Archive for April, 2015

When we see the state of the world, beamed nightly into our homes, the effect can be paralysing – paralysing of hope that things can ever improve, and paralysing of faith any benign God could let this sort of thing happen again and again. It’s also paralysing of the belief that we as individuals can make any difference. But another way of looking at it is that through our individual eyes God sees, and through our individual hearts God feels.

As wars befall the benighted parts of the world, it seems we can only look on in bewilderment. If we could do something, we tell ourselves, then we would do it. But what can we do? Probably nothing. Natural disasters, like Saturday’s earthquake in Nepal, however, are different. Though overwhelming in scale, the need is immediately clear, urgent, and we can help by giving money.

The public response to things like this is usually generous, and I know it will be so again. There’s a lot of trouble in the world we can do nothing about, but this is different. Whenever the Disasters Emergency Committee issue an appeal it means something terrible has happened, on an unimaginable scale, and you can help.

So don’t be paralysed by the news from Nepal.

Please, donate something if you can.

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pooI have a special relationship with the countryside, some might say eccentric, even a little Victorian. I see in it reflections of what the old Romantics would have called the sublime. I am a countryman, I suppose. I was brought up in it, still live in a rural village, and have resisted all my life the siren call and the bright lights and the fast food outlets of the ever encroaching environs of  Urbania. Unlike the countryside, Urbania to my eyes is the same wherever you find it, and it is always growing, always flowing, bustling, hustling, and always blowing out its litter into other people’s hedgerows. And to me, for all of its bright lights, Urbania is void of colour; it is a uniform, uninteresting grey.  You don’t need to go anywhere to find it; stand still for long enough, and it will come to you.

The sublime cannot be found everywhere in the countryside; it is a fickle thing, but for sure it is least likely to found where our constructions, or even our footprints encroach too greedily upon it. This is not to say we are always spoiling nature – we can find ways of living in harmony with it, but more often we don’t try, and the closer the borders of Urbania draw near, the less likely we are to care about such cerebral niceties as abiding in nature, and the quest for the sublime.

Rural communities understand how the moods, and even the shape of the land can inform and uplift the soul. The smaller the community, and the further away from Urbania, the more keenly will the rhythms and the currents of nature be felt. Urbanians though, take a different view. They see nature more as an “amenity”, or a convenient open space, allowing them to do those anti-social activities the towns and cities deny them, even if this is so basic a thing as providing somewhere for their dogs to run and dump (no I really do mean dump), or a convenient slope up which they can take their bicycles and churn the paths to slime on the downward run.

By contrast, the countryman will walk a path and leave no trace of his passing, not a bent twig nor torn piece of moss, nor are you likely to hear him passing. But Urbanians will yelp and squeal and eff and blind their way, and they will spill litter from their pockets as they go, like a trail of breadcrumbs as if they fear getting lost; they will set fire to stolen cars in the back lanes, and they will leave calling cards in the form of little bags of poo.

Yes poo!

rivington pike

Rivington Pike

I have written of the despoliation of Rivington before. Rivington is one of Lancashire’s most celebrated and most visited beauty spots. But visiting it again myself after the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, I find matters reaching a crisis point, though I say this every year. The first thing my eyes alighted upon after parking my car and fastening on my boots, was a little bag of poo hanging cheekily from a tree. Beneath, and scattered around it were beercans and plastic bottles. As I moved off, I spied another bag of poo in the grass, another hung from a nail on the fence. More beercans were revealed at every turn, also polythene bags, food wrappers, and of course more little bags of poo.

For those of you not acquainted with this peculiar custom, the poo in question comes from dogs. It is painstakingly collected by their owners, and then hung up for all to see. The poo transcends your normal detritus, which seems scattered more in a careless way indicative of the Urbanian’s normal insensitivity for nature. The poo however is a definite statement, obviously, being all the more carefully arrayed so that it can only be taken as a banner, or a bowel churning war-cry:

“I have been,” it says. “And I shall come again.”

There it hangs, or lies, preserved in its entirety, and for eternity, more bags of poo accumulating week on week of course, until one cannot progress literally more than a few paces without finding yet another one. I have no wish to offend doggie people, am very fond of dogs, and know many responsible owners, but these bags of poo are offensive to a countryman. Human beings have a natural aversion to faecal matter, at least that issuing from the bowels of carnivores, including ourselves, and for the basic reason it is alive with pathogens, and can do us harm.

It must be said this is something of a recent phenomenon. In the long ago, dogs would dump in the open while owners looked blithely on. And there the said pile would steam and fester until the rains washed it away. This is now an offence, punishable by a hefty fine so dog owners must pick up their turds and take them home. It is not a task I would enjoy, speaking personally as a non dog owner, but owners do seem most diligent in this nowadays, placing the faecal matter ever so carefully in a bag, and I’m sure many do then take it home. However, obviously, as any walk around Rivington or indeed anywhere else in the countryside these days will tell you, many do not.

rivington village green

Rivington Village Green

I am at a loss to understand this quirk of human nature. Having done the really hard part, I mean handling it and bagging it, why then hang it up for all to see? Really, it makes no sense! Urbanians please explain! Is this a territorial thing? Are you really at war with us country folk? Cease, or we shall drive our herbivorous cows and sheep into your cities, and create perpetual gridlock!

A walk around Rivington, especially after the Easter Bank Holiday makes me wonder if others believe that care of the countryside is always someone else’s responsibility, that if we leave our beercans, our plastic paraphernalia, discarded underpants, brassieres, prophylactics, fast food cartons, shoes, nappies, and little bags of poo strewn about, someone else will tidy it all away. They won’t. Care of the countryside is everyone’s responsibility, so please take your litter, and your poo home.

Oh, it’s easy to rant, and I shall resist the urge, because there’s an inevitability about it. Such detritus is a natural tide, a line of flotsam that projects beyond the boundaries of Urbania, a high water mark to drown all in its path. To avoid it one must travel further afield than Rivington now. I accept it. I mourn it. It is lost to the greyness.

“What is greyness, please?” asks the passing Urbanian, dog bag at the ready.

It is a lack of colour, a lack of depth, mate. It is the subliminal life drained from nature, as it abuts the incoming tide, its roots shrinking as if at the advance of a glyphosphate spillage. It is in short that bag of dog poo you are for some mysterious reason hanging from a tree.

In response a committee is formed, and we put up a notice claiming the land as “Amenity”, as if its authoritative fonts alone will protect it. Then we put up prohibitive notices, which are themselves as ugly as the things they prohibit. Meanwhile we leave the litter to rot because you have to pay someone in man-hours to pick that up, and why bother when several tonnes more will be deposited as soon as the man goes home.

You can still find places unmarked by bags of poo, but they tend to be where the land is large and scary and the wind blows hard all winter. Only there my friend do Urbanians, and their doggies, fear to tread. I should add here in conclusion I do not mean to imply all town or city dwellers are Urbanians. You don’t have to live in the sticks be a countryman at heart. But remember to be a countryman you must leave no trace of your passing, and that includes taking your dog poo home.

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book thiefA recent survey of published authors – and I mean authors with proper agents and publishers and everything – reveals two things: more people are writing and publishing books than ever before, while an ever diminishing number of them are actually earning a living at it. Does this make sense?

Just over 10% of published authors earn a living by their pens now, and of all the money earned by writing in the UK, 5% of writers (the famous ones) claim half of it. It’s estimated that those 5% are earning in excess of £100,000 a year, which is a pretty good salary by any standards, outside of banking, and something to brag about, but the rest, and we’re talking 95% here, are managing on little more than £11,000 a year, which is less than the UK minimum wage, and the UK minimum wage is a lot less than anyone can live on. So, think about this: if you’re trying to get published, even if you pull off the near impossible goal of securing a publishing contract, the chances are you’ll still never make your living at it.

And it’s getting worse.

In 2013, a third of professional writers earned less than they did in 2005, while one in six of them earned nothing at all. I can only conclude that while we talk a good game, claiming to admire those with writing talent, actually the evidence suggests we have no respect for it at all. This is worse than writing for nothing, this is having your work conned out of you, indeed stolen by a system unwilling to pay what it’s worth.

According to an article by Will Gompertz, the BBC’s arts correspondent, the problem is this: while more books than ever are being published, readers are becoming overwhelmed by choice and tend to stick to the names of those big authors they know, authors, I presume, on whom the bigger share of the marketing budget is showered. So, while the top table goes on to consume ever more of our pocket money, it becomes harder than ever for an unknown writer to even consider a career as a novelist. Indeed, you’d have to be mad. Their only chance of a place at that top table is for one of the present incumbents to die, or you could always win a literary prize, grab a headline or two and on the strength of that persuade the guzzlers to shift up the trough a bit. But really, you’d stand a better chance trying to win the lottery, then at least you could afford to write for nothing.

This is not a problem for publishers of course; there will always be writers to fill that top table, as there will always be readers to buy their books. But the reader should ask himself what kind of writer might realistically aspire to such a high falutin’ position as we see emerging now? Certainly to survive the long years of unremitting application at their craft, they will need to be individuals of independent means. Our minimum wage, work-til-you-drop culture leaves little time and energy at the end of the day for courting one’s muse. Do we risk then losing social diversity among the literati? What chance of a John Braine or an Allan Sillitoe emerging from their day-jobs now, fresh voices booming from the mess our nations are in? Indeed, dare I say, what chance an author emerging who has worked outside the worlds of publishing and journalism?

Diversity exists of course. You’ll find it in the self publishing sector, but I should warn you, those of us writing for that market have to be pretty mad as well.

Reader, be careful out there!

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Segovia and me

Segovia and me, circa 1984

My art teacher, Miss T, was, to a young man, his veins coursing with the unfamiliar and quite heady zing of freshly squeezed hormones, something of a paradox. She was a very beautiful woman and, to a budding romantic, in thrall to the earliest manifestations of his well beloved, quite a promising candidate for an early muse. And all beautiful women are kind and nurturing, are they not?

Unfortunately Miss T was not.

I chose art because the alternatives – sociology and economics – sounded grim, and I liked to draw. But to my dismay, Miss T did not like my drawings. She was for ever criticising them for this or that reason. Careful, she called them, but lacking depth. C+ was a high score for my homeworks, which always seemed to require more than I could divine. Often I disappointed her. I remember she once told me, and in a tone of exasperation, in response to yet another homework over which I’d laboured long and lovingly, that if I continued to draw purely from imagination I would find my work stagnating, going nowhere. This came as a shock to me. Yes, I drew mainly from imagination, but then I’d always valued the inner world, never finding it dull, or stagnant, but always dynamic, reflective of the currents within me.



In the end I managed to scrape a somewhat inglorious pass at Art, but was left feeling that an ability to draw would not open many doors in the art world for me. A scrappy, hastily scrawled notebook detail by Leonardo, or Tischen was to die for of course, but there was no point trying to emulate the old masters any more. It seemed they had already said everything that could be said with pencil and paper, or that master of old masters’ tool, the silverpoint.

Fortunately, drawing still opened some doors into the world of Engineering Design, at least it did in the late 1970’s, the days when design offices were still filled with white shirted men bent over drawing boards with chisel edged H and 2H pencils. Yes those pencils were more hard headed than I was used to, the lines more precise, and generally inked over afterwards by a much shaken Rotring pen for longevity, and there were rules one had to abide by, rules laid down in British Standards BS308, which I came to know by heart.

But a good engineering drawing still had something of the draughtsman’s soul about it – the weight of the line, the uniform slant of the text conveying much to the receptive mind, and instilling also a confidence in the quality of the designs it depicted. And these were not drawings of a thing already existing, but of thing that was yet to be. Miss T was wrong then, surely? Imagination was the life blood of creation, but I had had to serve my time at a highly objective grindstone in order to realise it. It was a skill I admired and acquired to some degree, but the drawing boards had all gone by the early nineties, the white shirted men by then all sitting at computer terminals which had erased the imaginative lens and all the humanness even from engineering. It was an economic necessity, but also a great loss. Alas nowhere now it seemed was there a place for the humble art of drawing.

pre raphelite jane morris

Pre Raphelite period. Jane Morris

My private sketchbooks petered out for a while about this time, their chronologies dying like extinct geneological lines. I moved into pen and ink, and occasional illustrative work, strictly as a hobby, my tin of treasured Derwent drawing pencils, grades HB to 9B, went unused so long I lost them down the back of the settee. Yet I remember fondly the nights I would sit in the long ago with that tin and a blank sheet of paper. A drawing was like a story – you might have a vague idea how you intended to proceed, but once you made the first marks the drawing took over and finished itself somewhere else entirely.

I enjoyed portraiture for a while. Miss T would have been pleased, I think, to find me working from observation at last, though I doubt she would have awarded me much above a C. No matter. My subjects were culled from photographs in the Radio and TV Times, but again you never knew how things were going to work out. A simple and apparently insignificant mark on the paper could bring a portrait to life in unexpected ways, while others refused to live no matter how hard you tried. And then again one might begin a portrait of an imaginary subject to find it taking on the identity of someone in real life.

cate blanchet


But now I realise, Miss T was not wrong, that we are better to work from life, to observe life; but in doing so one inevitably views it through the lens of one’s own imagining, and it is this that gives a drawing its value. She was doing her job, which was to nurture a latent artistic talent in young hearts that went beyond mere drawing, at least sufficient to pass muster at GCSE level. She did this by severe criticism, not by fawning over the inferior, fiddly drawings of an adolescent boy. I was an insecure youth, a little bruised, and needed more the approval of a beautiful woman than her scorn. Or so I thought. But I am still drawing, Miss T, or rather I am still contemplating life, at times, through this particular monochromic medium, so our time together was not entirely wasted though in truth, I own, it is a while since I actually drew anything.

There are two kinds of art – that which is  carried out with the aim of making a living, and a very precarious business that must be too. And the other? I discovered this around the turn of the century, by a return to drawing and observation, but by viewing it through a darker lens than I was used to, and thereby discovered in reality a deeper layer that has led beyond to other things. I found the first fingerposts in my dreams and in conversation with the unconscious mind. It’s a technique used in Jungian analysis. An often overlooked fact is that Carl Jung was an accomplished artist, as well as a leading psychoanalyst, and he encouraged all his patients to seek themselves in imaginative art.

unknown woman

Unknown woman circa 2010

My later drawings from this period certainly show a marked difference to those I once presented to Miss T, the main difference being I think, I no longer sought her nod of approval, let alone her admiring smile. The well beloved can be reached through art, and better that way than projected uselessly into the world. The harder and the longer you try the more her image comes through, and the more pointed her expression becomes, and once released she brings up other forces from the unconscious with her, some of them welcome, some not. Their exploration I found more difficult, the images dissolving into vague abstractions – a face in a tree, a man emerging from a pattern of dark leaves, drawing, another in the shadows, writing, pen poised – myself perhaps, or the self I was or might yet be, set free from the need to seek himself in the first place. Creepy, my sons say. Unsettling. I agree. I think that’s why I stopped.

portrait of the artist as an old man

Portrait of the artist as an old man?

I saw you, you know, Miss T? Oh, it’s many years ago now, though also many years after I had left your tutelage. You were no longer my muse, but an ordinary woman pushing a pram. You were leaving the art shop in town, as I was entering – in the days when our little town still boasted an art shop.  I looked at you in mute astonishment for a moment, that you had become so obviously human. I stepped back for you, held the door then you might pass. Our eyes met, but you didn’t recognise me.

My tin of drawing pencils has now turned up intact, and my drawing books are suddenly of interest again.

I wonder,…

What do you think, Miss T? Should I?

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BullOkay, so it sounds like a potentially dull subject for non petrol heads, but I assure you what follows is only peripherally concerned with car batteries. Here goes,…

I find public opinion is only of use when taken as an average. If one man is asked to tell the weight of a bull, he will likely be wrong by a wide margin, but if you take ten thousand men and ask each what they think, then add up their thoughts and divide by the number of men, you’ll get an answer that comes very close to the true weight of the bull. It’s called the wisdom of crowds. There’s nothing spooky in this. It’s a question of probability.

But the wisdom of crowds is harder to detect in the online forums which these days form a global network of talking shops that mull over the multifarious issues that vex mankind. If you have a problem and you search online, I guarantee someone else not only has that exact same problem, they have already asked the question of an online forum, and thereby unleashed a tsunami of uniformed opinion in response.

It’s rather like asking a question in a large public house when everyone is volubly chatty from a few pints, and bursting with the urge to press their wisdom on anyone who will listen. The opinions fly, the volume is raised as the evening progresses. Then certain comments are misinterpreted by the more prickly pundits as insults to their intelligence and they fire back with less veiled insults, and much pettiness. Indeed, to read them it seems the wisdom of online forums, as opposed to crowds, approximates not to the truth of any matter at all, but to zero.

Speaking of one such vexatious issue, and returning now briefly to the titular matter, I noticed my car battery was rather an ill fitting one, suggesting it was not the original, but a later replacement, and not a very expensive one either – just your regular sealed lead acid job. Further, there were some pipes dangling in the vicinity which appeared related to the function of the battery, while not being actually connected to it if you know what I mean.

mazda slaidburn 2014

The battery of a Mk 2.5 MX5, like the one I drive and love, sits in the boot (trunk), tucked away in its own little well, hidden under the carpet. The problem with this is that when charging, batteries release oxygen and hydrogen gases, and these can accumulate in the boot (trunk), or worse, leak through into the cabin as you go along.

Hydrogen is not poisonous, but it is impressively explosive especially when mixed with just the right amount of oxygen. Normally, with a battery mounted up front under the bonnet (hood) of a car, these gases vent harmlessly away to the atmosphere. Mounted in the boot (trunk) however, this is not so, as boots (trunks) tend to be sealed tight to keep the weather out and your stuff dry. I presumed those little pipes of mine were supposed to be connected to the battery to allow these gases to vent outside of the bodywork. That they weren’t was an oversight, or just sloppy maintenance, and was soon remedied by the procurement of some small, plastic elbow joints from my local aquatic centre. These fit snugly in the little vent holes which most batteries have, and allowed the vent pipes to be neatly coupled up again. Whatever the risk from outgassing was, it was now taken care of.

For so simple a matter, the subject of the MX5 battery is one on which whole volumes have been written, on the various online forums, and scary reading they make too. This is all the more puzzling since the world as far as I know is not assailed by exploding MX5’s. Still, it makes one pause before accepting a ride, let alone owning one since, thanks to the incompetence and penny pinching of your average owner, according to said forums, one is likely to blow the back end off by merely starting her up. Nor would one ever store anything precious in the boot (trunk) as it would likely be dissolved by the “corrosive gases” emitted by that most fiendish of all gremlins, the incorrect, and worse, “cheap” battery, again according to the opinions expressed on said forums.

And opinions vary wildly, fingers jabbing in all directions, certain pundits opting only for ultra expensive space age batteries, as nothing else will do for their treasured vehicle. Other pundits are more reassuring, telling tales of running with a regular, inexpensive battery for decades, and no problems. One can almost hear the sucking of teeth, see the raising of eyes at the foolishness of others, the tutting, the shaking of sage heads,… in short the forums were no help whatsoever.

mazda engine

Instead, I talked to my friendly local (independent) mechanic.

Of course batteries do not emit corrosive vapours. Tales of MX5 boots (trunks) partially dissolved by the “incorrect” battery suggest to me more a problem with a battery actually leaking electrolyte (acid) because it’s been damaged. This is a risk with all lead acid batteries – even the supposedly sealed ones, since a crack is a crack and yes, even dilute sulphuric acid (nasty, nasty, stuff) will make light work of anything in its path, be it human, animal, mineral or vegetable. So, if you want to eliminate all possibility of such a disaster you should by all means plump for the more expensive batteries which use an electrolyte in gel form to stop the acid from dribbling all over the place in the event of an accident or a spillage. But a properly fitting, and securely clamped battery should not crack, so, if the budget will not allow a high falutin’ space age technology battery, don’t worry about it. Sure, your regular, inexpensive battery may be dead in a couple of years, but it won’t cause your car to burst into flames, so long as it is properly vented, and it won’t melt the floor of your boot (trunk) either, so long as it’s properly fastened down.

So, yes, it’s sensible to connect those vent pipes up to get rid of any hydrogen gasses accumulating in the boot(trunk) and leaking through into the cab, but again the risk involved in this is unknown, and you’ll find nothing to quantify it on the forums – only a lot of diametrically opposed opinion from the lackadaisical to the apocalyptic. I ran mine for about a year before picking up on it, and came to no harm. And in the end we have only our own experience to go on.

All told then, we should enjoy our MX5s, and avoid at all costs the risk of becoming self diagnosing hypochondriacs with the online forums as our only reference. When seriously in doubt go talk to your friendly local (independent) mechanic. He’s been to college to learn about these things in those long gone days when colleges still taught useful vocational stuff, and he’s seen a lot more cars than you ever will.

Of course if you have any opinions on the correct battery to use in a Mk2.5 Mazda MX 5, feel free to share them. I’m full of opinions myself of course, but I’d never vent them on a discussion forum.

I keep a blog for that.

That way I always get the last word.

So, mine came with an AC Delco from goodness knows where. It fitted the original battery tray perfectly but sat too high, so I couldn’t get the boot (trunk) carpet down properly. The battery clamp also sat too high, and it was taking up valuable luggage room.

I replaced it with a Yuasa HSB063 from Halfords. This sat low enough to get the carpet back down properly but wouldn’t fit the battery tray so I made a new tray from impermeable packing foam, I also had to modify the clamp a bit. With some tweaking in the vice and few odds and ends from the garage, the clamp worked perfectly. Connected up the vent pipes, and the job’s a good ‘un.

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man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885Whenever we observe ourselves asking this question, of our selves, we can take it as a sign our energy is low and our brains so far out of our heads we’ve lost our vital perspective on life and begun to expect something back from the world other than what we’ve already got.

When we write online it means we have found the conduit to traditional publishing closed, so we direct the stream of our frenetic output to wherever the words will stick. We keep a blog, we put stories up on Wattpad, and Smashwords and Feedbooks. And the pressure that would arise in our hearts, were we denied any platform for our work, as in the old pre-Internet days, diminishes. We feel temporarily sated. Thus we answer our own question: we write primarily for ourselves.

Or rather we should.

The temptation with online media however is that we can all too easily get hung up on the statistics the media providers provide us with. How many people have read me today? How many followers do I have? How “influential” is my blog? How many messages/comments/likes? How many downloads of Langholm Avenue, of Push Hands, of Between the Tides? And how much more attention might I attract if I wrote one more essay/poem/blog-entry/novel?

Of course all these questions can be reinterpreted as meaning: does anybody know or care I’m here at all? Such existential angst is lurking pretty much at the bottom of us all, and whether we write or not, it is always through some form of expression, verbal or visual we test our status in the world. We push at the world and observe its reaction. And learn from it.

Before the advent of social media, we were restricted in our potential audience to the small circle of people whom we actually met day to day. And to this circle we would brag, and flirt and preen, and tell our anecdotes in order to feel liked and accepted by the degree of warmth and humour and friendship we received back. Now of course, our potential audience is global. We can brag and preen and flirt with the whole world if we so choose. And if we do so choose, it will drain us to a dried up husk. It will make us feel only the more stupid and small, the exact opposite of the dream to which we aspire; the dream of wholeness.

I do not use my Facebook account in spite of Facebook’s periodic nagging for me to do so. But I do not understand how anyone would think the minutia of my life worth keeping up with and see in Facebook only a mask that would allow me to present a side of myself that is fictional, aimed solely at attracting admirers, as a movie star attracts fans. I might post pictures of myself in aviator sunglasses perhaps, while driving my sport’s car, or while climbing a mountain , or while diving into an azure sea from the deck of a yacht while a blonde haired long legged girl looks on adoringly. But I would not post my morning face, my toilet habits, a picture of the cupboard under the sink where I keep my junk, nor of the hairs that habitually block the plughole of my bath, for these are not attractive things and add nothing to the fiction of the attractive, likeable, followable me.

In attracting admirers, we become temporarily reassured of our existence and our possible importance in a life that can seem otherwise empty and meaningless. Thus my three hundred followers can be interpreted as making me a more important person than the man with only fifty followers, while the man with ten thousand followers makes me feel rather inadequate to the extent that I must comfort myself with reassurances that he is somehow cheating.

The brain, the thinking organ, is a fickle creature, lost in a moment, gone like a whippet into the forest, chasing shadows. We think this, we think that, but there is no longer sufficient part of us remaining, residing in the presence of our bodies, to actually feel the fact of our existence at all, and whatever the obscure fact of it is, not to mind it in the least. Indeed the only person we really need seek the approval of is our selves. And by our selves I mean the greater part of our selves, the part who is the watcher of our thoughts. Only there will we find our rest, our peace, and our permission to simply be.

If you follow this blog, then of course I write in the knowledge of signed up listeners and I appreciate your company. But the most important listener for the writer is that inner part of himself, without whose approval nothing he wrote would possess the necessary sincerity to make it worth anyone else’s reading.

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far from the madding crodThis was the first major novel I read. I had no choice, it being one of the set texts for my Literature GCSE, a course that otherwise did its best to kill my love of books, and to instil in me a lifelong aversion to Dickens and the plays of Bernard Shaw. But Far From The Madding Crowd was different. Reading it that first time, throughout the hot Summer break of 1975, connected me with a deep longing that I understood viscerally, but could not articulate. It was a thing almost spiritual in its depth, and seemed rooted partly in the earth, but also in the collective soul of mankind.

On the surface it is a love story, by turns dramatic, romantic, comic and tragic. Through its telling Hardy demonstrates a sage-like understanding for the nuances of love and human relations, but also of landscape and the nature of place which can, with him, take on a mystical, personal quality of its own. It seemed I had found in Hardy a writer who understood me, who saw the world the same way – with one eye on the timeless beauty of nature, and another on the steamroller about to flatten it.

Of all the exams I have taken, that literature GCSE remains the only one I have failed, mainly the result of the mocks, following which the entire class was flunked and bawled out by a normally mild mannered teacher. There were clever girls that day in tears, their hopes apparently in tatters, girls who knew their Hardy, their Dickens and the plays of Shaw very well and who had thought they’d done okay. With hindsight, I realise, we’d probably all done okay, but our teacher, dear Mr H. had wanted to scare the pants off us and make us do better for the real thing, come June. His plan backfired with me though; I took the more pragmatic step of setting literature aside, so I might devote more time to swatting Maths, Physics, and Languages, at which I did moderately well and I became an engineer.

It was a formative experience, one that saw an early end to my formal cultural education, but there at least arose from the ashes an abiding love of the works of Thomas Hardy, and the desire to be a writer, just like him. Throughout my ensuing studies in the technical colleges of the industrial towns of the North, one of Hardy’s Wessex novels was my habitual lunch-time companion, a reminder there was another way of seeing the world besides through the eyes and equations of Mr Newton. But of all Hardy’s works, Far From the Madding Crowd remains my favourite.

The novel is set in a region of England Hardy called Wessex, roughly centred on the county of Dorset. Thanks to Hardy, so ingrained in our psyche now is the idea of Wessex that many visitors arrive in the area and are surprised to find it does not exist. Indeed Hardy’s world is very much a lost one. It was already lost when he wrote the first serialised edition of Far From the Madding Crowd in 1873.

The largely pre-industrial England portrayed in the novel saw its population established in the rural regions in ways we cannot now imagine. Our valleys, our broad plains, our mountain-sides, our moorlands were once home to thriving pastoral communities whose relationship with nature was far more intimate and instinctual than for the town bred generations we have now mostly become. Agriculture needed armies of men to sow, to harvest, and to tend the flocks, but in Hardy’s lifetime this system changed as the farms became mechanised and the resulting rural jobless began their migration to the cities, to the great manufactories of the Victorian industrial heyday.

Hardy saw that something vitally human and important was disappearing, and nowhere is it more poignantly observed than in this story. There is nothing left of Hardy’s Wessex now, nor its bucolic equivalents elsewhere in the remaining fragments of rural England, but that we pay homage to it is still important as a reminder of man’s oft overlooked relationship with the earth and that we still have much to lose.  It may not be practically or even socially possible to return to Hardy’s pastoral ideal, return to the green of the land, but a desire does not need to be attainable for it still to be desirable.

But anyway, the story,…

Our hero, the stoic, naive young sheep-farmer, Gabriel Oak, falls in love and woos the flighty milkmaid Bathsheba Everdene, but comes a cropper, foundering on the rocks of her vanity and her immaturity. The tables are then turned when Oak falls upon hard times and is reduced to the status of itinerant shepherd, while Bathsheba inherits her rich uncle’s farm. She then finds herself mistress, and queen bee of the rural community where Oak, humbled and impoverished, and still very much in love with Bathsheba, finds work.

She dashes any renewed hopes he might have by saying he should forget any past association, that their roles in life are very different now. Instead Oak must look on helplessly while she foolishly inflames the passions of two men: Boldwood, an older, wealthy gentleman farmer, and the rakish ne-er-do-well, Captain Troy. Poor old Boldwood is driven mad by a smouldering, impotent, and largely voiceless ferment, while Troy’s incandescent but ultimately transient lusts threaten the immolation of, at the very least, Bathsheba’s reputation, possibly also her being.

Hardy loved his women. His heroines are among the finest of any written characters, many of them now obscure, scattered throughout his lesser known Wessex novels, though I remember all of them as powerful and deeply interesting women. Alas I have yet to meet their like in real life – the one disservice Hardy has done me, setting my sights too much among the higher frequencies of the romantic spectrum.

Bathsheba, though she begins as vain and shallow and flighty is given room through her experiences to grow and to deepen from the first girlish bud to the full flowering of an impressive womanhood, and all under the aching gaze of the ever faithful Gabriel, for whom Bathsheba remains thoroughly unattainable.

One reason this book means so much to me is that at the time of reading it, I was suffering the ill winds of an unrequited affair myself, and like Oak, neither able to extricate myself, nor advance my cause. The image I carry in my head of Bathsheba Everdene is very much modelled on my memory of the object of my then desires. She was entirely oblivious to me, but this is not the case for Oak. Bathsheba knows of his abiding affections, but cannot return them, so engrossed is she in her own passions and misfortunes, while relying upon Oak to clean up and the carry the farm when things come crashing down around her ears.

His stoic nobility is one of the great character pieces of literature, far outshining in my opinion the wealthy glitter of Austen’s more well known Mr Darcy. And the centre of the universe here is not a stately pile, but a humble and ancient farmstead, a farm one might have difficulty pointing to on the map, lost in a fictional fold of hills that is both everywhere and yet nowhere in particular. It forms too the focus of the lives and loves of all who live and work there.

There is a tremendous longing in all of Hardy’s work, not just in the stories of the characters, but in the landscapes and the natural elements he describes. There is a scene where Oak secures the hayricks one night, as a storm approaches and all the men lay drunk asleep. It’s so vividly portrayed it’s burned in my memory as if I saw it on film. But I have watched the Schlezinger movie and the Granada TV serial adaptation in vain, realising now it was never actually filmed at all, only told through Hardy’s pellucid pen. Paradoxically then, you have to read it to see it. This is powerful storytelling.

The hayrick scene is rendered all the more poignant coming as it does on the night Oak has finally lost Bathsheba, the night of her wedding to the odious and dangerous Troy. Troy is a serial consumer and destroyer of womankind, a man who now lies drunk asleep with all the hands, incapable and indeed insensible to the approaching disaster. Other spurned men would have walked away in despair, but Oak stays, saves the farm, and shields Bathsheba from ruin even in her ultimate rejection of him. This is love like it isn’t told any more.

The John Schlesinger film (1967) makes a decent fist of the story, though I felt Julie Christie did not suit the role of Bathsheba, at least not to the satisfaction of my imagination. Terence Stamp as Troy and Peter Finch as Boldwood, however, I enjoyed very much and their faces still own these roles to my mind’s eye. Alan Bates as Oak, I liked, but I felt he lacked the quiet humility of Hardy’s vision. The story was adapted again by Granada TV in 1998. I thought this was a much better telling with the casting of Bathsheba by the largely (then) unknown actress Paloma Baeza.  Its six hours of running time also allowed for a much greater faithfulness and leisurely telling, more in keeping with the pastoral mood of the novel.

Of course I shall be watching with interest the new adaptation, by Thomas Vinterberg, shortly to be released. I shall approach it with an open mind and look forward to seeing what this new, attractive cast will make of it. But we Hardy fans are a hard bunch to please and require more than compelling visuals. Alter one word of that original dialogue, skip a single treasured scene, and we will notice, feel it as an insult in our bones, and become highly voluble with our raspberries.

But the movie business is in the business of visual efficiency, and precis. It cannot tell the multi-layered story in all its subtlety and nuance as a written story can, something that has been poured in all its fresh, bleeding complexity from the heart of a man. If you want to experience Far from the Madding Crowd as it was intended, you will have to read it. I note my Penguin edition, purchased in the summer of 1974, cost 70p. You can download it for free now, yet it remains one of the most precious books I own, and is surely also one of the most treasured stories ever told. Do join me in going to see the new film adaptation, but read the book too.

Stranded on a desert island, even with nothing else for company, I would never tire of it.

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“I won’t know for sure if Malhamdale is the finest place there is until I have died and seen heaven (assuming they let me at least have a glance) but until that day comes, it will certainly do.”

So says travel writer and former Malham resident Bill Bryson.

There are certainly places of equal beauty in the North of England, but it seems nit-picky to quote them here, and anyway the finest place is always the last place I visited, so Malhamdale it is. It’s a week since I last came in fact, a day when there was so much promise of spring. But since then it’s a been a week of rains, both actual and metaphorical, so I post this link to remind myself.

May it not be long before I return.

Goodnight all

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