LISTENING TO THE SILENCES

 

CHAPTER 7 PAGE 1

If you have
a
thousand reasons
for
living

If you have a thousand reasons for living,
if you never feel alone,
if you wake up wanting to sing,
if everything speaks to you
from the stone in the road to the star in the sky,
from the loitering lizard, to the fish, lord of the sea,
if you understand the winds, and listen to the silence,
rejoice, for love walks with you,
love is your comrade, your brother, your sister!
Dom Helder Camera

Someone who always had my interest at heart once expressed the wish that a magic wand could be waved and somehow everything could be restored to a state of serenity. It was a lovely thought and wish, and at the time I am sure that I fully agreed. Now, having lived for over twenty more years, I am not so sure. Somehow, I think that it would be rather like being lifted to the top of Mount Everest by helicopter - great view, but sense of achievement? Not really. For successful climbers, I am sure that the actual climb will figure more in their thoughts than the view from the top. For myself, at the time - the early days of 1980 - I hadn't yet come to terms with my new knowledge and experience, let alone realised that there might be a goal. I had yet to meet anyone who showed in their face that they had seen the 'twin peaks of Mount Meru', and so, basically, I went about the business of regaining my confidence and coping with the reality of living.

Even if I had had my 'visionary's' goal, I doubt whether I would have proclaimed a pilgrimage. Always I have kept my emotions and inner desires and ambitions private except to a limited and close 'few'. Public and ostentatious displays of sentiment, or spiritually inspired emotion, have always embarrassed me, and so I sought not my palm from the Holy Land, nor my coquille badge from Santiago. My pilgrimage, if one there has been, has been into myself, exploring myself and my actions with a new vision, and becoming aware of the possibilities and potential that reside in practically everyone. I have always been a Christian - was I not baptised in the chapel-of-ease of the abbey church? Did I not attend regularly at the Sunday School and services of the close-by Calvinistic Methodist church, when we moved to our new home; and did I not become a communicant there and, later, in Glasgow? And did I not then become a Roman Catholic, with full conviction, at the time of my marriage? And then did I not put much into the local church life and belong to the St. Vincent de Paul Society that is charitably working for young people? Having absorbed the tenets and practices of a Christian life with my childhood breath, I had only deviated from them in minor ways, and yet looking back from the stance of maturity, I wonder and speculate whether I was confusing form with substance. There was obviously not a deep and abiding spirituality, however that may manifest itself, for where had been my resources when I so desperately needed that extra 'something' in hospital in the 'sixties and afterwards?

There were, anyway, new and imperative factors in my life that I would find difficult if not impossible to ignore. Could I put aside, turn away from the new knowledge that I had acquired, and the experiences that had been mine during the previous nine months? Had I wanted to do so, I would have found it impossible; entry had been gained into my mind and into my person, and now the question was to try to maintain control of as much of my thought and function as was humanly possible.

Yet again I have to ask your indulgence over this problem of communication; partly the choice of words with which to describe the indescribable; partly in how to assert my own personal certainty without in any way conveying a sense of 'spiritual superiority', or any form of exclusiveness. There are those who, having gained what they see as enlightenment in one or other of the world's esoteric philosophies, crushingly put down the neophyte with "If you have to ask that question, you obviously won't understand the answer!" No, there is nothing of that in me, nor in what I am trying to convey. I, myself, have never been a seeker after hidden truths - if anything, I went along in a sort of humdrum acceptance. I didn't see much future in the sort of analytically religious debates that sometimes went on in one particular naval mess in which I lived - the books of C.S.Lewis were making their appearance at the time and provoked new ideas - and yet, many years later, my friend David said that he had then admired my certainty. Who knows? Maybe I did have a solid belief that I applied in my life. My religion, if I thought about it at all, centred around the way in which I lived it and applied it, as a matter of practice rather than endlessly debating it, particularly if that debate was at the expense of another and different denomination or creed.

Possibly that is one of the keys to my way of thinking, to the ways in which I instinctively act, for the practical always seems to prevail - again a component of the intake of my infant breath, for the 'if you want it but can't afford it, you make it yourself' philosophy was around me from the beginning. Thus, in my early years, I wore clothes some of which my mother had made on her machine, or which she had knitted; ate food every bit of which, apart from bread, she had cooked; sat on chairs, or used other furniture, some of which my father had made; listened to a radio that he had constructed - I can still see the coils being wound, smell the solder and flux, see the outdoor aerial being strung between the chimney and a tall mast that he erected. I can still remember the tedium of taking accumulators into him at work where, as an electrician, he put them on charge. (Though there were benefits, for if I went to the works at a convenient time, I could stand above the coke ovens and watch the red hot coke being pushed out, and be smothered in the clouds of steam as the heat was quenched, and long to be the one who had control over this great big jet of water. Or I could go, preferably at night when it was all so much more dramatic, and watch the blast furnaces being tapped, and see the flow of slag into the huge ladles, and the molten, glowing iron run into its pig moulds.)

This was the father who, outside work, slaved away as the local union branch secretary: who didn't smoke or drink, but instead was able to buy a small car long before they became a common possession; the mother who, with her north-country canny thrift, ensured that we were buying our own house, and also had money to finance an annual holiday, well before holidays with pay became the norm. Within the family from which my father came, there were the beginnings of a parallel innate 'compulsion', for want of a better word; a compulsion to be involved in activities for the benefit of others. Thus my grandfather, who had served and been wounded in the Boer War, had come back from service under Baden Powell and, inspired by him, had founded the first local Boy Scout branch. It was he, who, with my grandmother, had created the first local spiritualist church. They both worked according to their convictions and desire to help others in the early developing new approaches to 'healing' - as also, as I was later to find out, did my Uncle Gwyn. If I wanted to, I could go and watch Gwyn at the local copper works, where he skilfully turned the vibrating sheets of copper as they passed between the rapidly spinning rollers. Or I could watch him and my Aunt Grace in their other life as market gardeners, where the hands that healed had a way with plants also.

It was a family from which I came that, as far as I was aware or can recall, never sought 'preferment', never pulled strings. This has been the way of my life, of self-enrichment in the intellectual sense, of avoiding absolutely any self-seeking, self-advancing 'brotherhood' or whatever, and rejoicing in developing my life as much as I am able by means of my own efforts. How could it be any other way? One hears more and more of 'foetal programming', well, I haven't had much time yet to think about that and its consequences, but certainly there was 'childhood and adolescent programming' in its broadest sense, and for that I am most grateful.

I could not have been kept in closer touch with reality and the practical, than when ultimately I left home, and became a number, C/MX 656045, in the Royal Navy (where I did learn the negative preferment of a Welsh accent!). The greatest 'hands on' reality was in my work as a Radar Mechanic, which I have already touched on. The equipment for which I was responsible had to work and be kept working by my efforts, and it had to be accurate, whether it was 'ranged' electronically, or pragmatically from the harbour at Haifa to the distant Crusader fort at Acre. Without its function, it was useless hunting terrorist infiltrators at night along the Palestinian coast, while it also contributed greatly to the safety of the ship as it 'went about its business in great waters', as the daily Naval prayer has it. I had experienced the reality of German bombs and V2 rockets; had looked down from my training establishment, HMS Ganges, onto 'buzz-bombs', as they sped up the estuary of the Stour in Suffolk. I had faced the reality of Irgun or Stern Gang terrorists in their attempts to put limpet mines on the ship as we lay at anchor in Haifa Bay. I had seen the reality of the destruction of cities and the impact upon their inhabitants, whether in Britain, Valetta, or Naples.

I began to experience a new reality when, following graduation, I began my career at the Windscale Works at Sellafield, for what could be more real than the nuclear weapons, that were the original purpose of the plant? I had no problem with that, for such was the thinking at the time, and nuclear bombs had been seen to bring to a horrible end, an incredibly horrible war. Nevertheless, I was more at ease within my involvement with the peaceful application of nuclear energy at the Calder power plant, even though I had an exceptional reality in my responsibility for its measuring and safety devices. Perhaps the ultimate responsibility and reality came on the day on which the Queen opened it, and the world was watching. Because of this very public gaze, it would obviously have been a great embarrassment if the reactor should shut itself down automatically, as the result of failure of any of the safety devices themselves. As many of the devices were new and innovative, it was a possibility that had to be faced. So, a piece of wire was put in place to bypass all of the automatic shut-down circuitry, and, during the Queen's tour and the official opening, I stood ready to snatch off that wire if there had happened to be a genuine operating reason which demanded that the plant should be shut down quickly.

If it is not obvious, what I am trying to demonstrate is that I am not some head-in-the-clouds, ethereal, self-deluding being who is totally out of touch with reality. The converse is by far and away the truth. At a basic level, consider the room in which I am now, and every aspect of its function, in which I can see something from my own hands and mind. It is upstairs and runs at two different levels, north to south through the house. The computer is a bit of an oddity in this setting, but I have grown used to it. At the moment, a bright November sun is streaming in at the far end through a large picture window of my own design. The opening was enlarged by Oliver, whose house I can see nearly half a mile away, now that the trees are bare. Oliver is brilliant at working with the cobble construction of these thick walls. The window was made, installed and glazed by my joiner friend Alec, who has supplied me with much good wood and also contributed his handiwork over recent years, as time has become more valuable to me and I pay to have things done that hitherto I would have done myself. Beside me as I sit, and with a view to the west, is another window, hole courtesy of Oliver, window from Alec, and the distant Irish sea, viewed between three century-old pines, is where I often lift my gaze when short of inspiration. In the same west wall, towards the far end of the room, is another window, this one courtesy of my long dead friend Bob, also a genius with a cobble wall, while immediately on my right is a north facing window that I renewed myself. My gaze through the latter takes me to Lakeland's highest mountain, already with its first winter snow touching the summit. It is a room that is so full of light, and which is so nice just to be in, just to sit and look out to sea, or south, through some more mature pines to the 'earth-mother' rounded contours of Black Combe.

 

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