Turmoil in the Marketplace for Ideas

There is a story that on arriving at the scene just a few minutes after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, Lord Louis Mountbatten, last Viceroy of India was met by an increasingly angry mob. One voice suddenly rose over the crowd, saying: “A Muslim shot him…” The story goes that Mountbatten, seeing the danger of a massacre by enraged Hindus shouted loudly: “You fool, it was a Hindu!”

Whether this story about Mountbatten is true or not, and whether or not a Hindu or Muslim had been responsible, the wisdom in such a reply – to quell rage and prevent scapegoating of the minority Muslim population is obvious. In fact, the murderer actually was a Hindu. But even if you put this to one side, the instinct was still sound.

As a writer, for some time I have been imagining how best one might cause a civil war in an imagined country. Suppose there were an invader seeking to destabilise the regime, but wanting to do so discreetly. What would he do? The land I imagine is low tech, pre-industrial and ruled by an increasingly distrusted Prince who has perhaps made one or two poor decisions, but who is in fact a kindly and beneficent ruler. How might agents foment revolution, I asked myself?

In a thought experiment, I imagined a marketplace, where people convene from all parts of the country to trade, meet and enjoy a two week fair. The fair-goers would include members of the ruling classes, tradesmen and merchants with connections to trade routes and fleets. It would include guildsmen, jealous of their work and their skills, guarding against impostors. There might be harlots and mountebanks and cheapjacks and performers all mingling with the general population who have come there to buy, meet others, share news, gossip and talk.

It was there that I realised that the revolution would start. In the marketplace for ideas.

It might happen thus: at one end of the market, a gossip spreads news about a well-established merchant. He uses those ships to trade in people, and whenever his ships land at ports, children always go missing. Is this a coincidence? The gossip only asks the question, but it is a question that others with no knowledge of the gossip’s agenda repeat.

In another part of the market, a rumour starts that local guildsmen were heard hatching a plan to kill another merchant because he brings in goods from the shores of Cathay that are putting local tradesmen out of work. Elsewhere a rumour goes up about the Prince, that he is using the taxes from the fair to raise an army, and will be conscripting soon. Others say that this is not true, but that he is in fact using the money to line his own pockets, or that the Prince is in the pay of foreign powers.

More rumours abound. An army was seen in the East, and those of the Eastern faith are accused as spies for that army. After all, wasn’t it invaders from the East who killed a child in the woods last year, even though no-one can quite remember the name of that child? Butchers are accused of selling infected meat and bakers of adulterating their bread with alum.

Soon, the harmony of the marketplace is disturbed by the rumours. Butchers and bakers look defensively at their rivals, tradesmen pit themselves against tradesmen, all look suspiciously at foreigners and more so at the Prince on whose watch this is all happening.

Over the next few days, factions form. Those who have been accused complain and grumble. Others of the secret invader’s agents, pretending to be on the side of the aggrieved, amplify their complaints, turning them from a mild grievance into an angry counter-accusation. The newly aggrieved on the other side respond, and soon the agents have very little to do as the factions take their grievances to each other.

For those spreading the rumours, the truth of one claim or another is irrelevant. The purpose is to spread discontent wherever possible. For those in the marketplace of ideas who have no idea of the agenda, they naturally take sides according to their preferences and predilections, their biases and loyalties, and soon, hardened factions have formed within the marketplace, where formally there was only interest in trade.

Neighbours look at neighbours on the stalls distrustingly, and guard their goods against theft. Accidental overturnings of carts, genuine accidents or planned, are immediately met with outrage and anger as proof of the ill intentions of one or other faction. The mood of the marketplace has changed so that reasonable discourse and the sorting out of problems is no longer possible. Everybody is aggrieved. Everybody is simmering and angry. The rumours become truths in the minds of those who now seek to interpret the actions of their neighbours from within the grossly distorted paradigms they have internalised.

Now the rumour goes out that groups from the East are carrying concealed weapons. They are challenged on the streets by butchers, with meat cleavers.. Though they are not carrying weapons, they soon begin to. The butchers are joined by the blacksmiths and the knife sharpeners. But these two factions already distrust each other, and arguments start between them, at the agents’ instigation.

Soon, everyone feels unsafe, and no-one trusts anything anyone says, except their own small factions. Civil society is breaking down. The Prince posts guards to ensure safety on the streets, and soon more whisperings are complaining that the Prince is both taxing and oppressing them. The guards themselves become the subject for distrust – and one night after a drunken brawl a guard is killed.

Rumours blame the people of the East, the butchers, the merchants, the traders, the guildsmen in turn. Each accuses the other and none will listen. Soon the factions are so widely separated and angry that more guards are called in as more and more discord breaks out.

And then, one man with a louder mouth who seems somehow to have the ear of the armed factions steps in. He ousts the Prince and installs himself in his place. He is a strong man He is one the crowd trust to “get things done”. Those who armed themselves are grateful for his intervention as he brings in increasingly Draconian rules to deal with foreigners and traders, and anyone who steps beyond his increasingly eccentric and tight restrictions.

Others complain that he is taking away freedoms, others that he is favouring certain groups over others, others that he is a bully.

All of these things may be true, or none may be true. The point is that while the people are thus preoccupied with their rage and accusation at each other, they do not even notice the coup that has taken place, nor fully appreciate how their lives have changed. The few who do notice and make a stand are shouted down and buried with rumours by agents. And in order to discredit those seeking to reinstate rational discourse, new rumour-spreaders join the rational side, so that there is very little rational discourse, only more and more rage, and more and more accusation.

Against those who do still persist in trying to speak their milder or more perceptive truths, it is not difficult now to raise an outraged mob. Some are intimidated into silence. Some disappear.

Meanwhile, the loudmouth who got to power continues to strengthen his hold, spreading further lies and adding to the general sense of distrust with proclamations and with increasingly sweeping powers. Those who want order at any cost rally round him, calling those who oppose his approach traitors, not seeing that what he is doing is quite the opposite of what they wanted, which was to bring them peace and liberty. And what his agenda is, nobody knows, though some suspect that the foreign power that some voices warned about in regard to the old Prince, have in fact installed this one in his place.

That is how one uses the freedom of the market to bring about its opposite. It is also, of course, an allegory of how free speech can, ironically, be democracy’s worst enemy.

 

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Goodbye Silence, My Old Friend

Since I was a child I’ve had the most extraordinary hearing. I’ve revelled in the sounds I can hear that others can’t. Really precise sounds.

The pleasure of hearing the expansion of a teapot as hot water is poured into it, tick, tick, fizz at the lowest levels. The sound of the feathers of birds as they fly by catching in the wind as I stand on a lonely moor. The rain coming off the sides of buildings and puddling and pooling, so that you can hear the locations of each spot as it drops, in a 360 degree soundscape.

There have been nights when I woke to the sound of voices, and complained about the noise of people talking in the streets – to the bafflement of my partner.

The crisp rustle of dried autumn leaves plucked from the branches, the whisper of the wind though a poplar stand while we camped out in Ireland years and years ago. And the sea, of course, the wide open sea that floods my head in oceanic stereo.

And the thing that made it all so clear and powerful was the silence. The powerful, echoing silence that made everything else so stark, like the gaps between words.

There was a time when I was living on the Isle of Arran, a lonely young man who had had his heart broken by a woman and had hitched for two years, living in woods, on friends’ floors, in tents – just seeking some form of inner peace, when the depression had taken hold of me so badly that I couldn’t function. On the Isle of Arran, the long days and nights of pure, utter silence reached into my soul and cured me of my pain. It said: “There, there, this now is past. There is peace here. There is love. There is a world in which you can start again. The only voices you hear are inside yourself – your rage, your pain, your narrative of suffering, your self-created rage.”

And so, silence taught me, and nurtured me, and helped me grow.

All this went on a night out in Southsea. It changed when I got a text from a good friend of mine, Johnny, a few months ago, telling me there was a DJ set at a local pub in aid of charity.

It was a good night. I danced. I thought the music was loud, but no-one else seemed to notice, and so – unlike my usual habit of putting paper in my ears to protect them, I danced on.

The next morning I woke to a high pitched whistling in my ears. From then, till now, it has not gone away. I did my research, and I am now resigning myself to a terrible, soul-destroying fact. My hearing has been damaged irreparably by that one night. I will never hear silence again, and the clarity with which I heard the tiniest sounds has gone forever.

I can’t tell you how much this hurts me. Silence was the thing I relied on to gather my thoughts. It was the thing I used to unwind myself and find the centre of my soul. Silence was the touchstone I used to direct my life, the void in which the stream moved.

I had no idea how much silence was my friend until now. I had no idea that I wouldn’t be able to hear precisely the movements of wind and rain, or hear the slightest change of stress in a voice, or hear the tiny nuances of sound that others missed and that I took for granted.

So, what can I say? This little piece is goodbye to you, my old friend, Silence.

I loved you. I loved you, and I miss you so much.

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Why Conan Doyle’s Southsea Life Should Inspire Writers

Writers looking for reasons to keep going when times are tough, should look no further than Arthur Conan Doyle’s early life in Southsea. His story of struggle, finding his way and eventual success is one for every writer to learn from.

In his autobiography, Memories and Adventures, Doyle talks about those early years after his arrival in Southsea.

I made £154 the first year, and £250 the second, rising slowly to £800, which in eight years I never passed, so far as the medical practice went. In the first year the Income Tax paper arrived and I filled it up to show that I was not liable. They returned the paper with “Most unsatisfactory” scrawled across it. I wrote “I entirely agree” under the words, and returned it once more. For this little bit of cheek I was had up before the assessors, and duly appeared with my ledger under my arm. They could make nothing, however, out of me or my ledger, and we parted with mutual laughter and compliments.”

So, what changed? Doyle confesses that he never imagined he’d be able to make a living from writing. In the early days, he was so poor he had no staff at his surgery on Elm Grove and cooked bacon over the gas lamp in the back room. But, he adds:

In many ways my marriage marked a turning-point in my life. A bachelor, especially one who had been a wanderer like myself, drifts easily into Bohemian habits, and I was no exception… with the more regular life and the greater sense of responsibility, coupled with the natural development of brain-power, the literary side of me began slowly to spread until it was destined to push the other entirely aside.

Though Doyle did write before he married, he was paid an average of £4 per story and made around £10 or £15 a year from his work, which works out at between £1000 to £1500 a year.

A great insight into his creative life follows:

But though I was not putting out I was taking in. I still have notebooks full of all sorts of knowledge which I acquired during that time. It is a great mistake to start putting out cargo when you have hardly stowed any on board. My own slow methods and natural limitations made me escape this danger.

A Study In Scarlet in the famously rare 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual, of which only 11 complete copies are known to exist.

After he married, he wrote most of the stories that appeared in his book, The Captain of the Polestar. He progressed steadily, until he appeared in the prestigious Cornhill magazine, with his short story Habakuk Jephson’s Statement.

Doyle had to deal with hostile reviews and keep on, even then. One reviewer stated: “Cornhill opens its new number with a story which would have made Thackeray turn in his grave.”

Doyle was also willing to take on any writing job that came his way:

I was still in the days of very small things—so small that when a paper sent me a woodcut and offered me four guineas if I would write a story to correspond I was not too proud to accept. It was a very bad woodcut and I think that the story corresponded all right. I remember writing a New Zealand story, though why I should have written about a place of which I knew nothing I cannot imagine. Some New Zealand critic pointed out that I had given the exact bearings of the farm mentioned as 90 miles to the east or west of the town of Nelson, and that in that case it was situated 20 miles out on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. These little things will happen. There are times when accuracy is necessary and others where the idea is everything and the place quite immaterial.

Doyle’s next realisation about his writing is a useful one for any writer.

It was about a year after my marriage that I realized that I could go on doing short stories for ever and never make headway. What is necessary is that your name should be on the back of a volume. Only so do you assert your individuality, and get the full credit or discredit of your achievement.

His first venture was The Firm of Girdlestone, which he acknowledges as a “worthless book”. He adds:

When I sent it to publishers and they scorned it I quite acquiesced in their decision and finally let it settle, after its periodical flights to town, a dishevelled mass of manuscript at the back of a drawer.

Then came his inspiration for Sherlock Holmes:

Gaboriau had rather attracted me by the neat dovetailing of his plots, and Poe’s masterful detective, M. Dupin, had from boyhood been one of my heroes. But could I bring an addition of my own? I thought of my old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his curious ways, of his eerie trick of spotting details. If he were a detective he would surely reduce this fascinating but unorganized business to something nearer to an exact science. I would try if I could get this effect. It was surely possible in real life, so why should I not make it plausible in fiction?

Doyle adds: “It is all very well to say that a man is clever, but the reader wants to see examples of it—such examples as Bell gave us every day in the wards…” Next came the choice of the name. something not too obvious for a clever man, such as Mr Sharps or Mr Ferrets, but something else.

First it was Sherringford Holmes; then it was Sherlock Holmes. He could not tell his own exploits, so he must have a commonplace comrade as a foil—an educated man of action who could both join in the exploits and narrate them. A drab, quiet name for this unostentatious man. Watson would do. And so I had my puppets and wrote my “Study in Scarlet.”

In fact, Doyle wrote the book over a period of 3 weeks in 1886. It was a novella rather than a novel – but he was rightly proud of his achievement.

For the writer, the question then, is how to deal with publishers who just don’t “get” your work? To push on and hope, appears to be the answer. And a matter of luck is always part of the equation, it seems:

I knew that the book was as good as I could make it, and I had high hopes. When “Girdlestone” used to come circling back with the precision of a homing pigeon, I was grieved but not surprised, for I acquiesced in the decision. But when my little Holmes book began also to do the circular tour I was hurt, for I knew that it deserved a better fate. James Payn applauded but found it both too short and too long, which was true enough. Arrowsmith received it in May, 1886, and returned it unread in July. Two or three others sniffed and turned away. Finally, as Ward, Lock & Co. made a speciality of cheap and often sensational literature, I sent it to them.

“Dear Sir,” they said,—”We have read your story and are pleased with it. We could not publish it this year as the market is flooded at present with cheap fiction, but if you do not object to its being held over till next year, we will give you £25 for the copyright.

“Yours faithfully,
“WARD, LOCK & Co.”
“Oct. 30, 1886.”

The story famously appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual of 1887. Doyle never received another penny for it.

Doyle did not wait for publication the next year, but wrote a historical romance, Micah Clarke. For which pains, he was asked by publishers how he could waste his wits and time writing historical novels. Other comments from publishers were in a similar vein.

I was on the point of putting the worn manuscript into hospital with its mangled brother “Girdle-stone” when as a last resource I sent it to Longmans, whose reader, Andrew Lang, liked it and advised its acceptance. It was to “Andrew of the brindled hair,” as Stevenson called him, that I owe my first real opening, and I have never forgotten it. The book duly appeared in February, 1889, and though it was not a boom book it had extraordinarily good reviews, including one special one all to itself by Mr. Protheroe in the “Nineteenth Century,” and it has sold without intermission from that day to this. It was the first solid corner-stone laid for some sort of literary reputation.

As for Sherlock Holmes, British literature was fashionable in the United States at the time, and it was a Mr Stoddart, an American agent for Lippincott’s who asked to meet up with him in London in 1889. He thus had dinner with Stoddart and Oscar Wilde, the latter of whom had read Micah Clarke, and liked it very much.

The result of the evening was that both Wilde and I promised to write books for “Lippincott’s Magazine”—Wilde’s contribution was “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” a book which is surely upon a high moral plane, while I wrote “The Sign of Four,” in which Holmes made his second appearance.

Doyle now went on to write The White Company, feeling once again the urge to write historical romance. When he finished, he writes:

I felt a wave of exultation and with a cry of “That’s done it!” I hurled my inky pen across the room, where it left a black smudge upon the duck’s-egg wall-paper. I knew in my heart that the book would live and that it would illuminate our national traditions. Now that it has passed through fifty editions I suppose I may say with all modesty that my forecast has proved to be correct.

He goes on:

This was the last book which I wrote in my days of doctoring at Southsea, and marks an epoch in my life, so I can now hark back to some other phases of my last years at Bush Villa before I broke away into a new existence. I will only add that “The White Company” was accepted by “Cornhill,” in spite of James Payn’s opinion of historical novels, and that I fulfilled another ambition by having a serial in that famous magazine.

These remembrances should act as inspirations for writers in Portsmouth, and indeed, everywhere. It’s one reason I decided to celebrate him and his greatest creation Sherlock Holmes by bringing out a facsimile reprint of the first appearance of A Study In Scarlet through my publishing company, Life Is Amazing. The truth is, the most famous writers come from somewhere. One of those places could be where you are right now. In fact, one of those writers could be you.

[NB: This article was updated on 12th February 2019]

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Follow the sun (and the lightning), Late May Bank Holiday 2018

“Go west, young man,” that piece of advice given to American pioneers who loaded up their wagons and headed into the vast expanses of the unexplored US has been my own mantra when it comes to the slightly less epic short holiday out of Portsmouth. 

What lies west, I considered, are all the good bits in easy driving distance. Dorset, Devon, Cornwall – and further up the Welsh Borders and Wales proper.

The best, however, cannot be said of the weather. When the Anglo-Saxons pushed in from the Continent and chased the Celts into the hills, I’ve often wondered whether it was a distaste for that bloody Bank Holiday weather that left them poking their camp fires at Brighton and Lyme Regis, so that by the time they’d bred a race hardy enough to handle the dispiriting Welsh and Cornish rain, all that was left to their descendants was to show off their resilience by inventing the drizzle-soaked seaside holiday.

Despite this, I had never really considered going east. I’ve made a few trips that way, but I have to admit that Brighton, with its huge hotels, infinite seafront and wrecked pier leaves me cold. Once, when going further east on business, I broke down (or more accurately my car did) in Rye, but I never saw the town, since I was struggling with driving home along a busy road sans clutch. Roundabouts were impressive.

The weather for this bank holiday, however, promised Armageddon, what with storms, thunder, lightning and possibly fireballs and / or falling fish all neatly scheduled by Notan (the ancient English God of Bank Holidays) for the entire west.

Time to follow the sun. Looking at the weather maps, sunshine was forecast for East Sussex and Kent, and so, with an acceptance that it might not be as fun as the wild west (covered wagons or no), we headed out into the eternal tailback at Chichester, which, black-hole-like, holds all south-east coast traffic circulation in its orbit, slows time, and in the crawl crushes you to a singularity, before you reappear on the other side.

We drove on, toward the rising sun (quite a bit after it had risen), past the great castle at Arundel and the dull mass of Brighton, stopping off for a bite at Lewes and then heading on again. 

East. East into the green countryside and the comfortable villages of East Sussex. Noticing a real difference in architecture – clapboard houses and flint cottages, so different from the whitewashed thatched confections of the west. And something else. Flags. Flags fluttering everywhere, in red, white and blue, as if the entire country was a confused and indignant elderly relative who kept ambiguously asking: “Do you know who I am?”

Stopping briefly at Hastings for a cuppa, we were struck by the extremes. Rows of caravans stood rotting on the seafront where the poor had taken up makeshift residence. Homeless people huddled in seafront shelters in St Leonard’s, where the paint from abandoned hotels peeled like tree bark. Yet, further up the road, expensive housing and smart bars thronged with visitors, overlooked the sea. 

The road diverted as we swung past the net shops – the black clapboard towers the fishermen used to store their gear. Soon we were out in the countryside again, passing attractive villages adorned with yet more flags. Union flags everywhere, run up poles, hanging from bunting in the streets. I felt a sense of unease at the instinct that leads people to want to hoist a flag of any colour, and to overlook all the terrible things done under its shadow.

We passed through bright country roads, through Winchelsea looking super picturesque, down past the low stone structure of Winchelsea Castle, where cows grazed in buttercup fields, and onwards to Rye. 

I was curious about this place, having seen on the BBC’s Mapp and Lucia (a series in which two rival middle class ladies – one, a fierce Little Englander furious at having her world dislocated by the other, a sophisticated woman of foreign-sounding extraction, fought battles for influence in the social milieu of an English idyll), and we climbed up to find an ancient town atop a hill. 

It was beautiful, full of half-timber mediaeval houses, with a church surrounded by nestling cottages on cobbled streets. It seemed like a little slice of historic perfection, as if someone had mocked up the quintessential English town, with bar-gates, and ruins, and pubs and shops. Walking the streets, I got a sense of the closeness and tight scale of English village life, and marvelled at the melted houses where the beams had bowed under the weight of centuries. I realised then that I knew nothing about this part of England.

That night we stayed at The Bell at Iden, just outside Rye. We pulled up in the camper and were immediately greeted by a super-friendly barmaid who welcomed us as we walked in and who told me it was no bother to park in the car park and stay overnight. Cosy. The place was cosy and friendly, and I felt surprised at the chattiness of the locals. Portsmouth, after all, can be famously terse.

So the weekend began with a warm welcome both meteorologially and figuratively. The following day, we drove out past Camber Sands on a military road, past a firing range and army training ground where mocked-up villages await trainees in urban warfare to do our flag’s killing work, and onward past the towering metal box that is Dungeness nuclear power station, which sits on the west side of the nature reserve.

There, away from the great green expanse of the countryside, we arrived at what in urban myth is known as the UK’s only desert due to its low rainfall (a story denied by the Met Office) and gazed over the great shingle headland, dotted with makeshift huts where people live and work in sparsely dotted homes, some of which were made from old railway carriages. The feeling was like a Native American reservation. We almost expected to see tumbleweed blow down the road. To add to the effect of the Wild West was a steam train, though the Old Lighthouse (next to the new one), and the fact that some of the huts contained art studios, and were overlooked by a gigantic nuclear power station somewhat lessened the impression – as did the fact that the steam train was narrow gauge and we were taller than it. 

It did, however, add to the sense of an alien landscape, unmade and ill-formed, and both of us loved its eery otherworldliness.

Onward again, to Dymchurch where a classic British seaside town crammed along the coast road, and stubborn donkeys allowing small children to sit on them while they were dragged across the sandy beach made me feel like I had suddenly gone back to the 1950s.

Then out into bright and massive countryside, full of greenery, through yet more flag-fluttering clapboard houses in villages bearing Anglo-Saxon names like Lympne, Bilsington, Hamstreet and Tenterden, with each hill we climbed opening up massive vistas and views across yet more startlingly beautiful countryside. 

Finally, we arrived at Bodiam, and explored the castle. It was great. A proper castle, with a moat; the sort that schoolboys might have consulted Disney and fantasy writers to make. It was built in yellow sandstone in the 14th Century by contractors working for Sir Edward Dallingridge. I’m precise about this because although the National Trust tells us Sir Edward “built it”, Dallingridge himself was far too busy terrorising peasants, and generally slaughtering and murdering the innocent as part of the Hundred Years War, to do anything so useful as lifting a trowel. “On the backs of the workers,” etc.

The story of Dallingridge seizing his opportunity when King Edward III decided on a whim that, actually, he owned France and declared war on his neighbour, is a useful one as a clue to the whole of human history. 

Like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage, mediaeval businesspeople also saw disruption as an opportunity, and so Dallingridge went out in a gang run by Sir Robert Knolles, a man so cruel and ruthless, the National Trust film informed us with what seemed like misplaced pride, that French people threw themselves in the river at the sound of his name. Ha! That showed ’em. Damn Frenchies, I can imagine one of the flag-flyers saying, not realising he probably had more in common with the poor French peasants than the psychopath who was murdering them. But there it is, when we imagine history, we are selective about those with whom we identify. That is the problem of history in a nutshell.

In the same film, we were informed that, like most of his contemporaries, Dallingridge was extremely concerned about the afterlife. Which, considering all that he’d got up to in this one, will come as no surprise. This may also explain why Jacob Rees-Mogg is a staunch Catholic. Thankfully, Dallingridge died quite soon after going back to the wars, and certainly didn’t make the whole Hundred Years of it, which must have been a relief to the French. It is not recorded whether his personal chapel in the castle made any difference to outcomes thereafter. Jacob Rees-Mogg, take note.

Opposite the Castle was The Castle Inn, which some lucky landlord must have named in the hope that someone would put up a castle. What were the chances of that, eh? Here we spent another night, again, warmly welcomed. It’s a lovely pub with a long lawn leading down to a river, where children played and families congregated in the summer sunshine to eat and drink and socialise.

That night, we were woken by the most extraordinary thunderstorm. It went on for hours, the thunder rolling on and on to create a constant rumble, and the lightning striking so often it felt like we were in daylight, and I wondered if I had been perhaps a little too disrespectful of Dallingridge in my private thoughts that afternoon. Then I reckoned it was probably the ghosts of all those murdered French and English peasants, and I thought I had probably underdone it.

From Bodiam the following morning, we went to Great Dixter house – a gorgeously combined mixture of 14th century farmhouse, 16th Century Yeoman’s Hall and Lutyens-designed modern house that creates the most beautiful scene, surrounded as it is by perfect gardens, the whole being set in yet more stunningly beautiful countryside. The patriarch who bought the place and made it his project, I learned, made his money in the first flush of sophisticated Victorian advertising, in which the modern nature of publicity, branding and mass-produced consumer goods meant worldwide sales to a public grateful for the reliable and the familiar. This meant he could retire at the age of 42. Which puts a new spin on the phrase “it pays to advertise.”

From there, we headed to Battle, which was decked out in red, white and blue bunting, and there were yet more Union Flags in people’s gardens. We stayed the night at this quintessential English town and drank French Merlot at a Trattoria, looking down the High Street at this place so central to mystical English identity. It was when I realised all those Union Flags had been bought on the proceeds of businesses in a town whose whole raison d’etre was to celebrate being invaded by the French, that I profoundly thought: wtf?

On again the next morning to Cuckmere, past the Long Man at Wilmington, supposed to be either neolithic, Celto-Roman, Saxon or modern, depending on which archaeologist is talking. Like so many other villages in East Sussex, the streets were cosy and warm and picturesque. 

They were also flaggy. Don’t get me wrong. I get it. You’re proud of this part of the country. It’s stunning. It’s genuinely something to be proud of. But this part of the country is not represented by a Union Flag (convenient political concoction born of debt and oppression) or a Cross of St George (dodgy myth about a Turkish knight). No, what really makes it distinctive is the hop fields and the oast houses with their white cowls used to dry the hops one tastes in English ales – hops that were originally Dutch imports. Even the word clapboard comes from the German root klappen – meaning to split. And all those flags – they are probably made in China. But hey. I get it. 

Then, down to the Birling Gap via Cuckmere, to walk along the coast and see the Seven Sisters, the great white cliffs. They reminded me of the cliffs at Dover, associated with all that safe, reassuring, misty-eyed patriotism, though I thought they could just as easily stand for upheaval, seeing as they are massive uplifted seabeds dotted with flints that were once sponges, long before flags were even thought of.

Next, over to Eastbourne to meet with a friend. And then, back to the Cuckmere Inn, where we stayed in the car park and – after a bite to eat and several pints of fine English ale – we walked down to the sea, waded the river and walked up by the meandering elegance of the snaking Cuckmere.

It was there, as the sun set and the birds made such a noise in the fields and the skies, and the cows lowed, and the gulls cried, I felt such a sense of sudden quiet and eternity and such a passion stirring inside me, that I too felt proud and awed to be, though it be for only a short time, a citizen of this world.

The next day we came home. And I have to say, East Sussex is beautiful. Despite those darn flags.

“We’re proud of England, see our flags flutter!
You can just feel the history: In High Weald’s
fossil-rich chalk downs, in bells of butter-
cups, clapboard houses and hanging hopfields.
Look! That oast house dried hops brought by the Dutch;
this stronghold, French-gold funded, reeks with stench
of war. That Battle street, decked in so much
colour, celebrates defeat by the French.
We welcome you coz we know who we are –
we Sussex English, comfy in our skins,
claim this land as ours. Though you come from far –
our distant ancestors saw it all begin.”
And Seven old Sisters don’t even shrug
at fleeting flags, knights, and Union Jack mugs.

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Trip to Dartmoor, May Day Bank Holiday weekend.

I’ve just got back from a real surprise. And that surprise is Dartmoor. I mean, I just had no idea.

True, I went to the National Park when I was a kid. My dad was in the Royal Navy, and had gone along as a natural expression of the ruggedy outdoorsy thing that he was connected up with as Exped Officer.

My memories are: dad struggling up a hill with a caravan (attached to our car, obvs), a cute antiques shop in a small village where I saw a badge depicting a Nazi spreadeagle clutching a swastika in a laurel wreath and big, open empty spaces. I was young.

I’ve also crossed the edge of the moors on a number of occasions, often in the rain, and have been struck by its complete bleakness.

This time, we headed west on Friday afternoon of the Bank Holiday in the camper, and spent our first night part way there in the The Haymaker Inn, Wadeford, Chard – a real local’s boozer, which did great pub classics – my ham, egg and chips had high quality crumbed ham and was just yumptious. The team were welcoming of a camper van, and we slept well after a few beers.

Early next morning, we headed on our way – torn between Exmoor (which we love) and trying out Dartmoor. Both of us had the idea that Dartmoor was a big, bleak open space – but we decided to give it a try, just for a change.

What a great choice that was! The first day we headed to the wonderfully named Castle Drogo, a Lutyens-modelled modern castle, where we stopped for breakfast in the impressive entrance driveway, before heading up into the National Trust car park and taking a walk down to the valley floor. It was a steep drop down in glorious sunshine, and we made our ways through luscious woodland in light that seemed to have have been specially laid on for artists. It’s a weird effect at this time of the year that I’ve also noticed previously in Exmoor – as if the trees have not grown, but been drawn by a fine draughtsman, with black shadows and startling deep green mosses and lichens on trees whose newly-sprouted leaves make them the sylvan equivalent of life-loving teenagers. There is something beautiful about trees at this time of the year, with luminescent greens overhead spreading deep cathedral light.

At times, the path opened up to stunning views across the valley where the soft leaves cotton-woolled into  emerald clouds.

Jackie and I walked with a kind of joyous anticipation at what was next. The valley floor vouchsafed a kingfisher and a yellow wagtail, and so much greenery and reflections on the river that it was like the world was new-made. The climb back up took us out to a viewpoint in which the hills spread out far into the distance, and it seemed that someone had fashioned the perfect landscape with us in mind.

A bite to eat, and a drive through more gorgeous and verdant woodland took us to the village of Moretonhampstead, where we mooched in the shops and I couldn’t resist an antiques buy. Then, newly provisioned after chatting with the locals who were super-friendly, out, up, on to the moors.

Taking a side road that squeezed and turned and twisted and dipped, single tracks with passing places and an occasional local farmer hurtling round corners with wild abandon, we climbed up on to the moors proper and found a space to park. We were up, now, in the sky, with the coconut smell of gorse bushes around us, and the steady khom khom khom of ponies that were sculpted by sunlight. Here we came to rest, sitting in the blaring silence that drowned everything else out, and feeling the slumber that sealed my spirit come upon me – that calm at the centre of being where the true me is. Except it wasn’t slumber. I didn’t sleep, but passed into eternity, the zen state where time reveals itself for what it is: illusion – and the world turns on its axis oblivious to the minutes and seconds of man. I was the same as the horses and the stones and the pools with the waterboatmen and the gorse in muddy green and the shaggy blonde of dried sedge.

Reading up here gave every word concreteness, and I read a novel, The Red Sailor, with joy as Jackie sat and crocheted, and we drank tea in the silence, and the sky came down to kiss us.

That night, I woke in the darkness to see the stars bewilderingly bright. The constellations seemed to be changed, and though some of the sky was familiar, it was teeming with new-bred stars. I aligned the centre stroke in Cassiopeia with the tail of Ursa Major to triangulate Polaris, but could not see it. Someone had stolen my night sky and filled it with milk, or the semen that fills the belly of the sky and creates newborn worlds – and I felt primitive and modern and bewildered and holy all at once, while the ponies stood around me, stock still, as old as the stones.

The next day, we headed through perfect countryside, and I felt as if we were suddenly in a fantasy world. Down into Widecombe where one of Dartmoor’s signature four-finialed church towers points stolidly at the sky, then out again onto the Moors. We climbed to the top of Haytor, a pile of striated granite left by a careless giant and sat in silence a while, taking in the scene. Then, joined by a pair of Slovaks, I broke the ice with the question: “Does this mean anything to you: Strc prst skrz krk?” They laughed and we fell into conversation.  They were I.T. developers out from London for the weekend, and had never been here before. We shared the sense of wonder at a place newfound.

And so the day went on, with us exploring, going through fairy dells where I was sure Mr Tumnus would suddenly appear, looking at Hobbit-shire fields and feeling like that small child again who stepped on to the moors. But this time, focussing on the really powerful stuff, the gentle and inexorable throb of deep life in the land.

That evening, we headed off the moors and stayed in a pub car park at Lydford. The Castle Inn is situated next to an ancient tower once used for court sessions and, next to that, a mediaeval church. The whole of life is there: social, legal and spiritual, in a microcosm. The food at the Castle Inn was excellent as was the beer, and we slept early and woke early, to break our fasts outside the castle tower as the sun beat down.

Next, a walk to Lydford Gorge before 8 am, descending down to stand at the base of the White Lady Waterfall, and feel the pagan magic of the world here. The thundering power of the water filled my ears and I felt more wonder. I paid an offering to the water deity in an atavistic moment and felt completed, somehow.

We lingered on the moors a while longer after eating a Devon Cream Tea at Lydford Gorge National Trust centre, and then made our ways home, filled with a kind of elation.

These moments, these are what life is for.

Stay here a few days and walk through your dreams:
down through green valleys, from high barren hills,
to lichen-scaled trees by numinous streams,
where moss-thickened walls ring deep fairy dells.
Feel, in your dreaming days far from the town,
all weight lift, till only a daisy chain
tied to your ankle keeps you on the ground –
else dandelion-clock-like, you blow away.
When you wake, you will wonder: were they true –
those careless nights and days which time fleeted
as though I walked in a magic-imbued
land, where world weariness is defeated?
If love is a dream of sky-kissing moors
Then I fell in love. Dartmoor: mon amour.

Posted in Inspirations, life, Pleasures | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Writers, Are There Royalties Waiting For You To Claim Them?

I woke up this morning and checked my bank account to see that I’d just received a couple of hundred quid come in from the ALCS, or Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, and thought I’d write about it, in case fellow writers haven’t yet heard of it.

I first encountered the ALCS in the 1990s when I was working for the tv show The Bill. I got a letter through the post telling me that my work might be seen in other countries, and there were all sorts of rights that as an author I might be eligible for. This was in the earlier days of sorting out copyright arrangements across countries in the EU. There was, I remember, some talk about libraries and universities across Europe, and other institutions who relied on work that had in some way been written. To be honest, I didn’t think my work qualified, since my stuff was on telly, but I joined up and thought well, let’s see what happens.

I think I got a few cheques come through – you know – enough to buy the odd pint. It wasn’t to be sniffed at, though, and I was doing “nothing” for it (except of course from producing works of genius for tv! [I jest]).

Then, one day I got a larger cheque – not huge – but you know, around £100. The accompanying letter told me that the ALCS had finalised payments for photocopying rights from academic libraries across the EU, and I was being sent my cut. This surprised me. I couldn’t imagine that anyone had photocopied my scripts for The Bill – but basically, the money had to be divvied up somehow, and I was eligible! Great. It’s then I realised they really are on our side and are looking to protect our interests.

The way it works is this. The ALCS actively identifies books, scripts and articles – both fiction and non-fiction – that may be eligible for one of the many copyright payments that are agreed nationally and internationally between countries. They compile a database, take payment, and then actively seek to find the authors who haven’t already joined. That’s how come I got my letter from them.

Of course, there are times when they can’t locate an author. So it’s quite possible that an article, book or script you have written has already amassed payment, and you need to let them know where you are. There is even a search option on the website to check out whether you’ve got money waiting for you.

As for fees, they are a not-for-profit organisation and they charge a small commission to keep the office running. Back in the early days they had two schedules: the first meant you weren’t a full member of the ALCS and paid a slightly higher percentage of the money they sent you. The second schedule meant you paid a membership fee (really low – something like £7 per annum) and you then received a lower commission fee. Either way, you are receiving money you otherwise would never get, so the fees are really not an issue.

These days, there’s a one-off fee of £36, which gets you signed up for life. The money comes out of your first royalties. The commission rate is 9.5%.

It’s all very straightforward. And who knows? You may be sitting on some cash already.

So, have a look – and spread the love! Share this with as many writers as you can. After all, we all need a helping hand from time to time, right?

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Snow encounters

Sometimes when the cold grips the town it grips my heart, too, and I feel the need to get out in the snow and walk.

Just so in winter’s late flowering yesterday, when I headed out in a flurry of flakes and trod over the iced streets down to the sea, where the water was green against the white downs of the distant Isle of Wight and the grey sky above.

Cold. Ice cold. On South Parade Pier, a guy was shovelling a path through half-melted snow that had refrozen into a sheet of ice, while the sea rolled and scattered beneath him. At the pier’s far end, I took it all in, the sea, the sky, the ice in the clouds, the unforgiving breath of winter – and felt immune to it all in my sheepskin jacket. Warm. Toastie. Against all that out there.

Then I went through that little enclosed space, the Rose Garden. Thorned twigs were coming to life in this early spring, their jagged edges dark against the snow. I felt the need to sit somewhere, quiet, and allow the depression that’s got me at the moment to just sit with me. Depression, she’s an unwanted visitor, but I find that I can’t just rail at her. Every time I do, she settles in more comfortably. When depression begins to warm her cold hands on my heart, then I find it better not to complain too much, but to drop the pace of my life and accept her latest visit. Don’t overdo it, don’t give yourself too much to do, but don’t do nothing. Sit with her. Bear her.

So I made my way to the shelter that sits on the seaward side of the Rose Gardens, elevated and looking down from what used to be a gun emplacement in Lumps Fort, a long time ago. Thus, I mounted the ramp with a mind to sit and enjoy the snowbound geometry of the rosebeds.

At the top of the ramp there is an alcove in a wall, where once perhaps soldiers stored artillery rounds. A pile of cloth was stuffed in there I noted. Then, getting closer, I saw a rucksack, and realised it was a sleeping bag next to it.

The sleeping bag was not moving. Perhaps it had been dumped? But no, I could see a shape of a body. Suddenly afraid, I straightened and stood stock still, alert for any movement. There was none. I stepped closer and listened and could hear no breathing either and the fear grew stronger. Depression does this. It makes one less willing to face life, leaving one’s emotions all raw and ready to be stung and poked without any filters.

After a while, I walked away, not sure what to do. I took a breath. The image of the sleeping bag would not leave me and I went back. Perhaps I could get a hot drink. Chocolate or something. With a growing sense of dread, I continued to watch. No movement at all. Nothing to indicate a life in that snowbound scene. And so I walked over and said:

“Are you okay? Just checking in with you. Let me know.”

I watched and waited. And then, the sleeping bag moved and rolled over, away from me, and I could see it had its back to me, and whoever it was wanted to sleep more. I thought: Alive and was relieved.

“Do you want anything?”

But the bag just rolled itself up more, trying to get away from my voice.

I stood there a while and felt useless, and turned away, making my way round the snowbound edges of Canoe Lake. I felt pathetic for my ineffectuality.

On the far side of the lake was a man in a thin summer coat over a cheap jumper. I saw him talk to another morning walker, who looked embarrassed and walked on. When I got closer, I saw he had a half-drunk bottle of wine on the bench next to him.

As I went by, I was struck by his watchful calm.

He spoke to me:

“There’s a big snowball there, if you want to throw it,” and he pointed at a ball of dirty grey snow about 75 centimetres wide, the remnants of a snowman that some kids had built and others had kicked in with gleeful indifference.

“Shall I throw it at you?” I said.

He laughed, and we fell into conversation.

“I’m freezing,” he said.

I looked at him more closely. He didn’t look like a tramp. His clothes had a washed-out grey to them, and his trousers were dirty, but his skin was freshly washed and his hair clean. There was a look about him that said he was well fed, but his lips were grey and starting to go blue.

“Well, what are you doing, sitting out here?”

“I’m in a residential home,” he said with desperate passion. “But I can’t stand it. It’s an awful place, I don’t want to be there with those goons. They’re all in their 80s and I shouldn’t be there. I’m only 64.” He added the last with a pathetic plea in his voice.

“Can’t you move out?”

“My brother put me in there. My own brother – put me in a home and I can’t get out. And he’s got all my money. He’s got loads of money – a great big place in Hayling Island and just gave his kids £200,000 each to buy a house, and he puts me in a home I don’t want to be in.”

I looked at him for a moment. It was a strange story that didn’t quite make sense and I felt that I shouldn’t get tangled up with him. But then… he looked so desperate.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Donald.”

“Matt,” I said, and offered him my hand. He shook it and his was like a block of ice. I was shocked at how cold he was. He, actually, really was freezing, as he’d said. “You know, wine isn’t going to warm you up.”

“No. But I like the taste of it, you see. And I need to do something. And it’s only £4.30 from the Co-op, which is a cheap wine. It’s rubbish. But it’s a bargain. Do you go to any pubs?”

I told him I did and so we passed the time. At one point he said.

“How long can you go without food?”

“What?”

“Days? Weeks? The landlord who runs the home, he fasts for a month,” he said, seemingly baffled. “His name is Abdullah.”

“Ah, well, you see, they can eat at night, just not in the daytime.”

“What’s the point?” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. He says he’s 12 stone, but he’s half the size of me. With a shiny head.” He looked at me. “I say he’s like a little black ant.”

The words he was speaking told me little and much at the same time. Snippets of a life, like a jumbled book of postcards.

“You can’t stay out here,” I said. “It’s too cold.”

“I’m not going back there,” he replied, adamantly.

“Couldn’t you go and sit in the library? At least it’s warm.”

“Where’s that?”

But then he dismissed the idea out of hand.

He was getting colder by the minute. I could see it.

“Look, do you want to get a cup of tea? I’ll get you one,” I said, and pointed over to the Canoe Lake cafe.

“That’s very kind.”

I reached in my pocket and realised I didn’t have any cash on me.

“Wait. I’ll be back.”

When I got back from the cash point, he stood up and walked with me on unsteady feet.

He sat down to drink his tea and was shaking so much from the cold he could hardly hold the cup. I need to warm him up, I thought, and so I carried on chatting with him. Depression, I suppose. It helps me to help other people. Distracts me from myself.

As we talked, we began to loop around the same subjects. He reintroduced himself to me, and asked my name again, then told me he was in a home and couldn’t stand it. He would mention other housemates, and then, after a brief digression, go back to them again. “We argue,” he said. “I can’t stand them.”

At another table were some Down’s Syndrome people, talking loudly – out on a walk to see the snow. One of them was squawking and grunting, and Donald became agitated.

“Who are these people?” he asked me, clenching his jaw. “Who are they?”

He had his back to the group and seemed so angry that he couldn’t look round at them.

“They’ve got Down’s Syndrome,” I said. “They can’t help it.”

He looked at me and forced a smile. “Nor can I,” he said.

As he talked more and I began to see the pattern of his conversation, I realised that he was probably in a home because he had early onset Alzheimer’s. He couldn’t hold thoughts for long, and drew on older memories. Everything recent was blurry. At one point he told me that he’d had his wallet stolen, then that he was due an inheritance, then that his brother was keeping the money from him, looping and looping around.

I went to the counter and asked the women if they’d seen him before. One of them had.

“He’s in a home,” she said. “A really awful place. I’ve heard it from someone else, too. The other guy, his window is smashed and hasn’t even been fixed. He was in here, crying.”

I sat with Donald a while longer, and then, when I saw that he’d warmed up, left him with a pot of tea and headed out.

I realised he needed better care than he was getting. That he needed medical attention and his case dealt with properly – and if that were done, he could go to a place where he would at least be a little more happy. One thing was clear. The way things were now had led him to hypothermia in the snow.

A few days earlier, I had been in Waitrose, and overheard an old woman complaining about the homeless begging outside.

“It’s just so awful having them here. Why can’t they move them on? Or get rid of them?”

“I know,” said the shop assistant. “They come in here, and it’s really offputting.”

“And they’re conmen,” she said. “They’ve got places to go, they just can’t be bothered to work. They sit out there all day, and they could be working. Why aren’t they working? How do I know they’re homeless? They’re not homeless. They’re just begging because they’re lazy.”

She said it with authority. She had obviously read it somewhere.

It was then I realised the lack of imagination of so many of us, who can’t see the other stories of people’s lives that don’t fit our world view, and how easily people can fall through the cracks in society’s imagination. And at that moment of a lack of imagination, we fall back on defensive positions that feed on the worst of us. Her incomprehension that in modern Britain, people could be homeless made me wonder how far removed her world view is from mine.

Yet, how easy it is to be vulnerable. How easily Donald had nearly made himself seriously ill by just slipping outside for a few hours to sit on his own. How easy it is, in our precarious world to slip. How, by making tiny mistakes, we can end up freezing on a park bench in the snow, or sleeping in an alcove, with no-one around to care.

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Observations in Paris 1: A Trump Voter

Met a Trump voter in Paris. She was actually really an intelligent woman, which surprised me, because, I admit, I’ve built a stereotype of racist rednecks full of bigotry and hate being solely responsible for Trump’s rise to power. She was an ex-school teacher, very brainy and smart thinking, extremely curious about the world in general. At one point early on, she asked:
 
“How come the rest of the world knows so much about American politics? They know stuff here that we don’t even know in the US.”
 
I said to her: “Well, if America’s going to take on the role of self-appointed leader of the free world, then we’re going to want to have a say in where we’re being led.”
 
Those two words “self-appointed” shook her. She asked me what I’d said and took a while to process it. As far as she understood it, the US had unwillingly taken the burden of world leadership. That is a central point of the American psyche that I had never noted before. That they think they’re doing us a great big favour by making the world bow to American policy because “democracy”, and that it isn’t that after World War 2 we all needed to band together out of necessity because we needed each other to face down Communism.
 
With the end of the Soviet Empire and with Trump now actively in bed with Putin, that mantle “leader of the free world” suddenly seems out of date.
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The Death of a Bookshop – Blackwell’s Portsmouth

Sadly, after much imploring, petitioning and dissent among university and townsfolk alike, today sees the closure of Blackwell’s University Bookshop, Portsmouth.

The shop has been the most extraordinary hub, with writers launching numerous books here, academics and townsfolk alike mingling and sharing ideas, students supported and helped by an extremely dedicated staff and numerous authors coming to give talks about their work. It has been a place of meetings and information exchange, and an increasingly rare thing: an informal face-to-face meeting place where ideas can form and grow in discussion, where friendships and projects have begun. It has seen readings, art, music – and has been one of the major hubs of culture in the town for a fiercely loyal and surprisingly large group.

When I first heard that it was threatened with closure, I started a petition on 38 Degrees imploring the University of Portsmouth and Blackwell UK to think again. It got over a thousand signatures in one weekend. This bookshop was not only loved. It was needed.

As a casualty of the changing nature of information, the closure of Blackwell’s Portsmouth can be regarded in one light as a natural, even inevitable development. But it also shows a lack of understanding and imagination about how to really make it work. Its closure also reflects a wider matter: the disregard of large corporate entities for local communities. Bizarrely, the University has chosen to ignore the value it added to its own reputation and the service it provides its students in its headlong rush to milk money from the site in a more lucrative way. That will be to the University’s lasting shame.

So what really drove the closure of the bookshop?

The reality is that the idea of university died a death in Britain a generation ago. At least, the sort of institution I took my degree at in the early 1990s died a death. Even then, the idea of university was in the process of change, but there was still, in the slightly rarefied atmosphere of the philosophy department at York University where I studied, a sense that a subject had a value beyond its retail price conceived as a commodity. Back then, universities were, in fact, concerned with a wider issue – primarily, western culture, and also, with cultures more generally.

But the idea of the university as the custodian of culture is defunct. And, if you are of the mind that art and culture are byproducts of a successful economy, then you will take the accountant’s view that Blackwell’s University Bookshop’s passing is the natural function of economic Darwinism.

If, however, you place a value on culture beyond that of numbers in a bank account, then the demise of Blackwell’s is a belated weathercock for the way the wind has been blowing for the last thirty years.

Why, then, does this closure matter so much to me? Besides the personal support and purpose I found in the shop, it also strikes me that the closure of a bookshop in a town with high levels of illiteracy is the wrong way to go. Now, only one retail bookshop is left in a city of 200,000 souls, and that is a generalist shop on Commercial Road that piles them high and sells the bestsellers cheap. That is one reason.

But I am also struck by an irony. Thanks to the work of John Pounds, a figure from the 1830s now largely forgotten, the right to a free education in Britain was born in Portsmouth. Pounds believed that education is for everyone, including the poorest – and especially those who could not pay for it. That was a noble cause which eventually spread to the offering of education grants for all who made the grade, so they too could enjoy an elite education no matter what their personal finances. But, the decision to remove degree level grants has enslaved a whole generation with massive debt; the result is that the inevitable logic of economics has led to education being at the vanguard of cultural decline. From a social good, education and culture have been demoted to, simply, goods.

It used to be the case that education and culture were regarded as something more broadly useful to society than being retailed as employability skills, important though they are. It was held that the very nature of what it is to be human could be broadened and made richer through an education that transmitted the values inherent to an enlightened culture, those of understanding others, of creative endeavour, of articulate questioning and challenging of orthodoxy. That used to be the role of the university. There was also a general belief that having people educated in this broader sense spread out as a good to society generally. This belief made the criteria for political and social decisions include aspects of life other than those dictated by basic economics. This view of education was the symptom of a holistic view of society and culture.

Now, however, pure right wing economics are our master.

Some will argue that art and culture are byproducts of civilization – that our ancient forebears in the spare time between hunter-gathering needed something to do with their lives and so created art to while away their hours. Those people imagine that our ancestors, like us, came back from a hard day’s hunting in the savannah, and in the absence of a flatscreen television amused themselves by gawping at the Lascaux cave paintings – square-eyeing away the winter evenings for 20,000 years until their successors could eventually come up with Netflix.

This reductionist view of culture sees art and artistic endeavour as non-essential. It is the epiphenomenon of commerce. Artists and writers and poets and creators exist because they are supported by the real activity of life, which is all hard facts, and especially hard coin.

It is not a view I share. To me, it has become obvious that looking at the general degradation of culture over the last thirty years being spearheaded by universities such as the one in Portsmouth, we are slowly going backward. We are devolving.

There’s no doubt that hunting and gathering enabled early humans to work in co-operative hunting groups; that it led to a particular type of social cohesion in the form of tribes; that it led to the necessity of building an understanding of the world around them – nor that all these are the foundations of modern life. No doubt, all these social behaviours are products of the activity that provided ancient humans with food and fire and safety – activities that would later be labelled economic.

But the ability to progress did not come from the act of hunting alone. Before the act of hunting in groups, someone had the idea that humans could work together, could find a way to trap an animal, could find food by hunting in packs. Every advance in human life is the result of an act of imagination, every advance comes from the visualisation and the discussion of ideas and possibilities. Yes, it is true that groups of creatures other than humans hunt in unison and do not paint cave walls or discuss Sartre over coffee, but none of those animals has the imagination to shape a flint or attach it to a spear, nor possess all the fine gradations and nuances in thinking and language that humans have, that have led to our rise over millennia. Ideas were born and passed from one generation to the next by culture and the spaces in which culture is transmitted, be they caves, temples – or bookshops.

That is why the sacred spaces of ancient cultures are covered in paintings, spells and words. That is why ancient civilizations such as the Babylonians sculpted creatures that were impossible in the real world, but which stepped straight from the imagination. It was not simple superstition expressed in the statues of ancient gods, it was not that artists and thinkers created fancies while the real business of the world continued on despite them. Statues of ancient Gods and the rituals that surrounded them were central to the running of society, to civilization’s understanding of the world that was disseminated through temple rituals. Culture and the transmission of culture is humanity at its greatest. It has precedence over narrow economics.

And so we come to Blackwell’s University Bookshop, Portsmouth, and its closure.

There are arguments that the days of the book are long past. That with the coming of digitization and with the ability of students to access material online, there is little need to produce books. Indeed, books are a terrible waste of resources, and the world is a greener place without all that woodpulp being converted. Think of the environment, we are enjoined. Think of the planet.

But this is to miss the point of the rituals that occurred in this bookshop. Book launches, author talks, informal seminars, discussions, sharing, recommendations are more than stock-in-trade. Bookshops are not only purveyors of books, at least the good ones like Blackwell’s in Portsmouth, aren’t. That good will could have been monetised, but the University wanted the site of the bookshop for another project.

A British university didn’t see the value in keeping its only functioning bookshop open. Let that thought sink in a while. Because it really is as simple as that.

Portsmouth’s Blackwell’s was a space where ideas could be disseminated, beyond the economics-driven imperative of university finances. It drew people to it that were not connected to the university, and they met with students and lecturers and ideas were shared. Culture happened – spontaneously. Blackwell’s, Portsmouth, was, in fact, a means of the transmission of culture just as the sacred spaces once were to our forebears. It was in its modest, modern way, a temple to civilization.

Blackwell’s wasn’t only about commerce. It was about humanity in a wider sense. It was about standing up to the cost-benefit analysis view of life and saying “what we do, what we think, is vital because it is human, despite you” in the face of the machinery of bean-counting that pays lip service to such ideas, but sacrifices culture and ideas to its own calculating god, Mammon.

My call, now, is that in its passing, we continue the rites enacted at Blackwell’s Portsmouth, and work to preserve culture. That we do so, despite the decisions of businesses like Blackwell UK, and the value-free institution that is the University of Portsmouth.

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Stream of life – a piece of spontaneous writing

Stream of life:

This is the great stream of life, we are in. Wait. Stop. Listen. Notice the movement on your skin, the slightest of shifts as the sensory cells activate and fire off, reporting all that is going on in your life. It washes over you, washes through and drags you along in its current. There is nothing you can do but submit to it. It loves you, it is you, it is the whole universe, and it knows everything and nothing about you and your thoughts and your hopes and your fears. The stream of life is intimately you, and abstractly both uninterested and disinterested in your life, you future, your past, your pains, your joys, your woes, your smiles and your tears. It is greater than you and you are so much greater than the you that you think you are. The stream washes on. Wait! Stop! Do you hear that sound? It is the laughter of the water, washing all around you.

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