Kathleen Jamie (2019) Surfacing.

‘Please, are you worker, or student?’ the girl asked in polite English with Chinese accent.

Kathleen Jamie, in an earlier incarnation, was asked that question. She was in eastern Amdo province, designated by China, ‘Autonomous Region of Tibet’, which means it was regarded as China. I’d heard of Amdo because of Peter Matthiessen’s classic, The Snow Leopard. I guess that makes me a student of literature. In the 1980s, when Tibetan villagers came shopping on yaks, or horseback, played Space Invaders, and perhaps visited the ancient Buddhist Labrang Monastery, Jamie was excavating herself. She knew she wanted to be a writer, but wasn’t sure how to go about it.

The work of a writer is to write. Jamie has managed to do that and make a living from writing, which is not the same thing. She begins her journey, outward and inward, in ‘The Rainbow Cave’ in the West Highlands, a bone cave where hundreds of reindeer antlers were excavated in the 1920s. No one is really sure how they got there.

Archaeology is about sifting mud and sifting theories. Jamie joins a number of digs. Dig is perhaps misleading. In the Alaskan village of Quinhagak, for example, the land thaws and freezes and thaws and freezes and everything much stays the same. Until the thaw comes earlier and the freezing later and with less snow and ice. And the past where the villagers’ ancestors lived and died, creeps up to the surface.

‘In Links of Noltland’ archaeological dig—which means sandy dunes of the land of the cattle—Jamie rents a room and joins the other fieldworkers in Orkney. The wind has obliterated much of an ancient dune system and the vegetation vanished. Another aspect of global warming, which has uncovered an extensive Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement (without much evidence of bronze). Historic Scotland provided funding for further excavation, but Historic Scotland was made history—defunct. The Phd educated students hear the clock ticking. The wind will bury their finds. The funding formula has been exposed.  

‘It appears that the first farmers had built a hefty enclosing wall and, within it, several discrete houses with various yards and passageways and “activity areas”. Or maybe not.’

It’s the maybe not, that gets you. I guess when we’re young and excavating a piece of ground, as I did, behind the huts, with Jim Henry helping me, it wouldn’t have surprised us had we found King Arthur’s crown. Well, it might have surprised us a bit, but then we’d probably have fought over who found it first and who owned it. Instead we found bits of molten glass from an ancient volcano. ‘Or maybe not’.

 Digging up fragments of bones and pottery is no fun. It’s work. Boring, back-breaking work and hard on the knees. If our ancestors weren’t dead by their early twenties, then they were ancient crones with arthritis and sore teeth. Or as a disillusioned George Orwell put it, after fighting in the Spanish Civil War, if they hadn’t died in battle, they’d have died of ‘some smelly disease’.

‘Or maybe not.’

Student or workers? Phd fieldworkers on digs being paid, indirectly, by the state?

They need to have some understanding what they’re looking for. And although it can seem like assembly-line work, it is and isn’t.

What were they like, these peoples being uncovered? They didn’t know they were living in Neolithic times. Just the same as we don’t really appreciate we’re living at a time of global warming and mass-species extinction. The Anthropocene Age.  They just got on with it, was a common refrain. We just got on with it too.

I’d have liked to know more about Jamie’s granny, the wife of a miner, who lost her way with depression and was taken away with a blanket over her head. Given shock therapy, which helped. ‘Or maybe not.’

Good writers create connections, resonance between past and present. Jamie does that. We might just get on with it, like our ancestors. But knowing their story helps us to know our story better. Worker or student?  Surfacing brings much of what it is to be human—to the surface.

Peter Matthiessen (2010 [1978]) The Snow Leopard.

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen is a holy book, one of those books you could read again and again, but probably won’t. It was reprinted as a Vintage Classic for a new generation of readers. I got called me a book snob, online. It irked me, at first. Readings what I do. I’m one of the clichéd, if I’ve nothing to read, I’ll read the ingredients of the sauce bottle kinda guy. I even read poetry, but I don’t put it on my chips very often.  But honestly, I’m a book snob. I give myself reasons. Starting with because I’m getting older and there are only so many books I can read. Usually, I forget books as soon as I read them, but The Snow Leopard leaves an imprint of something remembered. There’s something pure and wise in the writing. George Orwell suggested good writing was like looking through a pane of glass. Great writing holds up a mirror to the soul.

The Zen expression of Matthiessen’s beloved second wife ‘D’ ‘No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place’ is matched by the words of his transcribed diary of a journey outward and inward that rings true and pure.

‘Expect nothing,’ Matthiessen’s guru, Eldo Rosh,i had warned him on the day he left. He had also held his wife’s left hand and Matthiessen had held her right hand as she died and they chanted and renewed their Buddhist vows.

Matthiessen’s quest is renewal and if fate brings it, to see the fabled snow leopard, which only two Westerners had seen (until tens of millions viewed it on David Atttenborough’s Planet Earth, sipping tea and letting Digestive crumbs settle on the cushion, but that’s a different story).

Matthiessen carries his ego and his fate with him as a tortoise carries its shell. Roshi’s advice to be ‘light, light, light’ was for both the inner and outer journey.  The great sins for his Sherpas, carriers and guides on his journey Westward, Nothward and up At Crystal Mountain was ‘do not pick wild flowers and do not threaten children’. I like these dictums.

‘The sherpas are of the famous mountain tribe of north-east Nepal, near Namche Bazzar, whose men accompany the ascents of the great peaks: they are Buddhist herders who have come down in recent centuries out of eastern Tibet—sherpa is a Tibetan word for ‘easterner’…

Porters are mostly local men of uncertain occupation and unsteadfast habit, notorious for giving trouble’.

GS, his European travelling companion, sets out on a different goal, to study the autumnal rutting habit of the Bharal, Himalayan blue sheep, to determine whether they were archetypal ‘strange sheep’ or goat in the Land of Dolopo. All but closed to Westerners. With the coming snows and the clock ticking there is a limited window of opportunity in which GS the zoologist and Matthiessen, the biologist, are both primed as much for failure as success. They are an odd couple, who in their different ways shun human company. Yet, they seek the distant companionship and understanding of each other. A different kind of love.

They are short of money and their time window is dictated by heavy snow and the whims of district officials and police. And Matthiesen is 56 years old and does not have the mountain lungs of the porters or sherpas. Physically, he’s not up to it. He’s travelling heavy, rather than light. After over a week of walking in heavy rain they’ve not got as far as they hoped. Everything takes longer.  

‘All the way to heaven is heaven,’ as Saint Catherine of Sienna observed after three years of silence. As Mathiessen and his travelling companions gets away from civilization there are moments of grace.

But the obverse of this, all the way to hell is hell, as they come down, literally and metaphysically.

‘My knees and feet and back are sore, and all my gear is wet. I wear my last dry socks upside down so that the hole in the heal sits on top of my foot; these underpants ripped, must be worn backwards.’

We know, of course, Matthiessen’s quest to see and experience close contact with the snow leopard is doomed, but more cherished spiritual attainment, is putting his battered life in order. He promised his son he’d be home soon, home for Halloween. He knew it was a lie. But needs must.  

Needs always must. Unless you are the Rimpoche, ‘precious one’ and High Lama of Shay, Crystal Monastery. Sitting on his stone terrace facing the Crystal Mountain. Matthiessen hadn’t recognised him when they first met, seeing only a crippled old monk curing clothes in some awful goat-brain mixture. He’s here the second time by invitation. Served sun-dried green yak cheese in a coarse powder, with tsampa and buttered tea, called so-cha served in blue china cups in the mountain sunshine by Takla, the acolyte of Rimpoche. It’s heaven.

Matthiessen politely enquires about the Rimpoche’s isolation, especially with his twisted legs and arthritic bones which make it difficult of the High Lama to get about.

The High Lama, laughs, infectiously.

‘Of course I am happy here. It’s wonderful. Especially when I have no choice.’

The lesson Matthiessen takes from his meeting is acceptance.

Have you seen the snow leopard?

No! Isn’t is wonderful.

But as Matthiessen comes back down to earth, it isn’t so wonderful. All the way to heaven is heaven. All the way to hell is hell. Read on – and ponder.

Gavin Francis (2020) Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession.

Gavin Francis tells us of his love affair with islands and maps. And he traces his addiction to a district library in Fife he visited as a child aged eight or nine. How his little fingers traced patterns over atlas and archipelagos ‘as if reading Braille’. As an adult he had to choose between studying medicine, or becoming a geographer. A romantic notion to which I say, you’re a fucking liar, but hey, we all tell fibs. It’s how you tell them that matters.

He quotes John Berger’s description of Gigha, ‘A  uterus leading to the western sky’.  That alone makes it worth reading and his account of his odysseys of island hopping to a more sedate existence and medical practice in the centre of Edinburgh (you need serious money to live there) is knowledgeable, in an easy-to-read style, which isn’t as easy as it sounds.

‘A fair summary of what I’m attempting here: a simple and sincere cartography of my own obsession with the twinned but opposing allures of island and city, of isolation and connection’.

Here’s island life as an ideal.

W.B. Yeats, small lake island in County Sligo.

The lake-island of Innisfree

‘I will arise and go now, go to Innisfree. And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.’

But be warned, like ye old maps of here be dragons, island life such as the year spent as a warden on Unst, with the gannet colony overlooking the Muckle Flugga, must be chosen or it becomes a prison. Francis tells us that ‘isolate comes from the Italian word isolare: to make an island.

‘We have the unnecessary and foolish word: isolate.’

Eleven autobiographical chapters with overlapping themes end in Island Dreams. Islands simplify life and there is the commonality of escaping the clock and finding time. Finding yourself and where you’re meant to be. Often thrown back into a different century.

In Letters From an Island, Louise Mac Niece, wrote of his gaiety at having come north, running away from the south’s ‘cruel clocks’.

Francis visits Inchcolm (Holy Isle) Iona of the East, Bass Rock (Prison Isle) and  Inchkeith, Edinburgh’s leprosarium that shows the tick-tock of choosing and being chosen sometimes by God, sometimes by man and cruel nature. No vehicles. No phones. No radio. A falling back on yourself. A revelation of your real nature.

James IV experiment on Inchkeith was ostensibly for a higher purpose, to reveal the language of angels. (I’m sure I read a book with that title.) The first Scottish and English king ordered his lower subjects to take a mute woman to Inchkeith, to give her two orphan children, and provide her with everything she needed. He wanted to discover what language the children would speak when they were old enough to have perfect speech. ‘Some sources said they spoke good Hebrew, but I did not know any reliable sources for these claims’.

In the realms of higher ideals, there are always casualties and it’s always the poor that suffer most, first and last.

Francis uses the ‘precious one’ Rinpoche and Lama of Shey on the Crystal Mountains of Himalaya as an examplar of being and belonging. The Rinpoche whose body is twisted with arthritis has an acolyte but spends his days in a cell looking out into the diamond light of the Crystal Mountains. He has not left in eight years and is unlikely to ever do so.

‘Of course I’m here,’ the Lama said. ‘Especially when I have no choice.’  

Author of The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen makes much of the Rimpoche’s laughter and good humour, but italicises ‘Especially’. To choose is to be chosen and all is right in the world.

Francis makes much of the Rinpoche’s choice too. It contains in it the paradox of letting go and freely choosing unchoosing. Ironically, in an act of synchronicity, I was also reading The Snow Leopard when I was reading Francis’s book about the lure of island and city life. Books he tells us are also islands, I often choose. Matthiessen’s journey is a Vintage Classic. Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession is entertaining but neither vintage nor a classic. There’s no shame in that. The Precious One might be perfect, but the rest of us plodders…Read on.

unwriterly advice

https://unsplash.com/@olga_konono

In the bestseller written by Elizabeth Strout called My Name is Lucy Barton, the protagonist idealises another writer called Sarah Payne. That’s a long sentence. I’ll break it down.

Elizabeth Strout is Lucy Barton is Sarah Payne. ‘All life amazes me,’ is the last line in the book. And in the Buddhist world we all are each other (until we reject the illusion of Suchness and reach the shore of Nirvana, which isn’t really a shore and isn’t really Nirvaha, but the Great Void, which isn’t nothingness, or much of suchness either).

Elizabeth Strout >Lucy Barton> Sarah Payne (all writers, fictional and real).

Here’s the advice from one of them, or all of them. Take it with a lump of suchness.

‘And I think sometimes of Sarah Payne…how exhausted she became, teaching. And I think how she spoke of the fact that we only have one story, and I think I don’t know what her story was or is.’  

Writers that teach aren’t writers that write. In a way they’re second class. Writers that can’t write, teach, sutra.  More than that, teaching leaches the goodness out of Sarah Payne’s (pain’s) soul, so she can’t write. Discuss?

In terms of economics that’s true. The economic cost of doing something is not doing something else. When we do one thing, we can’t do the other. Although, of course, our bookshelves groan with learned professors. Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Caroll), C.S Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien and  Umberto Eco, for example, that teach and write. That’s the exception to the rule argument.

Is it an exception or is it a rule?

Nobody has asked me to teach and nobody asks me to write. But usually when I read a novel in which the protagonist is a writer or librarian (Stephen King’s protagonists are often writers) then I groan.

This ties in with the one story I continually write and rewrite. And in these fictional worlds none of my protagonists are writers. For a good example of a writer that continually writes the same story, his characters having different haircuts – think Irvine Welsh after Trainspotting. And he’s not even Welsh. He’s Scottish like me and tends to write about characters that think writers are well up themselves and should come down and get fucking at it. And I’m not even a fan of Irvine Welsh, I prefer Stephen King. And I’m not a fan of him either. The problem of being a writer talking about writing is to most folk it’s fucking boring and shows a lack of imagination. I’m a connoisseur because all I do is write and read stuff. I’m an exception to the rule, which isn’t a rule.  

The historian and writer Robert A. Caro nailed it when he was talking about writing and farming and how you need to pick up the vocabulary and live it to appreciate it fully. There are two ways of learning, lived experience or reading about it. I tend towards the latter. Writers have their noses pressed against a keyboard. If you want to talk about  The Snow Leopard live it like Peter Matthiessen and your vocabulary will be rich as buffalo shit, or watch David Attenborough and leave extreme environments to other writers that are less desk-bound.

If we only have one story, I’ve not perfected it yet. Maybe I never will, not in this lifetime. The secret of good writing is the secret of bad writing. You need to keep repeating the same mistakes again and again until you move on to a higher plane and realise none of it matters. And you must carry this secret into your next story.

Here’s Lucy Barton pondering the nature of time.

I think of Jeremy telling me I had to be ruthless as a writer. And I think how I did not go visit my brother and sister and my parents because I was always working on a story and there was never enough time. (But I didn’t want to go either.) There was never enough time, and then later I knew if I stayed in my marriage I would not write another book, not the kind I wanted to, and there is that as well. But really, the ruthlessness, I think, comes in grabbing onto myself, in saying: This is me…

The ultimate truth in Buddhahood is understanding and appreciating the permanent nature of eternity. The starting point is self. Arthur Miller was willing to concede that Timebends and all things may fall away, but he was going to write about them anyway. His one true story, was many storied.  

‘What writer makes money?’ Lucy Barton asks.

Certainly not me. Or 99% of other writers. I guess it’s an occupation that’s not an occupation, that’s doomed to failure for the masses.

‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to but they do.’ Philip Larkin writes This Be The Verse.

Lucy Barton writes about writing about her family. ‘I kept thinking how the five of us had had a really unhealthy family, but I saw them too how our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another’s hearts. My husband said, “But you don’t even like them.”

Any writer knows, nice people are boring. Their great secret is they’ve got nothing to hide. Molla tells Lucy Barton what we already know. For every Jesus we need a Judas.  

‘You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about your story. You only have one.’

Molla hasn’t got a secret. Lucy Barton has, she’s a writer.

A writer’s job is the same as Buddah’s, to hold every moment and to let it go, simultaneously. Here is Lucy Barton watching her dad, inhabiting him.

I remember only watching my father’s face so high above me, and I saw his lips become reddish with that candied apple that he ate because he had to…

And I remember this: he was interested in what he was watching. He had an interest in it.

Pay attention. Here’s Sarah Payne the writer giving Lucy Barton some advice about writing what you want to write, but the real advice comes at the end after rallying against stupid people that fail to understand.

‘Never ever defend your work.’   

It seems counterintuitive, but even a fool you don’t like can point out you’ve got your shoes on the wrong feet. In my writing it happens to me all the time. Insight is not a closed gate, but a gate you must leave open. Pay attention to your faults. Then with good karma you may not repeat them indefinitely. It’s nothing personal.

At the end of all lifetimes is the question a disgruntled admirer asks Sarah Payne.

He said, “What is your job as a writer of fiction?”

And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.

Amen. Go forth and multiply words.