Geoffrey Mather

Anyone for isolation?

Isolation: You love it or loathe it. virus or no virus. A friend sent me a picture of his relative's lakeside cottage in Canada. It showed a clear blue sky, and darker blue water. And between the two a couple of buildings for humans. It all looked devilish cold to me.

If it had been Windermere I might have found comfort in such a scene. There are one or two hotels within hobbling distance. But the thought of being isolated by hundreds of miles from decent, awful, accident-prone, money-grabbing civilisation appals me. To each his own and other people's if he can get it.

This aversion spreads through art. I look at Turners and think, "That's clever." But I quickly move on to a Bruegell because his work is full of bawdy people in hippy gear having a jolly good time.
I think I might be, well, alone in all this. When I view the droves of university lecturers, students, and so-called Southern softies plodding through the Lake District rain wearing yellow oilcloth over their legs which are stuck into cloddish boots, I marvel at their ideas of enjoyment.

And these are just the peripherals. Beyond them are these people living in lakeside cottages in such places as Canada. One can only imagine their life. Strange howls in the darkness. The lapping of water against wooden piers all night long. Perhaps the sound of no-sound: that nothingness that goes with hell-hole darkness.

Secret agents could do a lot with that to extract confessions. Yet people actively choose isolation from their kind.

An age ago, I stood alone, in mid night, on a turret with a searchlight for company and a gun for protection in hostile territory. Not a sound. Not a movement. I turned the light off. It was like being in a space capsule, no sensation, total silence. And then, realising I had a job to do, I switched on the light and swung it in a circle. All I saw were eyes - rows of lumunous eyes, all around. Dogs. Pi-dogs, we called them. They were standing still, just watching. Jackals? I didn't fancy being with them, at any rate.

Isolation, you see. However beautiful the terrain, however silent the night, there is always a threat if the place is remote. The top of Everest is a goal for people with strange desires. For me it is no better than an extended mill chimney, and climbing either would be a mark of lunacy.

I have a friend -well, not so much friend as a fellow human named Domo, and he lived around the year 500, a solitary sort of chap, full name Bhodidarma.
Domo must have been a bit solitary: he set out from India to China with the intention of spreading Buddhism. And in China, he met Emperor Wu. The emperor was a great one for building temples and so forth, so he asked Domo what his merits in Buddhism were as a result of all this effort. And Domo said none at all. He was absolutely right in the Buddhist sense, but I would not like to try it on a Chinese emperor in those times.

Domo, out of favour, cleared off, crossed the Yangse, and ended at the Shaolin monastgery. You recall David Caradine in the TV series featuring a Shaolin monk sorting out America disguised by a trilby? And all those Eastern Kung-fu films?

Blame Domo for that. He started Kung-fu and Zen.

The monks rather liked him, although he was unpopular with the leadership - high-falutin' ideas, I suppose - and they took him food. And here is my main point about isolation and loneliness: the awe I felt at his dedication.

He spent nine years in a cave facing a wall.

If I had to spend nine years in a remote cottage overlooking a lake in an empty region, that would be my equivalent.

Anyway, at Shaolin, Domo saw cranes and snakes fighting, and created the crane and serpent styles of Kung Fu. Later, he invented the dragon, tiger and leopard styles and these became the "five styles of Shaolin," In the end he went into the monastery and was accepted. And there, through Kung-fu, he developed the monks' strengths and dexterity because he considered them a weedy lot. And there you are. They are still at it at Shaolin to this day.

As for Domo, he was the first of six Zen patriarchs.

I can not think of a modern equivalent - somebody who would stare at a wall for nine years in contemplation. The American version would be Thoreau, who isolated himself but cheated.

He wrote a book called Walden, or Life in the Woods. Why? "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. … I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms."

In the book, he wrote, "Men frequently say to me, 'I should think you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially,' and I am tempted to reply - 'This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart think you dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk can not be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely?'"

The answer to that, in my book, is that Thoreau was not a twinkling star. He was a 19th century Harvard graduate who opened a grammar school with his brother. I said that he cheated and so he did. He lived in his Walden camp for two years but was within walking distance of Concord. If that is isolation, it is not comething Domo would have recognised.

But Thoreau came out of it with a philosophy that intrigued Americans: "I have learned, at least, by my experiment that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

Alan Watts (January 6, 1915 – November 16, 1973) was a British philosopher, writer, and speaker, best known as an interpreter and populariser of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience. He wrote more than 25 books and delved into personal identity, the true nature of reality, higher consciousness, meaning of life, concepts and images of God and the non-material pursuit of happiness. So a quick summing-up from him might help.

He said: "I'll tell you what hermits realise. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you'll come to understand that you're connected with everything."

Well, I have a high regard for Watts and was most impressed when a friend came back from California with the information that he had met his son. But here is where we differ.

You are not connected to everything at all except in the mind. And the body is sometimes a bit difficult in an argument. If there is not a pub within half a mile you might as well be in Omsk or Tomsk. And if there is no-one in that pub complaining about the government - a form of comfort conversation - you are lost to civilisation.

In short, philosophy is all very well but I would rather someone else sat in a Canadian chalet staring at a lake so that when he has sorted out the universe, I can read the book, share the experience, and have a pint.

It's so much easier.



Jack (Lord) Ashley

Sir John Barbirolli

Sir Osbert Sitwell

The Queen and me

Bryson: the words that smile

The boy in Aleppo

The Queen's Speech that never was

Lord Bragg

Donald Campbell

Sir Neville Cardus and John Arlott

Ronald Carter, blacksmith

Violet Carson (Ena Sharples)

"The magic of Shakespeare swept me off my feet. Then I'm back to 'Ee, by gum' in the Street. It trapped me. It made me, if you like: it has gone all over the world. But it has destroyed me, because nobody sees me or anything about me."

Dame Catherine Cookson,

Earls, Dukes and Godly Men

Dame Gracie Fields & me

Ronald Fraser

Dame Thora Hird

Lionel Jeffries

(Railway Children)

Russell Harty

L S Lowry (above)




"You're not getting your ball back," she used to shout. "You'll kill somebody, you lot."

The crucible (climbing)




Grannie Morshead

Pubs and landlords

Wing and a prayer


Genius Family

Lancashire pride

Is democracy dead?

The best of whimsical fiction

North-South divide

The pleasures and agonies of Spring,

George Best at 20


Summer of 2006


Buddhism + life (Manjushri, Lake District) Life and Living 1 Life and Living 2 Life and Living 3

Rant: rumbles and grumbles. Lancashire affairs. Snippets: Bits and pieces.

copyright: Geoffrey Mather 2017

  • Retrospective

  • (collected in one spot)
  • On growing old
  • So there they were - Hollywood dominating the world with its Clark Gables, Jean Harlows, Spencer Tracys, Garbos and Bogarts, tears in its eyes, inventive, vulnerable, blessed by climate, limos and money but tormented, insecure and edgy as fledglings in nests.
  • Bennett's art is to take the apparently trivial - his mother's views of "her betters" and so on - and make them meaningful in much larger ways. Miss Shepherd tested all his beliefs and inhibitions one by one. The two of them existed together, but in worlds apart, like aliens. And yet, I suspect, it was the sameness that reached furthest into the writer's psyche. His long essay on Miss Shepherd is superb. Even on the second reading, I was laughing out loud, to the disgust of the dog,, and in the next sentence feeling for Bennett's own agony. So you have this magic formula, where the relationship between two people over 20 years can match the life experiences of us all. 

  • .

    "I am all for the unusual on Page One. I do not read stories of the type headed ' Bandits gag, tie up woman' very much nowadays because people are always gagging and tying up women. Such incidents are as common as gas-oven suicides." 

    Arthur Christiansen

    became editor of the Daily Express in October, 1933, a position he held for 24 years until 1957. During his editorship sales peaked at two million in 1935, over three million in 1944 and four million in 1949. Each day he wrote a bulletin. It was compulsory reading for members of editorial staff. Here are many of those bulletins.

    The Beaverbrook Saga

    The newspaper crisis


    + Molloy of the Mirror + Clive James + Churchill + Big-ego words + Vanishing language + Noam Chomsky's words + Great words of great events

  • In spite of his own eccentricities, he wanted the world to behave as he expected it to. Big companies, shops, waiters and hotel managers were his normal fodder. He terrorised them. When he snagged a coat on something protruding in Woolworth's, he said to the manager, "This is an expensive coat." "I can see it is," said the manager. "I noticed it when you came in." "Right," said Brian Duff, "I expect you to pay for it. And I don't want it invisibly mended because you can see it."
  • Ian Skidmore

    Sir James Scott Douglas (gossip columnist)

    When an editor complained of his booking into an expensive London hotel - the Dorchester as I recall - at the firm's expense, James merely said, "Where else can one entertain one's proprietor?" and the matter was hurriedly concluded, since no-one was prepared to phone (the late) Sir Max Aitken, who bossed the place at the time.

    I asked Jim (I always called him Jim, to be perverse, though it was obvious that he was entitled to James) to find out something one day - on the phone, I emphasised - and he said, "Oh yes, I shall ring" - go on, guess - "...Uncle Essex." It made me wish I had an Uncle Oswaldtwistle

    James had a habit of living extravagantly and encountering hard times, which is how he came to be a journalist. Both conditions were once almost fundamental to the job.

    Pub Talk with Peter Thomas

    Accrington Observer Observed

    Peter Stringfellow

    Edna the Traveller

    The pearl hunter

    Blaster Bates

    RSM Lord

    Concert Secretary

    Champion eater

    Witch woman

    Railway Children

    Mathers of Salem

    Crown and Kettled

    Railway Children

    Billiards halls


    Holy fizz


    TV to do



    St George's Day

    Selwyn Lloyd

    Lt Gen Sir Oliver Leese

    Theodore Major

    Sir John Moores

    Albert Modley

    Beatrix Potter

    Frank Randle

    Bill Shankly

    Les Dawson,

    Fred Dibnah,

    Dudley Doolittle (comic),

    Lady Anne Clifford

    Maureen Lipman

    The Immortal Griffin


    Soccer language