Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Merry Christmas!

If you're reading this, thanks for dropping by and have a great Christmas.

Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas
Cos' turkeys just wanna hav fun
Turkeys are cool, turkeys are wicked
An every turkey has a Mum.
Be nice to yu turkeys dis christmas,
Don't eat it, keep it alive,
It could be yu mate, an not on your plate
Say, Yo! Turkey I'm on your side.

Benjamin Zephaniah

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Looking for Metaphors

A stream runs past the end of our drive. It's an interesting stream. For a start, it's a strong candidate for the stream that inspired the river in Wind in the Willows, but that's another story. If I walk down to the stream and turn right, I come, in a few yards, to the end of the village. An unmetalled track crosses the stream at this point, and winds away uphill between drystone walls. The crossing point -a flat, concrete bridge- is surrounded by trees. I often walk down to it, and every time I do, I wonder why it has a magical feel to it.
There are many places like this, and I remember reading years ago about possible reasons for it, the kind of geographical features most likely to command our attention and evoke a state of wonderment. The writer pointed out that many stone circles were constructed on hilltops that were spurs, subsidiary summits to larger hills. Interestingly, hill walkers often say that the best views are to be seen from minor summits.
There must be more to it than this, though. For a start, the bridge over our local stream is in a dip. It may simply be the fact that this is the edge of the village and all of a sudden one's surroundings are mostly natural instead of mostly man-made. But this doesn't quite hold up: there are walls on all sides and several huge concrete pipes have been dumped there. Also, when you live in the country it very much comes home to you that farmland is a man-made environment!
The factor I found myself considering this morning as I walked up the road from the bridge is this: one reason we may feel this sense of wonderment in a particular landscape is that we “feel a metaphor coming on”. We may not put it into words, but we know intuitively that there's something latent there, something to be worked out. It's not (in this case, anyway) that we sense wonder and then look for a metaphor. The presence of the "latent metaphor" may possibly give rise to the sense of wonder. We sense that there is something interesting about the mental map we impose on our surroundings. In this case, a road crosses a stream. They are together for a moment, before and after which they diverge. The surrounding trees focus one's attention on this, and add a certain architectural grandeur to the moment. There's a poem -possibly a very bad poem- in it somewhere. As soon as I thought of this, it occurred to me, that people often imbue crossroads with significance of one kind or another and the use of the word “crossroads” as a metaphor is commonplace. (This is a slightly weak argument, I know, as people often erected gibbets at crossroads). Another almost-too-obvious example would be mountain summits. There must be loads more, some less obvious...

Friday, 19 December 2008

Muntadhar al-Zaidi

If, like me, you feel that the Iraqi government should release the shoe-throwing journalist, Muntadhar al-Zaidi, you may be interested to know that it's possible to send a message to that effect to The Iraqi Embassy in London.

Monday, 15 December 2008

On blogging and jogging

I'd planned to write something about the joys of blogging for my fiftieth post to this blog, but I've just noticed from the Archive list on the right that this is actually the fifty-first post. Oh well. When I started it, I wasn't sure what I expected to write about. I wanted to put my poetry where people could read it, I knew that, and a blog seemed to be a good way to make it happen. When I wasn't writing poetry, I decided, I'd simply write about the things I was up to, or were on my mind. As for models, I always liked the way George Orwell wrote simply and seemed to use the act of writing as a way of exploring things he was preoccupied with.

If I was simply to write about things that were on my mind, then surely a pattern would emerge. Music, surely would play an important part, and it has. Literature in general, too, as one of the easiest things to write about is the books you are reading. As I have been very interested in the life and writing of Arthur Ransome for a while now, he would surely crop up. Climbing British mountains was also bound to come into it.

If I have tended to steer clear of definite statements on religion and politics it is not because I don't care deeply about these things, but rather because I wanted to steer clear of simply flagging up my opinions. Instead, I've wanted to explore the things I've passed on the way to forming my opinions, although from time to time I think they have been pretty close to the surface.

What I didn't foresee was the social side of blogging. The way people regularly check out the same blogs. When writing, you come to think (or at least, I do), “I think so-and-so will be interested in this” or “What will so-and-so have to say about that?”. One of the great pleasures of blogging, I've discovered, is not writing your own, but reading other people's. I was going to list some of the things I've enjoyed reading in the blogosphere recently, but on reflection, I've decided not to: I couldn't do it without including all the blogs I read. I've found things that interested me in all of them at one time or another. It would be wrong of me to be selective.


If you own up to going for a run first thing in the morning, you risk being thought smug, as if what you do is some form of barely-tolerable self-mortification. Not true. A more accurate comparison would be eating chocolate. OK, so the first half mile is usually pretty awful, but then all of a sudden you don't seem to notice that you're running any more and your mind drifts off to other things. In no time at all you're floating along in a world of your own. Yesterday morning I'd planned to do five miles: up and down the small series of hill between here and Leyburn, up a long, undulating hill to the moor, then along the main road that runs along the edge of the moor, back towards the village.

The secret, I discovered a while ago, is to get one's running-gear all ready the night before. If I have to sort through my clothes in the morning looking for tracksuit bottoms, etc., I have time to think, and thinking too much is no help when you want to get out running at 8am and there's still half an inch of snow on the ground. No. Everything has to be ready to pull on: in this weather, three layers, a waterproof, woolly hat and gloves. After that it's a cupful of water, a few stretching exercises, and then straight out the door.

The high point of yesterday morning's run came as I was running along the edge of the moor: to my right, the low, morning sun was glowing through the fog, illuminating a group of winter trees. To my left, the snow-covered edge of the moor was visible through a rent in the fog, glowing with a slightly yellow, metallic light. The fog stripped everything of its proper scale and these local hills took on the grandeur of hills three times their size.

Once home, I stuck the kettle on and checked my email. I had just become absorbed in the comfortable glow of the screen when:


A familiar sound. I only hear it once every few years, so it took me a moment to place it. A drystone wall falling down. Our house, somewhat picturesquely, is surrounded by substantial drystone walls. I went to look. We had gained an impromptu rockery outside the back door, together with an unfamiliar view of next door's garden. All the cats, thank God, were quickly accounted for.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

More Pancakes Anyone?

In a comment on my previous post, Rachel Fox suggested The Flying Pancakes should get themselves onto YouTube. While we were playing today a "fan" videoed us on her mobile phone. She has posted the results on her blog, Eclipse. The sound and picture quality are unfortunately akin to the Apollo moon missions - truly awful. However, she tells us she will soon have access to a decent video recorder and, when she does, she'll come and video us again.

From Planets to Pancakes

One of the great things about living in Wensleydale is the view it affords of the sky. Somehow, your eyes are drawn to it: the sunrise, the sunset, weather fronts that fill the horizon with towering, chaotic jumbles of cloud. On a good night, the glow of the Milky Way is clearly visible and, if you know where to look, you can see the silvery smudge of the Andromeda Galaxy with the naked eye. You take notice: you become a sky-watcher. You realise just how much is going on up there. Over the years we've seen all sorts of things: sunlight glinting off space debris, shooting stars, comets, eclipses, a moon-bow, rainbow coloured clouds, satellites.

All this month Venus has been joined in the evening sky by Jupiter (see the Greenwich Observatory's blog). Looking up at these planets after sunset, though while the sun's glow still betrays its position, it's quite easy to visualise the solar system as you see it in textbooks and atlases: a huge, tilted plane made up of concentric rings. All of a sudden what is vast seems a whole lot smaller.

The Greenwich Observatory site has a chart with details of annual meteor showers for anyone who likes to keep an eye out for them. The Geminid meteor shower is due to peak this weekend, although the best of it will be obscured by the light of the full Moon. Unfortunately, we'll be lucky even to see that, as every time I stick my head out of the back door it gets soaked and there's nothing to see but dense, low cloud.


My friend Howard and I have revived our two-man musical effort, The Flying Pancakes. It's hard to describe what we do, but I tend to think of us as a kind of deranged Simon and Garfunkel. Imagine two older men playing (usually non-electric) guitar and ukulele covering The Pogues' The Sickbed of Chuchulainn (which we do) and you get something of the idea. Rather than organise gigs, we generally just turn up to places and play. Whether the surprise is a pleasant one or not is for the audience to decide: all I can say is that we've yet to be thrown out of anywhere. The plan is to take ourselves -along with The Big Bad Beast- to The Station in Richmond this morning.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

North Wales Photographs

I thought I'd post some photographs for a change. While we were in North Wales this October (see A Postcard From Wales) we visited Parc Glynllifon. It's an interesting place. There is an arbouretum, which must be interesting for anyone interested in plants and trees (I like walking round them, but don't get that excited about their names). There is also the remains of a very early hydroelectric sawmill, complete with a room full of Frankenstein laboratory-style electrical apparatus. There's a great cafe too, which does a mean beans on toast. I took photographs of a couple of waterfalls while we were there:

I also find I've some photos of the Snowdon Marathon (see A Postcard From Wales again) which I took as the race was passing through Beddgelert, and which I thought The Poet-in-Residence (see Blogs that Keep me Reading) might appreciate. I think they work best when they're quite big. You can click on the images to enlarge them:

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Machine Stops

When I was small, I remember the adults I came across often referred to the names of a number of science fiction stories. Several of these were quite new at the time, and topical, such as The Kraken Wakes, The Day of the Triffids, and On the Beach. The future, as it is today, was very much on people's minds, only then people were more concerned with the threat of all-out nuclear war than with global warming.

One title that was often mentioned was EM Forster's The Machine Stops. Unlike the others, this story had been written fifty years previously. What fascinated my parent's generation was, I suspect, the portrait it presents of a society in which humanity has become horribly weakened by its dependence on technology. This was the era of The Pill, Yuri Gagarin and the transistor radio. Consumer goods were more widely available than ever before and people fondly imagined that by the twenty-first century robots would be doing the housework and we'd be colonising Mars.

I came across The Machine Stops in a second-hand bookshop the other day. When I read it I was startled not so much by the omnipresence of the machine as by its chilling depiction of a humanity absorbed in a virtual world. I now find it difficult to sit in front of my warmly glowing LCD screen without thinking of Vashti sat in her hexagonal cell, “lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet... filled with a soft radiance”. To leave one's cell to meet others in the flesh or visit the surface of the earth has almost become a thing of the past. People communicate via the Machine, but:

“...the Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It only gave a general idea of people - an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes ... . The imponderable bloom, declared by a discredited philosophy to be the actual essence of intercourse, was rightly ignored by the Machine, just as the imponderable bloom of the grape was ignored by the manufacturers of artificial fruit. Something 'good enough' had long since been accepted by our race.”

As with a lot of good science fiction, this description of the future has an uncomfortable ring of the present about it, although I think it would be wrong to suggest that we have accepted our fate. As for culture:

“There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.”

Chilling stuff. Times change. Some changes are almost impossible to ignore. Others -for example, in the significance of a story- are easy to miss, hardly noticeable until one reflects on the past.

The Machine Stops, by EM Forster can be read online here.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

A Mountain Ramble


I started climbing -well, walking, scrambling, occasionally crawling up- mountains in my early twenties. What became a mountain-habit began with a walk: a group of us got it into our heads to do The Ridgeway Path. This is an ancient track running through the South of England from Avebury to Tring. The experience left a deep impression on me.

From The Ridgeway we graduated to Kinder Scout in the Peak District. This was our first mountain. OK, so it was a plateau instead of a sharp peak (the “Peak” in The Peak District refers to a tribe, apparently, not the hills), but at least we had the satisfaction of climbing to the top and admiring the view. In so doing, we discovered one of the strangest landscapes in Britain: the huge expanse of peat bog over which the Kinder river winds, or “scouts”, until reaches the gritstone crags on the edge of the plateau known as Kinder Downfall. The names on the map tell you a lot about the place: Madwoman's Stones, Seal Stones, Ringing Rodger (a corruption, perhaps, of rotcher, an outcrop?). The place is riven with deep clefts in the peat, worn away by water. On the Kinder plateau it does not take a lot of imagination to imagine you're on the surface of another planet. We were hooked.

The aura that surrounds Kinder is, of course, enhanced by its history: this is the place where hill-walking in Britain became politicised. The story of the Kinder Mass Trespass is well known, as is Ewan McColl's song, The Manchester Rambler. I suspect many readers will know it, but will enjoy reading a few verses nevertheless. They tell the story of the conflict between the landowners and the ramblers, better than I can:

The day was just ending as I was descending
Through Grindsbrook by Upper-Tor,
When a voice cried, "Hey , you!" in the way keepers do,
(He'd the worst face that ever I saw).
The things that he said were unpleasant;
In the teeth of his fury I said
That sooner than part from the mountains
I think I would rather be dead.

I'm a rambler, I'm a rambler from Manchester way,
I get all my pleasure the hard moorland way.
I may be a wage slave on Monday,
But I am a free man on Sunday.

He called me a louse and said, "Think of the grouse."
Well - I thought but I still couldn't see
Why old Kinder Scout and the moors round about
Couldn't take both the poor grouse and me.
He said, "All this land is my master's!"
At that I stood shaking my head, -
No man has the right to own mountains
Any more than the deep ocean bed.

I'm a rambler, I'm a rambler, etc.

Next, we were off to North Wales. Another friend's eyes had lit up when he heard of our Kinder Scout exploits. Our next expedition, he insisted, should be nothing less than a traverse of the Welsh 3,000-foot peaks. In retrospect, it was an over-ambitious project: there are fourteen of them (or fifteen – it depends how you count them) and half way up the first one, we realized we were never going to make it. I said half way up the first one, but this is not strictly true. On consulting our map at the summit we discovered we had climbed the wrong one. This was Llwytmor, a mere 2,750 feet. In the end, some of us managed to climb four (or five – it depends how you count them), including Tryfan, which must be considered one of the most alluring mountains on the British mainland. It is often said to be the only one that requires you to use your hands to hold on during the ascent. We had a fantastic time and I still wonder how we managed to achieve what we did: we had opted to camp en route and were each carrying about 40lb! Some of us had shelled out good money -heaven knows why, looking back- on expensive gear. We might not have been wage slaves when we were up there in the hills – but fashion slaves? Hm.

If only I'd read WH Murray back then. Shortly after the war, he spent five days rock climbing on Rhum with a friend, Michael Ward, who he describes as a “a magnificent rock-snow-ice climber”:

“Ward had excelled himself. He turned up wearing the torn and patched jacket of an old lounge suit. The patches were of black cloth, probably cut out of wartime curtains, and they had been clumsily sewn on by himself. However, the jacket served to cover a navy blue rugger jersey, which was all that he wore underneath (the weather was cold). The trousers were particularly shapeless, even for navy-blue serge, and most wonderfully frayed. He might have passed for a tramp, utterly down and out, were it not for that upright bearing – and a food-filled rucksack. He had brought no change of clothing from London.”

from Undiscovered Scotland (1951)

I've climbed Tryfan many times since. There is a farm at the foot of it, Williams Farm. Occasionally I've camped there. I have memories of going there with my children when we all climbed the mountain together and, years before that, with various friends. Of sitting round in a tent playing cards, while rain drummed on the roof. Of driving to nearby Bethesda one night, and returning with a box of Mr Kipling's “exceedingly good” cakes. (Fondant fancies, in fact. Food can seem so much more important when it's cold, dark and there's no telly). Of a solitary “skinny dip” in a stream at 6am one Easter. Unforgettable stuff. Come to think of it, it's about time I went back.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Two Poets

It had become something of a standing joke. We'd go to Heptonstall to look for Sylvia Plath's grave. We've been several times but never found it: until the other week. Call me gormless, but I never realised that there were two cemeteries there: an old and a new...

And then, before I'd had a chance to run off the film in my camera, we found ourselves a few miles further North, on the banks of the River Rawthey, the opening scene of one of my favourite poems, Basil Bunting's Briggflatts:

Brag, sweet tenor bull,
descant on Rawthey's madrigal,
each pebble it's part
for the fell's late Spring...

If you don't know the poem, the first part is available online. In a way, this is misleading. The poem does not sustain the tone of the first part throughout. It changes key more than once. Bunting subtitled it "An Autobiography", but this is an autobiography which admits not only all history (this is clear from the first part), but all time as well:

Aldebaran, low in the clear east,
beckoning boats to the fishing.
Capella floats from the north
with shields hung on his gunwale.
That is no dinghy's lantern
occulted by the swell - Betelgeuse,
calling behind him to Rigel.
Starlight is almost flesh.


Then is Now. The star you steer by is gone,
its tremulous thread spun in the hurricane
spider floss on my cheek; ...

Briggflatts occupies a niche in my mind which I think "English Literature" likes to reserve for The Waste Land. Bunting's refreshingly down-to-earth footnotes to the the poem are a good read in themselves ("Scone: rhyme it with 'on', not for heaven's sake, 'own'") and point out:
'"Sailors pronounce Betelgeuse "Beetle juice" and so do I. His companion is Ridgel, not "Rhy-ghel".'

Thursday, 20 November 2008


Do you know the feeling?
Like when you run one hand
down the other arm
and it feels like the arm
of a corpse? You still
screw up your eyes when the sun
shines through the window
but only because
your eyes demand it.
Your mind still thinks words
for much the same reason.

Sometime later you realize:
the house is coming back to life!
Lights flicker on and off
like raw nerves illuminating
pictures on the wall,
ripe apples
fall from the rafters, windows
blink, dilate.

And later still
as you lie awake
you can hear the stones
with uncertain
tectonic movements.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Strange Virtual Meetings

A recent post on Rachel Fox's blog, More about the Song (see my bloglist) got me thinking. She was talking about the early days of her blog, and “the strange virtual meetings, the finding people you might even like in real life”. About ten years ago I joined a poetry-writing mailing list. It worked very well for a couple of years, as I remember. The internet still felt quite new. We'd just bought our first PC (second hand, from a friend) and it was quite a novelty to be regularly contacting like-minded people around the world.

I spent a few minutes yesterday searching the net to see if any of my fellow participants' poetry was still around. I quickly found Molly Walker. I wondered at first if it was the same Molly Walker until, that is, I read this poem. I knew it from the mailing list and I'd forgotten how funny it was. Some of Michael Bedward's thoughtful poems are still out there too.

Strange virtual meetings: people who in their invisible, virtual way were really quite important to me. The feeling was possibly mutual, although I have no reason to believe we knew -and know- anything about each other apart from the poetry we put out for each other to read and comment on. We can't even be sure we know each other's real names.

The only participant who I do know anything about, sadly, died. Cait Collins' poems are still out there to be read. This is one I didn't know until I found it today, and when I found it, and the photograph that goes with it, I realised I had no idea what she looked like, when she was alive: a strange virtual meeting indeed.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Waiting for Godot

The other evening we went to the Georgian Theatre in Richmond to see Richmond Amateur Dramatic Society's production of Beckett's Waiting For Godot. This was only the second time I'd seen it, and I must admit I wish I knew it better than I do. The last time I saw it was years ago. That production (I forget who by) was more downbeat and made very little sense to me at the time. The characters in this production clowned around a lot more, and at times it almost felt like a pantomime. It seems to me that this is the way it should be played: it had both shape and meaning. I suspect many people who went to see it expecting something “difficult” came out pleasantly surprised.

For anyone who doesn't know the plot, here's a brief resume. In Act One, Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot. A character called Pozzo (pronounced "pot-so") turns up with his slave, Lucky, who he keeps tethered on a rope. Lucky dances for them and when commanded to “think” makes a long, frantic speech which begins almost intelligibly and descends into meaninglessness. Pozzo and Lucky go on their way. A boy arrives, who tells Vladimir and Estragon that Godot is unable to come that day. The same events are repeated in Act Two, except for the fact that Lucky, who says nothing, is leading Pozzo, who is apparently blind.

Perhaps it's because I belong to a generation brought up on Monty Python, but I'm always mystified when people say that “nothing happens” in this play. Okay, so unlike Python's Spanish Inquisition, Godot never shows up, unless Pozzo is in fact Godot, using an assumed name. This is an interesting ambiguity which this production brought out well, I thought. If Godot is in fact God, then is he the elusive character who will always turn up tomorrow, or is he a cruel Pozzo-like character, dragging 'lucky ' humanity around on a rope? When it was put to him, Beckett apparently rejected the idea that Godot represented God, but then I suspect he would have quite rightly deflected any attempt to pin the play down. Part of the play's strength is the richness of its ambiguities. As he once said: 'The key word in my plays is "perhaps"'.

Another common myth, if you ask me, is that the play is “bleak”. It is only bleak in that it looks in the eye things that need to be looked in the eye. Any meaningful approach to spirituality, for me, anyway, has to face up to the problems of the human condition explored by Beckett. The alternative, to ignore them, is unsatisfactory escapism. I often find this: that the statements of some atheists and agnostics carry more spiritual weight than those of some believers, as the non-believer is free to think things the believer considers unthinkable. As RS Thomas (who was a somewhat unconventional Anglican Minister) says, in his poem, Via Negativa:
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find.
The English version of the play is subtitled “A Tragicomedy”. Perhaps the tragedy for Vladimir and Estragon is that, unlike RS Thomas, they do hope.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

The Factory Within the Human Body

This is my favourite illustration from The Miracle of Life (1941). When I was very small, it provided me with a name for the book: "the whirl, whirl, whirl down into the butt book" - a butt, in those days, in the UK, being a wooden barrel of the kind you can clearly see at the bottom of the picture. It strikes me now that in fact the "filtering coils" first empty into the dustbin. I also love the caption, which describes this representation of the torso as "suited to an essentially mechanical age":

Click on image to enlarge.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Life's Soundtrack

Having portable recorded music as we do has created a phenomenon unknown in the days before the invention of sound recording and cinema. I'm talking about the way a piece of music can become the soundtrack to life. The other day I was sitting by the sea in the Welsh village of Borth y Gest. A number of sailing boats were anchored close to where I sat. In the distance, across the estuary, I could see the ornamental lighthouse that marks the western-most tip of Portmeirion. I was listening to some music by Michael Tippett. The location and the music seemed to fit together in an uncanny way.

Was it simply that I was listening to a piece of music I like in a place that I like? It certainly helped, but it is also the case that mid-20th Century British music often reminds me of the sea. A lot of it was written with the sea in mind: Britten's Peter Grimes, Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony and so on. Then there are all the black-and-white British war films (The Cruel Sea, for example) set in the Atlantic with scores written by the likes of Alan Rawsthorne. (You know the sort of thing: officers on the bridge in their duffle-coats, scanning the horizon through their binoculars for U-boats in between swigging from mugs of tea).

I had a similar musical experience about a year ago, at the seaside, not far from Dover. I was standing at the top of a cliff, looking out over the Channel. The light had an enchanting quality about it: the tankers and freighters in the distance seemed to be floating in a luminous blue pool. I was immediately reminded of Debussy's La Mer and then realised that Debussy had in fact written that quintessentially French work in Eastbourne, a short ride down the coast from where I stood.

How does the mind associate what we see with what we hear? Of course, the process can be very straightforward: the association of our surroundings with a particular piece or style of music can simply arise from past experience, or common usage, as with any other mental association. Hence, I associate The Velvet Underground with Manchester and Bebop jazz with Scottish mountains. However, I find when driving on the motorway that if I listen to say, the structurally repetitive music of Steve Reich, it draws my attention to the repetitive structures of the road. Listening to Beethoven, on the other hand, draws my attention to organic structures, such as the trees on the side of the road.

If this experience is typical, then our brains are clearly interested in the structure of music in time in much the same way as they are interested in the physical structure of our environment in space. Goethe seemed to think so, and went so far as to describe architecture as “frozen music”. In the 20th Century, the Greek mathematician, architect and composer Iannis Xenakis actually produced buildings which were precisely that. Or were his pieces “thawed out” architecture? I suppose it depends which way you look at -or listen to- them.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Man and Machine

No. 2 in the occasional series of illustrations from "The Miracle of Life" (1941):

Click on image to enlarge

Tuesday, 28 October 2008


I remember my making -
a growing shadow in a ring of stones.

Since then, a stone
here and there, a rotting beam, the slate
that slips by inches every year:
the light creeps in. It seems to be
a universal principle.

Stone is my mantra.
Solid ground my only reassurance
that I'm part of something bigger.

One day I'll be full of light:
a field of stones
for people to pick over
in search of artefacts.

Monday, 27 October 2008

A Postcard from Wales

A street in Portmeirion
Photo: Karen Rivron

We've just spent the last ten days in North Wales. I managed to pop into Porthmadog Library mid-week, hence the previous post. We've been staying in Borth y Gest, a village close to Porthmadog. It's only up the road from the highest mountains in Snowdonia and there are all sorts of less energetic places to go to nearby. Portmeirion, with its eccentric architecture: walking round the place is like stepping into a surrealist painting. Then there's the Ffestiniog Railway - we both have a weakness for (though not an obsession with) steam railways.

On Saturday we went to Beddgelert, a village at the foot of the Snowdon massif. It was the day of the Snowdon Marathon, so we stood and watched it. It was pouring with rain so, after a while, we retreated into a roadside coffee shop where we could sit in the warm, drink coffee and eat bara brith while watching the race at the same time. Some of the passing runners looked rather envious, I thought. I certainly envied them. The race takes an awesome route: starting in Llanberis, it ascends to the top of the Llanberis Pass. It then descends to Beddgelert before returning to Llanberis via Rhyd Ddu and a rough track over the hills.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Brother Guy

I must've been about six
when my dad built the Guy.

It wore an old, dark suit
and a lipstick smile
and it sat for days
in our outhouse,
its condemned cell,
smiling silently to itself,
staring at the wall.

I went in to say hello
from time to time
and, of course,
I fell in love with him.

Come the night,
I protested so loudly
he had to be brought down
from the top of the bonfire
and sat before the flames
to keep warm and watch
the fireworks.

Thereafter, he lived
in the kitchen where he
frightened my mother
every morning.
Like all our houseguests
he finally took his leave
although no-one ever told me
where he went.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

It's that time of year again...

There's a chill in the air this time of year that always reminds me of fireworks. I must admit to enjoying Bonfire Night. I know how dangerous it can be but I don't think that means you shouldn't let off fireworks, it just means you should do it with extreme care. I know pets hate it: we've got three cats, and we do our best to make sure they're all indoors. Sometimes I get round to buying my own – my thoughts are turning to this as I write. Sometimes I don't get round to it, so we just go out to a display instead. And you don't have to actually go to a display: some of my favourite memories of Bonfire Nights past are of driving out into the hills and watching fireworks going off in the valleys. If you're lucky, the rockets explode at about the same height as the hill-tops and huge dandelion clocks of light explode and fill the windscreen. The trouble with this approach is that you miss out on the toffee apples and the sparklers.

One year, when I was little, my dad went to a lot of trouble to make a guy. As I remember it, he sat it in an outhouse for days before the big event and I grew quite fond of it. I was very upset when it came to burning him. I have a funny feeling that we didn't and the guy sat and watched. I don't like the idea -I don't suppose many people do these days- of associating the “guy” with Guido Fawkes. On the other hand, I'm a great fan of making scarecrows (see a previous post, here) and I like the idea of a cathartic ritual repeated year after year (I don't think we get enough of that kind of thing in the UK). Either way, this is a hypothetical line of thought at this end, as we just don't have the space for a decent bonfire.

So, I think I'll be keeping my eye out for a box of fireworks, and a bag full of rockets. Rockets, if you ask me, are the best bit.


Finally, totally off the point:

Gardening Poem

Making compost takes
longer than writing tanka.
Gardeners who are
impatient should consider
writing poetry instead.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

The Workshop of the Head

I've been fascinated by this book since I was very small. The copy I have originally belonged to my mother. There are many illustrations in it like this one. Do the little people have even littler people inside their heads?

Twentieth Century popular science:
how the brain works, from the 1941 publication,
The Miracle of Life
Click on image to enlarge

Thursday, 9 October 2008


Photo: Karen Rivron

(poem removed)

Saturday, 4 October 2008


A short short story

Why did she put up with it? Gaz was always telling her how much he cared but it was obvious from his actions that he didn't. Perhaps she was being unfair, she reflected. He just found it easier to get on with his mates. He was easily led. He was like a big kid. Yes, he did care, in his way: she was the 'still point of his turning world' as he was fond of saying. The still point. That was the trouble.
At least she had the telly for company. She'd been watching the repeats of a detective drama she used to watch, Sleuth. DI Ferguson and his sidekick, DC Nesbit. The most interesting thing about it was that Ferguson was single, married to the job as they say. Occasionally he went home to a bleak-looking flat and slumped on the settee with a takeaway in a mac that looked like he'd slept in it. She felt sorry for him. The living room looked as if it smelt of damp.
Anyway, he'd got his man, and the titles were rolling. She'd missed one or two important bits because she'd dozed off for a few moments on the sofa. She forced herself to sit up and reached around for the remote. Couldn't find it. Oh, well. Gaz would have to look for it when he came in, she thought. Insomniac. Spent his time watching late night films. God knows what was on at that time.
As she climbed the stairs she had this funny feeling that someone was up there, waiting for her. Should she go back down? No. It was just a feeling. She shouldn't be so stupid...
'Evening,' said the man. It was DI Ferguson, leaning on the bannister in his trademark creased mac.
'My partner'll back soon,' she said. She wasn't sure why.
'Pleased to see me?'
'Well... Yes.'
'Mind if I look around?' He raised his eyebrows. How many times had she seen him say and do that? 'We could always get a warrant...'
'No, I suppose not...'
He raised his eyebrows again. “Aren't you going to offer me a cup of tea?”
He walked towards her, glancing observantly from side to side. She retreated back down the stairs. He followed her.
'What's this all about? What's happening?'
'Wish I knew, love. Wish I knew.'
The shock was beginning to wear off. Listening to him talk, it became apparent to her that he was at least as confused as she was, if not more so. He sat down on the edge of the sofa.
'Truth is, love, I've no idea. Nothing to go on.'
So far he'd seemed preoccupied: looking round suspiciously, obviously weighing up the bits and pieces on the mantelpiece, the pile of magazines in the corner. She saw his eyes fall on the TV set. The adverts were still on.
'What were you watching?' he said.
'And you didn't turn it off?'
'I couldn't find the remote.'
'There's a switch on the thing, you know.'
'Gaz'll be coming in later.'
'Don't tell me. Sits up watching naughty films?' He started to root under the settee cushions. 'Quite a lad, your Gaz, by the sound of it. They always slip under the cushions, don't they? Remotes, not boyfriends that is. Not that I get much time to watch the telly... Here we are, love!' He sat up, smiling triumphantly, brandishing the missing gadget.
'Thank you'.
'Not at all.' He pointed it at the telly. 'Shall I do the honours?'
'By all means.'
She was never sure quite what happened next. One minute he was there... The next... There was the remote, on the hearthrug, the telly was off, and there was no more DI Ferguson.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Sci-fi Sonnet

Through me, in science fiction, you could fly,
between each sub-atomic particle.
I'd be, well, most like a galaxy,
not like a single, separate article.
Once through, stars on all sides would fall away
(particles in a gas are more spread out),
others would appear as nebulae
which, being human, we'd explore, no doubt.
Seen like this the space that separates
you and I begins to lose its meaning:
we are not the distinct, solid shapes
we see ourselves to be: more like clouds drifting.
Loneliness, then, is not our true condition:
we feel alone by virtue of position.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Dark Matter

Slight move-

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Travelling North

Shed on Lindisfarne
Photo: Karen Rivron

I like long roads, so long as I don't have to travel down them too often - and the A1 is one of my favourites. (OK, so 'long' is a comparative word: there must be roads in the USA that are longer than the UK itself). I'm sure I'm not alone in this: my mother tells how she often used to go for a walk with her father just “to look at The Great North Road” as the A1 used to be known. Whenever I'm travelling up it Northbound, I think of mountains I've climbed and remote places we've visited. The fact that the road, like all roads, is a continuous strip of tarmac appeals to my imagination – it's as if it makes everywhere along its route into a part of everywhere else. If I bend down and touch its surface, I'm touching the same road that flows over the Forth Bridge, past Lochnagar, all the way to The Dirrie Mor and beyond.

As you progress North from Scotch Corner you become aware of a gradual change in the quality of the light. You pass The Angel of the North, skirt Gateshead and Newcastle and by the time you arrive in Northumberland it's somehow lighter, clearer. Is it just my imagination? Is it just that the road is moving subtly closer to the sea?

Just before you reach Alnwick you pass a sign to the village of Shilbottle. I always feel the suspense rising as I approach it. What will it be this time? Will vandals have changed the L to a T? Will the amateurishly added crossbar have been ineffectually painted out? Or will the the whole thing have been replaced with a shiny new sign? The thing seems to proceed cyclically. I searched the internet for a picture of a Shilbottle sign and found none. The best I could do was this, with it's similarly distressed 'L'.

It's always tempting to stop at Alnwick: some rave about the gardens, but for me the pull is the massive second-hand bookshop. However, I usually press on to Lindisfarne, as it's a truly magical place. Of course, whether or not you can visit the island depends on the tide but, to my mind, if the tide's in, even the parking place at the mainland end of the causeway is worth a visit. We've stood on the road at the water's edge communing with the seals more than once. Even if they're not there, it's a great place to be. It's a good impromptu place to spend the night in a car, too, if you're into that kind of thing. (I should add that you're probably not supposed to. I take the view that if you're discreet, and leave places as you find them, there's no harm done).

I've never visited the castle on the island, but I've walked round the outside. It's a quaint, singular structure, a cross between a house and a castle built (appropriately for one on an island steeped in religion) on a rock. The new sculpture of St Cuthbert is also worth seeing although, strictly speaking you have to pay to get into the ruined abbey to see it. It's far more impressive than the one of St Aidan. The flaming torch he's holding up is far too like a cornet full of Mr Whippy to be taken seriously.

It never seems to take long to get to Edinburgh from there – past Berwick (it certainly used to boast a decent fish and chip shop, and probably still does) and the nuclear power station (eerie at night). But I always find this part of the journey a bit boring, and find myself wishing I'd taken the A68, another favourite road, instead. This runs past places with names at least as strange as Shilbottle (like Wallish Walls - well, what else would they be?). More remote than the A1, it takes you along hilltops, past woodlands and crosses the Cheviots (and the Scottish Border) at Carter Bar. The layby there always seems to be teeming with people: there's a great view, the border itself (you can stand with one foot in England and one foot in Scotland) and , last but not least, a caravan selling food. A quick search of the net tells me that in 1575, it was also the scene of one of the last battles between the English and the Scots, the Redeswire Fray.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Walking the Dog

There are good things to be said for living in the country. We're dog-sitting at the moment and, last thing, Chico the yorkie needs taking out for a walk. A stream and a mill-race run through the middle of the village and as Karen and I walk round with Chico we can hear the sounds of running water on all sides, rushing under bridges and gurgling down culverts.
The moon's not far off full, so the churchyard, with it's drunken gravestones looks suitably Gothic. A few stars are visible in the gaps between the scrappy clouds. On a dark, cloudless night here you can see the Milky Way from our garden and even, if you know where to look, the Andromeda Galaxy. As we pass the well lit windows of the pub, the handful of usual suspects can be seen propping up the bar: each in his or her usual place.
Sometimes I feel frustrated. I used to live in North London, a short walk from Hampstead Heath, Camden Lock, all kinds of wine bars, cinemas, arts venues. I can work up a real nostalgia for the place, particularly after a couple of whiskies.
Nostalgia is neither useful nor realistic. There must have been bad times. It was expensive, and I left because I just could not see how I afford to bring up children there. Perhaps that was all in the mind because, of course, plenty of people do. I ran away to a raw, Northern town on the edge of the moors. I always had an uneasy relationship with the place, but that part of my life, in its turn, can't have been all bad. There must have been good times. There were. Definitely. Two of my children were born there.
And now, I'm here. The dog's asleep on the duvet at the foot of the bed. Outside, the Milky Way is overhead. Me, I'm sat at the laptop. Passing the churchyard it occurred to me that Walking the Dog was a passable title for this: a place to start. Get it all down.
Whenever I go to a big city the nostalgia kicks in – momentarily. But then I come back and I know that for all its isolation, this is a good place to be. Yes, in London, you could go out to a wine bar every night, and you're all talking about the stuff you're going to write, the books you want to read. But you can't sit in bars talking about what you're going to do and read or write at the same time. For others it might work, but for me it was the land of 'one day...'.
Here, there is time. Time for Moby Dick, James Joyce and the rest. And space. Space to be creative. This can get complicated. Perhaps this is all in my head and I'm talking about something I need to think about and which doesn't apply generally, but I think it's very easy for creative work which draws heavily on a rural environment to be sentimental. I hold the view that, as someone once said, “sentimentality is a failure of emotion”, but a little bit (and I mean a little bit) now and again doesn't do any harm.
For example, I have a possibly irrational prejudice against paintings of sheep: anthropomorphised animals with stoical faces that speak of a grim life spent grazing bleak, drystone-wall strewn moors. OK, maybe it's just me. Perhaps sheep really do look like that. And, to be honest, I take my hat off to anyone who can make a living turning them out. Perhaps my problem is that I want art, and the arts in general to 'make it new', as Ezra Pound put it. And if you live in a rural tourist area frequented by coachloads of potential buyers the tendency is, instead, to "make it again and again and again...'. In one way I have no problem with this: I feel very strongly that the arts should not be elitist and that people should make and enjoy what they want*. However, if one's surroundings are routinely and repetitively sentimentalised, freshness becomes a challenge. Fortunately, few things stimulate creativity more than a challenge. Another good reason to live in the country.

*I often find myself thinking how our everyday feelings about what we do and don't enjoy in terms of the arts and entertainment have been affected by the existence of the mass media. It's hard to imagine what it would be like if the only music you had to listen to had to be played by a local musician, and the only poetry written (and read) by a local poet. OK, so rich people employed their own musicians and a few people would have been lucky enough to go to Bach's church, but most people would have had to make their own entertainment. I like to think that all kinds of interesting, off-the-wall things went on that have, sadly, been completely forgotten.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

There's a Penguin in my Duffle-Bag

Appearing soon over a cornfield near you!

I have always had a weakness for urban legends – the nicer ones, anyway. It began years ago when my mother, who was then a teacher, came home from school saying that a child at a neighbouring school had been on a trip to the zoo and taken a penguin home in his duffle-bag. His mother, the story went, had only discovered what he'd done when she heard a commotion in the bathroom as he tried to let it out into the bath. Urban legends were not in vogue then -those were the days of tank tops and shaggy dog stories- and we all believed it. Until, that is, we heard it again, told about a different child at a different school.

I don't like them when they are obvious, politically contrived attempts to spread disinformation: not least since, like conventional fiction, urban legends which crudely promote the opinions of their creators simply fail to impress. I don't like them when they create too much anxiety, like the story that did the rounds about infected needles being left sticking out of cinema seats.

But urban legends can fun. Urban legends can be creative. Oral flash fiction or, more precisely, narratives that inhabit the grey area between fiction and deception. They can describe alternative worlds in which earwigs can lay eggs in your ears and you have to think twice before you sit on an aeroplane toilet. So long as they're (more or less) harmless, they're wonderful. Even when they're not, or seem beyond the pale, they can touch a nerve – it's not for nothing that they're called myths or legends. Will future generations pick over ours like we pick over Greek ones? If they do they'll think we lived in dark, neurotic times.

Like them or hate them, they are a function of human consciousness which is at least as strange as the things we are being asked to believe in. It's a function which is responsible not only for stories, but for perpetrating untruths of all kinds: from the late 20th century crop circle craze to the medieval penchant for fake relics*. It is said that there are over 40 prepuces claimed to have come from Jesus Christ still in existence – though this, interestingly, might be a myth within a myth. Why do we keep doing it? Obviously, people like to make money,and often see perpetrating a hoax as a way to make it (The Cardiff Giant* is a good example). We like to show off, too. When people think of something plausible but untrue, they are amused to think other people might believe it. In a way, the question is just a variation on another: why do we laugh?

Most of all, perhaps, we like to have our imaginations stimulated for us. Just as we might wonder what happens to characters in a novel beyond the story we read about them (where did Ishmael end up, after he'd told the story of Ahab?), we want there to be more to this world than what we know. We'd like there to be aliens who travel light years to leave graffiti in cornfields. But if we grew up knowing about them and visited them we'd take them for granted (we might even try to eradicate them). We'd be looking around for something else.

By the way, did you know the fluid in the human eye is held under such pressure that, if you cut it open, the fluid released would fill a teacup? I doubt you did. You learn something every day.

*See Famous Hoaxes Throughout History

Thursday, 4 September 2008

The Last Checkout

The queue went on for miles.
Children did somersaults

over the trolleys,
or kept asking questions:

Are we nearly there yet?

Are we nearly there yet?

Young couples started
to argue with each other.

Old couples
complained about the service.

started to melt,
and drip onto the floor.

And when you finally got there,

the sign said


You start and finish
with an empty trolley.

So true.

Many people
ignored the sign. Some,
weighed down by shopping bags

full of frozen pizza,
sank without trace

into the brown, oozing lino.

Others made it to the door,

only to fall to earth
as they stepped out

onto the clouds.

A few people said so what

you can keep the lot,

and walked on
to the stars.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

The Big Bad Beast

I've just uploaded a song I wrote to my MySpace site: The Big Bad Beast. I wrote the song for children and I use it when I'm teaching. This doesn't mean older people can't sing along if they want to. Here are the lyrics, just in case:

The germs
get eaten by the worms
get eaten by the birds
get eaten by the big bad beast

The germs
get eaten by the worms
get eaten by the birds
get eaten by the big bad beast

If you're eating chocolate in the dark
and standing by the window
always keep a lookout for the big bad beast
or one day he'll come along
and bite off your head
and you'll be in the belly of the big bad beast

Thanks to Karen Rivron for letting me use the photo of the Beast.

The Message to the Planet

I've just finished reading The Message to the Planet by Iris Murdoch. Alfred Ludens, an intellectual, Jewish by birth but secular by inclination, is convinced that a one-time member of his circle of friends, Marcus Vallar, has a unique message for the whole of humankind if only he can be guided and encouraged to work it out. Vallar began life as a high-achieving mathematician only to change tack and become a highly successful painter. At the beginning of the novel, he has withdrawn from the world, much to the relief of most of his acquaintances, who felt insulted and intimidated by him. One, Patrick, appears to be terminally ill. It is alleged that the sickness is the result of a “curse” placed on him by the charismatic Vallar. Ludens takes this as an opportunity to track down Vallar, in the belief that if anyone can save Patrick, he can. Once he has found his man, Ludens decides to stay with him and his daughter, Irina, in order to help him work out his elusive message.
What follows is a virtuoso study of our capacity to understand (or deceive) ourselves and each other. This played out around The Axle Stone (like Vallar, an exile of sorts - in this case, from the Avebury stone circle), which stands close to the country cottage which Irina Vallar has arranged for her father to live in.
The difficulty of writing a novel in which philosophy plays a significant part is that it's hard to make any philosophy comprehensible without putting the forward movement of the novel on hold. It's also difficult to make it convincing: it's one thing to create the illusion of a garden or a kitchen, it's quite another to create the illusion of worthwhile philosophy going on. Murdoch -a philosopher herself- succeeds as a novelist on both counts, but I can't describe how without giving too much away.
The book came out in 1989. I finished reading it last night. Certain things about it (for example, the way characters find their religious inheritance inescapable, but difficult or impossible to embrace) left me wondering what Murdoch would be writing now, were she alive, given the interesting times we live in.

Friday, 29 August 2008

My Beautiful World

I've read a lot of discussion on various blogs this week about what people need to get them writing (the right pen, the right chair, the right milieu, etc). I've given the matter some serious thought myself (I have a weakness for black bic biros), but whenever I think about it, the Nick Cave song, There She Goes, My Beautiful World pops into my head. I'm not sure how well-known it is (so apologies if you know it already) and it's not about exactly the same thing - it's more about what artists have to go through to be creative. But it's fun, in its dark way. It's a typical Cave song, full of comically couched lines which leave you wondering just how seriously to take them:
Nabokov wrote on index cards
at a lectern, in his socks,
St John of the Cross did his best stuff
imprisoned in a box.

and my favourite:

Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles
while writing Das Kapital
and Paul Gauguin he b******d off man
and went all tropical

not to mention:
So if you've got a trumpet, brother,
get on your feet and blow it.
If you've got a field, that don't yield,
get out there and hoe it.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Musica Humana

The days are getting shorter
and I can feel the weight of it all
sucking at my bones
like some infernal flute-maker...

Heh. Cut it out.
Sometimes I feel
old, that's true, but
I'm not about
to let anyone
take my skull for a maraca
lying down.

There's a whole crazy orchestra
out there already,
hooting and clattering
and (given a choice) I think
I'll just sit and listen
until it gets too loud
for comfort

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Of Motorcycles, Poetry and Mountains

What an interesting week!

On Thursday night Karen and I went to the house of some friends and saw the film Motorcycle Diaries for the first time: the story of a journey around South America made made a youthful Che Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado. I thought it was brilliant. Although there has been a lot of controversy about the use of Che's image as a fashion statement recently, I must confess to owning a couple of Che Guevara T-shirts. If I count reading his book, Guerrilla Warfare, many years ago, I can actually say, for the first time in my life, that I've (to quote a cliché) “seen the film, read the book and got the T shirt”.


Friday: Ernesto Priego (see his Never Neutral blog in my blog-list) has published his poetry chapbook, Days of Flowers on the internet. I'm reading it a bit at a time. I've got as far as (and really enjoyed) He/saw himself/in the mirror. This poem is written in Spanish and English and it's brilliantly disorientating, the way it forces the eye to jump around, searching for its first language. All the poems are written in Hay(na)ku form or 'reverse Hay(na)ku'. For anyone reading who doesn't know, the Hay(na)ku is a three line poem in which the first line contains one word, the second two and the third, three. Hay(na)ku verses can be linked together to form longer poems.


Yesterday: a typical Saturday in August on the Old Man of Coniston. Parents were taking their children for a walk up what was probably their first “big hill”. Young couples, organised groups, dogs, bicycles were all strung out along the path that winds and zigzags its way up through the old mine workings, past the tarn and (perhaps the steepest pull) up onto the summit ridge. I had arranged a long while ago with a friend, Felicity, to meet up in the Lake District this weekend, and this was the hill we decided to do. For some reason it never occurred to me to resent the crowds: it all seemed rather fun and, looking back on it today, it reminded me somewhat of demonstrations she and I had been on in London, many years ago.

On the ridge, a gusty wind was blowing – the sort of wind that gets on your nerves if you're tired and you've walked a long way. We weren't yet, and we hadn't. Nevertheless, we rested for a minute or two in the shelter of the cairn before setting off along the ridge to Swirl How.

No sooner had we left the cairn, than the crowd seemed to vanish. Many people climb to the summit but not half so many continue along the ridge. This gently undulates its way to Swirl How, a slightly more remote and rocky summit. From there, we made our way down the oddly-named Prison Band. This is a steep, rocky ridge, the boulders and small outcrops of which offer endless short, rocky scrambles if you look for them. Most of the rock is rough, and offers numerous “jug handle” holds(1).

At the foot of the Band, we turned right, taking the sometimes soggy path along the edge of Levers Water. I was tempted to go for a swim and made a mental note to take trunks and a towel with me (well, a towel at least – one has to consider the weight one has to carry!) on future Lake District walks. Reflecting a nasty past experience involving broken glass, I'll probably throw in a pair of old trainers as well, heavy or not.

Back to the car, and back to Felicity's mother's house, where she was staying, and where we were both very kindly well-fed. Then home: a long-ish drive through the Yorkshire Dales in the dark, listening to the radio.

(1)I hadn't intended to make this an Arthur Ransome journey -or an Arthur Ransome post, for that matter- but it was hard not to think about him on this walk. The Old Man of Coniston was the model for Kanchenjunga, the mountain the children climb in the book, Swallowdale, and which has had more than one mention in this blog already. I'll have to go back and explore the area in more detail some time, but descending Prison Band on Swirl How, I could not help wondering if it hadn't inspired some of the details on Ransome's imaginary mountain:

“Are there any precipices?” asked Roger.
“There really are plenty,” said Peggy.
“We shan't go by the path,” said Nancy. “When we come to a rock, we'll go over it.”

Arthur Ransome: Swallowdale, pp365-366

The parallel is quite striking, and, although there are many such ridges in the Lake District, I'm sure any Ransome-fan would think these thoughts on traversing the Band: it's probably found its way into the literature somewhere. There is even a good candidate for the “tough bit”, the cliff that so nearly spells disaster for Roger.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

A short walk in the Duddon Valley

The other day I posted an account of an ascent of Scafell Pike my son Daniel and I made recently. Anyway, the day afterwards, not wishing to strain ourselves too much, we went for a short, low-level walk in the Duddon Valley with my cousin, Jo. She took us to see Frith Hall (SD189916), not far from the village of Ulpha. It's a picturesque ruin now, but 400 years ago it was a hunting lodge. Since then it has been used as an inn and more recently a farmhouse. I must admit that I found it a bit of an ordeal at first, as my right foot was a bit sore from the previous day. I finally found a tuft of sheep's wool and stuffed it down my boot which seemed to work, although it's hardly sterile and I wouldn't recommend it. The path to it runs through a pine forest at first and this, Jo explained and we quickly discovered, was crawling with wood ants, which had been introduced by the local estate to feed the game birds. The forest floor, when you looked closely, was crawling with them and every few yards you came upon one of their distinctive nests. Coincidentally, I saw a man on TV a few days later who said you can eat them: he was just picking them up and popping them in his mouth. You have to bite them quick, he said, before they bite you. It seemed a bit wantonly destructive to me, unless you're starving on a desert island covered in pine forest, so I found myself willing the ants to get him first. If they did, they probably cut it out. I'll have to keep watching those out-take programmes. (I have a weakness for them, and Game for a Laugh too. When I was little I always used to enjoy watching Candid Camera. A man takes his film to be developed and the shop assistant cunningly swaps it for another one and unrolls it in broad daylight to “check the perforations”, that kind of thing. For some reason people are either amused or annoyed by these programmes. Nothing in between). Anyway, to return to the wood ants. It wasn't my first encounter with them: a few years ago I went climbing at an outcrop somewhere in Teesdale. The ground was crawling with them for miles around. We assumed that if we ignored them, they'd ignore us, so we roped up and started climbing. Trouble was, as soon as you sat on a ledge to belay your partner they were crawling all over you. Not only that, but within minutes they were marching along the rope. It was like a real-life Tom and Jerry cartoon. Hellish.

Back in the present, Jo had been having long conversations with a Buddhist monk the previous week and we found ourselves discussing reincarnation and the dangers of treading on ants. She also told me about the Dorje Shugden controversy which was of great concern to her friend but which, not being a Buddhist, I knew nothing about.

We passed some houses and some sort of drilling apparatus on the back of a truck: was the Western Lake District was about to become an oil-field? We decided they were more likely to be drilling for water.

The ruined lodge itself stands close to the top of a hill, just to the side of the true summit (158m), a steep, rocky “toy mountain” about as high as the ruins themselves. Children for centuries must have enjoyed climbing up this. Adults for centuries must have told them to come down.

I have always had a fondness for what I think of as “time machines”. I don't mean the literal, HG Wells-kind of time machines, but things which allow us to step back into the past. The experience of finding and holding a stone age tool: feeling how naturally the stone fits into the palm of the hand. When you see and feel how your grip matches the patina left on the rock by its original owner, it's as if you've almost made contact. One can get the same feeling listening to a tune somebody wrote hundreds of years ago.

I don't think I'd ever thought of this in relation to mountain summits until I scrambled up the last few feet from the ruined house to the rocky peak. There is only one highest point to a hill. Many people over the centuries will arrive at it knowing that they are at the top. Each new arrival has a common experience of something with other people across time. You might say that merely being alive is a common experience and you'd be right: but it seems obvious to me that certain specific experiences (like the tool, the tune and the hill top) inspire us to sit up and take notice.

Countless people, like me, must have bounded up those rocks, stood at the top and looked around. The foreground must have changed a great deal over the years. The horizon, hardly at all.

Thanks to Joanna, for the photos

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Signalling to Mars

I've been interested in Arthur Ransome as a writer for a long time: in particular, his experiences in Russia and his politics, and their possible influence on his literature for children. I began exploring this last month in the post, To the Summit of Kanchenjunga. This was principally about the book, Winter Holiday, and writing it prompted me to re-read that book in the light of my own thoughts.
The book introduces two new characters, the children Dick and Dorothea. It immediately struck me how at the beginning, as "the Ds" (as they come to be known) see the Swallows and the Amazons at a distance, our attention is drawn to the red caps of the Amazons. The association of red with the "vanguard" Bolshevik Party goes without saying, and almost invariably, it is the red-capped Amazons, led by Nancy, who are the vanguard, encouraging the Swallows to think big and throw caution to the wind. (Later in the story, when Nancy is ill, her sister Peggy does her best to take her place, adopting her sister's extravagant, idiosyncratic language).
Dick is a scientist and Dorothea a writer, and their introduction into the stories seems to me to be a conscious effort to bring science and the arts into the other children's ongoing project to remap the world in their own terms, to see beyond the world of the "natives". Russian revolutionaries shared these concerns: indeed Marxism itself was considered to be "scientific" and was treated as such. If this seems far-fetched, consider Mrs Dixon's "native" reaction to Dick's plans to establish an observatory (the observatory, incidentally, gives rise to the "signalling to Mars" game, whereby "the Ds" make contact with the other children):
Stars? Couldn't they see stars as well and better from the farmyard, or from the scullery window for that, and keep warm into the bargain?
"You must have an observatory on the top of a hill," Dick had explained, "so as to get a larger horizon."
"Get along with you, you and your horizons," Mrs Dixon had laughed.
In my view, it's hard not to see a metaphor going on here.
Some Ransome fans find the characters Dick and Dorothea problematic. It has to be said that as creations they don't seem quite in the same league as the Blackett and the Walker children, although to be fair to Ransome, there must be a limit to just how many iconic characters one writer can create, unless he or she is a Dickens or a Joyce.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Ben Nicholson

On the way back from the Lake District, we stopped off in Kendal. While we were there, we visited a Ben Nicholson exhibition. I didn't know much about him, although I was already fond of the work of his one-time wife, Barbara Hepworth.


After Ben Nicholson

A tree grows on a hill:
the green darkness of its leaves sets it apart
from the indiscretion of the grass.

On the windowsill a broken stem
leans in a vase and (for a short time)
turns its flower towards the glass.

A woman's face, reflected there, eyes fixed
on an indistinct, unfocused place, an actuality
reduced to pigment, scoured.

A blackness so complete lets nothing out:
the surface ends, there's nowhere (everywhere?) to go from here.
Bright colours circle it about.

Rain softly falls. Beneath a blue-grey sky
wheat stretches. Yellow, lustreless,
like low tide in an estuary.

The line persists. The pencil, turning sharply,
never leaves the paper, moves to enclose
a white space, establishing a shape.

Climbing Scafell Pike

My son Daniel and I have climbed many hills together, but we'd never got round to climbing Scafell Pike - until last Sunday. I climbed it twenty years or so ago and, knowing Wasdale, but not getting there as often as I'd like, I envisaged a balmy, idyllic couple of days camping there. It's a busy place but, set apart as it is from the hottest tourist hotspots, nowhere this big in the Lake District feels quite so wild to me. The only other places I've ever found in Britain with a similar feel are in the Scottish Highlands.

As it was, the weather was damp and the mountains obscured by low cloud. We heard it had been raining for days, so instead of camping we chickened out and stayed with my cousin in Ulverston, an hour's drive from the foot of the Pike.

We got up a little late, like you do, and not wanting to panic took the scenic route through the Duddon Valley. When we finally arrived, to my surprise, we found a place to park immediately. However, no sooner had I turned off the engine than the car was struck by a squall of drenching rain. It only lasted a minute or two, but it was quickly followed by another, which we saw coming – a fast moving bank of mist racing up Wastwater to meet us. Undeterred, we put on our waterproofs and set off.

Given our late start and the uncertain weather, it seemed sensible to take the most direct route. We made our way up the path that runs alongside Lingmell Gill. The sound of rushing water, at first from the swollen Gill and later from invisible waterfalls hidden in the mist, was with us all the way to Mickledore, the col that separates Scafell Pike from its neighbour, Scafell. At the foot of the feature known as Brown Tongue the path forded the Gill: we crossed it gingerly, not wanting to get our feet too wet at this stage. I rediscovered the fact that if you listen to the sound of rushing water intently what begins as an undifferentiated sound seems to contain all kinds of uncanny, ghostly noises. I found myself fancying I could hear distant, indistinct rock music.

At the top of Brown Tongue the path plunged into cloud. The path forks at this point and we took the right fork for Mickledore. Grass turned to scree and boulders and towards the top the route steepened dramatically, terminating in a short but interesting scramble up a gully. At last we found that the ground in front of us was sloping down instead of up. To our right lay Broad Stand, site of the first recorded rock climb in England, undertaken accidentally by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His account of his descent (he climbed down it, not up it), in which “every drop increased the palsy of [his] Limbs”, is great fun to read.
To our left lay our route to the summit of Scafell Pike. This was a simple matter of following a cairned path: I say simple, but in fact the path passes a few metres to the left of the summit and in poor visibility it's quite easy to walk straight past it. Once there, we found a sheltered spot and ate our lunch. Someone kindly offered to take our photo.

No sooner had we set off from the summit than we were hit by another squall. It was similar to the ones that had hit us by the car, but we were now over 3,000 feet up and the water hit us like hailstones, penetrating gear and clothing in seconds, and making it impossible to see. Thankfully the conditions quickly passed and we were soon making our way down. This time we took the simpler path, the one that meanders around the outcrops and steep ground near the top of the mountain, rejoining the Mickledore path at the top of Brown Tongue. Occasionally we were treated to a break in the clouds which revealed spectacular views of Wastwater and, in the distance, the patterns made by the sunlight, broken by the cloud-shadows on the Irish Sea.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The Birth of Venus

The drawing was made by my dad, Malcolm, sometime in the 1940s, I think: Exercise Showing the Directions of the Form from the Pelvis. Captured by the Japanese when they invaded Singapore, he spent the entire war working on the Burma Railway. He was lucky to survive. After the war he went to evening classes at art school and spent a lot of time subsequently painting and drawing.
Some fifty years later, during his last illness, we spent some time discussing a postcard of Botticelli's Birth of Venus (above). He had it pinned up where he could see it from his bed. Some time afterwards I wrote about it:


You had "The Birth of Venus" pinned where you could see,
Beyond the bed. A modest nude to contemplate.
A feat of balance, standing on that shell, at sea.

Poised between the Carnal and the Ultimate,
You talked about the art of painting, pointed out
How Botticelli's composition-lines relate
To a Matisse, the things New Masters learnt about
The Old. You took a pencil-stub to demonstrate.

What deprivations of the Underworld assailed
Your mind, or bright Venusian dreams tormented you?
You'd seen so much - you thought you knew what death entailed:
"Talk about art? Why not? What else is there to do?"

An atheist, you doubted Heaven, doubted Hell.
More fitting, to be borne away upon the Shell.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

My Old Man's a Scarecrow

So, the village Scarecrow Competition has been and gone for another year. Last year we came third, with an effigy of Patrick Moore complete with telescope. This year, our tableau based on Lonnie Donegan's My Old Man's a Dustman failed to reach the top three. Since you may not be familiar with the emerging phenomenon of the Scarecrow Competition or Festival, I'd better explain. Local people build scarecrows and stick them in their front gardens. I say “scarecrows”, but we're not talking here about two sticks and a hat. These are quite elaborate effigies, often of real people. The event has been advertised (it's a good way of raising money) and visitors to the village are given maps and walk around a “scarecrow trail”, admiring the scarecrows. Tea and cakes are laid on at the village hall, and everybody has a good time. Certificates are given to the makers of the best scarecrows, though how you judge this without wheeling a cage full of crows round with you, I don't know.
How did it all start? The obvious answer is with the Kettlewell Scarecrow Festival. Kettlewell is just over the hill from here and has held its festival for years. People flock to it from all over – they even get coachloads of German tourists, apparently. The idea has caught on, and it's now commonplace for villages round here to combine events like fetes and “open garden” days with scarecrow competitions.
But where did Kettlewell get the idea from? Somewhere else, obviously. I've seen scarecrow-making websites from as far afield as Australia. And where did they get the idea from? It's a bit like asking what happened before the Big Bang.
The answer, no doubt, lies deep in the psyche. This is the nearest we get these days to the world of The Wicker Man. To compress fifteen hundred years of history, the Church displaced paganism and took over its festivals. Burning dour policemen inside wicker men (if you don't understand this, watch the film) was replaced by burning members of religious minorities, then effigies of the same on November 5th. We are beginning to progress further: we like to think we realise that other people are probably no more or less stupid than ourselves, that prejudice is wrong (well, I live in hope that we do) and that even burning effigies of people is a bit mean.
So what's it all about? It's the Guardian reader's answer to the pagan fertility rite. Sometime around midsummer, we build an effigy. Instead of burning it, we're nice to it. We sit it in the garden on a sunny day. Why didn't we think of it before? Perhaps that's what the gods wanted us to do all along.

The Guardian is the only left-of-right broadsheet newspaper to enjoy anything like a wide readership in Britain. “Guardian reader” is a playful term of mock-abuse for middle-class socially concerned people who might typically be anti-nuclear, read books about building compost heaps and think their children are being creative when they draw on the wallpaper. You probably get the idea. I, I should add, read the Guardian.

Buy a cheap pack of tights: you need at least three pairs. Stuff one with straw. Leave just enough room to tie a know in the waist. These are the legs and the lower half of the torso. Stuff another. These will be the arms and the upper part of the torso. Tie the two “top knots” together with a piece of string, as close as you can. Dress the structure in old clothes. For the head, take a third pair of tights. Tie off the legs at the gusset and turn it inside out. Stuff with straw. Tie off the waist - the knot goes where its neck should be. Hair? Sewing hair on is a bind. Hats are easier. How you do a face is up to you. I think they work well without faces on. To much detail is not necessarily good. Less is more. Keep it simple. The hard bit is fixing the head to the torso. If you have a metal rod say, 18” long, you can stick it in the torso and impale the head on top. You can sit it in a chair (easiest) or stand it up using a post (a bit of “2 by 2”) threaded through its trouser leg and jacket. Be warned: you can get very fond of your scarecrow. I've even been known to take mine out for a drive in the country. Well, we live in the country, so driving anywhere is a drive in the country...

Thanks for the photographs are due to Karen Rivron and The Weaver of Grass.