Friday, 31 July 2009


So you tell me your name
but what do I know? I will
stick it to your face and,
just as I learn the map
of creases written there,
I might learn something of
the way your thoughts connect
and, given time, this too
becomes the word that's you.

But would you recognise
this one I know? A part,
perhaps, but not the whole.
(Same for me: I write,
you read. Proves nothing, but
it satisfies a need).

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Sunday, 26 July 2009

How Not to Burn Incense

This post was written in response to The Weaver of Grass' request for her readers to write about something which -or someone who- inspired them.

This book inspired me when I first read it as a teenager. I mislaid it for years and when I found it again recently, I realised it had often influenced the way I thought about things since I first read it. It did not lead me to become a Zen Buddhist, but it certainly equipped me with Zen-tinted spectacles which I found myself wearing from time to time.

What's it about? It's a collection of Zen stories, poetry, koans (the full text of the Zen classic, The Gateless Gate) and advice on meditation. What's Zen about? It is often said that Zen has been confusingly half-understood in the West and I'm not about to add to that confusion. Let's just say that Zen is not a religion (one can't become a Zennite as such). It would be more accurate to describe it as an attitude to thought.

Let the book speak for itself:

A Cup of Tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

And, my current favourite:

Black-Nosed Buddha

A nun who was searching for enlightenment made a statue of Buddha and covered it with gold leaf. Wherever she went she carried this golden Buddha with her.

Years passed and, still carrying her Buddha, the nun came to live in a country where there were many Buddhas, each one with its own particular shrine.

The nun wished to burn incense before her golden Buddha. Not liking the idea of the perfume straying to the others, she devised a funnel through which the smoke would ascend only to her statue. This blackened the nose of the golden Buddha, making it especially ugly.

I found it quite hard to make my mind up who or what to write about. I almost wrote a post about the chap who painted this "rear view" self portrait...

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Saturday, 25 July 2009

Ready? Steady? Go!

Regular readers will know that I go out running quite a lot these days. Years ago I ran in quite a few fell races. I was always more of a fell staggerer than a fell runner: my least impressive result (of which I am oddly proud) was coming 462nd out of 462 in the Langdale Skyline race.

Since I got going again I've been taking things a lot more seriously: not because I expect to do substantially better but because I'm now substantially older. I've put a lot of effort into interval training (alternating fast bursts with slow jogs) and fartlek (a Swedish word meaning "speed play") running, as well as going out for longer and longer runs.

Well, I reached the point this week when I decided it was time to have a go at a race. I searched the net and discovered that a fell race was being held in Hamsterley Forest: a 10k course involving 1,100 feet of ascent. Quite moderate as fell races go.

Karen came for the ride and to offer moral support. We arrived early so that we could drive round the signposted 'forest drive'. It was a cloudy, showery day, but quite warm. We'd brought a flask of coffee with us but whenever we stopped to enjoy the view a cloud of flies surrounded the car, making it impossible to open the windows. The only fly-free place to stop was the Visitor Centre car park.

Anyway, scenic drive over, I made my way to registration. It was soon clear that not many people were planning on taking part in this race. I was a little worried about this, as I half expected to make a fool of myself, and if I did, it would be better to do so in an impersonal crowd. As it was, only about twelve of us turned up.

The race was a handicap,
which meant that when you registered you told the organiser your time for 10k. Since I had not run a race for years, I had to give him my "best guess". The worst runner (me, in this case) was to start first, the best, last. The clock was to start with the first runner. Theoretically, everyone would finish together: anyone who managed to do just that bit better than they normally did would have a good chance of winning.

Unfortunately, 2 minutes after the start I got lost! I mistook a red cycle route waymark for the orange walk waymark I was supposed to follow for the first mile or two. By the time I realised and had made my way back to the course I had lost about 12 minutes. The next 5 3/4 miles became a desperate attempt not to come in ages after everybody else.

Desperate, but fantastic, nevertheless. The route featured exhilarating "demon descents" down steep, muddy, tree-root infested paths that wound in and out of the trees. There were also the inevitable ascents, which also concentrated the mind wonderfully. After winding through the hills of the forest for a few miles, the route emerged on the open fell above it. At this point I realised that I (along with everybody else) had aquired my own personal cloud of flies that buzzed round and round my head, taking it in turns to land there.

After a while the route plunged back into the undergrowth of the forest, suddenly emerging on a hardcore Land Rover track. This zig-zagged down the hillside to the main road through the forest: the end was in sight. It was just a case of going flat out until I got there.

Much to my relief, I wasn't last. There were three competitors behind me and I when I saw the times I realised that had I not got lost I might well have won! This being a handicap, this had nothing whatever to do with any prowess on my part. I had simply underestimated my own ability slightly when signing up for the race. It was good to do a bit better than I expected but I was pleased I'd got lost: I would have felt something of a fraud had I come in first.

Photo of Hamsterley Forest copyright David Brown and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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Friday, 17 July 2009

It's been a Year...

It's over a year since I started this blog. The exact day, July 11th, passed me by: I was too busy to notice.

My very first post was a poem and, since no-one was around to read it, I'll post it again, here:

For Now
At night I lie and rest
to say I sleep would be
to exaggerate, although
low voices on the radio
are just a sound
that means no more, no less
than the rise and fall
of her breath
or the birdsong
now the sun is rising

and I find myself thinking
(as if for the first time)
a time machine
would be a terrible thing

My next post, To the Summit of Kanchenjunga, was an essay on the Swallows and Amazons novels of Arthur Ransome. Ransome had been a friend of Lenin. The post speculated as to what extent Ransome's encounter with the Bolsheviks had shaped the stories. Did the larger-than-life Nancy, Captain of the Amazon pirates owe anything to Vladimir Illytch? We may never know, but it's fun to speculate. I can't think of many posts I've written since that I've enjoyed writing more than this one.

More prose and poetry followed. I also succumbed to the then-current craze of Wordle-making and, to celebrate a year of blogging, I've created a new one, based on more recent posts:

I enjoyed looking back through those early posts: the American teenager who met The Walrus, the 365 Day Project (an archive of outsider music), Mozart's musical dice game... There weren't that many people around to read them then so, if you like, you can read them all in the July 2008 archive here.

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Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The King of the Sprints

If I've not been around for a while, it's because I've had a lot to do. The end of the summer term means writing school reports, playing in concerts and, on a personal level, the village scarecrow competition! The latter should have been easy this year, as I took on two apprentice scarecrow-makers (son and daughter, Amy and Daniel) to come up with an idea for and then make the scarecrow.

We had lots of good ideas. The trouble is, good ideas have to be easy to do. A Sherlock Holmes scarecrow, for example, requires a deerstalker hat - not easy to come by. We thought of a female Robin ("Robyn") Hood. Easy to do, we thought. A green dress and a stick and a piece of string for a bow. We scoured the charity shops for a green dress, but could we find one? Sadly not. The art of making quick scarecrows is not to cling to ideas when the resources are just not there, so we changed tack: someone suggested the Tour de France. I have a racing bike, so we were half way there. It lives in The Weaver of Grass' old milking parlour, has two flat tyres and is covered in bird dirt, but it was a relatively easy matter to dig it out and set it up for The King of the Sprints! (See picture).

I'm pleased we went for this idea in the end. The Tour de France is perhaps the only televised sporting event that has me glued to the box. It is not followed as avidly as it might be in Britain. Of course, it is easy to be cynical about the drugs scandals that have dogged the race over the years, but this is probably the most out-and-out demanding sporting event in the world and its participants are hailed as heroes in many European countries. So far, this year's Tour has been scandal free. However, the temptation is there and the existence of the risk is a fact of life. The media can make one cynical about most things if one lets it. Me, I prefer to abandon myself to the drama, the excitement and the sheer emotional intensity of the world's toughest cycle race. Bring on the goose pimples!

As for scarecrows, we had a few other ideas too. As is often the case when one starts brainstorming ideas, some of them were just too outré or beyond the pale. My favourite among these rejected tableaux for which the world is not yet prepared was Hannibal Lecter's Barbecue. As usual, we made outrageous plans for next year - a scarecrow version of The Wreck of the Medusa perhaps, or a tableaux of Batman villains. Will we get round to it? Of course we will, next year...

Daily highlights of the Tour de France can be watched at ITV4. (Click on the Highlights link).

Photograph by The Weaver of Grass.

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