Bull taming, shark taming: an argument for our absurd honours system

There are supercharged, bullish high achievers in the gene pool, many of them ruthless and hubristic. The political question is: how do we stop these big beasts becoming tyrannical monsters.

Under capitalism the sharks make money. They also buy political influence, or, where there is no functioning democracy, grab power. Under socialism they join the Party and run it for themselves and their cronies, as we have seen in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, North Korea, Cuba, various newly independent African countries, etc. They become tyrants with a monopoly of power, money, propaganda and the law. There is no defence against them. Since we are not going to eradicate over-confident and brilliant go-getters (and would not want to), the question becomes, how do we integrate them and limit their excesses?

By accident of history, the British have stumbled upon the answer: let them make money; tickle their tummies and whisper about generosity and public-spiritedness whilst dangling in front of their eyes, but at a distance, peerages. “You can be recruited into the lovely ceremonial aristocracy… for services to charity.”

Arguments for honouring school dinner-ladies and long serving lollipop men are fine, but much too sensible. They miss the point. The function of these honours is to keep the sharks from seizing real power in our country, to tempt them towards public works. And very cunning it is.

And the snow comes through

Snow drifts down through
bare twigs, bare twigs –
Oh! My blooms! My berries!

Are my sons impressed by my writings?
They don’t read them. That’s not what they want from daddy.
Do my friends like my new poems?
They don’t read them. They made up their minds about me years ago.
Is my dead father impressed by my book? It was written to impress him.

Sexy I was in blossom
but stripped by the sou’sou’wester
I am snowed now

Does my artistic taste impress visitors?
If it reflects theirs.
Is my generosity appreciated?
As likely to be resented.
Have lovers been charmed by my learnèd discourses?
You’re kidding.

I am a winter root –
foliage, flowers, fruit
were empty

‘Lack’ – or ‘Luminous Essence’?

Buddhist intellectuals David Loy and Ken Jones theorise that human beings have a fundamental “lack”, a hole in the middle, and that their frenetic materialism, ambition, fetishism, their obsessions, their neuroses, their greed and so on are all attempts to fill the hole, to compensate for what is missing. This “lack” is a form of dukkha, the Buddha’s word for suffering, an anxiety for certainty, permanence and meaning (and the lack is due to impermanence and no-self, anicca and anatta). It accounts for all the wild and futile busy-ness  of people and is their driving force.

I am unpersuaded. I do not feel, and have never felt, as far as I know, this sense of fundamental lack in myself, and I certainly don’t feel a fundamental lack in the world of nature. I don’t see a lot of evidence for it. Many of the people who are pursuing materialism and ambition are highly content with their achievements and quite unaware that anything is missing. There are some lacks, yes: it is not delusional to pursue a living wage if one lacks money; we all have difficuIties in relationships leading to unsatisfactoriness, but that is relative to happier times, not a fundamental vacuum. I prefer another kind of explanation which blames

  • being distracted
  • being side-tracked
  • being confused
  • being drawn into activity

Master Lu, the great Daoist, is my guide. He says that five kinds of false consciousness obstruct the mind:

  • sudden wandering thoughts “drawing forth an outburst like wild animals galloping in all directions”
  • worrying about the future, wearying the spirit
  • getting attached to the beauty of sounds and forms and averse to the ugliness of sounds and forms until “the luminous essence of mind is covered by shadows and you become feeble-minded, unable to attain clarity”
  • people get upset and confused about the past
  • people think that they are intelligent and knowledgeable and “go back and forth in a fog, stagnant, without expanding… it actually destroys essential life.”

This makes more sense to me. There is not a fundamental lack or hole in the centre which we fear and flee from and try to deny with frantic activity. There is a “luminous essence of mind” which gets obscured, covered by shadows, distracted, sidetracked, wearied. Energy is wasted in worries and attachments and life loses its vitality. The mind gets confused and shrinks.

“Luminous essence” is the default state, not lack.


Langstone Harbour


On 7th. November 1991 my father died. I walked by the shores of Langstone Harbour.


winter wind –

two geese turn

a broad descending circle

and end

facing it

knowing how to touch down


At the wake my sons looked after me sweetly, talked of family memories and had me laughing. I returned to Langstone Harbour and watched the birds, and watched yachts on their moorings as fishing boats motored by.

I lift, judder

spin and settle

in your wake

water in the bay

no trace

of the splashy wing beats


 low tide mudflats –

I breathe out


dense cloud

the colour of ashes

the sky is my father

One night, fascinated by the waves slopping inside a wreck with the life-force of the ocean:

between the ribs

of the broken boat

rises the moonlit tide

In the New Year:


bright cold morning –

for breakfast let’s open

the last of his marmalade!

On the anniversary of his death I stood on the ferry pontoon at Eastney Point, tasting the windblown spray:

grief, and breathing

the salty fragrance

of the deep tide drift


I revisited the Heath by the family home, where we scattered his remains:

under my foot

at every step

my father’s ashes

I inherited a dusty oil portrait of my father reading a book, painted in the forties, with a rip in the corner, and I commissioned a friend of mine who is a conservator to repair it, clean it and frame it.


his portrait restored –

my father

younger than me




Man Into Air

In this Haibun the relationship of the poetry to the prose is what I call parallel: the poems do not intensify or illustrate the prose; they come from a parallel world and complement the prose:


ablaze with light

a ferry throbbing

into the black night

Here is a man – as light as a sparrow. The skin round his mouth is hard as a beak. I balance the nipple of the nylon drinking cup between his lips feeling his arm like an anglepoise against my side. His gasping widens the splay of my fingers on his ribs. He won’t bother with today’s local election results floating on the radiowaves like ghosts through the prison walls and he won’t ever again taste a drink or confront with his withering intelligence an obstinately literal Prison Officer. He concentrates on something inward – nothing as capricious as thought, but a landscape, perhaps, an arid boundless place where the pain helps focus his attention on watching the distance beat by beat.

in blue space

a cloud


This is the Winchester Prison Hospital Wing, a rattling dungeon of Bedlam shrieks, dog-ends and sputum-tissue, neglected by a cheery Trusty, and a smarmy nurse. I go to find the SMO. I say that he’s nominated me next-of-kin, can she tell me the prognosis – and realise with astonishment that she hates everybody, even me. She refuses him morphine, sneers, “He’s devious, he’s not dying.” I stagger out of her office, the words she spat ringing in my ears. “I’ll give him painkillers when I’m good and ready.” Fergy deals with it better than I do. He’s had four decades to learn. I am deeply ashamed that I cannot care for him, that I have to leave him there.

tugged half under

mooring buoy

in the ebb tide

At the newsagent’s I puzzle over what a man is: How to be a Sex God is one cover story, followed by Shooting Machine-Guns with the Rednecks! and The Berk Who Lost Two Million! The cool names are Brett Easton Ellis and Irvine Welsh, and the photo feature is Autoerotica, (pin ups of cars, I think).

His father was a man – a hard-drinking wife-beating friend-brawler, who thrashed Fergy with a belt-buckle. He cooked Fergy’s pet rabbit and forced it down the child’s soft mouth. But you can’t refuse your father; his alcohol and violence rushed up Fergy’s capillaries, entryists, pickling his heart, and erupted on Christmas Day as the drunken boy of twenty-one killed his girl bride.

moon and sea all night long force six

Fergy has never had a sniff of a BMW; he scorns the men whose cells are ripe with girly pix, men “in thrall to bimboism,” (that’s his phrasing, and he calls it “self-inflicted bondage, the injustice which they have imposed upon themselves,” in his gravelly mining-town Geordie). Money does not cascade through his hands in jackpot imagery: he earns four pounds sixty two pence each week. But he is a stone in the shoe of a Governor, indomitable with murderous convicts, and bracing to my bland goodwill. Over forty years of incarceration he has found the irreducible core of a man: mind, and will. There is no likeminded thinker to appreciate this. He tells me, “No-one will ever know I lived.” His speech is cast in Victorian prose from the prison library, poured through the pursed vowels and rotten lungs of County Durham, an eloquence finely wrought and strange: “I am a caricature devoid of humour…”


through a patch of brilliance

the tiny boat

Fergy is in Heaven. He is not conscious that for his last hours he has been released from his Life Sentence into a hospice and lies in a bed of lovely linen in a brightly painted room, flowered and sunned through rose curtains, and he is touched with motherly care, perhaps for the first time, by a great exponent of the Hippocratic oath whose kindness opens the sluice on my heart’s pity as none of the callous neglect ever did. It is goodness that makes us cry, not suffering. Fergy is Christian and I murmur in his ear about angels and light. His body now is stiff as saltcod, drying into the warm air.

I thank the doctor. That pathetic bundle of clothes! Away from there, breathing deeply where a fine mist is coming in off the sea.

on a rusty buoy

the fog bell feels

each melancholy wave




The Ruined Church



“…for everything that lives is holy” William Blake

Tenacious flowers of golden weed grow from the cracks. No roof, no door, no pews, no treasure – does it still have a bellyful of love?

entering by the arch

a Cabbage White searches

for what it needs

Ruined church

high above

swifts feast

in endless blue

from an oubliette

in the abandoned ruin

crawls a ladybird

pecking together

a chaffinch couple

graze on the ancient stones


The church walls are blocks of yellow rock, still bearing the scrapes of the rough stone-cutting tools used to square them off. There is a bees’ nest in a hole, hectic with hovering traffic.


Bee City Airport

helijet entrance arch

in the broken mortar

buzz buzz buzz

the congregation ignore

blackbird’s sermon


The blackbird watches me with a bright black pupil rimmed with yellow. The gecko I study is also bright-eyed. A smart beetle, like my neighbour, comes from the car-wash with polished metallic bodywork. From the lean-to outside the church there’s a strangely insistent rhythm.

in the thatch

squeezing notes in unison

a choir of sparrows

in the heat of the sun

a dry font

christens everything

I’m squatting

on the altar

awed by ants


I feel as old as the need for rain, here with the ancient urges of birds and bees. I just sit in the ruins, with my evolutionary company.

I am a bee

I am a lizard

I am a people



Here is another haibun:

There’s a dead man on the Lifer wing. I left him there with my Lifer friends and came to gaze at the lake. The dripping dip of oars and complaints of a goose reach me across the still water from a mile away.

pale afternoon

a grebe vanishes

into the white mirror

C is a dangerous little career criminal with flat northern vowels. His mother tortured him. But he has just learned politeness and likes it.

S’s mother sold him to her queer doctor for £15. Now he writes his engineering thesis.

K is the prison billiards champion with the silly smile. His mother had a toxic tongue. His brother escaped through suicide and K turned on her.

J’s father forced his pet rabbit down his throat. Now he’s brittle as a corn dolly. Secondary cancers have devoured him.

Who was the monster that was C, spooked on alcohol and speed, on the rampage in 1986 with murder in his heart?

Who was S when he shot the wrong woman?

Who was it who lifted K’s hammer?

Who battered J’s wife?

Inside the precarious Self cobbled together by sadism and abuse, by a frightened child with no strategies, and no help, is there a True Self? And is it calm, and tasteless?

Set that aside. Set all that aside. There is love. Not in what your mum and dad gave you, perhaps, but in politeness, engineering, and billiards; and in the body, which is made of it. J’s body lost its own love, but I love him more freely now he’s dead.

pub lunch –

wiping gravy from my lips

with the wet hanky

Despite the overcast sky there is a mysterious illumination within the scene. Clouds glow, the water gleams. It’s so calm, and tasteless, that I hold my breath like K at a billiards shot.

I daren’t move

or the lake

will wobble

The Higgs Boson


“Expanding, contracting, killing, giving life – such is its subtle function.”

[Zen Master Yuanwu, author of The Blue Cliff Record]

At the Large Hadron Collider they accelerate particles round and round a seventeen kilometre tunnel to meet each other coming the other way in a kiss throwing out a starburst of fizzing debris. They want to find out what is hidden inside. There must be something else. They think it will be the Higgs boson. This, dear one, is our Anniversary Metaphor.

The Higgs boson has revealed itself to the Collider’s detectors, but in a teasing flash of thigh.  The Higgs is laughing at them, balanced between Supersymmetry theory and Multiverse theory, where it should not be, where it confirms neither theory, and where it should be unstable. Could the whole subatomic realm collapse?

O the sun burns!

This mountain was syrup

flowing under my feet

Imagined numbers explain the laws of nature to us, but we don’t know if we discovered mathematics or made it up, whether it is out there or in here.

Always roaring

the echo in me

of the wind between the stars

The Higgs refuses to reveal whether the universe was born, or born again and again, or inflated as a bubble in a multiverse of infinite bubbles.

Beginningless kalpas of time perhaps

to the Big Bang

of this ripe nectarine

Gravity is weaker than the delicate tension in finger and thumb pulling skin off a ripe peach. Like Higgs, it is not the power it ought to be, and won’t fit into the theory. Perhaps it is not even a force, just dimples in space. And perhaps the exploding universe is really sitting still. While space inflates. Maths gives us the speed and strength and size, but of what?

Fractals in sand

the ebbing tide

knows how

At the Hadron Collider nature is being mysterious. You have got the best answer.

For the unloved

an immense night sky

creamy with stars

The stars are mother and father to us.

Farmyard flints

through the soles of my shoes

the Milky Way

Outer and inner cannot be distinguished.


She licks her kittens

and her fur

as if it were all the same

We may be particles, we may meet, but there’s something else hidden in or around us which may or may not be dark energy or something Higgs-like.

The feeling’s my hand,

your skin, our bothness


Hunting Dogs Heard in the Mist

(A new haibun: prose with haiku poems)


scraps of someone’s life interview

pass on the breeze

and thistledown too

Emperor Wu asked who he was (“Who the hell do you think you are?” perhaps, after their first unsatisfactory exchange) and Bodhidharma answered, “I don’t know,” which probably did little to improve the atmosphere.


footsteps approach –

the sound of bootscraping

a door clicking closed

What he did know, we all know, is that he was one of a few thousand generations of upright-walking beasts that grow, eat, shit, fuck and die.


the sheep are in bliss

and high overhead the vast

cool minds of red kite

But beyond that? My personality, for example, is measured medium on an Extroversion/Introversion scale, medium for Conscientiousness, “soft-minded” on the Psychoticism scale and low on the Agreeableness scale (that does not mean that I am disagreeable! No! Just that I’m not foolishly indulgent like most of you). I have some fixed habits and strong opinions, excellent artistic taste, the usual values, and I admit that I’m rather proud of my modest achievements. I have a life narrative from a loveless childhood to love (though my mother would not agree). I want to help my family, and perhaps some other people too. But I’m afraid you can’t actually see any of these things because they are in my imagination, whatever that is, or my mind, whatever that is, and can’t be verified. Bodhidharma is entitled to think that none of these sorts of qualities actually have any substance at all. If he were in a browned off mood, or, let’s say, disengaged, he might go further and assert that the whole personality is a rickety construction of flimflam, fantasy, out of date junk stories about the past and puffed up ego nonsense.


woodland full of song

and here’s a fallen nest

with empty shells


We are going to do a thought experiment now. Just suppose  – indulge me, please – that you agreed with Bodhidharma-in-a-huff and you decided to pitch the whole of your so-called personality into the bin. Before you turn the page, make two guesses. Ready?
Question One: What would happen to the world? Question Two: Who would you be?

Don’t read on until you have had a go!




Question One: The world would be perfect! There, you did not guess that, did you? Any logical process would lead you to think that in order for the world to become perfect all those anxious fools, hamfisted inadequates, strutting bigheads, crackpots with half-baked ideologies and criminals with violent reactions ought to empty their personalities into the bin. But no, oddly enough it is me and you that have to do it.


in the arms

of the old silver birch

its fallen neighbour

Question Two: You would be one of a few thousand generations of upright-walking beasts that grow, eat, shit, fuck and die. And build nests. How far does that take us into, “Who the hell do you think you are?”


Tomorrow I’ll give you a test on the meaning of the moon. Toodlepip.


coming to gaps

between trees

the moon

low in the sky

faint in the haze

a big pink moon





Samsara in scabrous drawings: George Grosz’s Ecce Homo


The intolerant fanaticism in this face reveals a mind driven by anger and hatred and ignorance. The ‘three fires’ of Buddhist teachings are perfectly illustrated in George Grosz’s faces. Samsara in the Buddha’s teachings is the world of the unenlightened, as perceived by those people unable to escape craving and anger, and unwilling to accept impermanence. The Buddha described, “…beings wandering and running around, enveloped in ignorance and bound down by the fetters of thirst.” George Grosz was not illustrating this proposition consciously, but his eye, soured by his experience of the First World War and the gross inequalities of Weimar Berlin, skewered suffering humanity, struggling with its primitive drives and passions, and lost without any more noble conception. Here they are:

Grosz Beauty, Thee Will I Praise 1919


These are people with no self-awareness, drowning in the waves of samsara. If ever a painter expressed the debilitating effects of desire it was surely George Grosz. His is a complete dharmic vision of lives lived in a state of haunted ignorance, in a frenzy of craving for what can never satisfy. The woman in a red hat with one rolling eye is the epitome of delusional suffering. She is not going to find her fulfilment like this, craving for what you cannot keep. But all his people are lost, confused; animals driven by crude appetites.






And a power structure of ignorance, brutishness and hypocrisy:


It is not clear how Grosz views the victims: the beggar and the man about to be beheaded, but only one character in the whole series of prints appears to have any perception of the ways in which people are tormenting themselves with futile desires and hostile passions, and he is also deeply compromised in his self-awareness:


It is a self-portrait of Grosz, but Grosz was only in his twenties at the time and portrays himself as an older man, and one who seems to know the terrible appeal of consuming sexual passion.

I use the terms samsara and dharmic about this vision, but Grosz would not have had a Buddhist world view.  At the time he would have happily called himself a Dadaist, and, with less confidence, would have acknowledged himself a bit of a Communist. In hindsight, in his autobiography A Small Yes and a Big No, he wrote, “My own hopes were never vested in the masses… What the masses had in plentiful supply was hatred, fear, oppression, deceit, derision, smut and calumny… I had lost all hope in the ‘lower’ classes and, in any case, had never joined in the beatification of the proletariat, not even at times when I pretended to certain political views. The war was a mirror;” [he is writing about the period 1916 to 1922] “it reflected man’s every virtue and every vice, and if you looked closely, like an artist at his drawings, it showed up both with unusual clarity.”

He described the war as “four horrible years” which filled him with “utter disgust.” I think his perception of this manic samsara was not so much politically shaped, and certainly not shaped by Buddhism,  but revealed to his mercilessly accurate artist’s eye in a particularly febrile time and place. First, the artist’s eye: “I began to draw from nature in the Japanese style, that is I made quick little sketches of people walking about, reading newspapers, eating in cafés and anything else that appealed to me.”

Berlin in the aftermath of the war was the place, and he writes about it with loathing: “The times were certainly out of joint. All moral restraints seemed to have melted away. A flood of vice, pornography  and prostitution swept the entire country…  Men in white shirts marched up and down, shouting in unison: ‘Up with Germany! Down with the Jews!’ They were followed by another group, also in disciplined ranks of four, bawling rhythmically in chorus: ‘Heil Moscow! Heil Moscow!’ Afterwards some of them would be left lying around, heads cracked, legs smashed and the odd bullet in the abdomen… The city was dark, cold and full of rumours. The streets were wild ravines haunted by murderers and cocaine peddlers, their emblem a metal bar or a murderous broken-off chair leg.”

His historical perspective is apocalyptic: “As the geo-politicians stepped into the shoes of the humanists, the enlightened age that had begun with the Renaissance ground to a halt, and the age of a blind, ironclad ant, completely indifferent to the fate of individuals, the age of numbers without names and of robots without brains, came into being.”

His artist’s eye, as one can see in his self-portrait, was sharp, ruthless, but deeply implicated  and painfully aware. “I made careful drawings of all these goings on, of all the people inside the restaurant and out, deluding myself that I was not so much a satirist as an objective student of nature. In fact, I was each one of the very characters I drew, the champagne-swilling glutton favoured by fate no less than the poor beggar standing with outstretched hands in the rain. I was split in two, just like society at large.”

I do not claim that Grosz was promoting my Buddhist understanding, but I say that his portrayal of the unsatisfying world people create of their craving/desire, hatred/anger and delusion/confusion, as described by the Buddha, is unsurpassed. He had the eye, educated by disgust at the war, and contempt for the political degeneration of his times, the greedy wealth and horrible poverty, and he had the wonderful skill to set it all down so that we can actually see what is going on in the minds of these suffering characters, imprisoned in the human condition without understanding it. His own collusion makes it all the more poignant. He is not outside sneering, but inside, grinding his teeth.