Archive for January, 2009

(ruin: collective noun – a flock of geese, a bunch of grapes, a “ruin” of wind-generators)

I seem to be coming down ever more firmly on the side of those who are against wind generators, which are being sold to us as something of a panacea at the moment. The right-brain argument goes that if you’re against wind generators you’re against the planet. They’re a form of “green” energy, so you’re anti-green if you don’t like them. What I would say is that I don’t like them because they spoil the view, which sounds a bit weak I suppose, when the alternative is a coal fired power station belching out plumes of CO2 that’s going to ruin the planet. In my defence I can only argue that I place a very high value on the way the planet looks, and would sooner reduce my consumption of electricity and thereby obviate the need for these contraptions, than spoil the look of the planet, in order to save it.

Like anything else industrial and privately owned, power generation is about making money for shareholders, and it’s about squeezing the public until the pips squeak, and if anyone thinks that windmills, or any other form of privately owned eco-freindly energy is going to to reduce your power bills you’re sadly mistaken. The only way to do that is to stop burning it, and quite frankly, I don’t think the energy companies want you to do that, at least not until they’ve found a way of generating it for nothing while conversely charging you ten times more for it than they do at present.

But going back to the view, and its ruination by wind-farms:

Imagine a little old man, living in a quiet country cottage. He’s lived there all his life. It’s not a big place and he only has a small patch of land at the back, but it looks out over open farmland and he’s grown used to the simple beauty of it – the pastures, the trees, the creatures, and the changing patterns of nature though the seasons. The light pouring in from this pastoral scene fills his house and colours his life. Then, in his eightieth year, the farm goes bust and the land is sold to an insensitive bastard of a developer who decides to build a massive warehouse right up to the boundary line, dwarfing the old guy’s house and casting it in permanent shadow. When he looks out of his back door now, all he sees is a massive grey wall and it’s like his house has been moved overnight into the middle of the industrial sector of a city.

To the old guy, this is not merely an inconvenience, a minor loss of amenity, causing a dip in the monetary value of his property. It is a shattering of the psychical continuity of his life, and a brutal assault on his senses, as unforgivable as any mugging or robbing of his life’s savings.

Openness and beauty, uncluttered hills, green pastures, sparkling lakes and ponds, centuries old trees, the chatter of clean water running in our rivers and our streams, and the unobtrusive, unlittered paths that wend quietly among them are of inestimable value to human beings on account of their peculiar propeties that are capable of restoring a sense of well being into the hearts of anyone who cares to visit them. Like our planet they cannot be returned to us once they’re spoiled, and they tend to be spoiled when someone with an eye for a profit begins to weigh them up with the peculiar blind sight of the utilitarian economist. If no money can be made from beauty then an insensitive society will feel no loss at covering it with concrete, power-lines, or wind-generators. I can only trust that I do not live in that kind of society, but increasingly I’m beginning to wonder.

Over the last twenty years, China has spent its time powering up and becoming the all purpose manufactory of the world, exporting to us the goods those same utlitarian economists decided we could no longer afford to make for ourselves. But along with their computers and their clothes and their children’s toys and their fireworks, I’ve also partaken of the history of China’s pre-revolutionary culture and also some of its philosophical exports. In Daoism, for example, one of China’s major religious and philosopical traditions, there is a recognition of the power of nature to give expression to a formless and entirely intangible phenomenon called Dao.

Without Dao there is nothing. You can’t see it, touch it, smell it or sell it but you can feel it, and you feel it most strongly in unspoiled nature. Certain combinations of natural form give rise to a greater sense of Dao than others. You’ve all felt it. No matter how beautiful the country you walk through, there is always a special place that comes to mind. These things are subjective and reflective of something in ourselves as well, so they’ll be different for each of us, and often very subtle. It can be as trivial as the way a tree’s branches hang down over a stretch of shallow water, or it can be in the way the light hits a mountain ridge at a certain season of the year. It fills you up with something that makes life all the more worth while. It is one of those priceless and indefinable things that makes up your life’s reward. Yet many spend their lives in ignorance of it.

It’s Dao that tells us a natural forest of native hardwoods is beautiful and uplifting to walk though while a commercial monoculture of Sitka Spruce is butt ugly and depressing. It’s Dao that tells us a stream of water splashing over little stones and tumbling down in silver cascades is pleasant to sit beside on a summer’s day – Dao that tells us that to take that same stream and divert it through a concrete conduit – although it serves the same purpose of moving water from one place to the other – would be a stupid thing to do.

A dozen wind-generators sitting on a hilltop might generate enough power to light the homes of the little village sitting at the bottom, but it’s Dao that tells me I’d be better reading my book by the light of an oil lamp, and gazing out of my window by day on an uncluttered hilltop, than on a scene of utter ruination.

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January has dissolved into that pale-sun kind of mildness, and on Sunday afternoon I was tempted out to my old stomping grounds in the West Pennine Moors. I had in mind a stroll up Great Hill from White Coppice, but I wasn’t the only one tempted out by the mild weather, and there was nowhere to leave the car within a couple of miles of the start of the walk, so I cut back over the narrow moorland roads and wound up at Jepson’s Gate for a walk to the Round Loaf instead. The boots are still holding together – a little leaky – but this was home-ground for me and even if they fell apart I was pretty sure I’d be okay.

You can do the Round Loaf and back in a couple of hours, which was just right given the shortness of the days. There’s an uncompromising bleakness about these uplands and sometimes I wonder if their only attraction is that they’re in my blood. One cannot call them dramatic – even though they touch 1200 feet, they’re far too gently rounded and their appearance is more wind-blasted and crouching than proudly soaring.

The Round Loaf, for those of you not familiar with the West Pennines is a Neolithic Cairn, probably a burial, but an unusually big one. These ancient cairns are made of loose stones piled up and overlaid with millenia of vegetation. The stones provide good drainage for root systems so the Round Loaf stands out above the poorly drained peat moorland, a  startling and incongruous green blob on a russet upland plain. Many paths converge upon it and the site seems to appeal to many a varied interest: the sheep seem to like it, walkers certainly do, geocachers too, and also, it has to be said, the local Wiccan’s and maybe some of the darker neo-pagan sects as well.

It’s curious that this place has never been excavated, or vandalised – I suppose its remoteness has spared it both of those indignities.

And speaking of indignities, I returned to the car off-piste so to speak, seeking out the Pike Stones, another ancient monument, another former burial site from the Neolithic period. This one’s only five minutes from the road and consequently has been stripped bare over the generations, dismantled and excavated almost to extinction. All that remains here these days are a couple of tilted slabs of weathered millstone grit. Like the Round Loaf this is another location favoured by the neo-pagans and a while ago one of them decided to embellish this admittedly rather dull monument by chiseling a distinctly “new-age” spiral motif upon it. That was bad enough, but today I noticed someone else had made a half hearted attempt at chiseling the spiral motif off. Either way the site is ruined now and it’ll be centuries before this place ever attracts back the natural magic of the earth – if it ever does. Indeed next time I go up I half expect to see a recreation of the Cerne-Abbas giant dug into the peat.

Forestation began up here in the 1980’s, and the plantations are reaching maturity now. In my humble opinion these forests do little to add to the attractiveness of the area  and I’ve been spending the last 25 years quietly grizzling at them, laid down as they are with a geometric insensitivity that’s about as unnatural as you can imagine and as much of an insult to the plain beauty of the moors as chiseling a spiral on an ancient monument. I suppose they’ll be logging these out soon and then I’ll really have something to grizzle about.

I seem to be peculiar in my belief that open country like this is far more of a blessing than most people seem to realise.  Left entirely to nature it acquires a peculiar energy that has to be felt to be appreciated. Walk through it and it begins to work upon your bones, and upon your brain. You think differently when you return from a walk up here. You’re calmer, brighter, more positive in your outlook and I think there’s more to it than simply the fresh air.  But in walking through it you also leave behind a trail of energy of your own that lingers in your footprints. That’s okay because if you’re careful and respectful the tides will wash away all evidence of your passing and no harm is done. However, if too many people converge upon a place, and especially if their presence carries with it a negative energy, as evidenced by the dropping of litter, the indiscriminate and insensitive planting of commercial forests, or the wanton vandalism of ancient monuments, then the overall quality of the land is diminished or sometimes extinguished altogether. It becomes scrappy, mucky, trashed and void of spirit.

All of this is subjective and I appreciate that much of what I feel about these uplands is entirely imaginary. I wrote my first novel, the Singing Loch, partly in response to these peculiar feelings, in an attempt to give voice to what it was I believed we should value in those few true remaining wildernesses that are left to us in the UK, apart from the handful of filthy money to to be gained from their destruction.

I often think of my ancestral territory as being that patch of moorland bounded to the north by the line of Black Brook, and Great Hill, East by the upland ridge of Spitler’s and Redmond’s edge, and South by the fledgling Yarrow. This is because I was born within sight of it, and grew up gazing out of my bedroom window at it through a pair of binoculars. Looking westwards from just about anywhere in this territory you have a view of the Lancashire Plain, and all the way out to the Irish Sea. When the weather comes in it comes in unchecked and usually very windy, and in my darker dreams now I see wind-generators, and I pray the gritstone foundations lie too deep beneath the squelchy peat for such monstrosities to ever be considered here.

Still, I’m sure someone’s thinking about it.

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There have been a lot of sightings of strange lights in the sky in my part of the world – glowing orbs that move in ways unlike any aircraft known to man. Headlines scream: UFO’s! Without wishing to add to the hysteria,  I must own up to the fact that I saw a couple of these things myself in the small hours of New Years’ day and they were very eerie indeed – a pair of them, like glowing amber balls, moving in an apparent formation in the chill winter’s night. They were exactly as I’d seen them described in my local rag. Eeek!
Fortunately, I’d seen this kind of thing before, though I was surprised to see them over Lancashire. I could understand how anyone not familiar with this type of device would be puzzled by it. They were what I call Chinese lanterns, things that consist of a fairly large candle which provides sufficient heat to fill a sort of miniature hot-air balloon, perhaps a metre in diameter. Once released, the balloon will float up to an impressive altitude, carrying its candle with it, while riding the local wind currents. They look like glowing orbs and, depending on the wind currents, can dance about in all sorts of ways, keeping strict formation with other lanterns in their vicinity. I’m told they’ve also been known to come down and set fire to people’s houses.
They are symbolic of the spirit, like the western dove in allegorical paintings, the soul rising into the heavens, but they’re being marketed to us secular types as as more of a novelty, something for a birthday or, say, New Years’ Eve.  Personally I find them very attractive and wouldn’t mind having a play with one, except I’m worried about the risk to property if they should come down awkwardly. It seems in this particular instance then, talk of UFO’s is a little premature – a classic case of inventing unicorns when horses will do perfectly well.

A slightly bigger unicorn appeared in the press last week, first in the red-top tabloids, then on the BBC, when reports came in of a wind-turbine having been struck by an unknown object, following a spectacular light display. Actually, what appears to have happened is that a turbine lost one blade while another blade was severely bent, and the actual cause is, at the time of writing, still undetermined. The potential unicorn here is a careless UFO, while the horse on the other hand is a more mundane mechanical failure.
Metal subjected to vibration, stress, or very low temperatures (such as on the top of a wind turbine in the middle of winter) is prone to breaking, often suddenly, and in spectacular ways. The designers of these things try their best to build in safety margins so the unthinkable never happens but I’ve seen bolts sheared by stresses they should have been perfectly capable of withstanding and all because of a simple and seemingly insignificant manufacturing defect. In short: it happens and it’s impossible to guard against all eventualities.

What’s interesting here, and may become more significant in the public’s imagination, once all this UFO business has died down, is fact that wind turbines might actually be prone to failure. I’ve been looking them up on the internet and have discovered that they break down quite a lot, require regular and rather onerous maintainence, in spite of which they still fail in spectacular ways all the time – around half a dozen times a year to be precise – something the builders of these giant whirligigs fail to mention when they’re persuading us to obliterate our skylines with them in the name of saving the planet. They catch fire, sometimes the blades come off and if the wind blows too hard, the whole thing can collapse.  I suppose, given the number of turbines operating around the world, I should add that six catasrophic failures a year makes them relatively safe – but they do kill people every now and then which somewhat tarnishes their benign reputation.
The turbine that was supposedly struck by a UFO was one of 20 at the Conisholme wind-farm in Leicestershire, but there are similar sites all over the country and as energy prices continue to rocket, pressure is mounting for even more to be built. One of the most recent additions in England, and a litttle closer to my home patch, is the Scout Moor site near Edenfield to the north of Manchester. This was completed last year and is currently coming on-line. It covers what was an area of pristine moorland, criss crossed with remote tracks and public ways, some of which now twine their way around these awesome animated structures. It had been on my mind to go up there and have a look  but if, as was demonstrated at Conisholme, the blades have a habit of coming off, either with or without the help of careless extraterrestrials, I’m less inclined to go wandering among them now.

Latest news reports of the Conisholme incident tell us that the debris has been sent to Germany for “forensic” examination – but for “forensic” here I think we should read “metallurgical”, which amounts to the same thing though without the sensationalist and slightly sinister overtones. The manufacturers want to know as soon as humanly possible exactly why this blade came off for the simple reason they don’t want it to happen again. These whirligigs are seriously huge and increasingly ubiquitous pieces of civil engineering, and the last thing the manufacturers and operators need is any bad publicity as regards their safety or reliability.

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After my hike in the Trough of Bowland, the New Year continued to get under way this morning with a return to my Tai Chi class. The feel of the year so far is still one of introspection, of coldness, of frigidity, none of it helped by the depresssingly blank grey skies.  It is a season when any kind of activity seems to fly in the face of reason , but Tai Chi is still important to me, so I found the enthusiasm from somewhere in order to make the  early start and drive  ten miles through the cold greyness, and the oppressve speed cameras, into the city fringes that are otherwise so repulsive to me.

I am learning the Chen Sword form at the moment – am about three quarters of the way through its intriguing complexity, and I am perplexed by it, though immensely satisfied also. Whenever, in the past, I have seen Tai Chi performed it has always been the Yang style, which possesses a surely  undisputably beautiful and ethereal grace – but my own particular fate was to touch down a little nearer the martial core of Tai Chi, and to its roots in the rather more explosive Chen tradition. Consequently things were not at all as I imagined them to be. In Chen style, we are not always cultivating the deliciously silken energy of the heavens – we are, just as often, breaking bones, and, in taking up the sword, we are are, to be blunt, ruthlessly inflicting mortal wounds on an imaginary opponent.

We stab uncomprimisingly at the chest, at the belly, at the ankle. We slice for dear life  at the throat of our assailant – we thrust devilishly through the softness of his gullet and into the depths of his thorax – we kill, maim,… splatter blood, sever limbs, indeed we hack our way through the battlefields of a nation and of a prehistoric time that is quite foreign to me, and yet also disturbingly ever present in my practice and perhaps also in the collectice psyche of us all.


And here’s me, a pacifist by nature, and a fervent prayer for that almost cringingly embarrassing goal of world peace and universal harmony. Surreal calm through simulated violence? How so? It’s impossible to analyse for now, but, as always, fascinating!

In more practical terms, as always, at this time of year, the training hall was barely above freezing and I entered pale and shivering in fleece and windproof jacket, only to emerged after just an hour, glowing, slick with sweat and both pharmecutically and surreally calm. The calmness, of course, is the point – while the means is entirely irrelevent and conveniently forogtten.

It may just have been the earliness of the season, but there were very few of us this morning, and all male. I’ve noticed a change in the dynamic of the group over the last eighteen months, towards the more macho, male oriented, kicking, punching, muscular, bar-brawling, self protecting, hoodie slaying end of the spectrum, which is most puzzling. When I began, all of this embarrassingly obtrusive testosterone was balanced by a considerable, and not unwelcome female presence – not just your young, fit and depressingly lithe and sexy girls, but your older, health conscious,  graceful and magnificently mature woman. This had the effect of calming the group practice down, of drawing it nearer to that mysterious silken slowness, a slowess that did indeed tickle the heavens. But there is purpose in all things, and for now it seems the way of the New Year is Yang – it is explosive, it is the kick, rather than the caress.  However I’m not entirely comfortable with this, as I fear a decline in fortune for our little group, so come on you girls – lend to us once more your energy, and pull us back into the centre of things!

Michael Graeme


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