The Shape I’m In: Michael Harding

AUTHOR and actor Michael Harding does not seek the solace of certainty.

And when it comes to matters of faith he refuses to follow a particular creed, be it traditional religion or atheism. Instead, he sees life “as illusion”.

“If you perceive reality as substantial as Dawkins or AC Grayling would, then we have a material reality that we know and that’s the end of it. 

Then, obviously, belief in gods would seem silly. 

However, if you go along the line of people who have traditional religious faith, they believe in the opposite. 

They believe that there is some substantial world that’s real behind this world — that there is a goddy-waddy character sitting behind a desk. 

And so the idea of ghosts and spirits is part of that language. I try and avoid that,” he says.

“The only way to deal with the world is as illusion. In other words, the reality we think is real also operates as a dream operates. It’s neither substantially real and reductive nor is it part of some big cosmos where there are hidden bits and spirits walking around.”

Aged 63, he lives on an acre of land with his wife, the sculptor Cathy Carmen, in Leitrim. 

His focus is on the present moment and on the simple comforts of life. 

“I just sit under the trees and enjoy myself and drink wine. I really don’t be looking for much meaning, but I feel there’s a meaning there — it’s like it floats up in front of you.

“If you deal with the world that you’re in in a light way, engage with other people, it’s nice being here. That’s as good as it gets for me.”

What shape are you in?

Like an old pear. Although I run on a treadmill in my studio. I swim occasionally at the leisure centre. I cut the grass, and sit under the trees. I live in the hills above Lough Allen so there are steep climbs in the hills which get the heart ticking briskly.

What are you healthiest eating habits?

I love oranges in the morning, fish at lunch with buttered potatoes, and if I’m having a steak it’s usually with lots of salad.

But my healthiest eating habit is a good glass of red Bordeaux wine with the food. Eating less I find is a great trick for losing weight — and eating in company and eating slowly.

Your guiltiest pleasure?

Raisins. Or anything with raisins, from pain au raisin on a sunny morning with a coffee on the street, to bread and butter pudding after a meal.

What would keep you awake at night?

Eating too late. Or thinking about a lawn that needs cutting, or trying to have conversations with myself about ageing and the long silence at the end of life. But mostly I sleep well, and enjoy excursions to the kitchen for water in the earlyhours when the house is quiet and the moonlight floods the rooms with wonder.

How do you relax?

Being in the garden, cutting grass, pruning trees, planting things. I sit quietly doing nothing; that’s the best type of relaxing. And listening to BBC Radio 3.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Virginia Woolf. But since she’s not around I’d opt for a handful of Tibetan monks and a handful of contemplative Christian nuns. And since contemplatives are great listeners the conversation would consequently be fascinating.

What’s your favourite smell?

Burning sage when a room has been smudged [purified] and there is nothing but silence, emptiness, and the aftertaste of incense.

What would you change about your appearance?

Nothing. At my age, I have come to terms with it. A person over 40 is responsible for their face, and with all it’s flaws, I think happiness in old age is learning to live with your face and body.

When did you last cry?

A few days ago watching a brutal YouTube clip of a fish being prepared for the table with sharp knives and boiling water, and pan oil, but the fish was still alive and panting as it was laid on the plate. Not that I’m the reincarnation of some wild salmon, but it seemed like a suitable metaphor for human suffering and it was very vivid.

Do you pray?

Yes, of course. I try to treat all phenomena as like illusions, where the little gods and ancestors walk invisibly around us, leaving traces like the unseen wind that shakes the long grass and I think prayer is the heart’s response to those imaginative possibilities.

What would cheer you up your day?

Any stranger that might look me in the eye and say hello.

Michael Harding will conduct a five-day workshop at the West Cork LiteraryFestival, The Art of Memoir. 

The West Cork Literary Festival takes place from July 17 to July 23 in and around the town of Bantry in West Cork and full details are on www.westcorkliteraryfestival.ie or LoCall 1850 788 789


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