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Someone else’s MGB, Glasson Marina, February 2014

The last Friday of February, this year, was also a full moon, thus seeming especially auspicious. Previous years would have had me and the small blue car at Glasson Marina, enjoying the year’s first hints of spring. From Glasson, I like to walk the quiet lanes to Cockerham, then back up the Lancashire coastal way, over the green sward, by the remains of the abbey, and the Plover Scar light. I’d have lunch at Lantern O’er Lune, then return home via the garden centre at Barton, for coffee and cake. A grand day out, as they say.


I first did that trip in 2014 in an old grey commuter mule called Grumpy. I’ve done it every year since, except last, and this. On that first trip there was a guy at the marina in a gorgeous red MGB. He looked to be in his seventies, living the dream, with his Irvine flying jacket. At £850 a go, that jacket was as much of a statement as the car. Cynics might have said he was menopausal. But in your seventies? Not likely. Okay, he looked a bit eccentric, but the guy had spirit, and he inspired me. The next year I was in the small blue car, an old but reasonably well-kept Mazda roadster. All right, she’s no MG but, forgive me, I never held the same faith in British motor cars as others. I’d thought to keep the car a year or so, get her out of my system, and sell her on, but we’re still together. I drew the line at an Irvin jacket.

My MX5, Glasson Marina, 2015

This pandemic year however, the car is under covers, and I keep my steps local. On Friday, I walked a pleasant circuit from my doorstep, instead, just clipping the next village. I was hoping to see a particular buzzard, thus scotching rumours the bird had been shot. I didn’t see it. As I walked I was thinking of Glasson. I was picturing the crocuses in the churchyard, and along the canal bank. I was also thinking about writing, and the answer to a question I’d posed: Why have I not decided upon so much as an opening sentence of new fiction yet, months after putting up my last novel? I have never been without a work of fiction for company. But time is ticking.


Things are pretty well upended, was the answer to my question. You’ve had a big change of circumstance, what with early retirement and everything, so let it ride, don’t rush it. And fair enough, I’m not. I’ve bought a 3D printer to tinker with, and I’m designing and building bits and bobs for myself. I’ve made a clock case, a watch case, and some quick-release clips for stashing Alpine poles to my rucksack. Ironic, I thought. For most of my life I have been writing as a distraction from the trials of engineering. Then I retire, and I take on personal engineering projects as a distraction from writing. I am, if nothing else, perverse. But the answer goes further, deeper. It takes in the ruins of the world, and how best to move on from them.


I understand that in one sense I’m in a good place. A final salary pension helps enormously, but most of all I’m lacking anger. However, I’m also lacking passion, which is possibly less good. I look upon the corruption of political high office, and I don’t care any more. I read how the cost of BREXIT is now roughly the same as our contributions to the EC since 1972, and I don’t care. The Labour Party is veering once more to the right, purging itself of even moderate old lefties like me, and I don’t care. I’m fine, I want everyone else to be fine too, but I’m waking up to the nature of the world as being one of ineradicable inequality, indifference and self-entitlement. Money makes you mean, and since money buys power, you can plot your course from there to the most logical outcome – which is pretty much the ruins of where we are.


The Taoist texts talk of clarity. They use the image of a lake. If we are emotionally aroused, they say, it’s like the perturbation of the surface, and the stirring of sediment. Then we cannot see through to the bottom of things. Only through calmness, through stillness, does the sediment settle out and clarity is restored. But while in stillness, there might indeed be a kind of clarity, I find there’s not the energy to power a hundred thousand words of fiction. It strikes me therefore, I might have already written my final novel. On the one hand I’m surprised by that, since I’d always imagined my retirement as a time I could spend writing to my heart’s content. On the other hand, again, I don’t care. The muse has been slipping me the occasional idea, but I can tell she’s not serious. She has not once lit the blue touch-paper. All of which perhaps goes to show the Universe is not without a wry sense of humour.


Then, as I write, my son brings news of a pair of buzzards circling my garden. He’s rummaging in some excitement for the binoculars. It’s an unusual sight, a pair of them like that, and a bit of a shock, actually. I break off for a photograph, snap-on the long lens. I’ve been stalking buzzards in my locale for a while now, trying to get a nice sharp image of one, while lamenting their vulnerability, and suddenly there are two over my house, as if they had come to look at me and pose. It’s surely an omen. Of what, who can say? Light or dark, we take our choice. Myself, I’m optimistic. It seems you don’t always need to venture far in seeking what you want, also that we needn’t go chasing every shadow. Indeed, perhaps what we seek is actually seeking us, and all we have to do is find sufficient stillness of mind to let it in.

Glasson, on the last Friday of February 2022? The small blue car will be twenty years old.

It’s a date.

One of a pair of buzzards, circling over my house

We write a piece for our blog, or we post a photograph to Instagram. Then we watch the stats, the likes, the comments, for a reaction. We notice certain things get more attention, so the temptation is to do more of those things, at the expense of others. At this point, so the argument goes, our creativity is hitched to whatever algorithm the hosting medium uses to drive traffic. We’re no longer being broadly creative. Our ego is jumping for the jelly beans, chasing the little dopamine hits those “likes” bestow. We’ve fallen into the machine, become a part of it. And, by their nature, machines cannot be creative.

But while we do have to be careful using the Internet as our medium, creativity also requires an audience, a sense of connection. It’s as if what the universe sees fit to manifest in one mind, it requires also that manifestation be communicated, even if the creator is never to know who the receiver is, or what their reaction will be or, least of all, if the creator is ever to be paid for their troubles. And for most creatives working today, the Internet is the only source of an audience – both real and imagined. So whilst it’s a dangerous piece of machinery, it also comes with blessings, but only if we approach it in the right frame of mind.

There are many more creative individuals than is generally appreciated. Indeed, it’s a fair bet there were always more writers equally as talented as those whose names history has recorded. They simply never rose to notice, nor even modest professional status, due to the paucity of paid outlets and publicity machines to give their work wings. The Internet has at least provided a platform for those formerly unknown artists, but just because we can now publish anything, it doesn’t mean we should. We should always ask ourselves first, is this a piece of genuine self-expression, or am I merely jumping for the jelly beans?

For the creator, finding their way with such a challenging and dangerous medium, we must be accepting that the road to widespread dissemination and financial independence is as tenuous as it always was. But the machinery will at the very least find us an audience, however small. If that irks us, our Ego has already tipped us into the machine, and we’re done for. It will eat our creativity and leave us hollow. But if we can be a little more accepting, if we can say that today we may be writing solely for a lone man on a train, passing through a far away city, scrolling his phone for connection and company, and whom we will likely never hear from, then we have achieved the right balance. We are not posting for “likes”. We are not merely gaming the machine. We have made peace with our craft, and can use it effectively as an uncontaminated channel for the Creative Imperative.

Creative people have no choice in what they do. They are searching for something, but don’t know what it looks like, and no one else can tell them. That makes creativity a very strange thing indeed. There is no tool, no computer algorithm to explain the shape of it. To even approach any understanding we have to entertain ideas from philosophy, psychology, and from spirituality. We have to summon up the ghost of metaphysics.

My own beliefs on this have circled ever closer to the perennial philosophy. This tells us the universe is essentially a mental phenomenon, something akin to a dream. Everything is imagined into being, and there is no material world as such. This is an oversimplification of course, and no doubt unintelligible to most rational beings. It’s possibly also wrong, but it’s the nearest I can come to making sense of things, and I’m happy with it, at least for now, as a working hypothesis.

There is nothing beyond the universe, because the universe is nothing and, in a curious paradoxical twist, that nothing exists in the first place is the only way anything can be brought into being at all. It’s just that we misinterpret the nature of “being”. Another way of looking at it is through the idealist lens of the philosophers who tell us we can never know the universe as it is in itself, only indirectly by its manifestations. And what that teaches us is the prime imperative of the Universe is to create, albeit through the medium of the idea of the world.

As self conscious beings we find ourselves at the pinnacle of the evolution of this creativity. We are the universe becoming aware of itself, seeking to explain itself. Our minds being in the image of the maker, as its various alters, we too are possessed by the imperative to create. The universe does not create us for popular approval. More, it seeks connection and beauty of expression, which it defines by degrees of emotional feedback, by “feeling”. It knows when it has hit upon something good, because it feels it in our hearts.

Of course, my more speculative forays into the world of fiction may be very wide of the mark. Who can say? All I have to go on is the journey of my own art, which seems to be leading me down the same metaphysical path as many who have gone before. We begin with the sense there is something bigger than ourselves, something “other”, something mysterious at the root of the world. We may have had a vision of it in our dreams and waking reveries and, through our art, we seek closer companionship with it. That’s the nature of the journey, and it can be a long journey. The destination, I’m told is the realization that after all, there is no “other”, that we and “it” are the same. What we have been seeking – through our art, our writing, our paintings, our photographs – we possessed all along because we were it. All of us.

If you’re feeling discouraged over your art, if you’re asking yourself why you bother, remember you are not the first. Even those who make a name for themselves circle back this way more times than they would care to admit. So don’t be afraid to make your mark. If you’re creatively inclined, it’s what you were made to do anyway, and it’s important to learn how to handle it. And we begin by not doing it for the jelly beans. We do it for that lone man on the train, passing through a far away city at night, scrolling his phone for connection, for company. You’ll never know who he is, or what it is that draws him to your words. It was just fated that way. So be there for him, and for no more reason than because he is you, and you are also him.

So, you’re out taking pictures of trees, and an elderly lady comes running up to you saying someone’s in the river, they can’t get out, and can you help? You take a look and there’s a woman up to her middle in the freezing water, down a steep bank. She’d gone to help her dog get out, and slipped in. The dog gets out on its own and is now yapping and careening about like it’s demented, and not making me feel particularly welcome. She can’t scramble up, and she can’t move to where the bank is less steep either, because the river runs very deep on either side of her. She’s basically trapped. So, I lower myself as close as I can, and offer my hand, thinking I can perhaps haul her out. She takes a firm grip, but I’m not strong enough, and I can’t gain enough of a purchase on the bank, so there’s a risk she’ll have me slithering in as well. She’s already been in the water a while, is cold and getting tired.

What I’m thinking I should have done at this point was call the fire-brigade, and just keep her company until they arrived, but I reckoned that would have been another half an hour at least, and she’s been in the water long enough. The other side of me says there’s a farm a few minutes away. We just need some big lads, a rope and a sling, so I leg it to the farm. The farm duly spills out to the rescue, big lads, quad bike and all. They drop the woman a sling which she gets around her body, and they have her out in a jiffy. She’s embarrassed, refuses offers from the farm ladies of a lift home, says she’ll walk, that she lives not far away. Drama over, the farm goes back to work, and I go on my way.

It’s only then I realize I’ve seriously broken the social distancing rules and, in the heat of the moment, actually touched another human being. If I’ve caught Covid from the woman, it’ll show up in a couple of days and that’s me in isolation for a fortnight, or worse. On the balance of probabilities, I know it’s unlikely, but it is just possible. And it’s not only myself I put at risk, either. It’s everyone at the farm, and everyone I live with and half of me is kicking myself over that. Maybe I should have just called the fire brigade, and sat there like a lump until they came, with their PPE and their proper procedures for dealing with rescues in the time of Covid. I don’t know. What would you have done?

We all need to get outdoors, to walk, get some air. Stay local, yes, but there are still risks, like falling into the river after your dog, and needing help to get out. It could happen to any of us. I could have been out in the field with my camera, turned my ankle and had to beg help off a passing walker. So it’s not just ourselves we’ve to think of, but those who might have to turn out and help us.

Anyway, I got my tree photograph, a decent walk and even a bit of a jog – which surprised me. As for the Covid, I’ll just have to keep my fingers crossed.

Good night all.

Arrested development

Les joueurs d’echecs – Honore Daumier

So, I’ve decided my name is Thomas Marston. I was a Captain in the Queen’s Royal Highlanders, and I’m a hundred and forty-one years old. My birthday celebrations have been somewhat muted since everyone I know is long dead. Also, the ongoing pandemic in the UK is still making it difficult to get people together – not that I bother much with birthdays anyway at my age.

We’re into our third year of quarantine now, with most other countries, bar the States of course, pretty much back to normal. But if you have a fully stamped CV passport, with all the known mutations up to date, you can at least get into town now and then for a coffee, which is what I’m doing here. Before all this kicked off I’d fallen into the bad habit of shambling into town wearing any old muck. Nowadays, I polish my shoes and press my trousers, like it’s a special occasion, which I suppose it is, mostly on account of its rarity.


The café is quiet this morning. There’s just this fierce looking woman, sitting over there in the corner. She appears to be glowering at me over the rim of her teacup and looks vaguely familiar, but I can’t place her. Then there’s that old guy, sitting by the window. I spotted her before I spotted him. I don’t know what her problem is. Could we have met before, and I was inadvertently rude or something? Might we have had a relationship at one time? The latter seems unlikely. For all of my advanced years, I have no problem with my memory and I clearly recall the last woman I courted was in nineteen fifty two.


Relationships are a particular problem, as you can imagine. I’m told I’d still pass for forty – which is the age I normally claim – but romantic entanglements tend to fall apart when the lady in question finds out how old I really am. It’s not that I’m bothered much about that sort of thing any more, though at times I feel the company would be pleasant. Anyway, she’s definitely not an old flame – I mean most of those would be very old indeed by now. Something about me interests her though, and it doesn’t look to be in a good way. Perhaps she mistakes me for someone else.

As for the old guy, what’s interesting about him is he’s got this little fold-out travelling chess set, and he’s playing both sides of the board. You’d see that a lot in cafés, and on long train journeys, once upon a time, but not any more. Now we just flick on our phones. He has an old-world look about him – nudging eighty perhaps. He sees me looking, unhooks his mask and gestures.

“Do you play?” he asks.

I do, actually. My game is unimaginative, but solid. After all, I’ve had a longer time to practice than most people, and you can’t help picking up a few tricks along the way. He’s well-dressed, a tweed jacket and tie sort of guy, and he has a kindly sort of face. He’s probably lonely, so I see no harm,…


Then my mobile rings, which pulls me up a bit. It rarely rings, since very few people have my number. So, if it does ring, it’s usually a scam, or a cold call. I note it’s a London number, and I don’t know anyone in London. Okay, so here we go: it’s an automated voice purporting to be from HMRC, the UK tax authority. They’re threatening criminal action against me for fraud. I make a note of the number, block it, then mail the number out to the government’s cyber-security service. I’m sure they do their best with this sort of thing, but I can’t help imagining they must be overwhelmed.

So, then I set the phone aside, bring myself back into the moment, but by now the old guy has gone, ditto the woman, and the café. Instead, I’m sitting at the dining table in front of the laptop, blinking into the morning sunshine through my window, chasing the tails of a story as it slips back into the unconscious.

I suppose there were scammers a plenty, even in Marston’s younger days. But we seem more vulnerable to attack now, the shady ones turning up in the middle of our thoughts, in the middle of our living rooms and leaving dirty footprints on the carpet. They hit you with a carefully crafted line to get your attention, then it’s on with their nefarious patter. If only such ingenuity were put to good use, we would surely have solved the millions of problems that vex mankind by now.

It’s easy to think no one would ever fall for such things, but the innocent and the unwary do, and clearly often enough to make it worth the while. As for me, it spoiled the taste of my coffee. To remain innocent and trusting throughout life is surely a virtue worth protecting, and one of the unspoken crimes of the scammers, even against those wise to their tricks, is to render us cynical and suspicious of the world.


Anyway,… Captain Thomas Marston. I’ve used him before. Interesting. I thought we’d done with each other but apparently not. And if not, then I’m sure I’ll catch up with him later on, find out what else he has to say for himself.

I’ve never had as much time on my hands, retiring into this slow time when everything is shut, and we can’t go anywhere. But the time is passing anyway, and perhaps too quickly. From not that long ago, rising early to a long commute, I’m now up around eight, making coffee, and taking it back to bed. I cannot overstate the sense of luxury in this. I read the news, do some online lessons – learning French and brushing up my chess. Then I start the day, pick up the housework, bits of DIY, walk if it’s fine, or sometimes if it’s not. And I write.


I’ve been writing a piece on Freud and his nephew Edward Bernays, the father of consumerism. I was exploring the limitations of a society that reflects the shallow desires of the self, asking how we can move beyond it, and is it wise to do so? But do I know what I’m talking about? Have I sufficient grasp, sufficient depth? Can I come up with a conclusion from the mess of it that would not merely be a shallow eye-roll at the shallowness of the world? And is this not just old ground anyway, reflections of pre-retirement angst?

Potato ridges and the coming of snow

Then I had this dream. I was dancing with an exotically costumed woman, like a queen from Ancient Egypt. We were doing the waltz, foxtrot, that sort of thing, but instead of music she had letters from my past, things I’d written. As she chose each piece, I aged or grew younger in accordance. She was playing me, across time. I was all ages at the same time. I like to think I can read dreams but, though I’ve pondered long upon this one, I can only go on the mood it left when I woke. And when I woke, I didn’t care about the Freud piece. Indeed I was embarrassed to have written it. It was about hell and handcarts, and we’re past all that. So I shelved it, and I’m writing this instead.


The car still hasn’t moved. I’ve had the battery on charge a few times, after it flat-lined. It needs a good run, but for now it languishes in a cluttered garage that I intend tidying, but not yet. I read there are people driving hundreds of miles to walk from my doorstep, and here I am in solidarity with the seventy-five percent, making do with what our own doorsteps have to offer. The cops clock incomers’ number plates, as and when they can, and fine them. It had me wondering if, during the blitz and the blackout, and all that, there were people exercising their rights to liberty in defiance of authority by shining torches into the night sky even as the bombers approached?


I’ve been thinking about time, actually. Thinking back to past adventures, past travels that, at the time, always seemed accompanied by the feeling that first pass was just a dress rehearsal, that I would come back another time, in slower time, and spend time in proper contemplation of a place or a thing, or a journey – if you know what I mean. But already it’s a half a century ago, and you never do go back. I tell myself I was too busy working and bringing up children. Well, now I’ve plenty of time, but can’t go anywhere, and the car’s battery is flat, and it’s dead of winter anyway. So, I suppose what I’m saying is obvious: life is not a dress rehearsal, and every experience – even ironing my shirts this morning – needs to be experienced fully, as it happens, and for whatever juice there is in it, because every day of our lives is a one time thing, it is a once told story, the pages burned each night on the altar of our dreams.

Earth, tree and sky


I feel for the old folks who are counting down, perhaps on the fingers of one hand now, their remaining summers. These restrictions are particularly irksome for them. But I feel the passing of time too. For years, I’ve gone to Glasson on the last Friday of February, done the walk down to Cockerham, lunched at Lantern O’er Lune. Ah, those were the days! This year it looks like it’ll be another doorstep walk instead, perhaps accompanied by a flask of soup for a picnic. But how much more can one squeeze out of the Lancashire plain? We were hardly friends to begin with, and there are limits to its generosity, surely?

It was cold this afternoon, setting out again across the plain, There was a raw wind with bits of snow in it, fluttering about like moths. I was later setting out than usual, less than an hour from sundown, but I was only after a short walk among the mud and potatoes, out to a familiar tree and, I hoped, some interesting light. The way was heavy, almost too muddy even for wellies. The sky was dull, oppressive, pregnant with snow. But as I reached the tree, there was a transformation as there often is around sunset, an opening of the sky to more dramatic contrasts. There were shades of – tobacco, blue-grey, white, and cobalt. I took five exposures with the Lumix, bracketing stops above and below – still chasing the high dynamic range look. We would see what came out in “post”, as they say. Then I moved on to see what else looked promising.


I never used to bother much with the sky. It was always there of course. It was moody on occasion, but I preferred it blue and clear, and forgettable. I should have taken more notice of it in the past. In the past my cameras simply provided a record of places. Now they teach a way of seeing, and they see more than I do. The high dynamic range pictures are coming out better as I get the hang of the software, teasing out more of what the sensor sees and I, on account of my human eye, do not. I’m favouring a method that gives an antique look, grainy, detailed. I like the way it renders the sky.

Lumix LX100 (Mk1)


It’s possible of course, I will return to the scene of former travels, when we are allowed. But time will have moved those places on, made of them a fresh present to be enjoyed in the moment, observed, wrung dry for whatever that moment has to offer. My memory of the past is beginning to sharpen, as I’m told it does in later life. I’m sure it’s also becoming rose-tinted. There are clear dangers in that of course, for it blinds us to the importance of the fleeting present.


I could not have been much of a dancer when I was young, and I wonder what the Egyptian queen saw in me back then. One thing from the dream I remember was her timelessness, also a sense of her devotion and her protection – provided I keep faith in her. We keep that faith in many ways. One of them, I think, is in understanding this slow time, this time of doorstep walks across the mud of the plain, that this is not a dress rehearsal, that we need to carry as much as is useful of this time into the future with us, because there’s no going back, and the earth is fertile wherever and whenever we cast our eye, if we only have the eye to see.

Earth , tree and sky

But neither should we discount those past moments we feel we failed to do justice to at the time. We do not read the letters of our lives in sequence. Sure, that way they make sense as a sequence of actions, but the broader meaning in them, the soul-meaning, only becomes clear when we consider them all at the same time. That way our lives do not start from thin threads, swell to fullness, before tapering off into emptiness. Things only make proper sense from a transcendent perspective. That’s a hard one to visualize, especially at times of strife, but sometimes the camera catches it unawares. Mostly it doesn’t. But it’s there all the same, and its in the ordinary, the mundane. It’s in the glamour of a broad dynamic sweep of sky, it’s in the mud of the earth, and it’s in the strange sleeping beauty of trees in winter.


High dynamic range

I took this picture of a buzzard a few weeks ago. It made my day, actually, felt like a good luck charm. They used to be a rare sight in the UK, but are now making a bit of come-back, except for this one, which is now dead. I was out with the camera recently and I met a fellow walker who told me he’d found a buzzard, shot, in that same area. It was alive, but had a broken wing. So he took it to the vet, but the vet couldn’t do anything, so it was put down.


It wasn’t a good start to the day. I’d set out to get some more miles under the belt, and to photograph trees along the way. I was after experimenting with a thing called high dynamic range. It’s a trick in photography that simulates the way the eye sees the world. I like the effect. Other photographers think it’s an abomination. I think the same thing about shooting birds. But we were talking about photography, except we weren’t. We’re talking about vision, and different ways of seeing the world.


When we look at a scene, we see everything – colour, brightness and so on, all of it perfectly rendered, but a camera’s different. Take a good picture of the foreground, and you might find there are no details in the clouds, because the sky has burned out. Take a good picture of the sky, with lots of dreamy texture in the clouds, and you might find the ground is too dark to make out any details.


The trick is to take several pictures of the subject. The bright areas, the dark areas and the middle brightness each have their own photograph. They call it bracketing. Then you overlay them in a piece of software that’s clever enough to compensate for the little bits of movement between shots. Finally, you apply a thing called tone mapping. This makes the colours brighter, more vibrant.

Anyway, I’d hoped to see the buzzard again while I was out, but from what the guy said it seemed unlikely. So I lined up my trees, and took my pictures. And no, I didn’t see the bird, so I’m assuming the worst, and the day was all the poorer for it. Indeed, it lent the landscape an air of doom and threat. The photography wasn’t a success either, other than getting the exercise in. The light was too flat to take advantage of the technique. But most of all I’d messed up with various settings along the way and my shots wouldn’t line up.


Even the best results I got were peculiar, and noisy, a far cry from the images you see by professionals. But one step at a time. We’ll try again on the next walk, different light, different settings. After all, I’m not looking to sell to National Geographic here. I like to stumble upon the occasional shot of my travels that makes me go “wow”! That’s the nature of amateur photography and the limit of my aspirations.


Seeing an egret the other day had perked my spirits up. It had me wondering if we weren’t turning a corner, after the darkness of 2020, and what I interpret as a gravely flawed mindset that’s resulted in over 100,000 dead. But the loss of that buzzard has left a hole. It’s made we wonder if we’re still subject to dark forces oppressing us, even now, with a vaccine being rolled out.


All wild birds are protected in the UK. That said, it’s okay to shoot some of them under licence by calling it “pest control”. Which birds are classed as pests, and why they’re considered pests is very much the subject of debate. On the one side you have the RSPB who don’t like to shoot birds. Then you have the legislators in the middle who make the rules. And on the other side there are the lobby groups like the Countryside Alliance, who represent those who do like to shoot birds. Buzzards can be shot legally under licence – mostly around airports where’s they present a clear danger to life and limb – but the terms are very strict. I’m guessing the majority of birds elsewhere are shot on the sly, either due to ignorance, or more likely moneyed interest.


Personally I’d rather observe, and protect wild birds than look for loopholes so I can shoot them. I’m sure whoever shot that buzzard felt they were justified and could give me a heated dressing down regarding my naivety and ignorance in the ways of the real world and proper country living, which is fair enough, and better for me to think they didn’t just do it for fun.


But this isn’t getting to my point, which appears to be hammering my attempts at photography into a metaphor of sorts. And I think it has to do with degrees of awakening. As I said, not everyone likes the high dynamic range look. Colours can seem over-blown, airy-fairy even a bit trippy. They can take a dull, flat-lit scene and explode it into a Van Gough. But as with light, so with thought. The fact we’ve come up with rules to protect wild birds suggests we’re capable of attaining a much higher dynamic, even though a narrower and near monochromatic attitude persists, and will always find ways and means of undermining the best efforts of those more awakened. It’s a complex argument, and the other lot have guns, but I’d sooner be on my end of the spectrum than theirs. I’d sooner look for ways a creature can avoid being shot than contriving reasons for why it should.


I’d been looking forward to getting more pictures of that buzzard over the summer, getting to know its territory, its favoured vantage points, then I could sneak myself within range of a sharper image. Looks like I’ll be sticking to trees for a while though, trying to make them look Van Gough and trippy. It’s an interest, and it gets me outdoors. And yes, I still like high dynamic range photography, even when it doesn’t quite work.


wikimedia commons

It was a big, white fisher-bird, smaller than a heron. It was of a similar build to a heron, but more slender, more elegant. It was an egret, I think, the first I’ve seen in the wild and an incongruous sight, out among the potato fields. I’d go so far as to say it was exotic, and had the feel of an omen about it, meaning what, I don’t know,… but something, surely?

I’d come upon it suddenly, disturbed its fishing, and it had risen silently, gracefully from a deep drainage ditch between meadows. It’s not a well walked path, the path I was on. It meanders across the flats from Rufford, towards Croston. For a right of way, it’s hard to pick up and hard to navigate. As usual the way markings had gone, and it was years since I’d last walked it, so all memory of past trials had faded. You have to check the map to make sure you’re on the correct side of the ditches, or you’ll walk to a dead end, another broad ditch crossing your path. Then you’ll see your proper way on the other side, but with no way to cross and a long way to back-track.

I’ve jumped these ditches in the past, in desperation and frustration, but at times of flood, they run deep and wide and cold. They’re also steep sided, so you’d struggle to get out if you missed your step and slipped in. Anyway there’s no dignity in it. Dignity is finding your way by means of the proper way, the right of way. There are more convenient routes around here, routes that present no difficulty at all, but those are farm tracks signposted to tell you there’s no public way,… trespass and all that. Naturally the markings on those are hard to miss and tend not to disappear.

So, it was an egret, then. Swan-white, like an omen did I say? Well, maybe a blessing. Whatever, it was beautiful.

It had been a morning of contrasts. Clear and cold, the ground beginning to thaw a little, so it was firm underfoot, without being too hard. There was still a little snow lying about, and the flooded fields were sheets of ice, with a cold wind blowing off them.

I’d just come down from the cut of the River Douglas. It had dropped twenty feet from the weekend floods, stranding a thick line of unwholesome detritus, up on the banks. There were bottles, supermarket bags, footballs, tennis balls, all manner of glass and plastic, a line of rubbish stretched from Wigan, out to the Ribble, and from there to the sea, for the sea to wash it all back up on the beaches from Blackpool to the Hebrides. The supermarket bags of course would find their way into the bellies of whales, who mistake them for jelly-fish. There’s something sinister, I think, about this man-meddled stretch of the Douglas, something godless about it.

The land here, once marshland, is pretty much an open-air factory, cut up into squares, and navigated in straight lines, north-south, east-west. I’ve long found it aesthetically sterile, interest coming only sporadically in the occasional lone tree or in the skies at the day’s extremes. Lots of it has been turning back to wetland though, these past few winters, as the water-table rises.

An egret! Really? Are you sure?

I’d had the camera, but the wrong lens, and anyway, there was no time. The bird was up and off and out of range before I even thought of a photograph. I had a wide lens on, so that bird would have been a small white dot against the winter blue, indistinguishable from a seagull. Landscapes are more my speed. They give me time to fumble through the settings on the camera. It’s our fourth year together now, master and apprentice, the camera being the master, teaching me about the contemporary art of the possible. The single lens reflex cameras I grew up with from the 70’s onwards, were a much simpler affair, and easier to get along with. These modern digital versions are a bit daunting, with more options on them than I can learn in a lifetime. Fiddle with a few settings, and you’ve a whole new camera, and that’s even before you change the lens. But it’s an interest, and it gets me out.

Spot meter. That’s what I was experimenting with today. You measure the light from the brightest area of the frame, get that exposed right, so the details of it don’t burn out, but the rest gets under-exposed, which makes it go dark. It can be tinkered with on the computer to look a bit arty. Anyway, I’d shot a dozen pictures on the way round before noticing the focus was on manual, so they were all blurred. Too many things to control. Thirty shots, and all deleted when I got them on the big screen at home, except for two or three that made the cut.

The lone tree, above, shot into the sun was one. The frozen track was ablaze with reflected light. It was part intended and part good luck. I’ve photographed the same scene a dozen times in all seasons, and mostly it looks nothing like that, except this morning, it did, and for once the camera and I saw things the same way.

Then there was the weeping tree – beech or birch, I don’t know. That was an unusual find – easier to spot in winter when most other trees look dead. This one was dreaming though. It was by this tree I saw the egret, which added to the magic of that little spot – the Egret and the Dreaming Tree? Good title for a story.

Did I tell you how dreary I find it, around here, normally? Ten square miles of assorted vegetables and mud. But I have to admit, as I’ve been forced to look closer, this pandemic year, denied the distraction of broader adventures, it’s begun to open up a little, and share its secrets.

I’m wondering if the Environment Agency has stopped the pumps that drain the fields into the Douglas. Maybe that’s why the ditches are topped so frequently now, and the land turned to lakes. There were rumours of it some years back – austerity and all that. A guy once told me that if they ever stopped pumping, the giant mere you see on old maps of Lancashire would be back inside a decade. Sure, there’d be shortages of Lancashire potatoes and carrots if that happened, as a goodly portion of the crop looks to be ruined every year now anyway, but with the water, the birds are returning. And with everything else in a tailspin, that has to be a good sign, hasn’t it?

Below the hill there stood an oak tree.
Beneath the oak there was a stone,
And the stone, it was an anchor
To hold the heavens down.

But then came the generations,
For whom the heavens grew dim.
Then came the man who built a house
And sealed himself within.

The house stood in a garden,
But the garden was too small,
So he burned the tree and broke the stone,
To extend his garden wall.

Then his pastures grew infertile,
As the sun-king lost his mind,
And the moon, she raised the wind and rain
And turned his lands to slime.

The heavens, they waited patiently,
Above the man’s bowed head,
But the stone was gone, the tree was burned
And the heavens? No, they could not return,
Until both man and house were gone,
And from the rested ground there grew,
From sleeping acorns, trees anew.

Then the sun king smiled,
And the moon his queen,
And blessed those men who quietly,
Raised back the stones from memories
Of when in former times we’d heard
The heavens whispering in our dreams.

The story of the Fisher King is best known as a fragment of the Arthurian Grail myth. It comes to us from various sources, the earliest being Celtic paganism. Later versions are more Christianized and somewhat opaque to analysis – at least for me. But essentially, the story speaks of the wasteland of the world, and a malaise we feel unable to heal. I’ve been confused by its various tellings, and am therefore grateful to Robert Johnson’s book, “The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden”, for stripping away the layers of literary flourish, romanticism, and religiosity, and for helping me to get to grips with the mythical core of it.

We each react to life in different ways, depending on our personality type. In Jungian typology there are four functions: Thinking, Intuiting, Sensing and Feeling. Thinking, we weigh the facts, but in doing so our thoughts attach no particular value to themselves. Sensing, we take the world in through our senses, but again our senses themselves pass no judgment on those sensations. Intuiting, we leap the gaps in logic, but we intuit no value to our intuitions. Only the feeling function adds life-value, adds meaning to the world we perceive but, sadly, most of us are underdeveloped in the feeling function. Life therefore lacks meaning, and we compensate by chasing it through the other functions: thinking, and seeking ever more sensual experience, but this is fruitless; only feeling can bring meaning back into our lives. Only feeling can restore the full richness to a world that is on the one hand technologically advanced, but on the other emotionally bankrupt.

This is what the story of the Fisher King is about – our loss of feeling, the reasons why, and, like all myths, having lost it (because as humans we always lose it) how we get it back.

So, the story goes, we find ourselves in a barren land, night coming on amid an endless forest and, just as we think we are lost, we discover a lake. On the lake there is a boat, and in the boat there is a man, fishing. We are looking for shelter, for nourishment, for safety, so ask directions. The man tells us there is no dwelling, no nourishment, no place of safety within thirty miles, but if we go down the road we’re on, just a little way, then turn left, we will find a castle. If we cross the drawbridge and enter, we will be received and welcomed.

So, here’s a contradiction: there is no place of safety for many miles, yet, just down the way a little, turn left, and there’s a castle, the ultimate symbol of fortified safety. But this is no ordinary castle. This is the Grail castle, place of legend – the Grail being any one of various symbolic maguffins, depending on which version of the story you read. Later Christian versions have it as the cup of Christ, earlier versions as a Celtic cauldron, the source of all life, still others as a stone that fell from the heavens. However you choose to represent it, and whatever the nature of your malaise, the important thing to remember about the Grail is that its mere proximity can bring healing.

All of this is mythical, metaphorical – not literal – so the castle does not exist anywhere but in the imagination. That’s what the mysterious fishing man means – no dwelling within thirty miles, nothing in the material world will bring us safety. So carry on a bit – do as you were doing before – but turn left, symbolic of the way of the inner life. To find safety therefore, we must cross a liminal zone, cross the castle moat, the drawbridge. There we find ourselves in a special place, the infinite ground of being, the collective unconscious, the underworld, the world of the Fey, the place where myth plays out.

Every night there is a ceremony at the castle, just as every night we dream. The castle is the inner self. Every night, the Grail is paraded, and each participant is invited to partake of it. Everyone does so, except for the one man who cannot. This is the man we encountered earlier, the fisherman. But it turns out he’s also the king, the keeper of the Grail, and he’s a sick man, too ill to live, yet unable to die. Another contradiction! Could it be, we are describing ourselves here, and the condition of the modern man?

What’s wrong with him? Well, there are various explanations, but most stories have it, he was shot through the groin by an arrow that cannot be pulled out. The wound has left him infertile. He’s unable to rule effectively, so his kingdom ails, as he ails. It has become a wasteland. The only thing that gives him temporary respite is fishing on the lake, symbolic of our dabbling with anything that connects us with the unconscious, no matter how tenuous.

He might be cured of his ills, but only by an innocent stranger attending the ceremony of the Grail, and asking a specific question. Are we that innocent stranger? And what is the question? Don’t worry about the answer, the answer will be given. Just asking the right question is sufficient to unlock the puzzle, and cure the king.

All the characters in the myth, as in our dreams, are aspects of ourselves, so we are both the innocent traveller, and the king. We also possess the healing properties of the grail, but are unable to partake of it. To understand why, we need to know more about how the king was wounded, how we were wounded. To be wounded in the groin is symbolic – obviously boding ill for our ability to be fertile, to create. So, it’s bad for the man, and bad for the future of his generations. So our kingdom stagnates. How did things come to such a dreadful pass? Well, it all began with a fish, but not just any fish: the King of fish, the Salmon.

The Salmon harks back to the Celtic roots of the story, it having echoes in the Salmon of Knowledge, from the Irish, Fenian Myth cycle. There, the Salmon gains all the wisdom in the world by eating the hazelnuts that fell into the Well of Wisdom from the trees that encircle it. To catch the Salmon and eat it would therefore bestow the wisdom of the world upon the eater. At this point the stories diverge significantly. In the Celtic, the eating of the salmon indeed brings wisdom, but not to the man intended. In the English and continental European versions, the knowledge is so fierce it burns the eater, and results in his dreadful wounding.

Being all-knowing robs us of a sense of the value and meaning of life. Only contact with the Grail can temper such hardness and help us back on the path. But the wounded fisher is, ironically, too weakened by his wisdom to partake of it, even though he is charged also with being the holder and protector of his own salvation. It requires a return to a certain unaffected innocence, and reminding ourselves of the question:

What question? “Whom does the Grail serve?”

And the reply: “It serves the King.”

By the King, here, is meant something bigger than ourselves. We can call it service to God(s), to the awakening universe, or All that Is, either by seeking direct communion with it, or indirectly through selfless service to others. The story of the Fisher King teaches us that, by the acquisition of knowledge alone, we serve only a part of our selves. We facilitate our technological development, our civilization, but all of this comes at the price of our ultimate development, our evolutionary destiny, as a species.

We are far more technologically advanced now than we were in the Middle Ages, but are no more psychologically evolved, which makes us only the more dangerous to our selves, as our technology outstrips our ability to use it wisely. Without humility and the sense of serving something greater, the world will always lack meaning. And without that sense of meaning, we can never realize our potential, no matter how powerful a gift, the gift of the Salmon of Wisdom.

A man on foot

The cars haven’t moved since New Year. One has a massive thorn sticking out of the sidewall, and it’s slowly leaking air. It’s due a service and MOT in a few weeks, so we’ll leave it until then for the local garage to sort out, if it’s open. If it’s not, we’ll have to SORN the thing until it is. The other car’s battery hovers somewhere close to death, and needs charging. I’m turning both engines over, but I feel I should really be giving them a bit of a run to stop the brakes from seizing up. Is that a necessary journey, though?

Just out for a spin officer, testing the brakes?

Do I look stupid, sir?

So anyway, I’m not travelling out by car, not even a couple of miles to “access open countryside” as the well-worn covid loophole goes. The Tesco man brings the groceries, and between times we make do. Dry January has also killed the need to go to the corner shop for the occasional bottle of wine. Instead, I’m wearing grooves in the local footpath network, taking the camera for long walks on the good days. Thirty-two miles and counting so far. I’ve discovered some gems along the way: unfamiliar and attractive footpaths, lone trees in their bare, winter magnificence, and birds.

On the less walked ways, however, I’m discovering obstruction. Yesterday it was a hundred yard stretch of public footpath, barely a meter wide, squashed between a hawthorn hedge on one side, and an electric fence on the other. The landed like their horses. What they don’t like are public paths across the meadows they’ve paid good money for and some will do whatever it takes to discourage you, within the law, and sometimes beyond it. I have also encountered stiles and bridges, long past serviceable, that have tested my mettle. And of course, I’ve fallen foul of disappearing way-markers, usually in the vicinity of farms, or where the paths swing by newly gentrified properties. A man on foot can, at times, be vulnerable to the vagaries of the way, and the will of others who are agin’ him. But the footpath network is an ancient right, and I’ll have my way. We need them now, more than ever, so I urge you to get out, find them, and use them.

Anyway, after a month of retirement I discover I am missing only two things: a walk over the moors, and a busy coffee-shop. Ordinarily, the press and noise of others irritates me. But I would give anything for half an hour with a Mocha and a bun, in a corner café, while watching the world go by. Takeaways are a big thing these days, of course. I’m resisting them as an unnecessary (and possible paranoid) risk, though I know they’re the only way the corner café’s can keep going under the present circumstances. Everyone is hugging a cardboard coffee now, many of which are then discarded in the hedgerows, along with masks and surgical gloves. Still, it makes a change from the monotony of hanging bags of poo.

I have not missed working. I’d thought I might – at least certain aspects of it. But now the first pension payment has arrived, and the time stretches ahead, unhurried, and every hour of it my own. The house’s various neglected corners are being freshened up. The long leaking gutters don’t leak any more. Yes, the economy is in ruins and Mr Chancellor wants my savings to prop it up, but no deal, mate. You’re getting not a penny, until I’ve had my jab – some time between May and June, according to the OMNI calculator.

In other news, I note Brexit is starting to bite where we thought it would: import, export, supply chains, tax, services, banking. The pesky Europeans are even confiscating the lorry driver’s butties. But on the up-side we’re told the fish are now happy to be British. Happy, however, will not be the British, queuing come summer in the slow lane at EU passport control, along with all the other foreigners.

Thirty-two miles and counting, Michael. There’s clearly life in you yet, and all from your own doorstep. Keep it up, mate.