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.