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canal parbold_edited

The Leeds-Liverpool canal at Parbold, Lancs.

I was out along the canal yesterday with my camera. There were the usual canal-side scenes: houseboats moored-up, ropes taut, cosy curls of smoke rising from squat chimneys. There was a bridge, a windmill, an old canal-side pub, and a low, wintry sun scattering yellow stars across mud coloured water. It was late afternoon with a clear, pale sky, but little energy in it, and it was cold. I took around twenty shots, but none came out the way I saw them. They lacked detail, seemed flat, with a compressed range of tones. Indeed, I might have done as well with my phone – and my phone’s not great.

This tells me two things, both probably true: One, I’ve still a way to go before I learn how to handle that camera properly and, two, my imagination tends to overpaint a scene in ways a camera can never capture, that when we see the world as human beings, we are seeing it through more than just the eyes. There is also an inner vision we project, a thing comprising the warp of imagination and the weave of emotion, like a net we overlay upon the world – and it’s this that breathes life into our experience.

Still, I tell myself the lens was sluggish, that it might be fine in a part of the world with an abundance of light, say in the tropics, but on a winter’s day in Lancashire, even wide open at F3.5, it’s going to struggle, that my pictures will always be as flat and muddy as the canal’s water. So I’ve coppered up, and ordered another camera, second hand this time, but with a much faster lens, indeed the finest of lenses, a Leica lens. I’m thinking that if I can only let in more light, I can get closer to things the way I see them.

It won’t work of course. I already have several decent cameras and another one isn’t going to change anything because what I’m chasing here are ghosts. Only rarely do people photograph ghosts, and when they do, it’s likely the result is faked, like my header picture was faked in Photoshop to bring out the light and the detail to some resemblance of how I remembered it.

And there’s another problem. Take a look on Instagram, or Flikr, and you’ll see great volumes of images that already depict the world in powerful ways, volumes that are being added to every second of the day. I’ve been taking pictures nearly my whole life, yet probably only captured a few scenes that are a match for any of the millions of beautiful images that exist already. Do I really imagine, when I put a picture up on Instagram I will make the world hold its breath, even for a moment?

No. And this isn’t really about others anyway.

What I’m seeking is a reflection of myself in an abstraction of shape and colour and light. I look at the sizzling detail in the finest photographs of yesteryear and wish I could render my world as crisply alive as that. Lenses hand-ground a hundred years ago seem, in the right circumstances, and in the right hands, to far surpass anything I can approach with the most modern cameras of today. I want to get down to the very atoms of creation, you see? I want to focus them sharply and with a depth of field that stretches from the tip of my nose to the edge of the universe. Why? Well, given enough accurate information, perhaps I’ll be capable of understanding the puzzle of creation, or at least my own part in it.

I know, I have a tendency to over-romanticise.

It was a quest that began forty years ago. I sought it in those days with my father’s old Balda, a 120 film camera, from the 1940’s. It had a queer, knocked lens that gave a strange, closely overlapping double image. But as I grew older and began to earn money, I sought it with a long string of 35mm SLRs, through several thousand frames of Fujichrome. And then I abandoned all that for the miracle of digital and a one megapixel Kodak, even though that wasn’t quite the miracle we’d hoped for – just the beginning of another technology arms race I waited a quarter century to catch up to the quality of my Olympus OM10 – which some bastard nicked from my car in 1986. And now, when even twenty five megapixels fails me, I look for it in the gaps, under the microscope of Photoshop, under the shifting moods attainable by all that digital fakery, and I look for it under the soft blown smears of inadequate shutter speed, and the promise of a tripod next time.

But in all of this, the most valuable lesson photography has taught me is the irrelevance of equipment, of technology, of technique, indeed also the fallacy of seeking to record the spirit of the earth at all, to say nothing of the ghost-like reflection of oneself in it. But this is not to dismiss the art altogether, for at least when we settle down, say in the midst of a spring meadow with our camera to await just the right fall of light, – be it with a 1940’s squinting Balda or last year’s Nikon – we slow time to the beating of our hearts, we open up the present moment, and we re-establish a sense of our presence in the  world.

Only when we focus down, say on the texture of a tree’s bark, or on the translucent quality of a broad Sycamore leaf when the glancing sun catches its top, do we sense the aliveness of nature and our aliveness within it. Only then do we remember what beauty really is and how it feels as it caresses our senses. Only then do we realise the best photographs of all are the ones we do not take, but the ones we remember. And we remember them because, through photography, we have learned to take the time to look with more than just our eyes, to not just see the world, but feel it in our bones.

Still, I may be wrong, in which case I’ve still got high hopes for that Leica lens.

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Businessman

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Businessman

What are you doing business man,
So far away from home,
With your trouser legs all wrinkled,
As you sit there on your own?

Customers in Newcastle?
Board meeting in Slough?
Then four hours traffic hotel bound.
What are you doing now?

Fish and chips at Corley,
On the M6 motorway,
And a quick read of your paper,
At the ending of the day?

And is your paper comforting?
Somewhere to hide your eyes?
To keep your thoughts from straying,
From that corporate disguise?

Or are you really unconcerned,
And merely passing through,
Oblivious to the rest of us,
Who barely notice you?

Your wife, your kids, forgotten,
In some lost suburban place,
Her parting kisses fading fast,
Upon your weary face.

A ‘phone call from the hotel,
On the ten pence slot machine.
“Hi Hun. I’ll see you Friday.”
“Keep it hot – know what I mean?”

Or is it not like that at all?
No solace from the roar?
Just passion grabbed like fast-food,
With a wolf outside the door?

Meanwhile you sit there don’t you?
Indigestion on the run,
A headache from the red tail lights,
And the week barely begun.

Still four hours traffic hotel bound.
A nightmare in the rain.
With just an Aspirin in your pocket,
To soak away the pain.

 

Although written in 1992, the businessman is still a recognisable species from this flashback. Nowadays his head would more likely be stuck in his phone than his newspaper and the days of ten pence slot public phones in hallways are long gone. Sadly though, the grey twilight world of the lone businessman in near perpetual transit is not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a cold, rainy morning in town this morning – the sort of day that seems to stall around dawn and gets no lighter. Traffic was jittery, the carparks twitchy with panicky shoppers anxious to get that last space so they could go buy their Christmas tat. I only wanted breakfast, almost fell foul of the season of good-will, but managed to find a slot on the edge of town, then shouldered the rain and headed back in to the greasy spoon.

The town is impoverished, has been since the crash, and getting steadily worse – always looks worse at this time of year though, the people poor and mainly elderly, the doorways camped by homeless looking wretched. I don’t suppose it’ll get any better than this now, but on the upside there was a guy in a giraffe suit dancing for charity. It was pouring rain, and he was a big yellow smile, the brightest light by far and a gesture of jolly defiance. What a star!

I bought a 0.7 mm Staedtler propelling pencil for £6.99 to replace the one I keep losing – a good piece of kit. Same price on Ebay so nothing to be gained there, plus it’s good to get out, even on a bad day, look around, even if it’s only to see what the latest storm of economy and season has done to my town. And yes, I know, shopping on Ebay doesn’t help matters. Greenwoods is the latest casualty – there since 1880-something, now abandoned and looking almost derelict. The landlords are crippling these businesses. I wonder where they do their shopping?

The Charity bookshop that inspired my latest novel was also closed – insufficient volunteers to man it on Saturdays now. I was going to put my name forward when I retired – quite fancied it actually, sitting there in tweed jacket and brogues, an ageing hipster, preserving for my town that last flicker of bookish vibe. Looks like I’m too late though. Damn.

And speaking of that novel, brings me to the shameless self promotion bit. Home from town I shut the weather out,  cosied up with coffee and hit the laptop. Saving Grace, as it’s now calling itself, went up on Smashwords and Free Ebooks this afternoon. I’ve enjoyed the ride, like I always do, and this last bit always leaves me with mixed feelings. It’s like putting it in a bottle and tossing it into the sea. You never know where the currents will take it.

I’ve been serialising it on Wattpad for a while now, but it’s not had much of a following. Those of you who have read and commented and queried my errors, (you know who you are) I thank you. Time to take a break from the long form now though while the next one gestates.

In the pecking order of Austerity, otherwise known in older parlance as “class war” I’m still in the fortunate position of relative security and money to spend on fripperies and without killing myself working three jobs. Those this morning though, staring out at a thousand yards of misery from those derelict shop doorways, are still bearing the brunt of it.

They give me pause – that it’s so commonplace even in the smaller market towns these days is telling me there’s worse to come, and no one to do anything about it. And that quid you toss into the begging bowl, or that pasty and a brew you press into shivering, mittened hands might get the poor bastard through until tomorrow. But what then?

And what’s that got to do with Saving Grace you ask? Well, pretty much everything, but you’ll need to read it to find out. Just click the book cover in the margin on the right. Best if you’re reading this on your smartphone – you’ll need an ebook reader app like Aldiko or Moonreader too.

All my stuff is free.

 

 

 

 

Waving, not drowning.

in martindale

 “Mazzy”, the small blue car in Martindale, Westmoreland

I wave to fellow Mazda MX5 drivers. They don’t always wave back but it cheers me up when they do. It’s mostly the guys who’ll reciprocate. Girls will only rarely acknowledge you. Mk 4’s are the worst for not responding, unless driven by an older, old-school silver fox, and then you’ll always get a wave.

It’s just part of the scene, and a pleasant one. I think old Landies and Bugs have a similar thing going on. It proves we’re still human, that we’re enthusiastic about irrational things, that we’re quirky. It tells me there’s still hope.

But I thought the Mazda was into her last year this year. Her back wings and sills were rusting out, and I’d had a quote for repair beyond what she was realistically worth. Then I shopped around a bit and got a price for the sills that would at least get her through the MOT. The guy made a pretty good job of it too – matched the paint and everything. He was pleased I was pleased. And I was pleased that he was pleased that I was pleased. As for the wings, they’re okay from a distance, and I can make a go of patching them myself once the bubbles break, slow the process down with Waxoyl, get them professionally done at some point later on. I’ve also had a dodgy ABS sensor, so all told it’s been an expensive year this year but we’re set up now for a little longer, and as winter comes on, I’m already looking forward to the spring when we can get the top down again and go explore some more narrow roads in the Dales.

At sixteen years old, I’ve got to expect something pretty much all the time now. Speaking of which there’s an occasional howl coming from the front passenger side wheel at low speed on full lock, and I don’t know what that’s about – the cheap option is a sticking brake cylinder, the expensive one is a wheel bearing. I’ll mention that at the service come December’s end, but ’till then we’ll see how it goes. Engine and transmission are still like new (touch wood). I’ve had the car five years now and she’s such a pleasure to own, I want to keep her going for ever. She’s done coming up on ninety thousand now so she’s good for a while yet. A colleague has the same marque, but his had done a quarter of a million and had just started smoking. It was worth about a hundred as scrap and he still didn’t want to let her go.

My other car, what had been my main driver, a four year old Ford Focus went in the autumn, and good riddance. The Powershift started playing silly buggers, and not for the first time, so I sold it back into the trade for a massive loss, but that was better than it bankrupting, or killing me. It’s such a pleasure to be without it I’m still basking in the afterglow one less seriously squeaky hinge, and for sure I’ll not be driving a Ford, or an automatic, again for a long time. A rusty, creaky old MX5 is my only battle-bus now, and people wave at me when I drive by.

No one ever waved at me in my Focus.

The finest run we had this year was the little Malham to Arncliffe road, with a return to Stainforth via Littondale. That was a hot day. I’d spent it walking around Malham, but the drive was as much of a pleasure, and you can’t say that about many cars. I had the top down and you could feel the air and smell the meadows as we passed. You can thread her up and down most any road with confidence, even with a wide beamed eejit coming at you the other way, and she’s a bottomless pit of torque for the hills. Sometimes I forget I’m pushing sixty, the fun I’ve had with that car. Or is it more a gesture of defiance, that you’re just a hair’s breadth from being twenty five again and it’s all a question of spirit? That’s it, I think. She revives my spirit.

The grey slab commuter mule was the thing imposed on me by forces beyond my control, and not much I could do about it and come out the other end feeling at all like a responsible adult. But come weekend, I’d toss the walking boots in the Mazda and we’d take off somewhere beautiful, just the two of us. Like a love affair.

The finest drive we’ve had to date, I think, was round Ullswater to Pooley, then Howtown and up the zig zags into Martindale, a stormy looking day but we managed the top down until our return to Glenridding when it caught us up and we had to batten the hatches down. I took coffee at the Hotel there and I remember coming out and seeing her beaded with rain and looking like a dream. We’d still a hundred miles to go but I’d no worries she wasn’t up for it. That Focus, I’d’ve been waiting for it shivering through the changes at every junction, and wondering if it was going to drop out of drive, or even take it up at all. Thanks for all your help with that one Mr Ford – I’m still waiting for your call by the way.

Japan looks like a beautiful country – don’t suppose I’ll ever go, and it seems odd to be driving a car that was put together there and got itself shipped half way round the world to end its days with me, skipping around the Lakes and Dales. I wonder if she’s ever homesick, if she’s just putting a brave face on things, or if she’s really happy?

It was a short run today, out for breakfast at a local cafe, then off to the shop for supplies. She’s resting in the garage now chatting to the mice. I passed two Mk 1’s and a Mk 2.5. All waved.

None of us were drowning.

Blind Cats Eyes

mazda night journey HDR

November and these cloud-thick nights,
Darken now my wending of the way,
Releasing sleepy thoughts,
From the oppression,
Of that harsher light of waking day.

Such a long road, so often travelled,
But now without the stars to guide,
Their names forgotten,
Friendly patterns lost
As with the memory
Of once much clearer skies.

There are just these vague pecked lines,
Ticking out the time,
And the blind old eyes of cats,
Sunk, each in their little pit of grime,
Depressed in layer upon layer
Of careless tar,
And just the odd one
Feebly blinking now
At the passing of my car,

Lost souls, all.
Adrift, alone,
And not candle in the dark,
To guide us home.

 

 

Will we crash out of the European Union without a deal? Will we get a deal that resembles staying in but then has us wondering why we came out? Will we get a vote on the final deal, with an option to call the whole thing off? And if we do, will we stay or will we vote again to leave anyway? And what about the Irish border problem? How on earth are we going to solve that? Will there be a general election before BREXIT hits the fan? And will that make things better or worse? And if the other lot gets in, what will they do about BREXIT?

These are just some of the questions boiling in the mix right now and so dominating government and media energy you’d be forgiven for thinking all the other problems have gone away. But your average citizen, having cast their vote, and thereby collectively agreeing to bring this thing on, is now relegated to a position of powerlessness, unable to expend their pent-up energies doing anything other than shouting at the telly. I think this sense of powerlessness is having a demoralising effect on the nation’s soul, or at any rate it is on mine. The lessons of past crises tell us it’s better to feel one is doing something, even if it’s only to grant us the illusion of preparedness, like the way our grandparents melted pots and pans, supposedly to make Spitfires.

But what can we do?

Most of the scenarios I’ve played forward suggest an immediate, short term crisis, followed by a longer term decline of living standards, and that’s without being unduly pessimistic. Come hard or soft BREXIT, there is an overwhelming sense the future will be a lot smaller than it was, while for my children, now young men just starting out, I fear there is no future at all, at least not in terms I understand. At twenty two, I relished my chances, my opportunities, but now the best option for our youth is to put on a backpack and go bum around the world, see what there is of it, because there’s nothing left at home worth saddling up for beyond minimum wage drudgery. But then, even without BREXIT, things weren’t looking too good anyway, so what’s the difference? And maybe that’s why BREXIT happened in the first place.

There’s not much we can do about that longer term decline but, short of running to the hills with all those sharp knived Preppers, we can at least take small, practical, sensible non-weaponised steps to minimise the personal impact of the crash and ease ourselves into that brave new post-BREXIT world. For my own preparedness I began a BREXIT cupboard some time ago, adding an extra meal into the weekly shop: dried stuff, tinned stuff, cereals, porridge, and lots of custard! I’ve also brushed up on things like how to make your own bread. I think we should plan on having two weeks of non-perishable meals in reserve.

Britain’s is no longer self sufficient in producing food, you see?  it’s actually down to about 75% at the moment. It’s not that we’re going to starve, exactly – I mean we won’t – but there’ll be shortages and all of that made worse by the media screaming PANIC, and that’s even before the lorries carrying the stuff we don’t grow ourselves get bunged up at the Dover-Calais crossing. (Even I know Dover-Calais is the pinch point of Anglo-European trade)

But I predict fuel will be a bigger problem. Our refineries have been in decline for decades, so we’re now a net importer petrol, diesel and aviation fuel. The question is how much of that comes from the EU? I don’t know, it’s hard to get at the actual figures, but it doesn’t take much to trigger a fuel crisis – just a whisper in the raggedy arsed press will do it. Anyone in doubt should read back over the September 2000 shortages to get a feel for what that might mean. And roughly, what it means is if you rely on a car to get to work, by the second week after BREXIT, you’ll have run out.

I don’t suggest stockpiling petrol because it’s dangerous. I keep a can for my mower, and I’ll make sure it’s full. I have a spare car, and I’ll make sure that’s full too, but that’s the best I can do. If you’re in work and commuting by public transport, you’ll be okay. Rationing will favour the public transport system. Emergency services will be okay too, designated filling stations being declared strategic and ringed off by cop-cars – at least that’s what happened last time. The rest of us are on our own.

When I’ve run out, I’ll be taking time off work, book some holidays, and I’ll spend them tidying the garden or something, by which time, hopefully, there’ll be some sort of organised rationing. I’ve no intentions of queuing around the block for hours like I did in 2000, and fighting for every last drop.

I haven’t gone the whole hog and factored in prolonged power cuts and such-like (we’re not exactly self sufficient in power generation either), though I do remember the ’74 miner’s strike, so it may be worth stocking up on candles and camping gas. But that’s for a really hard BREXIT and will be the least of our worries. In that scenario, along with empty supermarket shelves and no fuel for transportation, the government’s own planning suggests we’re about two weeks from a state of emergency. I don’t know what that means, never having lived through one.

We managed it in 1939 of course, but Britain was a very different country then, and the enemy was easy to spot, plus we had those glorious Spitfires to rally our spirits. Now it’s hard to say who or what the enemy is, where it’s coming from and what possessed it in the first place. But I’m hoping, worst case, that by the time my BREXIT cupboard is empty the Red Cross will be delivering food parcels – maybe even out of Brussels!

I know that’ll stick in the craw of many, but I’m not proud. In spite of everything, I remain a European man. But another lesson of those power-cuts in the seventies was that I used to enjoy them. If you’ve a candle, you can read a book, and if your car’s no petrol, you can take a walk.

So, chin up. Keep calm, and carry on.

 

 

 

corsaFebrile: of or relating to fever, indicative of a malaise. Maybe that’s why the Jaguar pulled out of the side road in front of me this morning?

I’m not driving my own car at the moment – sold mine, but that’s another story. My current ride, a six year old Corsa has a leisurely way of doing most things, including an emergency stop. In fact it didn’t really stop. It just slowed sufficiently to allow the Jag get away with it. Pip my horn? Didn’t have time to think about it really.

But then it was the ubiquitous white van-man, weaving about at great speed on the motorway, undertaking, overtaking, ducking and diving across all three lanes, narrowly avoiding clipping my nearside front as he made a last second lurch for the off-slip – I think they call this manoeuvre ‘cutting up’. It caused another alarmed stamp on the brakes and a rise in heart-rate and blood pressure. But pip my horn? Didn’t really have time to think about it.

Then there was the BMW that pulled into my path as I was leaving the motorway, and with a Juggernaut full square in the view mirror, barely inches behind. I only half tested the brakes this time, sufficient to allow the BMW to get away in a cloud of tyre-smoke and stupidity, but not quite enough to have the Juggernaut ram me – just back off in a startled squeal of brakes and an alarming little wobble. He was as surprised as I was (a) at the sudden out of the blue manoeuvre of the BMW, and (b) that he’d managed not to ram me.

Pip my horn? Well, you know,…

And then, finally, there was the industrial estate, a sensible twenty mile an hour limit, and not difficult to manage, but a frequently vexing experience with aggressive vehicles glued to my bumper wanting to go much faster. This morning it was a brightly illuminated “Boss Class” Audi. As I slowed and filtered right to make my final turn of the morning, he vanished with an angry growl, a blared horn and a jabbed finger. “You slow coached, goody two shoes, penis,” he was saying, “take that: PAAARP!”.

It took a cup of tea and a good ten minutes to get my arms back in my sleeves after all of that, I’ll tell you. My commute is definitely getting harder.

There are a number of factors at play here. For one it’s the steady, year on year increase in the volume of traffic, which in turn increases the percentage of aggressive, or simply reckless personalities on the roads. Then there’s my age – one cannot react as quickly to a sudden stimulus at 57 as one did at 17, and too much erratic stimuli can leave one reeling when, at 17, it would be dealt with and dismissed merely as superfluous noise.

But there’s also something in the air, something fragile in the Zeitgeist and I feel endangered by it, glad to arrive safely in the mornings, now, and get home at night without mishap. And if it’s true we create our own reality, the universe is providing the white vans and the Jags and the BMW’s and the Audis to confirm my own sense of the febrile nature of things.

I therefore need to take steps,…

I’m not without my own faults of course. Slow, yes. A little overcautious,… and prone to the occasional muddle, at times> Yes, yes, all true, but also I’m prone to a certain cold eyed vindictiveness. Oh yes, really!

Since much of my commute is spent virtually motionless, sitting in heavy traffic, I have often had the opportunity to observe evidence persuasive of the maxim that money makes you mean. With the traffic control systems so regularly overloaded and spilling into commuter chaos, it falls to individuals to organise themselves and cooperate in allowing other drivers to filter in ahead of them, or no one would get anywhere. And I’ve noticed it’s older, cheaper cars, that are most likely to allow another to go ahead of them – the more expensive the car, the less likely. No, seriously! You can test this phenomenon for yourself the next time you’re creeping nose to tail with traffic filtering into the stream, from where it would otherwise not have right of way.

But I’m as guilty as anyone else here – at least in a topsey-turvey sense. If it’s an expensive car stuck for someone to let them in, I’ve noticed I’m less inclined to be courteous. I make an assumption regarding the kind of person driving that kind of vehicle. I assume they’re arrogant, over-brimming with a sense of their own entitlement, and in the main I feel justified in nurturing such prejudice on the basis such vehicles are also more likely to be reckless and aggressive when driving against me at speed.

So I suppose my personal challenge, and a possible way to defuse the Zeitgeist’s current febrile malaise, is, the next time I’m locked in traffic, to smile, wave, and allow that pumped up gas guzzling monster of a vehicle to filter in ahead of me. Indeed, let us all drive with greater courtesy to our fellow motorists, regardless of the car they drive. Let us defy the Zeitgeist, and be kinder to one another, generally. And even if you’re cut up, provided you survive to tell the tale, resist the urge to pip your horn in retaliation. After all if you’ve time to gather your senses and pip your horn, it wasn’t really that close anyway. Was it?