There are Other Worlds…

I’m currently reading Cain’s Book by the Scottish Beat writer, Alexander Trocchi. I bought it second-hand a while ago and it’s been transgressively staring down at me ever since from where I wedged it in an untidy bookcase, daring me to read it. I’ve not got very far but I’m already finding it hard to put down. I thought I’d stop long enough to share this quote, though. It seemed to resonate uncannily with the present:

‘I had often said to Fay and Tom that there was no way out but that the acceptance of this could itself be a beginning. I talked of plague, of earthquake, of being no longer contemporary, of the death of tragedy which made the diarist more than ever necessary. I exhorted them to accept, to endure, to record. As a last act of blasphemy I exhorted them to be ready to pee on the flames.’




I watched  a TV programme the other day about life in Britain a century ago. It was entirely made of old black and white footage. Young men and women were enjoying themselves at the seaside, the year before the young men went off to fight in the First World War. It struck me that if I could step into the screen and join those young people with cheerful faces who were looking me in the eye through the camera, I’d meet a group of people whose ideas about foreigners might strike me as quaint. They would probably have read or known some of Kipling’s poetry (though some may have read  The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and much in between). That Europe was full of foreigners with proud, separate identities and divided into isolated nation states would seem to most of them to be the way things should be.

As we all know and as the young people in the film were about to discover, ways were being developed of killing on an industrial scale. I needn’t list the technological developments -good and bad- since. Suffice to say, one hundred years on, the internet has shrunk the world to the size of a hand-held device.

My grandfather fought at the Somme. He lived to see my father grow up. My father lived to see me grow up. My children are adults now, too. When you realise you’ve lived half a century, you realise what a short period of time it is, in human terms. In other words, not a lot of human lifetime separates me from those young people at the seaside.

We have barely had time, then, to think about the connected, high-tech world we’ve invented, never mind come to understand the different ways we might live in it. I voted to remain in the EU but, just over a week ago, people in the UK voted to leave it. Lots of them were wary of immigration but it is surely the case, in the long run, that people will  increasingly move freely in a world where information, investment, ideas and commodities can also be moved easily. It’s already happening. If you ask me, it’s good, it’s enriching, it’s something to celebrate. I hope there will come a time -okay, it’s still a long way off- when the word ‘foreigner’ will be meaningless. In the unlikely event of some extra-terrestrial being stepping out of a flying saucer some time in the future, our descendants will have to re-invent it.



Flute Recital

The flautist Katherine Birtles and the pianist Emily Smith gave a recital yesterday in a church not far from here. They were playing, among other things, the Sonatine by the French composer Henri Dutilleux. They were also playing works by Bach, Debussy and Prokofiev. I went along, as  I liked the sound of the programme and a chance to hear some real, live Henri Dutilleux  so close  to home was too good to miss. Full marks to the Swaledale Festival who organised the concert for seeking out performers keen to play his music. There’s no need for me to review the concert here as Katherine Birtles can be seen playing the piece on Youtube. Her performance speaks for itself.


Talking about Freedom

I’ve just been watching a documentary about Jean Paul Sartre, produced by the BBC in 1999. The BBC being the BBC and he being a radical iconoclast, I half expected it to turn into a hatchet-job.  I was pleasantly surprised, though. It does portray the man ‘warts and all’ but one is left with the impression that his warts were, on the whole, the kind that might well be found on any thinking person who lived through the middle of the twentieth century, were they to be this closely examined. It comes round to a positive, affirming conclusion, I think.  ‘He gave our generation a sense of freedom that directed our lives’, says one of those interviewed.  ‘We made choices which I think we can still identify with. I’m just aware that at the present time, the message of freedom that Sartre is delivering is not accepted as if this burden of freedom that he’s putting on everyone’s shoulders is too weighty . Maybe we are in a time when people don’t want to hear about freedom.’

That was  17 years ago. These days, I would argue, people seem to me to want to hear about it even less. To be clear, Sartre was taking about the freedom that we exercise from moment to moment to choose what we do next and, by so doing, to shape the individual we become – a freedom which, as he said, carries with it inevitable anxiety.  Exercising freedom, for Sartre, is a risky business – it’s easier to conform. He famously said that people were condemned to freedom. He also said that the French were most “free” when under German occupation: there were no easy ways out, no comfortable fall-back positions. One had to make frightening choices. Similarly, were he alive today, he might say that the refugees who make terrifying sea-journeys to reach Europe are more “free” than the Europeans they’ll have to live among. The pursuit of freedom is the  assigned lot of those who are driven to make difficult decisions or feel empowered enough to stand up for themselves (and, for that matter, for others). For my money, Jean Paul Sartre still has the power to empower.



Walking through the fields at twilight

Walking through the fields at twilight 
it's as if this is the only time 
and that daytime and night-time 
are no more than dreams of longing. 
Little has changed since I first went 
walking through the fields at twilight: 
it's as if this is the only time 
and the new house on the hill 
is no more than a dream 
and the spinning of the earth 
is no more than a dream: 
the sun is set, the moon is risen and I'm 
walking through the fields at twilight. 
It's as if this is the only time 
and that I have always been a man 
forever neither young nor old 
and the stones are the same stones 
and the trees I walk under 
have hardly changed since I first went 
walking through the fields at twilight. 
It's as if this is the only time 
and that daytime and night-time 
are no more than dreams of longing. 

(c) Sackerson, 2016

A Trip to the Hebrides

I came across a documentary about one of my favourite films this morning and spent a happy half hour watching it. It dawned on me as I did so that I had seen it before but I enjoyed watching it nevertheless.

In the film, Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) takes a trip to Scotland to marry her rich fiancé on the fictional Hebridean island of Kiloran. Bad weather prevents her from making the final crossing to the island. Waiting to make the trip she is forced to spend time with Torquil MacNiel (Roger Livesey) and his friends. As a result, Joan discovers that she’d rather catch her salmon in a river than buy it in a tin.

Not only does the film tell a gripping story – it’s also peppered with the quirky details that make Powell-Pressburger films so enjoyable. There are a couple in that well-chosen, two and a half minute clip above. Most famously, perhaps, there’s a roadside telephone box at the foot of a waterfall. It was built in the Summer. No-one realised that the waterfall was so loud the rest of the year that no-one using the box would be able to make themselves heard. The box actually exists – on Mull. Powell-Pressburger fans make pilgrimages to  the island to see it.



Le Boeuf…

Seen from the front window this morning. I’ve been posting music by Darius Milhaud recently. I’ve avoided his ballet, Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit, as it’s the most famous thing he wrote and there’s a lot more less well-known music by Milhaud that deserves to be heard to choose from. However, when I got up and looked out of that window…


…I was left with no choice. Once heard, never forgotten…


I was standing in the kitchen this morning, washing plates in the sink, when it started to hail. It came as a complete surprise to me as, from where I stood, by the kitchen window, the sun was shining and the sky looked blue. The small, white beads bounced all over the slabs outside, each finally coming to rest. Less than a minute later, the shower came to an end, as suddenly as it had started. By then, the first hailstones to land had already melted.

It struck me, why travel the world when the world will come to me? Molecules of water in these hailstones will have traveled the world themselves, flowing down the Amazon, spending centuries locked in glaciers and ice floes, plumbing the deepest parts of the ocean, towering in the sky as cumulus clouds. They may have been lapped up by dinosaurs. They may even have orbited the sun as part of a comet. And when you look at it like that, astronomy becomes the only science.