Reflections and observations on life in general.

Category: life and memory

Squirrel manners

As if I haven’t had a rough enough night, fighting a cold, my breakfast is interrupted by incoherent angry swearing from outside the kitchen window. Two floors up, this is unusual.

Curious, I investigate. The perpetrator is hanging upside-down on the wall outside, looking at something, perhaps a cat, in the bushes below. My visiting squirrel is making angry noises at whatever it is when he or she sees me and climbs easily onto the windowsill.

In between grumbling at the whatever-it-is, she looks at me, scratches her stomach, nibbles at the window frame. Then, crouching ready to spring, she leaps to the nearest twigs and is away, leaving a small poop behind.

I guess I’ll take that as a compliment then… ?

Back to bed, to let my immune system continue its battles.


Pale gold

There is pale gold here, this afternoon, as I sit with fresh tea and biscuits in my flat; early returned from work with a head full of mind-muddling cold.

To the north, the roofscapes of Falkirk and, beyond, the Ochil Hills are modelled in soft yellow-white sunlight and blue-grey shadows. They appear briefly to advance before retreating, slowly, as the intensity of the light is muted by other clouds.

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From the east windows are the edges of woodland, tree trunks glowing soft gold and browns amongst green-black masses of leaves. Birds are singing, sounding glad of the respite in the recent freeze.

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Sunlight is beginning to shine directly into the flat again after its winter holiday, showing me I must clean the windows again. On Saturday morning it illuminated my breakfast, today it brings an unaccustomed warmth to the clutter of the other bedroom.

Despite the itching, irritating, swollen and congested sensations in my head, I feel a sense of wellbeing ease the heaviness of my eyelids. A sense that spring is just beginning, just beginning, to stir in its sleep, enough to make the buds swell on the branches outside the kitchen window where, a month ago during ice and snow, I left some nuts for a fearless visiting squirrel who leapt across to the thin windowsill from a thin branch and watched me making toast.

Aspirin, sugar and caffeine are doing their work, Time for an early nap, then some food, then more sleep to allow my body’s defence forces deal with the unwelcome intruders.

To you reading this, I wish you health and happiness.

Time for me

to rest and,



of gold.

Salvation… ?

It’s a “drych” Sunday morning, misty and wet, not a day for hillwalking, fewer distractions for me today then. I’ve slept well in a bed I appreciate every time I lie down in it, not just for its inherent comfort but also because I made the frame myself, another story, and because I am reminded frequently in the city centres that there are many people who don’t have the luxury of even a safe place to sleep, let alone a bed; luxury is a fragile and ephemeral thing, I try to remember that.

From my flat I can look down to the Salvation Army church hall opposite, where Sunday morning worshippers are making their way in for the service, it’s a fair range of people, mostly older but not all, a few families too, this one is busy and well-attended as far as I can see. It’s also active as a social assistance centre, providing cheap, possibly free, meals to people who need them, company too, other useful and constructive events. It reminded me of a few things I’ve heard in conversations, sometimes agreed with, at least in part.

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I’ve heard people dismissing the variety of Christian churches, indeed all religions, as promoters of blind and superstitious faith, root causes of discord, persecution, prejudice and war, social & political tools of manipulation to keep people tolerating unjust and oppressive worldly conditions for now in the hope of future reward in an afterlife and meanwhile accepting the authority of a few, legitimising abuse of power and more. There are some truths in this, all religions, indeed all human organisations, have the traps that can tempt people to follow these harmful courses of action, as we see from the news on a regular basis in the continuing revelations of long term abuse of children in the care of nuns, behaviour of a number of film producers, business leaders in a London club, the list is endless and active. These problems have been evident since the early days of Christianity and very likely the other religions too, before and since. The common thread I see running through it all is the question of human problems, the real extent of some of which is only now becoming apparent and acknowledged. The pressing need now, I believe, is to examine the underlying causes of these problems, not to be diverted into the easy option of demonising either individual perpetrators or institutions, and to act on those causes.

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What I see too, though, as I look down at the last of the congregation going in to the warm and convivial hall, is the very positive aspect of this place and activity for many people, indeed I’ve had a closer experience of this in the past, in relation to a Christian family I knew and used to visit, and recently, in a Buddhist setting, though I’m thinking here about the Christian context as they receive a lot of unfair criticism and ridicule.
I saw people having a very positive, uplifting and hope-filled shared social experience, even if it gave only respite, we all need a break from our problems and I’ve seen people gather strength and stamina from this, whatever their level of commitment to or belief in the doctrines. I’ve seen something of the wider social support and networks that can be available and accessible through meeting regularly in a setting in which the focus is, mostly and explicitly, positive. I’ve seen the way people, especially young people, can feel that they are capable of achieving and that they do have real potential, due to the encouragement and wider support and contacts that they have, leading to confident, clear-thinking and healthily active young adults able to make and maintain good relationships and pursue constructive livelihoods based on sound and compassionate values. I’ve seen genuine community developing around these things, all-too-rare islands of constructive social support and interdependence in a sea of fragmented and relatively isolated individuals, clinging to assorted and often toxic flotsam to stay afloat.

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I’ve also heard, first hand, from people who have found the sense of a greater presence and possibility in the world helping them to endure deprivation, abuse, despair, imprisonment and torture; at school we had an inspiring talk from an East German preacher who had been imprisoned and interrogated for a long time by Stazi and Soviet police, as well as other persecution due to being an active Christian. My point is that there are very useful and desirable aspects to these activities and beliefs, as well as potential traps for those who do not examine critically the dogmas, rituals, creeds and actual behaviour of the followers.

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I am not a Christian, I find the theology doesn’t fit with how I experience the world inside and outside my head, though the core values as exemplified by the teachings of Jesus are very good ones. My forced exposure to Church of England Christianity at school served to reinforce my negative perceptions of it, the sense that I still get if i sit in (rarely) on a service, a feeling that somebody is trying to stuff cotton wool into my head to stop me asking questions and seeing behind the scenery.
I have found myself drawn steadily towards the teachings of the Buddha in large part because I am explicitly encouraged to examine and question it and find the evidence of whether it works for myself, not just to accept it all on “faith”, a word I associate too much with “accept that this is true and don’t ever ask why”, or in other words, wilful delusion. Mostly I find it to be consistent with what I observe and I experience real benefits from the practices and teachings I have encountered so far; those that don’t fit or seem to work I leave aside for now, I’m responsible for my own “salvation”, or not, fair enough.

There are things which it is useful to approach with a willingness to have confidence in, a lifejacket, climbing rope, the brakes on my bike or car, the competence of the pilot to land the plane safely or the doctor to remove my appendix without killing or maiming me, the possibility that this set of teachings and meditation practices will be helpful. All of these things I can, if I wish, examine and test and review.

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So when I see the people emerging, now, from the service and gathering (there are usually tea and cakes after, I think), I see something that is mostly positive and life-enhancing, useful in a fragmented society too. The proof, for me, is in the “pudding” in the sense of the observable results of this activity and there is good stuff there that, if it works for you, I’m glad and would encourage. I would also encourage, urgently, examining carefully the list of ingredients to discriminate between those that are genuinely nourishing for the individual and society, those that are innocuous flavourings and colours and those that are bad for your long-term health or even toxic to us all. You don’t need to give up eating cake but the recipe might need adjusting.

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About a kilometer away I can see the steeple or tower of the “Faw Kirk” that gave this town its name, from back in the Middle Ages, beyond that, today’s mist obscures a splendid view to the Ochil Hills. It’s time for a walk through the nearby Callendar Woods and perhaps a welcome coffee, even some cake, in Callendar House, by the remains of the Roman frontier at the Antonine Wall. I shall examine the ingredients of the cake!

Under Snow – 2.

Sunday, forecast for cloud and snow most of the day, a good day for indoor things & administration. I achieved some of those things as well as baking bread and toasting an assortment of seeds and nuts, a few of which I gave, before toasting, to a visiting squirrel on my window-ledge. His, or her, I’ll use the former pronoun to mean whatever, climbing is impressive, he leaps from a thin branch to the grit-embedded wall, 10m up, landing squarely and confidently then moving fast over the rough vertical face; if I start climbing again, he’s my teacher. However, this is not about squirrels, though there were many of them about today. This is about a walk in the woods.

The fresh snow lay on almost every branch, even the finest, to an even depth. It struck me how amazing this is, that despite the snow flakes falling with plenty of space in between them (at least 10cm to my guesstimate), in a short time several had landed on top of and next to each other so as to cover everything. It made me realise the power of the random event, given enough of them, every possible combination can happen, no mystery intent nor agency necessary.

Callendar Wood is part of the estate of Callendar House, now open freely to the public. It is a mixed, mostly coniferous, woodland but has many yew trees in varying forms, some relatively tall and straight, others convoluted and twisted and sprouting shoots from horizontal and dipping branches that create miniature forests on the tree. They are dark trees, heavy beyond their physical mass with what feels to me like accumulated shadows that they hold under their canopies. Previously I have found them gloomy and unattractive trees but here, somehow, in this context, they appear to carry a sombre beauty that reveals itself when I wander under the dark umbrella to explore the twisted forms that even the straightest trees have.

Today the yew trees were lightened by the accumulation of snow which they would occasionally shake off the end of an over-laden branch, sometimes aided by the passage of a pair of squabbling squirrels. The shadows beneath seemed today to hold a slight warmth and sense of snug shelter. In the right light, the bark revealed warmer colours, browns and reddish patches that would glow in sunlight, if it were allowed in. As yesterday, I noticed this but did not feel inclined to stop and draw, the luxury of the camera felt enough to capture a reminder of the visual and mental impressions I was noting.

Passing Callendar House and the expanse of lawns that lead to the long ridges of the Antonine Wall embankments, the place was busy with families, noisy with delighted children tobogganing down the last frontier of the Roman Empire.

It’s been a good weekend, experiencing energy, exquisite moments of visual beauty, space, movement, stillness and a slightly different view of things, under snow.

Under Snow – 1.

We’ve had a lot of snow in the last week, here in Scotland, it’s made the usual headlines and stimulated the usual discussions that you hear from the British Isles whenever any part of our wonderfully wide spectrum of weather presumes to exceed the acceptably mediocre level of novelty and mild inconvenience. Despite the depressingly widespread ownership and misuse of bloated “SUVs”, usually boasting at least 4-wheel drive and sold as fulfilling the “go anywhere” dream, few seem able or willing to drive these through even a couple of centimeters of snow and ice and so schools are closed, people are stranded and epic tales are told in conditions that would be laughable in countries that have to cope with rebuilding roads and power lines after most winters. I have, however, felt it better to drive than cycle to work over the last week, given the many patches of black ice, invisible until too late on a dark winter morning and evening, which is frustrating but better than limping in to work with bruises or worse and a damaged bike; there’s enough hazard from motorists to cope with.
Given this present situation, getting out for a walk has been more necessary and refreshing than usual and this weekend has been very satisfactory, with a modest but beautiful walk on some hills to the north of Lochearnhead, yesterday (Saturday) and a more reflective stroll this afternoon through freshly snow-laden trees in the nearby Callendar Wood.
Yesterday’s walk was the result of turning a setback into an opportunity to explore, my original and planned destination being blocked to me for a lack of any more space to park cars in a considerate manner in a sensible proximity to the path up the mountain (Ben Ledi). Exploring northwards, I found space in a layby close to the official car park, inaccessable to 2-wheel drive cars and full of Mountain Rescue team vehicles – they were on a training exercise. My route led up through the dense, dark walls of the forestry plantation, tight-packed trees laden with several inches of snow. The snow was about knee deep and the Mountain Rescue Team had helpfully trudged a narrow groove-like track through it so I could make easy progress to beyond the tree-line.

Apart from the team, I was the only person there for most of the day. I startled a grouse from its hiding place under the snow, it erupted from behind me and flew a short distance to where it could observe me from behind a lump, leaving wing-marks in the snow around the hole whence it had sprung. In other places, grouse and mountain hare had left their spoor in isolated trails over the wind-sculpted and crystal-covered surface through which I now ploughed my less graceful way.

The air was very cold but the wind light and it felt mild. I felt energised and exhilarated by the bright light and crisp air and snow. At a suitably sunny and wind free spot I stopped to enjoy a brisk and very quick snow-bath, wonderfully refreshing despite the rapid numbing of my feet as soon as my bare feet sank into the soft surface; I felt as alive as after a dip in the sea, warming quickly as soon as dressed and running the next few metres through sheer energy.

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The views from the two small summits (Meall Buidhe and Beinn Leabhainn) were superb, a full panorama including Ben More in Glen Dochart, Meall an Tarmachan and Ben Lawers above Loch Tay and, in the south, Ben Vorlich and Stuc a Chroin, which dominate the mountain view from the school where I work. I thought of friends I would like to have shared this with and sent them good thoughts and wishes anyway, sharing through the ether of the mind feels more useful to me at these times than yet more Facebook posts, though that’s ok for later.


Meall an Tarmachan & Ben Lawers, with Loch Tay, from Beinn Leabhainn


Ben Vorlich (L) and Stuc a Chroin from Meall Buidhe

After taking photos – the air was too cold to use watercolours (the water freezes and you have to paint with slush… not successful) and it was getting late in the short day – I set off down, the new moon crescent high in the sky as the sun retired to bed. The mountains were turning from shining white to a soft and dreamlike grey-blue, slightly luminous in contrast to the dimming mauve sky behind them. When I see these things, I think of how I might paint them, though I don’t yet feel the urge to do so strongly enough to turn that into a result, it’s as if it’s a train of thoughts that are arising and falling away, perhaps to hide in the recesses of my mind and ferment over time until, if ever, the “right” moment comes to pass.


Glen Dochart, Ben More & Stob Binnein, summits for a future visit.

As I descended, the snow went from crunchy crystalline to softly silent; out of the wind, now, I was warm. At the road, a welcome bonus, my car was still there and in working order. It had been a quality day, in part thanks to those two people who parked their cars so badly that they occupied enough space for two more. I could have been conventionally irritable, angry, feeling cheated and taking it personally. Instead I chose different objectives and got what I was really after anyway, more in fact. Definitely a quality day, I’m grateful.


Early this morning.

It was a good weather forecast today and I’d decided to ride the bike to work, around 11 miles to Stirling.  There was some fog today, as I rode along the back lanes and small roads.  I would have missed this, if I had driven:


No more writing, tonight, instead, an early sleep and aim to be up early again tomorrow. May you all sleep well.

Across a border.


The Kelpies.

I have migrated,

crossed a border,

barely visible

but significant,

culture, attitudes, language

and much history.

Celts and Normans,

heart and head,

South and North,

my ancestors make me a bridge.

It is a new beginning,

this land of my birth

and half my blood

is home now.



I have moved to Falkirk in Scotland, to take up a new job in Stirling.  It has been a tiring but surprisingly trouble-free move.  There are new opportunities and challenges here, it is a move I have sought for the last three years; now it is time to settle in and explore…

…and catch up on sleep!

Parent Stars

starfield sort of

My father was an interesting, clever, inventive and intelligent man. He combined physical activity and ruggedness with an inquiring mind that was reminescent of the heroic statues of the Greek philosophers of the ancient world, indeed I think he would have rather liked that image. In his later years he simplified his material life, possessions, financial affairs and so on, even his diet, to an almost austere degree in order to free himself from what he had for a long time regarded as irritating distractions from researching, reflecting, thinking and writing. He wrote a number of essays and papers, mostly unpublished as far as I am aware, and one book, printed in a limited run at his own expense, on a wide range of subjects that he saw as part of a greater whole of which the book was intended to be the synthesis. The theme that emerged for him during that twenty to thirty year period was the evolution of the brain and enquiry into the mechanism of consciousness, material for another post perhaps.

When I used to visit him in his simple bedsit in a harbour town in the north east of England – he loved the sea all his life – most of his conversations were on this topic that, really, filled his mind. Other people he knew found him interesting and inspiring company, rich in experience from a life that included active service in World War 2, bomb and mine disposal in the aftermath (for which he was awarded an MBE), a varied career after the Royal Navy that took him to many places.

I thought about all this as I lay awake this morning, it’s a short mid-term holiday just now, of how our experience of the people who are our parents is very different from that of the friends and acquaintances that they have, the sorts of people with whom one has brief conversations after a funeral, illuminating or shocking or unexpected, as if of a different person to the one we knew.

It is a matter of proximity, like stars. Far off, they light up our night skies to varying degrees, the further away, the less of their light and nature we see; only that which reaches us over the distances of space through the filters of dust clouds and the gravitational lenses of other stars in between. In orbit within their solar systems we experience the colour and intensity of their light, their helpful and harmful radiation, the solar flares and storms, the impact and influence of other bodies drawn into their gravitational field, their creative and destructive energies.

So with our parents, like two stars in, for a while at least, close binary orbit around which we emerge from celestial dust into being and find more or less stable paths. Being so close, we cannot see them as more distant observers do, we see both more and, perhaps in some ways, less. We may come to imagine that all stars and systems are like ours, unable to see the light of the rest of the cosmos clearly for the glare of our own nearest stars, at least unless we move away into a more distant and perhaps quieter path around our parent stars and look outwards with clearer and more open minds, like the great telescopes with which we are beginning to find new and surprising world systems.

So I remember my father from a more distant orbit now, his memory an afterglow. My mother’s star shines with a different light, less dazzling, more stable, warmer, nourishing with a gentler radiance that she perhaps does not realise.

Among the many things I learnt from my father was a fascination with the stars, a love of the night skies. I’m glad of that, it’s a beautiful and amazing view.

Steam clean – relief from drowning

I am sitting with my head wrapped in a towel breathing steam in temporary relief from intermittent choking on the aftermath and “collateral damage” of a nasty cold that has filled my upper airways and chest with microscopic battle the last few days. I woke out of a dream of some region of England being used for military practice for the bitter Troubles in Ulster, the dream perhaps arising from the resonance of narrow-minded hate-filled comments I read in passing on Facebook not long but too soon before turning in, too tired and late to meditate and release my mind from things I cannot change.

Thinking of those years in the 1970s and early 80s when unrest and murder and hatreds were at their most intense and active in that uneasy land – for me, fortunately, in the news and not my daily life – I recall the relative simplicity of things. A time of fewer channels, when bigotry and binary views of the world were mostly spread in smaller circles – in the pub, works van, watching TV (4 channels), muttering at the tabloid on the train. Respite, release from the feeling of a need to say something, anything, in response to yet another joy or outrage was a little easier; the Forum closed for rest and cleaning in those days, it didn’t chatter on in your pocket, leaving echoes in your head.

So reading the compassion-free comments that captioned an image of more deluded and hopeful and despairing refugees (other adjectives also available according to your views) arriving with the tide in southern Europe I felt no rage towards the commentator, just a realisation of how widespread and deep the poisons of hatred and division are in every part of the world; most worryingly in those nations with the greatest wealth and actual security and established education. There are real problems to be tackled, many we have collectively failed to collaborate to face, his comments arise from things we need to discuss and deal with for sure. It’s the retreat into a blind trench warfare of beliefs that is so unhelpful, worse in its own way, or at least as bad, as the consensus-free committees that leave everybody outside frustrated and reactive.

I have not “unfriended” him, deliberately, I want to keep open even a silent channel of communication through the rising hedges and walls of a social network that resembles a labyrinth of walled gardens, within which people sit isolated with fellow enthusiasts for their particular flower, be it roses, tulips or poison ivy. I await a moment when, like a sniper with one round left for the enemy general, I can conceive and convey a comment to his rants that may actually make him think and reply with a more open view of the situation, a shift, even briefly, from binary to base-ten view of the world, from “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” to seeing that there are other places to stand and go to. Or perhaps I am, like that metaphorical sniper, already surrounded, the general is not one man but is now manifesting in so many heads that his uniformed body is now redundant to the cause he led; hope and some faith in the benefit of helping even one person see something differently sustain me in my hideout, however hopeless.

And, after all, these pervasive media are themselves neutral, facilitating the spread of joy and hope and healing as well as mental poisons; we need to keep the channels open though, at least let poisoned messages sprout but wither un-nourished, rather than just block them to keep the smell of a different flower out of our own garden, to revert to that metaphor.

I let it go at last, switched off devices, went to bed, “to sleep, perchance to dream…” and now, here I am, my mind and airways a little clearer, weary but no longer drowning from within, steam-cleaned for a short while, while the earliest commuters drive by outside and I lie down to rest a little.

Maybe there is value and a wider benefit in simply sending out basic good wishes, if I can’t think of or lack the present skills to do more effective things, even if that just means that I get a better rest and don’t carry the poison to spread on to others, inadvertently, through careless speech or actions. OK, just that then, for now, starting with you, dear reader, and thanks for reading this.


(Perhaps a a better metaphor: a guerrilla gardener with one seed of a different plant, the compassion tree, that I would plant surreptitiously in the least dark corner of his garden? Too late, go to bed mate!)


It’s cold and crisp here today, taking a short walk to Bantock Park on the west side of Wolverhampton. The Rose Garden looks barren, an arrangement of cropped stumps and jagged branches corralled in neat miniature hedges or tied to bare metal frames like forgotten prisoners. There’s not even enough sunlight to power the sundial.


Winter, above, but underground the slow stirring begins.
I am warm indoors now, in the cafe, enjoying good coffee and delicious cake and free wifi.
On the way here I sent the first of several letters that I hope will begin something new this Spring.