Tears for the Holocaust

Although this is essentially a post about why I cried at a Holocaust memorial, it does have a fairly lengthy opening section on something partly different. Stick with me, if you can.

There are certain events that so change the world that you can never return to the collective state of mind that existed prior. For my generation, the obvious example would be the September 11th World Trade Centre attacks. For all of recorded human history (and for all of unrecorded human history too for that matter) up to and including 10th September 2001 it was completely inconceivable that a terrorist organisation could seize control of passenger jets and fly them into giant skyscrapers, except perhaps as sensationalist action drama. Let me provide an example of how unthinkable it was at the time. On the day, I was at work in an office in Edinburgh, I was 20 years old. Someone got news that a terrible accident had occurred, a plane had somehow accidentally flown into the World Trade Centre in New York. I listened in to the radio, people trying to figure out how this terrible accident had occurred, when right there and then, live in real time, the second plane hit. That was the moment, the split second in which the world changed. Now it was obvious it was not an accident, the world in which it was inconceivable had ended, and the world that took it as an accepted fact began.

If you weren't alive on that day, or were too young to fully understand, then you have grown up in a world in which it has been an accepted fact. People can tell you that before then it was unthinkable, but you can never go back into that world and experience that moment of change, not really, not truly. You can watch it back, you can listen to stories of people who were there, but always with the knowledge of what happened already in your mind.

Once something is known, in a way it is immediately diminished simply because it is known, it will never again have that same level of impact. If you are 20 years old in an office in Edinburgh today then 'September 11th' will be something you just know about; most likely you can't place the first time you heard about it, it's just another thing that seeped into you somewhere along the line as part of your general understanding of the world.

OK, now we're about to begin at least heading towards our actual topic...

I was born in 1981, a long time after the Holocaust. I have read a lot about it, I have watched a lot about it, but if I'm honest I can't say that I ever truly felt the full horror of it. In part this is because it is so vast and so horrific that the human mind struggles to truly comprehend it. We know the events, we know the numbers, we've seen the piles of shoes, but it is like looking into a void, an abyss. It is dark and vast, yet at the same time strangely empty.

The holocaust did not arrive as a single moment like September 11th, indeed for decades there have been many enquiries and recriminations about exactly who knew what when. Neither was it so unthinkable, alas there had been pogroms and purgings of the Jews not just in Germany but all over Europe, in London even, repeatedly throughout history. Even this last incarnation, this final solution, was not a single moment but a series of events over years. What it shares instead is that same sense of becoming diminished simply by being known. The full horror can never, or rarely, be felt simply because the end is known, the numbing shock that such a thing could happen at all is removed in the knowing. It may have become diluted too in other ways, perhaps repeated jokes about it in Family Guy, maybe Slayer's 'Angel Of Death', things that take you out of it, that reduce it to that most modern of cultural expressions - the reference.

You can watch, if you like, if you can. Claude Lanzmann's 9 and a half hour 'Shoah' tackles survivor and eye witness testimony through only the spoken word. 'A Film Unfinished' shows graphic images from the Warsaw Ghetto before its annihilation, a crazed, starved mother clutching a dead baby. We can see other images too, of bodies piled high, of people being shot in the head by mass graves. It is all there, but all distant, all black and white, all from another world and so somewhat detached.

Well done if you're still with me here, we're now finally going into the actual subject

All of this is a big lead-in to talking about one small event in my life which I happened to recall today. On my first visit to Prague I walked through the Jewish cemetery and into the synagogue, in which was written 80,000 names. Names, date of birth, date of death, occasionally a place. Suddenly I cried there in that moment, me, who had already read so much and seen so much in graphic detail and had no reaction but a sense of emptiness, now I was crying.

Why now? Why here? And at a list of names of all things? It's something I have considered a few times since. Above all I think it was because of the location, that the places in the list were places here, that they were people here, that I was in the Jewish Quarter of Prague. It was no longer something filtered and distant, suddenly it was here. It was here and it was overwhelming. Not one name, two names, a hundred names, 80,000 names, everywhere you look and on every surface, one after another after another; the dates of birth all widely different but the dates of death all within the same 2 or 3 years. It was here and it was now and I was in it. And I ran outside, because it was too much.

Sometimes we ask questions that can only be asked from the point of view of the people who came after. Why didn't they rebel (sometimes they did, in Warsaw, at Sobibor)? How could they not have known what was going to happen? Because it was inexplicable, incomprehensible. A World Trade Centre worker on 10th September 2001 might have accepted that in theory it was possible for a plane to be flown into his building in a deliberate co-ordinated attack, but he wouldn't be thinking about it when he pressed the button on the lift the following day. There are many other reasons also that I won't expand into here, I've kept you for long enough.

We can stare into the void and maybe feel a little of its outer edges, but we cannot enter it. That is perhaps as well, anyone who was able all at once to fully feel and experience the long brawl of human history would surely immediately beg for an end. So enough already, the question of this entire post is simply why did I cry at the holocaust memorial in Prague, and the answer is that for a brief moment I touched the very outer edge of the void, at which point I ran away.

Brus the Single-Minded

I have been finding both enjoyment and unintended amusement in working through Barbour's 'Brus', one section in particular having appealed to me. These are chapters 21-23 (at least in the collated Cambridge and Edinburgh manuscripts that I am reading).

In 21 the ragged army led by Bruce have been defeated and have taken to the hills. Bruce gives a speech saying it is easy to give in to despair at such moments, but do not allow it.

'For disconfort', as man said he,
'Is the werst thing that may be,
For throu mekill disconforting
Men fallis oft into disparing,
And fra ane man disparit be
Than trewly utrely vencusit is he,
And fra the hart be discumfit
The body is nocht worth ane myt.
Tharfor', he said, 'atour all thing
Kepis yhou fra disparing'

He goes onto to insist that that he has read of people who are in far worse situations than they are presently who have yet, with God's grace, won through a victory. He then tells a story, and you can well picture the bedraggled remnants gathered tight around a camp fire clinging onto words of a better time. He tells of Rome when attacked by Hannibal, how far the city had fallen, how hopeless the situation. Yet with the grace of God after an offering to victory (Bruce takes no time to explain the pagan panoply/monotheistic inconsistencies), Hannibal is driven off and Rome secured.

In 22 we are presumably at least a day, and perhaps more, further on. Bruce is still telling stories, but in this short chapter he chooses Julius Caesar, an interesting choice. We may imagine the people after several days living in the hills on the run, their patience and motivation beginning to wear thin with stories of glorious turnarounds with the assistance of God, perhaps a dawning fear that they are not after all such a band. So it is interesting to here choose Caesar...

RABBLE: It's flipping freezing on this hill, can't we all just go home and maybe join up again when Edward shows up?
BRUCE: Ah, but think ye upon the story of Julius Caesar, he was... brutally stabbed to death by his own adopted son.
RABBLE: I see... and so...
BRUCE: And so God's grace will lead me to inevitable victory!
RABBLE: Right. Well.

In 23 the women are suffering, and so is one Earl. Tentatively approaching Bruce he makes a set of entirely reasonable points; we have no meat, we are starving, we are freezing, we are tired and can't sleep, we live in a state of constant dread, and personally I am beginning to feel like I might rather die. Bruce does take the points, though he answers loftily and evidently still much assured of the forthcoming triumph of his cause

He said, 'Schir erl, we sall sone se
And ordane how it best may be
Quharevir yhe be, our lord yhou send
Gras fra yhour fais yhou to defend'

At chapter's end the women (and the one complaining Earl) are being sent off to Kildrummy Castle for food and shelter. We are told there is much crying among both women and knights alike as they prepare to depart, not at all certain they will ever meet their loves again.

At lef-taking the ladyis gret
And mak thar fas with teris wet,
And knichtis for thar lufis sak
Bath sich and wep and murning mak

Bruce too is departing his Queen here, but in the moment he is thinking only of military tactics.

Tha kissit thar lufis at thar parting
The King umbethocht him of ane thing,
That he fra thine on fut wald ga
An tak on fut bath wele and wa

QUENE: Goodbye my love, perhaps forever!
BRUS: Yes, I think I will travel without horses and take the men on foot from here.
QUENE: (Ahem!) I say... goodbye my love, perhaps forever!
BRUS: What? Oh, yes... bye dear. See you after God's grace grants me inevitable victory.

Several points should of course be made. The first, and most obvious, is that I have chosen to take a particularly comic sideways glance at this section, an effect never intended. Second, that Barbour is writing with the end known, that Bruce did indeed (with or without the grace of God) in the end make that unlikely comeback to gain victory and the independent throne of Scotland, and so naturally the poet may wish to show here the King without ever a doubt of triumph even when lesser mortals begin to have their doubts. Another is that we are not at all far removed from Bruce having stabbed his dynastic rival John Comyn to death upon the altar of a church. Even Barbour, in what is basically a long tale of glorification and hero worship, is unable or unwilling to fully explain this away, noting "he misdid thar gretly". If the incident itself cannot be excused then Barbour must take every opportunity to show it as being out of character, how the faithful King gives all glory to God and never doubts in His wisdom so that God too may author his redemption further on. It's kind of the trump card of the argument; yes he did stab a man to death on consecrated ground, an unarmed man at that, but God has clearly forgiven him - are you saying you know better than God?

My apologies then, to Barbour and to Bruce. It is not entirely from the position of ignorance that I make my fun, only from a sense of mischief in reading between the lines.

Six Dresdens - A Visual Journey

Up at 7 for the hens as usual, and then back to bed, again now as usual. Though I am not at all a morning person and arise from bed each day with the sole desire of returning (or indeed of not rising at all), by the time I return having been exposed to movement and the outdoor world my desire is only for a little extended comfort rather than sleep. Today I watch a film on Dresden, of footage shot in 1990-91, only a year before I was first there, un-narrated except for occasional lines from Baudelaire's 'Fleurs de Mal' displayed in French but read in German.

Dresden is a difficult city to truly capture photographically, whether still or moving. Old paintings perhaps come closest, but they depict one Dresden, whereas during the course of the film I consider at least 6 Dresdens, each a different entity on its own.

The first is the old city, the baroque city of art and culture, the city of Augustus The Strong that stood with Prague and Vienna. This is the city of the paintings, the bridge under moonlight, the Florence on the Elbe, the romantic city beneath the hill.

The second Dresden is the destroyed city, the fire bombs of Vonnegut and the hollow ruins. You could even say this Dresden was foreshadowed in painting, the ruined Kreuzkirche pulled down by Prussian assault in the Seven Years War.

The third Dresden is the reconstructed city, the old-new buildings that seek to recreate the first Dresden, yet they are not strictly the same. It is an old philosophical debate, Theseus' ship. If Theseus has a ship, the question goes, and over time every part of it is replaced as it becomes worn down, so that eventually every plank, every nail is no longer that of the original - is it still the same ship? If Augustus The Strong walked across the castle floor and the building later reduced to hollow ruin, can we still stand on the new floor and say "the footsteps of Augustus The Strong fell here"?

That which unites these first 3 Dresdens is the two-tone Frauenkirche. For 200 years it was, then suddenly in 1945 it wasn't. By 1992 when I first visited, it was still largely this way, my overriding memory of the city the pile of rubble by a wide open car park. Now it is again, bright new sandstone mixing with as much of the original stonework as could be recovered, blackened by fire and the life of the city, and so naturally for many the Frauenkirche is Dresden and vice versa.

The fourth Dresden is the East German city, the panelak housing, the now-faded modernism. It's easy to fall into the trap of dismissing this fourth Dresden, most architectural tastes (including mine) are against it, it speaks of an era of occupation, of an oppressive political system and the eyes of the Stasi, and its construction is of poor quality besides. But people lived in this Dresden, made fond memories and happy homes; are they not Dresden as much as any other? Who are we to invalidate their lives and memories, their laughter and joy? It has been a difficult line to walk since reunification, the West must be careful of coming into the East and saying we in the correct world will now erase the incorrect world you have known for 45 years.

The fifth Dresden is the modern city, shopping malls, glass offices, the places that could be and are in any other city in the world, the nondescript, yet lives go on in and around them all the same. To many residents this Dresden might be the real Dresden, the first three are for the tourists, perhaps even the fourth to some extent.

The sixth Dresden is one I have only experienced through the film, and that is the declined city. I have not witnessed this Dresden, but have experienced it in Edinburgh almost two decades ago, photographed it extensively while first enchanted by urban decay. It is a temporary state soon rendered unrecognisable, yet can develop again anywhere at any time, and surprisingly quickly. This final, ephemeral Dresden we can be glad of the film for capturing, along with the shadows of all the other Dresdens that have come before and stand alongside yet.

Whichever Dresden you choose to walk through it is now, like Berlin, a place of complex legacies not easily captured.

Strange Flesh (Early Draft)

This is only a draft of an idea that might be the first chapter of a longer story, or more likely only a short story in itself. It requires revision, and more filling out of parts that have been sketched only in outline, but here is at least the seed of something that might become a thing in time.

The dark hands of a servant girl are gently wrapping themselves around the white porcelain plates; the porcelain that seems so delicate, the hands that seem so rough, but it is the hands that are both softest and most durable of the pairing. As her fingers extend on the brittle surface and pull them toward her, her deep sad eyes rise to the closing door ahead of her. The door closes, the latch clicks, and the eyes return down to the table, to the dull shining porcelain, and to the brilliant dark hands.

The door closes, the latch clicks, and the eyes turn to the fireplace ahead of them. The merchant pours out a brandy for the traveller, and the same for himself, while the traveller pulls a pair of cigars from a wooden box. The merchants pale blue-veined hand offers the glass to his long-time friend, who takes it in his slightly more sunned fingers, with a smile from red lips almost lost beneath a bristling moustache. They walk slowly to the red upholstered chairs, their backs to the door of the dark hands, faced to the fire's brightness.

It was the traveller who broke the temporary silence.

“She’s from the colonies?”

“Well she’s not from Kensington.” He flashed a distracted smile, but resumed before the remark had a chance to become impolite. “The colonies, yes.”

“I was there, as you know. Did you ever hear tell of a chap called Bungaree?”

“I have read the name, though I know not how accurate the report. The King of the blacks, was he not?”

“Some called him such, although no such designation truly exists. They are divided into as many tribes as there are nations of Europe, and as many languages. But this Bungaree was a mediator, they say he had a gift for communication, that he was able to infer from the tone and expression what he couldn’t immediately comprehend in the words. He gained a command of English, all the same”

“The girl not so much, as you witnessed. And she is slow of comprehension. What sort of a life do they come from?”

“Something quite unfathomable to you or I. Naked and free, in their natural state at least, completely without refinement. Some fear us, some would show signs of desiring improvement. By the end of his days Bungaree was walking around in military uniform, the settlers thought it amusing to see him dressed as Admiral. They say there was something quite touching in his earnestness. A savage wit, too.” His mind wandering to another place, the traveller continued “There is something tremendously sad in all their eyes, your girl has it too.”

The traveller extends the arm with the glass to the flame and turns the glass as though expecting an alchemy to take place, while the other hand places the cigar to his lips, after which he sits back relaxed. The merchant is more restless, perched eagerly on the edge of his chair, a position that has not gone unnoticed.

“Come on then, out with it”, insists the traveller when a few silent sips have passed between them.

“Well... but out with what?”

“With whatever it is that has you seated so. I have seen it before, every time you have some expansion, some acquisition, or perhaps even finally that missing love...”

“Very well, I will tell you. But you must promise me something.”

“You ask a lot so soon after dinner.”

“You must promise me that what we discuss does not leave this room. Not under any circumstances. I'm serious, Martin”, he added noticing the smile that began to creep across his old friend's face. The smiles advance, halted, moved to bewilderment and crept no more; the use of his first name having snapped the traveller to attention. “Under no circumstances.”

“Stephen... are you in trouble?”. The mention of names had the same effect upon the merchant, who pulled himself bolt upright involuntarily upon hearing it.

“Please, promise me. I am in no trouble, nor anything of the sort. But all the same this is a serious business, and before I proceed I must have your promise. Indulge my foolish whim, I know it's hardly the thing needed of so old a friend, but I wish to establish the tone very carefully.”

“Well you have certainly done that. What fiendish business are you involved in this time?” Seeing the merchant about to mouth his name a second time, the traveller quickly interjected. “Of course, of course, you have my promise, my word and my bond. But tarry no longer, or your entertainment will soon be as cold as your entrée.”

“You are quite wicked. The girl is still learning the ropes, and her way around a stove.” He sunk back into the chair, relaxed at last. “There is a new place in town. I have no part in its ownership or organisation, you understand, I am merely a... well, regardless, its membership is altogether select.”

“Another of your gentleman's clubs, my good sir? Do you not tire of your frivolities? When are you going to settle down?”

Ignoring his friend's question, the merchant continued. “This is no gentleman's club. They call it Strange Flesh.” He stood up suddenly, his eyes drawn instinctively to the door, as though he could trace a thin dark figure through its heavy wood. The clinking of plates had ceased, but the shuffling of feet and swirling of water from farther back had already told the merchant that the adjoining room was empty. Looking up and following the glance, the traveller broke the momentary silence, speaking slowly with careful consideration for the weight of each word.

“And this Strange Flesh, is this what has you so on edge?” Catching eyes, the traveller glanced deliberately toward the door, making his unspoken question clear. The merchant laughed lightly and resumed his chair.

“There's nothing in that, sir, nothing at all. She has work and a residence, that is all. It's only that one must be careful to speak of such matters.”

“Work and a residence… and a salary?”

“She has work and a residence”, the merchant repeated hurriedly.

“My dear boy, how is it that you have never gone to the colonies? You are the very template of a man of the empire.”

“I never felt they held much for me. Whatever the colonies have travels here just as well.”

Dismissing the colonies from his mind, the traveller began his investigation.

“What are the facilities at this Strange Flesh?”

“Facilities! An amusing thought! Precisely nothing, sir. A small room, entirely dark, and that is all.”

The traveller now took his turn to sit back, angling his head in curiosity, pretending to examine his cigar, and landing his gaze back upon his friend.

“And to gain admittance to this entirely dark room?”

“There is a doorman, quite blind.”

“So the darkness poses him no jot of trouble.”


“And reduces his ability to make identification”

“I always felt you would make a fine lawyer”

“And so you have told me many times. But surely you speak to this doorman?”

“Not so. You press into his hand the money, and he makes the only identification necessary, that being which room you are to enter and when.”

“Then there are two rooms. Do tell me the other is better attired.”

“No. It is identical in all respects.”

“Two empty, dark rooms. No wonder you are so on edge. You've been thoroughly swindled.”

The merchant gave a sudden and unexpected laugh, and the traveller joined him. There was a long pause while they drew on their cigars and swirled their glasses thoughtfully. It was the traveller who put them back on track.

“And what occurs within these dark rooms?”

The merchant shuffled uncomfortably. The traveller spotted it.

“Now, sir, I pray you do not choose to develop a reserve at this late stage”

“Have you ever prayed in your life? One doubts somewhat…”

“And one knows quite well. We have neither of us set foot in a church for some years, at least not reverently. But make you no delay, not a moment more of it. Proceed, sir!”

“Very well, very well. The two rooms are connected by means of a few small openings, squares of a few inches on each side.”

“And so communication may be made between them?”

“None, sir.”

“None, sir? By rule or by some witchcraft?”

“By neither. Surrounding the rooms is a large steam engine. I know not its true purpose or whether it even has one, but it runs without end, at least while the rooms are populated. I assure you it is quite impossible to make vocal connection even if it were desired.”

“You said the doorman made the only identification necessary. You meant money?”

“Partly. Money, yes, the admission is high. But he has one further identification to make, gentlemen to one room and ladies to the other.”

“And how many to a room at the one time?”

“One. Only ever one.”

The travellers’ brows knitted together as he contemplated this oddity.

“And so you pay a high admission, anonymously, to enter a dark room. Is it entirely without light?”

“Entirely. There are no apertures at all, besides those in the dividing wall, and the other room I presume is alike.”

“To enter a room entirely without light, adjoined to another only by small openings. How many openings?”

“I’ve never counted them, and I couldn’t know if I have found them all. Certainly half a dozen.”

“And all in a row?”

“No, there is no regularity at all. Their heights and distance vary greatly.”

The traveller pressed his hands together and extended the index fingers to his lips, a gesture he often made when he was about to break through to the heart of a matter. It is known between the two old friends as his ‘prosecution stance’, but the traveller dared not point it out now on account of the demand not to delay.

“A man and a woman, who cannot see or hear one another, but who might communicate through touch?”

“Quite so, sir”

“And only through touch. One might say then that this is the reason behind admission.”

“You have it, I think. Or most of it anyhow.”

The traveller leaned back as though not quite convinced.

“There are girls at the docks if you want to fool around, and with no walls between. So why this?”

“You misunderstand, though only a little. The wall in the middle is not thin, I assure you it is enough to prevent union”

“Prevent union”, the traveller repeated quietly. “Prevent union. Then there is only touch. Touch of… strange flesh!”. The traveller’s mind was racing and his eyes darted quickly from side to side. The merchant moved to speak, but the traveller held up his hand to silence his friend. “Anonymity on both sides. Now quickly, nod in assent, speak only to elaborate or contradict. A high entrance fee means society ladies.” The merchant nodded.

“Society ladies in need of anonymity to protect reputation…”

The merchant nodded.

“…and standing with their husbands?”

The merchant nodded.

“To be stimulated by, and to stimulate in return, an unknown, unknowable stranger”

The merchant nodded.

“Without risk of disease or impregnation”

The merchant nodded.

“And complete security against unwanted intrusion… either party may withdraw without risk of harm”

The merchant nodded.

“You sly progressive!”

The traveller almost shouted this, such was the climax of enthusiasm he had reached. The merchant knew not whether to nod to this, so remained still.

“And the outcome is generally satisfactory for both?”

The merchant nodded.

“And the money goes where?”

“It goes back into the possession of those who gave it in the first place. It is returned at the door.”

“Returned at the door! Then you pay nothing at all?”

“Nothing at all. One need only identify that one is capable of it”

The traveller laughed, he was evidently quite pleased.

“And who runs the operation?”

“Well that’s just it, nobody knows.”

“How did you come to learn of it? One can hardly take out an advertisement in the Times.”

“The same way you are learning of it now.”

“The blind man, he takes nothing?”

“He takes nothing, but he is often given something. As a rule I take back but four-fifths of that given, though nobody tells me to do this.”

“The entrance is the same for both parties?”

“No, quite different. They are approached from entirely separate directions and one cannot be seen from the other.”

“And the doorman covers both?”

“No, he covers neither. He is at a point between them. He is a doorman but nobody ever passes through his door. Truly I know not if there is even anything behind it.”

“And how are these entrances guarded?”

“They are not, except by requiring a key.”

“The doorman gives the keys?”

The merchant nodded.

“And you must return it to receive your money”

The merchant nodded.

“A deposit then, one might say. And the excitement is in not knowing.”



“Everything changes once you’ve been. At any dinner or gathering one is looking into a lady’s eyes wondering if she has been on the other side of the wall. One’s mind races, trying to trace the outlines and contours of a body and link them to former visits, or commit them to memory for future. Does her husband know? Does he visit himself? It’s an underworld.”

“It’s a game”

“Of course. So too chess. So too business. Your fellow Bungaree doubtless enjoyed playing the Admiral.”

A natural silence fell upon the room. The merchant took up a relaxed posture in his chair, his story having been wrung from him. The traveller now sat towards his chair’s edge, the positions in mirror opposite to how they began. Placing down the root of the cigar, the traveller was the first to speak.

“You know that I’m going to want to go there”

“I thought that you would”

“But promise me that all is as you have said”

“It is”

“No-one must be hurt by anything that happens”

“Quite impossible”

“And no-one be exploited”

“There are only the two willing participants and the doorman, and I think you will find him the richest key distributor in London.”

“Quite so… quite so.”

From the kitchen there is a crash, and broken porcelain scatters the floor where it has fallen. Dark hands hang, frozen from the moment the brittle surface slipped from those slender fingers. The sad deep eyes are fixed on the remains, cracked like eggshells. Slowly, imperceptibly, she begins to smile.

(no subject)

And just like that, the autumn. The air has turned and now carries a chill and as Jim Morrison said: "We had some good times, but they're gone / winter's coming on, the summer's almost gone". The night begins to reach right into the day, clawing back its empire.

Garden centres only remind me of all the things I'm not doing. They are the only place that fill me with that curious desire to remain at home; not to wander the face of earth eternally but to cling fast to the same patch of earth and watch it grow, to let the cycles of life unfold around me. The rat race world seems positively demented, even clinging as I am to its very outer edges, and perhaps it's age or the result of feeling worn down but I feel that I must escape its clutches entirely.

Less is more in life. Again I stop off at the stream to top up the windscreen washer, having forgotten to do so at home once again. Beneath the bridge runs the Faseny Water, at the beginning (or the end) of the stretch I call 'The Valley Of The Moon'. The road drops you down into it, steep slopes at either end, and in winter evenings particularly the moon illuminates it. If you're living in a town or a city then you might have forgotten how bright the moon is, how you can go out into the night and walk around as if it were daylight. You can see everything, only the colours are changed, muted, faded; it's easy to see why the old tales of the faerie underworlds were so often related to the moonlight.

The shuffling seasons across our mortal coil. Autumn is my favourite for its romance, yet all the same it is sad to watch things die.


There's a sublime chord sequence hidden in the 13th Floor Elevators' 'Dust' from the 'Easter Everywhere' album. It occurs only twice in the song, a switch from a barre C chord on the 3rd, up to a B7 on the 7th, and finally to an Em also on the 7th. That Em, missing out the lower E string and going 7-9-9-8-7 is just a beautiful chord, and when put at the end of that particular sequence had a kind of final, triumphant ring to it. I had wondered what that chord was and why it had that effect - was it perhaps a major chord in a tune of minors and 7ths? Actually the opposite is almost true, it's a song filled with C, G, D, and the occasional Em and Bm. The real genius of that sequence is its subtlety and under-use in the song. Just those two times, almost hidden in the background, easily missable if you're not listening closely. It's not made a feature, or even really a link, it's just... there. And then immediately gone.

If you want to follow along at home, it's at approximately 1:13 and 2:48.


The car is parked on a faintly ridiculous slope, the front far higher than the back and the left far higher than the right, but it'll do all the same. As I make my way up Nine Stone Rig the rain tumbles upon me in a sheet an the wind gusts, often sticking my shower-proof hood to the side of my face. The way is mostly grass and my feet slowly become damp as my worn and no longer waterproof shoes weigh themselves down. This is some of the wildness that I've been missing, the pleasure of exploring, the sights, smells, sounds and sensations of living in the here and now, although travelling to the deep past.

The circle isn't much to look at really, but it's there all the same. The 'Nine Stone Stone Circle' is chiefly notable for having 8 stones, or maybe 10 depending on your perspective, perhaps in the same spirit that at one stage the Big 10 conference had 12 teams in it, while the Big 12 conference had 10 teams. A site visit in 1913 notes that only eight remain, although a further visit in 1979 claims nine, although says one has been recently moved and calls it only a "probable stone circle". It is not even particularly circular, and it seems at least some of the stones have wandered from their original positions having fallen and being imprecisely shoved back. Both note the centre, 1913 calling it a "slight excavation" and 1979 a "ragged central depression", while a far earlier dubious mention of 1853 excitedly states that a rumour of hidden treasure in the circle led to various unsuccessful attempts to find it. They didn't have any time for that type of thing in 1979, calling the centre "of doubtful significance". That was that until 2012, when that rarest of things happened to an ancient historic site in this area - actual archaeology! With a trench! They found that the circle had been built into natural gravel and the centre was "sterile of any features". Poor centre, everyone's a critic. There are other standing stones in the area, such as the larger Crow Stones. An OS survey book of 1854 calls it "A large circle of Stones, on a heathy eminence at the south end of "Crow Moss". There is no tradition in the country concerning it, but it appears to have been a druidical circle", neatly summing up the futility of attempting to decipher precise meaning from an unwritten past.

Into Great Silence

A bird comprehensively relieved itself over my windscreen just as I ran out of screen wash, but out here that's no problem. I pulled up next to the river and walked down under the bridge, the smell of the heather moorland and the sound of red grouse preparing for flight. The sparkling water fills a bottle, bubbles like a drowning man. All around is still, and all around is stunning.

In a podcast about silence, the host Robert Harrison says that he lives in dread of the excess of noise, that he prefers to hear time passing. Most people, he thinks, want to block out time passing, to forget or deny that it is passing at all. In our modern electronic world it's easy to lose time, and I do. I think I am happiest when I too can hear time passing. What would time sound like? The breath of the wind through the trees perhaps. The ticking of a clock? Maybe, but we have no ticking clocks. Sharon can't stand them; she too likes to block out the passing of time, to fill the world with a constant background noise, and the background radiation of the television screen. For my part I prefer the lit candle in the darkness, the turning of the textured page, yet night after night I lose myself in other, lesser, things. This time now is precious, it is the golden sunshine of my life. I must redefine it.

(no subject)

Into the forest of memory, and the waters of the past...

I met with my parents in Innerleithen, the halfway marker of our many journeys, the place for ice cream cones and once, having battled through flooding to reach there, where I was bought a stuffed clown. I neither liked nor disliked clowns, I think they just had a limited stock of soft toys in the shop. Now my greatest excitement in the town is Last Century Books, one of the few proper old school book shops in the region, piled high from ceiling to floor with old tomes and a layout of rooms that was never deliberately designed, could never be deliberately designed. I pick up an appropriate volume, a 19th century 'Works Of The Ettrick Shepherd', just a single volume from a set of two, but geographically appropriate.

Perhaps childhood is the place we long to return to most, when the world was simple and everything had a fixed place. Time meant nothing, an endless expanse, no agony of decision or fear that something better might be out there. A few pine cones in a plastic dumper truck was more than enough. These times may be gone, but the people who lived them are not yet. There's me and both of my parents and those shared memories, and the realisation of how little relevance the memories have to anyone else in the world only makes them that more precious and delicate and fragile. Today, in the bright sunlight, we travel back and remember.

How many of my memories are my memories? Do I remember the things that I think I remember, or do I remember only the retelling of them, or a photograph of them? There are some things I think I remember that are no more than a vague feeling, not even a picture. Are such memories memories at all? And are they any less real for all that?

Outside the caravan site at Ettrick, I walk down to the wooden hut with the metre stick that measures the water level. I have a picture of me here aged about 3, in a white woollen jumper holding a stick. The hut itself is different now, replaced only a few years ago, but it changes nothing of the feeling of the place. Like the age-old puzzle of the ship of Theseus, it doesn't matter how many constituent parts are renewed, the whole retains the same existence. On the little footbridge I swing it gently from side to side as I did in youth, new planks but the same metal, the same movement. I smile a little, but it's a fondness rather than a happiness. I ponder on this a moment - is this the heart of my void, that my feeling of joy is extinguished even in the most precious of places? Joy is not generated by place, it is something else I have lost inside me.

We enter the temple at Samye Ling, I sit crossed-legged and breathe deeply. The front of the temple is garish, bright gold Buddhas upon bright gold Buddhas, hundreds upon hundreds. The room is too square and strangely without soul. There is the creaking of doors and floorboards, the sounds of people coming and going, and I see that this temple is not my temple. My temple is the forest, the hill-top, the river. There lies my peace and my clarity. But I am not in the forest, on the hill-top, or by the river. I control my life but am failing to do so, and this is the root of the problem. I can see the places that I wish to go, the lives I wish to lead. I can even see the necessary steps required to get there, but I can't seem to take them, I am too caught up in the life that I would wish to leave behind.


I wonder exactly how 'Ambient 3' came about? It's the odd one out of the series on several levels. Firstly, while 1 and 4 bookend the series and are credited solely to Brian Eno and 2 is a collaboration jointly between Brian Eno and Harold Budd, 3 isn't even technically a Brian Eno album. It has the curious billing 'Laraaji, Produced by Brian Eno'. It's the odd one out in its sound, which feature little electronics. It's the odd one out in pacing, with quite frantic Gamelan dulcimer for half of its length. It's the odd one out in consistency, because the other half features very slow 'meditations' that are like a very extended introduction to The Shamen's 'Omega Amigo' (try repeating "my time... is yours" over the top). It's even the odd one out in release dates, for while 1, 2 and 4 arrived rhythmically in 1978, 1980 and 1982, 3 also arrived in 1980. It would make more sense had the series continued on, gradually featuring more and more outside contributors until Eno is merely a facilitator. None of which is to say that 3 is not a good album, indeed on certain days (I call them my 'Tibetan Days', in which I feel I might be on some sort of secular Buddhist path) I find myself thinking it the best of the series. One imagines dialling up the album in a 70s retro-futurist sci-fi movie, music to match your mood, or an artificial mood that comes with the music. "Tonight feels like an Ambient 2 sort of a night, dial it up please Robot".

If you're wondering why I'm back writing here - don't ask me, man, I only work here. I'm not even writing for other people, I'm just happier when I write something, something about my day, whatever. It helps me order my thoughts, put perspectives around things. It cheers me to write, and recently I've needed cheering. So here we are.