Archive for November, 2021

Fifteen minutes

The UK National Health Service is severely stretched, and about to enter its second winter of Covid, with a new variant on the loose. You can’t get a face to face doctor’s appointment for love nor money, and you’re as well to avoid A+E, unless your life depends upon it. Covid is taking its toll in ways other than infection. That said, I was invited for my Covid booster at the weekend, and found the whole thing calm and well organised. The staff were friendly, and welcoming. I turned up a little before the allotted time, and got the jab straight away. Then I was asked to wait fifteen minutes before leaving, just in case of an adverse reaction. And while I waited, I got to thinking.

There was a big take-up, both with booked appointments and walk-ins. The nurse who saw me was in her sixties and had a manner that would have made light of any indignity she ever had to inflict on her patients. She was the epitome of the NHS: professional, friendly, and efficiently competent. There was also a sympathy about her that’s often nine tenths of healing. She was more than a nurse, then, she was your aunt, she was your mother, she was your sister.

We’re used to having the NHS around, and we expect it will last forever. Everyone benefits from the same level of top-notch care. We all chip in through our taxes, and then we all benefit. Those who can afford to pay little or nothing are looked after by those who can afford to pay more. I think it’s a good system. It’s civilised and decent. But there’s a class of economic fundamentalist who hates it, and would rather see it sucked into the toxic world of the global market-place, where the price is everything and human values are of no consequence.

I’m aware bits of it are already privately run. One of my local GP surgeries was recently bought out by a “for-profit” global brand. They bid to provide services for the NHS and, through the NHS, and our taxes, make vast sums of money for people we’ve never heard of, instead of that money being ploughed back into care. The next phase, through the current Health and Social Care Bill, paves the way for an insurance based system, like they have in the United States. This is where the insurance companies dictate whether we get access to treatment. And in a system run for profit, it’s not in their interest to grant it.

All of this seems unthinkable, but then, until recently, it was unthinkable we would ever have food-banks in the UK, but now we do. We have them by the score, because the welfare system is no longer serving the people who need it, and wages are suppressed to a level well below what’s decent, so even people in work are having to use them. We’ve grown used to having foodbanks around, used to the fact there are more and more of them. That’s just the way it is, we say.

I guess it’ll be the same with the NHS. Though it’s hard to imagine it, one day, all of this will be gone. The ambulance man will turn up to transfer your ailing, aged parent to hospital, and you’ll have to swipe your debit card before he lets you on board. He won’t want to do it. It’ll seem inhumane to him, but it’ll be the system, and he’ll have no choice, because he serves a master for whom care is no longer primary. And we’ll get used to it being that way, and we won’t complain about it.

Our healthcare will be tiered. The more we pay, the better care we get. If we can’t pay anything, we get nothing. And if the insurance company finds a way of wheedling out of paying for your surgery, you’ll either have to sell your house to pay for it yourself, or go without. That kindly nurse? She’ll be gone too, replaced by a slave to tick-box managerialism. Global health brands will be running ads at us, talking about “choice”, and “excellence”, and the corporate drone-bots will be pinging you emails to “kindly rate your experience today”. And we’ll accept it all as being just the way it is, because that’s just the way we are. But is it really who we want to be?

My fifteen minutes are up, and just as well. I’m good to go.

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Bt Green Withins Brook

Green Withins Brook rises on Anglezarke moor, and runs only a short way before tumbling into the fledgling River Yarrow. I was there last month, discovering some interesting facts about sheep, and, in passing, took a picture of a pleasing little runnel of water. But I’d promised myself I’d come back and do a better job of it, which meant fussing about with a tripod. So, here we are.

We’ve had a lot of rain since October, and the moor is swelling with water. It’s a cold day, but clear. There was a heavy frost, first thing, and, on the moor, even by late morning, there’s still a thin layer of ice over the marshy bits, where the sun can’t see. The trees are all bare now, and Winter is upon us.

I find the spot, which is close by the ruins of Simms farm, and take the shot, but I’ve a feeling it’s not going to be much different to the earlier one – perhaps a bit sharper, but who’s to notice? It’s just an excuse to be out, and we were on the last minute for an itinerary. Green Withins Brook came to mind and set us on our way.

It’s a quiet stretch of the moor, and hard to believe the land was once farmed here. So much of it is now bog, acres of clumpy reed and sphagnum, and the peculiar quake underfoot that warns you to tread carefully. The brook occupies a little valley, and we follow its run upstream. If memory serves me well there’s another splash of water, where the path crosses the brook. I saw it last one summer’s eve, as I was making my way down from the moor. I thought at the time, I’d come back and try a picture. My camera at the time was an old and much cherished Olympus OM10. It must have been the mid-eighties. It’s been a while, then, but better late than never.

I’m moving slowly, picking a way over the waterlogged land, following the map. Back then, there was still a hint of people having lived here, if only in the paths they would have used, and a kind of echo of their being, that was mostly imagined. But today there’s seems a barrenness about it, like all the ghosts have moved on, and there’s just the land, and no one has ever walked it. Where the path crosses the brook, it’s all different somehow, like I was seeing through different eyes in 1985. I don’t even bother with a shot. That was clearly a parallel universe I had entered, and all the romance was in my head. Sometimes my stories take the place of fact.

The sun’s quite low, and it’s slanting across the moor, casting one side of the valley in deep shade. It’s highlighting a lone tree, with its leaves around its ankles, and yet to be blown away. Its bare arms are black and expressive against the sky. We move in closer, settle down a while, and watch the light. It’s a calm day, not much movement in the cloud, so the pool of light lingers.

The sun’s awkwardly placed in the frame, but we’ll try some shots anyway. See what comes out. I don’t remember ever seeing the tree before. It’s a long time since I came this way, I know, but you’d think I would have noticed it, so poised and dramatic like that, on a little outcrop above the brook. There’s something of the faery about it. I hope the picture comes out, for sure I feel I’ll never see this place again, if I search the rest of my life for it. Turn my back once, and it’ll be gone forever.

Sam’s Pasture to Hempshaws, now, a long pull up a boggy morass to higher, drier ground. I read this was a communal pasture once, where all the farms hereabouts would make, and gather hay. It’s hard to imagine it, so heavy underfoot. I’ve waded a couple of sections now, rather than risk a slip on lichen-slick and rotten footbridges, and then all the bog – so by the time I reach the ruins of Hempshaws the boots have started to leak at bit.

The Trees at Hempshaws

There’s a stand of trees here, looking a little eerie against a strange sky. If the forecast hadn’t insisted otherwise, I would have said there’s a bit of snow in it. We break out the soup pot – chicken and mushroom, but not the magical variety. There’s definitely something of the hallucinogenic about the day, though.

I remember coming to Hempshaws one evening, and finding some sacks dumped among the ruins. Fly tipping wasn’t a thing back then, and it’s rather an inaccessible spot, anyway, but still, I wondered and had a rummage. The sacks were full of 2″ mortar rounds. The army had been up and swept the moor, which had been used in wartime, for practice. I presume the rounds were inert, or they wouldn’t have just left them lying around like that for any bloody fool to stumble across. Needless to say, I didn’t linger.

So, south now, and across the brook that is the fledgeling Yarrow, to Old Rachels, another gaunt ruin. Then we’re down to the moor’s edge, and the field of horses where there was once a way through, but the gate is smashed, and impassable. While I’m considering the options here, I chance upon a jolly horsey lady with her dogs. She’s coming up through the meadow the horses graze and romp about in, so I ask her about the lost footpath. Oh, yes, she says – gate smashed and all that. It was reported ages ago. There’s an unofficial diversion. She shows me another gate, higher up the meadow, one ||I’d been reluctant to touch as it’s not signposted as a detour. The people at the farm are afraid of it being left open, she says, and the horses getting out onto the moor. They’d be a bugger to round up, so it’s sort of hush-hush. Anyway, they’ve all just had a gallop, so I if I keep to the line of the wall I should be fine.

There’s been a theme developing in my walks over recent weeks. It has to do with rights of way lost, then found again, and it has to do with horses. So, anyway, in among the horses we go, singing: Horses are my friends, horses are my friends,… big horses, lots of horses, horses are my friends.

Thanks for listening.

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I was at a junk market, where I found myself seduced by an Agfa Silette, a commercially successful camera, from the 1950’s. It fit the hand well. Instinctively, the thumb sought the lever, and cocked the shutter, finger moving easily to the release. It would have been a fine camera to use in its day. Later models, with the built-in light metering, would have been the bees knees, and the mainstay provider of pictures for the family album. I pressed the shutter, but there was no click. The shutter was broken. This camera’s journey was over. Still, the guy wanted twenty quid for it.

There’s a fashion for these things, I know, but the lenses on most of these old timers are pretty much gone now, with mould seeping between the elements. This one was heading the same way Much as it’s nice to see old tech still functioning, when it’s beyond repair, you need to let it go. There are cameras of this vintage, still in good nick, but they’re rare. And people pay good money for them. But why? Would it be for show, do you think? Did it even matter if the camera was junk? Would it simply end up on a hipster’s book-shelf, along with coffee table tomes of Ansel Adams and David Bailey?

You can still get film. Indeed, according to the marketing, it’s seeing something of a revival just now. A roll of 36 shots will cost you a tenner. You can get it processed for another a tenner, even digitised. So, twenty quid for 36 shots, half of which will be duds, and the rest murky, when ten thousand clear shots, on a digital camera, won’t cost you anything. And these weren’t easy cameras to handle. You had to know photography. Without the ability to read the light, the exposure was guesswork, ditto focusing. There was a skill to it, one your Uncle Fred, the camera buff, took pride in. But there are no Uncle Freds any more. Now everyone’s an expert, because the camera does it for you. Even the camera on a cheap phone will knock spots off this old thing.

The first, low resolution digital cameras were enough to make me abandon film, twenty years ago. I went from a sophisticated Pentax film SLR, with a bag full of lenses, to a simple, fixed focus Kodak. And what I lost on the one hand, in optical quality, I felt I had gained plenty. I could shoot a hundred pictures, review them on the camera, and delete the ones I didn’t like, thus making room for more shots, without having to change the film roll. I could apply techniques with software I would have needed a darkroom to do before. And I could print my own photographs.

Then, over those twenty years, and like all digital technology, cameras have seriously overtaken their analogue cousins. Whether in darkness or full sun, they’ll grab a usable image that would have been impossible with film. The software for post-processing is endless in its variety. It renders the dark-room obsolete, moving it onto your computer. And yet,…

I was still drawn to this old camera. It fit the hand so well? I’d disposed of my film cameras years ago, and never looked back. And if you really must have that quirky, murky, antique look, you can simulate it in digital. No need to go to the trouble and expense of reverting to film. Is it because it’s all too easy now? Do we prefer some limitation? Does the surprise of one or two cracking shots, from a roll of 36, trump the ease of a decent shot every time?

All right, I think my interest was most likely on account of a camera of similar vintage making an unexpected appearance in my current work in progress. A Voightlander. I don’t know what it means, nor why it should be a Voightlander, and not an Agfa, like this one, or a Kodak. But there it is, and it’s been teasing me to make sense of it.

It’s about images from the past, right? A way of seeing, that we’ve lost? Too much of the left-brain’s utility, while the right-brain’s existentially holistic overview diminishes, and leaves us barren, lobotomised, robotic creatures. Or am I overthinking it? The metaphors are endless and beguiling. And maybe if this camera had been a Voightlander, and working, for a tenner, I might have bought it for the vibe, though not for the use of it. As it was, I put it back.

Metaphorical explorations are best kept in the heart and the head. No sense going literal with this one. But clearly there’s a message here, and it’s demanding to be explored. I’m strictly digital these days, but I’ll be the first to admit there’s still something tempting, indeed something very much of the romantic, about those old cameras. I mean, just imagine the times they might have known, and the things they might have seen, when their eyes were still bright.

And there, I think, I have my answer.

Thanks for listening.

Header image, original source file, attribution: Jonathan Zander, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons. Crop and further editing in Luminance HDR, and Corel PP9 by the author. Edited image subject to same terms.

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My father is remembering the trick whereby we doubled the range of the gun by dripping oil into the chamber, then firing it dry, before putting a pellet through. And as he talks, weaving over me once more the spell of past dreams, I smell the oil, feel it’s greasiness between my fingers, see my fingerprints in the blued metal of the barrel, smell the linseed I have rubbed into the stock. I smell the leather of the strap, feel the shock of the spring as the pellet is loosed, hear it smack against the tree and the flapping of an outraged bird.

“Do you know who rents the Willet place these days, Dad?”

There is no reply. These anecdotes have a momentum of their own. He might have heard me. He might answer me tomorrow or next week by way of some other seemingly unrelated tale that yields the information I’m after. But for now with the ending of his story, his eyes rest once more on the frozen game of chess.

I wonder, during these visits, if I should move a piece, but I don’t want to disturb the pattern of it, and what, in its abstractness it might mean to him. And my knowledge of chess these days, like most of the other things I once thought I understood, is dull and dimly grasped now – any ability I possessed being handicapped by the slow muddle of my thoughts.

We are in the lounge of the care-home, as we are most evenings now, an audience of other faces, all vacant, surround us. And in these long silences, when my father seems to have slipped back into his unconscious, I try to take in what else I see of this place – the aged, propped up, some with attendant Zimmer frames, the less fortunate with chipped and dented cylinders of oxygen – and I’m thinking could they not be spared the humiliation of something so obviously old and used – yet it seems a lot of trouble to paint the cylinders up like new – and would the poor souls even notice?

Contrary to popular cliché, the carers here do care. They wander around in their pale green bibs, bringing tea and talking to the old folks, and always they smile. There is nothing heavy, or rushed or too busy about them at all. The girl who seems to have taken a shine to my father is called Chelsea. She is the same age as his granddaughter, a woman who does not know him, and has never had any interest in doing so on account of his material poverty, and the unlikelihood of there ever being anything in it for her. Unlike my stick thin daughter, Chelsea is rather a plump girl. She is also fragrant, delicate in her manners, and possesses blonde hair so voluminous and fine she must be related to the fairies, for nothing so beautiful could ever exist in this mundane world without the help of magic.

In our brief talks up to now she has told me how she gained pitifully few GCSE’s, and spent all of her time at the Middleton Beacon School (now a Specialist Science College), merely surviving its incompetence, and its apparent inability to protect her from the bullying of other, slimmer girls. Yet she seems intelligent to me, and far more empathic than the rather haughty nurse I sometimes see patrolling imperiously, like a ward sister from the starched heyday of the National Health Service. It’s Chelsea who intuited my father’s love of chess, and though she does not know a bishop from a rook herself, she sets up for him these breathtaking snapshots of grandmasters’ games.

“You’ve been a bit tired today, haven’t you Mr. Hunter?”

Chelsea drops casually onto her knees by his chair and lays a gentle hand upon the back of his. I don’t know what this tells her, but for me it is the hint that I am straying close to bed-time.

“I’ll see you tomorrow Dad,” I say, and then I mouth my thanks to her, emphasise it with a nod. She receives it with an open and unaffected innocence, and with a smile. Thank you, for doing for my father what I cannot bring myself to do. She must love her work, I’m thinking, or she could not bear it, not care for these old folks, adopt these strangers with their inconvenient needs as her charges. How many tests of selfless love must she pass in the course of a single day?

She walks me to the door. This is kind of her because I’m sure I’m not part of her job description. It’s rather a fine house, Marsden Hall, once home to the Christie family, magnates in coal and cotton, but now preserved as the last port of call for many of Marsden’s disowned old-timers. And sensing perhaps my inner turmoil, and reading it as a distress caused specifically by my father’s state, she smiles and tells me he will be all right. I return the smile and tell her with a peculiar twist of black humour that my father is dying. She maintains the smile, broadens it even and tells me, that while that may be true, he will still be all right.

An extract from my novel, In Durleston Wood, from 2010.

Get the full story for free here.

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In Sunnyhurst woods, Darwen, Lancashire

So, today we’re looking for trouble. We fell foul of disappearing footpaths on this walk last time, and today we’re not messing about. We’re well rested, tack sharp, and feeling assertive. We’ve also cleaned our spectacles in case we missed any obscure signage that would have seen us on our way. But since our last visit, there has been a mysterious and profuse flowering of the official green way-markers, which is frankly unexpected, since I have not yet reported any obstructions to the council. Perhaps someone read my blog? I feel my guns have been spiked, but in a good way, and whoever you are, thank you.

Thus, we are guided, without a hitch, through the formerly troublesome farmyard, and to a diversionary path. It’s not exactly as marked on the map, but it’ll do, and before we know it we’re smoothly on our way towards Tockholes. Then, at the gate, which we found to be locked last time, and had to be climbed, we note the gate is merely tied. So we untie it, and pass through with dignity. We then tie it up again with a boy-scout’s reef-knot, and a little bow on top – by way of thanks to our guardian way-fairy, for restoring safe passage. Except then, we turn to find we are greeted by a pair of magnificent horses, who must have heard us coming, and are curious. They’re big horses, too, which is a little alarming, as they canter down with purpose – their purpose being – well – us. Cobs, I think the breed is called. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to take their picture – such huge, beautiful creatures, not as big as a shire, but impressive all the same. Our alarm is uncalled-for, though. They are gentle, and their stillness invites our touch. Just mind their back legs as we get around them. Horses can sometimes have a quirky sense of humour.

It’s with some regret, then, we leave our new friends, and head off up the meadow to Tockholes. We’re going a little further than we did last time, pushing the walk out to eight miles, taking in Sunnyhurst Woods, at Darwen. I’ve not been there for ages, and it would be nice to see if it’s still as I remember it.

I put a short story up on the blog last time, wrote it for Ireland’s Own magazine, some twenty years ago. I did a lot of stories for them in the nineties and the early noughties, and, as I walk, I’m trying to remember the others. One in particular comes to mind. It was about this guy who’s aching to leave his home town and see the world. Then he meets a girl from the other side of the world, who’s travelled to his town, because she saw it on the map, and thought it sounded like a cool sort of place. Through her, the guy ends up seeing his home-turf in a new way, and he decides to stay.

Looking at the lush meadows here, as they sweep up to the shaggy moors, I’m thinking, it’s a small part of the world, this corner of the West Pennines and, beautiful as it is, it’s one I sometimes take for granted. Shall I go somewhere? or shall I just nip up the moors? But when I put out a photograph online, of Great Hill, or the spillway of the Yarrow reservoir, or when I write about walks like this, I don’t always appreciate how others from around the world, and for whom their part of the world is radically different to mine, will see them. Even the names of places, unremarkable to me, sound exotic to others, as their place names, unremarkable to them, sound exotic to me.

So, whilst it’s a pleasure, and an education, to travel, and I think we should always travel as much as we can, we’ll never know anywhere as well, and I mean as intimately, as our own allotted patch of God’s earth. So we should never feel there’s anything dull, writing about it, or photographing it. We are curating what we know, and what we love. Photographs of the landscapes of Iceland, and the Faroe Islands in particular, blow my mind, but I could never know those places intimately. Such grandness is for the Icelanders, and the Faroese, as this part of the world is for me, in all its understated beauty, also, it has to be said, its occasional ruin and imperfection.

At last, we come down to Sunnyhurst Woods. It’s a public park, actually, on the edge of a once industrial Darwen, but also on the edge of the moors. Bought out of a public-spirited ideal, and planted up in the early 19th century, it’s now a ruggedly mature gem, natural in style, well-kept and well-loved. We’re beyond peak autumn, now, with most trees are looking bare – just the occasional beech still hanging on to its coppers, and the stubborn oaks. And yes, it’s all pretty much as I remember it, and gorgeous.

There’s a pretty waterfall here. We try a shot, but the light is poor. Maybe we can tease some colour out of it in post-processing. There’s a park bench. We sit, retrieve our soup-flask from where it has settled, deep in the sack. Bacon and Lentil today, made in Wigan. Kitt Green. We do still make things in Lancashire, just not as much as we used to do. But still,…

In Roddlesworth Woods

From Sunnyhurst, we pick our way over to Ryal Fold, where we enjoy another break, and a pot of tea at Vaughn’s Café. Then it’s down through the plantations at Roddlesworth. Gone is the gold of just a few weeks ago. All is bare, now, and autumn firmly on the ground. The season is still worth some pictures, though. I’m glad to have found a properly marked way through that farm. The public rights of way network is a thing of immense value, protected in law, and a freedom not enjoyed in other parts of the world. An understated resource, it costs nothing to enjoy – good for the body and the soul, and no gym membership required.

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The second and concluding part – to open the trunk or not?

Kathleen recoils from the idea, then becomes evasive. “I wouldn’t know where to find the key. I think Grandma might even have thrown it away,…”

“My tools are in the van. I could have the lock off in no time,…”

“No, thank you. I’ll think on it for a while, but I’m not sure if it’s what she would have wanted.”

I leave her cleaning the dust from the trunk, revealing inch by inch its original lustre. I’m regretting even more now that we touched it, for in doing so, I fear we have disturbed a very melancholy spirit indeed.

It’s a long job, putting things back in order. I’m weeks at Kathleen’s house, and every lunchtime she calls me down for a bite to eat. We sit in the kitchen with the trunk gleaming darkly upon the dresser, but Kathleen will not speak of it, nor even look at it in my presence. Once though, as I’m searching for some tools, I catch her bent over it, the lock in her hand, as if she’s fighting the urge to open it. And as the time passes, I noticed how she seems yet more dispirited, her grandmother’s old sorrows returning to fill again every corner of the house.

When the job’s finished, I come down from the attic to find her sitting, staring at the trunk. By now I hate the thing. I hate it’s squat, ugly shape, but most of all I hate the effect it’s having on Kathleen.

“Have you thought what you want to do with it?” I ask. “I could get rid of it for you, if you like. I’ll take it to the tip. Or we can just set fire to it in the garden and be done with it.”

“No,” she says. “We should put it back. Let it rest up there, out of sight.”

Surely not, I’m thinking. I can just imagine its grim presence lurking above her head, never more than a stray thought away.

But Kathleen insists. “If you’d just help me with it,…”

So that’s how we come to be hauling the thing back up the ladder. I remember pausing to steady myself, and resting the trunk precariously on one rung while I alter my balance. Then I lose my grip and, as the pair of us struggle to keep upright, the trunk goes crashing into the hall below.

The lock must have been hanging by a thread because the lid bursts open, and the contents, an unexpected riot of colour, spill across the carpet. I stare in wonder. There are fine dresses, letters, photographs, a handful of magazines, and the prettiest pair of silver dance-shoes. Kathleen gives a howl and is down in an instant, trying to gather the stuff together, desperate to put it back.

“Whatever would she be thinking?”

But gradually her curiosity gets the better of her, and she begins to study the things more closely, gazing at the photographs, even slipping open some of the letters,…

An hour later, we’re still at it, picking our way through a bewildering collection of poignant mementoes. Then, suddenly, there’s a change in Kathleen, a dazed confusion wrinkling her brow, as she studies the contents of an envelope that was sealed long before either of us were born.

“What’s the matter?”

She says nothing but slowly wand with a trembling hand passes me a slip of paper. As I read, I realise it’s confirmation of her grandmother’s passage to America, departing Queenstown, April 1912,…

There was one boat sailed from there at that time, a boat that has gone on to live forever in the hearts and minds of people the world over. And sure enough, printed at the bottom of the slip of paper is the name. The Titanic.

“Her whole life,” says Kathleen, “She spent it lamenting a lost chance, and she never knew how lucky she was. If she had gone, then she would surely have drowned. And my mother, and I, would never have been born.”

Seeing all those wonderful things, I’m able more easily to picture Kathleen’s grandmother now as a young girl looking ahead with all the vitality of her youth, only to become a dispirited soul, locking that brighter self up in this old trunk, and tossing away the key. That was the real tragedy, I thought, to have been miraculously spared such a terrible fate, and then to have wasted her life in ignorance of it.

Later, Kathleen and I are sitting out in the garden, gazing at the hills and the woods and the little houses, dotted along the roadside. Everything seems uncommonly beautiful of a sudden, the blue of the sky, the sunlight on the trees, even the taste of the cool evening air. She turns and looks at me, as if to speak, but there’s no need. We understand each other perfectly. Over the years, we’ve each had our share of ups and downs, and I suppose it’s only human nature that it should be the disappointments that carry the most weight. But this evening, we’re both appreciating, I think, and perhaps like no other time, what a precious thing life is.

This concludes my little story. It was first published in Ireland, around twenty years ago. I thought I’d blow the dust off it and give it a fresh lease of life, here on WordPress. Thanks for reading.

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The discovery of an old trunk stirs unsettling memories,…

Crouching low in the attic, I play the torch over the roof beams, and find them fragile. Kathleen peers anxiously through the trapdoor beside me.

“Well?” she asks. “What do you think?”

For three generations this house has served her family well, but lately the roof has begun creaking ominously, in even the lightest of winds. She’d telephoned me to ask if I’d mind taking a look. It’s as well she did, for in all my years I had never seen a roof in poorer shape, at least not on a house that’s still standing.

“Well, it needs a bit of attention,” I say, trying not to alarm her. “I can start this afternoon if you like, but first we’ll have to clear all this stuff out of the way.”

I shine the torch over the mass of junk that always seems to gather in such places – the bits of carpet, the old-fashioned lamp stands, the packing-boxes crammed with all manner of forgotten odds and ends,…

She’s embarrassed by the mess. “I know,” she says. “I’ve been meaning to get around to it for ages.”

It’s while helping her to sort through everything that we come upon the trunk, a big old thing, secured by a hefty padlock. Curious, I trace my fingers through a thick layer of dust to reveal a rich, dark sheen of lacquered wood.

“This is a fine chest, Kathleen.”

Her face darkens. “Oh,” she says. “I’d forgotten this old thing.”

“Looks like its been up here a long time.”

“Since my grandmother was a girl. That must be ninety years, or more.”

“But whatever’s inside?”

“Just some old clothes and things, I expect. When we were children, we used to imagine all sorts of exotic treasures. Sometimes we’d beg her for the key, only to be scolded for our cheek and then she’d tell us that, so long as she was alive, the trunk would never see the light of day.”

“But she must have been gone twenty years,” I remind her. “Have you never thought to look since?”

“It didn’t feel right, somehow. It’s like she was still watching me.”

“Well, it’ll have to come out now.” But I can see she’s uneasy about it. I’d often heard folk say what a difficult woman Kathleen’s grandmother was, and it troubles me we might have disturbed memories Kathleen would rather remained forgotten.

Later, I sit in the kitchen while Kathleen makes tea. It’s been a long, messy job clearing the attic and we’re both covered in dust. The trunk had been troublesome, nearly pitching me off the ladder as I’d tried to get it down. Now, it squats sullenly in the corner, an uncomfortable presence hanging over it.

As I look around I notice a photograph on the wall of a young woman wearing a plain dress, in the style of the 1920’s. If I had not known better I would never have guessed this was Kathleen’s grandmother. She would have been about thirty then, and remarkably good looking, which never failed to surprise people, since most could only remember her as a bent and bitter old woman.

Indeed, the bitterness was a thing which soured her life, but it also weighed heavily upon those, like Kathleen, who’d cared for her in her sunset years. Looking at that picture now, I fancy I can see it even then, frozen into her otherwise handsome features,… a sort of tragic emptiness.

Kathleen sees me looking. “Ah,…” she says. “She was always reminding us how she might once have made something of her life. I can see her now, rocking herself by the fire, complaining about the rain and the draughts whistling through the door, and about how noisy the neighbours’ children were,… and all of us would be wishing that if only she could be a little more cheerful,…”

“Didn’t you once tell me she was a dancer?”

Kathleen sighs. In all the years I’ve known her, she’s rarely spoken of her grandmother, but now, the surfacing of the trunk has made her want to talk. Slowly, draws up a chair.

“It’s hard to imagine,” she begins. “But she worked at a theatre, in town. They say she had the music in her bones, and such a tremendous vitality on stage, all who saw her reckoned she was destined for greater things. And sure enough, she was spotted by an American lady who turned out to be the owner of a theatre in New York. There was a position going in a production they were putting on, and it was my grandmother’s, if she wanted it,…

“It must have seemed like a dream come true, starting out from such a small place as this. It would have been her first step on the road to fame and fortune. Who knows? First the theatre, then maybe, with looks like that, the movies do you think? Sure she might even have been a movie star. But she was only nineteen. That would be 1910 or 1912, and New York must have seemed a very far away place indeed,…

“My great grandfather had died, leaving only my great grandmother, a poor, sickly woman who didn’t want my grandmother to go to New York. But in the end, I suppose she must have agreed and, so the story goes, everything was set. The theatre company arranged her lodgings and I think they even booked her passage over – so they were keen to have her all right.

“But it was not to be. No sooner had she got used to the idea she was really going, than my great-grandmother was taken gravely ill, and since there was no one else in the family, the responsibility fell to my grandmother.” Kathleen shook her head. “I can imagine how she felt – all the conflicting emotions as she watched her ailing mother, while her own dreams slipped though her fingers.

“He mother lingered for years, finally passing away in 1914, by which time it was the war, and the world all upset, and my grandmother’s chance was gone,…”

Looking at the photograph again, I feel like I’m seeing it now for the first time. “The poor woman.”

Kathleen nods. “It ate away at her for the rest of her days. Oh, she settled down, met my grandfather,… raised a family, had all the things we ordinary folk enjoy,… But I don’t think any of it meant as much to her as it might have done. She must always have been thinking how different things could have turned out,… if only,…”

“And the trunk?”

“Well, they say she gathered everything up that was even remotely connected with her dreams of New York, and locked them inside. Then she had a neighbour carry it into the attic, and there it lay, out of sight, but never quite out of mind. I don’t know why she kept it. I would have burned it, if it had been mine.”

In a strange way, I think I understand, though. “Some dreams are just too hard to let go of.”

We sit for a long time, our thoughts inevitably focused upon that old trunk and, I for one, am burning with curiosity. “So,… will you be opening it, do you think?”

Thanks for reading so far. Part two tomorrow,…

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A focus on the Self

It was Sigmund Freud who first explored the nature of the psychological forces driving human behaviour, and which he called “the self”. He found it simplistic, instinctive, “selfish”, a slave to its desires, manipulating and, paradoxically, highly manipulable. What’s less known is how Freud’s work was adapted and applied by his nephew, Edward Bernays.

Bernays saw the potential of tapping into the desires of the self, in order to sell products. His genius lay in recognizing it was not the product itself that attracted people, but more the lifestyle implied by ownership, or the use of that product. You could therefore sell people anything, provided it carried the right image, the right mythos, the right story.

Bernays began rolling his methods out in the 1920’s and 30’s, at a time of great upheaval. We’d had the first world war, the Bolshevik revolutions, and the great depression. Politicians were afraid for the future stability of mass populations, and looked on with interest, realizing that if people could become hooked on consumer goods, it would be like Huxley’s Soma in his novel “Brave New World”, a fictional substance, a daily dose of which would soothe one’s existential angst. Bernays’ Soma would keep a population docile. People would become so preoccupied with satisfying their individual wants, they would not think to organize in sufficiently large groups to be capable of overthrowing or even questioning the status quo.

An obvious extension of Bernays’ work feeds into politics, and how to get people to vote for you. An especially powerful method in this respect is the focus group. Focus groups were originally invented as a means of finding angles for marketing products, for tapping into the emotional triggers that might stimulate the Self’s desire for that product. Once a trigger is found, it’s fed into the advertising copy, and we’re bludgeoned with it until we submit. Focus groups have proven to be astonishingly effective at selling just about anything.

In the political sphere, focus groups take the temperature of the fluctuating desires of the population. Politicians then seek to satisfy those desires by making promises on whatever is topical. It avoids wasting time promoting policy ideas that, although they might be beneficial in the longer term – say big infrastructure projects – leave the population feeling otherwise bored. It sounds simplistic, but it works. There are serious flaws of course and one of them is the reduction of politics to a shallow short-termism, also a potentially dangerous populism. Another problem is that the Self is not rational. It can be contradictory, holding two opposing ideas at the same time, leading us down absurd rabbit holes.

A focus group might be asked: Do you support a well-funded National Health Service? The response would likely be a yes. So, politicians turn up their warm NHS sound-bites to gain favour. But the same group might also be asked: Do you support an increase in general taxation? Few people like paying taxes. It’s an emotional flat tyre. Taxes are putting something away for a rainy day. We know it’s a good idea, and essential for a well-funded health service, but we’d sooner let someone else pay for it. Sound bites promising to raise taxes on anyone are never a vote winner.

Then we ask more complex questions like: how do you feel about nationalization of the railways? That’s a big, complex issue, with very little immediate gratification to be had from it. Indeed, only a small percentage of the population might have any feelings one way or the other, or even understand the arguments. The focus group shrugs indifferently, so the politician is reluctant to stick his neck out when simply promising free jam will win more votes.

All political parties use focus groups. Thatcher was the first in the UK, along with Reagan in the US. Then, following Bill Clinton, Blair used the focus group to devastating effect in his 1997 landslide, which brought the Labour Party back into power after a long period in the wilderness. There was a move away from the focus group, under Corbyn, when we saw bolder policy declarations, but which nobody believed. Indeed, it’s felt they actually contributed to the party’s downfall at the 2019 election. Instead, the sharply focus-grouped Tory messaging of “getting Brexit done” was far more effective, in spite of a dearth of policy in other areas.

More recently, it’s reported the new Labour leadership under Starmer has reinstated the primacy of the focus group. Patriotism, Union Jacks and “don’t score political points off the Tories while they’re dealing with the pandemic”, seem to be the current rune-readings. This leaves the more radical Left of the party out in the cold, rolling their eyes in despair. Of course, you can’t implement significant policy if you’re not in power, but once the focus group delivers you into power you then become a slave to the whims of the nation’s collective self, which you must game endlessly through the focus groups in order to stay in power. Politics then becomes a form of shallow infotainment, sliding from one issue of transient popularity to the next, while nothing of substance ever changes.

Thus, our assumption that pandering to the whims of the self is the end-game of human development, holds us captive in an infantile cycle of desire and reward, both economically and politically. Meanwhile, the planet careens towards heat-death while we churn out meaningless stuff to satisfy our desires, but which we don’t actually need.

Psychoanalysis did not end with Freud. It went on to discover ways of moving beyond our simplistic, instinctual needs, and for awakening to the fuller possibilities of human potential. These ideas have not found their way into the popular imagination, and have changed nothing on a grand scale. But then it’s not clear if it is sensible to do so. It may be that most of us are just too deeply asleep to be safely awakened from the narrow confines of our self-satisfied lives.

Perhaps a life being drip-fed Soma is no bad thing, so long as those in charge of dispensing it are well-meaning and of good character. It’s also easier to soothe an existential ache by turning to Amazon and having it deliver our next fix of transient desire, than it is to ask awkward questions of why we feel the way we do in the first place. I suppose the answer to that one lies in the paradox that while the delivery driver who brings our parcel is one of the people who have held society together during these dreadful pandemic years, he is also one of the most shamefully exploited. That we don’t think of it, means we are as guilty of his exploitation as is his employer.

How we are not more angry about that, I don’t know, and can only conclude there is as yet sufficient Soma in the system to divert our attention and to keep the “self” satisfied. We should bear in mind though, such an unsophisticated self whose desires are sated may well be a docile creature, but one who can no longer get his Soma is going to be a very ugly and irrational one indeed. And since the way we live is not sustainable, that we are in effect sawing off the branch we are sitting on, it’s inevitable the Soma will run out, after first pricing itself beyond all ordinary means. Perhaps we did not consciously create the system we are in, just as we cannot predict the consequences of it suddenly falling apart, nor indeed what we can safely replace it with. But there’s no point turning to Freud for grand scale solutions. He didn’t offer any, and the latter-day followers of Bernays don’t want them anyway. They want everything to stay exactly the way it is.

I leave you with George Monbiot on consumerism. (this one is not for the faint-hearted)

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A tree falls alone in the forest. It makes no sound, because there is no one to hear it. There can be no sound without the ear to hear, no scent without the nose to smell, and no colour without the eye to see. Nor can any of these things be apprehended, without the brain to reflect them as qualities upon the dark mirror of the mind, thereby creating the human experience of the world.

The common-sense story of the world says there is a universe of material objects – galaxies, stars, chairs, tables, teapots, atoms – all of them occupying space, and enduring for a time, in time. We are objects, too, but, unlike teapots, we have senses plugged into a material brain which, together, and by an unknown process, provide us with a mental image of reality. They also produce this thing we call “mind”, which enables us to be self-aware, to be conscious of ourselves.

This is the orthodox “materialist” story, born of the scientific revolution, and the consequent death of all the gods. It makes sense to us, because we all “seem” to share the same world. The world doesn’t “seem” to depend on our presence. The moon is still there when we are not looking at it. The ocean tides still follow a regular, and calculable pattern that is not of our imagining. And when we experience things in the world, our brains show measurable activity. All of this suggests the material world-model, and our separate subjective mental awareness of it, is the correct way of viewing things. It is the right story to tell, and to believe in. It is the right story to tell our children.

But we cannot explain how the material brain gives rise to the quality of feelings aroused by a sunset, or by falling in love, or the pleasure we take in the taste of things, or the scent of a rose, or in the ways music can move us, or even the perception of our favourite colour. These are all qualities, and are unresponsive to mathematical analysis. Mathematics favours the material. Materials have length, mass, time, temperature, current. But there is nothing about them that explains how they create the mental experience of sensed reality. The material universe exists materially, but our experience of it does not.

This, then, is the often told story of the world, but it has a gaping hole in the middle of the plot, because it does not explain the nature of our selves. And those writing this story are now so frustrated by the stubbornly inexplicable nature of “mind” and “consciousness”, they conclude it must be an illusion, that it is generated by an emergent property of the brain. Thus ends our journey into the material realm, with the conclusion that, although we think we exist, actually we do not. We have already eliminated the gods. Now we have eliminated ourselves.

So, a tree falls alone in the forest, it makes no sound. This is confusing, because we mistakenly believe the material world itself possesses qualities like colour, taste and sound – that the greenness of the grass, the scent of the rose, the sweetness of the musical note, are in themselves physical, and “out there”. But they aren’t. That’s not what the material world story is saying at all.

What is the sound of the falling tree? In material terms, it is a wave of pressure. Quantities of pressure are called Pascals. Pascals are Newtons per square meter, which is a mass, multiplied by gravitational acceleration, which is meters per second, per second. Add it all up, and what have we, got? We have a mathematical statement of mass, length and time. What we do not have are timbre, rush or roar. What is “roar”? What is the mass-length-time of a roar, of a rush, of a timbre? Materially, there is no answer. Only the mind knows these things. What we don’t know is how the mind knows them.

What can we say with certainty about the mind? Let’s ask the materialists: It correlates with brain activity, they say. This is reasonable. But by the same reasoning, one would expect the mental experience to increase in proportion to the measured activity. A brain, lit up and buzzing with neuronal action, would be experiencing a greater degree of mental activity than one that is not. Let’s go further and say an inactive brain should give rise to no experience whatsoever. Such a brain would be unconscious, or even dead. However, there is persuasive evidence that the opposite is the case.

A dramatic reduction in recorded brain function correlates with the most profound expansion of the subjective mental experience. Two areas of research confirm this: near death studies, and the experience of psychedelics. In both cases, there is a diminution of the measured brain function, yet a corresponding explosion of subjective mental awareness. This awareness is not chaotic, as in an hallucination, nor is it passive, as in ordinary dreaming. It is lucid, coherent, memorable and profoundly meaningful to the individual. What does this suggest? It’s hard to say for certain, but there is the sense of a door opening.

A normally functioning brain gives rise to our experience of the world, but that’s not all. It also seems to be restricting access to a transcendent experience of being, one in which we seem to exist as a kind of psychical alter, in a realm of pure mind. This would otherwise overwhelm us for our day-to-day purposes, so there is a narrowing of the mental experience, one that is so difficult to escape, we conclude, quite reasonably, the material world is all there is. The transcendent experience however reveals that by far the greater sense of our being exists in a purely non-material sense, transcending the apparently material dimension. Is it then too far a leap to say that, in the normally parsimonious nature of the universe, there may not be a material reality, as we think of it, at all?

I don’t know, the answer to that question, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I sense the story of the world is not yet done, that a fresh and extraordinary chapter is beginning. With luck, it’ll patch up that glaring plot hole, and arrive at the conclusion we might exist after all, just not in the way we’ve come to think we do. It’s a curious concept, a little unsettling, just like the idea that when a tree falls alone in the forest, it makes no sound.

Thanks for listening

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In the woods at Roddlesworth

Today, we’re going to walk from Abbey Village, to Tockholes. Then we’ll circle back through the woods at Roddlesworth, which should be in peak autumn now. First, though, I want to visit the war memorial, here in Abbey, to remember a great uncle who was “lost” in the first war. Then we’ll have a wander through some meadows I used to walk with my mother. And if we make it over to Tockholes, we’ll visit the mysterious “Toches”, or “Tocca’s” stone.

I say “if” we make it, because the route leads through farms, where rights of way have a habit of disappearing. The path I’ve chosen seems the most direct and quite obvious on the map. But over recent weeks, when out and about, I’ve discovered a knack for finding rights of way that no longer exist on the ground, and I’ve learned it pays never to be too cocky setting out on paths you’ve not walked before.

My mother grew up in one of the long line of mill terraces at Abbey, so she knew this area well. I have memories of visiting my grandmother here, and aunts who were not aunts, but we called aunts. Ditto cousins, who were not really cousins – this being an era when it was claimed everyone in Abbey Village was related. From the roadside, the terraces at Abbey have rather a dour look about them. But those where my family lived, open onto meadows, and to stunning views of the Darwen moors.

Perhaps it’s because I’m still not getting into town much this year, on account of abiding Covid fears, but I’m less aware of the build-up to November’s armistice remembrance. Recently, the event has found itself caught up in the culture wars. Those of the right who would glorify war, and those of the left who would disband the forces altogether, are the two most vociferous extremes. The rest of us, I guess, including the man on the Clapham omnibus, are somewhere down the middle. I think about the half century or so of life my great uncle missed, and I wonder about the difference it would have made to the present day, if he’d found his way home from Mesopotamia. The tide of history can be cruel for everyone, but it sweeps away the poor in disproportionate numbers. Anyway, I like to come here around this time of year. I leave my small token at the memorial, then head down the backs of the terraces, and set out on the walk.

First we head across the meadows where my mother used to play, then down the dip to what I always knew as Abbey Bottoms. Sure enough, at my first encounter with a farm, the right of way disappears into an enclosure, and the only way out of it is to straddle a fence. This is tedious, coming so early on in the walk. There are cars about and the dogs are going bonkers. I wander around, looking for an opening, but there are none, and I’m beginning to feel a fool. If I want to make way, I’ll have to straddle that fence or turn tail already and call the walk off. Fine, then. I drop a pin on the GPS, make a note: “Way blocked here” and then I go for it.

Free of the farm, and with trousers intact, it’s obvious the path beyond’s not been walked in ages. But it follows the line of an ancient hedgerow, and is reasonably obvious. In other times this would be a beautiful route, pastoral, with wide-ranging views of the Darwen moors. But I’m in that liminal zone now between where I am entitled to be, and where I feel others would rather I was not. And that’s not a comfortable place. I’m aware my last three walks have landed me in a similar muddle to this, and I’m starting to repeat myself.

The Toches Stone

Then, where the map shows an exit from the meadow, a locked gate blocks the way. There is no stile, not even a rotten one. I can see a stile on the other side of the gate. It leads off on the next leg of the journey, but the only way to get to it is to climb the damned gate. Have I become so incompetent and doddery a rambler, I can no longer find my way around? Clearly this is not a route for those of limited mobility, and, given the crisis in A+E at the moment, it gives one pause climbing anything. But needs must, so up and over we go. Another pin goes on the GPS. “Effing gate blocked here.”

It’s been a struggle then, but we’ve stuck to our guns, and finally made it across the vanishing ways to Tockholes. These are paths my mother and her family would have known. My great, great-grandfather would have walked them from his weaver’s cottage in Hoddleston, to Abbey seeking work, and where he settled. They are historically significant ways, and need protecting, need walking. When I look back on my life, I see traces of the places I knew disappearing, being overwritten by novelty. Of my mother and her family’s past, here, there is now barely any trace at all.

Anyway, Tockholes is a curious and attractive hamlet, tucked out of sight. I meet a few other walkers on the road here, and we exchange greetings. The atmosphere changes from one of oppression, to welcome. Tocca’s stone is in the churchyard at St Stephens. I once drew it for an illustration in a friend’s book on the magic and mystery of Lancashire. It’s a curious monument, a mixture of early Christian and pagan. Of the facts, we can say the tall bit is probably the remains of a seventh century preaching cross. This sits atop an old, repurposed, cheese press, this in turn sitting on an inscribed plinth of Victorian vintage. And then, next to the cross, there’s the peculiar Tocca’s or Toches’ stone, from which the parish takes its name. There are scant references to it online, and they all seem to quote each other. My friend, who trawled the historical records in libraries all over the county, in the days before the Internet, is also rather vague.

The stone is said to have connections with the ancient British tribe who inhabited the valley, and one ruler in particular, the titular “Tocca”, or “Toki”. It’s also said to have magical or healing properties, and was, at one time, worn smooth by the hands of pilgrims, come to touch it. It isn’t very smooth now, so I guess the habit has fallen out of fashion. In short, little can actually be said about it at all, at least nothing that’s guaranteed to be historically accurate, but as a piece of local myth and legend, it’s quite the thing, if you believe in it, or not.

Do I touch it? Well, after the trouble I’ve had getting here, you bet I do.

Autumn in Roddlesworth Woods

And it works. We have no trouble the rest of the way, the way being over the moor to Ryal Fold, then down into the autumn-gold heavens of the Roddlesworth plantation, where the season is a revelation. We’ve had such a poor week, thus far, with torrential wet. One night it rained so hard the gutters burst and I swear I could feel the house shaking. And then today, it’s warm in the sun, we have clear blue, and plenty of water in the brook, so the falls are running. The world has the fairy tale look of an impressionist painting. Out comes the camera.

Autumn in Roddlesworth Woods

I’ll be reporting those obstructions. I’ll also be repeating the walk, because, in spite of a few local difficulties, it’s a good circular route – about seven miles – of varied scenery, in a beautiful part of Lancashire. And if no one walks the paths, the landed will take them from us, swear blind there was never anything there in the first place. And they’ll get away with it.

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