure our own borders, blah, blah,blah – well, I don’t have to choose. I want to live in peace; I want my children and their children to live in peace. And that I believe, is in any case, the direction in which the world is starting to turn. However much the opposite may appear to be the case, I believe our world, driven by an instinct far more profound and meaningful than anybody’s economy, is slowly, laboriously, painfully growing together. It’s the only way we’re going to survive. Without it, we’re a doomed species. I want to stay in Europe.

 

 

 

 

 

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