Feeds:
Posts
Comments
On Withnell Moor – West Pennines

There’s a remoteness about the Withnell moors that belies the fact even the loneliest bits of them are probably only half an hour’s walk from the well populated villages of Brinscall, or Abbey Village. In the nineteenth century they were home to many small-scale farms but, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, changing times were making it harder to justify such remote habitation, the mills and quarries being more of a draw for employment than farming, at least on this scale. Then an outbreak of typhoid, in Kent (1897), sent the public health bodies into a spin. The Withnell moors were (and still are) part of the water catchment area for the city of Liverpool, and the urgent word went out we should avoid anything, animal or human, defecating upon it. So the leases were withdrawn, and the farms fell to ruin.

I’ve come here today to photograph the sycamores at one particular ruin, Grouse Cottage. The weather’s fair for now, though looking a bit changeable, and I find I’m in the mood to explore further, if I can. I’m wondering if in fact, we can find a route up Great Hill from this end of the West Pennines. There isn’t one marked on the map, and scant trace of such in aerial photographs. But it would make sense, this group of farms being linked by a humble walked way, to the now similarly ruined farms over on the Heapey side of the moor. We’ll see.

The sycamores at Grouse Cottage

Grouse Cottage looks like it’s been gone centuries, but it was still lived in in the 1950s, one of the last of the farms to be vacated. I have seen photographs of it from its working days, and can only say its eradication has been most severe. Interesting to me, my mother, resident nearby in Abbey Village until 1960, would have known it as a working farm. A small piece of it is still standing, which adds some architectural interest to the photograph of the trees – this being what was the outside lavatory. The rest is left to imagination. It was dramatically positioned with fine views but, like all the farms out this way, and from the stories my mother told, a hell of a place to be in winter.

Twisted Beech – Botany Bay

From Grouse Cottage we head south now, to the corner of a tumbled drystone wall, then west, towards Rushy brook. We cross by the ruins of Popes, another lost farm, then onto the rise of the moor, and eventually to a curious, lone beech tree by the ruins of Botany Bay. This farm is renamed on OS maps from the 1930’s as the “Summer House”, it’s having by then been abandoned, and adapted for use as what I suppose was a luncheon hut, for the grouse shooting fraternity. Little remains of it now. The tree is remarkable though – twisted, stunted by ferocious weather, but stoically hanging on. Remarkable too is an upright stone, unworked and heavily weathered, one I reckon predates the farm by several thousand years and marks a previous era of habitation.

Botany Bay stone

From Botany Bay there is a sketchy path south and west, towards the trees that mark the ruins of Solomon’s and New Temple. It’s New Temple I’m after, to a little isthmus of benign pasture that marks the end of the ancient enclosures, and their abutment with the wilderness of uncultivated moor. If there’s a route up Great Hill, here’s where we’ll find it.

The temple isn’t an actual temple, no doubt much to the disappointment of the neo-pagans who have been known to frequent it, in search of “vibes”. It’s just another ruined farm, marked by a pair of magnificent sycamores, romantic in their isolation, and striking today with a background of moody sky. There are heavy showers sweeping the plain, drifting up the Ribble Valley, circling behind us over Darwen Moor. Meanwhile, we enjoy an island of calm and intermittent hazy sun. Anything incoming is at least thirty minutes away, but we seem to be in the eye of the system, so I reckon we’ll be okay.

It turns out there is indeed a little-walked path from here – no more than a sheep-trod, but inspiring sufficient confidence to explore further. It takes us up the nondescript hummock of Old Man’s Hill, then loosely follows the line of Rushy Brook, into the lap of Great Hill. I wouldn’t come this way in poor weather as it would be hard to trace, and it’s a rum wasteland of tussocky grass to go off course in, but otherwise the way makes sense, and follows a reasonably dry route.

The New Temple Sycamores

The plan now, if we can avoid a drenching, is to take in the top of Great Hill, then circle back via Pimms and the Calf Hey brook. I was there some weeks ago, but I want to shoot the trees at Pimms again, against this impressive sky, and to get a name for them. The buds are opening now and hopefully will reveal their signature leaves – sycamores probably.

Great Hill summit – West Pennines

There’s not a soul on Great Hill, again. Everyone must be in the pubs, or the shops as we find ourselves once more in one of those “hair down”, between wave periods. Meanwhile, the weather dances round us, a whirligig of drama, while our own steps remain blessed by dry, and that lingering crazy, hazy sun. This place feels as familiar as the back of my own hand, but no matter how well we think we know a place, there is always another perspective, always something fresh to be gained. If that insight is the one blessing of these Covid restrictions, then so be it.

As for the trees at Pimms, they are indeed sycamores, the same as at Solomon’s, and Grouse Cottage, common enough on the moors, as anywhere. The Woodland Trust tells me they’re not native to our islands, sycamores having been introduced in the 15th or 16th centuries from mainland Europe. They’re hard as nails though, as evidenced by their soaring height here, in defiance of the harshest weather Lancashire can muster. They’ve outlived the farms anyway, stand as monuments to them and, in the present day, provide beacons for navigation.

Roddlesworth falls

So, now we’re heading down through the plantations at Roddlesworth again – a second chance to grab a decent shot of the little falls on the Roddlesworth river. I make a better job of it this time – the Lumix I’m carrying today being a much faster camera than the Nikon I used some weeks before. Then the car’s waiting, my good lady’s car today. Unlike mine, it can navigate the humps and hollows of Roddlesworth lane, without getting beached.

As we ease off the boots, the rain catches up with us. It’s nothing dramatic – more gentle and cooling. It’s been kind enough to hold off for our walk, and a little wet is welcome after such a long period of dry. My garden will appreciate it, and it should replenish the water-butts, which are already at rock bottom.

It turned out to be a good circuit, not as far as it feels on the legs though – about five and a half miles, seven hundred feet of ascent or so. It was a little eerie. Being more used to dodging Covid crowds, I saw not a soul all afternoon, and had only the ghosts among the ruins for company. To be sure this is one of the loneliest of approaches to Great Hill I know.

There’s something sobering about the lost farms of the West Pennines. It’s the idea of, season after season, eking out a hard living from an unforgiving moor, and now those lives passed on, moved on as all things change and move on, and the reeds grow back, where once the deep-walled lane echoed to the sound of the passing cart and the driven beasts. And the multi-storied life, hard won, is reduced in no time at all to a pile of knee-high rubble, to be poked at, and pondered by passing Romantics, like me.

For more information on this part of the world, do check out:

“The lost farms of Brinscall Moor” by David Clayton

In spite of the ongoing pandemic, there are local elections taking place in various areas on May 6th. For anyone on the left, politics can seem like something of a lost cause these days. There is the hope we still have a shout in the locals though, and the Party cheerleaders, and their friends at the Guardian this week, are certainly keeping their peckers up in that respect. Locally though, we’re a little more realistic and expect a drubbing.

Once in a blue moon, I drop leaflets for the local constituency Labour Party. It’s a mystery how I’ve ended up doing this. My son was (briefly) a party member, so it’s his job really, but he resigned in dismay, post 2019, post Corbyn. And what with Bad Boy Boris still sailing high in the polls, on the strength of 130,000 dead, he’s lost faith in the topsy-turvy world of politics, and that anything can ever change for the better. That said, we managed to squeak our guy into the borough council chamber last time, which meant a Labour majority. But now the boundaries have been changed to include a larger swathe of blue, and he’s not so hopeful of being re-elected. When he accosted me over the garden hedge, sounding me out about the leaflets again, I got the impression we were just going through the motions, but he’s a nice guy, and I have the time, and why not?

So I’ve been out in the spring sunshine, wandering up garden paths with all the confidence of a man on official business. There are about a hundred properties, some of them remote. The boss-class Jags and Beamers on the driveways confirm this is not your natural Labour heartland, but I don’t want the Blues thinking they’ve a clear run. And one never knows.

Letter boxes are interesting things, at least they are if you’re in a philosophical frame of mind. Those up-tight double flapped draught excluder ones (like the one I have) are the worst. They scrunch up your neatly folded leaflets and trap them somewhere between the inside and the outside. Postmen must really hate them. And if you try to shove your hand through to lift the inner flap and get your stuff through cleanly, they’ll trap your fingers, if you’ve rings on them.

Then there are the old-fashioned easy lift-up type with the busted return springs – the type that rattle and squeak a bit in the wind. They’re the best, suggestive of a relaxed household, one that’s garden gnomey, with a cosy cat curled up somewhere. Your leaflets just sail through those. Then there are the posh mail-boxes that stand like sentries, keeping you at a distance from the door.

Long, scrunchy gravel driveways, electric gates, electric fences, keep out signs, beware of the dog signs, and the plethora of security cameras that protect wealthy egos, they’re all intimidating, but I’m on official business. I’m representing your local councillor, so I shall pass!

After the rout of the general election in 2019, we’ve entered a strangely post-political era, Orwellian in many ways, post truth, post fact, and with a media either powerfully in support of the incumbent, or shamelessly supine in not calling out even their most egregious transgressions. The left too, is in a pretty hopeless state, something self-neutering about it. On the plus side, I’m impressed by the various independent media – Novara, Double Down News, Byline Times, but they’re preaching to the converted and I don’t see them getting much traction in the main-stream. My own position these days, while still left leaning, has somewhat transcended the fray.

I’m working on the assumption the coming years will be turbulent as Brexit bites, and the Union disintegrates. There’s also the chance of a return to sectarian bloodshed in Ireland, and for which History will judge the British harshly, unless, as seems likely, History will be abolished, unless it can be proven to be Patriotic. Meanwhile, the right-authoritarians consolidate their grip even further on hearts and minds, by blaming it all on someone else. Politics is one of the most complicated stories there is, but all we want are simple answers, which is why many of us would sooner get our information from the crass soundbites of Youtube and Facebook pundits, making us all suckers for disinformation and spin.

A handful of leaflets for the locals isn’t going to change any of that. But it gets you round the houses, and it’s nice to see the various ways people make the approaches to their homes homely, or otherwise. Almost everyone I met was pleasant. The two ladies taking morning tea in their sunny front garden were charming, and received my leaflets like they were the most important missives they’d had in weeks. Just the one curmudgeon told me where to shove them. Then there’s the party member, and conference vet. If he sees you out and about, that’s it for an hour on the subject of where the left is going wrong, like I really care any more. He’s talked to this person and that person (drop name here) “at conference”, lets you know he knows infinitely more about politics than you ever will, as he may well do. But I do wonder why he isn’t he taking the leaflets round instead of me.

Anyway, May 6th. Whatever your political stripes, do read those leaflets. I know they’re cringe-worthy and my lot managed to wiggle in a few typos, which will have raised eyebrows among the keener eyed. But they’re the only info you’ll get unless you’re lucky enough to be door-stepped by your local candidates, and they tend only to go for the known floaters. I know, politics is mostly bullshit and name-calling, but votes count. So let’s have your votes.

And now after all that dirty politics talk, I need a bath in something slow, repetitive, and with lots of reverb:

On empty legs

Pikestones – Anglezarke Moor

I’ve been out of sorts recently: low energy, and the back’s been aching, threatening something dire in the region of the sciatic nerve. But the weather’s been fair, I thought the air would clear the head, and a bit of a walk loosen the back. A short hike to the Pikestones was far enough, and I was curious to see if the sit-mat was still there, after leaving it behind on my last visit. I did not like to think of it littering. Better to retrieve it, though there was a good chance a passing walker might have adopted it.

I felt washed out as I started the climb by Parson’s Bullough, and by the time I came to the ladder-style by Peewit Hall, I was running on empty. Here, I reached up to hook the top of it with my arm – resistant to grabbing hold of things with the hands, due to Covid transmission fears – but I missed. No bother, I thought, the legs will hold me while I have another swing at it. They didn’t. There was nothing in them. They buckled, and I sailed backwards into the ditch.

I checked the camera for damage. It was fine. I was fine, just no energy. Plus, I was an idiot. Damn Covid! Damn its cursed erosion of trust, that we fear to touch what others might have touched, fear to go where others might have gone. We cannot live like this forever!

Anyway, there were peewits out in the meadow, curlew coming over from the moor, bleat of lambs with the season in full swing. And I could hear skylarks. Beat of life. Beat of nature. Rush of sap to the swelling buds – just not my buds. I was blocked, or leaking somewhere. Steady, slowly to your feet, take a few deliberate breaths. Reach. Now grab. GRAB dammit! With your hand. And look: gnarled wood under the palm, bleached under a thousand suns, deep pitted, patterned with crusty lichens, yellow-green and teal. It’s darker, and shiny where other hands have touched it, smoothed it in their passing. The texture. The beauty,… Yes, all right, all right,… I get the message.

I took a firm hold, and made it over the second time, dropped the pace the rest of the way to the Pike Stones. When you know you’re running off-song, there’s no sense flooring it and burning a hole through a piston. Okay, so here we are. Sit, now. Breathe. Qigong breathing. Remember that? Deep. Slow. Find the centre. I’ve been neglecting the Qigong, forgetting its principles. I’ve let it go off the boil a bit. Anyway, the sit mat wasn’t there. It’s been adopted – and welcome. Such an easy thing to do, forget your sit-mat. Gormless though.

It was chicken and mushroom soup from the thermos for lunch. Scan the plain below through the binocs. Chorley, Southport, Liverpool, Preston, Lake District, Snowdonia – everything where it should be, only myself slightly displaced if not exactly in space and time, then metaphysically, somehow, and no I can’t explain what I mean by that.

I took my time heading back, feeling cross on account of Ego, which has little patience for empty legs. Ego wanted Great Hill, Spitler’s Edge, Winter Hill. It wanted the endless miles and the indestructibility of youth. Just three miles brought me around by the lead mines, an insult to the Ego, but the bones and feet were aching like I’d done a ten-miler. Paradoxically, the back felt easier. Strange that but, as a cure for back-ache, launching oneself backwards from a ladder stile is a little extreme, and hardly to be recommended. The car was waiting with a smile. I dropped the top and basked a while in the restorative tonic of a noonday sun. Then I drove home.

Rushy Brow – Anglezarke Moor

The bones responded well to a hot bath, then I flicked through the bagged shots with a glass of red. Blue skies are uninteresting now. To think: how I used to edit the holiday pics, take out the cloudy skies. Look, look what good weather we had! Now, give me dynamic skies, and a camera that can handle them! Things change. We age. We grow. Patience. Qigong. Meditation. Remember? I’ve forgotten these things – our little Tai Chi group blown to smithereens over a year ago now by the damned Covid. Lord knows if we’ll ever breathe deep of the same air as each other again, touch others, explore their centre with the dancing grace of Push Hands and all without the fear of germs.

So much has been lost, we’ll be a generation counting the scale of it. Was it inevitable we would grind things out as long and slow as this? Might things have been different with a more urgently human-centric approach from the beginning? Let it rip,… Let the bodies be piled in their,… no, don’t go there, Mike. Let others pick at that one. Anyway, all that was a week ago. I’m feeling better now, the energy returning. Sometimes that’s the way, and you just have to be easy on yourself in the meantime. The weather looks like being a mixed bag for the remainder of the week: April showers, interesting skies.

Time we were out again.

I’ll take the ticking of my father’s watch

And the tales my mother told,

And I shall pack them safe with fragrances,

In the pocket of my soul.

There shall be sandalwood and cinnamon,

For days beneath the sun,

While for the moon I’ll ride on lavender,

Until the dreaming has begun.

And there I shall encamp myself,

In a meadow by the sea

And from the shore I shall take pebbles,

As round as round can be.

And I shall plant them in that dreaming earth,

A dreaming circle wide,

And wait upon the morning,

And the coming of my guide.

I shall know him by his wisdom,

And the feeling I am blessed.

Then we shall wait upon the sunset

And a boat, into the west.

Pimms ruin, Withnell Moor, Lancashire

There’s something seductive about the River Roddlesworth, the way it comes down through its wooded gorge in a series of cascades. Flowing roughly from south to north, it picks up the morning sunlight which sparkles upon it like a scattering of fairy dust, and adds a layer of magic. It also makes it hard to photograph, if you’re moving upstream. From the brightness of the spilling sun to the shadow of the deep wooded valley, it presents a dynamic range that defeats casual photography. Well, it defeated me, anyway. One needs a set-up, a tripod, and bracketed exposures to be overlapped in post-processing. I tried it hand-held, but the shutter speeds were too slow, and the movement between frames was too much for post-processing to make sense of.

I’ve always known it as Rocky Brook, this being a more descriptive title used by locals – or at least those of my mother’s generation who grew up nearby. The word “river” summons the image of something broader, more physically powerful. Rocky Brook is more sylvan, subtle and secretive.

River Roddlesworth, West Pennine Moors

It has numerous sources in the water catchment areas of the Withnell and Darwen moors. One of them is the Calf Hey Brook which appears from under a culvert, crossed by the A675. It’s here, where the road cuts through, the plantations thin out to their soured and less photogenic fringes. It’s here the unconscious and the unconscionable sling rubbish from out of car windows. As a liminal zone, from ferny forest to open moor, it lacks subtlety. There’s something altogether more brutal and unwholesome about it, not least in the breakneck rush of vehicles. As a scenic moorland road it’s impressive, though it does rather encourage speed and accidents. Here, from the roadside, having emerged from the dapple-shaded magic of Roddlesworth, to the scatter of beercans, McTakeaway cartons, and the stench of diesel, one feels more keenly the cost of modernity.

However, we try to pay it as little attention as possible and look instead to the vastness of the moor, on the other side of the road. Then, five minutes up the Calf Hey Brook, the road is forgotten again. It has become a crass irrelevance amid the rapture of skylarks as we focus on our next objective: the trees at Pimms.

The moor is tinder dry now, a desert of straw, but the ruins of Pimms farm stand out on a mound of emerald green. I presume this is the result of generations of dung from its farming days. I found a lunch spot by a ruined wall, sat down on sun-warmed stones to contemplate this former abode amid the quintessential wilds of a Lancashire moor.

I am still feeling blessed by my early retirement, more so as the weather warms and days lengthen. It’s such a pleasure to be able to get out like this, do what I want, when I want, without always the queasy thought of a return to work at the back of my mind. A commuter slave ’till last year’s end, I now wander my locality seeking and photographing statuesque trees, like these at Pimms. It’s not what I’d planned, but it fits nicely with these days of Covid blues. It also adds another objective to a day’s walk, besides taking in the tops, especially when the more distant tops might be denied by dint of HMG’s ongoing emergency powers.

Pimms Ruin, Withnell Moor

Forgetting Covid for a moment, our lives have changed immeasurably since Pimms was lived in – I’m talking about working lives now. That would have been in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. But the world is always a vortex, and things were changing fast for these people even then. Small-scale farming such as this was in decline, in the later Victorian years, and the tenants of the various holdings on the moors were more likely to be finding work in the mills and quarries as England turned to mass manufacture. Eventually, the properties stood empty, the tenancies were not renewed. But now the major manufactories have gone, and those few still working employ a fraction of the people they once did. That old story of transition from agriculture to industrial powerhouse concluded with the Iron Lady and an era as ruinous, and nostalgic for past relevance as the remains of Pimms today.

It’s a puzzle. Where is the western world of work heading? I mean the ordinary work that does not need degrees and shiny shoes, the work people can do when the only thing they can sell is their hands? The next transition is anyone’s guess, and while warehousing and distribution seem dominant, such things are ripe for total automation, not leaving much for those hands to do except pull pints and serve chips. There’s always been something to draw the next generation en masse, into the future, a way for them to sell their labour in exchange for life, and some state protections, but these are strange times, and we seem to be staring into an abyss. It’s no longer my problem of course. I’ve escaped the treadmill, but still I wonder.

Pimms is a lovely, emotive ruin. It would have been a hard life out here in winter, but in the balmier seasons, it must have been a beautiful place to lay your head. In his excellent guide “The Lost Farms of Brinscall Moor“, author David Clayton tells us it was the Brownlow family who last lived here, their traces recorded in the census of 1881 and 1891, a mum a dad, two boys and a grandma. As far as I know no photographs exist of it in its heyday, so we’re left with imagination, and its outline on the OS map of 1849, which suggests something of the traditional Lancashire Longhouse design.

I wonder what became of the Brownlows, when they finally came down off the moor. These trees would have been much smaller then, and are now risen without help as impressive markers to past lives. This is still a gorgeous spot to pause, to enjoy the shade, while on the climb to Great Hill. I spent a while here with the camera. The sun was just about on the meridian, and the light harsh, but managed some passable shots.

Great Hill, West Pennine Moors

And while I was so close, I took in the top, surprised to find I had it to myself. When I was last up here, it was standing room only. But today the pubs were open after a long period of closure. Driving over, I’d passed one after the other, and the crowds were all sitting outside in summery colours, like they were glad to be alive. Myself, I still think it unwise, rushing back to the pubs. It’s hard I know, for more social types, and for whom the pub is as “English” as cricket and warm beer. But we’re balancing the risks of health against wealth – your health against the wealth of the hospitality lobby.

The plantations around Roddlesworth were busier on my return. At one point I was mobbed by a pack of excitable dogs. There must have been a dozen or more, all shapes and sizes, all off the lead, and running amok. A somewhat Bohemian looking couple came sauntering up, offering the usual oh, they’re just playing, they won’t touch you, platitudes. But I remembered how a guy I know had a lump torn out of his hand by his own dog, which was also “just playing”, so such reassurances don’t wash with me. Still, Covid, or a dog-bite? I suppose making way in life is always a balance of risk, set against that backdrop of an endlessly changing world. Something’s going to get you in the end. And we only escape the harshness of that fact in moments of contemplation, perhaps in transcendental company, amid the dappled shade of timeless trees.

Keep well. Graeme out.

Photo by Mauru00edcio Mascaro on Pexels.com

She was waiting by the shop, dropped into the car without a word, and turned her head half away from me, like in the old days, as if to discourage conversation. Not a good start, you might say. I preferred to think it was just her way – a little haughty, and ever so “cool”. The main thing is she was here, in my car, filling it with her scent, and with the mysterious tingle of her womanly being. She wore this crazy-short skirt. And I mean short, so it showed the tops of her stockings. She turned the radio on, found something with a beat and cranked the volume up.

There were two of me that night. There was the me who’d skipped after Lorraine to the bus stop when we were kids. Him, that kid, he was in the driving seat, carried away in the heat and the excitement of her presence. Then there was the other me, the guy who could only look on in a kind of stupefied horror, while this idiot got to work. This was the me who wore the jacket and tie of a white collar job, thought it smart and respectful attire for dating a girl, while everyone else turned out that night as New Romantics, Goths or Emos, all of them in search of this thing called “cool”.

We didn’t see a movie. She changed her mind, wanted a drink in a place well known in those days as a venue for plastic people who’d turn up and pose at one another. The music was loud, which made talking tiresome, everyone just nodding to the beat and looking glum. As for Lorraine, she was with me, but not with me. I was more the anchor around which she floated, while she showed herself off to the rest of the room. The only time she acknowledged my presence was when she tugged off my tie, and she didn’t look too pleased about it. I obviously hadn’t a clue how to be cool, and I’d better get with it.

Then it was on to a club – the only club in town actually – a dive, infamous for broken glass and drugs. I’d never been in before, but the bouncer seemed to know Lorraine and nodded us through. I recognized him as one of the bully-boys from school who nabbed my lunch money, but he didn’t know me now. Had the years changed me so much then?

Inside it was more loud music, and a wall of gyrating bodies. After a couple of drinks, Lorraine too was becoming more animated. I wasn’t drinking on account of driving. Sure, I could have done with loosening up a bit, but it gave me a clarity of vision I suppose everyone else lacked that night.

At some point she hooked up with a bunch of girls she knew, and they took to the dance-floor. I’d already made myself look un-cool over the tie business, indeed seemed unable to find my “cool” anywhere, and I didn’t want to make things worse by attempting to dance. So I propped up the bar, drank fizzy water, and then the God of Men broke through my thick skull, and woke me up.

There were pills circulating. Who knows what they were in those days? The kids probably had kid names for them, like they still do. I suppose you could only dance like that if you were off your head on something, everyone so completely gone. Was this what “cool” looked like, then? I wondered. If so, it looked disturbingly nihilistic, and certainly not pointing to any future I aspired to. Or more likely I just didn’t get it, and the notion of “cool” was beyond my small-town comprehension.

Sometimes, Lorraine would flick me a smile, but mostly she stuck to her mates, whom I guess she’d intended hooking up with all along, but with the added kudos of some guy in tow and what I had begun to uncharitably suspect was simply a ride home whenever she needed it. That smile was definitely an improvement in our relationship, but I reckon that was only because she was by now as stoned as everyone else, and she couldn’t tell me apart from all the other guys she was flirting with.

It was small-hours late when we spilled out. She was unsteady on her heels and giggly. It was the first sign I’d had she’d hit a point of happiness. But it had taken copious quantities of alcohol, and whatever pills she’d been washing down with it to get her there. Whatever this “cool” was, it was a hard task-master, and demanded a heavy price the morning after. I wondered what her mother would make of it when I dropped her off back home, if she’d blame me for not looking after her better. But that was real old-school thinking, and those days were already long gone. Anyway, Lorraine wasn’t done yet. When we sank into the car, she took my hand, clamped it between her thighs and stuck her tongue down my throat. She tasted of booze, and her perfume, so alluring to begin, had soured now with the cling of cigarettes.

“Let’s go somewhere,” she said.

She meant a dark country lane, and the back seat. But it wasn’t really her speaking. It was whoever took a hold of her when she was in this state. Still, the younger me might have gone for it, not seen what this other person wanted was simply “it”, and not necessarily me also, and worse, when the real Lorraine reappeared next morning, she’d either not remember a thing, or she’d be cringing with regrets.

I was entirely in the hands of that God of Men now, and I fear he’d not done such a good job up to now. Or was it that the God of Women was the more powerful, and I’d been unable to hear him above the noise of all that loud music? Anyway, he had me driving round on the pretence of knowing the perfect spot for such a desperate tryst. Just stall her, mate, he was saying, while you think this through.

Think? I couldn’t think. I was feeling the future shaking apart, and I was terrified of going too far with a girl who was sexy as hell, but seemed of a sudden darkly strange, and in exchange for what? For more nights like this? Is this what the world of Lorraine looked like? Was this “cool”? Then the fates intervened, as I realized of course they’d been intervening between us all our lives. The God of Men clanged the gates shut with her behind them, and me safe on the other side again. She fell asleep, woke as I stopped the car outside her mother’s, then she threw up all over her dress, stocking-tops and all. I would rather have spared her that last indignity, but the God of Men knew me better, knew nothing less than a serious sobering up was in order. And it worked.

So,…

“You’re looking a bit peaky, Mike. You okay?”

I’d just finished my second strong shot of coffee, and was already in danger of being not the best of company for Chloe. But she was bright, chatty as always, and I was starting to perk up, feeling better for being with her.

“I’m okay, just slept a bit funny, that’s all.”

That’s the only time I’ve ever lied to her, and we’ve been together now for thirty five years. We’ve seen children and grandchildren into the world, and by the grace of God we’ve dodged the worst of ill health and misfortune. We shared her flat for a while, were lovers from day one. Then we bought a house on the outskirts of town, fixed it up, and tended the garden. It’s been a happy sort of place, and we’ve never felt the need to move on from it. More recently, I got promoted a little beyond where I was comfortable, rode it out as long as I could, then took early retirement. Chloe had been working part-time since the kids were born, and now she’s done the same.

Next time you’re out, and you see a late middle aged couple, still smiling in one another’s company, that’s us. We’re still taking trips to the seaside with a flask of coffee and a blanket to sit upon, still reading and sharing books. Kind of twee, isn’t it? Certainly it’s quite ordinary, yet how little my life would have been without it. The thing is, I could have thrown it away that night with Lorraine, because I’m not the brightest when it comes to women, indeed I’m as easily seduced as the next man by the flash of a stocking-top.

Everyone has a love story to tell. Mine says we shouldn’t want to change ourselves when a girl comes along and makes us feel like shit. But when a girl makes you feel good just for being yourself, then you should take notice because she might just mean it. And if she’s genuine, she’s not the kind you chase with your eyes full of moon. You don’t need to. She just turns up one day, and it’s like you knew her in a past life or something, and you’re simply picking up again from where you left off last time around.

As for Lorraine, I never saw her again. When her mother passed, she took over the shop. For years then, she wore her mother’s blue house-coat, and an odd, tired little smile that seemed to say she knew things others did not. But I reckon some things we’re more at the mercy of than are worth the knowing, and the best we can hope for is we’ll grow out of them before they do us harm. I was afraid that was to be the story of her life, from the queen of cool to a corner shop and hair curlers. But then she sold up some time around the millennium, shipped out to Ibiza for all that party culture, and with a guy half her age in tow. She would have been in her forties then, good-looking. I’d like to think by then she knew the shape of what “cool” was, exactly.

And I like to think she found it.

Photo by Mauru00edcio Mascaro on Pexels.com

Now the thing with Chloe is I’d known her for years, but without realizing I knew her. She was one of the secretaries at the factory, a chatty girl, and ever so friendly. She’d talk to me, soak me dry actually, but she was like that with everyone, and I never thought anything about it. Neither, I’m sure, did she. I’d read novels in the lunch hours – quaint, I know, but this was before the invention of smartphones. She’d ask me what I was reading, ask to borrow the book when I was done with it, then she’d read it and talk to me about the story, and the characters like they were people we both knew. What did I think when he said this and when she said that?. I swear, Chloe found out more about me than I knew about myself during those chats, and all without either of us knowing she was doing it.

I was driving out one lunchtime to buy a wedding gift for a colleague’s upcoming nuptials. She came tapping on the glass saying she’d ride with me. She’d pick out a suitable card, she said, and was I going to the reception? And did I want to sit on the same table as her and her mates?

“Aw, go on, Mike. We’ll look after you.”

We got stuck in traffic on the way back, sneaked in late. Everyone saw of course, assumed we’d been up to something, and took no end of pleasure in teasing us about it. Is that what planted the seed in us? I don’t know. She was just easy to be around, and I swear neither of us thought about it until then, but something had changed. Whenever she came over to talk now, there seemed to be a heat in her, and I could feel it soaking through my bones.

She was renting a flat, but it was stretching her salary. She’d invited a mate to share with her, but it had fallen through. There was something both casual and pointed in the way she told me this, definitely a hint in it, I thought. I wondered how we’d moved on to the point of nearly moving in together, when you couldn’t even say we were going out. I’m not saying she was suggesting we’d be sharing like that, you know, like lovers. We’d be housemates, or something, that’s all. But the gods were also telling me it was a subterfuge, and deep down we both knew it. There was only one place we were heading, and what did that feel like? Well, it felt like pulling on a familiar glove. It fit just right, and I didn’t need to think about it. That’s not to say it wasn’t exciting too.

Still, not being the greatest reader of womankind, I thought I’d better ask if she fancied lunch, one weekend. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t mistaken in the vibes I was getting. I also wanted her to know what kind of guy I was outside of work. I mean, I wasn’t exactly the most exciting type, while Chloe was sparkly and fun. She could have had any guy she wanted.

“Lunch, Mike? Okay. Thought you’d never ask.”

So this was a Friday night, the night before we were due to meet at the coffee shop in town, and I’m thinking about it on the way home, wondering how I’d eventually tell my mother when the pace of things picked up, as I sensed they would. Moving in with a girl was still a racy thing back then, and my mother, born to the Edwardian generation, was bound to have some reservations. I found her fussing with the fire, and out of firelighters. So I said I’d nip to the shop for some. And there behind the counter, like I’d tried to game it so many times before, and failed,… was Lorraine.

She’d bloomed out in a way, travelled, seen things, done things I could not imagine – or so I imagined. And here I was, never left home, asking for a box of stupid firelighters, in an age when everyone else had moved on to gas. I felt like a loser, or at any rate seriously “un-cool”. Nothing new there then. And if I’d paused for a moment I would have realized that’s how Lorraine always made me feel.

“Hello, Mike.”

“Hi. Haven’t seen you in ages.”

“Well, you know, been away for a bit.”

Yes, I’d heard all the rumours by now. She’d dropped out of University, worked in a store down south for a while, then got mixed up with a guy in London. He’d turned out to be a bit of a stoner, and she was well shot of him. Now she was back home. All of that sounds a bit grungy, laid out plain like that, but remember, the god of women looking after her, painting that somewhat dubious history in more of an adventurous light, while making everything I’d done seem ever so dull and conventional.

“I don’t suppose,” she said,…

“Hmm?”

“You fancy going into town tonight? Watch a movie, have a drink, catch up a bit. You know? All those mornings we used to walk to the bus stop together. Remember? Seems so long ago now.”

She’d never said more than a couple of words to me before, and only then with her lids turned down and her head pointing the other way. Now she was full on, eyes wide.

What? She was asking me out? Were the gods having a laugh?

Well what would you have done? Maybe you’d have been right, too. Me? I said okay.

To be continued,…

Photo by Mauru00edcio Mascaro on Pexels.com

It was in the turn of her head as she got down from the bus, the way she blew the hair from her eyes, and pretended not to see me. They might have called it coquettish, back in the old days. But then those were the old days, forty years ago, when everyone still rode busses into town. We were both eighteen, and her name was Lorraine.

Her mother ran the corner shop. I’d make up excuses to go there to buy bits and bobs, on the off chance it would be Lorraine who served. But it was usually her mother – always a blue nylon housecoat, and this odd, tired little smile that seemed to say she knew things others did not.

“Here again, Mike,” she’d say. “What can we get you this time?”

I was not the only young man drawn to the shop, and for the same reasons. Lorraine was a good looking girl, had something of the unobtainable about her, something they used to call “cool”. Maybe that’s what amused her mother – her daughter, the queen of cool, and all these dreamy guys with not a hope in hell.

Some mornings Lorraine and I would be walking out for the bus at the same time. I’d manage a shy hello, and slip into step with her, but she spoke little, and those five minutes to the stop were an agony. Then we’d get there, and she’d slip into lively chatter with her girlfriends. Seeing that transformation, I mean from near-mute to sparkling, I’d die a little, while at the same time falling all the more deeply in love.

The bus would drop her off outside the sixth-form college. She was doing A levels. Then it would be University, I supposed, and on to the big wide world, or at any rate somewhere beyond the old town. Me? I rode the bus to the polytechnic. I was doing a day-release thing for my engineering studies. I had a car by then, but so long as Lorraine rode the bus, I’d ride it too. There was an urgency, you see? If I didn’t impress her soon, she’d most likely be off somewhere far away. Then I’d never see her again and my life, as I knew it, would be over.

I can’t say what kept me going. It was more hope than expectation, but also the belief in something supernatural. That I could feel something so profound, it was impossible to imagine she’d be unaware of it. More than that, it seemed impossible she could not return it, otherwise, what was I feeling, and why? What strange god was playing with us, lighting me up, and making her so cold? And had there not been that look? She’d seen and, in that instant, read my heart. I know she had! I couldn’t be wrong, could I?

I only went to the polytechnic once a week. The rest of the time I was doing an apprenticeship at a factory, miles away. I’d take the car those mornings, and as I drove I’d imagine her in the passenger seat. We’d talk then. She was sweet and understanding, easy to be with. Then, on the next poly morning, I’d set out thinking this might be the day, that I’d ask her out, and we’d ride together somewhere for real. We’d watch a movie, maybe a drink afterwards. All I had to do was ask the question. But then I’d find she’d not caught the bus that day, like some obstructive god was playing with us. Other mornings, when I’d timed it right, she’d seem even more frosty than usual, and I feared her scorn.

Lorraine’s awkwardness, her evasiveness, drove me mad, but it was not lust I felt. She was an attractive girl, but the thought of sex scared the life out of me. I only wanted her to want to be with me. I wanted to hear her say it: “I want to be with you , Mike.”

It never happened.

Rumour reached me by way of my mother how “that girl from the shop” had gone off to Aberystwyth, to the university. I would never see her again. It was over, or rather, it had never begun, and I had to face the fact she’d never thought of me at all, and that look,… well, she’d jut been playing with me.

For months, I was sunk in the most profound depression. Indeed, a part of me has never forgotten that sense of loss. I mean, why had the gods built me up to such a fever-pitch of expectation over so futile a cause, then let me down? If there was a god of love, I thought, he/she/it took care of the women-folk, while the men could go to hell, for that’s pretty much where I was when Lorraine went away.

Anyway, I carried on, finished the apprenticeship, signed up for more studies, found myself a position in a well paid, technical department of clever, decent men who inspired me. It was a slow, steady business, climbing that ladder. Maybe I was still doing it for her, building myself up to something that might impress her, make her change her mind and just look at me, dammit – I mean always supposing she ever showed up again. Or maybe it was bloody mindedness, to say nothing of an abundance of energy I needed to channel, after so long wasting it stoking the useless flame of love.

From time to time I’d hear snippets of news from my mother, who’d got it gossiping to others who’d got it from Lorraine’s mother in the shop. I told myself I didn’t care, that I felt nothing for her now. Except, I could always tell from my mother’s tone she’d never cared much for Lorraine. She thought her shallow, a bit of a flirt, getting by on her looks, that sort of thing – just like her mother, she’d say. That would hurt, and I’d be protective of her. Lorraine was misunderstood, that’s all. She was the queen of cool, she was everything a romantic man aspired to in a woman. Then we heard rumours of dubious boyfriends, of parties, drugs. But that was just the usual student silliness, surely,…

I was on the road a lot, travelling out to other companies. Most of the time I was alone, long weeks away, staying in big hotels, something my parents had never had the money for. It was an education for a working class lad, I mean beyond the studies. There was also learning the middle class ropes of expenses, hire cars, and first class railway tickets. Then came the business trips abroad. I learned French, German, got to know a little of Paris and Berlin.

It should all have helped me to forget – and in the most part it did. I felt an optimism about life, a sense of going places. But there’s something about a love gone wrong that lingers. You think you’re fine, then a thought pops into your head, and you’re floundering in a tide of sweet melancholy again. They say you never forget your last love until you love again. There’s something true in that. And if ever a fresh breeze could blow away the sticky cobwebs of Lorraine, her name was Chloe,…

To be continued – all episodes by Friday!

It’s nineteen eighty five, October, a Tuesday evening, and I’m in the Library of the Bolton Institute of Technology, as was. It’s been a long day; ten hours of lectures so far, and another two to go. It’s pitch black outside and raining, and I’m reading something up on the mathematics pertaining to electrochemical erosion. My diary tells me this much. It also tells me that across from me there’s a bunch of girl students in their teens, and at twenty four, I’m already feeling like an old man.

It’s hard to say what attracts a man to a woman other than, like I’ve said elsewhere it’s the reflection of something as yet unknown within himself, though I understand this makes little sense when you play it back. But there’s this one girl in particular and I don’t know why she stands out but she does. She has long, dark hair, wears a denim jump suit with a small enamel teddy bear in her lapel. She speaks to her friends with a soft, Scottish accent, never looks my way, never notices me at all.

Twenty years later she becomes a character in a short story I’ve hawked about pointlessly before sticking it up on Feedbooks – The Man Who Could Not Forget. And, like the man who could not forget, and with a little help from my diary, I have not forgotten her, but it’s not her I want to talk about tonight.

There’s this other girl in the library that night, a psychology student. She’s gorgeous, as all girls seemed to be back then, or maybe, like sunny days, I only remember the pretty ones. I’m up at the book shelves now seeking out another reference, and she comes up to me with a piece of card.

“I want you look at this,” she says. “It’s a picture of two people arguing.”

Thus primed, she flashes this card at me. It shows a cartoon of a black man and a white man. Their arms are out, as if gesticulating. Right. So, these guys are arguing.

She covers the card and asks me: “Which one had the knife?”

There’s something of a challenge in her tone, like she already knows the answer I’m going to give.

I’m confused for a moment, and want to see the picture again, because for the life of me I don’t remember either of the guys having a knife, but I understand this will defeat the point of the exercise. Yet, if there’s no knife, she’s forcing an answer to a false choice. Why would she be doing that? There must have been a knife. I must have missed it. By the way, did I tell you I’m basically this young white guy, and she’s this beautiful Asian girl, with long shiny hair and glittery eyes?

Then it clicks. There was no knife, and yes, she is forcing a false choice on me. I can read her mind, and I’m a bit upset by it. I’m supposed to say it was the black guy who had the knife, because I’m a white guy, and all white guys are supposed to have these prejudices about black guys, or any other guys not the same colour as myself, so even if I’m not sure there was a knife, if I’m forced to admit there was, because she’s saying there was, then I reveal my racism by saying it’s the black guy who had it.

At the end of her survey she expects to count up all the ticks and show a graph that most white guys like me are basically racist. But even in Bolton, in 1985, if racism was an issue, I was unaware of it, but then I had my head in things like Electrochemical Erosion, so maybe it was. I don’t know.

Perhaps I should reverse it, I’m thinking, say it was the white guy who had the knife. Then maybe the girl will think I’m not a racist and might be more inclined to like me, because the goddess is strong in this one and I really want her to like me. But this is too deep, and a pointless application of reverse psychology anyway, one than can only screw up her experiment. The inside of my head is strange sometimes. People think they are sealed up, secret from others, when by the slightest thing they render themselves nakedly transparent.

“I didn’t see a knife. Sorry.”

Her expression gives nothing away. She does not thank me for my participation. I think she’s beautiful and I wish we could talk some more. I manage a smile. It is not returned. I think the experiment was flawed anyway – a definite experimenter effect. I do not ask her if she fancies a coffee sometime. And not because it would be a crass and desperate thing to do in that situation, nor yet because she’s the daughter of another culture and I’m a white guy, because really I’m too naive to take such things into consideration. It’s more that she’s beautiful, and I’m afraid she will reject me.

There was a time when I saw the goddess in all women. She has many aspects, sometimes alluring, sometimes scornful, sometimes challenging. She is the thing that animates a man, but projecting her into the material world renders him vulnerable to the fallacy that women are something other than human. It’s a fallacy that fades with age and experience. A fallacy also that in trying to understand the goddess within ourselves, a man should expect women to know anything about it at all, like expecting the canvas to understand the painting. More likely she will look at him blank, or suggest he goes to see the doctor.

I muddled through my final exams that coming summer – mostly an average student on that course, having reached the limit of my mathematical and technical ability by then. But over the years I’ve found little use for mathematics anyway, that intuition is a surer guide when it comes to the oftimes shady byways of the daemon haunted world I live in now. I rest assured neither aspect of the goddess in the library that night remembers me, and it’s puzzling I should remember them, when there are other human beings I have more reason to remember but do not.

I’m not sure what else I’m trying to say here, except I swear I did not see a knife.

The way of the material man is the conversion of material into money. It’s a process that inevitably leads us away from nature, towards the building of cities. Cities shun nature, while absorbing vast quantities of people, fossil fuels and water, and from these nutrients they grow. And as they grow, they eject filth. The way of the material man is thus ill-suited to the presence of the natural world and the sooner it is consumed entirely the better. As for the filth, it’s fine so long as it’s not on his own doorstep.

In the city, mankind is organized for commerce, exploiters and exploited living in handy proximity. The accumulation of money is then the measure of a man’s success, that one man’s shoes are worth more than another man’s car. Nature, soul, spirit, indeed the whole of metaphysics is dismissed as an obsession of the weird. This is an old story, one often told, but in which the happy-endings we crave seem less and less plausible.

Meanwhile, the rubbish of the city spills outwards from its bounds, scattered by its itinerant emissaries along the leafy byways and the ferny dells whose misfortune it is to lie an easy drive away. Supermarket carrier bags are snagged in the boughs of trees. There, they are torn season by season into the filthy grey battle-banners of further urbanization.

But not everyone is drawn to cities. Indeed, they’ve always horrified me. To my eye there is something dead about them, no matter how lively they might appear on the surface. I have drawn the ire of city folk for saying such things. But the cities are such vibrant places, I’m told. They are centres of culture, indeed the very epicentres of governance and civilization. Would you find the Elgin Marbles, or a Van Gough on display in a provincial village library? Would you find the seat of a nation’s power residing in the village old folk’s hut?

I counter that the cities also deaden the sensibilities. They deny easy reconnection with the natural world. Instead, they attempt to assimilate it, while colouring it as grey as the city environment. No stars are visible from its streets, and the skylark does not sing its praises. Cities cradle violence. They incubate neuroses and paranoia. And in the city’s virulent graffiti there is the metaphor of a poor, lonesome dog chewing raw its own paws for entertainment.

So, the country lanes, within easy driving distance of cities, are hung with bags of dog muck, ubiquitous markers of urban neuroses, centred upon the interests of the self. The lay-bys are strewn with nitrous oxide cartridges, each one a lamentable attempt at gaining fleeting release, but which colours only more warmly the urban way and forgives the jettison of another load of McTrash out the car window. As for the hanging of the prophylactic’s hurried orgasm on the barbed wire’s thorns,… well,… the least said on that one the better, but I guess by now you know where I’m going with all of this.

Year by year, it’s harder to say hell isn’t where we’re heading. And while this may indeed be so, the material man cares nothing, and has not the nous to understand the poisoned haiku of a beer-can in the hedge. Yes, we all need money to live, but money is also imaginary, and it imprisons us. It has us valuing the wrong things. A man of soul will admire the oak for its expression, and it having known so many generations. A man of money will cut it down and have it sawn as planks to sell. The man of soul feels its loss, the man of money looks for another oak to fell. Which one is the fool? The man of soul seeks the ineffable, the magical in a landscape. The man of money puts a fence around it, builds a hotel and a golf course.

The country boy under siege turns to philosophy. He risks New Age quackery, and dallies with paganism. He takes up meditation, studies Buddhism, Daoism, indeed any bloody “ism” that does not champion the material. He asks: How does a Zen master view the city’s inexorable sprawl? The all knowing Google machine answers: “Where to buy the city’s inexorable sprawl”; “who owns the city’s inexorable sprawl”; “how to market the city’s inexorable sprawl”. And then, even less helpfully, “where to find a Zen Master?” and “what is Zen?”

I suppose if we take the longer view, it doesn’t matter. Civilizations come and go. Ours will be no different. A thousand years from now, I imagine an archaeologist scraping layers of mud from the outline of my house. And he will add my leavings to the average assessment of the broader culture, and the times I lived in. He will assume I was a material man, for what evidence will there be to the contrary?

We are all the product of an age and a zeitgeist. So, as Chris Rea sings, this might well indeed be The Road to Hell, and no bother, for there never was a golden age. Blink and we’re all gone. More than that, we never existed in the first place. Walk up and down the room, and where are your footprints? As for the search for the bucolic, that route without a single bag of dog muck to mark the way, it’s a fantasy born of too romantic a vision of the world, while real human beings just aren’t like that. All of which means of course, it’s me who’s the freak.

I’d advise the urban folk please to follow the countryside code, except the latest version reads like it was focus-grouped by weekend Welly wearers only, not deliberated upon by countrymen with any serious intent to protect. Perhaps Chris Rea would have included that line in the song, except he couldn’t find a decent rhyme for Welly. So I tell them to read Richard Jeffries’ instead. “The Story of my Heart” will do. Or “The Amateur Poacher”. His world isn’t something any of us will ever know, but perhaps in realizing what it is we’ve already lost, we’ll hesitate to further desecrate what very little there is left.