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.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Raining Quinces

The other day I took delivery of a new book of poetry I'd ordered: Raining Quinces, by Robert Wilkinson. Robert -for those who don't know- blogs as The Solitary Walker among other things and edits the online poetry magazine The Passionate Transitory.

Many things are incorporated into the poetry of this substantial book - spiritual insight, comic wordplay, personal confession. The first third is devoted to poems about pilgrimage. Robert seems not to be a conventional Christian, nor is he a conventional Zen Buddhist. He seems to inhabit what I consider to be a rather attractive nether world between these two and somewhere else  -a nether world encapsulated by his short poem, Brief Candle which combines a suggestion of Christian ritual with a koan-like conundrum:

The flame is out, but scent and smoke remain.
Is absence presence by another name?

Robert longs to be on the move, on foot, and seeks an enlightenment which might be glimpsed like a "glimmer of shook foil" (A Camino Sonnet). It only takes a glimpse to set him off. In A Vagabond Life he piles images one upon the other, ending:

at the flare of a match
at the gleam of a knife
I'd be off again
to a vagabond life.

There is a Romantic simplicity about much of Robert's poetry - at points I'm reminded of Rilke and, in the lighter pieces, Wendy Cope and John Betjamin. This is poetry which lays its tune frankly on the air (as Basil Bunting put it). And he can be very funny. For a start, anyone who has not yet read his celebration of Nigella Lawson should buy this book.  Of the more serious poems, I particularly liked his poems Orpheus and Eurydice and Two Worlds in One - it was worth the price of the book for these two poems alone, I thought.

If you want to buy a copy of Raining Quinces yourself, it's available both on UK Amazon and US Amazon.


Totally off the point, I was driving past the Howgill Fells in Cumbria the other week. Their snowy tops caught my attention. Not having time to stop and walk up them, I took a photograph instead (click on the photo to expand):