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.