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screenshotMy computer is dead! The last update of Windows Ten killed it. I don’t like Windows Ten. It updates my computer every Friday night whether I want it to or not. Then I come to it on a Saturday, thinking to jot down a fragment of a poem, or maybe tickle through an essay, and it says: “Oh, hang on, I’m doing something much more important, you’ll have to wait.”

So you make coffee and sometimes when you come back it says it’s ready for you, but then you find it’s not working right. Sometimes you have to wait all day to find out it’s not working right, or sometimes it doesn’t work at all. The computer grinds to a halt, as if the update poured treacle into the works; the mouse becomes sticky, or sometimes you can’t get past the login screen. Sometimes you have to wait a week for the next update to fix things, sometimes you have to wait two or three. It’s a good job I’m not up against any deadlines.

This time, I’m getting what they call a 100% disk usage error. From reading the self-help forums, I’ve learned it’s a common problem for which the solutions are legion, but I must have tried them all, and none of them work. Basically, the machine enters a state of infinite effort while actually doing nothing at all, the result being a condition of stubborn unresponsiveness verging on the catatonic. I even tried resetting my computer to a state as fresh as the day that it was born – thinking I was being very clever in working that one out – but it won’t let me do it. It’s beginning to sound like Arthur C Clarke’s HAL: “I’m sorry, Dave. I can’t let you do that.”

I’ve forgotten what that poem fragment was now. I woke up with it running through my head, but its leaked away. I should have written it down. After all, Wordsworth never had this trouble did he? He wrote stuff on bits of paper with a quill pen, then sent it all off with a penny stamp, ink blobs and all, and hey-presto, he made poet laureate. Eventually. But no, I had to start fiddling, clicking this, pressing that, and all to no avail. Also, have you noticed, there’s nothing like a sick computer for spoiling your day, for making you realise how much you’ve come to rely on it, and perhaps despising yourself a little on account of that?

So how did I manage to post this then? Ah well, I have this other dead computer. The Internet killed that one too, long ago, but I managed to resurrect it with an obsolete operating system I bought of Ebay for a fiver. It’s now the fastest, most responsive and silky smooth machine in the house, but only because it can no longer connect to the Internet. I’m it’s master now, you see? So I wrote this on it, transferred it by memory card to my Android phone and posted it online that way. It’s hardly convenient, but where there’s a will there’s a way.

It’s also useful to be reminded that it doesn’t entirely serves us, this vast invisible thing we have wrapped the world in. It’s a marvellous invention of course. The simple fact of email was a step change in communications. But then most of the emails we get are junk, sent out by dumb robots, and we have to spend time sorting through them for the ones that aren’t junk and sent out by humans. And we all know our emails are scanned and parsed by the Internet anyway, looking for juicy clues about our likely buying habits. And we know too we’re being groomed and manipulated by its algorithms every day, that the non living, non self-aware intelligence of the machine is becoming far more important as an end in itself than anything we’re allowed to do when we’re connected to it.

So my poem has gone and, okay, it wasn’t going to change the world so there’s no sense getting too upset about that, but the point is the machine robbed me of a moment of human expression, which does not make it my friend. It has something far more important to do now than serve our often admittedly trivial needs, and we need to think very carefully about what kind of unthinking, unfeeling world the machine is leading us into while under the impression it’s serving us, when in fact we’re all in service to it.

Wait a minute,… I remember how that poem went now:

My computer once made me see red,
When it locked up and tried to play dead,
So I cursed it quite rough, cos I’d quite had enough,
Then I smashed it to bits with my head.

 

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journals-of-dorothy-wordsworthDorothy was the sister of William Wordsworth, also friend to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Though a diarist, and poet in her own right, she never sought publication and it was only in 1897, some forty years or so after her death, her earliest hand-written journals were taken up and printed by the historian William Knight.

They concern just two months of the year 1798, spent at Alfoxden, when Dorothy was 27. We also have 1800 to 1803 at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, though of the latter, only 1802 is complete. The Helen Darbishire version takes another look at the handwritten originals for the Dove Cottage years. For Alfoxden, the William Knight version is the only academic source now, Knight having ‘mislaid’ the original. She kept other journals – accounts of travel in Scotland and Europe, but these are not included here.

What’s striking is the diaries are either neutral in their bearing or wholly positive of the persons mentioned in them. We must therefore assume Dorothy was, to a degree, self-censoring, and this is fair enough, especially since it’s known she wrote with the expectation that at least her brother would be reading them – and no one is that magnanimous if a journal is guaranteed its privacy. In short, there is nothing here for the muck-raker, not even in that much psychoanalysed pre-wedding scene of June 1802.

But let’s go back to 1798. This was a significant year, marking the collaboration of William Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the publication of their “Lyrical Ballads”, a book that kicked off the English Romantic movement. The preface, written by Wordsworth, can be read as a manifesto of the movement’s aims and, for anyone who wants to know what English Romanticism is, or was, this is still the best place to start.

Then we have the early years in Grasmere, this period marking several revisions of the Lyrical Ballads. But Dorothy’s presence at the birth of English Romanticism is more significant than that, though in ways not always easy to get at. For a start, it seems rather a small slice of a life, just fragments of three and a bit years. So what is it about Dorothy’s jottings that’s kept them in print all this time? Is it simply that she was the sibling of a famous poet, is it prurient interest in the nature of their relationship, or do we glimpse something special in Dorothy herself?

Though I admire the Lake Poets, I find them difficult. Dorothy on the other hand is immediately accessible, her journals capturing with great brevity the most colourful pictures of her life and of the natural world. She was, in a sense, the mind-camera for William and Coleridge, who used her diary as a reference, the result being you will find echoes of Dorothy’s words, and the scenes she captured, in their work. She was also, in a sense, the embodiment of everything the Romantic movement was trying to get at – something profound in its simplicity, in plainness of language, and purity of feeling.

I plead ignorance of Alfoxden, but I do know the area around Grasmere, a village now so overlaid with an impenetrable veneer of chocolate-box tourism and dotted with the weekend residences of city-gazillionaires, it’s impossible to imagine any sort of authentic life being lived there at all. If we want to know what that place contributed to the Romantic movement, two centuries ago, we turn to the Lake poets, but if we want to flip through the stunningly vivid mind-pictures of life in the Lakes back then, and rub shoulders with its characters, then we read Dorothy’s journals. And in them we discover all is not lost, that if we can get away from the honey-pots, and beyond the fell gates, it’s still possible to see and feel the world as she did.

Much of the charm of these journals lies in their capture of nature; of the land and the weather and the creatures great and small, also a sense of the people in the landscape, moving upon it more intimately than we do now, and mostly, of course, on foot. The lack of petty tittle-tattle, though marked, does not diminish their interest. There is also great pleasure to be had from comparing Dorothy’s seasons in that brief window of her life with our own, and the feeling, still, of a Romantic connection with times past, as if no time has passed at all.

Given the immense age of the universe, a single life is no more than a match in the dark, a brief enough time in which to blink and respond to what we see before the light flickers and dies. But some matches are brighter than others, and some minds quicker at seeing what needs to be seen and responding with genuine heart and feeling. It’s also valuable, during the brief flaring of one’s own light if we can be shown what others have noted as worthy, because it gives us a head start in the growing of our own souls. Of course, not everyone possesses such a talent as makes it worth our while, but to my mind at least, Dorothy Wordsworth did. And I think that’s why we’re still reading her journals today.

Not a nice word

avia-peseusI was reminiscing, thinking back on a particularly difficult week at the day-job that had left me feeling exhausted and resentful. So, I’d taken myself off over the moors, sat down on a hilltop and there I was revived by the sound of a skylark. It was a recovery of spirit only momentarily punctured by the nagging ping of my mobile phone, before I switched the damned thing off and tranquillity was restored.

I completed this cathartic experience some time later with a blog piece called Pandora’s little box of the absurd. It garnered a few likes, and kind comments from regular readers, and then, as is the way with these things, it sank into the sedimentary layers, I presumed never to be heard of again. More recently though, and quite unexpectedly, I picked up another comment which read – and I quote: what a load of bollocks.

Now, compared with some of the anonymous abuse that’s dished out elsewhere online, this was rather tame, and not a little ironic given the context of the piece. I hardly get anything of so blunt a nature, since I presume my little domain is rather an inoffensive backwater, and hardly to be considered “influential”. Moreover, since “what a load of bollocks” offered nothing constructive by way of explanation as to why that piece had so offended the sensibilities of the querent, I deleted it – the comment, not the piece. I have, however, been thinking about it in the larger context of abuse in general, and the increasing entrenchment of all manner of opinion, for which there seems little remedy other than for it all to play out to its own troubling and as yet entirely unpredictable, though possibly violent, conclusion.

To be sure, we live in increasingly polarised times, times when patience and tolerance are fast dissolving, when ambiguity and diversity are looked upon as untidy concepts we’d sooner be shut of, and we hark back to times when we imagine things were simpler, therefore easier to understand. Thus we read a piece of self reflective prose and, under cover of anonymity, we tell the writer it’s bollocks.

The implication is that our view of things is superior, and it may well be, but we cannot be bothered to say how or why. Yet in all cases the “how” and the “why” are of vital interest to anyone engaged in the field of existential enquiry.

I think this is bollocks because,… now, that is an opinion backed up by reasoning and experience, and we might all learn something from it, even if it is only to respectfully disagree. But mostly, we don’t know why we hold the views we do, we can’t be bothered self analysing, so we just say bollocks instead.

It’s not a nice word, though how the male testes became synonymous with a thing considered beneath contempt I don’t know, while the dog’s on the other hand,.. well, they’re considered rather fine, while a dog’s breakfast is something of a mess. And it’s doubly odd, since the male testes are, after all, not unimportant, located as they are at very foundation of the fountain of creativity, so to speak. Moreover, when brought into an harmonious coupling with certain other receptive factors – factors incidentally also used freely in derogatory speech – they further the human species immeasurably, to say nothing of giving great joy to life – at least if memory serves me correctly.

But that’s complicated – to think metaphorically, to think deeply about complex issues. It’s much easier to retreat into profanity and partisanship because then no explanation is necessary. We simply take our cue from others of our tribe, seek confirmation of our superiority in the amount of hurt we can cause, take also our reward from the cheers of approval from our fellow warriors.

We believe that by silencing argument, we win it – whether we silence it with profanity, or violence, it matters not. We don’t actually win, of course, but it can take the letting of a awful lot of blood before we realise it, before we look back, exhausted by the effort and the carnage and are totally ashamed of ourselves to the bottom of our souls.

It’s just a little world, “bollocks”, and, though offensive, it’s sanctioned as regular speech now. Placards proclaim it on the TV news every night, and certain of our politicians use it freely in their dismissal of important affairs of state – little wonder then it has found its way into my humble backwater. But if I can for a moment inflate myself, all be it delusionally, to that most modern of high offices, “the online influencer”, let me caution us all, we plucky Brits: go easy on the profanity, and if we think something is beneath contempt, then try at least to explain why we think it, in case we are asked, then we might be counted as part of the solution, rather than merely contributing to the problem.

Risking it.

sunsetWintering in the same old cold and grey,
waiting for that chance-thing to arise
and say: here, this is how,
revealed in unambiguous guise,
you might now see and act
and leave behind at last
the lies you tell yourself
in order to maintain
this never ending waiting game!

But there is nothing new today.
No novelties arise, just the same
old cold and grey in which
you wear the usual disguise,
revealing this uncomfortable truth,
that for all your life you’ve hid,
dissolved in indecision.
And of all the things, of your own volition,
you might heartily have risked, and done,
you never risked, or did,
a single one.

 

 

mazda night journey HDRFriday: I’m driving along, and for no particular reason my mind wanders onto the subject of the actress, Judy Davies. I follow the thought and find myself exploring her filmography all the way back to the movie of EM Forster’s novel “A passage to India.” I ponder this for a while. Good movie that. Edward Fox was in it too, and Alec Guinness. I’ve not read the novel, but I’m wondering if I should look it up.

My mind moves on, and I’m thinking of something else entirely when I pop the radio on and there’s a play on Radio 4: “A passage to India.”

This kind of low level, useless precognition is actually quite common and it can be easily explained away as coincidence. Admittedly, I’m less likely to do that than someone more scientistically inclined, but neither am I as shocked by it as I once was. At one time I would have been pondering it more deeply and most likely blogging today about the mysteries of time, space and being, but of late I recognise it makes no difference if there is or isn’t anything more to this sort of thing, and it’s best either dismissed or simply accepted as a mysterious part of life, but one we’ll never understand. I just wish it could be more helpful.

Anyway, Saturday, and I’ve picked up an ear worm: Aha’s “Take on Me” running on a continuous loop in my head – just the first couple of lines – and annoying as Hell. Then I call into a shop where they have muzak playing over the tannoy. I’ve not been there five minutes when they start playing “Take on me”. There we go again: that strange, useless precognition thing.

Then, on the way home this happens:

Okay, so I manage to avoid killing the cyclist, but not, I should add, because of any sixth sense. I’m just lucky, and actually a little warning would have been helpful, sparing me at least a near heart attack. Those bikes piled around the bend with breathtaking audacity, also, I presume, with a reckless disregard for third party insurance. The wobbling tail-end Charlie was unprepared for the bend and thus a victim for any vehicle coming the other way, in this case me.

If we’d collided, he would have gone off my bonnet, and either over or into the wall on my left. Over the wall is a thirty foot drop into a shallow river. He might have survived the wall but not the river.

He apologised in passing, called me “bud” and wobbled on – I’ve been called much worse by burly men in Lycra tights. Anyway, I drove home, then had a brew and a very long sit down. And I was thinking about how suddenly our lives can change for the worse, and how we never see it coming. We get word a close relative has been diagnosed with cancer, maybe we get the diagnosis ourselves. Something happens on the road – a Kamikaze cyclist skitters off your bonnet, kills himself and ruins your life – because whether it’s your fault or not, that’s a thing you’ll carry at the back of your mind for the rest of your life. You bumble along from day to day, thinking your life is humdrum, maybe even a little boring and then: bang.

On the other hand, the changes that bring about an improvement in our lives – barring a lottery win – tend to work more slowly. We sacrifice immediate pleasure for the thought of reaping larger benefits in the future. We invest in a pension so we can retire in comfort. We study so we can get a better job, afford a nicer house, buy our kids nice things. We bring our kids up as well as we can, then take pleasure in seeing them engage with the world. It all takes time, and it’s worth it.

But the good things in life tend to be incremental, introducing themselves so slowly we hardly notice. We become so entirely accepting we can find ourselves contemptuous, that even though life is actually, rather good, we barely notice, especially if we’re hooked on always chasing the next thing. Maybe we even grumble when those little things go wrong.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is it’s always a good idea to take stock now and then, because there’s something odd about life in that it never lets you see the bad things coming, only sometimes the stuff that makes no difference to anything.

 

yarrow reservoir 1

The Yarrow Reservoir

So, we’re leaving the car by the Yarrow reservoir this afternoon, tucked into one of the cuttings along Parson’s Bullough road. It’s a cold sun sort of day, enough to tease us outdoors, but the daffodils are looking shivery, so we’ll need to zip up. There’s a good light on the reservoir, and the sun just low enough now for the contrasts to be interesting.

The Yarrow reservoir: late Victorian period, built to supply water to Liverpool and, along with its much larger neighbours, the Anglezarke and the Rivington reservoirs, it was all something of a tragedy if you consider the land and the farms and the homes that were sacrificed to progress hereabouts. But they’ve been an unchanging fixture of my own life and, as far as reservoirs go, they’re beautiful and have bedded in well.

This afternoon’s jaunt will cover about three miles, where we’ll find a varied and fast changing scenery of moors and meadows, woods and running water, also a few dark tales along the way.

yarrow reservoir mapWe start with a bit of quiet road-walking, first across Alance Bridge, which spans the tail end of the reservoir. You sometimes get idiot kids tomb-stoning from the bridge in the summer, but it achieved a different kind of notoriety a few years back when murderers crept out of one the darker cracks of Bolton and attempted to dispose of a body by dropping it over the side here. It’s not a story I’m happy to be adding to local lore, and it reminds me these remoter stretches of Lancashire are perhaps best not explored after dark.

Next comes the climb up Hodge Brow, eventually passing an old barn on our left. This is a queer building, marked as Morris House on early six inch maps. I’ve known it variously as a ruin, then a bunkhouse and more lately a millionaires des-res project that’s stalled and has now lain empty for years. It looks about another winter away from the weather getting in too. There are warnings of spycams. This is a bleak corner, the wind unchecked, roaring down off Anglezarke moor to rattle the tiles – pretty enough in Summer, I suppose, but I don’t think I’d want to over-winter here.

Past Morris’ we’re onto Dean Head Lane, a narrow cut of a road, water pooling in the reedy hedgrows as it drains from the moor. It’ll take us on to the pretty little village of Rivington eventually, or up by Sheephouse Lane and Hoorden Stoops, to the more populous Belmont. There are fine views of Anglezarke to the north and, further off to the east is Noon and Winter Hill – something shaggy and frigid about them this afternoon though, in spite of the sun, like they’re hung over or still grumpy after the summer heath fires.

yarrow reservoir 7

The path by Dean Wood

At Wilkocks farm (1670), we cut down the path along by Dean Wood which skirts the deep ravine in which the wood nestles. I’ve often fancied a closer look at the wood as legend has it there’s a fine cascade hiding in there, but this place is considered so precious to the region, it’s sealed off and managed as a secure nature reserve – access by permission only, and you’d better have a good reason for asking.

There’s something creepy about the path, an old story about a farm labourer coming along here in the early nineteen hundreds. He felt a “presence” behind him, then turned to see, in his own words, the devil “horns and all”. Terrified, he ran to Rivington and told his tale, swearing all was true. Three months later they found his body at the bottom of the ravine in Dean Wood having apparently fallen from the path around where he claimed to have had his near miss with old Nick.

It’s a story recounted first, I believe, in John Rawlinson’s “About Rivington” and I’ve been careful not to add anything of my own to it here. Writers usually can’t help embellishing where they feel a story lacks detail. What I will say though is reports of such Forteana tend to cluster in the liminal zones, and this one certainly fits that pattern: the open meadows coming down to the edge of the wood, and then the deep ravine itself forming a void of air, all of which  makes for a fine transition from one thing to another.

One theory is we “imagine” such apparitions, but that doesn’t make them any less real, at least not to those experiencing them. On a fine sunny afternoon like this it’s just a story of uncertain vintage – no names, no precise dates, so it’s impossible to research more fully. To my knowledge Old Nick hasn’t been seen again around Dean Wood, but would I come down here at dead of night? Well, let’s just say, I’d be tempted to go another way.

I remember John Rawlinson as a kindly and wise old gentleman – a leading light of the Chorley Historical and Archeological Society, also a good friend of my father’s, both of them a half century gone now, both legends in their own way and loving every inch of the moors hereabouts.

yarrow reservoir 3

Turner Embankment – Yarrow Reservoir

After offering us tantalising glimpses of the forbidden, sylvan delights of Dean Wood, and hopefully avoiding any diabolical disturbance, the path brings us out into open meadows and with a fine view of the Yarrow reservoir, overlooking the somewhat angular Turner Embankment, so named after the house that was demolished to make way for it. Rawlinson tells us the house was most likely salvaged, and the materials put into building Dean Wood house, which nestles in a cosy bower just to our left here. There’s something pleasing about the close-mown lines of the embankment, I think,  with the trees still bare against the sky and the foreground meadows all lit by late afternoon sunshine.

Now we’re off along Dean Wood lane, through a fine avenue of chestnuts, just coming into leaf, and there’s a clear brook tinkling alongside us for company. We can walk on to Rivington from here, perhaps have a brew at the chapel tea rooms, but that’s for another day. Today we’ll take the path around the Yarrow instead, which we could follow pretty much all the way back to the car if we wanted, but if you don’t mind, I want to make a bit of a detour because I can hear the rumble of water and I suspect the spillway is running.

yarrow reservoir 5

The Yarrow Reservoir overflow

The Yarrow spillway is a spectacular feature hereabouts, a series of cascading steps that takes the excess from the Yarrow and feeds it with style into the Anglezarke reservoir. It isn’t often running these days, but there’s a good bit of water today, and it’s always worth a photograph, especially now with the sun settling upon it and adding a golden glow to the highlights.

I try a couple of shots with the lens wide open and manage 1/2000th of a second on the shutter. This has a dramatic effect on the capture of water, freezing it and rendering an image that’s essentially true but something the eye wouldn’t normally see. There must be thousands of shots of these falls on Instagram and Flikr, and a good many of them mine, but I never tire of it.

yarrow reservoir 4

F1.8 – 1/2000 sec

Okay, it’s just a short way now back to Parson’s Bullough and the car. Then it’s boots off, and home for a brew. A pleasant walk in familiar territory, but always something a little different to see.

Just one last look back at that gorgeous spillway, and we’re done:

yarrow reservoir 6

moorland ruinIt’s impossible to disconnect oneself from the current political turmoil, though I have been trying hard of late. In the UK, our politicians enter into vote after vote as we near the deadline for separating from the European Union, yet seemingly without clarifying anything, and now it looks as if they intend delaying the deadline, pushing out the long anticipated car-crash until the summer.

They give the impression of an orgy, splashing about in mud, hurling bread at one another, while people go hungry. There is something deeply unsettling about it, a sense of the solid ground giving way, that shortly I will be swallowed up, plunged into an unforgiving underworld where bad people rule, and the good go in fear.

It’s like when I’ve been walking over the moors, the mist comes down, and I’ve been lured from my course by a siren sheep-track that ends in bog. My next step could take me ankle deep, or waist deep – there’s no way of knowing –  the only certainty being that I’m going to get dirty. I look around but I’ve been travelling this way for so long now I can no longer remember where I went wrong, or if the safe path is even there any more, or if, like the rest of the world, enclosed by this impenetrable mist, it was consumed long ago by muck and cold water.

In the mean time we have all grown angrier. We have sharpened our knives and our tongues and grown cruel. We have been taught how to hate again, turned back the clock, generations of harvests of an increasingly rich diversity now ploughed under for a return to  the days when old men with red faces told wicked jokes at the expense of one minority after the other. And in the way of the herd, we were all expected to laugh.

I’d thought the old men with red faces had died out, taken their jokes and their bigotry and their anger with them. Many have, I suppose, but their seeds remain, and now the land seems drained of nourishment, sown thick instead with tangled weed and a myriad blood-letting briars. It’s a bleaker harvest now, overseen by the Hydra of intolerance. And then we have its stunted minions, the trolls with their wickedness and their ignorance all polished up like a shield to deflect reason.

What sense now in still groping for the gates of Heaven, when behind us the gates of Hell have opened wide? The darkness has spilled out, and all the fell creatures are gaining ground, clawing at our heels. If only the mist would lift a moment we might get our bearings afresh, stare them down, turn all to stone who would do us harm. But it’s a bad day in the hills, and the mist has settled in.

We spy a ruin in the gloom, a black gritstone pile, dripping wet and oozing metaphor.  It’s the ruin of our future, I think, the shape of it unrecognisable, suggestive of nothing now, its stones tumbled, softened by the elements and eerily cold to touch.

What am I saying? I’ll be okay. After all, I’m not exactly living on the street, as many of my fellow countrymen are these days. I’ll still be scribbling in a year’s time. But how can I be comfortable with such a transformation as this when there is not a single institution left that lends a hand to the fallen, without first searching their pockets for gold?

Time passes, and all shall pass with it, this being our only hope, that the mountains shall be ground down and the valleys filled with their dust. But in the mean time we are left wondering, if it’s true the spark of consciousness in each of us is the universe coming into awareness of itself, though us, and judging itself by our reactions, I give notice to my creator this current state of affairs is decidedly not good.

But there is something I can do, something we all can do, and that’s shield our flame against the coming storm and hold to the good as much as we can define it, also resist this pernicious permission that’s been seeping back into the Zeitgeist, a sly, wheedling little void telling us it’s okay again to hate, okay to laugh at those wicked jokes of the red faced men.