Archive for December, 2014

Dear Julie

candlesI remember how nervous you looked that morning when I came into the office. You were waiting by the telephone, waiting for the radio station to ring and interview you. You told me you were afraid you’d make a mess of things. I think it was the first, and perhaps the only time we ever spoke. It seemed impossible to me you could make a mess of anything. You were Head Girl, chosen for your academic prowess, for your character. You were articulate and winning, and had I not been in love with someone else, I would surely have been in love with you. I told you, I think, and with conviction, you’d be fine. It was not an easy thing for me to say, for though I was not in love with you, I was very much in awe.

“No, you won’t,” I said – meaning you won’t make a mess of things.

Did you blush at that? I think you did, though I could not imagine why, and only feared to disturb you further, so I collected the stuff I’d been sent in to the office for, then left, trailing my embarrassment, and a twist of regret that a girl of your sweet nature and regal stature, a girl worthy of being interviewed by the BBC, was unlikely to look twice at a lowly serf like me.

You’ll remember I was a prefect – but not a good one. I spent my lunchtimes guarding the entrance to the corridors. My instructions were to keep the kids from breezing in and out. I was always too believing of their excuses though, so we might as well have propped the doors open and let them wander through at will. Then came that lunch time, a little while after I had seen you in the office. You appeared from nowhere, leaned nonchalantly against a radiator in the corridor, and simply watched me.

You did not speak, but only smiled I think. There was such a grace in you, Julie, and a kindness and your presence puzzled me at first. It was the peak of the mad hour, a tide of kids barging in through that door, and you just looking at me, not speaking, your face, your whole demeanour an oasis of calm amid the ugly chaos over which I presided. Forgive me but my petty insecurity convinced me you’d come to spy on me, to see how bad a job I was doing, that you’d tell the Head of Year and I’d be hauled up for dereliction of duty, or something equally dire. After all what else could you have been doing there but your job as Head Girl?

I remember parrying foul-mouthed retorts from my besiegers, then looking back to see you’d gone – no doubt to give that bad report. I think I hated you then – your elegance, your superiority – but only for a moment; something in your eyes haunted me, made me doubt, left a question mark over the whole event. I didn’t understand, and I got only good reports for my time as prefect – so that was not it. It came to me years later, long after we had left the school, a sudden moment of insight, that you had simply wanted to be with me, to close the gap between us, to talk, to be together, to be in love.

Was that it, Julie?

But no one had ever done that before, so I hope you can forgive my blindness that day, if blindness it was, and I am not still harbouring under the veil of a massive delusion. It was reticence and lack of self worth that spurned you. It was not that I didn’t want to talk with you. I would gladly have talked with you, gladly have fallen in love. If we had but touched that day it would have spared me years of imaginary torture at the hands of someone else who was as blind to my heart as I fear I was to yours.

I felt a fool afterwards, and would gladly have turned back time. If I have that moment to live again I trust I shall have the insight to see clearly enough the truth in it. Or why not just pass me a note, Julie, for I was always better with the written word than with words spoken face to face. Our lives may turn out to be no different in the end, and we both found love anyway, didn’t we? But I carried a wealth of warmth and good wishes towards you, and we are better sharing such things if we can than keeping them secret. Pray I am granted a little more time to do just that, next time.

Your parents owned a shop in town, and though it’s long since changed hands now, I still drive past and think of you. Like so many of our year, we went our separate ways and I saw not one of the old faces again, including yours. I did not see you again, nor hear your name – not for thirty five years, until this morning, in fact, when I read the notice of your death.

Perhaps it’s the season, Julie, the old year running down from Samhain to Yule, when I believe we are sensitive to such things, vulnerable to the bitter-sweet berries of winter-time, more open to brief partings in the thin veil between worlds. We have lived our lives entirely unknown to one another, haven’t we? You married, as did I – you it transpires, coincidentally, to a man with the same uncommon surname as mine. This struck me as synchronistic, and brought to mind very much the mystery of chance events, that they are like doors opening on the oddness of time and psyche; they are a glimpse of something we will perhaps never understand, our eyes closed to an incomprehensible truth, as mine were that day by the doors. We came in close orbit once, and a long time ago, not quite touching. You might have lived your life believing I never thought of you at all but I did, and often, and fondly. And I just wanted to say that, here.

You were a middle aged lady when you died, Julie, and too young. The notice tells me it was sudden and there’s a blessing in that, but I still struggle with the meaning of it. It leaves me feeling empty, and the memory of that morning in the school office, in the context of today’s news, emptier still. I suppose my perspective grants me the gift of remembering you always as you were at sixteen, waiting on that call from the BBC, the promise of your life ahead, your grace, your beauty.

It’s as it should be you have no shortage of loved ones to mourn you, and to remember days with you I cannot. All I have are the fragments of something passing, but which are none the less held for ever and with a warm affection.

The candle I light tonight, Julie, I light for you.



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mending clock 1I was browsing a junk market, looking for an old clock. All I needed was a decent case for a mechanism I’ve had kicking around for years, so the clock didn’t need to be working. I thought I’d be able to pick one up quite cheaply, and the project would keep me out of mischief over the Christmas holidays, while I pondered my next literary adventure. Funny things though, old clocks; broken ones of the mechanical variety still fetch decent prices, while broken quartz ones don’t even make it to the the junk stall – they just end up as landfill.

Modern, consumer grade quartz clocks can look a bit cheap, tending to be housed in frail plastic cases. They do what they were designed to do, namely tell the time, and for a fiver you can chuck it out and buy another when you’re bored with it or it no longer matches your decor. In fact I’ve read recently that most of the consumer-grade stuff we buy is thrown away within a year – even if there’s nothing wrong with it. Society is just designed that way now – indeed the entire global economy relies upon it.

mending clock 2There were a few quartz clocks on the junk stalls, all looking pretty cheap to be honest, costing little and ticking away quite merrily, because unlike their mechanical brethren, there’s not much can go wrong with them. Meanwhile the mechanical ones sulked mostly in mute disgrace – missing pendulums, mangled balances, busted mainsprings and missing keys. They were out of my price range anyway – I’d set myself an arbitrary limit of a tenner. Some of them had good looking cases, but it would have felt wrong to push the budget only to throw the mechanism away and replace it with a battery one. Call me odd, but some things just aren’t right, and I’m not tooled up these days to tackle any of the number of ailments an old mechanical movement might be suffering from. Better to let someone else have the pleasure of that kind of project.

There was just one decent looking quartz clock, and at £8.00 it came in well under my budget. It bore a label that said it was busted, but it was a nice looking case and would probably do for what I wanted. When I picked it up though I felt this busted clock had more of a story to tell. It was heavy for a start, so it was higher end consumer grade. It spoke to me of brass and screws and a way of making things that’s nowadays reserved only for rich men’s things, because that way of making clocks is now just too expensive for the everyday mantle-piece. I’m not saying it was an undiscovered treasure – it was still a consumer grade clock, just from an era when we made things differently. Brass and screws also meant I could take it apart and tinker with it.

mending clock 3I didn’t know the brand, but it said it was English and this dated it considerably because, without being cynical, we’ve not made consumer stuff here for a long time now. How old was it? Well, the only clue was inside, where the ubiquitous little black- box battery movement told me it was of West German origin – so, in truth, it was a bit of a hybrid then, this old clock. West Germany also ceased to be on the eve of reunification in 1990, so the clock was at least twenty five years old. Solid state quartz mechanisms began appearing from about 1980 onwards, so at most it was thirty five years old – old, yes, but not exactly antique.

It was tarnished and a little sad looking, but brass plate polishes up like new and I reckoned I’d done okay for what I paid, though I must admit it didn’t sound like that when I was explaining to the Lady Graeme how I’d been out and bought a broken clock. Anyway, I dug out my tool kit and stripped it down. Sure enough, I discovered generous gauge brass plate and screws – nothing glued, so it all came apart like a flat pack kit. For good measure, I popped open the black box mechanism. Usually there’s not much to see with solid state electronics – at least nothing that makes a visual kind of sense to a mechanical engineer – but this one had a curious electromagnetic actuator that gave the gear train a kick every second, only it wasn’t kicking right because it’s designed to run with the actuator in the six o’clock position, and someone had fixed the mechanism with it pointing to three o’clock. I sorted that out and off it went. Suddenly we had a runner!

mending clock 4So, I spent a happy afternoon with metal polish and an entire roll of kitchen-wipes, polishing the muck from those brass plates and all the other bits and bobs – the machined columns, the turned feet and fixings and handle. They all came up like gold. When it was back together I had a clock worth a hundred pounds. Let’s say it’s about thirty years old – not a bad innings for a consumer item – but it was the manufacturing methods and the materials used in its construction that saved it from the junk bin, and which makes this old ticker among the last of its kind. This is a clock that will still be around in another thirty years, even if it goes wrong, because the quality of the case makes it worth fixing, and it’s easily fixable.

Consumer grade clocks aren’t made out of solid brass plate any more – not in England anyway. It’s not an expensive material, but it takes man-hours to machine and polish and tap and screw, which is why that kind of construction is nowadays reserved for the luxury market. Sure, you can still get higher end consumer grade clocks made of solid brass but they’re made where the hands that put them together are cheaper. It’s not that the necessary skills are scarce or difficult to learn. We have millions of kids now in dead-end burger flipping jobs who could easily be taught to make things this way again. But we don’t teach them, because even on minimum wage their hands are still too expensive, and the companies that made this sort of thing all downsized and moved up market, or went to the wall a quarter of a century ago, ran slap bang into an eastern tsunami of disposable technology coming the other way. That’s why we’ll never make a consumer grade clock like this in England this again.

mending clock 5

I feel a curious affinity with this old clock. We both had our genesis in a bygone era, and although the world has moved on, and indeed looks upon us both these days as embarrassing hangers on from a long obsolete economic paradigm, we’re both still here, still ticking, doing what we were made to do. The clock tells the time, while I ponder both its meaning, and mine.

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rivington lakes (1877) - frederick william hulme

The Rivington Lakes – Frederick William Hulme 1872

It’s that season again when the wheel of the year turns to the bottom, or the top, depending on your point of view. November t’ May-brew. In northern climes it’s when our many of our elderly depart for the next life, and we who remain are left nursing the memories of their lives, and of their going. It might be for that reason my steps were drawn to the Yarrow reservoir on Friday – memories of walks with those who are no longer with us. Or it might have been the wind – cold with a kind of hungry despair, and something wet and snowy in it persuading me to stay away from the hill.

It’s about 3 miles round, starting in Rivington village and a favourite walk for when I’m out of sorts, and I can’t tempt myself any further or any higher. I’ve even done this walk at dead of night, with a torch, when I was feeling hemmed in by winter and incessant wet.

Begun in 1867 by the Liverpool Borough Engineer Thomas Duncan, and completed in 1877 by Joseph Jackson, with a bit of help from a nameless and forgotten army of largely Irish labour, the Yarrow is one of a series of reservoirs supplying Liverpool. They were considered a marvel in their day – a combination of Victorian Engineering prowess, and sylvan beauty. The painting by Frederick Hulme (1872) depicts the nearby Anglezarke and the upper and lower Rivington Reservoirs, and though somewhat romanticised, it’s not a bad representation of what you’ll see today if you make the climb up by Lester Mill quarries. The Yarrow reservoir (still under construction at this time) is tucked away, a little higher up on the left of the picture. Nowadays the plantations are much more mature and the reservoirs have bedded into nature nicely. Only in the dry season, when the levels run low do they become ugly.

round rivingtonI prefer a circular walk. There’s something philosophical about it – travelling out, never covering the same ground, yet by a trick of navigation we wind up right back where we started. I’ve a feeling life is like that too. For weather I had hailstones and greenish skies setting out, clearing to brief intervals of a gloomy grey.

There’s a holly tree I know en route, all berry bright, by which I paused, thinking to clip a seasonal sprig. The legality of this is debatable, with townies being surprisingly more pedantic about it than us country folk. I know if everyone clipped the holly there’d be none left to admire by Christmas, but in a couple of weeks that bush will be stripped bare anyway, the holly stuffed into wreaths for sale on the market at £20 a go. Well where else do you think it comes from? So what harm in snipping a sprig for my hall table?

There’s a lot of pagan lore about the holly, and like much pagan lore, dates to about 1954, most of it rather a beautiful, romantic nonsense. It’s a pretty thing at this time of year – the sharp, shiny leaves and the red berry, pitched against the unremitting bleakness of the season. It is about the only thing to brighten our days as the light dims and darkness comes creeping back by mid afternoon. The berries are a terrible purgative – though I do not speak from experience! The wood is beautiful – greenish when stripped, but dries white like bleached bones.

hollyA shaman will leave behind an offering when taking something from nature – a pinch of salt perhaps, or a palm of grain for the wild creatures. But I’m not a shaman, and had brought nothing with me other than my contemplative mood. Should I take the holly? I would be careful with the tree – use a good, sharp knife, take only a few, symbolic sprigs for my hall table. There would be no bark-stripped like a stepmother-jag for infection to seep in – though I surmise the wild holly is a hardy thing and would not take offence.

Just here the land is farmed. A public way crosses the meadow, but the holly bush is tucked down in a little hollow, away from the path. It is, I suppose, for the land holder to strip the holly bush and sell as he pleases, just as his sheep grow fat on the meadow’s sour grass. Even to admire it as I do and take its photograph, involves a short trespass. To actually clip a sprig would be to deprive the holder of his due coinage, and therefore constitute a robbery. He might be an understanding soul and turn a blind eye, or he might not and instead call down a rain of pedantry on my head. But the cops would be a while in coming; it’s remote up here and windy-wild. They might have sent a chopper I suppose, but at around a £1000 an hour I wager they would not think a sprig of holly worth the scramble. I’d be sure to make it home Scott free with my prize.

I imagine the ancient ones decorating their huts with holly as the days slide down to the solstice. Similarly I imagine they decorated their huts with heather in late summer. Perhaps they uprooted the slippery white bluebell bulbs from the woodland to plant around their huts too. Nature would have been more to us in those days. It would have been our only calendar, accurate to plus or minus a week or so and good enough for the times. Nowadays nature is nothing – the wide spaces fenced off and, in monetary terms, useful only as a resource for sheep to graze upon. Meanwhile we wander blind, not even knowing if the moon runs to dark or bright.

Well do you?

The reservoir was mostly empty – a grim tide-line of stones, sucked down in ugly mud, a shallow puddle of brown at the bottom. Terrifyingly deep, these reservoirs, when you see them drained like this, and deathly cold. The embankments are grassed and neatly mown. I spied a courting couple sitting out upon the Turner embankment, as if for a summer picnic. This was a bolder trespass than mine, though I would be the last to tell them.

My mother would pick holly each November to decorate her little house. She did it as a girl in wartime, and it was a tradition she carried on until her later years, when arthritis finally rendered walking even to the kitchen sink a terrible ordeal. Yet she would insist on brewing tea for my visits, brushing aside all offers of assistance.

Sharp. Prickly if not handled with respect. Hardy. Bright eyed.

Like the holly.

Yet I recall she was not so disabled that “Authority” saw fit to grant her the ease and dignity of a blue badge, then she might have parked closer to the doors of the supermarket. If the kitchen sink was a struggle, what was two hundred yards of busy carpark? Twice she was rejected, and even further rebuffed with advice that any appeals would be futile. I remember it well – also her stoic acceptance, and saying she would manage somehow. I can only think those who carry their blue badges, yet seem able to walk into the supermarket perfectly well, were more articulate in their application than she. Still, these are hard times for authority – budget cuts and all that. She was a proud woman, my mother – that she even applied for the damned thing was a measure of her need. She died as she lived: quietly, independently and invisible to the world, except to those she loved. It’s a good way to be.

A strange season of life, this: both parents gone on ahead of me now.  By chance I had my pocketknife with me. Grand things Swiss Army knives.

rivington village green

Rivington Village Green

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by fall of night cover smallAt last, I’ve nailed the final sentence of the final draft of my latest novel, By Fall of Night. It’s been a hard one to crack, hard to explore these esoteric and speculative concepts of mind and meaning, and present them as a story anyone would want to read. So I’ll call it a romance and hope for the best.

What’s it about? Well, an asteroid is about to strike the North of England and usher in a second mass extinction like the Cambrian event, the one that wiped out all the dinosaurs – only this will probably take the humans with it. You can forget sending nuclear missiles to deflect it. It’s too late for that. There’s nothing we can do and it looks like the lucky ones will be those sitting right under it when it hits. For newly met lovers Tim and Rebecca this looks like a serious case of bad timing, but it turns out the end of the world may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Dreaming, visions, Shamanism, Christianity, mass surveillance, tick box culture, teaching, dancing, tai chi, meaning of life, the multi-dimensional nature of reality, time travel, muse psychology – I touch on a lot of stuff in here, but something’s changing – age perhaps. I’ve felt it coming on as I wrote the story, that although the concepts I deal with here are of vital interest to me, I’m aware very few people really give a damn about this stuff any more. Those black Friday scenes of fights over TV sets are still haunting me, and are a humbling reminder of a battle for the soul of man, one that seems all but lost now.

Huxley cautioned us that the most successful form of prison is one in which the inmates already believe they are free. They are happy to incarcerate themselves in a frame of mind that is void of depth, robbed even of an innate spiritual awareness. We no longer look at the world and question it, no longer bother to seek enchantment – only entertainment, sex and more and more stuff.

By now you may be getting a rough idea of what By Fall of Night is about. It’s a small oasis in the wilderness of popular thinking, and not much on its own, possibly even ridiculous, but I remain hopeful that if enough of us make a stand, things cannot help but change. As a wise lady once said: it is better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring. It’s live now on Smashwords, and like all my other stuff it’s free. You’ll find it in the margin on the right, also here.

I won’t be writing another novel of this kind for long time because it’s bent my head out of shape, and I need some breathing space to straighten it out again. It’s lifted me to a level of personal mythology that’s hard to back-track from and, as far as my own journey goes, it’s been more than worthwhile. But I’m going to rest the heavy stuff here for a bit, and maybe tackle something more light hearted next time.

Thanks for listening.

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