A friend of mine is embarking upon a sabbatical, I say ‘embarking’ quite deliberately as he is taking his sabbatical on his narrowboat, sailing the rivers and canals of England. I went into Worcester yesterday evening to see him and to wish him well as he prepared to set off. I left my car in a car park in the middle of the town, and went down an alleyway at the bottom of which I turned left, went down some steps and onto the canal towpath. Immediately I was in another world. A world without traffic and its attendant noise, instead just the slow silent moving of the water; hardly any people other than the occasional jogger; and while I was still in the middle of the city a towpath lined with trees. It was a green, silent, slow moving world. One running hidden and parallel to the one above which I had only just left, but running at a different pace and to a different rhythm. I recognised it: some years ago I spent a few days with another friend on his narrowboat: that was in the midst of the countryside, and we moved slowly through fields not a city, but it was nevertheless, recognisably the same world.
It was a strange feeling, pleasurable, peaceful and safe, and while I initially felt an alien in it, that soon passed. It was as if I had passed through a portal into another world: one that I recognised and knew, and yet was other than the one I usually inhabited. It seemed like a wise choice for a sabbatical.
I found my friend’s dog, his boat and the man himself, in that order, and we set off to find a pub he knew, to get ourselves something to eat and drink. That meant we left the towpath and went back up into the city, albeit narrow, back streets, not the main thoroughfares. And the strange thing was that the sense of ‘otherworldliness’ came with us: it was as if we stayed in that ‘other’ world while walking the streets of the more usual one. He took me to a wonderful old pub, full of history; feeling just like pubs used to feel: lots of wood and nooks and crannies. The pies were both filling and tasty, the beer great. And the talk was good too. And then we walked back to his boat and his dog, where we lit our pipes, had a second small beer and continued talking. And it was as if the whole experience took place is this ‘otherworld’ that I had stumbled upon
He talked of what had been happening for him since last we met, and I told him of what a full and stimulating summer I’d enjoyed. In particular I mentioned my fascination with the subject of ‘consciousness’. He and I were sat there in the confined space of his boat. I looked at him and he looked at me. I could see him, the clothes he was wearing, and what he was doing [not very much] but I had little or no knowledge of what was going on in his head. Any more than he would know what was going on in mine. I was focused on what we were saying, but simultaneously my mind was taking in all sorts of other information: what his dog was up to, the sounds from outside, what I could see within the boat, plus all the various feelings that I was aware of within me, some of them current, some that I had brought with me, together with memories that suddenly burst onto the scene unannounced. This inner world is what I think of as the real me, and its invariably more significant to me than what I’m wearing, where I am and what I’m doing: but it is this outer world that others see as the real me: indeed they have nothing else to go on.
My friend is a good friend: we know each other quite well. We often meet for a few beers, and maybe a whisky, and we drink and talk and smoke together usually till quite late. The ‘crack’ is frequently very good, and when it is, it is as if we are then also in this ‘otherworld’.
I think that I have always known that it is as if this ordinary world has another, hidden dimension: an ‘otherworld’ in which I often find myself, much to my surprise, and which I recognise. But I have no conscious control over entry. Finding myself there is always a gift. Children I fancy frequently go there, finding it seems easier for them, and they seem very at home in it. But there are things I can do, places I can be, which sometimes offer access to this otherworld, if I am fortunate. The canal and its towpath is clearly one such. Use of the imagination, and the temporary suspension of the rational mind, are key, I sense, and our culture doesn’t on the surface, give much credence to such matters. But I suspect that you will know what I’m talking about. When I tried not very coherently to say something about it last night my friend seemed to recognise what I was on about straight away.
I sense that is a first shot at a target that has been preoccupying me for some time, and to which I shall almost certainly return. There are plenty of loose ends here, and other adjacent and inter-connected paths to be explored too. So if you resonate with what I’m trying to articulate it would be good to hear from you.