A little help from my friends

The referendum has left most of us convinced Remainers worried, angry, feeling cheated – and feeling the country has been cheated. Waking in the night my first thoughts have been referendum, and my first emotions negative.

I’ve been helped by a determination to ensure that an open and an open-hearted politics win out in the end – while at the same time taking on board a good few lessons. If I’d been aware in the past of resentment and anger among those who felt left behind, or that this was no longer their England, their UK – then that’s as nothing to my awareness now.

Getting away from it all also helps. Three books I’d mention –

Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, a magical encounter with the Cairngorms – a landscape I remember well. No writer lives landscape quite as she does – the corries and snow and skies, the eagle and the snow bunting, the storm and the silence.

(Of the peregrine falcon and eagle) ‘The speed, the whirls, the torrents of movement are in plain fact the mountain’s own necessity. But their grace is not necessity. Or if it is … the swoop, the parabola, the arrow-flight of hooves and wings achieve their beauty by a strict adherence to the needs of function – so much more is the mountain’s integrity vindicated. Beauty is not adventitious but essential.’

‘No-one know the mountain completely who has not slept upon it… Up on the plateau [on midsummer nights] light lingers incredibly far into the night…Watching it the mind grows incandescent and its glow burns down into a deep and tranquil sleep.’

‘Why some blocks of stone, hacked into violent and tortured shaped, should so tranquillise the mind I do not know…’ No one before, not even Wordsworth, has told it quite as she does.

She’s now destined, humble walker and explorer of the mountains as she was, to appear on a Scottish postal stamp.

At the other extreme, I delved into the poems of Sean O’Brien. But whereas with Nan Shepherd you feel you are living her memories as she is living them as she writes – we feel in O’Brien’s case that they are memories, and where Shepherd elevates he brings and keeps us down to earth – to the the sluices and dirty harbour waters in which fish yet swim, to drains, and empty parks, to deprivation sluiced through with politics. The landscapes draw you in, the language inspired because there’s magic in it, though the content may bring you down – and that’s the problem in my post-Brexit world. I want words to lift me up.

Someone with whom  I’ve shared my life for a few years now is the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. He sought God in the silence and moved toward Buddhism and political engagement as the years past. Whereas I in the turmoil seek silence sometimes, he in the silence could not hold back from the turmoil. Like thousands maybe millions of others I connect with the manner of his life and his engagement with it – if not the detail. And his diaries are matter of fact, and detached, but there’s always a wisdom interwoven, and I turned to his diaries on the Friday night after the Thursday referendum vote, and it was 1968, and Martin Luther King had just been assassinated, and Merton wondered what else might happen that year. The Chicago convention, the death of Robery Kennedy of course – and his own accidental death.

This is 2016, and I wonder what else might befall the UK, and the world, this year.

If Merton on this occasion added a new dimension to anxiety, getting out beyond books in the post referendum week proved more successful.

All day in Kew Gardens with my partner’s grandchildren: you escape into their lives, and into Kew’s open and closed spaces – to the newly opened and magical Hive, where we literally tune in to the world of bees, and the Palm House, where the mist drips big drops of water on plants and people.

The Sunken Treasures exhibition at the British Museum – reclaiming remarkable artefacts from cities long sunk under the waters of the Nile Delta, a reminder of the transitoriness of life, civilisation and belief systems. And of course political life.

And finally, a day on a narrow boat of the Sharpness to Gloucester Canal, when after weeks of storm and rain and cloud the sun broke through and shone all day, and we could chug slowly to Gloucester and back through countryside hardly changed in a hundred years – the canal wide and the waters empty, and below us – yes below- the widening estuary of the river Severn.

No talk of politics, eight of us, a picnic of the river bank, and nothing to do. Just occasionally I took the tiller and took charge – though really it was the boat taking charge of me.

A battle against ideas??

There’s an anti-intellectual, anti-ideas, anti-authority (academic as well as political) mood out there, encouraged and fired up by the media. In the USA by Fox and shock-jocks, and Trump and his cohorts. In the UK by much of the popular press and, sadly, by Brexit campaigners. See below for two contributions, both with Facebooks videos, which highlight the dangers such attitudes present.

One, a Barack Obama speech to the Rutgers University Class of 2016. ‘In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue. It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about… But when our leaders express a disdain for the facts, when they are not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, when actual experts are dismissed as elitists, then we’ve got a problem.’

See: https://www.facebook.com/BusinessInsider.Politics/videos/1015027085240290/

As seen from the UK – ideas are out of fashion, reliable sources of information are cast as biased, or worse – establishment. Boris’s suggestion yesterday that Cameron had bought the support of big business by offering government contracts is the latest, and most absurd, example.

There have been dubious claims from leaders on the Stay side. But the weight of misinformation put out on the Brexit side takes some beating.

Almost every organisation of note, business and European, every country in Europe, groups like the Five Eyes security group (UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) – they have all come out in favour of staying in. Are they all tainted, biased, dishonested, bribed? Are they all to be damned as elitist and establishment?

Obama’s is a rallying-cry, and a reminder of what we stand to lose.

And, two, there’s a Brexit ‘film’ doing the rounds… It begins with the words, ‘We, the people are being cajoled… into surrendering our democracy and freedom.’ ‘The EU is turning into a dictatorship.’ But, given that we’re a key member of the organisation, the selfsame EU, which determines those regulations, and if we leave we’ll have them foisted on us, it’s a very dubious argument.

Happily you don’t have to put up with any further commentary from me. There’s a very good riposte: https://www.facebook.com/scientistsforeu/videos/787984157970262/

If Scientists for EU will forgive me I’ll quote the first paragraph:

‘The whole documentary is about the need for deregulation. It’s fundamentally a neoliberal infomercial, painting history through the mantra of deregulation leads to growth and regulation leads to stagnation. They tell us that the EU is over-regulated, so we need to get out – and then we will economically prosper. That’s the thesis. The only problem is that they have no business/ economist backing whatsoever. Instead of interviewing CEOs of Airbus, Rolls-Royce, etc (all of which have come out for Remain), the documentary interviews just the standard clique of Nigel Lawson, Daniel Hannan, James Delingpole, Nigel Farage, etc… Politicians and right-wing journalists – with Kate Hoey thrown it.’

Do check it out.

 

Mindfulness – the Ladybird way

Predictably – and happily – I was given Mindfulness in the new Ladybird series for adults for Christmas. Only 54 pages – and sometimes it misses the mark, and sometimes if gets it spot on.

Clive practises loving-kindness meditation – and it ‘finds it easier than bothering to meet his friends and lending them money’.

‘In ancient times Guru Bhellend entered a state of mindfulness that lasted 35 years. During this time he thought about everything.’ When he’d finished he writes ‘the answer on a grain of rice’. ‘He never married,’ it concludes.

(In Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the computer Deep Thought comes up with 42, as the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, after a 7 1/2 million year search.)

The easy way and extreme way, and both miss the path. The good old middle way.

Though even that may not work out. Last week walking on Offa’s Dyke we took the middle way, and ended up in a field looking east when we should have been by a stream looking south….

No Martians on the Camino

I haven’t see the movie of The Martian. It came out while I was walking the Camino. But I’ve now read the book…

Mark Watney, left behind in a Martian sandstorm, drives his Mars rover 3200 km to get to the MAV – Mars Ascent Vehicle, which will be,  he hopes, his escape.

What I love is the guy’s cool. An engineer and a botanist he comes up with strategies for everything that hits him, sometimes literally, and has the technical nous to tear apart and rebuild and concoct out of nothing on seemingly endless occasions. He grumbles about the audio books – including Agatha Christie – that are all he has to read, and he survives on Mars-grown potatoes. But he stays on course, remains hyper-normal, and mindful. Staying on task is what it’s all about. After a short which ends his communication with NASA he’s in his own, works out his solutions – but guesses rightly that half  the world is watching him on their TV screens.

We sit here in our comfortable chairs reading, entirely passive save for a few firing synapses and he’s taking on the universe, or if not the universe a sandstorm or two, a decidedly oxygen-free world, a surfeit of CO2 (his own fault – he shouldn’t breathe) and a few more problems.

But … seen from another perspective he’s almost an automaton, there’s awareness of his predicament, and a dry (appropriate given where he is) sense of humour but little awareness of self – no emotion, fear, anxiety – no sense of wonder. He’s grateful to Phobos as a navigation system, but decidedly rude about Mars’s smaller moon, Deimos. Maybe after so much time out in space he’s simply inured to it all.

That said, as an inspired problem-solver, he is a wonder in himself. I’ll be interested to see what the movie and Matt Damon make of him.

I first walked on Mars in my imagination when the BBC conjured the planet Hesikos in a TV series, The Lost Planet, when I was all of … maybe 7 years old. It wasn’t Mars – but close.

Mars was a morning star last autumn, innocent in the pre-dawn.

And that takes me back to the Camino, where there was only the day’s walking to plan, the route was more or less pre-ordained. We were solitary, but we were aware of self, and others, and landscape and history, and the wonder of God’s creation.

Two different worlds.

 

Woodpile revisited …into the darkness

Out to the woodpile again. I’m reminded that the wood out there, though under cover, is damp with all the rain and wind and muck there’s been in the high Cotswolds recently. So bring it in, leave it in the garage for a few days, then by the fire for a day or two more. Then on to the fire and watch it burn. That at least is the theory and tonight it’s been more than theory. The room heated, and we did with it, to new levels.

A pub meal this evening. No street lights round here and heavy cloud cover and somehow the lights on the urban horizon which normally take the edge off the dark sky perfection I love weren’t there. So we had a dark dark sky. But no stars. Just the wind and the blackness and rain whipping in.

Darkness. There’s a marvellous exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, Tibet’s Secret Temple – Mind Body Spirit in Tantric Buddhism. Hold onto your seats. What follows may be unsettling.

The temple, the Lokhang, is on an island behind the Potala Palace in Lhasa, built by a Dalai Lama in the 17th century, as a refuge and to propitiate the ‘elemental serpentine forces that Tibetans call lu’.  Wall-paintings in its uppermost chamber illustrate the Dzogchen, or ‘Great Perfection’ teachings of the 8th century Tantric master, Padmasambhava, and they are the subject of and inspiration behind the exhibition.

And they set me thinking – and take me to the darkness.

The high mountain light in an often treeless terrain has sharpness and brilliance and a stillness I’d associate with transcendence, but the rapture we’d feel as Westerners in that landscape isn’t the rapture of a Tibetan Buddhist. It’s no more than a stepping-stone: to move beyond the dualism of light and dark we have to experience dark as well as light. The darkness of a temple. And the darkness of Tantric practices associated with death, making us aware of the transitoriness of existence. Skulls and thigh bones feature. The Tibetan Book of the Dead focuses on experience in the bardo state between death and reincarnation.

My instincts rebel against this, but there’s a strict method in this apparent madness. To move beyond dualism we have to experience and move beyond fear – we have to transcend all human existence, and that takes us down to the depths and up to the heights of experience – the high mountains may open a door, but they’re not sufficient in themselves.

I’m only here touching on ideas of light and dark, no more than scratching along the surface of Tantric Buddhism. It encompasses so much more – stillness and movement, the trul khor and the six yogas – including the Yoga of Radiant Light.

Having started this post in the darkness of a Cotswold night I’ll end here – in the transcendent light of the Himalaya.

You can’t ask for more than that.

A rose in winter, a field in Cheshire and a radio universe

A woodpecker drilling in a local garden, a single rose standing tall in a rose garden, and a grey and misty dawn over the river, on this absurdly warm December day. Daffodils are in flower they tell me, but not here. There are I hope snows to come, and chill sunsets and frosty dawns.

Last night the sun set behind Jodrell Bank – in a BBC4 TV programme celebrating the radio telescope and Bernard Lovell, its legendary director. I drive past it whenever I’m heading to the family home in north Cheshire, along a stretch of road between Chelford and Twemlow. The 250ft high bowl and its skeleton frame tower high above. It’s Cheshire farming country, as it was when I cycled out there as a teenager, and stood in awe – little has changed. The same houses, the same brick, the open fields and woodland brakes. And this the telescope that tracked Russian rockets in the Cold War, against Lovell’s better instincts, and explored the radio universe for evidence of the big bang, played a part in the discovery of pulsars (a regular pulse instead of static) and continues to this day to explore the far reaches of the universe. Dark matter isn’t beyond its gaze, though multiverses remain the province of the mathematicians.

I wanted to be an astrophysicist until I learnt it wasn’t enough to be simply numerate. Long equations floored me. (But still fascinate.) But Jodrell Bank against a sunset sky, or rising up dark in the night, a shadow which might have come out of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds – that still amazes. Jodrell Bank is home territory, as the stars and the wide universe were home for me, in my back garden as a 12-year-old, staring up each night, with my star charts.

Lovell was brought up a Methodist, and never lost his sense of wonder, or his sense of the limits of scientific knowledge. He also captained Chelford cricket club. What more could you ask of a man.

 

 

A paler shade of green

Are we entering the anthropocene, a new, man-created geological epoch? I don’t like the term: there’s an implicit assumption that we’re in charge. Climate change has a very different message for us.

One Labour MP commented on Hilary Benn’s recent speech in the Syria debate, ‘If only a shadow Foreign Secretary would talk about climate change with such passion.’ Unfair, not least because it’s not his brief. But it is an issue that’s inspired some fine rhetoric in Paris this week. Compared to Copenhagen in 2009, the hard truths of climate change are accepted by almost everyone, right-wing US diehards excepted.

The issue is how we deal with them (the hard truths, that is) – by investing more heavily in green forms of energy and/or looking for technological solutions. The earth as a self-regulating system (in James Lovelock’s terms), effectively an organism in its own right, which we disrespect at our peril, or the earth as servant of mankind, mankind ultimately omnicompetent, pushing back frontiers of knowledge and technology, destined to find answers to everything, well, almost everything.

I go with the former, because it keeps us grounded, keeps us in touch with our lives and our world as it is, and doesn’t posit some technology-driven future which could undermine that sense of connection with the Earth (inadvertently but appropriately capitalised!), and ultimately our very humanity.

But I am, that said, all in favour of investing in technological solutions. If India continues to build up its coal-mining capacity, and burn more and more, how might clean coal technologies make a difference? And carbon capture not just from coal. There’s also ongoing research into making clouds more reflective. And much else.

Awareness is everything. Having won the argument over climate change – it is for real, we have to face those who argue that current wind and solar technologies are too inefficient or too expensive, and use that to make a case for reducing or withdrawing funding now.  (The UK government being a case in point.) Their argument in one sentence: put funding, and it could be vast funding, into new technologies, and some will work, and some will not, but trust in technology and we will find an answer.

As a strategy it’s high risk. It’s dangerous to trust in hypothetical futures. There are current strategies which may be inefficient, and still small scale, but they have impact, and will in time – as, for example, solar cells become much more efficient and energy storage is improved – put subsidy behind them, and be fully commercial. We can’t risk losing the momentum we have.

I can’t get into carbon taxes and cap-and-trade here (expertise I haven’t got!), but they are of course another strand of the argument.

In the meantime we rely on imported gas, nuclear (handing over to the French for expertise and the Chinese for finance, high risk, given the importance of energy security), and fracking (also, high risk, this time in terms of local environments). How we strike a balance is not something this blog can address.

There’s a letter in a recent edition of The Times arguing for the potential, in the longer term, for turning CO2 into fuel – ‘artificial hydrocarbon fuels’. (CCU – carbon capture and utilisation.) It’s a process that requires vast amounts of energy, but as the writers say, ‘it is no use burning hydrocarbons to make hydrocarbons’. We’d need to use renewable energy sources, and that, they argue, should include nuclear power, with the ‘ultimate solution’ being to use solar power.

That struck a chord with me, not least because it sums up the dilemmas we face.