Discharging your loyal soldier; a review of Richard Rohr’s “Falling Upward.”

Richard Rohr, Franciscan Priest and Founder of the Centre for Action and Contemplation, has written a book here aimed at those entering, in or interested in ‘the second half of life.’
This is not, however, a self-help manual with spiritual homilies for those affected by mid-life crisis. It is a profound exploration of religion, philosophy and Jungian psychology in relation to the theme of maturity, especially spiritual maturity.
The key argument of this work is that in the first half of our lives we quite naturally focus on defining our individual identity, we work out what our values are, what matters to us, and guard them vigorously. We are focussed on ambition, achievement, and the avoidance of weakness in our quest. If we encounter the ‘other’ we pity it, flee from it or fight it. To do this we are our own ‘loyal soldier.’
But, Father Rohr argues, in the second half of our lives we must discharge our loyal soldier, as we are called into a new, more expansive journey. In other words, we have been focussing on building the container, and that was a right and necessary thing to do. Now our quest is to fill it.
We do this through embracing ‘second half of life wisdom,’ seeing things in a new, non-dualistic way. Often there will have been a fall or series of falls to get us to this point, the life experiences that take us down so we can be built anew; redundancy, bereavement, relationship failure and other such trauma. But the key is that our scope and understanding is widened, we are more ‘us’ than ‘I,’ and we embrace difference rather than attack it, as we are now confident enough and large enough to ‘let go’ of our own ego superstructures or / and ‘individual faith projects.’
I am mangling Richard Rohr’s thinking here in my rush to summarise so please excuse me. He draws on a range of sources and learning including Homer’s Odyssey, the writings of the early Christian Mystics, the Gospels and scripture, the work of Carl Jung and his experiences as Franciscan Father and Prison Chaplain. He does this to describe this incredible adventure of spiritual awakening and discovery that is there for us all should we wish to embrace it. It does take work, which includes ‘shadow-work,’ or ‘shadow-boxing,’ that is recognising and coming to terms with the darkness in us all, if we are to progress. Sickness comes, in this view, from trying to hold on to the first half of life or ‘loyal soldier’ and deny the second. Or trying to do the second too early.
This is a rich and rewarding read and its beautifully written. Rohr has a gift for presenting complex ideas and thought in a clear and accessible way, without blunting their edge. Rohr has his detractors, and if you prefer the certainties of fundamentalism, or like your ‘us and them’ politics and certainties then you will be riled. But then that is the point. This is a book to challenge as well as nourish.

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A beautiful, enriching mystery; a review of the Audible production of Charles Dicken’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”

Right from the start the Mystery of Edwin Drood strikes a note of fever dream, through the eyes of a waking opium addict trying to disentangle hallucination from reality.
In an ingenious opening chapter, said opium addict, John Jasper, runs from his opium den to don a choir master’s robes and join his colleagues at Cloisterham Cathedral, Dicken’s fictional Cathedral town and principal setting of the novel. It is a quick rug pull of a change of perspectives, and typical of the unfinished novel’s tendency to describe a world where nothing is what it seems.
Jasper is apparently zealous for the protection of his young nephew, Edwin Drood. Edwin and a young woman called Rosa have been betrothed to marry as part of a dying father’s legacy. So, they have been engaged since birth.
Other characters begin to crowd the stage; the kindly and principled Rev Crisparkle, the short fused Neville Landless and his sister Helena, placed with the Rev Crisparkle for their education by a bullying philanthropist, the wonderfully named Mr Honeythunder, the booze loving stonemason Durdles, a capering child called Deputy with a fondness for stoning things, an eccentric bachelor lawyer Mr Grewgious who is the guardian of Rosa and in charge of executing the legacy betrothal.
Edwin and Rosa’s relationship is ‘complicated’ by this arrangement and they come to a mutual, and very mature decision to end their betrothal. Shortly after, Edwin disappears, apparently drowned, and the finger of suspicion rests on young Landless, as the two have quarrelled and Neville’s unjustified reputation is that of a murderous thug. Meanwhile, a pompous and conceited auctioneer, Mr Sapsea, is politically courted by Jasper. John Jasper seems to be manipulating events, and as we reach the novel’s perpetual cliff-hanger, is the chief suspect in Edwin’s disappearance and presumed murder, especially after he corners Rosa declaring his sick love for her and causing her to flee.
This is a fascinating and compelling read that I will never forget. There is an atmosphere of menace and mental sickness throughout, be that addiction or sociopathic cruelty and obsession. The trademark Dicken’s humour and love of the absurdities and playfulness of human conversation is all there, and there are some of his grotesque character pen portraits, but this is darker fare. The story is compelling, and the mystery deepens as the tension increases, until we reach the point where the novel ends, mid paragraph, as the writer is claimed by illness and death.
A brilliant and enlightening post-script by Lucinda Hawksley, the great great great Granddaughter of Dickens, gives some background to the story and describes how writers such as Conan Doyle and others have tried to complete the story, and there is a fascinating description of a mock ‘trial’ of John Jasper which had to be abandoned because it got so unruly. But the truth is Dickens left very few clues, and no one can ever really say how it was meant to play out. Some versions will be more convincing than others according to the skill of the storyteller and their fidelity to the logic of the source material, but we will never know, and in the end, we are left with beautiful, enriching mystery.
Billy Howle does a fantastic job with the narration, he really gets the energy of Dickens and the essence of each character; the tired rasp of John Jasper, the rising optimistic cadences of the Rev Crisparkle, for instance. Audible really does seem to be making excellent choice for the narrators of its Dickens Collection, as with Owen Teale’s reading of Dombey and Son, and Kobna Holbrook Smith’s Nicholas Nickelby.

When less is more; a review of Josh Millburn’s and Ryan Nicodemus’s “Minimalism: live a meaningful life.”

Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus have made a name for themselves championing this approach to living an ‘intentional’ life. They tell their story in their introduction, told at more length in their book “All that Remains.” Six figure salary earners in their twenties, they embraced the corporate lifestyle and the American dream. Then through disaster and dissatisfaction they looked for a more meaningful life. They eventually forged out their path as ‘minimalists’ and they outline the main values of their newfound lives here.
They describe how minimalism is not the end result but a means to an end. That end is living intentionally and finding value and meaning. Minimalism allows you to do this through helping to shed away everything that clutters and drains you unnecessarily, until you have more time and space to discover what matters.
So the book is structured, after a substantial auto-biographical introduction, around five main themes:Passions, Contributions, Relationships, Health, Money. Looking at each in turn they apply the principles of intentional living to them. There are links and signposts as to where to find more information or resources, often the authors own essays available on their website.
It is clearly written and concise, full of helpful examples from the authors own lived experience and others. It left me determined to investigate more about minimalism and these writer’s work.

Talking on the moon; a review of Algis Budrys’s “Rogue Moon.”

‘Rogue Moon’ was a pathfinder book in the ‘new wave’ sci fi movement. Poetic and cerebral high concept stories eschewing their pulp origins.
Here, a murderous labyrinth, discovered on the moon, is killing investigating astronauts horribly, pulping them, draining them of their blood, and more in a display of grisly inventiveness. Ed Hawks is a scientist who has found a way to transmit copies of people to the moon, keeping a back up tape of them as he does so. Is this a safe way to overcome the labyrinth? No, because, the volunteers, safe on earth, go insane as they experience death through their doppelganger.
Vince Connington, manipulative personnel director, finds Al Barker, in today’s terms a thrill seeking extreme sports enthusiast, through having an affair with Al’s partner Claire Pack. Will Al’s love of cheating death make him an ideal volunteer to face the labyrinth without going insane?
So Ed beams him over and Al slowly, through multiple double deaths, charts a path through the labyrinth. Will he find a way out? Will the labyrinth’s mysteries be solved? Or will it cost everyone their lives and futures?
I lost the ability to care about half way through this novel. Characters speak in long, declamatory speeches, like out of a bad play. Such speeches are made up of dense psychological and humanistic speculation and brow beating angst. Not just in select passages but pretty much all through the book. There are also very dated gender politics including a casual display of domestic violence, and much painful talk about how men see women. Events culminate in a walk through the labyrinth which tells us nothing of its mysteries. The tone of the end aims for a moving tribute to the power of humanity to hold each other in their memories but it felt like a big shoulder shrug. A shame, because the premise of the novel is a real hook, promising psychological terror that is never really delivered, instead we find something that is like a bad copy of Ibsen.

Sins of silence and complicity; A review of Eric Vuillard’s “The Order of the Day.” Translated by Mark Polizzotti, audiobook read by Leighton Pugh.

This is a fictional; recreation of a series of meetings that took place in the run up to World War Two. The style is immediate, dramatic, and poetic. It grips through the power of its descriptive prose, the laser attention to detail, and the emotional power of the situations of those involved. It also speaks with an incredible moral authority.
The meetings include German captains of Industry representing Krupp, Dailmer and more awaiting a meeting with Hermann Goering and then Hitler. The agenda is clear; the National Socialists need their votes and support. What the National Socialists can deliver makes sound business sense to them.
Then, the Austrian Chancellor is called into a meeting with Hitler and others, ostensibly skiing will be on the agenda, and so he goes equipped in skiing gear. With mounting dread, he realises Winter sports are not the real reason he has been called; he is going to put under bullying pressure to surrender his county. Which he does.
The action then moves to the Ribbentrops being entertained by the Churchills and the Chamberlains when the news of the above breaks. The RIbbentrops manipulate the situation by milking diplomatic niceties and English politeness to delay the English response as much as possible.
And the German army rolls into Austria, but gets snarled into a farcical traffic jam from Hell as some of their tanks break down.
And Austrians begin to kill themselves in astonishing numbers as they become aware of what their country has surrendered into, and what evil its people are joyfully embracing.
The action leaps through the time continuum. We fast forward to the Nuremberg trials to show the ultimate end of the pomp; and power of some involved, and the elderly President of Krupp steelworks has a Hellish vision of the multitudes doomed to force labour and death in his factories. “Who are all these people?” he cries as shadows seem to reach out for him.
This is a wonderful book and its scenes will stay with me. A superior dramatic recreation of history that has powerful and timely echoes for the present on the manipulation of truth by sociopathic and evil powers and the cost of a complicit surrender and silence. NEVER AGAIN.
Audiobook narration by Leighton Pugh is an ideal match to the content. He reads with an urgency and clarity that des this work justice. He well conveys the macabre humour, the sickening ironies and stupidities, of much that the book describes.

Paying it forward; a review of Gill Hasson’s “Kindness; change your life and make the world a kinder place.”

In this clear and helpful study of the application of kindness, teacher, trainer and writer Gill Hasson looks at how we can be kind to others, and how we can be kind to ourselves, and how these things enjoy a symbiotic relationship.
So Part 1, Being Kind to Other, includes the following chapters:
1. Being kind
2. Kindness and empathy
3. Go out of your way to make a difference
4. Kindness and respect
5. Be kind when others are rude and inconsiderate
and Part 2, Being kind to yourself:
6. Don’t be so hard on yourself; be kind
7. Kindness when life is really difficult
8. Feel good about yourself
Each chapter is summarised into take away bullet points to help reinforce key messages.
This is a useful book for those exploring positive thinking and self help and development. It does address an imbalance, kindness is not often given a whole book to itself in this genre. Kindness is a human and spiritual truth needed more than ever as the pace of our lives accelerates and our media and communication tools encourage rapid thoughtless communications that tend to the snarling, snarky and unkind. This is a refreshing primer on the opposite approach, and it is a shame the book never mentions (although it does describe) the ‘golden rule,’ do unto others as you would have done to yourself.’
The writing is crisp and clear, the tone helpful and yes, kind. Its is very practical in its approach, and there are plenty of practical steps that the writer suggests to help us to learn and habituate kindness to ourselves and others. The book references other thinkers and writers, such as C.S Lewis, Albert Schweitzer, and more, but I would have liked more of the inspiring stuff to really undergird this practical approach. Also I find the word ‘nice’ a few too many times. This is a bland and insipid word and there are stronger and better words available.
That said, I an grateful this kind, helpful and practical book exists and I am grateful to Gill for writing it.

Working in the engine rooms of a corporate Titanic; a review of James Bloodworth’s “Hired.”

This is a valuable, shocking, revelatory and moving testament to the lives of those in the darkest engine rooms of our consumerist and corporate Titanic. Conned by Orwellian double talk of being self-employed ‘partners and working in ‘fulfilment centres,’ many are working and living in desperate conditions so we can have our ‘prime’ deliveries, or get a cheap Uber ride in double quick time.
In the tradition of Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London,” Bloodoworth takes a series of low paid jobs across the country that typify some new working practices for cheap labour. He starts in the “Fulfilment Centres” of Amazon, and these chapters have attracted much commentary, and a rebuttal from Amazon. The writer describes conditions where you walk untold miles a day, are subject to constant surveillance and urine tests, and zero security, rights and entitlements.
This is set in the context of the state of communities like Rugely where Amazon is based. One of the key themes is the fear and anger of the populace towards East European immigrants who are literally bussed in to take these jobs. The wrier underlines how we should not dismiss these fears, and the climate of opinion that has fuelled the victory of the ‘Leave’ movement. That the fears are disenfranchisement are real, if not misdirected. He points the finger at franchises powered by globalism that make our local high streets identikit copies of each other, squeezing out local distinctiveness and local business.
Then, its on to Blackpool, and the Care industry, and the employment practices of organisations like Care Watch. The writer describes care workers speeding from client to client, unable to give these vulnerable people the time they need because they have to cover a geographically dispersed and heavy caseload. Again, he puts in the context of its local community, this time the fortunes of Blackpool, and the particular types of deprivation belonging to the abandoned sea-side town.
We’re off to South Wales then, where Mr Bloodworth commences employment at a call centre for the insurance firm Admiral. Again, he describes crushing boredom and long hours and in this instance a bizarre corporate culture that insists its employees enjoy its own brand of ‘fun’ with days devoted to team games and singing songs in praise of the company. And the context here in South Wales is the abandoned pit industry and its likewise abandoned communities.
The final chapters describe a stint as an Uber driver in London, seemingly your own boss, but really the slave of an algorithm with associated monitoring that is quick to penalise if you try and choose which calls to make. The paradox is a rich one, ostensibly self-employed ‘partners’ work in a situation of no rights and no real corporate identity as you are an atomised individual ‘partner.’ You can’t call the shots and enjoy the autonomy that seems to be on offer by e.g. being selective on who you pick up because if you do, you will be punished by the app locking you out from accepting rights on an escalating timescale, or eventually being barred. Also you are vulnerable to star ratings from those you pick up, a bit like that episode of ‘Black Mirror’ where the star rating reaches into and directs every aspect of life in a climate of fear that punishes you if your ratings slip.
The book ends with a clear eyed warning. We have built up rights and protections for ourselves as employees that we seem to be happily signing away, and if this trend continues, we may well find that that the dignity and respect such protections confer are stripped away for good.
There are insights on housing, community cohesion as well as current working trends such as zero hour contracts (paid only for hours worked) and the gig economy (paid only for tasks done) with no underlining contract or employee rights for both. At times heart breaking and moving, the book is alive with lived experience and a burning humanism that is both a challenge and a warning. This will be invaluable social history for the future, and is a wake up call for right here, right now.