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Old man at the Stade. Illustration by Zelly Restorick, Hastings Online Times

The old man at the Stade

Hot columnist Sean O’Shea continues his dialogue with the old man at the Stade (A fishy tale, HOT June 28th 2013). They talk about Buddhism, Plato’s cave and other topics.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air….

The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1

I was recently enjoying a quiet reverie on my favourite bench on the West Hill, when I was joined by the old man at the Stade (OMS). He likes to play ‘Wise Old Man’ and I indulge him, mostly because I feel that it can’t be much of a life living as he does in a cave with only the odd petulant cormorant and a few rodents for company.

SOS: Well, what a surprise… I haven’t seen you in ages.

OMS: With the heavy rain and subsidence, I’ve had to relocate to another cave further up the coast. It’s taken me ages to find one that is dry and sufficiently off the beaten track to suit my requirements.

SOS: Well, that explains why you look so ragged and I won’t bother to ask you the whereabouts of your new cave, as I know how you like to protect your privacy.

At the mouth of the old man's cave

At the mouth of the old man's cave - Illustration by Zelly Rosterick

OMS: Don’t. The last time we met, we were talking about the Buddhist idea of no self. On this view the self or ego is regarded as illusory.

SOS: Yes, but that doesn’t stop other people and organisations defining who we are, and sometimes in quite ungenerous and distorted terms.

OMS: Judgement and love are opposites, and I cautioned you about identifying with other people’s definitions of you.

SOS: I asked you where the idea of ‘no self’ left us in relation to our engagement with the world, and particularly the struggle for social justice. I argued that people need to eat before they can meditate or philosophise. Toilets come before temples in my opinion.

India in spite of its traditional regard for the meditative life is not a great example of collective compassion or innovative ways of promoting human welfare. The still widespread belief in predestination hasn’t helped, and class divisions are compounded by caste distinctions. Millions remain hungry and the treatment of women in particular is quite appalling.

SOS and old man on bench

Illustration by Zelly Restorick

OMS: The notion of ‘no self’ doesn’t need to exclude compassionate engagement with social issues. And things might be a lot worse in India if at least some people didn’t follow the spiritual path. Why are you so crotchety today?

SOS: I’m not crotchety.

OMS: Yes, you are.


SOS: Also, I don’t know what you’re doing here intruding on my private reflections?

OMS: You invited me.

SOS: I did not. You turned up of your own accord.

OMS: So, why are you so crotchety?

SOS: I’m not crotchety.

OMS: Yes you are.

(Long pause)

OMS: We sound like a married couple.

SOS: Are you going to tell me that we were a married couple in a previous life?

OMS: No, why should I say that?

SOS: Well, I’ve heard you speak of ‘different dimensions’ and stuff so it wouldn’t surprise me if you believed in past lives.

OMS: One life is enough, in my opinion.

SOS: Good. I’m glad to hear it. All this stuff about many lives is not something that appeals to me at all. The notion that I might end up as a pig or a dung beetle on a journey to God-knows-where is not a cheery thought.  And what’s the need for such an infernal washing cycle in the first place? Why not just the one ‘quick wash’ followed by nirvana, and an end to the fires of desire, aversion, and delusion? Wouldn’t it be a blessing to be spared some of the miscommunications, the misunderstandings, the suffering, the wars, the waiting – and the travel expenses?

OMS: There’s someone looking at you.

SOS: No, they’re looking at you.

OMS: How could they be looking at me? I’m invisible.

SOS: They are definitely looking in your direction. It may be someone from the Local Authority. They may have come to bang you up.

OMS: How could they bang me up if I’m invisible?

SOS: They may call in the experts. They’re pretty clever in the Local Authority.

OMS: Well, they have no record of me at all. I’ve never been on anyone’s list. It’s you’re the one that ought to look out. If they clock that you’re in the habit of talking to ‘invisible’ people they may get worried about you. You may become ‘a cause for concern’.

Remember ages ago we were talking about the alleged death of God. You asked me if I thought he existed and if I talked to him. I said to you back then, if you talk to God that’s fine. It’s a sign you’re a religious person. If on the other hand God starts to talk to you, then you are best keep quiet about it. Or at least don’t tell a psychiatrist – or the Local Authority!

SOS: Sound advice but I reminded you that I’m an agnostic and it’s not a problem for me. I haven’t talked to God since I was a child and even then all I ever heard was a deafening silence, not even a whisper of a reply from his only begotten son before whom I dutifully prayed on bended knee when I ought to have been dancing free in my own imagination far from all grief and worry. Yes, the broken man with the sad eyes averted skywards who allegedly died on my behalf – I only ever knew him by his absence.

platos cave

Plato's cave - Illustration by Zelly Restorick

OMS: We also talked about Plato’s cave which was full of prisoners. The prisoners were tied to rocks so that they couldn’t look at anything but the stone wall in front of them. They’d been there since birth and had never seen the world outside the cave. Behind the prisoners was a fire, and in between a raised walkway. People outside the cave strode along this walkway carrying things on their heads including animals, pots, plants and wood. The prisoners could see shadows cast on the wall of the objects being carried across the walkway, but because they’d never seen the real objects they believed that the shadows were ‘real’. Then one prisoner managed to escape and was amazed at the world he discovered outside. Keen to share this wonderful news with his fellow prisoners he returned to the cave. They didn’t believe him and threatened to kill him if he tried to set them free.

SOS: I told you I was familiar with the allegory. So, don’t be too wise. Remember Socrates – reputedly one of the wisest men that ever lived – was condemned to death by his fellow citizens. And don’t be too loving either. Remember the poor old ‘God of love’ came to a sticky end too at the hands of his own people.

OMS: I think Plato’s point was that you’ll never find the light by analysing the darkness.

SOS: Whatever about the darkness, I think an increasing number of people feel that they have lost their moorings. The old structures – economic, social and political – appear to have collapsed, but new ones are not yet in place to provide a fresh basis for integration. There’s a sense of loss, emotional disorientation and anxiety.



Noah - Illustration by Zelly Restorick

OMS: Maybe one day, life’s seasick sailors will manage to create new boats and find a suitable beach upon which to beach them. Or maybe some Noah will come to the rescue with a high-tech ark and save the day and the planet.

SOS: I presume you’re being ironic. Anyway time will tell…but I would be wary of all saviours – religious, political, or technological. Many have been tricksters or chimeras.  Hey! Why have you just disappeared?

OMS: See you some other time when you’re less angry.

SOS: Anger is one of the things that keeps me going, and there’s much in the world to be legitimately angry about. Talking of Plato, did you know that the waitress down at the Mermaid Restaurant is well informed on Greek history?  She’s studying law at Manchester University.  Don’t you feel that it says something about Old Town that you can enjoy the best fish and chips in the world, in a cosmopolitan milieu, while discussing philosophy with the waitress?  Who’d ever need to go to Paris?

(Long silence)

OK … off you go then into the flickering shadows…do convey my greetings to the liminal fraternity in the land of spirits. And remember, we still have the music.

  • The Stade is a shingle beach, situated in Hastings Old Town. It has been used for beaching boats for over a thousand years, a use which continues to this day.

SOS, October 2014

Posted 13:00 Wednesday, Oct 29, 2014 In: SOS

Also in: SOS

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