Monday, June 11, 2018

3 Real Life

Tom was not concerned then with a purpose. The world consisted largely of himself, its purpose was to contain him, and his purpose was to do the things he did. He didn’t think about it at that stage of his life. There seemed to be no need. In the absence of knowledge or understanding of death, or change of any kind, or differences from his own direct experience there was no intellectual possibility of asking why he had been brought into being. That would come later.

His idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ was very incomplete, and had no moral content at all. It was a pair of lists, one containing what he was allowed to do, the other what would cause punishment. The items were arbitrary, determined by his parents and his teachers from motives he did not attempt to evaluate. He was annoyed, even one could say unhappy, when he was punished, but only by the assault on his freedom, not from any sense of having voluntarily reduced his humanity. Usually the penalty was being sent to his room, which he was careful to hide was where he would have been anyway through choice, or being deprived of some activity he had not wanted to do in the first place. Adults had a very limited idea of what he liked to do. They decided what he should like and assumed they were right. Their observations of him, of his expressions and reactions, were insufficient to tell them when they were wrong. Nor would they listen if he told them. So sometimes being ‘bad’ brought a prize, and sometimes a punishment. He had not developed the ability to guess what the result of incorrect behaviour would be, and he was not naturally rebellious, not outwardly, and he tried to do what was expected of him. The opprobrium of either of his parents was unpleasant, in any case, and to be avoided.

These things bothered him little. The time had not yet come to seek meaning in it all. At that age he merely knew that there were aspects of the life they tried to force him to live that he did not like. He accepted them, as he accepted everything. He had yet to learn that things need not be as they are.

He spent most of his time on the lake, and in his room he could go there freely, without explanation.

His parents were Methodists; both having been brought up in that faith they helped each other to keep it and to transmit it to Tom. They had met at a church social occasion and felt they owed it to their religion to keep it alive. They were not strict about it, they attended service most Sundays and used its teachings as a reference for their own behaviour and their son’s when they felt they needed guidance. The minister was quite easy to understand, and Tom was not always bored in church. He did not always have to visit the lake during service. He found the ideas he heard clear and fairly sensible, and the moral authority of the minister was most convincing. Tom could not see how any of it had to do with him, though, nor why it was really better to behave that way than any other. The ultimate authority of God was far beyond his experience and the words of the minister on that subject held no meaning. He could neither love nor fear God. It made no sense.

What he most enjoyed, when he wasn’t on the lake, was playing with Jeremy at break-times at school, and on Saturdays when one often went to the other’s house. If the weather was good and his mother had time to take him they would meet in the park, where the shiny green grass and the bright blue sky contrasted with the faded reds and yellows of the swings and the roundabout, and they imagined themselves to be explorers in the long grass or pirates on ships that swung and rocked beneath them, or policeman or soldiers, or they imagined nothing, but were just little boys having fun.

Tom looked forward to all this, because it made school and the company of his classmates, and the torture of sitting still and listening to his teacher buzzing in the distance, a little more bearable. It was something to look forward to, and the importance of this was not yet fully clear to him, but he liked to think that soon they would be playing their games. Unless it rained, of course, and they had to stay in class. Jeremy wasn’t very good at the sort of games that didn’t involve running about and making noise, and he was no good at all at any pastime that wasn’t a game.

At times he thought he would like an older brother- he had seen younger brothers and they were a considerably nuisance- who would look after him and show him things, like Jeremy’s brother did. But they weren’t all like that, and he would have to come second in everything and would be made to do a lot of things he didn’t want to. He certainly didn’t want a sister, as he had seen enough of those to know they weren’t worth the trouble. Except perhaps a very small one, a baby one. That might be fun. A brother he was unsure about. It didn’t seem likely he was ever going to have one, his parents never spoke of it, but some people had them, and his mind could have one if it decided to. It just hadn’t made itself up yet, and probably never would.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Wildlife about Us

We saw a fox this morning, golden-brown, a long tail bushy at the end,  loping along through the low green wheat, bound who-knows-where.

There are many wild boar. They aren’t easy to see, as they hide in the hills during the day and come out mostly at night, but they are there. You can see the fresh marks every morning where they have been digging up the fields looking for roots and worms. They add a certain rugged glamour to the place, but they also do a lot of damage in large numbers and so the season has just been opened on them. Hunting wild boar in the mountains involves sitting up for hours at night at specific spots where you know they come through, without moving, smoking or making noise, until, if you’re lucky, you might get one shot. Miss, and that’s that. It’s a solitary, apparently dreary business, like fishing, I suppose, suitable for misanthropes and poets.

There are great bustards about. They are, I believe, the biggest of all flying birds, and we get a lot of them here in the summer. A couple flew languidly, with surprising elegance, across my path yesterday. When you come upon a group in a field, suddenly, close by, as when you come out of trees or over a rise, and they turn to look before deciding whether to take flight or just to walk away disdainfully as though they were going to anyway, they are startlingly big. For a moment you think you’ve scattered a herd of ostrich.

A lot of lizards about, too. The green and blue ones, very bright, sparkling colours, about a foot long, sometimes more, regularly cross the paths in front of you. We have two living in a crevice under a broken stone jar adorning a parterre just outside our door. They take the sun near us as we read or write (or paint, in the case of Mrs Hickory) in the garden, and sometimes gaze at us quizzically, wondering of we’ll drop any more bits of cured meat.

There are many crows at the end of the driveway, why just there I’m not sure, but they fly away as you approach and return when you go. There’s probably a reason for that which would spoil the tenor of the tale, so let’s just assume they like meeting there. Such a group is called a parliament, after all.

And the eagles, lazily circling above, pinging out a regular cry. And the smaller hawks, always flying about, looking for food on the wing. And the little owls that nest up on the roof and sing from the chimney pots every evening.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Beauty of Water

I mentioned in passing that the lakes are full and the animals fairly chipper. It occurs to me that I should now expand on those remarks, as they are things which mark very vividly the character of the area, and so greatly affect the ascetic enjoyment of those of us lucky enough to be idle in the midst of it.

The lakes come and go over an irregular cycle lasting some years, as they are fed by an underground aquifer that collects water mainly from the mountains well to the east. When it doesn’t rain there for some time, and it doesn’t rain much in this part of the world, the lakes begin to dry up. Some of them disappear completely, others shrink to a pool or a channel near the middle, and huge expanses of dried mud, which people use as beaches, and the many feet of karstic formations are completely revealed. This is interesting but not attractive, and it means the usual bathing areas become unusable, and the people whose livelihood depends on selling beer to the tourists begin to contemplate the sacrifice of their first born.

Then it rains, and it all begins to change. This spring it has rained a lot, on and on it went, week after week. We love rain here, because it’s an agricultural region (wheat, barley, olives, grapes mostly) and the ground can become barren very quickly without it, and even drinking water can get scarce at times, but there’s only so much rejoicing you can do when you’re beginning to wonder why you bothered leaving England.

Anyhow, it rained a lot this spring (we don’t usually have spring as such, it just shifts from winter to summer over the course of a few days), and when we arrived here, expecting to see some improvement on last year, we found flowing waterfalls, brimming lakes teeming with fish, crystalline currents rushing, turning into crashing white-foamed arcs digging out holes in other great swirling pools. All bathed in bright sunlight (until the evening when storms arrive) and full of people, of course. I ask again the eternal tourist's question, ‘Do other people have to enjoy this, too?’

The land is green. There is a short period of the year, that very short spring, when the land is green, not quite the bright green of northern Europe, or even northern Spain, the green of places that have a lot of rain, and vegetation that can make the most of that rain, but definitely green. Spotted, in places carpeted, with red poppies, blue rosemary, purple lavender, and yellow things of various kinds. It’s as varied and as colourful as it ever gets here, and you learn to enjoy it until it all goes dry and brown again in a few weeks.

Monday, June 4, 2018

On Attempting to Smuggle Hedgehogs

Thursday was rather fraught, or rather, the morning was. It's a holiday here and we've taken a long weekend, so we're at the farm.

It's warm and quiet and the lakes are nearby, and I looked forward to some cycling around them and possibly some swimming in them. Also some eating  involving barbecues and cake, and the drinking of beer.

If you think all that sounds highly relaxing and generally free of fraughtness, you are, of course, quite right.

The problem was the hedgehog. We were going by train and were concerned that the x-ray machines at the station would either fry her or, at least, detect her. There's a certain greyness surrounding the laws on hedgehog transportation, so we didn't want to just say 'look, she's a hedgehog, and not even a sharp one'. And transporting animals in general tends to be a complicated business involving conditions and paperwork and other bureaucratic headaches. You have to put bags and coats through the machine, but there are no metal detectors for the person. All of which suggests that they don’t really care, and know there is no threat, but there is a kind of gleeful inertia about making people’ lives more difficult, and these pointless nuisances never seem to go away.  In all, it seemed best just to slip her into Mrs. Hickory’s trouser pocket and look relaxed and nonchalant.

I don’t know if you’ve tried looking relaxed and nonchalant with a hedgehog in the pocket of your trousers, but it isn’t easy. Especially when you know that getting caught will mean, at the very least, having to find some other way to make the journey, and possibly having to give explanations to people in uniform who might decide that they needed to confiscate the spiny stowaway.

It was with considerable relief that we discovered there is no security control for that kind of train, and so our possibly ill-conceived plan to distract the security men with the sheer strength of our nonchalance was never put into practice. The fraughtness of the morning thus ending, we were able to proceed to the country, where we are now enjoying all the things we usually do here.

The lakes are full, after all the rain in the mountains this spring, the waterfalls are gushing playfully, and wildlife seems fairly happy about it all, there are two large green lizards in the garden who have already learnt that we are a reliable source of cured meats, and now I am idly wondering whether I shall be able to avoid burning the barbecue this evening. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. It doesn’t seem to matter much. The hedgehog is safely transported, we’re not going to worry about the sausages.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

2 Other House

Tom lived, that is, his body lived, in a normal sort of house in a normal sort of street. A quiet residential street, and a house that his mother was quite proud of, though she would have liked something a little bigger. That might have been why Tom thought the house was small; his mother often said it was. And he father said there was no need to move, but he too seemed to accept the house was small. Tom had little experience of other people’s houses, but he knew there were bigger ones, much bigger sometimes, even nearby. He saw them when they drove past. That might have been where his mother got the idea, seeing almost every day those houses that were bigger than her own.

He also knew his house was small because they were always in each other’s way, always bumping into each other, they never seemed to be alone. A house of the right size should have room for everyone to be by himself most of the time. What, after all, did they all want to be together for? The things he liked were not the things they liked. With his parents it was mostly boredom, dull chatter, being told what to do and what not to do and how not to do it. But he had to be with them much of the time because there didn’t seem to be enough rooms in the house.

Another proof that the house was small was that he knew every corner of it perfectly. It was impossible for that house to surprise him, there was no space for secrets. Not only the house on the lake, but the houses of his family and his friends, when he visited them, had secrets that they revealed slowly, but surely. Every time he went to one of those houses he discovered something new. That could only happen if they were big enough.

None of this really mattered to Tom. Things were as they were. He lived comfortably. He imagined no other way to live. He heard talk of poor people, starving people, people with diseases of a deadliness that did not exist in his world, sufferings that only existed in the speech of adults and seemed to refer to nothing real, but rather to images on the television, pictures coming from places so far away he could hardly be expected to believe they truly existed. These things, he assumed, were not actual lies, but a form of allegory, designed to show how lucky he was to have what he had, and as a form of warning of the divine punishment he could expect if he failed to be ‘good.’ Even as such they didn’t work well, or indeed at all, as he was unable to imagine anything of that sort happening to him, however bad he was. He was sometimes ‘bad’ and was punished, but not in a way that threatened his comfort, or that involved large numbers of people or that would make good television. So he could not understand why they created these images. It was one more thing that he did not understand, and he didn’t worry about it, either.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Art of Street Communication

There was a group of people in the main square this morning, shouting and waving flags. There often are. This was supposedly about an ongoing industrial dispute, workers and their company not seeing eye-to-eye.

I wonder, as I often do, who they were expecting to listen to them. I have not followed the details of the dispute, but there is one and they may well be right, or at least, entitled to take action, negotiate, strike, make their case to other people, ask for backing.

But who was listening? Certainly not the people they need to talk to, or anyone who can help them. It is likely they were fooled by union leaders who said this would be useful. It will be, but not to the workers. It might get the union chap in the papers, and help justify his existence and his salary.

So who are they talking to? They were surrounded by anti-democratic symbols, communist flags, anarchist flags, republican flags, waved by the usual hairy layabouts who want to be given other people’s money because it’s easier than working (this is a small place, and I know who many of them are). No normal person is going to be drawn to sympathise, or even to learn more about the dispute, which, as I say, may be legitimate, because of the company they keep. ‘They’ are not talking to anyone.

This is a failure of communication, because the message they want to get across is not the one they are in fact delivering. They have not analysed the context sufficiently and so have allowed other people to deliver a message which will do nothing for the workers. The other big question in communication, after ‘What do you have to say?’ is ‘Who do you want to say it to?’ The workers, the ones with a problem that they are trying to solve, did not seem to have worked it out.

This being La Mancha, the shouting and waving finished at 1.30 and they all went off to drink beer. We are civilised people, after all.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

1 Lake

The boy’s mind lived on a lake. In a big house on a lake. He didn’t see the house as near or next to the lake, but on it. Not floating, just on it. People lived on lakes, after all. Not people like him, to be sure, but people in stories, or people you heard talked about. Pliny had lived on Lake Como. He wanted to live on a lake. And you had to live in a house, everybody did, so the house had to be on the lake. So his mind lived in a big house on a lake.

At the age of seven Tom was almost entirely mind. He had a body, he was a normal boy, and lived a normal boy’s life, but it was only his mind he was aware of. His mind could do what it liked, and the life his mind lived was by far the most interesting thing about him, even to Tom himself.

He knew the lake intimately. He moved about with confidence. He knew where the waves were, where to find shallow and deep water, where the fish always congregated. He knew the greenness of its borders, the part with rushes, the long grass, the worn place where a boat he never saw had been let down and drawn up over and over again.

It was not an especially large lake. It was as big as it had to be. Oddly enough, despite his detailed knowledge of it, he could not have said exactly how large it was. It didn’t seem to matter. It was very roughly circular, but flattened a little one side, indented on another, and the banks were full of imperfections which Tom thought of as perfections. He was used to talk of imperfections, in paintings mostly, but he always misheard the word and assumed it meant the little things which made something even better.

Usually his mind explored the lake from above, soaring high, at times skimming the surface to dip his hair into the crests of the waves. He rested on it too, and watched the birds in the distance trying to drink without getting their feathers wet, or the reflections of the clouds shimmering and breaking up and reforming in different patterns. The sky was always blue, but there were clouds in the water.

It wasn’t really a swimming lake. He swam when it was hot or he was annoyed about something. His favourite place for swimming was in the shallow water near the bank with the short, soft grass, because then he could lie in it to dry. But sometimes he swam in the deep water right in the middle, just to show it didn’t bother him. Swimming in pools, or in the sea when they went on holiday, he didn’t like very much. His body felt heavy and the water powerful. In the lake it didn’t matter.

He fished sometimes because there were fish to catch. No one else ever came to the lake to fish, or for anything else, so someone had to catch the fish. Tom didn’t use a rod and line, he didn’t know how to. He fished with his mind, relieving the lake of its piscine excess and passing the time happily, being part of it all. He couldn’t have given a name to the fish, they were just fish. Silver things about eight to ten inches long. Shiny, attractive creatures, with a bit of life about the eyes, moving languorously together in a group that never took any form but always seemed about to. The colours changed too, when they turned sideways and the lighter belly was visible. At times they all did it together, and it was as though a lamp had been shone on the water.

He didn’t eat the fish. He didn’t do anything with them exactly. He fished with his mind and they stayed there until they were forgotten. They went wherever fish do go when the fishermen have finished with them.

He knew the house well, too. It wasn’t important, but since there had to be a house he was glad it was a good house, a big one. His body had to live in a house that was much too small, and he didn’t like it at all. There were only the three of them and they kept falling over each other. And there were always visitors, as well. His mother loved guests.

So he liked the house on the lake because it was big and empty. Only his mind lived there, and no one ever came to visit, but the house was always clean and warm, and there was always roast beef and buttered buns whenever he wanted them. It was more or less a low box of light grey stone, with a lot of rooms he didn’t use but liked going into, especially the upper ones which were full of chests overflowing with wonderful objects that you could play with, dress up in or just look at for the sheer pleasure of having them. He found old dolls and cricket bats, lace bonnets and leather trousers, yellowed railway tickets to towns he had never heard of, notes and coins from faraway countries some of which he was sure no longer existed, ornate lamps for hanging on brackets or standing on tables, woollen blankets with initials sewn into them, pocket watches that still ticked if you shook them, hourglasses, single earrings, little tin boxes with pictures on the lid, cases made of calfskin and rubber for keeping things that had now been lost, wooden games that children played with long ago and still had most of the pieces, marbles and conkers, rock cakes so hard they were like real rocks, wigs and false moustaches, dried-up paints and tiny mirrors, plastic binoculars and metal knives with blades for doing a hundred different things, books with stories, magazines with pictures, albums half-filled with stamps or cartoons or newspaper clippings or scribblings in unreadable writing. There was always more to be found, always another passageway, a hidden door, and more treasure beyond.

All the rooms had large windows and a view of the lake. Most had the same view, his favourite one; the foreground speckled with water so close he could see the individual drops, giving way to a more even surface, then just a suggestion of silver-grey and in the background the lively green of the long grass that the birds loved to swoop over and which was always in the sun.

He had tried to explain this, once. To tell them where his mind lived and what this place was like. He had already learnt that it wasn’t a good idea. And it wasn’t just adults who wouldn’t listen; his school friends thought he was strange, too. So now he told no one. People didn’t like to hear things they weren’t expecting, things they had to think hard about to understand. They preferred to believe that they weren’t true.

At that age Tom never questioned the truth of things. Things were or were not. There was nothing to consider, to question, to argue, puzzle or worry about. People did, of course, but he knew that adults were rarely sure of things and were always worried about whether they were right. He knew they doubted themselves from the way they insisted so often that they had behaved correctly, as distinct from whoever they were talking about, who had invariably behaved badly. And they didn’t seem to convince anyone, even themselves. He wondered why this was, and whether he would become like it himself. He hoped he would not, and that he would never forget how to distinguish the truth. The truth is what is. The rest is false.

He didn’t question things but he knew others did not understand even the simplest things, and could not see what was, when it was in front of them, or someone was telling it to them. It was so much easier just to know, but adults liked to complicate things for reasons of their own, and they didn’t listen properly. Other children, children his age, real people, were usually afraid, and didn’t want to listen. So in the end he told no one and his mind shared its house with no one. He found it was better that way. He liked it more. He had wanted to share the house with his mother; he thought she would like it; it was big and probably difficult to keep clean but he would tell her he didn’t mind if it was untidy and a bit dusty. It would have been very agreeable to swim with her in the shallower water where she wouldn’t be afraid, and to fish with her for hours, resting above the water, moving only the eyes until they caught a flash of colour or the streak of motion, then the swift, effortless glide to collect the trophy by the pure exercise of desire.

But he had accepted that it could not be. His mother did not understand, and would never be able to join him. It was a disappointment but one that he had stopped thinking about. He had wondered if his friend Jeremy would share it with him, if only sometimes, but Jeremy had thought it was a game, and had tried to play it. Completely hopeless. Tom had become exasperated and had given up. He still played with Jeremy, in the places his body went, but they could not share the dwellings of their minds. He wondered where Jeremy’s mind lived, and assumed he could never know, any more that Jeremy could know the lake, where now his mind lived alone, and was happy that way.

He took little notice of his body, which was just something he had to carry round with him. He had little need to attend to it since others invariably did. He sometimes felt like eating, but he was never hungry as he was always fed before the feeling became uncomfortable. He was sometimes tired, but he was regularly sent to bed just as his eyes began to close. He was occasionally ill but that didn’t matter because everything stopped then, until he was better. He was used to those who complained all the time about their aches and pains, their likes and dislikes, their whims and appetites as though they expected other people to be interested in these things. Perhaps they were; adults seemed to talk about little else, and they were constantly absorbed in these conversations. Perhaps that was what conversation was; Tom himself had never found any particular use for speech; perhaps he would have to learn to talk about dull matters of no importance all the time, in order to become a proper adult; perhaps he could be a different sort, a better sort, of adult, a new kind. Perhaps he would never be one. He had been a child for ever so long, for as long as he could remember, for ever. He had never seen a child turn into an adult, such a change was outside his experience. Sometimes people spoke of ‘when you grow up,’ usually in respect of some fault they had seen in him which would have to be removed by some mysterious means before he reached that state. Or at times it was to ask ‘what he wanted to be when he grew up.’ He knew this referred to a job. He always said he wanted to be a surveyor, like his father, though he had no idea what his father did, except that when he talked about it it sounded very boring. In any case he didn’t want to grow up and he didn’t want to have to do anything. He had learnt, in this too, not to attempt to tell the truth. He had once said he wanted to be a fisherman, as in the only thing he liked doing that adults did for money. A thousand questions had followed, questions that showed incomprehension, horror, misdirected curiosity, and the inevitable urge to persuade him he was wrong. There was talk, which didn’t include him but didn’t explicitly exclude him either, of finding out what was behind it, of how it was just a phase, of how he would grow out of it, or would respond to reason. Tom understood none of this; only that he had given the wrong answer, and to seek to tell the truth was a serious mistake. So he said his magic word, almost meaningless, in response to this question, and everyone seemed happy with it and no one asked questions.

He disliked being spoken to, partly for this reason. You rarely knew what they expected you to say- to give the wrong answer was to become the centre of all kinds of attention, the wrong kinds. You couldn’t know the right answer, except to the questions that were constantly repeated, and which you learnt to answer through experience. The truth was no guide. They didn’t like the truth. He didn’t understand why this was, because they always demanded the truth, reminded him that good boys told the truth, but it was very clear that they did not want to hear the truth. You had to learn the answer to every question, a complicated task he hoped he could avoid for a long time. His mind was happy on the lake. No one tried to trick him with questions, or with lies.