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 At the beginning of the novel, he has withdrawn from the world, much to the relief of most of his acquaintances, who felt insulted and intimidated by him.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.