I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
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Saturday, 13 August 2016

Up against it

RE-WRITTEN FOR GREATER CLARITY. For much of the past year I've suffered from stress; the basis for this, which I am deliberately omitting, was not medical. There were periods I could push the stress aside but, more recently, as a resolution of the situation got nearer, the stress intensified: I could not sleep, concentrate on writing, or enjoy the daydreaming that comes with retirement. As I saw it the resolution would take one of three forms: one unpleasantly life-changing, another serious but bearable, the third entirely happy.

Late on Friday afternoon the situation was resolved and it led to the third possibility - the happy one.  As a bonus I recognised that the stress may have been the product of my over-imagination. Perhaps, retrospectively, that makes the stress unrealistic, even negligible. It wasn't.

But here's the point I want to consider: my state of mind when I learnt the good news. You'd expect something joyous, wouldn't you? A flash of light? A spreading warmth? A heavenly relaxation?

None of that. Emptiness best describes it. Yes I was glad but gladness is probably an intellectual reaction. But what about emotion - real emotion? There was almost nothing there. I manufactured some emotion by driving to Tesco and buying the store's most expensive champagne. Taittinger, as it happens. VR and I drank it watching cheering events in Brazil's Olympic velodrome.

Half a day later I’m disappointed I wasn't happier. Perhaps this makes me perverse; worse, a lover of cliché endings which I appear to have been denied in this case. Perhaps you, dear reader, think this was a storm in a teacup. But do teacup storms last months?


  1. Since you don't mention the cause of the stress, RR, it is hard to comment on this. But the mere fact that you are writing about it and that it has been with you for so long, is an indication of its seriousness. I would not presume to offer advice

    I can only say that I fervently hope you can resolve this and that I hold you in my thoughts.

  2. Avus: The situation was resolved; late Friday afternoon as I said. The reasons for the stress were omitted deliberately because they concerned day-to-day matters which might well have encouraged banality. I wrote the piece not looking advice but for debate about something that wasn't day-to-day: an unexpected reaction on my part, a reaction that flew in the face of received wisdom.

  3. Avus: I have rewritten parts of this post to make it clearer.

  4. Well, as you say, it's clearer than before. I am glad that the situation has resolved itself for you and personally relieved that you feel better. "Richard's himself again."

  5. I have experiences, not exactly stressful, but related, I think, to what you are questioning: the elusiveness of emotion. The first long backpacking trip I did was the Pennine Way in 1987 (12 days walking). That had been an ambition beforehand for a long time, consequently I was well wound up about the whole thing. I had spent the last night in an old railway carriage used as a shelter on the shoulders of the Cheviot. I walked down into Kirk Yetholm next morning with huge emotion and tears running down my cheeks.

    Since then I have done many other longer, and more difficult trips (Land's End to John 'o Groats - 2008 - 77 days), and what is a lifetime's ambition for many hill walkers that many never complete: completion of all 284 Munros (mountains in Scotland over 3000ft), but never had that emotion again at the end, just a feeling of satisfaction and saying to myself "a job well done". I also am left with a puzzlement more than disappointment that I wasn't happier. The Munros thing, if anything, should have got the result. Should I worry that I am abnormally insensitive?

  6. Avus/Sir Hugh: As human beings we make assumptions about our emotions and those of others. Someone we know dies, we assume we will be sorry about this, we behave to the outside word as if we are sorry - but secretly we aren't. Emotions cannot be forced into what they should be; into what is considered "normal". Emotions, it seems, have a life of their own.

    Before my long-standing situation (referred to above) was resolved there was nothing I yearned for more than that it should be resolved according to the third ("happy") outcome. Before it was resolved I had imagined myself in this "happy" state, blissful, unfettered, almost childlike. Yet when the phone-call that resolved the situation was over and the desired outcome had been achieved, I felt none of these things; I was a mere husk.

    In Sir Hugh's case the happiness he experienced was - I'm guessing - unexpected and he was overwhelmed by it. Because future situations were, let's say, "more extreme" he perhaps felt it reasonable to expect he would again be overwhelmed by them but this did not happen. Proof that we cannot accurately predict, or shape, emotions.

    But here's an oddity. In the intro to Tone Deaf's home page I refer to Lady Percy's soulful soliloquy, mourning the death of her husband Hotspur. This touched me more than anything else in Shakespeare and that's why I've given it such prominence. Some time ago I decided to read it aloud and embed the recording in Tone Deaf for others to hear. But the project had to be abandoned; when I reached the lines:

    And him - O wondrous him!
    O miracle of men! - him did you leave..."

    my throat tightened and I couldn't go on. What's strange is that when I tried again, a week or so later, my throat again tightened. One might have expected that an emotion, once invoked, could not be re-invoked (eg, as Sir Hugh might have expected with his grand projects) but apparently there are exceptions. In fact I feel a tiny amount of throat-tightening as I write this.

  7. Your experience reading Lady Percy's lines reminds me of my experience every time I watch "Chariots of Fire" and arrive at the moment where Sam Mussabini punches out the top of his straw hat. Wrecks me every time, and it's happened at least 10 times. I can feel the emotion while writing this. I will ponder your ideas further, as time allows.

  8. I am not sure how many different kinds of emotion there are - I am not an intellectual, or academic and have not done a phd on the subject, but I see two very different categories.

    There are the emotions one feels (or not) from personal experiences like my Pennine Way description and your own episode described here.

    Then there are emotions one feels when one observes actions of others as described by Mike M.

    In my own case strong emotion comes more often and stronger in this second category. Watching Remembrance Day services, hearing or reading about multi-mission bomber pilots in the war, and recently a girl who was only about twelve years old cycling round Britain to raise money for cancer from which her mother had died, i.e., not a five mile park run, but a deeply meaningful commitment - I donated immediately through Just Giving. There are some of these instances where one may be accused of being over sentimental, but as you say you can’t dictate about emotions - they just happen. They are not totally abstract as happening only in what we call "the mind" (about which there is much academic debate) because there are physical manifestations: the tears, the tightening of the throat, the increase in heart rate, as well as what is going on in "the mind", so there must be some physical chemical activity happening in the body to promote these - are they instigated by “the mind”?

    You are correct about our reactions to death of others and you are brave to describe it. The greatest emotion I can recall is the sadness when I had to have my old dog Barney put down at the age of 16years, much more than that experienced for many close family and friends. I feel somewhat ashamed to make that admission, so there is also guilt wrapped in all this as well, and what about guilt, does that have any physical manifestations?

    Stephen Pinker has much to say about emotion in How the Mind Works. I read this years ago and recall little now, and haven’t had time to re-read before writing this, but I will do so assuming I will experience bad weather during my caravan trip to the north west of Scotland starting tomorrow. If the weather is good such intellectual pursuits will be abandoned for uplifting days on the hills, hopefully soaking up pleasant emotions from that wild scenery.

  9. MikeM: Good choice; set in a very English version of society: cruel, elitist, patriotic in the worst way. Perfect for drawing out the poignancy of Mussambini's situation. This isn't the first time you've written enthusiastically about something that touched accurately on the nature of my homeland; I'm always absurdly pleased that what I consider to be an important message has got through.

    Sir Hugh: I suspect there are as many emotions - or shades of emotion - as there are abstract adjectives. The divide between honest emotions and sentimentality is often blurred by language: the more remarkable the phenomenon, the better it is served by simple statements and undemonstrative behaviour. I'm more proud of this short passage (from Out Of Arizona) than any other fiction I've written:

    (Lisa Nordmeyer recalls the eulogy at her husband's funeral). "One of the truck drivers at Purina volunteered... I thought it would be bar-room jokes but I can feel the tears when I remember. 'Geoff Nordmeyer knew the business and knew the men. What else matters?' I tried to thank him afterwards, but he was away. Shy, the others said."

    Alas, over-used words and phrases can weaken justifiable sentiment. Relations who talk about "getting closure" when the missing body is found. Also, often used about climbers who have succumbed to gravity, "He died doing something he loved." One tends to avert one's eyes.

    Emotion can also exist inimically.Windsor Davies mentioned this to me, following a radio documentary about the Nuremberg trials where Goering cheated the hangman by taking poison. A soldier working in the prison at the time rendered the perfect epitaph; "We threw a blanket over him, lying on the floor." How else might one express contempt?

    Query: So, when the walking weather's good, there's nothing intellectual going on in your head? Hmmm.

  10. Tedious work today led to pondering the name-source of the client's dog, Fergus. I only know Fergus from Yeats, and I called to mind (as best I could) the opening lines of "Who Goes With Fergus". It's a long time favorite of mine ("When You are Old" is another), and I wondered if it impacted me as Lady Percy had impacted you. I thought not, and then went to musing about "Chariots" again. It came to me this afternoon full force...it's not the moment when Sam punches the top out of his hat that makes me spill, it's the moment after, when he softly says: "My son...my son."

  11. MikeM: These moments, these moments! As a knee-jerk observation I was about to say they confirm we are human beings but they do nothing of the kind. They are like powerful visitations from another planet: unexpected, astounding and transformative. Briefly we are not in control but - and here's the strangeness of it - we don't resent being overwhelmed; the intensity of the moment arrives with a conviction that it is beneficial. We may not want to be observed publicly in tears but we know, don't we?, that our tears are nothing to be ashamed of.

    And perhaps, just perhaps, we may be proud of these moments. They may be the result of a sub-conscious preparation going back over many years; so that when the moment occurs we are worthy of it. We respond as we should respond.

    I didn't know Yeats' Fergus and I've just read it. It didn't create a moment for me but I'd have been surprised if it had done. Moments are nothing if not unique to an individual. Nevertheless it held me. One reason may be that the name, Fergus, appears wilfully unpoetic but Yeats rides effortlessly over that initial impression. Ending gloriously with the essence of poetry:

    And all dishevelled wandering stars.

    Yeah, he says, there's no such thing as raw material that's too raw. All is grist to my powerful mill.

    I'm full of stuff thanks to you and Sir Hugh. Could go on and on, especially about the second near-moment of Lady Percy's threnody with all its multi-layered implications:

    And talked of Monmouth's grave.

    But I'd risk going to excess. There are Posi-drives to be driven, and hacksaws to be hacked.

  12. Well, if you need a break from that, here is an enlightening analysis of "Fergus"


    Beautifully written comment btw, esp. the 1st two para.