Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Same Door

I am standing alone. Except for the shadows, the room is empty: Dark and sinister, they billow around me like heavy curtains in a silent wind. I am lost, the emptiness both within and without. But I cling to hope.

My hope is a doorway which stands before me, the only escape from this place of dark depression. The way out glows brilliantly and is utterly enticing, offering me everything I need and desire. But even as I rejoice in its promise, the door is closing in my face.

I stand bewildered as my hope dies. The door closes remorselessly until the magical light beyond is no more than a sliver. For a moment the light still shines – but then it is taken from me and I stand in complete darkness.

But in some part of me a small fact registers: there was no click as the door shut, no sound at all. I feel abandoned. But there has been no material confirmation of finality. I cling to hope … yet I can see nothing and what else can I trust but my own eyes? The light of hope is quite gone.

Or not? Have I misunderstood?

Because although the door has shut in my face, a crack as slim as an echo is once more shimmering with that same wonderful light. Only the barest suggestion, but I see it.

And the light grows and I realise that the door is swinging right through; it is opening onto
the other side now and the way through is widening.

Of course, it’s a swing door! It never actually shuts at all! Or should I say that even as it was closing, it was also opening again. What I thought was the end of the light was the swing from one room to
another. Not the end at all but a beginning. Now opening wider still, it promises so much. Soon I will be able to walk through, out of the dark and into that light.

Taking my first step towards this new disclosure, I hear a voice in my head say, very distinctly, IT IS THE SAME DOOR.

And now I know that there is nothing that closes forever. Success and failure are the same door. The same thing. It depends which side of the door you are looking from.

We authors are so vulnerable to the self-perception of failure. We are not helped by the inevitability of our careers involving a good deal of solitude. Alone and concentrated on our imaginations, we can fall too easily into believing in our own defeat. And not only authors. Our society is fixated on achievement – winners or losers – whether in wealth or simple satisfaction. And, in despair, who remembers that failure is the necessary first step towards success? There are few more essential building blocks for happiness and success than those initial experiences of failure.

And it’s no use trying to squeeze past while the door is closing on you. You’d simply be squashed and achieve nothing. You have to wait until the door has swung right through and is opening once more, just for you. Timing is everything. While the door is shutting, don’t despair. Don’t collapse in a puddle amongst those dank dark shadows, feeling miserably sorry for yourself.

Just remember, IT’S THE SAME DOOR.

And it is your precious self standing in front of it. Rather than valuing ourselves on some external scale of success, judged through the eyes of others, we would better value ourselves for the truth of our own inner self.

You are the only person in the world who can represent your true self. Nobody else brings to the world exactly what you do; you are unique and therefore precious just as you are – this is your value. Once – in spite of inevitable failures – we recognise our own intrinsic value and love it for what it is, then the door can swing through and open into that brighter future.

Because, whether that brightness is yet visible or not, IT’S THE SAME DOOR.

That initial sense of failure is a transitory affair – the door CAN’T open onto the other side until it has first closed in our face.

The door that closes in your face and the door that opens to opportunity – are – quite simply – the same door.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Pollution And Privies: Medieval Delights

The question of hygiene in past eras is a fascinating one. It is a subject which seems to invite a feast of different assumptions – and I have heard everything from “They were filthy – never washed because the church said it was sinful – and stank the place out,” through to: “No, they were regular bathers, washed their clothes frequently and smelled no worse than we do today.” The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but during the period that interests me which is the late 15th century, I veer more towards a belief in cleanliness rather than the opposite. However – nothing is ever quite that simple.

We have it on record, for instance, that in one large noble household all linen, including the intimate apparel of the nobility themselves, was thoroughly washed every three days. We are given to assume
from this that bedding was changed often, also shifts and sweaty shirts, whilst the gentlemen changed their braies (underpants) that frequently. But of course this information, although fascinating, is as deceptive as most of the rest.

Since wealthy gentlemen would certainly have owned more than one pair of braies, it is perfectly possible that they put on a clean pair every morning rather than waiting for wash-day, and the three day wash cycle would therefore be irrelevant in that respect. On the other hand, some men might have refused to keep such hygienic habits. Washing whatever was passed to the laundry girls every three days does not prove everyone discarded their dirty underwear that often. Nor can we be sure that other establishments carried out laundry duties with the same regularity. Some may have been even more diligent. Others may have been far more lax.

I also imagine that having been jousting for most of the day, or after having spent several days in the saddle, (not an unusual practise) the clothes would be sweaty and grimy, however often they were usually washed at home. So cleanliness was considered advisable up to a point – but what probably did not happen was the sort of shocked disgust at dirt and smells which we now experience. They would all have been far more accustomed to grime.  So his grubby knickers might not be the worst of your problems when your gallant knight came riding home.

Bed and table linen was regularly washed and then spread out on the hedges to dry in the sun. However, the nobility’s outer clothes were rarely washed. The great sweeping velvets and heavy brocades with their golden laces, fur trimmings and satin ribbons were kept clean by extensive brushing and wiping, and with the use of steam and Fuller’s Earth. More personal hygiene was considered equally important. Teeth were cleaned with specially cut birch twigs, and soap came in various different qualities from the cheap brown liquid available for the poor, up to the expense of solid white Spanish soap.

On the other hand, human waste was an accepted part of the everyday experience and was used as part of normal manure spread as fertilizer on country crops. Urine was considered a useful ‘crop’ in itself and was used in the process of tanning hides and in dying fabrics amongst others. Animal blood and brains were generally allowed to disappear into the shallow central gutters around the butchers’ quarters in any township, the animals that roamed most streets (dogs, goats, pigs and others) would add their own contributions, and most mornings the average housewife would empty the family chamber pots into the gutters as well. Much of this muck would remain until washed away by the rain, although large towns employed ‘raykers’ to clear the gutters on a regular basis, while diligent shopkeepers cleaned the gutters directly outside their own premises – sweeping the filth down to the next shop along!

In medieval times, privies were not an entirely wholesome affair, although they certainly existed, both in private homes and for public use (though public privies were men only). They were usually small cubicles tucked away in dark and quiet areas of the house, but invariably without any enclosing door.

Some public privies were built on London Bridge, not exactly private at all. These would take the form
of a long polished wooden bench with several neat holes in a row. You would therefore be sitting in extremely close and undivided proximity to the next man. It was generally considered bad manners to talk directly to someone who was seated upon the privy. These ‘jaykes’ or ‘seats of ease’ as they were often known, usually opened directly down into the river, the cess pit or the moat below. Plumbing was unknown. One precarious set of London privies built to jut out with direct access to the Thames beneath, unfortunately collapsed after much use. They and their occupants hurtled into the river, and that is a picture I just cannot bear to visualise.

I have an idea that the general public went about their daily business with a constantly full bladder, suffering from the continuous discomfort of having very few opportunities to empty it. Certainly men urinating in public is mentioned as a fairly normal occurrence, (the gutters again) though surely only in some areas. Women, I imagine, found the situation even more inconvenient. Later this problem was overcome with several ingenious and hilarious methods, but during the late medieval it was a matter of suffering in silence until able to hurry home.

There were communal cess pits and these would be emptied from time to time by the busy gong-farmers, but I imagine the stench was fairly strong. Many busy waterways became almost clogged with general waste; The Fleet, for instance. The pollution, however unpleasant, was, of course, of a natural kind and not in any manner chemical – so the fish did not object. The Thames continued to be heavily fished for many years in spite of what else floated there.

So no wonder the water was, in general, unsafe to drink, although it was accepted for use in washing and cooking. It was safer when boiled, whilst ale, beer and wine were for drinking. In country areas, however, there would be fresh streams where the water would be drinkable, and usually deep wells would also be uncontaminated. 

Bathing was certainly a generally accepted necessity and quite luxurious baths were known to exist in all great houses. Wooden and barrel shaped for the most part, they could be linen lined and cushioned
with head rests. Hot water was carried in bucketfuls by the servants, with water boiled in cauldrons over the kitchen fires. The water could be perfumed with herbs, towels were warmed, and apart from condensation dropping from the ceiling beams, this would be a hygienic and very cosy affair.

Of course, the poorer folk had far fewer advantages. Few if any would have a private privy within the house or even outside it (a chamber pot would be the best they could do) and would be unlikely to own their own bath. There were public wash-houses however, which sometimes had a reputation for other activities apart from simply getting clean – but bathing and the washing of clothes and household linen still took place.

Naturally, it was hundreds of years before a scientific knowledge of hygiene and its connection with health was understood. Germs were undiscovered, and the cause of infectious diseases unknown. Even polluted water was avoided not because it could cause dysentery, typhoid or at least diarrhoea, but simply because it looked and tasted vile. Therefore the disposal of waste directly into the waterways continued and increased as the population grew. Vegetables and salads would be washed to remove the earth still attached before cooking but for no other reason, contact with animals was not thought in any manner unhealthy, and I doubt that hand washing after using those doubtful privies was considered imperative either.

These conditions naturally encouraged parasites and the poor could rarely escape the problems of lice, fleas and intestinal worms. Indeed, the habits of farmers, the use of manure, and the accepted behaviour of cooks and scullions even in the most illustrious establishments, ensured that although the nobility might avoid fleas and lice, (although Henry VII’s father, Earl of Richmond, died from the plague, and that meant a flea bite).they would certainly suffer frequent if not continuous infestations of intestinal roundworms. This actually continued up until and including the 2nd World War – so hardly a matter of wonder or concern. The roundworm was virtually universally tolerated until less than a hundred years ago, and unless these parasites accumulated in unusually huge numbers, they gave few if any symptoms. The recent over-dramatic reaction on this score is absurd, since the roundworm remains virtually undiagnosed, unnoticed and unimportant, yet flourishes almost worldwide to this day.

Conduits existed, and water carriers supplied the households of larger towns and cities but this often came directly from those same contaminated rivers, so on the whole it is surprising that the population managed to avoid disease as well as it did. There is another point to consider, of course. Our natural bodily immunity is often enhanced after becoming much habituated, and we are now told that our compulsive cleanliness only adds to our vulnerability, weakens our immune systems and brings about endless allergies. But I cannot imagine this means we would in any manner benefit from returning to the chamber pot and the use of medieval gutters.

So during the late medieval there were few standards we’d wish to copy today, indeed the smell of the cities was certainly rank, dysentery was common – and usually fatal. However, a desire for cleanliness was an accepted part of life at that time and considerable effort went into bathing and keeping clean.

It was many years later when the grosser behaviour, the overcrowding, the increased filth, cholera and typhoid became almost unbearable. After the Puritan horror of nakedness (dirt was holier, it seems) we then hear of the great balls and parties of the nobility during the 16th to 19th centuries, with their incredible luxury and sumptuous clothes. But our romantic fiction rarely tells us that the crush of a ballroom would have been overheated and noxious with the stench of old stale sweat and the cloying sickly smell of the perfume attempting to disguise it, the rampant lice in the unwashed wigs, and the fleas visibly leaping on some of the bodies. 17th century gentlemen were known to urinate in the fireplace, though hopefully not in female company, and the licentious habits of the Restoration era included some other unsavoury habits. So it got worse before it got better.

But at least I can imagine my late 15th century characters without having to hold my nose! The desire for cleanliness was both determined and accomplished within most 15th century households and considerable trouble was exercised in order to accomplish a standard of cleanliness which in those days was none too easy.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Is History All Around Us?

History is, quite simply, what we of the present time can make of past times. Yet time, they say, is an illusion.

Those who know more about physics than I do, also say that time and space are the same thing. Space and Space-time are certainly overlapping dimensions. Speed of light creates both. No, I’m not going to quote Einstein nor Hawking. I am naturally summarising here, partly because of my own ignorance, and partly because of the huge subject matter and its enormous complications. Yet even to summarise more fully would be difficult since sufficient space and time are not available to me. Yes – that’s it. Those two definitely go together.

After all, Quantum Physics takes a life-time to study. There goes time again, connecting moments into life-spans – and that means history!

And yet time appears to remain immovably linear while space is manoeuvrable. We can move freely and can play within space, but time plays with us. Certainly the division of the hours follows its rules, and the rolling speed of our ever spinning globe controls the passage of light into night’s darkness as recorded by our clever and careful clocks. But that is not what I mean by time. Real time is the prison of linear direction somehow combined with the lunacy of the watched kettle taking twice as long to boil, and the minutes feeling like hours when you are waiting for something important, while the sad days are never-ending. Yet those delightful times of light-hearted diversion, the fun, the love-making and the holidays from self-imposed duty – those whizz by like little sparks in our hearts. Illusion, then. But time is an illusion that traps us within it.

So is history all around us? Everything, after all, is the present. It was the present during the invasions of the Romans and the Norman usurper William, during the Hundred Years War and the Battle of Bosworth, during the massacres of Tudor times and the English Civil Wars – deaths in their thousands – all taking place in the brief and bitter NOW. Time of course is the actual division between life and death. Life means counting time until time finishes and slips from NOW into NEVER.

But this is not an article about dying. It is simply a pondering puzzle concerning the treatment time meets out to us. It is rarely kind. Space is a friend, but time is not. Indeed the NOW is always a snap and then gone – and we have not yet discovered the power to bring it full circle.

So can time ever be something more that the straight line in which we view it? We dream of time travel, with the power to go back and see what we call history. We are intrigued with the Sci-Fi ideas of black holes, worm tunnels, and all the scientific jargon which appears, even without our full understanding, to offer hope of time-travel. After all, playing with time is a perennially delightful idea – even if the possibility is always in what we call – the future!!

So we think time is a predictable business, and we think we know the rules, whether we like them or not. Look at the clock! Already half past nine? Bed time! Time for work. Time to catch the bus, to make dinner, to phone your sister. We let time rule our lives. Yet time is none of these things and we don’t understand it at all.

Synchronicity – a word adopted by Jung – introduces us to the malleability of time – or perhaps once more to the illusionary nature of its barriers. So, Jung says, different things happening at the same moment are linked and therefore the right thing will happen at the right time. No – that’s not right. NOW is all there is, so I should say – the right thing IS happening at the right time!  

Stephen Hawking
We invariably live in the past, with memories controlling what we think we have learned. In fact, many of us seem to believe that the wake we leave behind us somehow rules our futures.  Others live in the future with only hope to inspire our present moments as we endlessly plan for something to come. Yet none of that actually exists. Neither past nor future are real. Only NOW has ever been, or ever will. And the NOW is so brief that we cannot notice it at all. So is the only truth of time something we cannot even claim to know? Is it beyond us to even live it?

Energy comes from the light and light is governed by speed. Speed is time. So time is energy. If we travelled back, would we forfeit our energy and therefore our life force? Would we glimpse – collapse – and even fail to return? Would splitting the NOW leave us bereft of breath or life? Now much as I yearn to see the truth of medieval life in England during the late 15th century, I have not the slightest desire to be trapped there.

Alright, so we recognise that NOW means energy, for indeed the only time we choose to live fully in the NOW and recognise the present moment, is when we are excited, fully involved in what the NOW brings us and when we are delighted with what we are actually doing. Otherwise the NOW spins unnoticed and blinks its death into the past. So is history really a part of the present anyway? In which case, is history all around us and are we time travelling all the time quite unconsciously?

But if we can escape the trap of One-Directional Time (no, nothing to do with the British boy-pop-group – sorry!) – by travelling backwards then surely we could manage both forwards and sideways. Now, I wonder where sideways would lead me!!

I am just finishing a book based around time travel, with someone coming back from the distant future. (It’s a pleasant change from medieval history, and I’ve enjoyed writing it.) FUTURE TENSE – but heaven only knows when it will become history itself. I wrote a previous book (FAIR WEATHER) in which time travel played a part – but that involved going backwards. This new book involves going forwards. I have an idea for the sideways as well. Time holds hands with astronomy and so I have dark matter and worm holes. Nothing one-directional at all.

As I am almost constantly involved in historical research, I am inevitably faced with one
Enrico Fermi
repetition – where is the proof? Even when some existing contemporary document is found, we have to contend with the writer’s bias, his possible ignorance due to distant or non-existent involvement, or his desire to make himself sound knowledgeable by repeating rumour as if it is fact. All three such situations are more common than the really trustworthy contemporary sources. So have we much hope of properly understanding history? And that leads me to ask – what is truth? We often quote the cliché of history being written by the winners. No concept of reality then? But does truth still seem like the obvious incontrovertible fact? And yet it isn’t, for truth, as noted above, is something quite different to different people. We each have our own truths. Like time, truth is actually a very personal affair. As Blake said, “Everything that is now, was once imagined.” I like that and it seems true enough. Does this also make everything an illusion? Or does it make imagination the ultimate truth?

So what does all this come down to? Perhaps that’s all a part of personal choice as well! But writing FUTURE TENSE has taken me on a delicious trip into quantum physics. Which brings up all that confusion about whether light travels in waves or particles – and how we do not know which it actually is until afterwards (once the NOW is over and so truth no longer exists anyway) – and the ‘afterwards’ implies time – so does time itself travel in different ways – ways which cannot be quantified until ‘after’ the event? And if nothing is concrete until we see it, in other words until the NOW, then do we ourselves make the choice of what we see, what can be seen, how we see it and when we can see it? Do we control time and space ourselves? Is truth really our own, existing only as an individual and subjective choice?

Which brings me personally to the conclusion that nothing and everything is real – time moving only in one direction is a limit of our own imagination – space is conditional on our own choices – and truth is entirely illusionary.

And therefore if we can see it differently, making our decisions within the illusion, can we also make the choice to travel backwards? Can we dispense with the Tardis, and travel within our own minds? Do tunnels exist in dark matter? And if time is an illusion, are we trapped within that illusion – or is the illusion trapped within us?

Excuse me, my Time is up – and I’m off back to medieval England, to discover another NOW. Waves or particles, anyone?