Walk the Walk

With an apparently innate antipathy to the internal combustion engine, I’ve always been a keen perambulator. I was born and brought up in Stourbridge, that strange interface between the industrial Black Country and the Worcestershire and Shropshire countryside. My beloved Grandfather was a great walker. In my late teens I journeyed to Birmingham to catch a gig and, not wanting to leave early to catch a last bus or train, and lacking any alternative, walked the twelve miles or so back home. I related this to my Grandfather, and it reminded him of the time he had some unexpected army leave, and had to walk a similar distance back home, only to find his wife saying “What are YOU doing here?”

Living on the edge of the town, we weren’t far from a small mature woodland, Norton Covert, once a working sand pit accessing the ice-age sand deposits in the area. The main access point to the Covert was on the junction of Sandy Road and the Sandy Lane bridleway. All this made for fine walking, and a valuable asset in my early years.

Anyone who’s engaged in country walks may have their own primal, formative experience of this. For me, walking brings up memories of those sandy lanes next to mature woodland, long straight roads leading to a topographically diverse Covert with great views of itself; an opportunity to observe nature. My first close encounter with a fox was in Norton Covert: a moment between us where the fox, which had been rummaging in a pile of leaves, and I locked eyes for a moment before the fox remembered itself and scarpered. I remember some of my primary animistic experiences there, as well as observing how wildlife uses the canopy as a transport network, and observing the signs of human impact on the woods.

A walk, to me, is to embark on a journey of unpredictable possibilities. The word walk traces its history back to the Indo-European  *walg- (“to twist, turn, move”), via the Old English wealcian (“to curl, roll up”), to the  Middle English walken (“to move, roll, turn, revolve, toss”). I like this element of unpredictability in the word. As has been noted by such luminaries as Will Self, walking is political; the twisty-turny connotations of the verb ‘to walk’ leave the route to the destination – or even the idea of a destination at all – unwritten. The word is intimately bound up with political tensions around land, access rights, and liberty. Wikipedia contributors assert that:

freedom to roam takes the form of general public rights which are sometimes codified in law. The access is ancient in parts of Northern Europe and has been regarded as sufficiently basic that it was not formalised in law until modern times.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_to_roam

I’m curious as to the truth of this assertion. These islands historically are known for pioneering the practice of enclosure, erasing common land. This practice proved controversial in law and in letters, being criticised from Sir Thomas More to George Orwell. Tudor politicians were concerned about the effects of land enclosure on the well-being of the people and on the economy, and the people themselves also made their views known in a series of revolts, riots and rebellions.

Kinder Scout to Right to Roam

In 1932, an organised mass trespass of Kinder Scout in the Peak District took place, leading to violence as local landowners and gamekeepers tried to force the ramblers away:

several of the ramblers were arrested and imprisoned… over the following days and weeks much larger trespasses were held and public opinion started to sway in the trespassers’ favour

Ramblers Dot Org

Today, we can see this as the beginning of a journey, taking in the establishment of National Parks, footpaths and trails, and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, codifying the right of free access to certain types of land in England and Wales.

Meanwhile

Luminaries of the Enlightenment wrote on the value of walking. Thomas Jefferson, the essential American politician (intimate with revolution, nation-building, war, and slavery) wrote to his nephew advising a course of study, including two hours a day of physical exercise. Jefferson advised “the gun…it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind”. Jefferson continues:

Let your gun, therefore, be the constant companion of your walks. Never think of taking a book with you. The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you. Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far. The Europeans value themselves on having subdued the horse to the uses of man. But I doubt whether we have not lost more than we have gained by the use of this animal. No one has occasioned so much the degeneracy of the human body. An Indian goes on foot nearly as far in a day, for a long journey, as an enfeebled white does on his horse, and he will tire the best horses. There is no habit you will value so much as that of walking far without fatigue.

The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Volume I, pp298

In a similar vein, but more English mode, the English essayist William Hazlitt, celebrated in his time but little-read today, wrote:

One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey; but…I cannot see the wit of walking and talking at the same time. When I am in the country, I wish to vegetate like the country. I am not for criticizing hedge-rows and black cattle. I go out of town in order to forget the town and all that is in it. There are those who for this purpose go to watering-places and carry the metropolis with them. I like more elbow-room and fewer incumbrances. I like solitude…

Hazlitt touches on the therapeutic value of walking

There is hardly anything that shows the short-sightedness or capriciousness of the imagination more than travelling does. With change of place we change our ideas; nay, our opinions and feelings.

On Going On A Journey (1822)
Gustave Caillebotte - Paris Street; Rainy Day

A kind of freedom can be found in walking the city too.

Paris Street; Rainy Day  Gustave Caillebotte

We’ve explored the country walk as a journey without a destination, where in slowing down, and spontaneously exploring the sights and sounds, the mind can relax. Why not bring such an attitude to city walks too? The flâneur, from the French for “stroller”, “lounger”, “saunterer”, or “loafer”, emerged as a privileged and critical position in the project we call modernity, not unlike Auden’s Airman, emblematic of the changes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The flâneur stands, or rather strolls, to this day, “casual wanderer, observer and reporter of street-life in the modern city”.

The figure emerged through the writings of Charles Baudelaire, whose flâneur “wandered the streets and arcades of nineteenth-century Paris looking at and listening to the kaleidoscopic manifestations of the life of a modern city. The flâneur’s method and the meaning of his activities were bound together, one with the other,” according to Bobby Seal of the Psycho-Geographic Review. As Seal explains

In the twentieth-century Walter Benjamin returned to the concept of the flâneur in his seminal work, The Arcades Project.  This weighty, but uncompleted, study used Baudelaire’s flâneur as a starting point for an exploration of the impact of modern city life upon the human psyche…

Benjamin puts forward two complementary concepts to explain our human response to modern city life.  Erlebnis can be characterised as the shock-induced anaesthesia brought about by the overwhelming sensory bombardment of life in a modern city, somewhat akin to the alienated subjectivity experienced by a worker bound to his regime of labour.  Erfahrung is a more positive response and refers to the mobility, wandering or cruising of the flâneur; the unmediated experience of the wealth of sights, sounds and smells the city has to offer.  Benjamin was interested in the dialectic between these two concepts and cited Baudelaure’s poetry as a successful medium for turning erlebnis into erfahrung

Baudelaire, Benjamin and the Birth of the Flâneur

Greener Horizons

In working with vulnerable clients, we may find they lack access to green spaces within and outside the city. Services I work with have noted clients who have never, or rarely, been outside the city, and who are unaware or unable to access green spaces near them. Some clients have spoken of the benefits of breaks outside the city, and the benefits of walking in the green.

Liaison and Diversion Services in Birmingham work with clients with multiple health and social challenges referred from the criminal justice system. L&D Birmingham initiated a series of walks in green spaces in the city. Participants included staff and service users. The notion of peer support taking place in outside environments, on a walk, was thought might be beneficial, talking and healing while doing an activity – multi-tasking, in other words.

Walking, in the sense of free roaming in open green spaces, has a lot to offer in terms of improving the physical health and well being of clients on low incomes with multiple social challenges: turning erlebnis into erfahrung.

Walking as a post-trauma therapy has plenty of anecdotal evidence beghind it. Here for example is Jennifer Tennant’s essay “Walking Myself Home”, in which she writes

For me, walking makes space for reflection, much like church or meditation does for others.

Tennant argues walking may have physiological effects similar to eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and thus effective for symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress.

The evidence seems conclusive. The conditions for well-being include the need for walking, for exploring both the twists and turns of our environment, the world we live in, and the possibilities of our souls.

Thanks to three individuals for their invaluable contributions to this post: Emma for initially linking walking with EMDR, Matt B for information under greener horizons, and James E for putting me onto the Hazlitt essay.

Laughter Lines

In late 2015, after physically healing an injury I’d sustained in midsummer, I was looking for some psychological healing experiences. Laughter, of course, is often called ‘the best medicine’ and there seems to be some truth in this. I discovered laughter yoga, which I found an excellent tonic.

What’s the medical evidence for this? Somewhat inconclusive it seems. We know laughter produces endorphins, and seems to involve the limbic system, specifically the hippocampus and the amygdala. In other words, it’s ancient, something laid down early in our primate evolution, and indeed laughter has been observed in other primates.

On the other hand, there’s some evidence the cortex is involved: there’s a cognitive component. This makes intuitive sense. I’ve been told I have a very sophisticated sense of humour. I will laugh or smile along with the rest of humanity at funny cat videos, but I also laugh when others do not. For example, I recall watching the 1995 Judge Dredd movie, in my view an underrated film, and finding it hugely funny in the way it uses American cliches and mythologies to satirical effect. You can’t find that funny without a certain level of cognitive sophistication. My co-watchers were confused as to what I found so funny, while I found the film a fresh look at America. Christopher Hitchens was inclined to consider irony one of the consolations for the losing battle we are all fighting, and something he couldn’t live without; I’d agree irony and wit are precious jewels, producing such satisfying smiles.

Laughter seems to have evolved as a survival strategy for both individual and social health. There’s evidence it relieves stress, boosts the immune system, helps keep a healthy heart and blood flow, and even reduce allergic reactions. It may extend life. It also has social benefits, improving relationships amongst humans. It can also be used to reinforce social isolation of particular humans while improving bonding amongst those who join in the laughter, thus reinforcing shared social norms. The object of the laughter thus plays an important role in those relationships.

In these times, anything that can help our health, particularly the immune system, as well as improve social relationships, has a value that perhaps should not be understated. So I thought I’d share with you three videos that have made me laugh a lot recently.

Thinking about the first example, I guess this is a case of laughing at someone else’s expense, in this case Liam Gallagher’s. And who better? Here’s Sacha Baron-Cohen, on an American chat show, with a very funny story about him:

Chat shows, in amongst the tedium, can provide some spectacular moments of wit and humour. I’ve always been an admirer of Graham Norton. His early forays into the chat show format on Channel Four I thought constituted a quiet revolution in the chat show format. The way he re-focused the format away from the guests and onto the audience, facilitating their participation in the conversation, was very clever. Using early internet humour to widen the tired chat show format into something that could comment on our wider culture, stands as a genuine advance in the form, and he’s partly responsible I think for bringing internet culture to the mainstream.

Here are two examples of humour, again at someone else’s expense. Peter Capaldi and Tom Hanks seize a golden opportunity to make fun of David Walliams, who runs with it beautifully.

My final example is an example of self-deprecating humour, but also perfect timing. Lee Mack tells a very funny story of how he got sacked from Pontins, so perfectly told it even has John Cleese doubled up. Mack apparently regarded this as one of the proudest moments of his career:

laughing buddha

Laugh every day, even if you don’t want to. One thing I learned from my laughter yoga experiences is that simulated laughter brings many of the same health benefits as the ‘real thing’, and can easily lead to ‘real’ laughter in ourselves and others.

Laughter, in fact, has been called one of the most contagious things known to humanity, and usefully is transmittable over a distance of more than two metres. Along with orgasm it’s also one of the most effective natural analgesic mechanisms available to us. Perhaps in addition to collectively clapping for those on the front line, we could engage in collective laughter at those responsible for the current crisis, as a way of excluding them from society, and improving social bonds amongst the rest of us?

We have nothing to lose but our pains.

This post’s featured image is copyright Amauta Fotografia, used under license.

Opiatic For The People

On becoming an undergraduate, I soon looked up Karl Marx’s well-known, and often quoted remark on religion: the opium of the people.

Nuance and subtlety drift over time. We may assume Marx dismisses religion as a soothing crutch, or more pejoratively as a harmful addiction. But we can assume nothing from one out of context quotation. For Marx and his world in 1844, opium’s connotations would have been so different from ours, it seemed to my new undergraduate brain trite and naive to assume anything at all about Marx’s remark. Besides, Karl’s pipe was tobacco-laden. It’s just a metaphor. I wanted to look at the whole text of the remark, and to understand, without prejudice, the whole argument.

The remark comes from Marx’s Introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844), which begins:

For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.

Two bold claims. Let’s see if we can unpack this.

Continue reading “Opiatic For The People”

Ó hÉighnigh?

Since I mentioned my University days on Tuesday, I thought of a fragment of that time, on Seamus Heaney, who would have turned 80 last week, might be worth airing . Attempting to discuss the way he brings ‘modern Irish problems into relationship with images from the past’, or something, this is the first part of what I came up with. I couldn’t bear to let this go, however, with all the undergraduate prose intact, so I’ve improved the grammar a bit. You’ll have to look up the references yourself, but you can find the Wikipedia page on the book in question.

Seamus Heaney’s Bog Oak1 came into the world at a crucial point in Heaney’s career and in Irish history. An early poem from Wintering Out, Heaney’s first collection since the beginning of the Troubles, and also Heaney’s first since moving south, to the Republic, away from Ulster. It looks back to the past for images for a new poetry and also I think back to Ulster in an attempt, as Ronald Tamplin suggests2, to glimpse a new reality of Irish identity, a reading supported by Heaney’s oft-quoted view of poetry as “divination…as restoration of culture to itself”3.

The reference to Edmund Spenser appears to set the poem in sixteenth century Munster, but that the poem concerns Ulster 1969 is clear: the final word ‘carrion’ guides such a reading4. The description of the oak in the first stanza then becomes somewhat loaded: for instance, ‘split’ takes on obvious connotations. ‘Carrion’ is excellent, evoking not just death but horror, waste and decay. Heaney gazes homeward: loss and separation, mourning and sorrow.

A subtle manipulation of time through precise language seems to occur. The oak, ‘toughened survivor from Ireland’s past’5; carries the longevity of trees, great symbols; so as Heaney traces the oak, , ‘long seasoned’, backwards through time and space, he turns to the past to try and discover poetry suitable – ‘adequate’ as he put it- to the present Troubles. The images he finds there are mostly inadequate- the wisdom of the dead seems ‘hopeless’ and these old fashioned representations of Ireland, rural carters and creel fillers, seem irrelevant.

In the third stanza Heaney is outdoors now (‘a blow down of smoke/ struggles over the half door’) and as he looks back along the cart track, attempting to trace the oak all the way back to its roots.  But, ‘mizzling rain’ obscures his view just as time itself obscures our view of the past. Time meaning a changing culture which always constructs the past. The final three stanzas are full of these romanticised images of the past:

lead back to no
‘oak groves’, no
cutters of mistletoe
in the green clearings.

To make the point Heaney specifies that these images are not there. It is precisely these kinds of representations that are false and perhaps dangerous, an argument redolent of Brian Friel’s Making History6. Heaney does discern a classic Romantic image – the sensitive male poet, ‘dreaming sunlight’, the phrase accurately and concisely invoking the false image of the poet constructed in the popular imagination unwittingly by the likes of Spenser, Wordsworth, (perhaps) Oscar Wilde, and the mass media.

Seamus Heaney as a young manInterestingly, at this point Heaney’s time-travelling stops in suspension then reverses into a forward direction by way of ‘encroached’,’creep’ and ‘towards’ (lines 24,25 and 28); now Heaney is looking forward to the future of Ireland. But why Edmund Spenser? Well, the reality of Spenser is very different from the image Heaney presents. Spenser’s non-literary career was as an agent of the Crown in Ireland as Lord Deputy. He also wrote a ‘View of the Present State of Ireland’, which, according to Garry Waller…

argues for a vigorous programme of final conquest and subjugation of Ireland and the Irish, [and attacks] the ‘Old’ English preference for a degree of accommodation

Beyond that I don’t recall much about it other than people seemed to like it.

Nuer scales

The work of E.E Evans-Pritchard, the now somewhat old-fashioned, but utterly meticulous and detailed anthropologist, and I, have crossed but once. As an undergraduate I studied the first of his books from his fieldwork with the Nuer, a people of the Nile Valley

What follows are fragments of notes I took at the time.
Continue reading “Nuer scales”

Notes on ‘Phenomonology, Hermeneutics, Reception Theory’ from Eagleton’s ‘Literary Theory’

Edmund Husserl:

Phenomenology ‘back to the things themselves’ seeks to explore ‘human consciousness’ believing that through this we can study universal aspects of ‘phenomena’. Phenomena only exist as parts of consciousness, but phenomenology attempts to study their universal essence. Borne of the post WW1 crisis it attempts to revive the human mind as the ‘centre and origin of all meaning’ (Seldon 1985).

Eagleton claims this is not far from the contemporary attempts of Leavis to return to the concrete.

Phenomenological lit crit influenced the Geneva school Poulet, Starokinski, Rousset). The text is a ‘pure embodiemnt of the author’s consciousness’, has deep structures found in recurrent themes etc. and these reveal how the writer “‘lived’ his world”.

Criticism: non-evaluative, complete objectivity. The point is to ‘enter’ the world of the literary work and this to experience the author’s consciousness. For phenomenologists, language is an expression of the text’s inner meanings. Meaning is centred on a ‘transcendental subject’ – the author.

Martin Heidegger breaks with Husserl, reflects on the ‘irreducible Dasein (givenness) of human existence’.

consciousness is constituted by ‘being-in-the-world’ as much as consciousness contitutes the world.

Language pre-exists the individual subject (cf. Structualism)

Central to Heidegger then is not any individual subject but Being. Man is subservient to Being.

Thinking is always situated in an historical. However, for Heidegger history is not social, external, but inward and personal.

Heidegger – ‘hermeneutic of Being’. His philosophy is referred to as ‘hermeneutic phenomenology’, concentrating on an historical interpretation.

Hans-Georg Gadamer applied this to lit crit. Meaning depends on the historical situation of the interpreter. Interpretation of a literary work is a dialogue between past and present.

Understanding is productive. The present is only understandable through the past. linking together in a continuum called ‘tradition’ (cf Eliot)

Understanding is a ‘fusion of past and present’. We make a journey into the past, but only understand it by taking the present with us.

 

 

 

“That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law. ” – English Bill of Rights, 1689

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” US Constitution, 2nd amendment, 1791

Your homework this week is to compare and contrast these statements from English and American statute.

A bad day for religious patriarchy

Last night’s The Ascent of Woman (BBC2) did a fine job of demonstrating how the recent trend for monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam being the main ones) merely inherit a somewhat older tradition of patriarchy.

The systematic oppression of women for which they have become famous, a system of male domination, of our very discourse, imagination, as well as politics and ethics and law, in short of society ‘itself’ in fact seems to have emerged with the transition to settled, agricultural civilisation, itself a fairly recent innovation in human affairs. Continue reading “A bad day for religious patriarchy”