Monday, 30 March 2009


Yesterday Daniel and I set off on another walk: the ascent of Skiddaw (pronounced 'skidder'), in the Lake District. We had intended to climb Helvellyn, but on consulting various online forecasts we decided against it. Soft, unconsolidated snow lay on its ridges, on top of old frozen snow. This is a lethal combination which can easily lead to an avalanche. Our plan, to ascend Striding Edge and descend Swirral Edge, was not a sensible one in the conditions, especially since our winter mountaineering gear amounted to one ice axe -for the lucky person- and one old metal tent-pole for the other one. It is possible to ascend Helvellyn more easily from Thirlmere but this, as I remember it, is just a slog if you are walking. Skiddaw, with its substantial 'tourist path' was definitely a better option.

We parked in the car park close to the top of a smaller hill, Latrigg, just outside Keswick. From here the path rises steeply to the skyline - the hardest part of the walk. Once this is polished off the rest of the ascent is quite gentle, skirting the foot of the subsidiary top, Little Man. At that point I was reminded of my previous ascent of the hill. I was alone, then. Daniel must have been about eighteen months old and, as we used to call him 'Little Man', I remembered being amused by the name. Well, here we were, both of us, nearly twenty years later.

Skiddaw has a reputation as an uninteresting hill. I think this is a shame. It may lack cathedral-like buttresses and pinnacles and absorbing rocky bits but it makes up for this with its sheer bulk which -if it hasn't already- dawns on you as you leave the grass behind and ascend its stony summit ridge. At 3,054 feet this is the fourth highest mountain in England. If, like us, you take the tourist route, the summit itself lies at the far end of this ridge. As you traverse it, the sides of the mountain suddenly steepen and you find youself looking down on your left into Bassenthwaite lake and on you right into the jungle of green hills known as 'Back o' Skiddaw'.

At this point, the full force of the cold wind caught us. At the summit trig point we took the customary photographs then sheltered behind a stone windbreak to eat. The forecast I mentioned earlier said that temperatures on Helvellyn summit had fallen to -14.5 in the last few days. I don't know what it was on Skiddaw but I removed a glove to eat a sandwich and even though we were out of the wind, it only took a few moments for my hand to feel painfully cold. The rocks of the windbreak were decorated with horizontal, wind-blown icicles. We hung around for a few minutes despite the discomfort: the view was wonderful as there was hardly a cloud in the sky and, anyway, it's not every day you get to stand on a 3,000-foot summit, unless you're a fell-runner who lives in Keswick. If our experience is anything to go by, there seem to be a lot of these. They all seem to own at least one lean-looking sheepdog, too. (I suppose any dog would be lean if walkies meant a quick jog to the top of Skiddaw and back).

The sun was low in the sky as we walked back down past Little Man. The wind had dropped slightly and it felt as if you could almost reach out and touch the main Lake District summits, all dusted with snow, that dotted the horizon. Directly below lay Keswick, on the edge of Derwent Water. In the town, points of glass and metal were still catching the sun and still, oddly, shimmering in a heat-haze. It struck me what a good place to live this would be. It's not that I really felt like moving house; it's just that for a moment I wanted to open a door in this landscape, walk in, and close it behind me.

Photograph (c) Michael Ely

Licensed for reuse under a
Creative Commons Licence

Sunday, 29 March 2009


You collected shells
and put them on the dresser:
each a small fortress,
the smooth interiors

shone with the memory
of the tenacious garrisons
that held out for so long
against the sea.

It's easy for me to date this poem: I went to Mayo twenty years ago and wrote it shortly after I returned. I was prompted to think about it again as a result of reading Poet-in-Residence's Irish Impressions.

Friday, 27 March 2009


He tried to imagine

Thursday, 19 March 2009

A Walk in the Andes of England

My son Daniel and I went for a walk over Blackstone Edge the other day. This rocky-topped fell that separates the worlds of Lancashire and Yorkshire was once described by Daniel Defoe as being 'the Andes of England'. I was always amused by this hyperbole -it is less than 2,000 feet high- but he had a point: the high ground of which Blackstone Edge is a part stretches, virtually unbroken, the length of the North of England, from the Scottish Borders to the Peak District; and, to be fair, in Defoe's time, without tarmac roads -not to mention the M62- the Pennines must have presented a considerable obstacle to anyone crossing the country.

We had a great time. We parked in a lay-by on the A58 where it crosses the fells, beside a reservoir and between two imposing lines of pylons. In a way, these power lines are an eyesore. One of the great strengths of the Pennine landscape is the long, straight horizon-lines. These hills are not tall, pointed mountains. The deep impression they create is produced by sheer scale. On the other hand, these power lines are human civilisation at its most functional, stripped of its cosmetic covering. Since the fells themselves are a bit like that, the pylons fit in, in a funny sort of way; and one should not forget that the Pennines as we experience them, stripped of their trees, are themselves a product of human activity. There are only a few human structures on the hill-tops: most fit into the same category as the Blackstone Edge pylons and all have become, for most people I suspect, part of the landscape.

The Stoodley Pike monument is a case in point. This massive, dark obelisk can be seen for miles. As we made our way up the gently-sloping fell, its tip could be seen peeping over the hill behind us. In a few minutes we came to the track marked on the map as a Roman Road (there is some controversy over its provenance) and at this point we joined the trail of bootprints, lost gloves and orange peel known as the Pennine Way. We made our way along it, as it wound through the the rocks that are strewn along the summit-ridge of the fell. The summit itself is, I think, the “inaccessible pinnacle” of the Pennines. Close to the top, a trig point stands on a gritstone boulder. A second boulder close by, the summit itself, is slightly higher and takes more than a little nerve to climb.

On the way back we had time to spare, so we stopped for a while, sheltering from the breeze in a depression. We spent some time laid flat on our backs on the short grass, watching the sky and eating a bag of chopped carrots we'd brought along.

Photo: (c) Steve Partridge
Licenced for reuse under a Creative Commons licence

Monday, 9 March 2009

Fun with Short Wave Radio

I received a surprise through the post the other day: an envelope full of QSL cards. Perhaps I should begin by explaining what these are. QSL cards are customised postcards exchanged by amateur radio stations to acknowledge the contacts they have made. Perhaps I should briefly explain what radio amateurs do. Radio amateurs train themselves to operate (and sometimes build) their own transmitting and receiving stations. These, most famously, operate on the shortwave band. Each has a call-sign which identifies it and the country it operates in.
Anyway, back to the QSL cards. If you ask me, they are one of the great things about amateur radio and I've amassed getting on for a shoe-box full of the things since getting my licence. Some are straightforward, others humorous or artistic. Here a few I have received over the years. The countries they come from can be identified by the callsign. As a guide, those beginning with a D are German, U from the Ukraine, OK Czecheslovakia and PT Brazil. /m denotes a mobile station:

I'm a great believer in hobbies. You don't have to be ambitious or work your fingers to the bone to enjoy a hobby. In fact, if you have the kind of job you're glad to get home from (I don't – I enjoy my job, even if it does wear me out!) a hobby can give life the kind of meaning we dream of it having as children. Put another way, you may not be able to be an engine driver, but a model railway layout is yours to design and run as you please.

I suspect my father instilled this in me. Some of my earliest memories are of him building and maintaining a greenhouse to grow tomatoes. I can still smell that thick, green smell a humid tomato plants when I think of it. He built canoes and sailing boats. He got into early music and learnt to play the recorder. He built drums and gemshorns (recorder-like instruments fashioned from cow horns). He encouraged me, too: I spent quite a few hours sat in canoes and sailing boats or dangling from the end of a rope in a local quarry (this wasn't a punishment – I wanted to rock-climb). He also built my first radio mast.

When I was a child, my great passion was radio. If I could get hold of an old one I was there, transfixed by the glowing dial with its mysterious-sounding foreign station names: Zeesen, Rome, Daventry (I later realised this was English), Hilversum and so on. Without realising it, I was already interested in “DX”: the art of receiving (or even communicating with) distant stations. I spent many happy hours winding wire around toilet roll holders (anyone who has built a crystal set will know what I mean) and many more trying to get slightly more complicated radios to work. When the glowing dials of the old radios went dark, which they did from time to time, I'd be in the back, tearing out their guts for the variable capacitors and coils I needed for my next crystal set. Radio parts had a surreal aura about them in those days: the variable capacitors with their interlocking vanes and the valves, with their glass bulbs full of odd complexities. There is a magic to radio, which we often take for granted: these are machines that work without moving, and enable you to hear voices that are speaking thousands of miles away, not to mention the weird atmospherics and other mysterious sounds that can be found between the stations. I think people will notice this even less in the future, as we are entering an era in which most communication is carried out via cables and 'wire-less' is merely a convenient way of connecting machines that are a few feet apart.

My great ambition when I was ten was to be a 'radio ham'. I never got it together then. The exam looked difficult, and to get onto shortwave (the natural home of “DX”) you needed to pass a 15 words per minute Morse code test. I did spend hours pouring over a book, Fun with Shortwave Radio by Gilbert Davey (I still do, from time to time. The cover, reproduced above, shows the amateur station GB2SM, which used to exist at the Science Museum). It was full of radio designs that I suspect were more poured over than built by most readers. While I was contemplating the possibilities, life took over: I slowly realised I would never get anywhere with anything technical or scientific as I was no good at maths, and that my main passion was music.

Thirty years later I got it into my head to build a crystal set. There were a number of reasons. I had children of my own and I think everyone should build or at least experiment with one. Also, I had this sense of unfinished business. I found I had been reinfected with the radio-building bug, only now I had the resources and the application that I had lacked thirty years before. I took the amateur radio exam in 2002, along with the morse test – mercifully, the speed requirement had been reduced to 5 words per minute! I finally had a call sign: M0KXD. I joined an amateur radio club and through my contacts there I bought a transceiver – an ancient valve 'rig' that had been built in the days when I was first considering taking the exam.

I said at the outset how I was surprised to receive the cards. The reason is that as I write, the hobby is on hold. The ancient transceiver has broken down, I suspect, for the last time. I have had to repair it more than once – but this time I am stumped. I had great fun with it. It never managed to put out more than 10 watts (imagine a 40 watt lightbulb...) but it enabled me to contact the USA, Brazil, Russia, Israel and Iceland. Such is the magic of short waves. Sadly, it never made it to Australia or Japan. I am building myself a morse transceiver in my spare moments. It is taking me a while. Partly this is because I am short of time to do all the things I want and need to do but also I sense myself procrastinating, spinning it out, as I enjoy building radios at least as much as I do operating them.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Sci-fi Sonnet 2

Three attempts to decode the repeating signal received from deep space by The Very Large Array, New Mexico, in 2032.


welcome to talk to us denizens of the world -
we travel so far in search of these zalatsi -
I congratulate you - fear and respect -
what we want to say - what we admire -
because there are so few so far to go
for the sweet softness that we rarely find
extant and few between - we denizens
of where - and when - can take these messages -

do not ask us how we coexist -
to live and die as soon as ever touch
so we than you live longer - we so calm
and trees - while all good things - and then to die
so cool and after meals, etc. -
this appears between the time - reply


welcome to the inhabitants of the earth -
we finders of these pieces through the date
of travel in fear that the respect and greeting
we say what we want and hold in great
awe the fact there is so little - this
rarely seen due to the soft sweetness
of the trees - so far we have few people
to take us to the second step - the message?

ask us how to live in May - to talk -
you are exposed to live to die so soon -
since you with us to lead a quiet life
and all good things - and then to die so full
so peaceful and to eat - and even then
between you and I the answer - take your time


welcome to speak to us denizens of the earth -
we who travel so far in search of such morsels
greet you in trepidation and respect -
what we say with high esteem we hold
for such there are so few so far to go
for such sweet softness as we rarely find
so far and few between - we denizens
of another bring all you these messages -

we ask how symbiosis is for you -
as you live so shortly die - so touching -
you with us live so long a life so calm
and so filled up with all good things - then die
so peacefully - we eat you then and so
think it between you take your time - reply

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Monkey Business

What havoc can a load of hairless monkeys with the brains of a minor deity wreak on a habitable planet? I was moved to this thought by a coincidence, the same theme popping up in the novel I'm currently reading, and the poetry book:

Oh for far-off monkeyland,
ripe monkeybread on baobabs,
and the wind strums out monkeytunes
from monkeywindow monkeybars.

Monkeyheroes rise and fight
in monkeyfield and monkeysquare,
and monkeysanatoriums
have monkeypatients crying there.

... ...

Macaque, gorilla, chimpanzee,
baboon, orangutan, each beast
reads his monkeynewssheet at
the end of each twilight repast.

With monkeysupper memories
the monkeyouthouse rumbles, hums,
monkeysquaddies start to march,
right turn, left turn, shoulder arms—

monkeymilitary fright
reflected in each monkeyface,
with monkeygun in monkeyfist
the monkeys' world the world we face.

From Monkeyland by Sandor Weores,
translated by Edwin Morgan


The Steppenwolf’s look pierced our whole epoch, its whole overwrought activity, the whole surge and strife, the whole vanity, the whole superficial play of a shallow, opinionated intellectuality. And alas! The look went still deeper, went far below the faults, defects and hopelessness of our time, our intellect, our culture alone. It went right to the heart of all humanity, it bespoke eloquently in a single second the whole despair of a thinker, of one who knew the full worth and meaning of man’s life. It said, “See what monkeys we are! Look, such is man!” and at once all renown, all intelligence, all the attainments of the spirit, all progress towards the sublime, the great and the enduring in man fell away and became a monkey’s trick.

From Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse