Author Archives: charlesashton


I can’t really call this a Coldhome blog I guess, because we’re still living at Cottarton, kindly loaned to us by Paul & Amber. And my, what a pocket of civilisation it is! We’re gradually bedding in, clinging on like limpets, creeping to the back of our crevice like hermit crabs…. Insulated & anaesthetised against the ill winds of fortune, or whatever we can see blowing out there. The oil-fired warmth, the brightness, the non-stop TV, the ease of charging up our portable devices! Where does all this energy come from? And the washing! I think I spend half my day trotting between the washing machine & the washing line. Did ever so much washing get washed? Were we so dirty at Coldhome? Actually, I have a suspicion it may be related to something we used to call Parkinson’s Law – these days I prefer to call it the Law of Turin’s Sword in memory of Professor Tolkien, but I’ll explain about that some other time. But Prof. Tolkien is clearly behind the answer to my question about all the energy: it comes from Mount Doom, like my title suggests – and ok, The Lord of the Rings is a bit of a sore point just now….

All right – yes, I’ll spit it out, starting at the beginning. It was all Yoyo’s fault, she who set off the argument. Did I mention our much TV? Yes, I see I did. Anything as old-fashioned as organising what appears onto our screen is naturally beyond us, so The Hobbit (film) kind of insinuated itself into our midst without our realising…. Anyway, I can guarantee from our experiences with Maddy that eighteen months of age is about right for getting mesmerised by these works of Mr Jackson’s, and so apparently it was with Yoyo. Drowsiness eventually overcame her and she turned her attention to the more routine fare of Peppa Pig, but not before she had surprised us all with the deep concentration she lavished on Thorin as he strode about tragically and the Elf-king was a right snooty bastard. Why would anyone be mesmerised by that stuff, you might ask (that ridiculous elvish army like a bunch of mechanised stormtroopers?!) – well, I did ask, upon which everyone (ie the younger generation) jumped to “that stuff’s” defence and on top of me. Upon which I went over to the attack – ha, a generation that expected to survive a Scottish winter in t-shirt & slacks (you turn up the heating, duh), and anyway in the ensuing brawl no-one came out very justified but I definitely came out feeling – yes, I admit it, I’m not proud – strangely offended with Abi for her assertion that she had never read The Lord of the Rings and never intended to, but that she loved the films.

Never intended to”? Why should this offend me? Well, with no right at all, of course. Why should anyone have to read a very-long-book about stuff that no devotee of English Literature (as in High Culture) could take seriously, which still represents an important part of what makes the hippy generation ridiculous, and why should the genre of fantasy have any relevance to this age of seriously pressing collective concerns?

The genre of fantasy? Ah, there you go… What’s wrong with me, that the very mention of such innocent entertainment should make my toes curl? Can’t I just give honour where honour’s due & have done? Don’t I understand what it means that the entertainment industry accounts for x per cent of GDP? (sorry, numbers not my strong point, but I’m sure it’s a lot) and fantasy is the stuff of entertainment? …And surely, surely what was marvellous about LoR was that this little professor-chappie invented an imaginary world, right down to its details, and in doing so single-handedly founded a whole new literary genre, not to mention its vast spin-off in films and Games? Can’t I let it go at that? Wasn’t that achievement enough?

Well, no it wasn’t, and no I can’t, and no he didn’t. I thought there was something suspect about this notion right from the start (I mean Tolkien the founder of the wondrous Fantasy Genre) – that, in some way I couldn’t put my finger on, they seemed to be missing the point about LoR (hate the acronym – just trying to reduce my word-count, but shit there it just went….) Then Frank Herbert’s brutish Dune stories got published and the rave was all about how “it was just like the Lord of the Rings (only sci-fi)” – suddenly LoR was the bench-mark of quality! Meanwhile superannuated fantasists like Eric Eddison and William Morris were getting wheeled on, stories re-published, because – believe it or not – they preceded Tolkien!

I do not, and never have, cared about such things. What was best about LoR was primarily its subversiveness (think Alice or Edward Lear). It subverted our notions of civilisation and empire, of victory and power and control, and indeed of struggle and justice. Individual characters were invested with luminous, quick-stab comments on the political and moral and spiritual condition of the West, which the story-mass led up to and contextualised. This tended to be done by-the-bye (by-the-bye is naturally of little interest to a harassed film-maker), and furthermore was done in a way which made it look entirely unintentional – which it may have been (we in the West still have a lot to learn about the unintentional, despite Nietzsche and Freud and the widespread interest in the I Ching.)

Subversiveness underpinned the converse of that whole group of highly educated Oxford chaps who called themselves the Inklings and honoured a storytelling tradition carried by Scottish (or part-Scottish) writers like Hogg, Stevenson, Barrie, Bridie, Conan Doyle, but more particularly David Lindsay and George MacDonald, who in turn reached back in a direct line to the German Romantics of the early nineteenth century, including various Schlegels, Eichendorff, Brentano, the Grimm brothers etc, authors whose creative genius frequently rested on significant work as collectors of products of an ancient cultural heritage – oral or foreign – which they perceived as being under increasing threat from the new thinking that was busily fashioning the Scientific Age: what a contemporary, Friedrich Hoelderlin, called the “pitch-dark Enlightenment”.

Tolkien, who once declared that one of his greatest fears was the thought of students conscientiously writing learned theses on his work, has always reminded me, with his obsessive playing-around with language (not unlike the Rev. Charles Dodgson, of twas brillig, and the slythey toves fame) of some shy old-time vicar who devotes his spare Mondays to the wondrous model train-set he keeps hidden away in his attic, and who one day – not thinking about it too much – creates a little branch-line which takes him wandering off across the floorboards to a hole in the skirting, through which he glimpses a lonely height which affords an intense vision of what is wrong at the heart of his world and what must be done if it’s to be put right. It’s a glimpse that needn’t have concerned him too much, but for some reason – an obsessive nature, maybe – he couldn’t leave it alone.

Abduction – yes…. Hoelderlin, in his 1802 poem “Patmos”, describes his abduction from his home by a Genius which whisks him off “faster than I expected and far / to where I never thought to come”. …Indeed alien abductions have been the stuff of human experience for many a long millennium. The profundity of the vision vouchsafed through such events may depend on the abductee: Homer Simpson understood in a blinding flash that “things that are nine ninety-nine are really ten dollars”, but we assume that someone less tangled in the necessities of everyday might see a bit farther. It could depend on the abductor, of course: it used to be well understood that the world was full of many different spirits, of many different sorts. Or of course it could depend on something else entirely, something ineffable, resistant to any inquiry.

The point being that in Tolkien’s case, or my old-time vicar’s, it was all a bit accidental. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer chap, but hardly vision-material, not some lone Himalayan sage or a St John shipwrecked on the Island of Patmos. In fact anything that could fall into the category of literary pretension was not in favour with Tolkien’s circle: products as they were of the Empire’s most privileged stratum of education, who included among others writers like Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Roger Lancelyn Green, Adam Fox and of course C S Lewis, these chaps happily thumbed their noses at current “high” art and literature, which may have been short-sighted but which brought with it the advantages of naivety and smallness which have now become so much the rage in so-called popular culture: they were very much “half-grown hobbits…, the laughing folk, the little people”, who liked to meet over a pint (or two) and who never purposefully meddled in the affairs of the Great. Tolkien in particular did not seek to travel by the highways:

Still round the corner there may wait

a new road, or a secret gate;

and though I oft have passed them by

the day may come at last when I

shall take the hidden paths that run

west of the moon, west of the sun.

(don’t know why those lines so far apart – no control over template apparently, now that really has spoiled my day….)

Since the time I and my brother first had The Lord of the Rings read to us – the winter of ’59-’60, it must have been – I’ve watched as that most significant aspect of Tolkien’s work, its subversiveness, steadily, step by step, got the treatment that’s always most successfully been employed against subversion: it got drawn into the mainstream. Eventually, of course, Frodo came to Hollywood, introduced by a fellow who was a lifelong devotee of Tolkien’s work and who, I actually believe, did thoroughly understand where the man was coming from, but who was naïve enough to forget that Hollywood is an unstoppable force with an ethic of its own and wielding a destructive power the cultural equivalent of a nuclear device.

But isn’t it great, people say, that those films introduced so many people to The Lord of the Rings? No it isn’t. All that happened was that the underground message was dissipated into over-stimulating images, the moments of poetry were “translated” into modern colloquial, the little cameos of wisdom were – well, overlooked, because they were simply too hard to represent in film. The subversive had been dragged into the centre of the mainstream and there – guess what? – it drowned.

So, I’ll mend my attitude – no more taking offence…. I’ll remain sniffy about t-shirts and central heating (& anti-draught devices and high-tech glazing systems for that matter), but I don’t actually care if my children’s generation never experience the true LoR. Some will, some won’t. Some of those who do will see what’s really going on there; others will laugh it off. Tolkien’s story belonged to my generation, and for now it’s outlived its shelf-life. Perhaps my grandchildren will pick him up again, turn him over, and make some new use of him. If they don’t, I trust they’ll find something else equally useful.


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Annie wrote a blog-et this morning, read it out to me and I said it was great and she should post it on Facebook. So she deleted it. I clearly should have said it was crap….

Anyway, as I agreed with it all and would have even said some of it myself if I’d still been into writing blogs much, I’m going to say what I would have said…. She said she didn’t like hers because it sounded preachy, but I’m generally accused of being preachy before I even open my mouth so I’ve nothing to lose.

She and I were both Polling Agents on Election Day. Polling Agents don’t do much but stand and look pretty. We both independently had the same sensation that watching people engaging in the act of democracy was – for all its faults – a moving one. So what I’d like to say about politicians is this:
Politicians are made for getting corrupted. They start off with principles, with ideals of service and of doing good, and they get corrupted, burned out, dried up. Why is this? I think one important cause is because of something that gets called “voter apathy”. I don’t call it that, I call it an infantilised population, I call it people putting everything onto their politicians and the governments they form: “daddy will fix it” is the basic attitude, and when he doesn’t, it’s “daddy’s shite”. Yet politicians are real people who sacrifice a lot – their privacy, often their family life, their health and even their mental well-being to put themselves at the disposal of the people they represent. Their pay looks like a mint – but to me everyone else’s pay looks like a mint so I really can’t be certain that it is that much; and I have had some insights into how many of our own politicians spend their money, and it certainly arouses neither my wrath nor my contempt – and come an election like the one we had last week and for many of them – oof! it’s all gone, just like that.

So to those who came to vote, I salute you, the sixteen and seventeen year olds coming for the first time with rather serious faces, and the grey ones creeping along on sticks, both those who greeted me as I stood beaming at the door with my yellow-and-black badge on and those who studiously avoided my eye (yes, I could have done a poll!). I don’t understand why these latter don’t see fit to follow the desires of the younger generation for whom the government of the future is going to be so much more important than for them – maybe they think they know better than the youngsters and believe they’re doing it “for their own good”. I don’t understand them but I salute them nevertheless. And to the many who didn’t come, the many whom I’ve met on doorsteps while canvassing who sneer and say, “nae interested”; or proudly announce “I’ve never voted”, or “politicians are all the same – they’re all corrupt”, or those like the occupier of a particularly well-appointed house who demanded, “what has the government ever done for me?” I would say this: you make me angry, and perhaps a spell in Belgium, where voting is obligatory, would do you some good and rouse a small sense of civic duty. I’ve been dissatisfied with our style of democracy for most of my adult life, and I certainly don’t think I like the kind of PR which is currently in force in Scotland – it has an air of deceit about it. I am an active member of the SNP, but support many policies of the Greens and look forward to their getting even stronger, and I have deep-reaching anarchist instincts – but I’ll support the form of democracy we have because I don’t at the moment see anyone coming up with anything better, and I do see that the whole structure of what we call civilisation is probably about to collapse round our ears, and the politicians who represent us really do need to be told what we think can be done to make the crash, when it comes, as endurable as possible. If the people don’t interact with their representatives in an adult and rational way, how are the politicians expected to act in an adult and rational way themselves?

Government can only be as good as the people who install it.

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Wake up, NHS!

Attended a fascinating talk last night by Dr Stefan Geider at the Aberdeen chapter of the Scientific & Medical Network on mistletoe therapy for cancer.

Scary: co-relation of fever-preventing strategies (vaccination, antibiotics, paracetamol etc) with increase in incidence of cancer.

Amusing (yet depressing): the attempts of associates of Geider’s, including Muhammad Shakeel, an oncologist at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, to publish the well-documented case-history of a man with laryngeal cancer.

Totally alarming: how the structure and culture of the NHS militates against diversity of approach to medical issues. On  the one hand the Scottish Government struggles to support this excellent institution, on the other hand this same institution does its best to stifle scientific debate as everyone looks over their shoulder and is terrified of stepping out of line!

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A Game of Baws

Don’t re-blog much cos my computer’s even slower than my brain. This one’s very much worth reading though….

Bonnie Fairbrass

In the recent game of Baws, known to some as the election, the results are as follows:
Scotland One – England Nil
I hate to tell you England, but you’ve been done.
I am in a bit of an awkward position, as an English woman, living in Scotland, who voted SNP.
According to the press I’ve just fucked over everyone I know in England. To some I guess that makes me a traitor. That, I believe is a matter of perspective. I’d like to think that most of my friends down south would not be so judgemental, and perhaps better read than the majority, or at least be able to count and stuff. I am not a one off either, I happen to know a fair few other English people living here who voted SNP too. Oops. We bad.
I stand by my decision to vote SNP, as I do…

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Here be Lions

Friday morning, 8th May

Well well, and wasn’t that exciting? We ought to get some sleep, but it’s such a lovely day.

So why am I not pleased? Ah well, it’s good old Scotland syndrome again isn’t it. –

             Now all is done that men can do
             and all is done in vain.

At least any Labour supporters Britain-wide who have an elementary grasp of mathematics shouldn’t be able to accuse us of screwing them over. England did that all by herself.

What happened? Apparenly swathes of English voters threw themselves behind tha Conservatives in order (nobly) to SAVE THE UNION.
What I’m still asking is: what Union?

I really do think Scots should adopt this simple little meditation, every morning when they wake up. First, give thanks for life, health, relative freedom etc., and then remind themselves: There never was a Union. Just like that. There never was a Union. There was only ever Southern expansionism.

How do I know this? Well obviously: because the thought of a healthy, well-disposed and friendly neighbour on their northern border apparently fills the English with such terror that they’ll vote for a bunch of people they thoroughly dislike and a bunch of policies they hate rather than allow this to be. Clearly the only Scotland acceptable to them is a subject and subservient Scotland. It’s an atavism. Wake up, people of England! You can breathe freer when you’re not subject to night terrors. You can move more freely when you’re not burdened with thoughts of retaining Power at all costs.

I hope our bunch of guys who are going to Westminster keep their nerve; and remember they’re wandering into a lion’s den where supreme efforts will be made by Certain People to undermine and discredit them. Beware blandishments, honey-traps, excitable gossip…. – oh, and tell Alex to go easy on the roaring lions, there’s enough alarm as it is.

No poem this time. Too tired and emotional.

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Not Yet Maytime

It was not blossom but snow that fell
just as the hawthorns were full of fresh lettuce
tender as the leaves on her plate, when we found her
relaxed and chatting in the salad bar
(“well why not”, she laughed, “a girl needs a bit
of me-time, doesn’t she”).

It was not blossom but snow that fell.
It was the loveliest thing, those forlorn flowers
the magenta, the yellow, wreathed in and out
by those unlikely other petals linked so thick
in one another, brooms and young larches were
bent to the ground.

“Unlikely? Incomprehensible!” we exclaimed.
But she, drawling “plenty of time yet!”
smiled in the well-heated bar. “You are the one”
we challenged, “we have that right, the keeper
of the four treasures, do you even have them?”
“There’s a key,” she said

As outside the snow kept falling,
formless now, “somewhere in my stuff – look
it’s here in my bag – or maybe not”
distractedly lighting a cigarette as she went on
hunting without success. “Oh really, it doesn’t
matter,” we assured her;

We went outside and left her to it
(it looked as though she’d never notice).
What now? What now? without those treasures
there could be no hope of a new beginning,
springtime would stop.

But the snow kept falling and somebody laughed;
“it was too mild a winter anyway”, he said;
“snow is a gift we need to be blessed with
at least once a year; without it
how can the water melt and run?
Come out, we’ll find

Those treasures, sure as eggs
hidden in a blackbird nest under a cap of snow.”
And so it was – not that there could be
a respite, not with his voice now fissuring the air
“you can’t rest on any success along the way
neither great nor small”.

It was not blossom but snow that fell.
And that is the story of the last spring
we ever spent together, just that core
of us, where our characters were formed;
there would be sometimes more and sometimes less
but never the round sum;

And the four treasures, those glittering entities
we were never quite convinced of
they lay in their hiding-place for years to come
perhaps hatching or just as likely stagnant
but that’s not the point: we learned that year
to take the blossom

As snow, the snow as blossom.

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Spilt Milk

– What do you mean, you stupid old woman
by Christ I’m going to send you
to the place, just see if I don’t
where stupid old women are sent.
What else but spilt milk
is there to cry over? My whole life
look! oceans of spilt milk!
And you tell me there’s no use?

I watch you shuffling off through the doorway
the bent back, the frame, the relentless hatred;
oh yes, I’ve done it now – nothing good
she remembers, but she’ll remember this.
I’ll give you there’s no use, I’ll give you
what do you ever do for me, I’ll give you
this used to be a happy house, till you came!

No I won’t. I’ll be crying in the corner.
I’ll be saying, what happened to the nice old dame
who always cooked the comfort meat
all with the right balance of roots
who loaded us down with plant cuttings
who waited for us on the garden bench
and chided us for our lateness, in the dappled
sunshine under her flowering trees.

– That white bench out among the nettles, she says
should we bring it in where people can sit on it?
That one, I grunt (what’s wrong
with nettles?). It’s a green bench, I tell her.
Looks white to me, she says. The sunlight welling
through the studded hawthorn stems
turns her hair to black gloss, a fringe
of gold somewhere about – her complete
knowledge of dyeing, that’s what that is.

I’ve made mistakes in my life,
my dear, that you will never learn from.
I’ve seen whole horizons on fire
I was obliged to turn from;
I thought I would have a life:
children, wife, old people took it over.
They tell me this was my choice
people who look to live without
remorse, regret, who consider
(expressed in a clipped, clear voice)
empowerment’s the name of the game.

Soon the mayblossom will cover
these sharp ungainly sticks. Blossom
makes no demands, has no regret
does not dissent; it’s an apotheosis
of spilt milk frozen on some
ancient ineluctable frame.

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