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Stepback in time

Mossy bridge in Sunnyhurst Woods

I’m sitting by the ornamental lake in Sunnyhurst Woods, near Darwen, having walked over from Ryal Fold. It’s a mild, soft lit day, in mid-January, a faint mist washing out the distant hills. The woods are deep-shaded in this poor light of winter, and they are moist. The breath is rising, and the luncheon soup-pot is steaming. The stonework of the bridge I’ve just crossed is thick with moss. There is something of fairyland about it.

I came out to take a picture of the ruins on Green Hill, which I first saw some weeks ago, and I’ve done that, now. I’ve also shot the ornamental falls, here in the woods. The Green Hill ruins are not accessible, being on private farmland, but I have a long lens that got me within useful range. As a strictly amateur photographer, it’s hard to explain what I’m trying to achieve, wandering the North in all seasons, like this, taking landscape photographs. I mean this in the sense of what difference it makes to anything, at least in the materially measurable, tangible way.

The ruin on Green Hill, Ryal Fold.

Intangibly, though, the difference is felt in the gut. My photography and my writing about it on here, brings me into a deeper relationship with the land, and that’s enough, indeed that’s all any of the contemporary arts are about, as practised by most of us, just deepening the soul a bit. What does that mean? Well, it’s like keeping the door open on something “other”, because, so long as that door is kept open, the “other” will get to work on us in ways that makes us feel more whole, more connected. It provides a balance to the material life, which has no meaning and connects us with nothing, other than a pathological craving for more of the same. We don’t need a camera for that. A notebook, a pencil and a box of watercolours did it for the Romantics. Anyway, I’m mostly following my nose today, probably heading up Darwen Moor next.

The ornamental falls, Sunnyhurst Woods, Darwen, Lancs

To get here, I’ve walked the amusingly named Trash Lane, a rutted quagmire, towards the equally amusing Tottering Temple. The latter is no longer marked on the maps. I’m referring to an 1849, six inch edition, courtesy of the National Library of Scotland, along with the more contemporary GPS version, so both past and present are informing the imagination. There’s a definite charm about those early, hand-drawn, OS maps, and they pick up a lot of detail that would otherwise be lost to us: Tottering temple, Mount Pleasant, Back o’th Moor. I don’t know how these places got their names, or if they’re still used.

Anyway, next up, we’ll tackle the hill, and see how the restoration of Darwen Tower is progressing, then return via Stepback brook. It’s about five miles round, lots to see along the way. So, we climb out of the woods to the Lych Gate, turn left for the Sunnyhurst pub, then right, up the ginnel, and onto the moor. The tower, built in 1897, is wrapped in plastic, now, and nestles within an exoskeleton of scaffolding, while extensive works are undertaken. I decide to avoid it, skirting below instead, to the 1200 ft contour. Here, the westward view tempts a sit down with the binoculars.

It’s from here I spot an interesting waterfall on Stepback brook. That’s another curious name, “Stepback”, this one taking us back to the 1640’s, and the English civil war. Local legend has it Cromwell’s men were after a bunch of Royalists in the area, but called the chase off, and “stepped back”. I’m not sure if I believe in that one, though. If you look at the landscape hereabout from over Withnell way, it appears as a set of giant steps, rising to Cartridge Hill, and I prefer that explanation, though I admit, the Cromwellian one is much more colourful.

The area certainly saw a lot of action in the civil war. Indeed, one of the most appalling atrocities ever committed on English soil was carried out by Royalists, not far from here, when James Stanley, the 7th Earl of Derby’s, men went berserk, murdering and raping in Bolton, in May 1644. One of those who came to grief in that terrible event was a young girl from Whewell’s farm, now a bleak ruin on the moor’s edge, and just a short walk from where I’m sitting now.

It was her father, George, who had the later satisfaction of beheading the Earl of Derby, by the market cross in Bolton. George Whewell’s skull resides to this day in the Pack Horse pub, at Affetside. At least, legend has it this is Whewells’s skull. How it came to be detached from his body is the subject of another legend, which tells of how, after the Restoration, the Royalists had their revenge on George. The skull is associated with paranormal activity, if it’s ever moved. So it stays where it is. I’m still wrestling with the moral of this one. I suppose the nearest I can get is that violence begets violence, and a continuation of suffering, long into the future, no matter how right the violence seems at the time.

So, anyway, we make our way down from the hill, pick up the path by the brook, wander upstream a bit, and there’s the fall, a lovely cascade spilling over a lip of gritstone. It’s enchanting, and I spend a good while here fiddling about with the camera. I thought I knew the area fairly well, but there’s always something new to discover. A wonderful note on which to end our walk,

The falls on Stepback Brook, near Ryal Fold, Darwen, Lancs

It’s mid-afternoon, now, and the best of the light is going. On the way back to the car, at Ryal Fold, I meet plenty of pilgrims setting out for the tower. An elderly couple asks directions. I worry about them; it’ll be dark by the time they’re off the moor. I’ve noticed this before, people heading up the hill, when I’ve calculated my descent in the last hour of daylight. A friend of mine has concluded they’re not humans, but aliens, going up to meet the mother-ship. Any other reason would be too far-fetched.

All told, then, a good day, making the best of the forecast, and discovering a new waterfall. It’s given cold and gloomy for a few days now. Indeed, it’s looking like stormy days ahead in other ways, too, but the past teaches us there’s nothing new under the sun. England in the civil war was hell on earth, now mostly forgotten, except for some place names, and some intriguing legends, not least among them the abiding mystery of the Affetside Skull.

Thanks for listening.

The payers, grown lean of late,
Fall to the myriad blades,
Of this, their unfortunate fate.
They perish in great number,
Rule takers, not breakers,
While the players, and rule makers,
Wrapped in capital colours,
Prance, booze faced, and hearty.
They make large and party.

Meanwhile, in the hollow land,
A bare tree claws the last warm rags
From a sinking sun.
A kestrel shoulders air,
But – nothing worth the dive –
Moves on.

Lochan na Eala

Lochan na Eala

After so long hankering for broader travels, these pandemic years, and for the Romantic, I have decided to bring my travels to romantic lands closer to home. Today, then, we venture from my doorstep, to the small lake that is once more appearing on the Lancashire plain, and which I have today named Lochan na Eala. It means Lake of the Swans. I admit it’s an unlikely name to find on the maps of west of Lancashire, but then this place is not to be found on any maps at all.

In summer, it dries to a puddle, so cannot be said to exist, and therefore does not require a name. But over the course of winter it swells to such a proportion it looks embarrassed without one, so I have named it, because the migrating swans have found it, and they seem to like it, and “Swan Lake”, though more prosaic, and “English” and obvious, lacks the romance of a thing that is not always there. One needs the Celtic, bardic tongue, when it comes to dealing with the more subtle levels of reality.

The farmer has tried to drain it by digging a ditch, but the cause is more elemental, this being a general rise in the water table, and what looks like the slow return of the area to wetland. As I understand it, it’s part of the Environment Agency’s planned flood management programme for my locale, this inundation of natural flood planes. I was there some weeks ago, and had noted its return. In the near future, I suppose, it will become permanent, and named officially but, until then, Lochan na Eala it is, or at least it is for me.

So far, the day has not gone well, and we are in need of a change of scene. My good lady’s pipe has been put out by early morning leaks to the media we are to lead the world in rendering Covid endemic in the population. Free lateral flow tests are to end, and no further booster programs are under consideration. The reports are now disowned, but there is a rule of thumb which states one should never believe a rumour until it has been officially denied.

True or not, my good lady has eased her despair with an overly aggressive cleaning of the oven. This has caused the glass to pop out of the door, so we are currently without an oven. The glass was only glued in, and I think I might be able to repair it with a suitable adhesive, so have ordered special oven-door-glue from the aptly named oven-door-glue company. We now await the good graces of the postman, and the goddess of good fortune.

We’ve had a murky few days, and they’ve kept me indoors. I’ve passed the time reading Gary Lachman’s “Secret History of Consciousness”, which is a look at the nature of consciousness, and the ways in which we have come to approach it, over time. It’s rather a tour-de force, building a persuasive argument from the erudite blocks of the more obscure literature, both psychological and, for want of a better word, the theosophical. It’s making sense of other works I have read, but which proved rather heavy going at the time.

One of the remarkable things he describes is the theory of how we represent reality, that what we see is not what is truly there, that our concepts effectively boot up from different levels of the unconscious mind, whose origins lie in deeper, older parts of the brain. We have only to back-track a little in order to see the world in a radically different way. I remember coming round from being gassed by the dentist, as a child, and the way my return to waking reality was presaged by something I can only describe as abstract. At the time, it was explained away as an effect of the gas, nothing more, but I have always wondered about it.

None of this helped, of course, when I was considering the ugly fact of a broken oven door. Indeed, for a time, I was at a loss. The literature may have explained my dilemma in philosophical or neurological language, in addition to my own more prosaic terminology, but it could not help find a supplier for high-temperature adhesive that stood a cat in hell’s chance of working. Like everything else, that was down to Dr Google. The lesson here is that such explorations of the inner universe are all well and good, but whatever our reality is, it makes a good show of presenting a hard and uncompromising face, that if we have a purpose at all, part of it must be to manage the problems it presents us with first, before taking off on flights of fancy – alluring though those fancies may be.

Anyway, it’s rather a cold day, grey this morning, but forecast to break into sunny spells, later on – much later by the looks of it. Indeed, it’s only a few hours before dusk, now, and I’m half-hearted, setting out, having procrastinated most of the day away. But you never know, we may just catch a nice sunset at the last minute.

I am often dismayed by the two-dimensional emptiness of the Lancashire plain, which, these days, I call home. There are just a few trees that excite the senses by their near alien three-dimensional presence, but which would not be noticed anywhere else. The rest of it is reedy ditches and hawthorn hedgerows, and vast fields of black earth. The appearance of a lake is something of a revelation then.

Lachman speaks of an evolution of consciousness, that there is evidence our forbears saw the world in a radically different way, being barely self-conscious at all, but more intimately connected, as a collective, with their reality, which is internally, mind generated. Our evolution into fully self-aware beings came at the cost of a sense of separation, of alienation from the world, one he argues we have compensated for by mostly violent means. These are speculative ideas, but not implausible. The next phase is a level of consciousness that reconnects with that earlier phase, so we remain self-conscious, calculating beings, but also once more fully connected with the reality we represent. At this point we will be able to see, or rather experience, various levels, and various modes of being. This stage is a long way off, and we may of course extinct ourselves before we get there. If we do, by the same reasoning, the world itself too, as we know it, will also cease to exist, so the burden of responsibility is heavy.

The Romantics were on the right path, using the imagination to explore their inner worlds, and the qualitative nature of experience. But many went mad, since reality itself refused to bend to their will; it remained ugly and inconvenient. It was their oven-door moment, and Dr Google had not been invented to provide a source of glue. All of this might be idle speculation, and of only passing interest, but others have wondered and felt strange things, intimations of other levels of reality, as have I.

One of the writers Lachman quotes is the Russian philosopher, P D Ouspensky, who describes an experience he had in 1908, while on a ship, crossing the Sea of Marmora, and how, for a moment, he became everything he was looking at. So profound an experience this was, he spent the rest of his life trying to explain it. It’s the clearest account of a similar experience I had in the Newlands Valley, twenty years, ago, but could not articulate so well as he. Such a thing becomes your life’s work, whether you’re up to it or not. He was. I’m not, so why that doorway opened a crack for me, I’ll never know, since there is, I fear, so little I can do with it, except wonder.

Anyway, here we are, the lovely Lochan na Eala. Just a short stretch of the legs. And what’s this? The sun makes an unexpected, last minute appearance as the sky opens. Nice that. It seems there may once have been a time, like Ouspensky, when I remembered I was it – I mean all of this. And if that’s true, then, whatever we choose to call it, so are you.

Thanks for listening.

Play me out:

Tree and puddle

The lady in the pharmacy is upset. Her mother is ill, and struggling to get her medication. The lady wants to know if the pharmacy can arrange for her mother’s prescription to be delivered. Normally, yes, this can be arranged, but the prescription needs to be signed off by the doctor. But the lady explains, in a tone of rising desperation, that she is unable to get through to the doctor by telephone, that she has been ringing the surgery for hours to no avail. I had heard appointments were difficult to come by. Now it’s impossible even to get the surgery to answer the telephone. The pharmacist cannot help, but, unlike the doctor, she is at least available to speak to and, sadly, to field the invective she does not deserve. The lady leaves with her life still in crisis.

My own quest involves the search for Lateral Flow Tests. Last year you could order these things online, and they would be delivered, or you could walk into a pharmacy and pick up a week’s supply. Now, official online kits are as hard to come by as the proverbial manure of rocking horses, and before you can get one from a pharmacy, you needed a code from the official website. I have the code, but the pharmacist has no kits.

“We’ll get a small delivery tomorrow morning,” she tells me. “But they’ll gone in an hour.”

Looks like an early get-up then, tomorrow. I do not need them for myself. My habits are once more reclusive; I no longer work, have no elderly relatives to support, and I can keep myself to myself. But my son is working for an employer who has decided the pandemic is over, that Covid is reduced to a sniffle, and “prefers” everyone return to the office. This is notwithstanding the fact hospitals in my area have declared states of emergency.

There is nothing to be done. The world is upset and things are broken. The newspapers report our formerly free lateral flow kits are now selling online for hundreds of pounds. I don’t know if this is true, or if it’s just the newspapers being newspapers, stirring things up for the clicks.

The last word from our leadership was a characteristically laissez-faire, and seemed not to take account of the rising sense of crisis, or at least as it is felt in the pharmacy queues of greater England. Muddle through is the motto, and fair enough, we’re good at that. After all, things could be worse; the world is not at war, and asteroids are not falling from the sky. But the waters we must muddle through are muddier of late, and it’s harder to see the depths ahead.

Still, the sun is shining. My boots have dried out from their soaking on Withnell moor. There is a tree, and a puddle on the plain, I have not visited for a while. And while the built world, the world we have thought into being, shudders and grows less sure of itself, the natural world, in pockets at least, remains to provide a clearer reflection of our true nature. That said, the potato fields are sprouting rubber gloves and face masks these days. In the coming millennia, archaeologists will scan down to the level of this detritus, and use their findings to answer the questions of how well we coped with these particular pandemic years.

These too are the years before we solved the vexed problems of perpetual war. They are the years before we stopped burning fossil fuels, and discovered how to stuff the carbon dioxide and the methane back into the earth, the years before we found our more harmonious balance with nature, cleared the oceans of plastic rubbish, greened the cities, and rewilded the wilderness, turned back the earth from grey to green, and ended poverty. It was a miracle. And how did we manage such a thing, they’ll wonder, those future archaeologists, sociologists, anthropologists and historians, for things were not at all apparent from the evidence of our times, such as they are, and from the records we left behind, including those long archived newspaper reports of black marketeering in lateral flow test kits.

I shall have to go and ask it of the tree – how we did it, I mean – because I forget now. But trees have long memories, and it might just remember how we managed to squeak through to better times.

My last pair of Scarpa walking boots lasted fifteen years. They were never quite broken in, but they never leaked either. They just grew more deeply scarred, and might have lasted longer, but I lost faith in them. I was worried they’d fall apart and leave me stranded up a mountain in my stocking feet. My current pair, comfortable as carpet slippers from day one, have lasted two years. Now they’re opening up, and letting the water in.

All right, it’s a very, very wet day. Indeed, the moor is as wet as a moor can be. The earth liquifies underfoot as we step on it and we’re frequently over the tops of our laces. The sphagnum is drinking the wet down in greedy gallons, and glowing green for the effort. My jacket, too, is letting the water through, at least on one side where a stiff wind is encouraging it. The weather paints me half dark, half light. I am the yin and the yang of things. This could be my cue to start grumbling about the flimsification of the modern day, but that’s not where we’re going. It’s a wild, bracing day. The year is fresh, and it’s too soon for cynicism.

I’m on Withnell moor again, up from Brinscall. I’ve come through the woods, crossed the top of the Hatch Brook Falls, and climbed Well Lane. Now we’re on the moor, approaching the gaunt ruins of Ratten Clough. Its outline is black against the steady drift of rain. Abandoned in the 1960’s, this is the most substantial ruin of the lost farms. The barn’s gables are intact, the rafters hanging on, a watery silhouette, all against the dynamic grey of the swooping sky. I wonder if, in years to come, it’ll be taken for a millionaires des-res. They have a penchant for buying up romantically charged places like this, and throwing a fortune at them to make of them something twee. But he’ll need a taste for the lonely. There’s bleak, then there’s Withnell Moor, and then there’s Withnell moor on days like these.

Given the forecast, I thought it was a waste of time bringing the big camera. I didn’t want to get it wet. Instead, I’ve packed an old, small-sensor compact. It slips easily into the pocket, and I don’t mind it getting drowned. But you can’t expect to shoot in such murk as this without red noise on a small sensor. There’ll probably be no pictures today, then, except the ones I carry in my head.

The gate to Ratten Clough is tied in several places, and intricately knotted. It’s a public way, but we require a deviation to pick it up. I imagine our millionaire will make it a priority to divert the path. Ah,… another perennial thread of mine creeping in: money buying out our freedoms, sticking up no trespass signs. But we’re not going there, either, today. These are tired old themes, and my laments will do little to change them. So much for the power of attraction, then. I seem only to attract to my attention what I most dislike. Time to let them go. Find fresh pastures, with an emphasis on a more positive kind of magic.

Where are we, now? We’re following the line of a tumbled drystone wall into a blank of mist. With a global positioning system, you’re never lost, are you? But things are hotting up between Russia and the West, and between China and US. It’s not escaped my imagination the first thing the militaries will do, in times of conflict, is encrypt the satellites. And then what? How will we find our way with a road-map, and A to Z again? How will I know how far along this wall to walk, before turning down to the ruins of Botany Bay?

The spindly beech answers. I first met it in the spring, spent a while making friends. It materialises from the grey, now. “Here you are,” it says. “Nice to see you again.” The track’s here. So we make our way down to the ruin, touch the megalith for luck, then turn left, to Rake Brook, by the ruins of Popes.

It’s hard to imagine anyone living here, just a tumble of shapeless blocks, and the brook washing by. It’s in spate today, no evidence of there ever having been a bridge, just these few precarious steppy stones at the vagaries of flood. What can we say about that? Transience? Buddhist themes of impermanence, perhaps?

Apple pies were baked in this bleak hollow, with the wind howling through the chimney pots. Wholesome stews awaited the farmer and his boys, on winter days like these. All gone, now, just names in the census records, and a lonely pile of stones. People make all the difference. Without them to bear witness, the world might as well not exist. Indeed, it might already not exist. Strange thoughts today, Michael.

Mind how we go across the brook. Yes, the boots are definitely leaking, something cold encircling the foot, now. I was going to buy myself a new computer monitor, but it looks like it’ll be a pair of boots instead. I’d been looking forward to getting a new monitor, one of those 4K ultra-high definition things, for the photography. How do we prioritise? Sometimes the fates do it for us.

Watsons farm, now, and a strong waft of cattle as we come through the gate. The cows are all cosy in the barn, steam rising from their noses, as they chew. It’s one of the few farms still working the moor. I borrowed it for my work in progress, fictionalised it, changed universes, moved it down the road a bit. I had the farmer renting rooms, and my protagonist moving into one. Here, I court themes of sanctuary, and shoulders to the weather. Then there are stunning summers on the moors, the call of curlew and the rapture of larks.

Speaking of the novel, it’s descending into chaos, and tom-foolery. We’ve reached that point where it asks me if I want to bail out around 80K words, or wander on for another year, make it an epic. I think we’ll call its bluff and go for the epic. Amid this fall of the world, this crisis of meaning, and the impending climate disaster, it’s led me of a sudden to Helena Petrovna Blavatski, to the Theosophists, and all those curious fin de siècle secret societies.

I’ve had a brush with the redoubtable Madame B before, found her intellectually seductive, but also frightening. I bailed out at that first pass, but it looks like there’s something more she has to tell me, and this time I’m ready to listen. Memo to self: order Gary Lachman’s book, and while we’re at it, the one about Trump, and the political right’s courtship of the occult. It all sounds absurd, but let’s just go with it.

Across the Belmont road now, and the path into the woods becomes a bog. The Roddlesworth river is a lively torrent. We’re four miles out, and the woods are busy with muddy bikes, wet families, and happy, yappy dogs. We swing for home via the ruins of Pimms, on the moor, then Great Hill. The rain is blowing itself out at last. There are hints of sunshine, now, but the going is steep. Great Hill has grown since I last climbed it, swollen with rains to Tyrolean proportions. The ground looks like it’s been overspilling for weeks, and squirting water under every step.

At the summit shelter, I’m able to bag the last space among a gathering of several walking groups, all huddled for lunch. Cue mutterings of overcrowding on the fells, paths churned to slime and all that,… but we’re not going there today either. In my new universe, all are welcome. A jolly dame appears from nowhere, offers mince pies, and a nip of rum for my coffee.

The sun breaks through. There’s a low, gorgeous light of a sudden, under-lit clouds, curtains of rain in the distance. Old Lady Pendle appears, a crouching lion beyond Darwen moor. I try some shots with the little camera, but they come out poorly, red dot noisy. Sometimes, the best pictures are the ones you carry in your head, and they get better with age.

A good day on the moors, then, and never mind the wet feet. There’s a pair of dry socks in the car. Fancy a hot chocolate? We’ll drive over to the Hare and Hounds at Abbey, shall we? See what they can rustle up for us. The year turns.

All is well. Bring it on.

Heroes and villains

The Jimmy Saville scandal broke shortly after his death in 2011. He was one of several icons of popular British culture I grew up with, revealed as false. These dubious characters commanded a great deal of trust. Indeed, we were continually fed their images, even when those who knew them, or worse, fell victim, knew their darker side. They kept quiet out of fear, perhaps, or shame.

So we don’t come from a good place, we British. We have learned to be cautious around icons of virtue. There are many, of course, who pass without notoriety. John Noakes comes to mind; Morecambe and Wise; Les Dawson; Dave Allen. These names, all popular entertainers from my youth, did not ruin my memory with parting scandal. Others did, and soured the Zeitgeist. They had us think all saints harboured dark secrets. It almost felt as if we were being taught to expect it, that goodness was always badness in disguise. It had merely yet to be exposed.

An icon I was unaware of, on my side of the Atlantic, was Fred Roberts. He came to me only recently in the biopic “A beautiful day in the neighbourhood”. This was the last film I watched in 2021. Roberts was an inspiration for a generation of American children. Featured on the cover of Esquire magazine in 1998, he was the subject of a major piece by journalist Tom Junod,

But as I watched the movie, a tainted Englishman, the spectre of Saville hung over me. Thus, I expected Roberts to be revealed as less than the thoroughly decent and Godly man he seemed. After all, is that not the way of our times? We set them up, then pull them down. But that wasn’t the direction the movie took at all. I’m not sure exactly when the redeeming moment first came for me, but I was a convert by the time we arrived at the scene in the restaurant.

Here the fictional, hard-bitten journalist, tasked with doing a piece on Roberts, and determined to find the cracks in him, is asked by Roberts to pause for a minute, and to reflect on all those in his life who had “loved” him into being. The restaurant falls quiet as everyone, casually eavesdropping, reflects, as I too reflected. Images of parents, aunts, uncles, friends, floated up from the depths of memory. They left me feeling bigger and more impermeable to life’s abrasions than before. It was a personal thing, but one we can all relate to. The movie concludes, as Tom Junod concludes in his article, that Fred Roberts was a remarkable, Godly man, who tried to make a difference.

The final scene is interesting, and mysterious. Roberts would finish his TV broadcasts at a piano, as things were being packed up for the day, and he’d play. He’d been asked, earlier in the movie, how do you deal with your own anger, your own darkness? He’d replied by saying, among other things, you can bang down on the lower notes of the piano. So we knew he was not claiming to be immune from doubts. But there are ways we can subvert the darker currents of human emotion, and rise above them. In this final scene, after he’s spent the entire movie redeeming others, he bangs down hard on those lower notes. We feel his discord, before he picks up again on a lighter refrain.

For the answer to this mystery, we turn to Junod’s 1998 essay. Portraying such a decent character as this, in film runs the risk of sinking into something sentimental. But Junod, writing in those pre-millennium times, also recognises something crucial about the times. Those were pre social media, proto Internet days. But the savvy were already joining the dots into the near future. They could see the decency of Roberts’ mission was growing ever more futile. Perhaps he sensed it, too, we don’t know, but that’s what’s hinted at in that final discordant bang on the piano.

We are left with the image of Roberts as a man, not perfect, but a good, Godly, and enlightened man, what other cultures might even call a bodhisattva. He approached life, and people, in a way that is alien to most of us. To what extent the movie accurately reflects the person of Fred Roberts, only Mr Roberts, can tell us. But I believe we do glimpse him in spirit, played as he is, with respect and reverence, by the actor, Tom Hanks.

Roberts died in 2003. The millennium was touted as a great turning point, and, in a sense, it was. I certainly didn’t see what was coming, at least not the extent of it. I did not imagine how unwholesome, how destructive of innocence, the direction of travel would be. It’s hard to watch this story of the life of Fred Roberts and not lament the way things might have been. Or was it inevitable, that his short TV slices of gentle wisdom, beamed at the young and the impressionable, would not be eclipsed by the mind-numbing, mind-bending weaponry levelled against the youngsters of today?

I don’t know. Had it not been for the Internet and the then unheard of technology of movie streaming, I would never have watched this film. I would not have learned about this man. What we’ve discovered then, in these first decades of the twenty-first century, is a way of connecting and amplifying everything that’s human, both the good and the bad of it, rather than something that is intrinsically and entirely bad. We’re just not very good at using it yet, and the cracks we see in it need to be healed somehow. If we’re wise, that’s what we’ll do, even if it takes the work of generations.

There will always be Savilles, as there will always be the likes of Fred Roberts. While it can be impossible, these days, to know who is worthy of our trust, what we can do is make a start by avoiding the trap of letting the one poison our faith in the redeeming nature of the other.

Welcome to 2022. Happy New Year.

Thanks for listening.

Just look up

The penultimate movie I watched, in 2021, was a darkly satirical offering called “Don’t Look Up”. Astronomers discover an asteroid on collision course with earth, a mass extinction event. But it coincides with another mass extinction event already well under way, which is the state of our political and media culture, and where it’s leading us. So far, from what I’ve read, it’s being called a sci-fi movie. It’s not. It’s very much of the moment, and what happens is eerily plausible, but then my span of life on earth includes the phenomenon that was Trump’s presidency, and the spectacle of the incumbent British administration. After that, anything will seem plausible.

The message I took from the movie, is those who can still relate to one another as human beings, still look up at the sky and know it’s real, and who value love and fellowship – well – you’d better cling to that, because it’s no small thing, even if your phone is telling you something else entirely. It’s also all you’ve got. It won’t stop you getting mown down with the rest of humanity in its stampede for the material, but you’ll be able to look back on your life, and feel it was worth something. The only other thing there is is this “culture”, for want of a better word, that we’ve built, lets say over the last twenty years, and which can have us look up at an incoming asteroid, and deny its existence, sneer knowingly at the science that’s telling us it’s coming, right up to the moment it strikes, then whimper uselessly, that we were lied to. What we’ve built, then, aspires to something stupid, and which crushes the life out of, well,… life itself.

It’s had mixed reviews, but I thought it was pretty much on the button. It was a sobering note to end the year on, but not altogether negative.

Individually, we’re all facing our own incoming asteroid, our own extinction event. There’s a line in the Chinese Book of Changes, that describes how some of us will approach this by denying its existence, by endless partying, pursuing surgery, drugs, botox and hair dye, all to maintain the illusion of eternal youth. Others will spend their lives crushed under the weight of it, bemoaning the harshness, and the futility of life, weeping over their lot at every chance they get. But to live as we should is to find another way, one that’s becoming harder, like a whisper in a room of noise, and it’s rarely taught, how to tune in how to age gracefully, how to mature as a human being. Part of it at least is to treasure the ineffable in what can be the all too transient and minuscule glimpses of a greater reality.

The movie ends with family and friends breaking bread around the dinner table, and asking the question: what was the best moment of your life? I took my cue from this and asked the question at our family Christmas lunch, not what was the best moment of your life, but of the past year. It’s tempting to see this past year, and the year before it, in purely negative terms, on account of Covid. But in spite of that, each of us could indeed pin-point a special moment, several in fact, and in that light, its not been a bad year at all, just different.

One of my special moments would be reaching the top of Pendle, in September, and having it to myself for a bit. There was something in the fall of light, in the colours of the sky, and the movement of clouds that day. We’re not always aware of it at the time. It’s only when we think back, we realise there was a special quality, a connection with something deeper than the surface of the everyday.

These are the times that give life meaning, their promise pulling us forwards, into life, though we have no idea when they will come again. They’re special because they’re reflective of something timeless, something of the immortal, a memory we are born with, and they don’t cost anything. It’s a glimpse, perhaps, of what the Hindu would call Brahman, the transcendent, or rather the divine consciousness, and that we are, each of us, “it”. What we’re seeing then, in moments like that, is a reflection of our own face in the crowd, and recognising it, even if we cannot name it.

But our vision, our ability to naturally transcend, is mostly hampered by the shallowness and the surrounding noise, and especially now, with the infernal din that is our “social” media, this thing that showed some early promise as a means of remotely connecting us, but which was captured by the big bucks machinery, and is now gamed simply to big us up with its false promises, persuade us the persona we project into it is the real “us”, but which ultimately makes an insulting zero of us all. Then there’s the unwholesome churn of our politics and news media, perpetually beamed into our heads, unsettling us, and purporting to be the only reality there is. But it’s not.

Just look up.

Here’s to 2022

And, as always, thanks for listening.

To the Pike!

The Pike Tower, Rivington

The year has blown itself out. It’s exhausted, its dreams have turned to ash, its spirits are damp with endless rain. Whenever the phone rings, it’s to let us know someone has died. Covid Omicron is circling with bat wings and horns, and the NHS Website is glowing red with demand for boosters. The temptation is to pull up the drawbridge, and write dark poetry. But then the Met office gifts us a brief chink of sunlight, so we fill the flask, grab the camera, and head up the Pike!

Rivington Pike is beloved of millions, a distinctive pimple of a hill atop the moor, and visible for miles. It was a natural choice for one of the network of early warning beacons for the threatened invasion of 1588. Since the late seventeen hundreds, it’s been crowned with this little stone tower. Originally a hunting lodge, the structure was almost demolished by Victorian vandalism, then fortified to its present impregnable status. Its walls bear centuries of graffiti, now eaten by acid rain into deep engravings. One of my lot added their name to it in 1881.

So anyway, it’s a midweek morning, and the causeway between the Rivington and Anglezarke reservoirs is rammed to a single lane. The Rivington Barn eatery is doing a brisk trade, and the Hall avenue is solid from top to bottom with parked cars. I spent a long time working towards retirement, only to find the whole world made it ahead of me, and got the last parking space. Well, not quite – I exaggerate for effect. I got the last one.

A December sun is a peculiar thing; virtually no heat, but incredibly bright. Capturing the dynamic range of a landscape on a digital sensor is a challenge at this time of year. Anything lit by the sun tends to burn out, so I’m experimenting. Then, I post-process at home.

I’m enjoying photography more than writing fiction at the moment, seeing more in what I can bring out of images than I do in words. My characters refuse to live, as if wearied by what they’re trying to say. Thus, the work in progress languishes, limps along a little, then collapses into a heap of uncertainty. It seems at times remote and stupid, like I’m losing my mind, at other times like I’m preaching, at other times like I don’t care, and I’ll say it anyway. But it will not take on a life of its own, as it once used to do.

I used to escape into fiction as a distraction from the day-job, which, like all jobs, involves wearing a face that is to some degree invented, while keeping what I felt to be my truer self incognito. But I also write as active imagination, which is a journey to unravel further aspects of the hidden self. I think I know the nature of that journey’s end now, which is to reveal one’s original face, as they say in Zen. The stories have pointed to the gate, and all that remains is to walk through it. But I’m not sure writing stories is part of that journey any more.

I’m feeling a little strange this morning. I dreamed of a fish – well, two fishes, actually – one large, one small, living in a puddle. I drop them some food, and the little fish pushes the big one right out of the puddle, then eats the food. The big one lies there, remote, sidelined, forgotten, expiring for want of oxygen. Fishes in dreams are thoughts, or at least they seem so in mine. And if they are so, then the big ideas are getting sidelined by the trivia, which is consuming all the energy. Or you could look at it the other way and say the old and the listless is being displaced by the fresh and the new. So which is it? The dream wasn’t explicit. They never are. It just asked me to think about it.

We start our walk with a meandering ascent through the terraced gardens, gradually working up to the summit of the Pike. You can get three or four miles out of it, and seven hundred feet of ascent. It’s not a long walk then, but a fairly stiff one, if you go for the Pike.

The seven arched bridge, Leverhulme’s terraced gardens, Rivington.

The first point of interest along the way is the so-called seven arch bridge. Like everything else here, it was built in the early nineteen hundreds, purely for fancy. It’s part of the then Viscount Leverhulme’s “palace in the clouds”, a collection of now mostly grade two listed historic structures. Picks, shovels, an army of men, and horses gave shape to it, and years in the making. It was the brainchild of prolific garden designer Thomas Mawson.

Once a year, Leverhulme would throw open his garden to the hoi polloi. They’d dress in their finest, and come wander. Times change, as do fashions. Now, it’s mountain gear, like we’re ascending Everest, instead of cloth caps and gaberdine. A fuss over trifles. But at least we can come and wander whenever we please.

The Great Lawn Summer House. Rivington Terraced Gardens.

I save my soup for one of the beautifully restored summer houses. Here, also sunning himself, I recognise a man I knew vaguely from the day job, and who retired some years before me. I cannot remember his name, though. Likewise, I can tell by his expression, he thinks he should know me, but cannot remember my name either. We avoid unintentional offence by the peculiar social dance of pretending not to know one another at all or, knowing each other so well, we need no introduction beyond “owdo”. Thus girded, we pass the time of day, and in hope of the connection making itself known, but it does not. So, we comment on the brightness of the sun, and the lack of warmth when out of it, on the wetness, and the windiness of previous weeks, and what a good job the heritage trust have made of restoring the gardens. We part with a nod and a “sithi'”, still trying to remember each other’s names.

So, on to the Pike, now, always a good indication of how fell-fit one is, by the amount of puff left when you hit the final flight of steps. As usual, I’m middling, but we’ll do, and of course it does you no harm to get out of puff now and then. A mountain biker, a girl with her phone, and an elderly couple, are my companions for the moment, here, all socially distanced of course. The elderly lady wears a surgical mask. She’s taking no chances with this bat-winged, horned monster that is Omicron, and judging from the reported “R” value, I don’t blame her. I wait for them to depart before I get the camera out. The girl lingers, dreamily, lost in her phone.

The Pigeon Tower, Levelhulmes terraced gardens, Rivington.

There’s much to see from the Pike: Manchester, the Peak District, North Wales, Liverpool, the coast as far as Blackpool, the Lakes beyond that. Sometimes you’ll see the Isle of Man, but that’s very much dependent on the atmospheric conditions, and has rather the appearance of a mirage when it appears. Speaking metaphorically, it’s a pity we can’t see further out, say two years from now. But given recent events, would we really want to?

It’s a beautiful afternoon. I take the long way back: Pigeon tower, Italian lake, cross the top of the seven arched bridge, then meander down to the car. It gets late early at this time of year, and the light is turning golden, now, the sun already flirting with dusk. The phone pings a notification from the BBC, an earth-shattering announcement to be made at tea time.

It’s fine. Just some more dead catting. I’ll wait for the bullet points in the morning.

We’ll pick up wine and cheese on the way home. Celebrate the midweek, why not? There’s nothing quite like a hill for straightening you out. Dark poetry be gone.

Thanks for listening.

Hatch Brook Falls

I dreamed I lived in one of the old railway cottages, overlooking the lovely Lodge Bank at Brinscall. Across the lodge there are woods, which rise to meet the moor, and in the woods, hidden in a deep ravine, are the Hatch Brook falls. I saw these for the first time at the wrong end of a long walk, last year. I was tired and, thinking back, I was also ill. If you’re lost in Brinscall woods and looking for a way out, it’s not a good idea to follow the Hatch brook upstream. You end up in a ravine, with the falls towering over you, and there’s no easy way out. And if there’s been any rain, the brook fans out, making any kind of progress something of a puzzle.

But there is a way, if you’re careful. I climbed out, on wobbly legs, via a morass filled gulley, up on the right, and made it back to the car at White Coppice, on vapours. Spectacular as the falls were, they came at me at the weary end of ten miles, on a bad day, and were too awful to think of photographing. By comparison with other falls in the UK, they’re relatively small, but for Lancashire, they’re an impressive cascade in a wild setting, and something of a paradox, this sense of remoteness and inaccessibility, being such a short walk up from Brinscall. I told myself I’d come back, but, since that day, Hatch Brook’s always had the ring of Tolkein’s Mordor, and I’ve been avoiding it.

So anyway, it was like the dream was telling me to pull myself together, so I drove over to Brinscall and parked up on the Lodge Bank terrace, beneath the railway cottages. None were for sale, because dreams aren’t usually literal in that way. It was a cold day, with intermittent showers of hail, but it was the first “mostly” dry one, after a week of heavy rain. Still, I reckoned the going would be wet underfoot, and I wasn’t wrong.

There’s a well-marked path that leaves Well Lane, but which eventually peters out into a confusion of watery ways. The OS map has this path leading you directly to the falls, and then connecting with the lane higher up. And maybe it did in former times, but now it’s more a case of following it as best you can, as far as the ravine, then picking your way carefully up stream, also, at times, in the stream. But, so far as I can tell, there’s no way out by anything resembling a path. I’d have to check for a sign from higher up the lane to be sure.

The light was poor, and we start to lose it anyway not much after 2:00 pm, at this time of year, so I’d come prepared with a fast lens. It was pretty much as I remember it, picking my way up the ravine, and a wall of white water, rumbling up ahead, still something threatening about it, apparently hanging there, all spectral, in the ferny gloom. There was nobody else around. The brook was in spate, had fanned out, and needed several careful crossings to get within range of a shot. There are fallen trees, obscuring all the best angles, but I fiddled about and got as close as I could, still a couple of awkward uprights spoiling the composition.

There are lots of pictures of it online, suggesting many photographers have sought it out, and I have to say, all of their efforts trump mine. I can only imagine they had the agility of a monkey to get the angles they did, also a tripod for those long-exposure, milky water shots. It’s a tricky subject, but impressive in the wet. You might get nearer to it in the drier months, but then, without all that water, there’d be none of the drama. I made do with some hand-helds, then it started to rain, so I escaped the ravine via the gully, like last time.

In Brinscall Woods

I’d more energy today, so it wasn’t as much of a struggle. But it’s a mossy, lichenous place, needing careful footwork. The gulley comes out at a wire fence, just low enough to spring, without snagging one’s trousers. This put us on one of the main marked ways through the woods, but there are others, unmarked, that link up with several of the lost farms, and even a couple of mansion houses, now reduced to the rubble of history, and otherwise lost in the mysterious gloom of a densely planted woodland. Considering its proximity to Brinscall, the woods are a quiet place to explore, with many fascinating ruins, mostly the remains of small farms, but others clearly substantial, well-built properties, now just piles of mossy stone, amid the ferns and the moss.

In Brinscall Woods

From there, I took a long, meandering line, south, eventually coming down to the ruins of Goose Green farm, where the woods give way to the open ground of the Goit valley. I was there last week, having come at it from the other direction, from White Coppice. There’s a gloomy sky today, though, unlike the sparking sunshine last time. The ash tree I made such a fuss of seemed a good spot for lunch.

So then we followed the Goit back to Brinscall, sound of barking dogs now along this more popular trail. It feels like I’ve been out all day, but it’s barely a couple of hours, and not three miles round, though plenty to explore along the way. Lots of stories here. Sure, it would be good to live in Brinscall, like in the dream, overlooking the lodge, and the woods and the moors, rising beyond. I’m sure it’s not true what they say about Brinscall, that it’s always winter here, that the spring will come, same as anywhere else.

I’ve been retired a year to the day, now, and, unlikely as it sounds, what with Covid grinding on and all, it’s been a good one.

Sorry we missed you

I decided to have one of my recent photographs printed on canvas. My wife liked it, and we thought we could put it up in our newly decorated hallway. It seemed an easy thing to do, online, and there was an introductory offer on, otherwise large canvases can be quite expensive. You load your file to the printer’s website, they run it off and post it to you. Simple.

That was a couple of weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been getting daily emails from the courier to say they’ve got the parcel, it’s on the road, it’s coming at such and such a time. So I wait with bated breath, looking forward to seeing my picture, but nothing comes. Then I check the mail, and the courier’s sent a message to say I wasn’t in, and here’s the proof. And the proof is a blacked out photograph.

So I feel a bit let down, not so much because my stuff hasn’t arrived, but because the machine lied to me, and eroded a little more of my trust in it, and by association my faith in the future that’s coming, because the future is all about the machines. And the machines will lie, and we’ll know they lie, but we’ll rely on them so much we’ll have to live with their lies. And they’ll lie because we’ve set them up to do it, because we’re essentially irrational beings, trying to run the world along rational lines.

But back to my picture. The system could not say: “Sorry, we didn’t make it today, like we promised. We had too many deliveries to make.” And it couldn’t say it because of the way the drivers are measured. The drivers have to say the customer wasn’t in, otherwise he gets it in the neck, even though the machine has given him far too many parcels to deliver. So, I don’t blame the driver. He’s trying to survive as part of the machinery, and the machine pays him, so he has to lie. The machine makes him do it, and treats him appallingly into the bargain.

This has happened every day now for a couple of weeks. I wasn’t in, so they couldn’t deliver. But I was in. I was waiting for my picture. I messaged the courier to ask if there was a problem, if they had the right address. But there was no means of doing so, other than by engaging with what I can only surmise was a circularly inclined chat-bot.

The function of the machinery is simple. It requires a combination of technology and human skill. The printer prints the picture, the logistics are plotted, stickers are run off and attached, and the delivery driver brings it to my home. But on top of that is a layer of “scientific” managerialism, that demands performance measures, feedback and other arcane stats, so it can show an ever expanding business model, weed out inefficiencies in the machinery, maximise profits, etc,..

But such scientific management is reliable only until it meets people, and then it doesn’t work, for the simple reason, people are not machines. Treat us like machines, we treat the machine or machine-like people with contempt, and the collective bio-mechanical machine lies.

After messaging the seller, the picture eventually arrived, unannounced, in the small hours of the morning. It was left propped by the front door, in the middle of a rainstorm. But no harm was done. The picture was safe and snug inside its battered parcel, and I’m very pleased with it. I was hoping the courier would email me a link to a quiz, asking me to “rate my experience”, but they didn’t. I would not have complained. I would have responded irrationally, and said:

Regarding my feedback. Sorry I missed you. You weren’t in, and there was no safe place to leave it.

Thanks for listening