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.