Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas!

I found this video on Youtube the other day. Christy Moore and Co. gigging around the time I was doing my mock O-levels, forty Christmas Days ago. Words come to mind: water, bridge, a lot. Tapestry, life, rich. Sideburns.

This video works really well on "full screen".

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Elisabeth Lutyens

I think of the composer Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-1983) every time I go to the island of Lindisfarne. The reason is quite a tenuous one - her father, the architect Edwin Lutyens, renovated the castle there in 1901. Her music definitely falls into the "potentially difficult" category, although I don't think one should be deterred by this. For me it has an engaging, haunting quality about it.

The few British composers I've featured so far in this series produced, by and large, accessible music (an intriguing exception is John Tavener who, as the only "avant garde" composer to be signed by Virgin Records raises interesting questions about what constitutes "accessible" music). Lutyens, on the other hand, was one of the few composers in Britain at the time to follow the lead of continental composers writing atonal music. She adopted, modified and developed their methods to suit her own needs. Think of her, if you like, as a Barbara Hepworth of postwar British music.

I particularly like this Youtube video of Lutyens' Five Bagatelles for piano. OK, it could be all sorts of places but I'm guessing  the illustrations are of Norfolk. They certainly go well, I think, with the music, which is interesting, as British landscape is usually associated with the sound-world of Vaughan Williams.

Lutyens also worked as a film composer. She was the first woman to compose music for a British feature film - Penny and the Pownall Case, starring Diana Dors and Christopher Lee.

This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on the link to read them all.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Lighting a Fire

We've had an electric fire here for years now. We used to light fires but with one thing and another, it seemed a lot less trouble to put a board in front of the fireplace and stand an electric fire in front of it instead.

Recently, we thought it was time to sort out the fireplace again. We got the chimney swept. It turned out to be full of old birds' nests - the sweep managed to fill a whole binliner with twigs and mossy tufts. He recommended we get a wire contraption fitted to the top of the chimney to prevent a repeat performance. I went outside and had a good look at the other chimneys in the village. No wonder ours was birds' nest central. Just about everyone else had one of the aforementioned contraptions fitted.

I went to a hardware store and bought one. I then borrowed a neighbour's ladder with a view to fitting it onto the chimney pot. It shouldn't bother me -I climbed huge rock climbs in my youth- but I really don't like ladders. It doesn't look that far from the ground to the top of our chimney - from the ground. However, once I start up the ladder everything looks a bit different and I have to admit I had what climbers term "a bit of an epic" getting up the last few feet and getting myself into a position next to the chimney pot where I could actually fit the thing. The "thing" (I still don't know what it's called) is a springy, conical cage of wire legs, all of which need to be squeezed in while it's put into the chimney. I'd tied string around it to hold the legs in and intended to cut the string once it was well in, allowing the legs to spring out and grip the pot. Everything was just six inches further away than I wanted it to be and, of course, everything had to be arranged so it could be done with one hand, the other hanging like grim death onto the nearby "stench pipe".

To my amazement, everything went according to plan and I didn't fall off. To celebrate, we went and bought a sack of coal. We're never short of kindling round here and I've always got a pile of old newspapers handy, so lighting a fire was no problem. Walking up the lane gathering sticks had a real whiff of self-sufficiency about it. I had visions of  keeping chickens, of turning over the front garden to vegetables - now, I reflected, would be a good time to dig it over, let the frost break up the clods... So far, I've got no further than sitting in front of our "real" fire drinking a Martini and watching Youtube videos about vegetable-gardening. It can't be that hard, can it?

Monday, 9 December 2013

Benjamin Britten - Phaedra

I also enjoyed listening to another Britten piece I didn't know the other week - the cantata Phaedra, written for Janet Baker in 1975. Britten was seriously ill when he wrote it (he died the following year). It was one of a number of pieces he wrote towards the end of his life -the most famous being the opera, Death in Venice- that featured in the recently re-shown documentary, Britten's Endgame.

In it, Phaedra, the wife of Theseus, finds herself passionately infatuated with his son, Hippolytus. He rejects her and she decides to kill herself. The documentary included an interview with Janet Baker  in which she said how, when she was rehearsing the work with Britten, she felt overwhelmed by the evident personal significance of the words (those I've put in italics) in this excerpt and felt hardly able to sing them:

Oh Gods of wrath,
how far I've travelled on my dangerous path!
I go to meet my husband; at his side will stand
Hippolytus. How shall I hide my thick adulterous passion for this
youth, who has rejected
me, and knows the truth? Will he not draw his
sword and strike me dead? Suppose he spares
me? What if nothing's said? Can I kiss Theseus
with dissembled poise? The very dust rises to
disabuse my husband — to defame me and accuse!
Oenone(1),  I want to die. Death will give me
freedom; oh it's nothing not to live; death to the
unhappy's no catastrophe!

(1)Oenone is Phaedra's nurse and confidante in Racine's Phedre. The text of Britten's Phaedra is taken from a translation of this by Robert Lowell.

And finally, another powerful revelation of the Britten centenary for me were the letters that passed between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears...

This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on this link or the British Composers label to read them all.

Friday, 6 December 2013

The Fleak!

Last weekend I got in a couple of short, local walks.The first was with friend Alex and my son, Daniel.  Oxnop Beacon is a top on the broad ridge of moorland that separates Swaledale from Wensleydale, the highest point along which is Great Shunner Fell, famous for the fact that the Pennine Way crosses its summit.

Oxnop is visited less regularly. I'd not visited it before - mainly due to the fact that although I'd seen it on the map there was always something to do that looked more exciting. Much of the track to the summit is a well-established landrover track.

The walk itself was a pleasant surprise. Half way to the beacon the track peters out into a line of faint ruts and the signs of human activity are generally intriguing rather than intrusive - at one end of the gentle summit-ridge a sturdily-built cairn marks the summit itself, beside which is a stone shelter which may have been built for miners, walkers, or shepherds - we could not make our minds up which. The "beacon" is another tall cairn at the other end. It is often said that the lower tops in hilly areas offer the best views and this fell is no exception - you can see virtually all the major hills in the Yorkshire Dales from it. Unfortunately, though, we didn't take a camera.

This was not a mistake we made the next day. From the beacon I'd noticed a tarn, Summer Lodge Tarn, further along the ridge, to the East. It sits on a fell known as The Fleak. With a name like that, who wouldn't want to explore it? Lots of people, apparently. It seems to be rarely visited by walkers. From what I could find on the internet its main fans seem to be trig-point collectors (a hobby not without its attractions, I thought). What may put some people off is the fact that a road passes quite close to the summit. It has to be said that as roads go it's not for the faint hearted: it is an exceedingly steep, narrow thread of tarmac that, at it's highest point (1,775 feet), known as Windgates Currack, runs along the top of a steep edge - almost a cliff. We've often driven along this road, usually stopping to admire the view. It must surely come close to the top of any list of wild, hilltop roads in England - and ahead of several better-known ones. I had never, though, left the car behind and set off to the summit - the eccentrically named Conny Tammy Currack.

By Summer Lodge Tarn. Oxnop Beacon  is in the background.

The next day, Daniel and I set out to find it, armed with water, digestive biscuits, tangerines - and a camera. I drove most of the way up. We parked on the edge of the moor and set off along a ghost of a path, a landrover track that the fell was gradually reabsorbing, its ruts full of spongy moss. We found ourselves walking though an area of pits and low spoil-heaps, probably dug by lead miners years ago. There were shake-holes, too - natural pits where surface material has fallen into openings in the limestone underneath, like sand into an egg-timer. Oddly, though they were similar, there seemed to be subtle differences between these and the man-made pits. One fancied one could tell one from the other.  On our left, we caught sight of Summer Lodge Tarn. We made for it, as from it we'd be able to clearly see our way to the summit.

Great Whernside and Buckden Pike from The Fleak
As it happened, the top was easy -almost too easy- to find. A new-looking wire fence runs over the top of the moor, from the tarn to the trig point. Once there, recreational eating being one of the great pleasures of hill-walking, we stopped for a while, to admire the view and consume the biscuits and tangerines. I'd planned on walking from the summit to the highest point on the road (and, from there, back to the car). This turned out to be a boggy, pathless adventure, the peat riven in places with impressive, rambling groughs - the sort of place that cannot help but remind a Sherlock Holmes fan of the Great Grimpen Mire.

It wasn't that far to the road - but at least it was invisible almost to the last minute. Once on it, one could not help but wonder why anyone would build it there. I can only think that the builders opted to go up and along the top of the edge, rather than round it, as it provided the driest, firmest ground available. Either that, or they just did it for kicks, which I doubt.

Smoke by Semerwater, from The Fleak
A cairn on the Fleak, looking towards Summer Lodge Tarn and Swaledale

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Benjamin Britten - Billy Budd

Frankly, I'm not a great fan of the centenary industry - the world seems to be full of people poring over lists of dates looking for things that happened in years gone by, arbitrarily hitching them to the fact that we count in base 10. However, in the recent case of Benjamin Britten, I've found everything I've seen and heard about him quite gripping.

Best of all for me was the opera Billy Budd. I must admit it's decades since I last devoted time to sitting through a whole opera  and I'd not seen this one before (I'm guessing I'm not the only one). I watched the Glyndebourne production of it  on TV last week and I was glued to it from beginning to end. It's based on the novella by Herman Melville of the same name (which, I have to say, I've not read). The libretto was written by EM Forster and Eric Crozier. Written in 1951, the opera has, unusually, an all-male cast. It's set on a British battleship during the wars with the French at the end of the 18th century. Billy Budd is a very likeable man, almost angelic. Significantly with regard to the plot, he stammers. Like Tom Bowling in the song, he's the darling of the crew.  However, one man aboard the ship, the Master-at-Arms John Claggart, hates him. Claggart falsely accuses Billy of plotting mutiny. Called to account for himself before the incredulous Captain Vere, Billy, rendered speechless by his stammer, lashes out in frustration at Claggart, killing him. Although Billy is univerally loved and Claggart universally hated, the Captain -who compares Billy's actions to those of an angel- and the officers can find no alternative but to sentence Billy to hang from the yard arm, the only punishment for striking a senior officer in time of war. "Starry Vere, God bless you!" sings Billy as he faces execution, horrified by the thought that those who have been forced by circumstances beyond their control to sentence him to death will have to live with the consequences.

It's a many-layered story made richer by the fact that in it, the monarchist British are fighting the republican French. Opera is often said to be an elitist art form: Billy Budd is a good example of why it is not. I mentioned the song, Tom Bowling and a quick look on the internet tells me that the work of the author of the song was known to Melville and that the song itself may have influenced the creation of the story. Significantly, perhaps, Melville tells us Billy "was illiterate; he could not read, but he could sing", a talent among several he shares with Tom:

Tom never from his word departed
His virtues were so rare:
His friends were many and true hearted
His Poll was kind and fair;
And then he'd sing so blithe and jolly
Ah! Many's the time and oft;
But mirth is turned to melancholy
For Tom is gone aloft
For Tom is gone aloft.

Charles Dibdin (1745-1814)
This song made me cry as a child when my mother played it on the piano. It still does. And I defy anyone to sit through Billy Budd with a dry eye.

The DVD of the Glyndebourne production of Billy Budd can be bought from the Glyndebourne website.


This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on the British Composers label to read them all.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A Walk in Wensleydale

A friend -Alex- and I have taken to going for walks together around the local hills. We're not talking long expeditions here, just walks that take a morning or an afternoon. Though it's true that there are wonderful places to be found for those who go further afield, as I tend to do, it's easy to overlook what's on our doorstep.

Regular readers of this blog may well say that I don't. It's not long since I did what I'm about to do - write about Pen Hill, the nearest "big hill" to Leyburn. It is true that I am besotted by the place, but my regular visits are usually made running, not walking. When we were discussing where to go the other week, I suggested Pen Hill for this very reason. It had been a while since I'd simply wandered around on it, soaking up the details that usually flash past.

Pen Hill: Southern Edge
We parked at the highest point on the road over Melmerby Moor, at the Eastern end of the hill and walked up the track over the moor, over the area known as "Little Pen Hill" before veering North to take East Gate path, which leads up to the Southern edge of the plateau. This one of my favourite local places. There is a small, natural outcrop of rocks there. They're just too small for "bouldering" but big enough for one to enjoy sheltering behind them or sitting on top of them. The spot has a wildness about it - it takes just enough effort to get there for it to feel set apart from the world below. I touch here on an aspect of big, sprawling plateau-topped hills: they're not the only place with this quality but they do often have a magical feel to them. Perhaps it's because what looks like a single great lump from a distance turns out to be a collection of seemingly self-contained worlds.

Cotton Grass: Pen Hill Plateau
We moved on from the world of the rocky outcrop to the world of  Ram's Gill, a small, but steep-sided clough where we stopped for a few minutes to look at the map and set a bearing from there to the true summit of the hill. A fence leading from there to the summit is shown on my OS map - but there's no fence there now. I say the summit, but it would be wrong to call it the summit of Pen Hill. That name, strictly speaking applies to the Eastern end of the plateau, slightly sharper in outline than the Western end. Although the hill as a whole is known locally as "Pen Hill" the area of the true summit is actually called the Height of Hazely.

This section of the walk was extremely hard going underfoot - one had to be continually on the lookout for holes under the thick mat that makes up the surface of the moor. If one is not careful one is forever stumbling. The photo of cotton grass (above) was taken looking towards this bleak area. There is no "cone" to walk towards. One simply becomes increasingly aware that more and more of the horizon is visible. Finally, one enters a zone with a 360-degree view. The summit is somewhere within it. We found a tussock that seemed to be just a little higher than the others but I know from experience on other hills that one can while away an afternoon looking for that elusive highest point! From the "zone", the hill seemed to slope away in all directions - obviously, you might say, but from other vantage points the whole plateau area does look pretty uniformly flat. You know you're more or less on the top when you get there.

Pen Hill: cairn overlooking Coverdale and "the Whernsides"
The rest of the walk was easier. Until we turned towards the summit we'd been walking along the wilder, Southern edge of the hill. Fewer people visit it so the paths are fainter and less easy underfoot. However, in my opinion, that quality of wildness I referred to more than makes up for this. It also overlooks Coverdale (one of my favourite Dales) and "the Whernsides".

The Northern edge, where we now quickly found ourselves, is more frequented. The paths are well-worn by more adventurous dog-walkers. They tend to run along the cliffs of Black Scar and Penhill Scar - it's a spectacular area, and probably affords the best aerial view you can get of Wensleydale without leaving the ground.

The good paths made for fast going and we soon reached the Iron-Age chieftan's grave and the pile of stones that stands at the Eastern  end of the hill. The sun was setting and the full moon rising as we dropped down the steep hillside and crossed the fields on our way back to the car. We left behind us a landscape bathed in an extraordinary light.

Astute readers will realise the photos I've used to illustrate this post are ones I took a while ago as the cotton grass isn't out right now.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

A Soundtrack to the Spectacle?

I've never thought of post-war British composers being like London buses but for me recently this has certainly been the case. To my shame,  I've given  them little thought in recent years and then, all of a sudden, several caught my attention. I've recently written posts about one or two of them (Alan Rawsthorne and John Tavener).  Also, the media have devoted quite a lot of its cultural coverage to the Benjamin Britten  centenary. It occurred to me that one of my favourite books at the time I first discovered them all (the 1970s) was Contemporary British Music, by Francis Routh. This book, written in the early seventies, set out to survey the work of post-war British composers. I decided it would be interesting to return to the book and take a look at the composers he thought to be worthy of note back then (I realise it's a minority interest, so I'll try to think of other things to post about, too).  How many of them, I wondered, are still taken seriously - and how many should be? How many, for example, have made it onto Youtube? Routh obviously thought the composers he wrote about were important. In his introduction he wrote that the book was "specifically concerned with British composers, whose work has multiplied so exceedingly since 1945, particularly as London is now the musical capital of Europe, if not of the Western world." In the early seventies is was still possible to write or talk like that and be taken seriously. In those days, there was still a significant paternalistic tone to cultural life (strikingly expressed through the BBC), not to mention funding for the arts. 

Routh's informative reference book is just the kind of book that really has been replaced by the internet (it's text, without musical examples, is, in fact, on the internet). Since he wrote it,  massive changes have taken place. Today, we don't need to read what a writer says about music (often all you could do in those days unless you had an unlimited vinyl budget!) - we can simply search for and listen to it. Huge social changes have taken place, too - we know, now as never before, that we are, first and foremost, consumers. In an earlier post I said that although it's heard everywhere, music generally is far less likely to get listened to these days. It really does get used more as a soundtrack and less as something to be listened to in it's own right. Any music that -to use that wry phrase- "repays repeated listening" will most likely end up on the floor of the cutting-room of life. If  Guy Debord was right, and 'the history of social life can be understood as "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing,"' (in other words, the reduction of authentic life to spectacle), then it's hardly surprising that music that displays the qualities of a good soundtrack increasingly takes precedence over more thoughtful music. Such music might be more readily available via the internet but will people take the time -and feel a need- to listen to it?

It wasn't just my recent musical encounters prompted me to write about this. I've been to several art exhibitions in recent years (notably, at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield and of Ben Nicholson's work in Kendal) which got me thinking. Many British artists from the middle of the 20th century are still thought worthy of gallery space - is similar attention paid to as many composers from the same era? If not, why not? I decided that going back to see if listening to their music might prove as enjoyable as the time I'd spent looking at art. I would try to pay more attention, too, to what the composers where trying to say as opposed to how they said it.

I said I thought this project might be a minority interest but, then again the composers covered by Routh are many and varied, ranging from William Walton to the electronic experimentalist Delia Derbyshire (see above - she also was responsible for realising the Dr Who theme). There should be something in it for everyone - and a few surprises.

This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on the British Composers label to read them all.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Manx Suite

I wrote this suite a while back. I've just realised it's sitting out there on Soundcloud and I don't think I've ever put it on my blog!

It's for piano duet. There are three movements, each based on a famous tune from the Isle of Man. The first takes the tune of the folk song Ellan Vannin - the tragic story of the wreck of a ship of the same name. The second is based on the tune known as The Frog Dance. The third, tongue-in-cheek, is based on the Laxey Wheel song (there is a momentary allusion to Yorkshire, where I live).

This performance is 100% computerised piano, I'm afraid, so nuances are lost. However, I'm posting in the hope that there might be a couple of pianists out there (the score below can be printed out)! It's not difficult to play and it's not yet had a public performance...

Saturday, 16 November 2013

John Tavener

I was saddened to read of the death of the composer John Tavener this week. Of his music, what most impressed me was his dramatic cantata, The Whale, which has to be heard to be believed! It's still my favourite, along with the Celtic Requiem (Requiem for Jenny Jones). These early pieces made a deep impression on me - one which remains.

I met him once or twice around 1980. I'd just left university at the time and, inspired by The Whale, I had plans to study composition with him. Unfortunately, as they say, life is what happens to you while you're making plans, and it turned out this particular plan didn't come off. I have memories of a kind, attentive man who really sought to encourage me, a scruffy, disorganised young man with a tendency to b.o. and whose clothes had obviously shrunk in the wash. He was also the only person -to date- to offer me a lift in a Rolls Royce.

This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on the British Composers label to read them all.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Voyages of Discovery

One of the highlights of life in my early teens was the trip to the local library where, once you had brought in your stylus to be checked under a microscope, you could borrow vinyl LPs. These days, if you want to explore the work of a contemporary composer, all you have to do is go to Youtube. In those days, it was a question of waiting for a broadcast, going to a concert or finding a recording, before you even had the faintest idea what his or her music sounded like.

One of my early record library discoveries was the music of the British composer Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971). It struck me as bold, lyrical and original in a way that seemed a million miles from the worlds of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. More recently I've been struck by how it seems to breathe similar air to a lot of British art made during that time. Rawsthorne's wife, Isabel, was a painter and listening recently I was repeatedly reminded of exhibitions I've seen of the work of such artists as Ben Nicholson and Peter Lanyon, to name but two.

One of the first pieces of Rawsthorne's I came across was his First Piano Concerto, first performed in the early 1940s. It's action-packed right from the opening bar. It's shifting harmonies and strikingly-shaped melodies are typical.

Perhaps one reason Rawsthorne's music is not played more these days is that traditionalists found it too "difficult" whereas fans of the avant-garde found it too traditional. I'm neither a fan nor a detractor of Britten's music but often when I see post-war British music programmed,  I often wonder why Britten's music is so highly rated when there were so many other imaginative musical minds around at the same time - Alan Rawsthorne's included.

Much is made of the political pressure under which Soviet composers worked, forced to produce music which met with the approval of the State. Thinking about Rawsthorne this week it struck me as ironic how, although Stalin is criticised for demanding that composers write music people would want to listen to, it is now the case in the West that the audience-friendly music of Shostakovich gets a far wider airing than the music of Western composers working at the same time who were free to compose what they liked!

Why should this be the case? Obviously, what music says cannot be rendered into words. However, one cannot escape the sense that the music that survives historically tells the story we want to hear about our civilisation. The music that fills the "classical mainstream" can,  by and large, be heard as a soundtrack to history as we like to see it. This, I would argue, is at least as important in determining whether music survives or falls into obscurity as whether it is "good" or "bad".  The story that can be read into Shostakovich's music, that of the dark days of the Soviet Union, is, from a British perspective, a safe story - it manages to be dark, dangerous, tragic and exciting (not to mention witty) while telling us nothing bad about ourselves. And the man wrote tunes.

Music is dangerous.  It wields, I would argue, a power on the mind comparable to that of mind-altering drugs. Perhaps this is one reason why, musically, we are less interested in voyages of discovery than we like to think. We might experience almost-real discomfort and be taken to places we don't want to go to - and who can remember where those lesser-known, mid-twentieth century British composers went? If we take the trouble to find out, we'll probably find that they ended up at similar destinations to the artists I mentioned, to the writers and poets working around the same time (Rawsthorne wrote his Elegiac Rhapsody in memory of his friend the poet, Louis MacNiece). We might well discover something enriching, something we're pleased we found.

Another thing is that, although it's heard everywhere, music generally is far less likely to get listened to these days. It really does get used more as a soundtrack and less as something to be listened to in it's own right. Any music that -to use that wry phrase- "repays repeated listening" will most likely end up on the floor of the cutting room of life. Please note I've carefully phrased this sentence to include myself, and if you don't actually want to, then fair enough, but - how many of us, reading a blog-post such as this one, will actually set aside time to listen to the Youtube videos it contains from beginning to end, even if we'd quite like to?

Rawsthorne himself was no stranger to soundtracks and wrote quite a lot of film music. If there is any truth in what I've said about history and soundtracks, it's significant that he's probably best remembered -if in a somewhat anonymous capacity- as the composer of the music to the 1953 film about the Battle of the South Atlantic, The Cruel Sea. It carries distinct echoes of that First Piano Concerto we've, er, just listened to:

If you want to hear more of Rawsthorne's music there's still plenty of it to be had on CD. I've just bought myself one and -it's in there somewhere- the excellent Peter Donohoe's performance of the Piano Concertos is available on NAXOS for a mere six pounds. 

This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on the British Composers label to read them all.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Of Welsh Art, Truth and the Uncanny...

We've just got back from a week in Wales. We didn't do a lot while we were there - although we did visit Bodnant garden and Plas Newydd on Anglesey. We did drive out to Aberdaron at the end of the Llyn Peninsula and spent a pleasant afternoon at Porth Oer, or Whistling Sands. The weather was quite stormy and the waves, spectacular. On the way, we stopped near the top of Rhiw Mountain and took a photo of the waves breaking on the beach at Porth Neigwl:

 I took one or two other photos, on the hills just outside Llanberis:

I always look forward to visiting art galleries in North Wales. A lot of very adventurous art is produced round there, I think. We've often visited Harlech Pottery, but Zeb Reynolds'  ceramics were new to me. I've blogged before about Oriel Croesor which is still -I think- as good as it is remote! On our last day we discovered Ffin y Parc gallery, just outside Llanwrst, where there is currently an exhibition of Chloe Holt's work.


I'm still reading Herzog on Herzog and looking for any related material out there on the internet. I've always liked Herzog's assertion that he seeks in his films to expose "ecstatic truth" rather than "an accountant's truth". I came across this short film  which I liked not only for its subject but also on account of its film (and film music) clips:


Talking of truth, while in Wales I picked up a book of simple science experiments for children on a second-hand bookstall. It appealed to the big kid in me. There's all sorts in it - for a start, it shows you how to explore stereoscopic vision by holding up two parallel fingers to create a floating sausage in front of your nose. This one was a bit obvious, I thought. I do it most days. Then there was how to make a planetarium out of a tin can - something I've always fancied doing but never got round to.

What caught my attention most of all, though, as I flicked through the book, was how to multiply on your fingers. It only works for tables from 6 to 10 but it's uncanny.

Assign your fingers a number (same on each hand):
Little finger - 6
Ring finger - 7
Middle finger - 8
Index finger  - 9
Thumb - 10

If you want to know, say, 7 x 8, then look at your hands, palms up.

Touch your left ring finger (7) with your right middle finger (8). Add these two fingers to the total fingers below them. For most people, this should come to five fingers.

Add a zero. 5 becomes 50

For most people, there are 5 fingers in total above the touching fingers. 3 on the left, 2 on the right. Multiply these two numbers together. 3 x 2 = 6

The answer to the multiplication, "seven eights" is 50+6=56.

Uncanny, but it works! Touch any two fingers and do the sums. It's uncanny because it's impossible -well, for a non-mathematician like me- to see why it works. I phoned my son (whose big subject is maths) and asked him if he could find out why it worked. He emailed me a chunk of algebra. Assume the two numbers we want to multiply are a and b:

(((a-5)+(b-5))x10)+((10-a)(10-b)) =
(10a+10b-100)+(100-10a+10b+ab) =

I pondered this until steam came out of my ears - and I thought Daniel had explained it all for me until I tried working it out on my fingers...

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Of Vampires and the Eating of Shoes

Overcast today - here and there a patch of sky shines slightly blue. Now and again it rains, heavily.

I've a day off from work today - it's half-term this week for the school I teach at on Tuesdays. I've been reading a book of interviews The Solitary Walker lent me (oh dear, if he reads this he'll remember...), Herzog on Herzog (Ed. Paul Cronin). Werner Herzog is my favourite film-maker (to date - I'm not a great film buff so my all-time favourite may yet to be discovered).

As Cronin says:
"...the number of false rumours and downright lies disseminated about the man and his films is truly astonishing... I confess to having deviously longed to trip him up, ... but to no avail. I now conclude that he's either a master liar, or more probably, he's been telling me the truth. ... He is not insane, nor is he eccentric. ... Rather, he is an extremely pleasant, generous and modest man who happens to be blessed with extraordinary vision and intuitive intelligence."

You do scratch your head when you read Herzog's accounts of, as a young man, smuggling televisions (and a colt revolver) into Mexico, of working as a rider in a rodeo, of Klaus Kinski shooting at a shed full of extras during the making of Aguirre. Then there's the time he ate his shoe -  American film-maker Les Blank made a famous short film of the event.

Last night I watched Herzog's Nosferatu. The DVD had a brilliant "extra" on it - this short film about the making of Nosferatu (it turns out it's also on Youtube). It's doubly good if you've read the Cronin book as it illustrates things Herzog talks about in those interviews about the way he works:


I wrote a poem today.

In Our Town

In our town
when it rains
young girls
text in shop doorways
the light they hold
in their hands
shines on their faces while inside
shopkeepers stand plastic buckets
between the aisles

In our town
when it rains
the pessimists climb trees
the lonely people
balance broken cups
on dry-stone walls
and the policemen
run for cover

In our town
when it rains
the statues weep clichés
and the flowers grow

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Calling Planet Earth

Late last night I turned on Radio 3 and immediately realised I was listening to Stockhausen's Gesang der Junglinge. I first heard this electronic masterpiece in my teens - I felt totally by it captivated then and still feel that way. Then, as now, I felt lost in wonder as if I had been suddenly transported to a different planet.

Not everyone feels that way about the piece. It was followed by another piece, this time by Luigi Nono - his
Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica for six instruments and percussion. I didn't know it - but I've made acquaintance with it now, and would quite like to meet it again...

To talk about music as a language is problematic but sometimes useful. Imagine if the most adventurous composers of the twentieth century were poets, not musicians. It is as if they had got together and decided that the poetry they wanted to write demanded a new language -  the languages their audiences spoke simply didn't have either the words, the grammatical constructions or the sounds to say the things they wanted to say. So they created a language: some words and constructions they borrowed from past languages, others they created anew. New poetry was written and yes, the poets were right - armed with the new language they were able to write what they wanted to write. The excitement, the creativity - it was a wonderful time to be a poet.

But the readers of poetry were not impressed. They knew what they liked and they had no truck with new-fangled languages. The new poets were charlatans, they said. Anyone could talk gobbledygook - and make it rhyme. And if these new poets expected their readers to learn a language it meant they were elitists.

The poets pleaded with them. They insisted their new language was easy to learn. Children simply learn their parents' language without thinking about it, by listening. Simply listen, like a child, they said. That's what we did, to the voices in our heads. Simply listen, take your time, and all will be revealed.

But it wasn't that simple.  New technologies created wondrous possibilities for the new poets but they also served the writers of light verse who wrote what they knew people wanted to read, in languages they already knew.

I'll stop there. I should add that I'm not a pessimist - to continue the analogy for a moment, many great poems have been written in that "language" and since we'd be worse off without them, I think they'll endure one way or another. I still think more people will grow to love them.

I began with Stockhausen and the sense I felt of being transported to another world. I'll end with Schoenberg, who finished his Second String Quartet in 1908. It was a radical piece, the first performance of which led to scene not unlike (but less famous than) the one that accompanied the first performance of The Rite of Spring. In the final movement a soprano joins the quartet and sings the words of a poem by Stefan George:


by Stefan George, trans. Carl Engel

I feel the air of another planet
the friendly faces that were turned toward me
but lately, new are fading into darkness,

The trees and paths I knew and loved so well
are barely visible, and you beloved
and radiant spectre - cause of all my anguish,

You are wholly dimmed within a deeper glow,
whence, now that strife and tumult cease, there
comes the soothing tremor of a sacred awe.

I am dissolved in swirling sound, am weaving
unfathorned thanks with unnamed praise, and
wishless I yield myself into the mighty breath.

A wild gust grips me suddenly, and I can
hear the fervent cries and prayers of women
prone in the dust and seized in pious rapture:

And then I see the hazy vapours lifting
above a sunlit, vast and clear expanse
that stretches far below the mountain crags.

Beneath my feet a flooring soft and milky,
or endless chasms that I cross with ease.
Carried aloft beyond the highest cloud,

I am afloat upon a sea of crystal splendour,
I am only a sparkle of the holy fire,
I am only a roaring of the holy voice.

Monday, 26 August 2013

West Witton Fell Race

I entered a fell race over the weekend - the first time I've done so for years. I think it was climbing Meall nan Tarmachan brought it on (see previous post). The West Witton Fell Race (4.1 miles, 1,116ft of climbing) involves an ascent of our local big hill - Pen Hill. (It always happens on the same evening as the local tradition of The Burning of Bartle, during the weekend of the Witton Feast. Coincidentally, my stepfather had been judging the produce there earlier).

I paid my four quid at the playing field and pinned my number to my vest. I walked to the start at the far end of the village. A small crowd of participants and onlookers were gathering there. The participants in the Senior Race were called to the line. Looking around the serious, wiry, scantily clad  people around me I had the horrible feeling that everyone would finish in minutes and the organisers would be left waiting hours for me to turn up. A few minutes later we were off up the lane that led to the edge of the fell. It's a familiar scenario to those like myself. You get odd feeling that you are running backwards as those around you pass you. But not everyone did. To my relief, a handful of us were left at the back of the field to fight it out for last place!

The first part was the hardest. The lane sloped gently upwards. On a steep part of a fell race only the most able keep running - often, most of the field are reduced to stomping up with their hands on their knees or even crawling if it gets really steep. Trouble is, on the gentler slopes you have to keep running - or get left behind. The lane ended at the edge of the fell. Ahead of us we could see the leaders moving effortlessly up the fellside to the left of Black Scar crag. All of a sudden we were threading our way through the reeds of a boggy area. Wet feet. Then the fell reared up in earnest - suddenly the ground was in front of your face. In places you just had to crawl. (It would be easy to over-dramatize this. In fact, for an enthusiastic -rather than good- runner like myself, negotiating these climbs is sometimes easier than, say, the pressure of really keeping going towards the end on a flat road when running a 10k).

At the top of Black Scar we turned East, running along the edge of the plateau. This was pretty straightforward, though broken here and there by short, boggy sections. The view from here is great. We rounded the Iron Age chieftain's grave and made for the pile of stones (pictured) at the Eastern end of the plateau. From here, the route plunged down the steep end of the hill and then down through steep fields, back to the village. In the last section there are four dry stone walls to climb over - it feels a bit like a steeplechase. I came in about half an hour after the winner - it took me just under 58 minutes (57:55). I wasn't last. A plastic cup of squash never tasted so good.

I immediately regretted not running the race before - I've lived here for nearly two decades and this was my first time. The atmosphere is great, everyone gets a finisher's medal and you can always hang around for the Burning of Bartle (West Witton's answer to The Wicker Man - minus the policeman), although I couldn't, this year. There are races for senior men, senior women plus a junior race (which was run with talent, guts and enthusiasm).

Why don't more people enter fell races? Perhaps there's a perception that it's tougher than running 10ks and half marathons. In my limited experience it isn't. And for me, the combination of the "high" one gets from running and the views and the closeness to nature makes it hard to beat. It's a shame more people don't give it a go. But then perhaps it isn't - enough people do it already to make it exciting and perhaps it's best it remains one of athletics' best kept secrets.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Meall nan Tarmachan

Last week I went up to Glasgow with my two sons to see my daughter and her partner. Our plan was to see the sights in Glasgow when it was raining and go for a mountain walk when it wasn't.It was really great to be together and do things together for a couple of days.

The mountain walk in question was the Meall nan Tarmachan ridge. The Gaelic name means Ptarmigan Hill in English but that name is never used -  and if you were to use it people might think you were referring to Ptarmigan, the subsiduary peak of Ben Lomond.

Meall nan Tarmachan is a Munro and is famous for the interesting ridge-walk that connects it to three other mountain-tops. I've been collecting Munros for years - I say "collecting" them rather than "doing" them as I'm unlikely to ever ascend all of them. Collecting them though gets one around Scotland and helps one resist the temptation to keep going back and walking up the same favourite hills. Meall nan Tarmachan was a new addition to my collection and, for the other four members of the party, their first Munro.

It is a good hill for those unacquainted with Munros. Not only is the ridge-walk interesting but the most popular ascent starts 500m above sea-level, on a minor road the runs from Loch Tay to Glen Lyon. Since the summit of the mountain is 1,043m above sea-level, that means you're more-or-less half way up as soon as you get out of the car. Also, there is a path almost the whole way.

The first peak one reaches on the ridge in the Munro itself. There's room to park off the road where a land rover track sets off left to a disused quarry. On leaving the car there was nothing to do but set off philosophically to get most of the day's climbing done.  A few yards down the track and on the right, a good path sets off across moorland to the obvious ridge that forms the skyline. The view is magnificent, particularly of the Ben Lui group and the Munros around Loch Lomond and Arrochar. The ridge undulates, then steepens, then you find yourself at the top.

Getting there was a great feeling. While we were climbing up I'd noticed cloud gathering around the summit of the Munro next door,  Ben Lawers. It would have been annoying to get to the top of our mountain to find the same thing had happened.  Fortunately, the cloud stayed high for us. It didn't rain either - the weather remained good all day. On the ascent the view has been restricted to the Southern Highlands. All of a sudden, when we reached the summit, we could see much of the rest. There were mountains as far as the eye can see - and beyond. It occurred to me that it had been over a decade since I'd stood on a Munro summit and I was relieved to discover that I could still name some of the hills I could see - the imposing bulk of Buachaille Etive Mor, at the entrance to Glencoe, was particularly distinctive.

We ate our lunch at the summit - hummus and salad sandwiches in the main, although when frantically making sandwiches that morning we'd run out of hummus and used tahini and soya sauce instead, mixed into a paste (great with spring onions, if you've never tried it). Since the weather promised to be good there was no need to rush. To the West, the main section of the ridge zig-zagged North to South and up and down. The next peak, Meall Garbh, looked quite close and its narrow, knobbly summit looked an interesting challenge. From where we sat we couldn't see the "rock step" that separated it from the next peak, Beinn nan Eachan. That hill looked steeper. The last top, Creag na Caillich looked like a straightforward walk.

It only took us a few minutes to reach Meall Garbh. Its summit indeed turned out to be a fine viewpoint and the beginning of the most interesting part of the ridge. For a short distance, the sides dropped steeply away - walking along it was not unlike walking along the ridge of a roof. Soon after we reached the rock step. It's easy but quite sustained. Most of us took the slightly easier path that bypasses it.

Beinn nan Eachan turned out to be a less stiff ascent than we'd feared and we were soon descending towards Creag na Caillich. Up to this point we had been following a very definite path. From here, the path is not quite so well-worn and sometimes splits into various alternative routes. Had visibility been poor, this would perhaps have been the easiest place on the ridge to get lost. I'd not visited these hills before and I got the impression from the lack of wear and tear from here on that people sometimes omitted or turned back from this final hill. We stopped on top to finish off the food which, as everyone knows, is easier to carry on the inside. We didn't stop long as we were beginning to get chilly. We carried on, only to discover that at one point, close to the end, the path runs right along the rotten, broken edge of a breathtakingly massive cliff that falls, almost uninterrupted, down to the moor below. Needless to say, we stayed well away from this section, sticking to the pathless, grassy top of the ridge instead, before zigzagging down to the track across the moor that would take us back to the start.

There was no reason to hurry - it was quite late but sunset was a long way off. I think we probably spent more time sitting or lying in the heather than walking - enjoying the view, the stillness and the general ambience of the place.

Once back in Yorkshire I got out my list of Munros to have a serious "tally-up".  It took a phone-call to an old walking-companion just to makes sure of one or two details I needed to be absolutely sure of my list but Meall nan Tarmachan turned out to be the 65th one I'd climbed. I must admit to feeling the old compulsion to bag a few more. I'm reminded of fictional tales of people being hypnotised then, years later, going off to do things they'd been hypnotised to do when the hear a certain word or phrase. Munro...

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Down South

A friend, M,  recently invited me to his wedding - in East Sussex, on the South coast. It's a long way away and I'd been saving up reasons to go for a while. I've always wanted to go to Charleston farmhouse, home of the painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and regular retreat of the Bloomsbury Group. Then there's Virginia Woolf's house in Rodmell.  Also, an old friend, B, who I'd not seen for many years lives in the area, where he works as a piano technician and story-teller. He's recently made a CD of his songs, too (see below).

Instead of a best man, my friend M had settled on having a team of "best people". One passed him the ring, the others spoke at the reception. I'd quite given up hope of ever being asked to be a best man so I was well chuffed to be asked to speak. Who doesn't want the opportunity to make one of those slightly scurrilous speeches - or, at the very least, want to be asked to? It was great, too, to meet his wife for the first time and members of his family I'd met before, but not for many years.

Charleston was at least as enchanting as I expected it to be. I can't find any images online that do justice to its interior. For anyone who doesn't know, it's cram packed with art and has been extensively decorated by the artists who lived there - the woodwork, the fire-places, the table-tops. Perhaps the highlight for me, though, was Maynard Keynes' bedroom. As usual when I visit such places, I'd not done a lot of research or pored over the guidebook. I just wander, look and soak it in. I'd forgotten about Keynes' association with the Bloomsbury Group and to suddenly find myself in his bedroom brought it home to me what a historically significant person he'd been. One usually thinks of Bloomsbury in terms of writers and painters. Moreover, Virginia Woolf is probably my favourite English writer. Looking at the bigger picture, though, I have to admit that Keynes was probably the most influential and indispensable person to be associated with the group. I felt quite awestruck.

As I did when we moved on to Rodmell. I had been unaware that Woolf's ashes were scattered under a magnolia tree in the garden there. There are advantages to not doing your homework - things you think you "ought" to know take you by surprise.

My old friend B -it was great to see him again- took us on a tour of Hastings, the highlights of which were the Jerwood Gallery and simply sitting on a hill by the castle overlooking the seafront. The work of Christopher Wood was new to me and, as for the hill, I could have sat there all day playing the "is that cloud or is it the French coast?" game.

On the way home, we stopped off at Rudyard Kipling's house, Batemans. It's rather a cold place, I thought. Walking round the rooms, I couldn't get the terrible story of his son John's death in the First World War out of my head. Rejected from the services more than once due to his poor eyesight, John only got to fight because his father pulled strings to get him in. He was soon killed.

In many ways Batemans and Charleston could not have been more different. For me, the former felt dark and oppressive, the latter light and airy. One theme connected them, however. Over Vanessa Bell's bed hangs a portrait of her son Julian who died in the Spanish Civil War, aged 29, while serving as an ambulance driver. He died at the battle of Brunete, at which an estimated 35,000 people were killed. Vanessa had been against him volunteering and, after his death famously said to her sister Virginia "I shall be cheerful, but I shall never be happy again."

Monday, 5 August 2013

The River Dragon

I've been getting out to swim as much as I can recently. I've discovered a place just a few minutes down the road - Redmire Falls. Between the stone steps of the falls are at least two -I've still to explore the place further- long, wide sections of deep water.

It's odd how you can feel deep water beneath you as you swim. It reminds me, at the other extreme, of how the quality of the air changes as you approach a mountain summit. It may be all in the mind - but it's surprising how often one can swim along a stretch of river, think that the water "feels" deep and, by reaching down with one's feet into the imagined darkness, discover that it is, that the river-bed is nowhere to be found. (Who hasn't imagined monsters rising up out of that darkness? There be dragons). Similarly, when climbing up a mountain in the fog one sometimes senses a change in the air and, lo and behold, moments later, one finds oneself at the top.

At one point at Redmire one can enjoy that sensation of depth while swimming under the trees alongside a cliff that rises from the water. At least, I think you can. It's such a magical place when there's no-one about and memory's a funny thing: some moments can be recalled vividly, others blur into an impressionistic haze.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Walking the Black Dog

That mighty if diverse handful of people who regularly read this blog might be mystified as to why it seems to have dried up. There has been a distinct lack of rain round here lately but, no, that 's not the reason. It is certainly the case that the end of the summer term is a hectic time when it comes to paper-work so that does  take precedence but the overriding reason has been that I discovered I'd torn a retina. The upshot was that I really wanted to do as little as possible with my eyes for a few weeks. Anyway, enough. It received prompt treatment (full marks to the amazing NHS) and I've been told everything has healed up well. I've every reason to think that's that.

I've just read an interesting article by Will Self about psychiatry. In it, he highlights the lack of real science behind the claims "big pharma" make for their drugs and asserts that one day, current approaches to diagnosis and medication will be seen as no better than past, discredited (and often downright harmful) treatments. We've treated mental health issues medically over the years because we feel a social imperative to do so - not because we have real answers. Psychiatrists who do make a difference to people's lives do so not because of the diagnoses they make or the medications they prescribe but because they are skilled helpers.

I used to work in the helping professions and my job brought me into regular contact with psychiatry and, based on my own experience, I would go along  with what Self has to say. I would, though, ask the question, if psychiatry is bunk then how come anti-psychiatry (as advocated by R.D. Laing) has not evolved into a rip-roaring success? I don't ask this as a rhetorical question but as a very real question, as I do not feel I know how to answer it.

It may be that problems tend to cross our paths like London buses -none for an age, then several at once- but, over the past year, I've found myself listening to a frightening number of people (including, even, a waitress in a coffee-shop I'd visited)  who have to battle with the most seemingly intractable problems. (We certainly live in difficult times which, to put it mildly, doesn't help - over half those questioned in a poll recently said they were faced with financial problems that were out of control). Years ago I trained as a social worker. I don't think learning a bit of theory and a few skills makes one less "emotionally accident prone" - I've had my fair share of hard times and some of the people I've met in my work in the caring professions have had terrible problems of their own. But I do think  there are some things I learnt when I trained which could be taught in school as part of the mainstream curriculum. We teach people how to treat colds and cuts without going to the doctor - so why not some basic emotional problem solving? Areas covered -I'm sure you can think of more- might include the following. If they are already covered in some way then all I can say is that they need to be given more emphasis:

1. How talking makes you feel good but if you have to talk about your problems every week it's merely a treatment, not a cure.
2. Apportioning blame and solving a problem are not the same thing. It's the latter we should be more interested in.
3. Looking out for vicious circles. (When you find one, ask yourself what part are you playing in it? Change the script - and break the circle).
4. (At the risk of sounding glib) the importance of being kind.

Regarding physical health, we are comparatively well-aware that if we ignore warning-signs, we might end up presenting the doctor with a barely-treatable advanced condition. However, we tend to pay scant attention to our mental health (and to that of those around us) until the problems become so serious that they seriously interfere with our functioning. We tend to think we should "pull ourselves together" - everyone else does, don't they? This alone makes it hardly surprising that mental health treatments are seen as ineffective, as too often they only begin once the condition is well-advanced. Add to this Will Self's well-founded doubts about the effectiveness of the diagnoses and treatments we're talking about and the need for effective basic education in problem-solving and emotional well-being could not be more apparent.

If there were not "first aiders" and first aid kits in every workplace, if people were not aware of how to clean wounds and  treat pain and common bugs with Paracetamol, if there were no media campaigns urging us to eat healthily, or spot the symptoms of serious conditions, then surely we would be a lot less physically healthy in Britain and make more demands on our health services.  If we paid as much attention to our basic mental health self help as we do to our basic physical health, we would surely be happier on the whole and have less need to consult what Self amusingly calls the "black dog walkers".

Monday, 3 June 2013

Lakeland Eskapade

For a while now it's been an ambition of mine to go to the Lake District and walk the skyline of Eskdale: a horseshoe of hills beginning on Little Stand and Crinkle Crags and ending on Scafell. It's an imposing ridge: it ends on the highest hills in England and is pierced in the centre with the -from Eskdale- pyramid-like form of Esk Pike. I had a free day this week and thought I'd go over and at least have a look at it. If I got up early enough and if the weather turned out to be good, there was a chance I might do it all. I'd be pushing myself to the limit (a very modest limit when I compare it to some people's ideas of mountain walks and runs) so I had decided this was one walk I'd do alone.

The weather sounded reasonable - that is to say, no rain was forecast. So long as it wasn't going to be a wet day, some sort of pleasant walk would be possible... Unfortunately, with regard to the whole ridge, I didn't get going nearly early enough and, in the end, I did only a small part of it. Nevertheless, I had a good day out. To reach Eskdale I had to drive across the Dales to Windermere and then, rounding the Northern end of lake, take the single-track road that threads its way West over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes. These are not particularly high (there are higher passes in the Yorkshire Dales) but they are notoriously steep. Wrynose is not that bad for anyone used to hilly, rural driving. Hardknott, though, is a real challenge. Soon after leaving the bridge and farm at Cockley Beck the road -rutted and potholed at this point- rears up in a series of insane, steep z-bends. You might very soon decide it would be best to turn back but by that time you've passed the point of no return. The ascent -so long as you don't meet people coming the other way in bad places- turns out to be not quite as bad as you expected. What I dislike, though, is the descent of the Western side. Rocks throng the bends. In places it slopes down so steeply you wonder if you have a gear low enough to stop you careering off the unfenced edges of the road into space. The worst bends are smeared black with skidmarks. You mentally rehearse unclipping the seatbelt, throwing open the door and jumping out. If the technology fails you, would you have time to do this before the car plunged into space?

I felt unusually apprehensive and wondered why? Then it occurred to me I had probably never driven over Hardknott from East to West alone before. East to West has to be, I think, the most daunting way to tackle it. It had been a lot easier with a passenger or two to help lighten the atmosphere.

I arrived at the far side and parked just down the hill from Hardknott Roman Fort. It was noon. Not only that, but the tops were in cloud. The whole ridge would be impossible (well, for me) but I decided to set off anyway and drop out when I'd had enough. If I did manage the whole route later, it would help to have prior knowledge of the early stages. My plan was to walk back the way I'd come, back over Hardknott to the farm at Cockley Beck in the Duddon Valley. From there, I planned to ascend Little Stand, the rocky summit at the Eastern end of the route and from there to follow the ridge over Crinkle Crags and beyond. I'd see how far I could get. When I'd had enough, I'd drop off the West side of the ridge (not literally - I'd choose a comparitively gentle slope) and make my way down Upper Eskdale back to the car.

It didn't take long to walk back over the Pass. It was reassuring to see other drivers approaching its challenges as apprehensively as I had, minutes before. Once back in the Duddon Valley, I set off up the slopes of Little Stand, stopping for a rest just below the summit. I ate a sandwich and admired the view. I was now looking down on the area of Hardknott Pass. Beyond it, the rocky summit of Harter Fell rose up.

Shortly after Little Stand the cloud closed in and the wind got up. Walking into a strong wind, navigating with map and compass across rocky terrain, I found myself slowing down to a snail's pace. Everything but my immediate surroundings was shrouded in cloud. My fear was that I should accidentally turn to the East and find myself in Langdale, miles from my starting point. This approach to the top of Crinkle Crags was unfamiliar to me. The path boasts a "bad step" - a short, easy climb - which concentrates the mind wonderfully on a windy day when the rock is wet. I found this film on Youtube of a party surmounting it in better weather - the sort of day when you feel like hanging around and pulling out the video camera.

As it happened, the bad step was far less intimidating -I thought at the time- than driving over Hardknott Pass. The rest of the route to Crinkle Crags summit is straightforward. Once there, I stopped to eat again. Progress was painfully slow, so much so that I decided to continue along the ridge towards Bowfell but to then drop down into Eskdale as soon as I felt it was safe to do so. I did not want to descend a short way, only to find I had to reascend as I'd reached the top of an area of crags. I perused the map and chose a suitable-looking place - not only was descent there relatively crag-free, but the point where the descent route turned off the ridge looked easy to find,  as it coincided with a cluster of tarns.

I had not descended far before I found myself stepping out of the cloud. The ground was steep but at least I was out of the wind and could see my surroundings again. It was reassuring to see that the patterns made by the mountain streams in the valley below me corresponded exactly to the ones on the map and it wasn't long before I found myself walking along the bank of the infant Esk. I kept looking behind me just in case the mountains decided to have a laugh at my expense and shake off their woolly hats. It was good for morale to see that they did not. The whole ridge was reduced to a brooding mass of the grey stuff. Down in the valley the weather was wonderful.The forecast had been right. For all the wind and cloud, it had never really rained: wind, wet rock and dampness in the air, but no rain.

The Esk looked very inviting as I walked alongside it and I regretted not bringing a towel. Then, seven hours after I'd left it, I found myself back at the car. Time to go home, stopping off on the way to see friends in Windermere for coffee, conversation and (thank you) a timely bowl of chopped fruit.

I've recently been reading about Coleridge's forays into the Lakeland mountains and the day reminded me of his exploits in several respects. My wild afternoon on a rocky ridge would have been right up his street, I think. In particular, the "bad step" had me thinking of his descent of Broad Stand -an easy rock climb on Scafell, during which:

every Drop increased the Palsy of my Limbs — I shook all over, Heaven knows without the least influence of Fear, and now I had only two more to drop down, to return was impossible — but of these two the first was tremendous, it was twice my own height, and the Ledge at the bottom was so exceedingly narrow, that if I dropt down upon it I must of necessity have fallen backwards and of course killed myself. My Limbs were all in a tremble — I lay upon my Back to rest myself, and was beginning according to my Custom to laugh at myself for a Madman, when the sight of the Crags above me on each side, and the impetuous Clouds just over them, posting so luridly and so rapidly northward, overawed me. I lay in a state of almost prophetic Trance and Delight...

I did not find myself overwhelmed on this occasion -either by a palsy of the limbs or a prophetic trance- but it reminded me that one has to know one's limits. I am not a good rock-climber and I have a well-developed sense of self-preservation: there is a line between the bad step on Crinkle Crags and the precipitous drops of Broad Stand which I personally would not cross without the security of a rope. However, with a little creative re-writing, Coleridge's account could almost apply to my earlier motorised descent of Hardknott Pass.

I was reminded of Coleridge again as I walked through the valley beside the Esk. The valley twists and turns, so that in the upper reaches of it one is surrounded by nearby fells and is denied any distant view. Did Coleridge walk here? (Anyone who has read more of Coleridge than I will probably know). If he had he would have seen almost exactly what I saw: water, rock, grassland, sky, just as now. There were no buildings, pylons, wind turbines, power stations, or cities to be seen. I tried to imagine what it would be like to see my surroundings through Coleridge's eyes. I found myself thinking of part of Wordsworth's Prelude I've been reading recently:

Those incidental charms which first attached
My heart to rural objects, day by day
Grew weaker, and I hasten on to tell
How Nature, intervenient till this time
And secondary, now at length was sought
For her own sake. But who shall parcel out
His intellect by geometric rules,
Split like a province into round and square?
Who knows the individual hour in which
His habits were first sown, even as a seed?
Who that shall point as with a wand and say
"This portion of the river of my mind
Came from yon fountain?" Thou, my Friend! art one
More deeply read in thy own thoughts; to thee
Science appears but what in truth she is,
Not as our glory and our absolute boast,
But as a succedaneum, and a prop
To our infirmity. No officious slave
Art thou of that false secondary power
By which we multiply distinctions, then
Deem that our puny boundaries are things
That we perceive, and not that we have made.
To thee, unblinded by these formal arts,
The unity of all hath been revealed,
And thou wilt doubt, with me less aptly skilled
Than many are to range the faculties
In scale and order, class the cabinet
Of their sensations, and in voluble phrase
Run through the history and birth of each
As of a single independent thing.
Hard task, vain hope, to analyse the mind,
If each most obvious and particular thought,
Not in a mystical and idle sense,
But in the words of Reason deeply weighed,
Hath no beginning.  

from Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 2: Schooltime 

There's so much in there that seems so perceptive - and modern in it's outlook. I like the way he looks forward to the ground to be covered by psychology and psychoanalysis (even though he concludes that it's a "hard task" and a "vain hope to analyse the mind"):

But who shall parcel out
His intellect by geometric rules,
Split like a province into round and square?
Who knows the individual hour in which
His habits were first sown, even as a seed?
Who that shall point as with a wand and say
"This portion of the river of my mind
Came from yon fountain?" 

And I like his description of

...that false secondary power
By which we multiply distinctions, then
Deem that our puny boundaries are things
That we perceive, and not that we have made.

There, in Eskdale: earth, rock, water, sky, cloud, ant, me - were these all merely "puny boundaries" imposed by me, myself, on my surroundings? I was reminded then of a Zen koan, collected in The Gateless Gate:

Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said: "The flag is moving."
The other said: "The wind is moving."
The sixth patriarch happened to be passing by. He told them: "Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving."

There is a verse attached to this koan:

 Wind, flag, mind moves,
The same understanding.
When the mouth opens
All are wrong

Monday, 6 May 2013

Local Art Event

This weekend there's been an Art Festival in Leyburn, the small town just down the road from our village. It was designed to coexist with the rather more urbane Food and Drink Festival for which Leyburn has, over the years, become famous. Our friend Denise had a stall there - she also has one online, here (and a facebook page here), so I won't reinvent the wheel by posting grotty flash photos of the stall she had in the marquee (I didn't take any). They wouldn't do it justice.

Of course, I'm biased, as she once painted me alongside my two colleagues when I played in Trio Gitan. I've posted this before. As I probably said then, the hedgehog crept in because my partner, Karen, is famous for  feeding waif and stray hedgehogs:

The blurb for the exhibition talked about a current craze for "pop up" galleries - putting art in spaces such as empty shops and derelict buildings etc. It struck me that the first attempt to do this during the Leyburn Food and Drink Festival was made by my friend Howard and me, eight years ago - an exhibition appropriately titled All the Animals I've ever Eaten. We set it up in an empty shop in the market square. We didn't manage to attract coachloads of punters though - just a trickle of interested folk, just enough to make it worthwhile, looking back. I've just realised that there's a page about it still online, on an old website - where you can still download the wherewithal to build your own centaurpede.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Long View

Do you ever find yourself wondering what on earth we are? I do. For me, the wondering often starts when I'm out walking. I wonder what it would be like to be wearing animal skins and carrying a spear, wandering over the hills in search of food. I wonder what my assumptions about life might be. How would I think about the past and the future? What stories would I tell to make sense of it all?

We've been around for a while: the oldest stone tools we've found are around 2.6 million years old.  On the other hand, the invention of the wheel happened less than 0.01 million years ago. For millions of years technology developed at a snail's pace. On this timescale the discoveries of Newton and Galileo count as contemporary - and almost all of our scientific knowledge and technological expertise has been acquired in the blink of an eye.

One could -and people do- argue that we should turn our backs on further technological development and concentrate on developing a fairer world. I don't see the two as mutually exclusive. If there are developments as life-changing as penicillin, pain relief, central heating, etc., around the corner then we should not deny ourselves the benefit of them. Michael Pritchard's invention of the Lifesaver water-filtration bottle springs to mind. As for space, the recent warning shots across our bows from meteors and asteroids are ample demonstration of the need for us to be concerned for our environment not only on earth but in the wider solar system.

Where will we be in another 2.6 million years? Will our knowledge and expertise continue to expand at their current phenomenal rate? If so, speculations that seem far-fetched now could seem quaint by then. And then there's the even bigger question: what will we evolve into?

Monday, 22 April 2013

Harter Fell

I went to the Lake District on Saturday to meet a group of old friends who were staying at Eskdale Youth Hostel. It took ages to get there: why I thought there might still be snow on Hardknotts Pass I don't know. I set off early in the morning and perhaps I was feeling over-cautious, or perhaps my memories of negotiating its tight hairpin bends of mind-boggling steepness with their black-rubber skid-marks left me thinking I didn't want to risk the road if there was even the tiniest chance of encountering any ice. I decided to make my way along the Northern edge of Morcambe Bay instead and then travel to Eskdale via an alternative route that took me past Broughton-in-Furness and through the village of Ulpha.

I got there in the end. Eskdale is a magical place: for some reason it isn't overrun by people the way so much of the Lake District is. I think this goes for most of the Western side of the region. There are people around but in moderation.

We decided to climb Harter Fell. This rocky hill separates Eskdale from the Duddon Valley. A good path from the foot of Hardknott Pass crosses a stream and ascends diagonally across the foot of the Fell. Once it disappears over the horizon it turns leftwards towards the summit and steepens noticeably. To the left and right small outcrops tempt anyone with a taste for rock-climbing to interesting deviations from the route. Before long, the path arrives at a collection of rocky tors, the highest being the summit of the Fell.

The sky was clear and the air, when you could shelter from the wind, warm. We spent a happy half hour at the summit, eating our sandwiches, scrambling around on the rocks and enjoying the view of Morcambe Bay to the South and, to the North, of the Eskdale Horseshoe: a long, inviting ridge that stretches from Scafell in the West to Crinkle Crags in the East via Scafell Pike itself and the shapely peak of Eskdale Pike. The position also affords an excellent aerial view of the ruins of the Roman fort at the foot of Hardknott Pass.

Leaving the summit and the path behind, we made our way with the aid of the map to the top of Hardknott Pass. We sat there for a while, watching the efforts of cyclists heroically turning their biggest gears on those steepest of slopes. At one point we considered shouting in unison Get off and push! but decided it would be rude and didn't. Now and again motorcyclists roared by, leaving behind them a smell of hot oil, a smell that always takes me back to my childhood and the machine my father used to ride on to work.

Photo: Mike Knapton
We crossed the road and made our way down the path to the Roman fort. This is a wonderful place. I never have the patience to read the short essays displayed on boards at strategic points in such places and prefer to soak up the atmosphere.

Back at the Youth Hostel, we decided to make for Ulverston, as it boasts a first-rate fish and chip shop.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Cwm Croesor

Cwm Croesor is one of my favourite valleys in Wales. I'm not sure why. Sometimes a landscape is just the right shape. Everything there, to my eye, is just as it should be. To the left, Cnicht rears up its pointy head. To the right, the bulky form of Moelwyn Mawr rises up. In between, the sun, falling on trees and slate-fences, casts  intriguing shadows. Every time I go there, there's washing out on a line across the middle of the valley, the sleeves of the shirts waving as if to say "Oi! You with the camera - over 'ere!".
And there's an art gallery-cum-café, the Oriel Caffi Croesor. Don't be put off by the fact that they haven't updated the exhibition information on their website recently. It's a great place - the art is as good as the coffee. When we were there the art on display included works by David Pritchard. I'd never heard of him but liked what I saw. I'd like to provide a link to his work but I just can't find it online. There was also a number of pictures by  Sonja Benskin Mesher. I've seen her work before and like it not least because it's never afraid of being experimental. Local artist Bev Dunne also has a number of striking pictures there.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Reading Capital

No, not the doorstep by Karl Marx - rather, the doorstep by John Lanchester. The double entendre is obviously intended, although anyone expecting a forensic dissection of the labour theory of value or a lurid explanation of "commodity fetishism and the secrets thereof" will be disappointed.  However, as I read Lanchester's Capital I found myself thinking less  of Das Kapital and more of Middlemarch. For the fictitious Midland town, read Pepys Rd, a street in London transformed by rising house prices. If Eliot's book is a study in provincial life, then this is a study in metropolitan life. And where Eliot focuses on the otherworldly Dorothea Brooke, Lanchester focuses instead on her trivial, materialistic sister Celia, in the form of  the jaw-droppingly monsterous Arabella Yount - a dominatrix among commodity fetishists if ever there was one.

Among other things, this is a book about powerless people navigating the world without a map - or with old, confusingly out-of-date maps. The remnants of the past -its assumptions, its belief-systems- spin like plastic fragments in some Pacific Ocean gyre. Artists, shopkeepers, housewives, footballers, nannies, builders, bankers, even the traffic warden, are all in there too, all trying to keep their heads above water, all dreaming of making it to the beach. The book is a virtuoso study in research: Lanchester paints a detailed picture of the everyday life of people from wildly different backgrounds, all of them convincing, I thought. Some you like and some you don't but you care what happens to them all and you keep turning the pages -all 577 of them- to find out.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Victor Jara

I was reminded the other day of the Chilean singer-songwriter, Victor Jara. I wondered if there was any footage of him singing on Youtube as I'd heard a lot about him but not, I'm ashamed to say, actually heard him. He's there, I'm pleased to say. Jara was one of the thousands tortured and killed by the Pinochet regime in Chile. In this song On the Way to Work, Jara wrote and sang about how he and his beloved

weave our dreams together,
working at the beginning of a story
without knowing the end.