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James Powell

A Self-Portrait

... hawks will often refer to doves as idealists, or more frequently as ‘empty-headed idealists’ or ‘fuzzy-headed idealists.’ And they are right – not, I hope, about the empty – or fuzzy-headedness – because we are indeed idealists. For I would define the idealist as one who believes in the capacity for transformation of human nature. For whatever the other characteristics of human nature, it is precisely this capacity for transformation that is responsible for the evolution and the survival of the human species.

M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum (Arrow, 1990) p.183

I have changed my mind about many things but I still don’t like cucumber. I know for sure that I will always dislike it. Other than that, though, I have very few constants in my life that run through my past, present and future. The only other one that springs to mind is West Bromwich Albion Football Club. In spite of not having lived in Birmingham for over seven years, I can still feel intensely emotional about their fortunes and I see no reason why that would ever change. You could say that my family (father, mother and sister) should be a chronological link, but I think it is unrealistic to believe that they are the same people of my past or that in the future they will still be the same people as they are now. Besides, I believe an unchanging family to be a sham and a restriction on personal growth; as time passes that unit should give way slowly to individual, inter-personal relationships between friends rather than between relatives.

I am even less certain of how my past, present and future are themselves connected. I realised at about the age of fifteen, from my sister’s experiences, that university had a lot of potential to be fun; that was the future I focussed on whilst living in my own day-to-day boring and lonely school environment, one where I had very few friends and where I was constantly aware of being given an excellent education without ever understanding what it was for. My four years as an undergraduate in Edinburgh were the best time of my life so far; my experiences there subsequently made the ennui of school irrelevant. Perhaps the greatest benefit of my futurism, though, was that I was traumatised very little in the long run by the slow break down of my parents’ marriage.

No matter how unsatisfying a current situation may be, if there is something in the future to look forward to and work towards then I reckon circumstances cannot fail to improve eventually. As abstract as it may be, hope, ultimately, only comes from being able to envisage a brighter future, and I have no time to think about that if I am busy worrying about the bad things that have already happened to me.

This futurism has naturally wavered occasionally, and so working with children is something I have found for years to be incredibly rewarding and therapeutic; for me children possess such infinite purity and potential, they are the very embodiment of hope.

I am not sure, though, that that such a thing as a happy childhood exists; if there is such a thing perhaps it is not particularly beneficial to our development.

He did not know how wide a country, arid and precipitous, must be crossed before the traveller through life came to an acceptance of reality. It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched, for they are full of the truthless ideals that have been instilled in them, and each time they come in contact with the real they are bruised and wounded. It looks as if they were victims of a conspiracy; for the books they read, ideal by the necessity of selection, and the conversation of their elders, who look back on the past through a rose haze of forgetfulness, prepare them for an unreal life. They must discover for themselves that all they have read and all that they have been told is lies, lies, lies; and each discovery is another nail driven into the body on the cross of life.

W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (Bantam Press, 1991) p.118

I read Brighton Rock almost ten years ago now, and still do not have an answer to the nature against nurture debate! But I am certain of the need for continually unselfish parents, even if their offspring never acknowledge that virtue in their guardians. It took me many years to recognise that my folks were actually concerned over anything else about the happiness of my sister and I.

To know anyone you surely also need to know about those who were responsible for bringing them up. My parents have individual capacities for greatness both as parents and people that I continually aspire to, made all the more fascinating because of the circumstances in which they themselves grew up. They both have many things like all of us that constrain their freedom, but never once did they allow those to constrain my individuality. A friend of mine once said that, ‘The greatest gift a parent can give a child is wings to fly’ and my parent unconditionally gave me the freedom to choose my lifestyle and personality. I still do not know how to thank them.

I cannot fathom the depth of trust that must have been involved therein; I will always appreciate how fortunate I am to have had parents who believed so surely that I’d turn out to be ‘good’ without their interference. I only hope they were right. It can only be from these two people and their style of parenting that I have gained the most enduring traits of my otherwise incoherent personality. Inside is an infinite desire to explore myself and an unwavering determination to inspire other people to think about who they want to be and what they are capable of achieving.

I only need to believe in two things in life. That there are infinite perspectives and possibilities, I do not really believe in answers, and that any one of us on this planet has the capability to achieve whatever we truly desire. I do not like to believe that anything is impossible; surely we just have not found a way to do it yet? Do not limitations only become limitations when we accept that they exist?

The aspiration to emotional, intellectual and physical freedom is the main connection, it seems, between my different selves. I am incredibly lucky to be able to worry only about such high ideals. That comes from having been born into a society within a society where I had and have a complete freedom not to care about the world outside my own limited horizon. Until 18 months ago the biggest tragedy I had ever suffered was the death of grandparents I was too young to know well, and my cat. I am constantly aware of numerous people who share my middle-class insulation, and I believe that most of these people have chosen to be apathetic to the wider world.

Why? I think it is for the same reason that the majority of those who start with a shitty lot in life do not seem to seek something better; a complete absence of belief or hope that life can be any other that what we see in front of us. But if that were true why do some people manage to be gestalt? I can only guess that it is ultimately because we get what we choose to believe in, and unfortunately Promethean attitudes are actively discouraged by peers and society at large.

I like to think of myself as being altruistic, compassionate and altogether different from the mass of humanity, but I am haunted by the thought that maybe these are delusional self-perceptions. Are not humans naturally selfish creatures?

The most important book I have read in this regard is East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Much of my recent world view has been based on Steinbeck’s reflection that, ‘In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted shortcuts to love.’

I am definitely not Aaron and not quite Cal, but I definitely have a capacity for evil inside myself. As a pacifist I would never hurt another life form, violence is too easy and often chosen with a lack of imagination for other possibilities. But evil can take many guises, and I know I have a tremendous capability to be verbally abusive and crass, particularly when I am bored or nervous. I am still looking for another form of catharsis.


I spend a lot of time thinking about what is the ‘right’ way to act. I am very conscious of the fact that you cannot make people think or be a certain way; to do so is to deny them the very essence of what makes them human, the freedom to choose behaviour. But most dissatisfied and disillusioned people do not even seem to realise that they have the choice to act and think differently. As far as I can see the only way to highlight that possibility is to take them out of their daily emotional and physical environments, and to help them reflect on what their life could be like if they modified their actions. That is how I would define inspiration.

I very rarely choose anger as a reaction to someone else’s behaviour, even when, as Charles Bukowski said, ‘There is always someone determined to ruin your day, if not your life!’

I want to inspire people, so I need to understand why they are the way there are, and I have never found anger to help me achieve any kind of insight. I do get extremely angry, though, when I am trying to do something kind for someone and an obstacle comes up. I would like to believe that life is innately pure and that it is only humans that corrupt it, but I guess it is not so. I need to accept that.

I am convinced that in order to understand human behaviour and existence we need to move beyond studying only people. I have recently become fascinated by evolutionary biology because it proves that life in any incarnation – animals, plants, people – is driven by the same two necessities – survival and growth. As far as I can see the only thing we need to do to guarantee our happiness is to facilitate the perpetual sustenance and evolution of ourselves and others. I find it hard to stomach the idea that we need to suffer to evolve, but maybe it is the truth.

I think you can tell a lot about a person simply by their attitude towards pigeons.

I am not really sure how to get people to accept me. Trust is the most precious commodity in the world, but to create it is extremely difficult and to destroy it is extremely easy. You are incredibly lucky if you are given more than one chance by someone to win their trust. Forgiveness is even rarer though.

I have surrounded myself with people I trust implicitly but get the impression that others are suspicious of my kindness. I am not sure why.

I see genuine emotions as instinctive actions, not as thoughts or words. For example, if you are truly grateful to someone for an act of kindness then you will find something you can do for them, not just say thanks.

I could cry an ocean for ships to sail on because of the potential for self and collective improvement that is wasted every single day, simply because the status quo is so readily accepted.

I worry about the future too much. I struggle to maintain a balance in my mind between the appreciation of what I have and my desire for what might be.

I know that we live in a world where enough extant wisdom exists for immediate harmony. But all of us are guilty, to varying degrees, of not applying this accumulated insight to our own lives. Why is that so? I suspect that I may be searching for a very long time for an understanding of how and why people learn differently…


The combination of my free-spirited nature and infinite hope has only really become a defining feature of my personality in the last couple of years. For a while it made me incredibly lonely because so often I thought, ‘I am the only person I know who thinks or acts this way.’ As a remedy to that I began searching for like-minded people and made a fascinating discovery. Many of those I am already close to in my life actually think in similar ways to myself, but simply choose to manifest their realisations in different ways to myself. One of the most important things I have seen recently is that I need to appreciate the people I already have as well as maintaining the desire to meet new people in the future.

We live in a world where society has always actively discouraged its members to be content with what they already have. For this reason, emotional, physical and spiritual migrations have throughout history been a fundamental of what defines a human being. However, it seems that those quests are yet to integrate well with the age that we currently live in. Chained to the illusion that technology, particularly in relation to electronic communications, travel and the production of food, by its mere existence allows us an unprecedented capacity to attain happiness, we now inhabit a world that gives too much choice, and so we are undermining our ability to recognise what we want or when we have enough. Concomitantly, people are being led to believe that they no longer need to confront or resolve their problems; technology continuously offers us opportunities for displacement. Ultimately, we seem to be increasingly in danger of losing sight of the fact that we actually need very little to be content.

I am very conscious of living in a disposable society. How often now when something goes wrong do people fix it? I don’t mean just technology, but also relationships. The myth has been created that there are enough other people out there, who we now have the opportunities to meet, that we never need to reconcile ourselves with those we were once close to. I have been guilty of casting off too many people in my life without ever fully exploring who they were or what we had to offer each other. Conversely, though, I think it is extremely dangerous to blindly accept anyone or anything.

So I am an idealist trying to build his own personal rules of the game. I have only one golden rule for life, ‘do not pursue your happiness at the expense of someone else’s.’ That has the potential to be very complicated but it is essentially valid in principle. Aside from that it is very much up to the individual to choose their own values and beliefs and the lifestyle they want. I am realistic enough to appreciate that we live in a thoroughly corrupted world, but I refuse to ever compromise on my belief that each and every one of us is capable of becoming whatever we want to be, given the right inspiration and motivation. Most people seem to be unsatisfied in themselves, but at the same time don’t want to change that. I hope through my life that I can further the idea that change is not necessarily negative.

This is what I know. Human nature, the human heart, the spirit, the soul, consciousness itself – call it what you like – in the end, it’s all we’ve got to work with. It has to develop and expand, or the sum of our misery will never diminish. My own small discovery has been that this change is possible, it is within our power. Without a revolution of the inner life, however slow, all our big designs are worthless. The work we have to do is with ourselves if we’re ever going to be at peace with each other.

Ian McEwan, Black Dogs (Vintage, 1998) p.172

I love ideas because they are the link between us all across space and time, despite our differences, and they are the fundamental of any inter-personal connection. Ideas are so dynamic and fluid that they can cross all borders – cultural, emotional, geographical. Yet, even though people are so varied, I cannot escape from my conviction that we are connected on the most fundamental level by a single idea. This website expresses something of what I mean:

In the near future I would like to learn Inka Shamanism in Péru, but it may take me a while to find a mentor I respect, as I see too many charlatans currently working in the field of collective consciousness. Such people are a continuation of a historical trend, albeit in a new context – the desire to manipulate and mismanage positive ideas to control others. Nothing could be more dangerous in my opinion.

The great misfortune, the root of all the evil to come, was the loss of faith in personal opinions. People imagined it was out of date to follow their own moral sense, that they must all sing the same tune in chorus, and live by other people’s notions, the notions which were being crammed down everybody’s throat. And there arose the power of the glittering phrase…

Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (Harvill Press, 1996) p.363


My attitude towards money is perfectly encapsulated in these five lines:

There is nothing so degrading as the constant anxiety about one’s means of livelihood … Money is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five. Without an adequate income half the possibilities of life are shut off … It is not wealth that one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank, and independent.

 W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (Bantam Press, 1991) p.251


I have come to realise that the more that I analyse people, and life in general, the less I understand, so at the moment I try to take pleasure just from passively observing the world around me.

In any case, the non-intellectual side of my personality finds constant analysis extremely alienating for the whole. It is too serious for my liking, but I accept and indulge it as a temporary part of the process. My overall aspiration is to be insightful and inspirational in a subtle way; through the experiences I have and the actions I take. With words you can challenge people to think and maybe they will reflect for a few minutes, slightly longer if you are lucky; with action and results people will want to know your secret. But you also need to have fun, be frivolous. In my mid-twenties, that intermediary age, I have somewhat lost sight of what that means for me.

I hope that I don’t end up like Henry Brooks Adams! ‘As it happened, he never got to the point of playing the game at all; he lost himself in the study of it, watching the errors of the players…’ Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams.

Music is really important in my life right now. I love comedy too, but much of it seems to be at someone else’s expense and that becomes cheap. I do not enjoy being really drunk and I see sexual intimacy as too precious to be done casually.

Mine is a personality constantly trying to balance its different elements and so I want to discover, ultimately, a way to reconcile compassion and laughter. I hope to fall in love again soon because that is the best remedy I have found, but I need to be patient because liberating love is rare. Besides, I learnt the hard way that love is absolutely not something you can control or force to happen, so I am content to wait for it to find me!

One thing I have noticed is that whenever people create unhappiness, in themselves or in other people, it is a product of them being too selfish and/or self-absorbed. Most people inadvertently use religion, self-help and therapy to reinforce that self-interest so through such means become more stable, but no less content. As far as I can see happiness actually comes mostly from not being pre-occupied by our own problems, and the best strategy I have found for achieving that is to care about and for other people.

If you have no love – do what you will, go after all the gods on earth, do all the social activities, try to reform the poor, enter politics, write books, write poems – you are a dead human being. Without love your problems will increase, multiply endlessly. And with love, do what you will, there is no risk, there is no conflict. Then, love is the essence of virtue.

J. Krishnamurti, Bombay, 21 February 1965.

As far as I can see that virtue comes only through loving unconditionally; it is a unique inspiration to instinctive kindness, which comes without a care for our own well-being. Selfish love offers no such redemption.

I sincerely believe that you can never know what true love is until you have personally experienced it. The public domain has tried so many times to appropriate the discourse of such love for mass media, but it is something so personal, so idiosyncratic that they have no hope of ever emulating it fully. I have read thousands of descriptions of love and none of them has ever completely captured what I once felt for an ex-girlfriend. Milan Kundera’s observation in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting that, ‘Love is a continual interrogation’ is the only thing that comes close. But not just anyone can ask you the right questions.

I actually find love a very difficult notion to think about and discuss because there are so many different varieties and needs within its vast spectrum. So instead of analysing or pursuing it too much I try to focus on being romantic – by my definition being care-free and light-hearted, whilst at the same time going to extra-ordinary lengths to offer affection.

I guess I desire a love that is not the stabiliser on the bike, but the wings that set me free to soar as high as I can dream. I have no idea how realistic an ambition that is. But I still hope that I can fly again; that the old memories and hurts will neither blind me nor be able to hold me back…


Everyone is working to their own agenda in all aspects of their life; it is just a question of how subtle they are being about it. I am ultimately trying to find compensation for the deficiency I perceive at the centre of all life, including my own. As far as I can see there is no obvious point to our existence, no real reason why we are here.

… I discovered that the emotional void, the feeling of belonging nowhere and to no one that had afflicted me … had an important intellectual consequence: I had no attachments, I believed in nothing. It was not that I was a doubter, or that I had armed myself with the useful scepticism of a rational curiosity, or that I saw all arguments from all sides; there was simply no good cause, no enduring principle, no fundamental idea with which I could identify, no transcendent entity whose existence I could truthfully, passionately or quietly assert.

Ian McEwan, Black Dogs (Vintage, 1998) p.18

So I have yet to find a unique ambition or a single passion that I was put on this earth to pursue. I find it hard to accept that we just exist, have some experiences and then go to another world. If that was the case then why even bother in the first place? I have to stop myself thinking of life as killing time till we die, because that’s just too nihilistic, but it is a thought that sometimes bubbles up into my conscious. The only thing that makes the emptiness bearable is other living creatures. Treating each other life-forms well is about as good as it gets as far as I can tell, even if maybe there is no higher purpose to that. I find humans slightly more engaging than animals so I make people the centre of my world and rely heavily on compassion and conversation to keep me stimulated.

....Do stories, apart from happening, being, have something to say? For all my skepticism, some trace of irrational superstition did survive in me, the strange conviction, for example, that everything in life that happens to me also has a sense, that it means something, that life speaks to us about itself through its story, that it gradually reveals a secret, that it takes the form of a rebus whose message must be deciphered, that the stories we live comprise the mythology of our lives and in that mythology lies the key to truth and mystery. Is it an illusion? Possibly, even probably, but I can’t rid myself of the need continually to decipher my own life.

Milan Kundera, The Joke (Faber and Faber, 1992) p.164

I would like to believe that there is a higher purpose to our existence. I know that there is far more to life than we can ever hope to see; my mother is a spiritual healer and her experiences have opened my mind to possibilities that defy any kind of logical or rational explanation. I have a gift for knowing things before they happen and on a few occasions in my life I have also gained information direct from people’s minds. In the future I want to develop my understanding and interaction with the spiritual and unseen world because I think there is a real power there for compassion that words alone will never be capable of emulating.

Too many times have I been confronted with suffering and found myself impotent. So it is particularly important to me to develop these aspects of my personality because it will allow me to take greater responsibility for the destinies of myself and others. If we don’t take responsibility for ourselves and each other who will? I firmly believe in fate, but solely hiding behind fatalistic beliefs is a dereliction of duty. I try to do everything I can and let fate do the rest. That helps me not waste too much time thinking about whether a particular course of action is the right one. It seems to have worked so far…


James Joyce wrote that all human history moves towards a single goal. I interpret that as the gradual transfer and balance of control, power and responsibility from our creators to and between humans. I do not know why, I do not know what for, but this theory helps unite many disparate thoughts in my mind.


For the foreseeable future I want to experience as many new things as possible, and worry less about whether there is a higher reason to what I am doing. I am enough of an optimist to recognise that I may well find a calling, and that could happen at anytime. I know that things can change in a heartbeat. In fact, the way I look at the world now has been a product of my experiences, particularly through overseas work and travel, during the last seven years. There is so much more world out there for me to see, so many more people I can learn from that I tingle with excitement sometimes at the thought of my future. I am fortunate enough in who I am that I will always be able to explore many different places and situations, and the thought of settling down into one groove or one lifestyle makes me feel nauseous. I do not want to be this way forever, maybe a fear of that is where my nihilism comes from, but change happens to us all and so I cannot fail to find my niche.

I do miss having someone to share my new discoveries with because there is so much beauty in the world that can only be seen and not articulated. My favourite is first light – be it the awakening of a lover next to me or a sunrise in Africa.

I cannot ever stop caring about and contributing to a world where such precious moments exist, no matter how bad life might sometimes seem; my loneliness will pass and I will find new challenges. I have no fears about my future.

That is partly because women will always be in my life. I have many different friends for many different aspects of my personality, but it is the females who I think of as giving me the greatest hope of redemption. To adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald, women are the only thing commensurate to my capacity for wonder.

 But I am sure more men will be in touch with their innate tenderness in our ever-changing future. I don’t believe in the genderisation of any issue. When you discriminate all you generate is lost potential.


If I had one hope for the future it would be that I become a man of action, not just ideals; to discover:

      … 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. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favour in a more liberal sense and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods (Everyman’s Library, 1992) p.286

However my circumstances develop, I know that I will always be an explorer. I have travelled extensively around the world in recent years, but now I also want to make inquisitive, momentous journeys inside myself.

      What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.

Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New Directions, 1960) p.11

Picture of the Earth from space

Saying that, if I was given only one more opportunity to travel, witnessing Earth from space would be the experience that I chose.

Etched in a Portuguese Youth Hostel is the graffiti, ‘Travel limits your horizons.’ I think mine is a generation mostly collecting experiences rather than learning from them.

My plans have never materialised in the way I expected, so I have no idea what the future holds. Ultimately, I have only one wish; to always be capable of discovering and digesting the positive aspects of myself and the external, infinite seen and unseen world. I will never relent from exploring.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot – ‘Little Gidding’ (the last of his Four Quartets).


How much about himself has he really said? Ideas are analysed, exposed, and insights are offered, but where is the coherent whole that ties him neatly together? Why has he not talked about his experiences of teaching in Azerbaijan, visiting the genocide memorials in Rwanda, working in Israel? Or of being a PhD student, a keen sportsman, a photographer? Is he not, then, just an individual who uses culture and ideas as means of escapism, so that he doesn’t have to face up to the reality of day-to-day life?

I fundamentally believe that there are no certainties, only the stories that we tell ourselves and each other. I watched Big Fish the other day and loved the warmth that oozed from the gradual revelation that our stories are as real as it gets.

‘Talking about the ultimate reality is like trying to send a kiss via a messenger.’ Anon

My portrait is fractured because I have not yet found the overall narrative that I want to tie myself together. For now I see myself as a collection of disparate ideas, convened collectively only in this abstract. I am sure there are people who will read this portrait and see my whole as being an intense idealist, but is that the absolute truth or just another story created to counter uncertainty?

In any case, why should we be in a rush to achieve or perceive congruity?

I have never liked judgmental people, and thus I aspire to being completely non-judgemental of myself and, more importantly, other people. It is equally saddening when people use others only as an external gauge by which to judge themselves; doubts about our achievements and our value to society are answered by comparing our lives to those of others (often with negative conclusions about ourselves). I could have created a portrait of myself (and may inadvertently have done so) as a result of which others felt inferior or superior to me.

In consciously wanting to avoid this, I purposely haven’t really mentioned any information about my achievements, my circumstances, my experiences. I would prefer to organically reveal my stories, and the insight they bring, through face-to-face conversations so that this portrait is not a definitive statement of who I am. The most fascinating people I have ever met are those who realise that they always have more information and ideas about themselves that they could reveal. In the future I want to reveal myself more through actions than words. Adulthood has been an interesting classroom in which to ask questions, but now I can’t wait to get out of here, to become a savvy kid creating happiness and playing harmlessly in a wonderfully mysterious world.

Calvin and Hobbes  by Bill Watterson

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

What could be greater than discovering that innocence again, learning anew to instinctively love and be loved?

Some day, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, … we shall harness … the energies of love. Then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881 – 1955).

March - October 2004