The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes. MARCEL PROUST

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. WILLIAM BLAKE

Wanderer, there is no way; the way is made by walking. ANTONIO MACHADO

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Blundering Like Don Quixote

One of my compulsions is to 'collect' quotations. I'd like to share a few which have struck me over recent months . . .

I could not simplify myself.

IVAN TURGENEV From Nezhdanov’s suicide note in Virgin Soil

We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.

HENRY JAMES From The Middle Years

The deeper the feeling, the greater the pain.


How many times now
have I crossed over hill crests

with the image

of blossoms leading me on —

toward nothing but white clouds?


The Lord walks among the pots and pans.


At this stage in my life, I think it's all about the soft stuff. I don't give a damn about what you know or what you do if you can't be kind. I want the art of you before I'll tangle with the science of you. Talk to me so that I might know who you are. Be naked in the vocabulary of kindness.


Everbody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.


A writer is not so much someone who has something to say 
as . . . someone who has found a process that will bring about new 
things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say 

My morning writing would begin for me by getting up about four 
o'clock . . . I lie down on the living room couch in front of a 
big picture window which looks out on our quiet neighbourhood. 
The giant fir trees, . . . rhododendrons and so on outside. I'm lying 
there relaxed, I have a blank sheet in front of me. I put the date on 
top, and I start letting whatever swims into my attention get 
written down on the page . . . I welcome anything that comes along.  
I don't have any standards . . . I am not trying to contend for a 
place in magazines or in books. I'm just letting my attention flow 
where it wants to flow. And the relaxation of it is part of the charm 
for me.

. . . if you're lost enough, then the experience of now is your guide 
to what comes next. None of us knows what comes the next second.

Let me plead, not for ignoring advice from wherever it comes, but 
for allowing in your own life the freedom to pay attention to your 
feelings while finding your way through language . . . Into the 
unknown you must plunge, carrying your compass . . . You must 
make 'mistakes'; that is, you must explore what has not been 
mapped out for you . . . Like Don Quixote . . . you must loosen the 
reins and go blundering into adventures that await any traveller 
in this multilevel world . . . and like Don Quixote you must expect 
some disasters. You must write your bad poems and stories; for to 
write carefully as you rove forward is to guarantee that you will 
not find the unknown, the risky, the surprising. Art is an activity in 
which the actual feel of doing it must be your guide; hence the 
need for confidence, courage, independence.


Armor is fine, but it keeps you from knowing what the weather is like.


You're perfect as you are — and there's always room for improvement.


Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Not With A Bang But A Whimper

Dylan and Ginsberg. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by 
madness, starving hysterical naked, 
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn 
looking for an angry fix, 
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly 
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, 
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat 
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of 
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities 
contemplating jazz, 
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and 
saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated, 
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes 
hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy 
among the scholars of war . . .  

ALLEN GINSBERG First lines of Howl

Hell, they don't write apocalyptic poems like that any more! I'm not generally a nostalgic person — I prefer the raw tangibility of the present to the illusory past — but sometimes I catch myself thinking nostalgically about the Beat Generation of the 1950s, about Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Philip Whalen and Kenneth Rexroth and Jack Kerouac.

I have a feeling the best minds of our present generation are more interested in celebrity, self-promotion and social media than 'starving hysterical naked' or 'hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy' — but which is better, I'll leave it for you to judge.  

I saw the best minds of my generation
Vanish from dreaming spires and reappear
On I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.

I saw the best minds of my generation
Abandon academe and join a party
With pop stars, porn stars and the glitterati.


Sunday, 7 December 2014

Grumpy Old Man

I try not to be negative on this blog, but sometimes you've just got to let it all out. Switching on one of the shopping channels by accident last night, I was driven to fury then to despair. Ingratiating salesgirls used every trick and lie and acting skill in the book as they tried to flog hideous £500 gemstone rings. And successfully too, by the look of it. I was suddenly overcome by all the things I find insufferable at the age of 60 (I turned 60 last month), and the list went on and on . . .

People knocking on your door or approaching you in the street with a false smile trying to sell you something, people having loud phone conversations in trains, people so busy with their smartphones they walk right into you, people fiddling with their smartphones when they're dining with you, people at nearby tables in restaurants not talking themselves but looking at you and listening to your own conversation (this only happens in England), people saying 'no worries', 'not a problem' and 'have a nice day' (sorry, this is an English, generational thing), people who expect you to pay for everything and don't offer their fair share, people who selfishly dominate conversations, people bragging about how much their house is worth, people boasting about how wonderful and perfect and successful their kids are, people who have beautiful, tooled-leather editions of Shakespeare and Dickens on their shelves but never read them, people who use dogs as fashion accessories, people wearing hardly any clothes in the middle of winter because they think they look good like that, people who have too many clothes and don't wear most of them, shopaholics, most restaurants, litter, the internal combustion engine, advertising, the commercialisation of Christmas, most pop music, 24-hour news, sport, soap operas, game shows, plum pudding, microwave meals, tea bags and instant coffee instead of the proper stuff, 95% of all supermarket bread, Twitter, the ubiquity of porn, most new movies, bargain airline travel, the Daily Mail, oven chips, fish and chips from 95% of fish and chip shops, sickly-sweet drinks, overpriced and undrinkable corner-shop wine, the excesses of capitalism, celebrity culture, a society which lets manipulators of the stock market and the exchange rate get away with dodgy if not illegal deals but puts a poverty-stricken young mother in jail for stealing, UKIP, blanket prejudice against minority groups in society, the insidious creep to the political right in England and parts of Europe, internet slander, gossip and rumour without proof or foundation . . .          

Could I be turning into an unbearable 'grumpy old man'?

Though, to end on a positive note, my list of likes and loves could stretch much further — real ale, French food, country churches, a full moon on a crisp winter night, a beechwood in autumn, reading in bed, a long walk, living as well and as economically as I can, roast chestnuts, Marmite, Mozart, Nastassja Kinski, romantic love etc. etc.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

A Culture Is No Better Than Its Woods

More poetry from WH Auden at my poetry discussion site, The Hidden Waterfall.

A well-kempt forest begs Our Lady's grace;
Someone is not disgusted, or at least
Is laying bets upon the human race
Retaining enough decency to last;
The trees encountered on a country stroll
Reveal a lot about a country's soul.

A small grove massacred to the last ash,
An oak with heart-rot, give away the show:
This great society is going to smash;
They cannot fool us with how fast they go,
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.

WH AUDEN From Woods (the last two stanzas)

Friday, 5 December 2014


As regular readers of this blog will know, I'm very interested in Buddhism — Zen Buddhism in particular. This is not the place to go into the fascinating and complex history of Buddhism in India, China and Japan; nor is it the place to explain how DT Suzuki brought his interpretation of Zen to a spiritually-bereft Western world. Suffice to say that, simply put, there are two modes of Zen thought and practice — not mutually exclusive, but interwoven and complementary: one involves study, contemplation, meditation and discipline; the other is the spontaneous, immediate, less intellectual, more intuitive experience of koan and satori. Reflecting back on my recent Camino along the Via Francigena, it occurs to me that my illuminative moments on the banks of the Rhône were an unexpected, unpremeditated satori. Here's my account of it:

It was near to here, on a flower-strewn bank overlooking the river, that I had my picnic lunch: a superb garlic sausage, doux Fontal cheese and pain complet from the Migros supermarket in Aigle, plus a small 20 cl bottle of Aigle les Murailles white wine bought in the castle shop. It was an idyllic place, and, after the meal, I experienced one of those sublime, mystical moments I treasure so much. You never forget such rare, spontaneous events, and they cannot be manufactured or predicted. Suddenly I had a strong conviction that everything was coming together in an almost magical way: my mind, body and soul felt at one with the life I was leading out there on the road — and at one with the universe itself. My practical skills for what they were worth — knife or route-finding or backpacking skills for instance — seemed to merge effortlessly with any emotional and spiritual intelligence I might have; it was an overwhelming, deeply satisfying sense of harmony, control and insight. I have explained it as best I can, but really the experience was beyond words. This intense state lasted for perhaps five minutes, then, when I had packed up and left, the feeling was still there, but more diluted. Here I was, living cheaply and well, each day in the open air and in the heart of nature, like some vagabond or holy tramp, in good health, in good spirits, and as free as a bird . . . Indeed, I was truly fortunate.