Tuesday, 30 August 2011


A sleepless night. I'm not complaining. I drifted in and out of consciousness, dream and reality melding one into the other. And at 3.30am a barbershop quartet started to sing in the street outside.

Meet the gang, 'cos the boys are here,
The boys to entertain you-ou-ou...

I hauled myself out of bed and stumbled into the living room. I opened the window and leaned out.

"What the hell..." I began.

The quartet ground to a halt.

"I'm terribly sorry sir", said one of the singers, clearly the mover and shaker. "We're from Arnside Rotary Club. We have to get up early to catch the commuters."

At the this point our host, mother of F, popped her head out of another window and addressed me.

"Don't be too hard on them," she said. They do a lot of good work for the local community."

I aquiesced, and returned to bed.

Nothing much else happened. The grey sky I could see though the gaps in the blind gradually got lighter. Drizzle rattled on the window from time to time. As dawn approached the gaps between the pulses of rain began to close. I had planned to get up at 6.30, by which time they'd closed altogether. I fell asleep.

I woke up two hours later. Drat that barbershop quartet.

Or not. In fact, starting out later than we intended to meant that we caught the best part of the day. We stopped briefly at a coffee shop in Glenridding then set off on the stiff, uphill trudge that leads to the foot of Striding Edge (there are good photos at this link: I took no camera).

The trudge is worth it, as it means that nothing ever seems quite so steep for the rest of the day. We intended to climb Helvellyn via the classic circuit - ascend Striding Edge, walk along the summit ridge to the summit, descend Swirral Edge at the other end.  F and I had been up Helvellyn before and remembered Striding Edge as being a lot easier a scramble than its reputation suggested. It turned out to be not quite as easy as I remembered it: in the past, I decided, I must have taken the easier path around the most difficult part, the rock tower near the end known as The Chimney. It starts off easily enough. You have the pleasant feeling of rock underfoot as you walk along a ridge not unlike the ridge of a roof, with a view down both sides. An even easier path winds around the rocks for anyone who wishes to take it. However, as you approach the main body of the mountain The Chimney rises up (this is the part I must have circumvented in the past). This time we strayed onto it and were treated to several minutes of exhilarating, airy scrambling, ending in the descent of a short, steep gully which I'd guess would count as a Moderate-graded rock climb. All three of us -myself, friend F and son D- gathered finally on the col which separated the pinnacle from the long dirty climb to the summit ridge itself.

Any believer in the Genesis account of creation would be forgiven for mistaking this slope for God's building site. Piles of shattered rock are strewn all over the slope over a surface with the consistency of sludgy cement. Fortunately, although it's steep it's nothing like as long as the intitial trudge up from Glenridding, so we soon came out on the summit ridge. Surprisingly for a Bank Holiday, we had it to ourselves. The sun was out, the cloud was high and the wind only slight. We sat down, ate cake and admired the view. Then we made a few calls (including to F's mum, who had kindly offered to cook us a meal when we returned) and set off down Swirral Edge, feeling a twinge of envy for the handful of wild campers pitched below us on the banks of Red Tarn. As we did so, the first wisps of cloud appeared between ourselves and the summit. The further we went the damper the air became. A mile or so out from Glenridding it began to rain seriously. By the time we got back to the car park we were soaked.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Lindisfarne Senryu

Early in the Twentieth Century, the Portugese cellist, Guilhermina Augusta Xavier de Medim Suggia Carteado Mena (1885-1950), known as Guilhermina Suggia was a frequent visitor to Lindisfarne Castle. She was briefly engaged to the then-owner, Edward Hudson. The reasons for the breaking of the engagement are unclear.

here is a cello
like a coffin full of air
the space around it


playing a Bach suite
the harebells for company
the sea, listening


                               Photo: Karen Rivron

Campanula rotundifolia (harebells) growing on the wall of 
Lindisfarne Castle 

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Conlon Nancarrow and the Player Piano

If I wanted an example of what I personally find so great about the internet, the case of Conlon Nancarrow would be a good one to quote. When I was younger, he'd be no more than a footnote in a book about music: an eccentric US composer who gets mentioned after Ives, Cowell and Partch. The jolly cacophony of his Studies for Player Piano would have had to remain in my imagination, unless I was lucky enough to come across a recording in the local record library - fat chance. That was then. Now, someone has had the good sense to upload videos of them to Youtube.

Nancarrow, a communist who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, spent most of his life living in Mexico. He's most famous for composing these Studies. The player piano/pianola has two advantages over the more normal kind. It's not limited to playing the notes you can reach with two five-digit human hands  and it can play incredibly complex rhythms - for example you can make it play any number of musical lines at once, all moving at different speeds. Here's to jolly cacophony...

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Moon Worshippers

Went to Lindisfarne the other day. We've been there many times, but we've never actually visited the castle before. It's a great place and it's owned by the National Trust (so if you're a member you get in free). Like most NT properties, it's full of paintings, old furniture, interesting books and suchlike, only in this case -for me- the most interesting thing was the place itself. I didn't feel moved to find out a lot about it (how it was once a castle, but was turned into a house by the architect Edwin Lutyens). Instead, I just wanted to climb the stairs, look out of the windows, walk on the battlements and admire the view.

The island was very busy. On pleasant Summer days a tide of people almost as overwhelming as the tide that covers the sands around it and cuts it off floods onto the island as the water recedes. Queuing anywhere that sells food and drink can be a nightmare. (We've found, in the past, that one of the best ways to enjoy the place is to stay there after the tide has come in - it's usually quieter then). Instead, hungry and thirsty, we drove up to Berwick. Neither of us knew the place really. I'd been fantasising about Italian food all afternoon and I was delighted to catch sight of an Italian flag as we drove over the long bridge into the town centre. As I suspected, it hung over the door of an Italian restaurant. After eating we headed back to Lindisfarne, knowing that the tide would soon be in and the causeway which joins the island to the mainland at low tide covered.

The incoming tide on a pleasant evening at Lindisfarne is something of a tourist attraction. People are drawn there and if you've ever been there and soaked up the atmosphere it's easy to see why. They park up and gather at the end of the causeway at the water's edge, watching the intractable line of the water as it trickles innocuously over the grit and through the grass, up onto the road itself. I always feel uncannily aware there that what I'm watching, at my feet, is the moon pulling at the earth. Hardly surprising, as Lindisfarne is an uncanny place all round. When we were there there were about fifteen swans there too, waddling over the sand and swimming up and down the deepening channels. If you're lucky, seals swim up to the road to say hello. Finally the road is covered and the crowd melts away.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Almost Heaven

I've had a great time the last couple of days: I've been walking a section of Hadrian's Wall. I've not been on my own - it was a sort of informal "bloggers convention". It all began when George (who writes the Transit Notes blog) decided to spend a week walking the wall from coast to coast. The on this occasion not-so-Solitary Walker then said he'd join him for a few days. Then I said I'd tag along for a day or two too.

My plan was to base myself in the village of Gilsland. From there I'd head East along the Wall, hopefully meeting up with George, who was traveling West. I'd then walk back to Gilsland with him. (I enjoy straight, "there and back" walks - to my mind they're often more enjoyable than circular routes). In Gilsland we'd meet up with the Solitary Walker and spend the night in a B&B (Tantallon House: it turned out to be really good). The following day, I'd set off West with the others until lunchtime, after which I'd leave  them to carry on and make my own way back to Gilsland, and the car.

Nothing ever goes to plan, quite - but then, unpredictability is one of the joys of walking. Robert had decided to come down early and hunt down George. I ran into them both, deep in conversation, just East of the Walltown turret. Deep conversation turned out to be the order of the day, and the next day. We stopped to eat in the turret ruins, then made our way down to the refreshment kiosk at Walltown Quarry, before heading off back to Gilsland.

The central section of the wall, East of Walltown is the most spectacular -  and the most photographed. Not only has a lot of the wall (and the buildings around it) survived, but it also runs along the top of a steep ridge. It's quite easy to imagine what it might have been like: or so I thought. Until I began researching this post, I'd not realised that in its day the wall may well have been rendered and painted white. It's hard to think of  it without thinking of its neatly cut but chunky stones. As we walked along I did find myself wondering how had the landscape around the wall changed? Of course, there are modern buildings here and there, pylons, masts, conifer plantations, but I found myself wondering: just how thickly wooded was the land there in AD122, when they began building it? Were there fields, as there are now, and if so, how big were they? The more I thought about it, the harder it was to imagine Roman Britain and I found myself wishing I knew more about it.

West of this section of the wall, the character of walk changes: you're surrounded by fields, trees and wildflowers. The wall is often only recognisable from the ditch the Romans dug along its length. In some places this is quite a landmark, in others it's been reduced to a bump in the ground.

Next morning, we set off West and soon found ourselves crossing the River Irthing. Although, as I said, the remains of the wall are not so spectacular here, it's still a quite magical walk. Stone ruins remain here and there: for example, the remains of a stone bridge where the wall crosses the Irthing and the fort at Birdoswald. Wherever you are on this section, the Irthing is never that far away. At one point, crossing a bridge, we spotted an uncanny line of cairns -straight as a Roman Road- built on the stony river bed and across the pebbles of the river bank (the river there was rarely more than ankle deep). It disappeared among the trees on a bend in the river. A work of landscape art, we decided - the sort of thing Andy Galsworthy might construct. We thought it might even be an Andy Galsworthy. The river -and the line of cairns- disappeared around a bend so, intrigued, we took a track through the woods on the riverbank to find the other end of the line.

What we discovered is hard to describe. When you come across things unexpectedly you feel disorientated. You feel ill at ease and look around, wondering what's going on. Is there anybody there? Are you under some sort of threat? However benign the discovery, its unexpectedness triggers a sense of foreboding. What we discovered was a sign: Welcome to (almost) heaven. Various bits and pieces of paraphernalia were stacked against or hung from trees. Ropes, tarpaulins, bits of junk. Was this real life or Ruth Rendell? There was a line of armchairs and a settee stood on the pebbles of the riverbank, along with a table - a kind of outdoor living-room, only where you'd expect to find the TV, there was the river. Behind, strung between the trees, was a white tarpaulin on which visitors had written messages. From the messages it seemed clear that whatever the origins of (almost) heaven, it had -al least- evolved into an impromptu Hadrian's Wall service station for the soul (I say "soul" as it lacked those must-haves of UK motorway services - either a Costa Coffee or a Burger King).

We lingered for a while, tried out the armchairs, and added a cairn to the line. We found nothing more sinister than a dead mouse.

I was enjoying myself so much -what with the walk and the company- that I had neglected to turn back half way through the day and, throwing caution to the wind, had decided to finish the day's walk with Robert and George. So what if I finished twelve miles from my car? I'd get back somehow. I left the others to their B&Bs in Newton and set off to see what I could do. Plan A was to walk down to Brampton and hitch down the A69 back to Gilsland. It was a good plan - only it turned out that the bridge which carried the road from Newton to Brampton was closed for repairs. A team of men in hard hats were busy covering it with wet concrete. I had to ford the river, beneath the bridge. I squelched my way into Brampton, sticking out my thumb whenever I heard a car behind me - which wasn't often. What use is a road when a bridge on it is closed?

I hadn't a lot of water left, so I bought myself a carton of orange, and trudged on to the A69. Once there, I got a lift quite quickly from a chap who lived in Newcastle and worked at a radio station in Carlisle, who very kindly made a detour off the the main road to drop me in Gilsland. Thank you again, whoever you are. In the end I made such good time that I decided to drive to Newton and join George and Robert again for the evening.

It's great meeting up with other bloggers. Of course there are parts of other people we can never know and even parts of ourselves are hidden from us, but meeting people whose written thoughts you've read regularly for the first time is uncanny: it's as if you know them, at least partly, "inside out". The usual pleasantries never did play a part in getting to know them. In the pre-internet age it must have been similar for "penpals" meeting for the first time. It was great to be able to talk among ourselves about all the things which one would gather from reading our blogs we had more-or-less in common. If you could draw our thoughts in the form of a Venn Diagram, there would be quite a lot of places where two of the circles overlapped and, quite often, all three.

Thanks, Robert and George, for a great walk! And then there was the wall. Two days spent wandering along it has left me with an urge to walk the whole thing. Possibly in one go, certainly in sections. I wonder if I'll get round to it? What I do know is that next time I go for a long walk, I'll take two stout carrier-bags with me. Squelch.

Unfortunately, I didn't have a camera with me. George and Robert did though. Hopefully they'll upload some of them on their blogs, Transit Notes and Solitary Walker.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Music Maker

Have fun! I, for one, had not come across these before. Click on a few random squares and take it from there...

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Fred Vargas

A while ago, I posted a request for good books I might try reading. I've since made a start on the suggestions, starting with  Tony Zimnoch's recommendation: Fred Vargas' crime fiction. I've been pretty well absorbed in it ever since. Whatever I've been doing, I've been wondering how I can squeeze in a half hour of Vargas-reading. I've gone from bookless to booked-out.

What's she like? George Simenon meets Sherlock, perhaps. Romans policiers with a dash of the strange. So far I've managed to read The Chalk Circle Man and An Uncertain Place. In the first, an odd, elusive character starts drawing chalk circles on the pavements of Paris around pieces of litter: Commissaire Adamsberg (Vargas' detective) is the first to suspect something sinister is afoot. It left me with a taste for these books and the second certainly gave me something to get my teeth into: it bases its fictional world on the historical ("true" would be a slightly confusing word to use in this context) 300-year-old vampire stories of Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paole. It's strictly a detective rather than  a horror story as such, but Vargas can certainly turn on the gothic when she needs to:

The smell was ghastly, the scene was appalling, and even Adamsberg stiffened, standing back a little behind his English colleague. From the ancient shoes, with their cracked leather and trailing laces, projected decomposed ankles, showing dark flesh and white shinbones which had been cleanly chopped off. The only thing that didn't match Clyde-Fox's account was that the feet were not trying to get into the cemetery. They were just there, on the pavement, terrible and provocative, sitting inside their shoes at the historic gateway to Highgate Cemetery.                 Fred Vargas, An Uncertain Place

Funnily enough, I used to live near Highgate Cemetery and work in the very same road (it was just a short walk from there to Karl Marx' grave). It's the perfect horror-film set and it comes as no surprise that vampire stories have grown up around the place, no doubt providing Vargas with more grist to her fictional mill. It's not the very occasional grisly bit that keeps you reading (like the above, which I couldn't resist quoting) but the humanity of the books and the realism of the characters. The Weaver of Grass is reading them too: I'm just going round, now, to swap An Uncertain Place for The Three Evangelists. I can't wait to get down to reading it: otherwise this post might have gone on a little longer.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Let's Hear it for the Book!

Books don't break down. You can't turn a book off. You don't need to charge its battery or plug it in. I've got loads of books. I've had quite a lot of them for years - some, all my life. Quite a few of my books are way older than me. I've never bought a digital device that's lasted more than a few years: we take their built-in obsolescence for granted. Not so books. To replace books with files on a digital machine that needs replacing every few years is frought with problems which I think are insoluble.

If all the mod cons we take for granted ceased to exist (and we take them for granted at our peril) we'd still be able to read any books we came across so long as we kept them dry. Digital media, with no electricity and no internet, will simply turn into enigmatic curiosities. If such a calamity came to pass, we'd need a repository of civilised values to see us through. That repository is the book.

There's something potentially democratic about the printed word. Printed words live in books like people live in cities. People leave books they've read on the tube and on park benches. I can't see them leaving Kindles lying around. A future in which only people who can afford to buy (and replace) gadgets can read books worries me.

If the pigs in Animal Farm had written The Seven Principles of Animalism on their website instead of the barn wall, it would have been easier for them to change them. Instead of creeping out at night with a paint tin -or whatever they did*- they could have done it with a few clicks of a mouse. OK, so our civilisation is pretty secure, but if we think we've reached the end of history I think we're kidding ourselves. I'm not trying to be alarmist here: I suppose what I'm trying to say is that if we take our way of life for granted we make it more vulnerable, not less.

The Rosetta Memory Stick? Eh?

We're not being sold the next great step for civilisation. We're being sold stuff.

* Apologies - but this is a mere blogpost. I don't have time to re-read Animal Farm. :)

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Sachal Studios Orchestra

Enjoy! I heard them on the radio the other day playing Erroll Garner's Misty. I couldn't take my ears off it. Sadly for me it doesn't seem to be on Youtube, so I'll have to go and buy the CD, which can't be a bad thing. I did find these, though:



Friday, 5 August 2011

Through the Pinhole

Karen and I have fancied trying pinhole photography for some time. Well, we finally got round to it the other day. This is the result:

We pointed the camera at the front garden and hoped for the best. So little light goes through the hole you can see nothing through the viewfinder. Pinhole shots tend by their nature to be hazy and impressionistic. It's quite easy to do, too. I won't reinvent the wheel by providing a detailed description as there are a lot of pages on the net already explaining what to do in detail. Basically, if you've got an SLR camera, you obtain a "body cap" (like a lens cap, but designed to fit over the hole the lens screws into). You drill a, say, 0.5-1.00 cm hole in the centre and tape tinfoil over the hole on the inner side. Use dark tape and don't leave a lot of shiny foil showing if you can help it. Carefully prick the centre of the foil covering the hole to make the "pinhole". Put the cap on the camera. Now it gets technical. Set the camera to "M" and stick it on a tripod. Now experiment with a shot. On a bright day in the garden with our particular pinhole 10 seconds was over exposed, 3 seconds under exposed. For the above photo the shutter was left open for 7 seconds, I think. That's a quick guide. It's obvious that if the SLR is digital, the whole process is easier, as you can experiment without having to hang about developing film. If you fancy having a go, google it. In fact, it's an interesting thing to google anyway. "Pinhole camera" yields 2.39 million results - many of which seem to be enthusiasts who can't resist sharing their enthusiasms with the world, an aspect of the internet I rather like.

For optical reasons I don't fully understand, pinhole shots show up every last little bit of muck on a digital camera's sensor. I wrecked an old-fashioned SLR trying to clean its mirror, so I was loath to mess around. Fools rush in and all that. I'm pleased I checked the manual and followed the instructions in this case, as it said that under no circumstances should the sensor be touched.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Photography Exhibition

Karen Rivron's photographs are now being exhibited for sale at Golden Brown Coffee in Darlington. The four currently on show reflect her interest in capturing the unusual in the everyday. There's also an element of North East-interest in the form of St Mary's Lighthouse which can be found further up the coast, East of Newcastle. Below are the four photographs you can see in the gallery (picture, left) plus a few others Karen also has for sale as framed prints (£35 each plus p&p):

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

The coffee shop hasn't been open long and is, in my opinion, a real breath of fresh (well, coffee-scented) air for Darlington. As well as the coffee shop downstairs, there is an art gallery upstairs. Once visited, it can become something of a habit.