So there were these crocuses….

One morning last week, I was taking a walk round our little park in order to air my brain – I’d been writing intensely for well over two hours and was feeling a need to reconnect with the real world – when, right by one of the exit gates, I came upon a pair of newly-opened purple and white crocuses. (‘Croci’, if you prefer). They were typically beautiful, standing there, looking around in the low sunshine. But what struck me particularly about these two was that their neighbours in this small patch of ground weren’t spring daffodils ‘fluttering and dancing in the breeze’ or little snowdrops, shyly hanging their heads – no, their neighbours were a crumpled up sheet of plastic, a cereal bar wrapper, a plastic screw top, torn paper and various other bits of detritus, the like of which we human beings commonly throw away for someone else to clean up.

It wasn’t bothering the two crocuses. The surrounding garbage had no effect on their beauty, their radiance, their personal pride – what self-belief! And I supposed – being the incurable anthropomorphiser that I am – that their attitude to the ne’er-do-wells and general low-lifes all around them was that – well, that’s life. We all have to get on and live together. And that, they seemed to be doing very successfully. I wished them well and went back to my writing.

Surprising what you can learn from crocuses. (’Croci’ if you prefer).




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OK – so there is no point. Now what?

 I never managed to figure out what organized religion was actually about. It wasn’t for want of trying. I wanted to know. From almost as far back as I can remember, I’ve had a deep sense of there being something which was – how can I say? – beyond all this. And in order to explore this feeling, religion seemed the obvious thing to turn to. But the sight of men – usually men, though thankfully not so much now – dressed in gowns and odd head-pieces, addressing, in a purpose-built venue, a gathering of people, many of whom had dressed for the occasion, in incantatory tones and talking of a divine being separate from them, who had created the universe didn’t penetrate beyond my inner ear. Nor, as I grew a little older, could I align the words and deeds of their own prophet with what went on in those places. He had always seemed to me to be a true man of the people – and a maverick. He didn’t just quietly and politely tell the moneylenders they really ought not to be doing what they did – he marched in and overturned their tables! He consorted with the poor, the dispossessed and the disabled. That seemed a far cry from my experience of church with all its polite formality.

 In my pre-teens, although I was shepherded at irregular but relatively frequent intervals to churches and chapels by my mother and step-father, I came away empty handed; in what I saw and heard, I found nothing of that mystery that I sensed within my own self. They sent me to Sunday School when I was about ten. I found it stultifying. I stuck the first session out to the end, but absconded a quarter of the way through the second and went off to the park – never to return. I felt horribly guilty. Whenever I saw the man who ran the Sunday School go past our house on his bike, I hid.

 One day when I was about twelve, I was wandering along by the river which flowed through the centre of the small town in which we lived. I had just finished Saturday school (Yep – school on Saturday morning then!) and was waiting for my mother to finish work at the small baker’s shop she managed. Her working week too ended at Saturday lunchtime. We would meet, then cycle home together. I remember stopping on the river bank, looking at the river flowing gently past, when a thought – or rather a ‘feeling’ – came to me, seemingly out of nowhere. I quite suddenly found myself thinking that when I was dead, it wouldn’t worry me if they – whoever ‘they’ were – threw me in the river – because I was not my body.

I thought no more about that at the time. I carried on with my walk, met my mother when the time came, and we cycled home. It was only years later, when I mentioned the incident to a friend at work, that I realized, seeing the puzzlement on his face, it had been a pretty strange thought to have had, especially for someone not yet into their teens. My friend’s reaction set me thinking seriously about it for the first time. If I were not my body, then who was this ‘I’? It seemed a fairly crucial matter – for what is this thing walking about the world, bearing a name given to it by its parents yet not knowing who or what it is? There was something faintly ludicrous – even self-deprecating – about it. But if I were to try and find out, I had no reason to suppose the churches or chapels were going to help me. They did not talk the language of that sense I had within me of there existing somewhere a profound mystery in which we all shared, and for which I could not then, and cannot even now, find the words. If I were going to do this, it seemed I’d have to do it for myself.

 One day, in a charity shop, I picked up a book called, ‘In Days of Great Peace’, about one rather extraordinary man’s lifelong search for the very thing I myself seemed to be seeking. In the Foreword to that, the writer spoke about ‘consciousness’ – or ‘awareness’ if you like – that thing by virtue of which we all communicate with and comprehend the world we see ‘out there’. Mainstream Western science, he said, had never taken it very seriously. ** But it is, nevertheless, an absolutely integral part of ourselves and of that physical world ‘out there’. And just a little thought indeed makes that clear – because without consciousness, without our awareness – our ability to see, hear, taste, feel and smell there would be no world ‘out there’ at all. And if there were, we’d have not the slightest means of knowing anything about it. This includes our own individual selves as well – for they are known to us only through that same consciousness. All of which indicated to me that as far as it’s possible to tell, there is nothing at all that is outside consciousness; in other words, the phenomenal world is a function of consciousness.

This sent a tremor through me. Because if that were the case, the mystery was not going to be revealed in a church, chapel or book. It was somewhere within me; within you; within all of us who have at our disposal – to coin an odd phrase – this thing called ‘consciousness’.

 I’ve quoted the following a couple of times before in my blog and I make no excuses for doing so again – the words of a wonderful man I met in northern India. He lived as a hermit in a cave on the slopes of the hills just outside Rishikesh where the Ganges emerges from the Himalayas. When asked if he thought Westerners should search around in their own countries for spiritual guides rather than flock to India as they did, he replied, “Why? Why would you look for that which you are holding in your hand?” In other words, if you’re serious in your search for whatever you conceive the mystery of this life to be – you need to look, not anywhere on the outside, but somewhere within your own self. That brought to my mind the extraordinary words of one of the world’s most revered Eastern mystics, Ramana Maharshi – “You are already That which you seek.” And then this from the Bible – “I am that I am.”

 I have never been conscious, never been aware of a being called God; I know of nobody who has, although a great many have been conscious of the idea, the concept of God. I have however been conscious of, and am constantly conscious of, a mystery which is beyond all this. A mystery for which I can find no words, but which I see revealed all around me. I see it in the skies, the clouds, the sunsets, the squirrels and birds in the park under my window, in the cries of the children playing there; I see it in small things – a leaf on an autumn tree, the sun through a raindrop. I see it in the faces – happy and sad – of other people, in their smiles and their tears; I feel it in music, in poetry, in all my children, in the laughter of my woman. And that, to me, reflects the heart of the mystery – silent, unknowable, unquantifiable, indescribable – yet utterly real and thus indestructible. You can call it what you like – the name is immaterial. But whatever name you give it, it’s common to us all and we are all common to it. Call it God, call it That, call it Spirit, call it Us.

Maybe even call it ‘I’.

** I’ve read recently that ‘consciousness’ is more and more being thought of as something modern science must now take seriously and investigate in an effort to understand. What occurs to me about that is that if the investigation is to be conducted using the conventional scientific method, it could be rather like using the beam of the torch to find the torch.









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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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