The Panchakroshi Temple

In her book on Banaras, Diana Eck talks about the ‘transposition of place’ in Hinduism, and how “to some extent, all of India’s great tirthas are duplicated and multiplied elsewhere in India“. Banaras, as Kashi, contains echoes of all these other tirthas (holy places).

The idea of condensing a whole into a part is seen in the Panchakroshi Road, which encircles Kashi. There are 108 shrines on this road, and pilgrims perform a 5-day tour of them. I’ve read that this pilgrimage is as holy as visiting the four sacred sites at the far-flung corners of India. Eck writes:

And, of course, it is fitting that if one cannot make the long trip around the Panchakroshi Road, there is a single temple in the heart of the city – the Panchakroshi Temple – which one can visit. By circumambulating the sanctum of this temple, with 108 wall reliefs of the stations of the sacred way, one honours the whole of Kashi, and, in turn, the whole world.

I love the way in which these three different routes – around India, around Kashi and around the temple sanctum – are considered as identical. I read somewhere about how a short walk around the Panchakroshi Temple can be as holy as the pilgrimage around all India.

When I was last in Varanasi, I went to find the Panchakroshi Temple. There were no clear directions, so I did my best to find the place using Google Maps and GPS in the narrow alleyways. Finally, we found the doorway to the temple and walked up the steps. I felt a little like an intruder in a domestic space, as lines of drying laundry hung from the inner sanctum. I had little knowledge or understanding of the tiny representations of the temples, but asked if I could take photographs. I was told this was not possible. I walked around the temple, thanked the people, and headed for the river.

I don’t know how long I will be back in Varanasi – they say the greatest misfortune is to leave Kashi once one has been there – but some day I hope to walk the full length of the Panchakroshi Road.

New Zine: The South Downs Way

The copies of my new zine, The South Downs Way arrived today:

This booklet of short stories is part of a larger project about the South Downs Way. The zine contains 17 microfictions, most written in the last few months, but some dating back further (one to when I was 17 years old).

I’m looking forward to seeing what people make of this, and will be starting to send out copies tonight. If you want one email me, or leave me a message in the comments (I won’t publish it!).

The reality of ley lines

The first thing to know about ley lines is that they don’t exist. This is also the least interesting thing about them.

The theory of ley lines came from Alfred Watkins, based on observing alignments between historical sites. Watkins claimed that these lines would have been used to navigate trade routes. Over time, this theory has been tied in with new age ideas of earth magic, coming to represent channels of energy and force.

Ley lines are a statistical curiousity. Given the density of significant sites (wells, churches, barrows, hilltops) in the UK, it would be stranger if it were not possible to draw lines between them. Ben Goldacre posted about an experiment that found alignments between the old Woolworths stores. Using some software written by Stephen Kay, I’ve found lines between pubs in Brighton. Aside from the obvious alignment of pubs along the seafront, there was a pub-line from the Western Front to the Swan in Falmer, joining several pubs in the valleys between. Obviously, no-one had tried to align Brighton’s drinking dens, so what does this mean?

A few years back, I followed the ley line near the long man of Wilmington (a figure that Watkins thought might have been a surveyor of ley lines). I’m not sure how useful this line would be to navigate with, compared to the ridgelines and rivers in the area. I remain skeptical about most of the theories about leys.

I love the Austin Osman Spare quote about magic, that we should treat the entities we encounter “as if real”, not “as real”. These ideas were taken further by the practitioners of chaos magic, who decided that it was irrelevant if the entities and powers they interacted with were real. They found intercessions to superheroes or Mr Men could be as powerful as dealing with gods or demons.

It doesn’t matter if ley lines are real, because people find a power in these ideas. Some of them seriously believe that ley-lines channel energy in the earth. I’m generally suspicious of people using the word energy when they mean atmosphere – as someone who studied for a physics degress, if someone talks about energy then I want to see evidence of heat. I do wish, though, this sort of ‘energy’ was something I could experience and appreciate.

But I love ley-lines for telling stories about landscape. They tether churches to wells and ancient stones, asking us to make connections. I love the claims that these are lines of earth energy, used to guide alien space ships in prehistoric times. More than once at parties, people have told me that Brighton is special because two ley-lines cross here, although no-one has ever told me which ley-lines they are. Even the local council refers to ley lines in the St Anne’s Well Gardens information board – although they don’t know anything more about this line, only that it passes through the well. Ley-lines may not have the structure and authenticity of similar concepts like songlines, but given a few hundred years, they might.

The Walker

It’s just over a year now since I joined a pilgrimage to CERN where we immantenised the eschaton. I’ve not written a lot about this caper, mainly because I’m still thinking it through, even now – but you can get a good flavour of the events by reading the accounts from Ben Graham and the Moneyburner.

Part of what made the pilgrimage such an intense experience were the preparations we made in advance. We set up a radio station, planned magic rituals, and had a complete tarot deck printed. In the deck was a card for each of the pilgrims involved, and everyone came up with a card design and a pilgrim name.

I’ve long been around people with nested secret identities. I have friends with pen-names and stage-names; burlesque stars, rappers and hackers. It seemed like everyone had an alias – I know one person with nested identities four layers deep. I felt like the only person I knew with just one name.

In preparing for the pilgrimage, I had to take on a new identity for the first time. I needed an attribute that represented who I was. I picked The Walker: For the hiking, for how I would break bounds at school for night-hikes, for how I use walking to solve problems. I found an image of the Pennine Way, resting with my feet pointed towards an unfolding path through the Cheviots. And, for a touch of mysticism, I added a Feynman diagram, the one showing how an election and a positron are the same thing, but travelling different directions in time. My physics days are a long time ago, but I still love aspects of that.

The pilgrimage offered an opportunity to set aside my old identity. For a few days, I would be The Walker. I could forsake my old name, and be someone else. Possibly, I took this too far when someone asked me my name and I replied “The Walker”; they asked for my first, real name. I didn’t mean to be sarcastic when I said “The” – that was who I was then.

The pilgrimage was an incredible experience, which set my life onto a new path. When I came home, I put the identity of the Walker away, like Bilbo putting his Mithril coat in the wardrobe. It’s come out on a few occasions, but not often.

But maybe there is an opportunity here – who might The Walker be in my ‘normal’ life?

‘The New Normal’

I’m coming up to the end of my sixth week of distancing, and this weekend has been the first time I’ve found things difficult. A combination of not sleeping, isolation and general anxiety have taken their toll – not helped by a hangover from the cherry brandy and Cokes I was drinking last night.

When lockdown started, I very much approached it as a temporary thing. I was aware of the Stockdale paradox, so I didn’t start promising myself that the restrictions would be lifted at the first review, or even the second. But I went into this assuming Boris Johnson’s upbeat prognosis of 12 weeks to have this beaten would set a rough timescale.

It’s become obvious recently that it could be some time before restrictions are eased in any form. It’s no longer a case of briskly carrying-on as best as I can. I’m now asking myself what a sustainable and positive normal life now means. I tried to make lockdown a positive experience, but I’d not really considered what it would require over the long term.

There have been good things: it’s been an opportunity to look at how I approach the things I do; to give cooking the attention it needs; I’ve found a domestic contentment and enjoyed having few plans for the future; it’s been good to have this time to pause and look back at my life so far; and it’s a chance to grow out my buzzcut.

But I have been treating it as a novelty (part of which is blogging about this so much). I actually have it pretty good right now (and I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for a lot of other people). I need to accept what is happening, turn down the volume on the news. To find new routes to exercise that won’t be crowded. To get better at sourcing groceries.

The good news is, I have a new zine at the printers, part of a longer project. I’ve got the opportunity to really work on this, with fewer distractions than usual. And, over the next few weeks, I’m going to try to blog more about that project than the experiences and frustrations of confinement.

It’s been a tricky weekend, but nothing a good night’s sleep won’t help.

Retreat, Days 38-40

  • The birdsong seems so loud these days. I’m particularly noticing it in zoom calls. Zoom does some fairly clever things with audio, and I wonder if this is a side-effect?
  • The world continues to be strange. This week I received a £25 rebate on my car insurance as so few people are claiming. It’s very welcome, but it’s odd.
  • This month, the price of oil turned negative. Vice had a couple of good articles on this: a good explainer, and a discussion of whether buying an oil tanker to take advantage of this would work. It’s a fascinating story, showing how the futures market does indeed involve actual real things – which traders came very close to taking possession of.
  • A beautiful quote from a recent Rebecca Solnit article: The philosopher-mystic Simone Weil once wrote to a faraway friend: “Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated.”
  • Remember the banana bread era? An age of innocence, when we still thought lockdown was going to be like a wet half-term in an Enid Blyton book” – Jess Cartner-Morley
  • One of the local hairdressers seems to have transformed into a greengrocers. A sign of the times, but I welcome having more options for fresh food.
  • Another sign of ingenuity – on a conference call this week, a colleague showed us their system of mirrors, placed in the garden to angle sunlight into their office.
  • Nick Caves transformation into spiritual leader continues with this lovely recent piece of writing on prayer: A Prayer to Who?
  • Busy day today, including running a workshop. Off to bed now to get a good night’s sleep, ready for tomorrow’s virtual session with Slow Yoga Club.

Retreat, Days 35-37: Retrospective

This week, a friend has been sick with covid-19. Fortunately, they did not need to go to hospital, but it was a close thing. It’s been horrible seeing them suffer their ordeal alone. One of the worst things about this pandemic is the many ways in which it isolates us. I’m feeling a lot more nervous now about getting ill myself.

I’m now into my fifth week of retreat. At the start I tried to prepare myself for an extended period of restrictions, and it’s become obvious that the old world is not coming back any time soon, if at all. We are a long way from enjoying a pint at the pub. This seems a good time to review how I’m feeling about the lockdown:

  • I made a lot of preparations for activities to stop me getting bored. This has not been a problem. Most of my energy has been needed for work, and reading is a satisfying way to fill the rest of the time. I’ve abandoned a lot of the daily activities I started doing (including juggling and learning Hindi on duolingo). Watching TV has not proved a good use of my time – I find it hard to concentrate on most shows.
  • I’ve been cooking for myself since this started, since that feels safer. I’m enjoying this, although I’m still not comfortable with the best way to get food. I’ve avoided large supermarkets, but the problem with this is needing to make more trips. Hopefully delivery services will become easier to access. I’m still a little shaken by the empty shelves when this started.
  • I really miss having visitors, and popping over to other people’s houses. Socialising by zoom is actually quite tiring compared to hanging out with people in the real world, and I’ve been trying not to spend too much time online (particularly given that work requires me to be in front of a screen).
  • A few days, I’ve left the curtains closed, and that has made me feel lethargic. So, I am making a conscious effort to keep things as bright as possible during the daylight hours.
  • My walks are to a fairly regular routine. It’s easier to get the energy to go out about 6am, and things are fairly quiet. When I have taken walks later in the day, social distancing has proved difficult. There is just not enough open space to walk in Brighton and Hove for a densely packed population.
  • I’m trying not to plan my days too much, and the looser schedule is much more comfortable. I feel a lot less anxious than normal about the things I need to do.
  • I’ve not done any volunteering on the NHS app. I am not sure about going outside any more than my daily walks, and don’t feel comfortable driving – most of the time I am too tired, as I’m not sleeping.
  • Generally, I’m finding the situation very oppressive – both the horror of the disease, and the effect it’s having on people’s lives and finances. I am quite safe and comfortable, but even so I still find it hard to sleep.
  • I feel I have quite a stable basis for however many months this goes on for. Take it slow and gentle, appreciate the distraction of my job, and focus on my writing. This is an opportunity for focussed deep work, and to reflect on my life. I’d certainly never choose this as a lifestyle, but I still feel I can make a positive experience from it.

Not for the Faint-Hearted Online

tldr; the next online Not for the Faint-Hearted workshop is on April 25th and you can sign up on Eventbrite.

I’ve been running the Not for the Faint-Hearted writing workshop irregularly since October 2009. For most of that time we’ve been hosted by The Skiff in Brighton, but people have occasionally suggested trying it online. As the Skiff is temporarily closed, I decided it was a good time for our first online session.

Not for the Faint-Hearted (NFTFH) was originally set up with poet Ellen de Vries, and was intended as a reaction to other writing workshops. We show a picture and people have three minutes to write a write some sort of response – a story, poem or dialogue. Then we take turns to read the stories. There is no feedback, and apologies are banned (everyone has just three minutes – sometimes it’s enough, sometimes not). The sessions are not about producing great work, but rather about enjoying the act of creation. The biggest joy of NFTFH for me is how entertaining the stories are, and the moving and surprising ways the images are interpreted.

The format itself is one that works well online, with the image shared on zoom. But there is a definite difference in the way in which it takes place. At the Skiff, I host a space. As people write, everyone can see other people scribbling out of the corner of their eyes. The lack of feedback works well in a real space as you can pick up the subtle cues of enjoyment and affirmation. Most of this is stripped away when working over zoom. It’s a strange feeling to have the event turned inside-out, looking out on different people’s houses as we all type alone.

But, overall, the session worked. We even had our first song! Interestingly enough, the pace of stories is slower than it is on a hosted event. Someone suggested having an opportunity to hang out afterwards, so I will try that next time. It was fun to do the workshop, and I even turned out a couple of stories that I want to add to my new collection. Of course, the current events leaked into a lot of stories, but it felt good to reinterpret our experiences as entertainment.

I am going to book another session for next weekend. I’m advertising it as a Brighton-based event, because I like the idea of a remote-but-local event, although people from further away are very welcome. The numbers are going to stay low as I think more than 10 would be tricky – but if I have a waiting list, then I may try to run more sessions.

Retreat, Days 31-34: The Waiting Room

Most of last week, it was hard to settle and I felt overwhelmed by uncertainty. From the start of the restrictions, I’d prepared myself for a long period of social distancing; but the lack of a clear exit strategy was getting to me. I don’t think I’d truly accepted how far away normal life might be.

But I’m relatively lucky. I have thick walls and ceilings, a decent library, and a stable job. And I’m also a long way from the front-lines, which are horrifically portrayed in a New York Times article by Helen Ouyong I’m an E.R. Doctor in New York. None of Us Will Ever Be the Same. Sometimes, at the home front, it’s easy to forget the seriousness of the situation.

I’m sleeping a little better. I’m still waking up very early, but going to bed very early seems to compensate. I’ve had a surprising number of dreams where I meet Warren Ellis – I’m not sure if this is a weird campaign for the new season of Castlevania on Netflix.

I’ve taken things slowly this weekend. I’ve had Whatsapp off for a lot of it, and have been reading. I ran a Not for the Faint-Hearted session which seemed to go very well. I’ve made sure to keep the curtains open during the day, and cut down on the amount of TV I’ve been watching. I was relieved to pick up some new supplies of hand sanitiser. I’m lucky to have a certain peace much of the time under lockdown. Oliver Burkemann wrote a thoughtful piece on his experience of time during social distancing. While acknowledging that his situation is one of privilege compared to many, he notes a lesson in the heart of this experience:

It’s dawning on me that much of what I called busyness, before coronavirus, was really scatteredness – a focus on too many things, including some I unconsciously knew were a waste of time… For now, there’s the oddly peaceful sense of days being spent as they ought to be.

The postal system is the closest thing I have to human contact these days, and I had a flurry of interesting things arriving, which did a little to counteract the creeping loneliness. I also had the new issue of Fortean Times, and some materials for the new zine, which should be off to the printers within the next few days.

Retreat, Days 27-30: The Longest Bank Holiday Ever

The four day bank holiday weekend seemed to go on for a very long time. I felt run down on Saturday, so took things easy. I made sure to eat properly, and also settled down to read a novel for fun (Real Tigers, the third of Mick Herron’s excellent spy novel series about Slough House). I’m finally feeling back to normal today.

I also finished reading EM Forster’s 1909 science fiction story, The Machine Stops, which describes a future where people live in tiny but luxurious cells, rarely interacting physically with others. Elements like the airships have dated badly, but the vision of networked people sharing strange obsessions is very apt. “The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms.” There are machines for everything, and one of the signs of the system succumbing to entropy is “the defective rhymes that the poetry machine had taken to emit.”

Last night brought a poetry performance by Rosy, reading Vladimir Mayakovsky’s A Cloud in Trousers, as part of her new translation project. Watching a livestream is not the same as being in a venue, the audience around you, but it’s better than nothing.

I also loved Kate St Shields and DJ Killer Jules new mix Is that all there is to a (solo) disco. The editing is perfect, and makes it sound like they’re recording together. Kate & Jules’ upcoming events are cancelled, but I can’t wait to be able to dance at their night again.

As I settle into my second month of lockdown, certain questions arise. Like, should I buy more deodorant? It’s not like I’ll be building up a sweat anytime soon, and a very faint body odour will be undetectable at two meters. I also have a hefty and ungroomed quarantine beard, which may not see a barber for some time. The fastidious part of me wants to shave off my hair and beard; but another part of me thinks this is the perfect time to grow out my buzzcut and see what I look like with a monstrous beard.

One good thing about the long bank holiday is that I’ve finally moved this blog from the slightly dodgy hosting company it was previously with. Lots of much-delayed tasks are being finished, while others are being abandoned on the basis that, if I can’t do them on lockdown, they are never getting done.

I’ve also finished a draft for a new story zine about the South Downs Way. All being well, that should be ready to go out next week.