Archive for May, 2022

It was Bert Grundy who took the call. It was the morning of the day before his retirement from the laboratory, and he’d been hoping for a quiet one. As one of the few who still knew his way around the Imperial Archives, at the National Standards Institute, he wasn’t kept terribly busy these days. There was just the occasional VIP tour they still held for crusty old Empire types, when he’d be wheeled out to share some of his knowledge on largely obsolete matters, to nods of dewy-eyed approval. But mostly he was allowed to tinker away at his own research, which involved measurements at decimals of a millimetre, using lasers. He’d been busy in his allotment the night before, so had missed the latest government announcement that millimetres were to be phased out, and those old Imperial units of measurement, more familiar to those crusty Empire types, were in fact to be brought back as the next big thing.

“Grundy, get down to the basement and dig out the foot, will you?”

“The foot, Director?”

“Yes, the bloody foot. Go check on it, will you. I’ve a feeling we’ll be needing it again.”

The director sounded irritable. Bert had known him a long time and the two of them generally got on, not withstanding their differences in rank. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would still be interested in seeing the actual, historical foot, but that was by the by. It also puzzled him how ignorant the director was of the protocols. You didn’t just go down and check on the foot. First you went onto the secure server and looked up the combination of the safe where the ledgers were kept. Then you stirred the dusty security man from his slumbers to admit you to the ledger room. And from the actual paper ledgers you looked up the combination of the lock of the vault, where the precious foot itself was kept. The entire business could take an hour of his time.

Duly armed with the combination, Bert rode the lift down to the deep basement, where the vaults lay in hermetic isolation. More dusty security men had to be negotiated. He’d not been down there for years, and the cutbacks were beginning to show in the cobwebs hanging from the ceilings, and the flickering of yellowing strip lights.

The vaults themselves were airtight to prevent degradation of their artefactual curiosities. It had been discovered, in the nineteenth century, for instance, the actual foot was shrinking. This was a little known fact, indeed, top secret, that the physical foot of today, was not the foot of a century ago. Neither was the pound, nor the ounce for that matter, though many thought they were, or rather, on reflection, Bert lamented how nobody thought very much about these things at all, actually.

It was with an air of anticipation then that Bert donned his special, sterile coveralls, and face mask, punched in the code and entered the air-lock. Not many people had gazed upon the genuine foot, at least not in recent decades. Bert himself had only seen it once, and that was some time back in the later nineteen seventies, when he was an apprentice, and wide-eyed with wonder. Now, with a faint hiss the pressures were equalised, and Bert entered the inner sanctum of all things forgotten.

There wasn’t just the foot down here, of course. There was the bucket for measuring the official Imperial gallon – arrived at by years of study, and discussion, and, like the actual foot, of purely historical interest now, since the adoption of the international system, but it was considered worth preserving anyway. There was even the apparatus, used in the eighteenth century, by Sir Arthur Boddington-Spottiswode, in support of his somewhat convoluted argument for the Empire adopting the official units of speed as furlongs per fortnight. And thank God, that hadn’t worked out! Old Spottiswode was a crackpot, of course, but influential in his day. Then there was lots and lots of other stuff, things even Bert hadn’t the vaguest idea about, and which lay forgotten by the nation, but was still of antiquarian interest for anyone sufficiently motivated to root it out.

And there it was, the cupboard, where they kept the foot, the actual foot, against which all other feet were measured. But, opening the cupboard, it was then Bert discovered, there was a problem,…

The director was ominously quiet while Bert explained his findings, and then he exploded. “What do you mean, it’s not there?”

“Well,… the ticket says it’s out for inspection,” said Bert. “Bernard Stringer withdrew it for checks. You remember old Stringer?”

The director did not, and wasn’t interested anyway. “Just get it back off him, will you? I want that foot on my desk before you go home.”

Easier said than done, explained Bert. Old Stringer had been let go in the nineties, as part of a cost-cutting drive, and was most likely dead by now – after all, there was no point in him keeping on checking the size of things that were considered obsolete, so they’d let him go. The bit of the lab he’d worked in had been refurbished several times since, and it was likely the foot had got caught up in all the confusion, and chucked out by some dozy contractor as a piece of scrap, along with the rest of old Stringer’s kit.

As a matter of interest, while he was down there, Bert had also checked on the pound and the ounce, and found they too were out on loan to Stringer, but he kept this particular news to himself. He still intended retiring tomorrow and, for now, all the director needed to know about was the foot. And the foot was missing.

The director wasn’t comforted by Bert’s argument that, from a technical point of view at least, it didn’t matter. All that had been lost was an historical artefact – embarrassing though that was – while the actual measurement of the foot, should anyone be of a mind to determine its nominals again, was secure by reference to the international units of measurement, and the conversion factors. And while the director knew that was perfectly true, he also knew he would have a hard time persuading the PM. Unknown to Bert, there were more things at stake here than could be measured by a ruler. The PM wanted The Foot, and only the genuine foot would do.

Sure enough, when the director put in the call to Downing Street, the PM was similarly incandescent. “What do you mean, you’ve lost the effing foot?”

“Well, PM, I’m sure it’s not lost exactly. We’re having a root around for it. It’s probably still about somewhere,… em.” However, the director wasn’t hopeful, and privately shared Bert’s view the glorious, Imperial foot was indeed gone forever. “But you see, PM, we know the foot is precisely 0.3048 of a meter. So for all practical purposes, the foot, as a unit of measurement, is imperishable, I mean in the abstract sense of things. As for the actual physical foot, in the archives, well, that varied from day to day, depending on how accurately you measured it, and indeed who was doing the measurement,… while, as regards the meter,…” But he was waffling, and worse, he was being technical, and the PM was having none of it.

“No, no, no. That won’t do at all. Listen, we’re not making any further reference to those damned Johnny Foreigner measures. No more meters, or sub twiddly bits thereof, d’you understand? We’ve taken back control. We are a Sovereign Nation, and shall exercise our right to exceptionality in all matters, be that feet and inches, or pounds and ounces. And to that end, I want the actual effing true blue British foot, so I can present it to the public at my next news conference. Do I make myself clear?”

Bert was putting his coat on at the day’s end, thinking he’d got away with any further involvement in the case of the missing foot, when the phone rang again. “I’m sorry, Director? Did you say fake it?”

“No, I said make it. Can’t you just make another foot? Though, technically that would be faking it, I suppose. But it’s only a lump of metal, after all. No one will know the difference. I’m sure we can get the original drawings off the Internet or something, so we know roughly what it looks like. We’d have to keep it hushed up, of course, but since I’m sure you value your pension, I presume I can rely on your discretion.”

“It’s really not as simple as that, Director. The problem isn’t so much what it looks like, but how big shall we make it? – if we can’t refer to the international standards – I mean the meter – and when the actual – you know – the actual foot itself is missing, how do we measure a foot?”

The Director sighed. Bert was a good man, but like all his kind, he was infuriatingly rational, and wilfully ignorant of the bigger picture, to say nothing of the real forces that shaped the world. “We can’t refer to the meter, Bert. It’s been impressed on me, in no uncertain terms, that’s completely out of the question. The meter is to be persona non grata. A matter of national importance, and all that. We have to find another way. A way that’s more,… I don’t know,… patriotic, let’s say.”

“Well,…” said Bert, thinking hard, but hoping he couldn’t come up with anything, because all he wanted to do was go home and check on his allotment. “We might still have a yard knocking about. Would that be patriotic enough?”

“A yard? Well, why didn’t you say so? We can work backwards from that. Three feet to the yard, right?”

“Well, I suppose so, Director. But it would be much easier if,…”

“No, Bert. I told you. The meter is out. Go fetch the yard, man.”

With a sigh, Bert hung his coat up again. He hoped he was right, and the actual yard hadn’t gone rusty, or worse, been chucked out too, or they were really sunk. Even then, how he was going to explain this to the manufacturer without reference to anything metric, he didn’t know. They’d have to measure the yard in terms of something else. There were inches, of course, thirty-six of them to the yard, and patriotic he supposed, but he’d not seen, or indeed used, any of those tricky little blighters for decades. As for the pounds and ounces thing, well Bert still wasn’t for letting that awkward bit of news out of the bag. He was retiring tomorrow, come hell or high water, and by the time it was discovered by the higher ups,… well, it was definitely going to be someone else’s problem.

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The Wharfe, Langstrothdale, Yorkshire Dales

I thought I might as well visit Langstrothdale, while I was up this way – this way being the Upper Wharfe, in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s evening, the shadows are long, the light is pure gold, and the Wharfe is the prettiest I’ve ever seen it. We’re nearing the source of the river here, so there’s not much breadth to it, but it makes up for that with vigour, and a charming little waterfall every couple of yards.

It’s my first time, actually, but it will not be my last. A narrow road brings us up from Buckden, by the George Inn, at Hubberholme, and on, via a series of dramatic dips and bends, to the farm at Yockenthwaite. We’ve left the car near there, at a roadside pull-in. The river is close to hand, easily accessible, and looking like a favourite picnic and paddling spot for those in the know.

The George Inn, Hubberholme

The drive would take us on to Hawes, eventually, but we’ll save that for when we’re in the little blue car, and then we’ll get the top down, so we can feel the drive, as well as see it. This is such a gorgeous, timeless place. If you wanted to film a drama, and needed a location that could pass for the 1930’s without much fudging, this is where you’d come – as indeed they did for the later series of Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small.

One of the downsides to carrying the phone everywhere is your emails can catch up with you, and I’ve just had one from the energy company that threatened to spoil my day. I’d been feeling pretty smug, actually. Draconian economies at the old homestead had cut our energy use by a third, so I was thinking – crisis or not – we were quids in. Then I get this email telling me my bills will still be fifty percent higher than they were last month. And, then passing the filling station, near Grassington, this morning, I noted the price of fuel had hit £1.76 per litre, which was around 10p a litre higher than when I filled up a few days ago. There is a feeling of poor old Albion careering into disaster.

Everyone’s struggling with it, and the poorest will be crucified by what’s coming. It grates, of course. We’ll be washing in cold water next, and banning the Lady Graeme from baking cakes (the last straw!). But an evening like this, by the Wharfe, up Langstrothdale, laughs out loud at such things. The world, as we’ve made it, and I mean the world beyond this gorgeous fold of a dale, seems a universe away, now.

Yockenthwaite, Langstrothdale

Not a long walk today. Just a mile up river, from Yockenthwaite farm, to Deepdale, then back – a bit of a scouting mission for future expeditions. The meadows are bright green and splashed with broad strokes of yellow from the buttercups. A closer look by the path-side as we make our way reveals the tiny blue faces of germander speedwell, and the little white stars of common mouse ear. Lower down the valley, in the meadows by Hubberholme, this morning, I found the bolder saxifrage, mayflower, butterwort, and campion, all in profusion, and then a lone early purple orchid.

It’s a little cold, and many of the gnarly trees by the river are looking haggard, but I guess they’re just a bit late putting on their leaves. It’s summer at home, down on the Lancashire plain. Here in the higher dales, though, it’s still spring, and looking a little uncertain of itself.

The Yockenthwaite Cricle

There’s a small stone circle along the way that I’ve been wanting to visit for a while. I’d wondered if it would be difficult to find, as many of these small antiquities sometimes are, but there it is, plain as day, and beautifully located between sparkling river and fellside. Given its size, I’m wondering if it’s more likely a ring of kerb stones for what was once a burial mound, or if it marks the site of a hut. The fact it’s on the tilt, is also curious.

So, yes, I’m missing the little blue car on this trip. She’s in for a tidy-up. I first brought her up the Wharfe the summer I bought her, 2014. I was only going to keep her a few years, get the open-top roadster thing out of my system, but we’re still together. A marriage made in heaven, you might say. The back wings are blistering out, like they always do on this marque, but I’ve managed to find a man who restores cars, and that wasn’t easy. Welding skills are becoming rare. Fingers crossed, though, my man will have her back in fine fettle with some more summers ahead of her. Then, sure as eggs, we’ll be up this way again, and we’ll drive that road from Buckden to Hawes, just like we said.

The Wharfe, Langstrothdale

This evening, I’m wondering about old Albion, down there, beyond this fold of dale, and am almost reluctant to return to the madness it has become lately. I’ve been keeping company with J B Priestly throughout this trip, reading some of his short stories, and in one of them a character describes people as either asleep, or dead. It seems a cruel thing to say, but I think I know what he means. We’ll not hurry back. We’ll settle by the river a while, and watch the light moving across the fells.

Thanks for listening.

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I’m in Hubberholme today, in Upper Wharfedale, by the church of St Michael and All Angels. There’s an old, stone bridge over the river, here, and beyond that, a whitewashed pub called the George. So,… church, pub, bridge. That’s Hubberholme. That’s always been Hubberholme. If it wasn’t for the few cars dotted about, and the farmer roaring by on his quad, there’d be nothing to date this idyllic little corner of England much beyond the middle of the last century.

Perhaps that’s why its easy to imagine I’m also seeing this guy standing on the bridge looking down into the river while he chews morosely on an unlit cigar. I picture him wearing a forties suit and, even though he’s clearly at his leisure, he wears a tie and a hat, like they always did, or at least like they did in the movies, in my grandfather’s day.

We’ll have a chat with him in a minute, but only in passing, because I already know his story. He’s a Canadian engineer by the name of Lindfield, come over to supervise the building of a machine his company has commissioned from a firm in Blackley. Blackley’s a made up name. It spares the blushes of a Blackburn, or a Barnsley, or some other generic post-war manufacturing town up north, a place where it rains all the time and the lights burn dim.

In case you were wondering, we’ve walked into the opening of a short story called The Other Place, by J B Priestly. Hubberholme, though a fine setting for our opening scene, isn’t actually the “other place”, but a place very much like it. Lindfield found himself magicked there once, and briefly, but through his own impatience, he blew his chance and he’s been searching for a way back ever since. And if we enter more fully into that story, we’ll take pity on Lindfield, throw a paternal arm around his shoulders, and we’ll walk him back to the little village of Kettlewell, downstream, where we both happen to be staying. Then, after buying him dinner, we’ll settle into a cosy nook over drinks, and there, amid manly clouds of aromatic tobacco, we’ll have him tell us that story.

Its a story about the world we’re building, and the pressures we put ourselves under, such that we no longer know how to relate to one another properly. And if only there was “another place”, a rural idyll, where time had stopped and the sun always shone, and the air was clean, we could relax with one another, open up and realise at last the rapture of simply “being”. Or could we? Would we not carry something into that other place, a poison that would have us turn it all to dust and return us to the bleak environs of our Blackley – poor Blackley – where it’s always raining, and its always winter, no matter what the calendar says to the contrary?

I’m fond of Priestly, and have long identified with his more metaphysical musings, though his fiction does read a little dated now, its dialogue especially. The idioms, the “I say, old chaps” and “Look here’s”, are very much of their time, but not without their charm. There may even be accusations of corniness, especially from the avant guard reader, or even, dare I say, something inappropriate, in his concern for the plight of the character of “Englishness”.

But Priestly saw something emerge in the post war years, something devilish in its nature, coming initially out of America, but swiftly enveloping the whole of the western world. It was a culture of materialism, consumerism, automation and mass advertising. He called it Admass. He didn’t like what it was doing to the soul, he saw it displacing the mood of cooperation and common purpose, that had held England together throughout the war years, and he wrote against it.

In that sense then, this guy standing on the bridge, staring morosely into the chattering waters of the river is Priestly himself, with the history of the twentieth, and now the early decades of the twenty first century, with its free for all, free market culture weighing on his mind. He’s thinking the other place is further away from us than it ever was, that his vision of Englishness, something along the lines of a compassionate, humanist socialism, is doomed.

Speaking of which, the long awaited Sue Gray report finally broke as I was setting out this morning – such as it turned out to be. It revealed a culture of jolly, boozy parties, and quiz nights in which all and sundry affected to act silly, in order to fit in with the higher ups – this in the highest office of the land, in mid pandemic, while the rest of us were confined to barracks on pain of eye watering fines. It speaks of staff drunk to the point of vomiting, and altercation, and sounds more like the back street pubs of Blackley at chucking out time, on a Saturday night – places to which only the lowest sort of empty headed buffoon, would ever be drawn.

But it speaks also perhaps to the emotionally suppressed nature of the English that it takes a bit of alcohol before we start to feel normal. Hence the reverence with which we regard the public house, as much as we once regarded the church, and without which no place, no matter how perfect, including Hubberholme, can be said to exist at all. So lets all get a drink and be merry, but woe betide any Englishman who cannot hold his drink – and it strikes me few of us can – for therein shall lie his reputation.

In those first few sips of frothy beer, in the summer-shimmering gardens of the Olde Oakes, the Queens Heads, and the George Inns, we might imagine we catch glimpses of the Other Place, but it’s an illusion. By the second pint it spits us out, like it spat out poor Lindfield, back to the hung-over dawn of Blackley on a bad day, and to the bald truth that the devils have had their way and we let all our collective post-war good intentions slip through our fingers.

So I’m tempted to say to the England, as depicted in the Sue Gray report, stay the hell away from Hubberholme, and thereby allow me, this moment at least, the illusion of an England still worth half the candle. Let me fool myself, while I’m here, the Other Place Priestly wrote about isn’t so far away as it seems.

As for the guy on the bridge, poor Lindfield, I’ll not say to him: “Look here, old chap, why so glum?” because, really, I get the picture. I’ll just bid him a polite good morning, and be on my way.

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On Spitler’s Edge

You catch up with me this afternoon, on Spitler’s Edge, in the Western Pennines. It sounds precipitous, like a mountain arête, but it’s not. That said, it’s still quite an airy aspect, in a dun coloured, tussocky, bog-cottony, sky-scraping, moorland sort of way. Indeed, the views are spectacular, from the hills of eastern Lancashire, to the west coast. Southwards, we have the porcupine ridge of Winter Hill, and its cluster of transmitters, while to the north we have Great Hill. The crossing from Great Hill to Winter Hill is always a treat, not to be underestimated in bad weather, but much easier now the route has been paved to spare erosion of the precious peat and bog habitat. The highpoint here is around 1286 feet.

I’ve not come over from Great Hill, though. I’ve come up by an unfamiliar path that snakes between Standing Stones Hill and Green Withins’ Brook. Early maps tell us there was always a track here, though aiming a little lower, for the coll, and the pass to High Shores, then down to Naylors. Naylors is a ruin now, and the current map shows the track petering out in the tussocks of Standing Stones. But there’s still a clear and well trod footway that carries on, though aiming more for the featureless summit of Redmond’s Edge.

It’s a hot day, down in the valley, with a dazzling, head-bursting sun. The sky is streaked with great fans of whispy, stratospheric clouds like white dendrites against the blue, and I’ve been photographing them with various foregrounds on the way up. There’s a cool wind on top, now, and a dusty taste to the air. The moors are ripe for burning, but so far so good, and the idiots have spared us their perennial pyromania. We’re a little later setting out, having waited in for the Tescos delivery man, so it’s getting on for tea time. The light is turning mellow, and a poem is gnawing at me, wanting me to remember it from way back.

I was crossing Spitler’s Edge,
With the sun touching the sea,
When a stranger on a dark horse,
From the distance came to me.

So I took myself aside a-ways,
To let the traveller pass,
And leaning on my staff, I paused,
Amid a sea of grass.

2002, I think. No strangers on dark horses today, though – just the occasional mountain-bike going hell for leather and with an air that suggests a supreme confidence I’ll be stepping aside for it. Although we’re in a post CROW access area, this isn’t a bridle way, so, strictly speaking, bikes have no place on the edge – walkers only. It could be worse, though. It could be motorcycles. You can’t police stuff like this, though. It relies on conscientiousness, hillcraft, and good manners.

So where was I? Standing amid a sea of grass? Okay,…

From there I watched the sky ablaze,
Above a darkening land,
Until I felt a chill and spied,
The stranger close at hand.

He stood upon the hillside,
While his horse about him grazed,
And with his eyes cast westwards,
On that same sunset he gazed,…

Yes, an old poem of mine, insisting on rhyme, at the risk of meter. It came out of an odd feeling, when crossing this way, late one evening, forty years ago. It was the antiquarian John Rawlinson, in his book “About Rivington” who wrote of the origins of the name “Spitler’s Edge,” it coming from the Knights Hospitaller’s of the Holy Order of St John, who had holdings in the district – this being in medieval times – and who, legend has it, would pass this way en route. So the guy I meet in the poem is a medieval warrior-monk. So what?

He wore a cloak of coarsest wool,
Around his shoulder’s broad,
And, across his back was slung,
I swear, the mightiest of swords.

But I did not fear the stranger,
When at length his gaze met mine,
For I knew we shared that hillside,
Across a gulf of time,…

And, speaking of time, the evening I’m thinking of was some time in the early eighties. I’d had a bad day at work, plus the realisation the girl I had the romantic hots for had the romantic hots for someone else – a colleague of mine, and a decent guy I was friendly with. So I’d driven up to Rivington, and set out to mull it over. And in mulling it over, I’d walked, and walked, and walked. Thinking about it now, I would have been better just walking home that night, which would certainly have made for a shorter walk, but I turned around and came back to Rivington over the edge, as the sun set.

It was a beautiful night, a perfect stillness across the moor, a faint mist rising after the heat of the day, and I was kept company by a long eared owl whose silent, broad winged flight was the most beautiful and eerie thing. All right, I didn’t actually meet a Knights Hospitaller, but if you believe in gaps in the fabric of space-time, that would have been an evening to encounter one. The walk did me good, cleared my head. There was no way I was going to fight over the girl, and I reckoned I had it in me to find a way of finally letting her go. As for the stranger,…

I nodded my slow greeting,
And he duly did the same,
Then he climbed upon his patient steed,
And ambled off again.

But turning back, he caught my eye,
Then slightly cocked his head,
And smiled to me a kindly smile:
“Fare thee well, pilgrim…” he said,..

Not as long a walk today, but then I’m forty years older, and I feel the miles differently. Just six miles round from the Yarrow Reservoir, to which we return with the sun sparkling upon it, and the oak trees of Parson’s Bullough, with their fresh leaves luminous against the blue. I still think about that girl from time to time. She’s still married to that guy and, in retrospect, she was always going to be happier with him, than she ever would have been with me. Sometimes it’s the ghosts, and the shadows who let us in on secrets like that, but you need a vivid imagination – a mind’s eye sort of thing – and the faith in it, even if it sometimes works backwards way, and is never any use to you at the time. Still, we get by.

Fare thee well, pilgrim, and thanks for listening.

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I’m not sure if the author had any say in the cover design, or the title, of this book, both of which, to my mind, speak to a different audience to that perhaps intended. Talk of an afterlife is pretty much a taboo subject in polite secular, and even some religious circles. Those expressing belief in it are dismissed as naive, and in thrall to woolly minded thinking. Pastel shades, fluffy clouds, and soft focus apple blossom sums up the popular audience to whom such works as this might appeal. Those wishing for a more sober, scientifically minded approach might be put off, as indeed I was. Had it not been recommended by other trusted writers, I would have passed it by, and that would have been a pity because I think it makes a valuable contribution to the literature.

Many works on this subject deal with anecdotes of the near-death experience (NDE) itself, but, whilst interesting at one level, even compelling, such accounts lack intellectual impact, when taken in isolation. They require us to have faith in the bona fides of the teller, and actually do little to further our understanding of the phenomenon itself. And it is a phenomenon, one very much a part of the human experience, with reports going back to the beginning of recorded history, but more-so in recent years, as resuscitation techniques have improved to the point where we are reviving more and more people who, would once have died. And some of them are telling us strange stories.

Jens Amberts trained in philosophy, and is not an NDE experiencer himself. Philosophy strikes me as a subject in which nit-picking is honed to a fine art, and nit-pick, expertly, he does. In order to explore the subject, he sets up a thought experiment in which he likens the NDE to a sealed room into which people are chosen at random to enter, and explore its contents. They are not able to make recordings of what they find in the room, and must rely entirely on word of mouth in describing what they saw, to others, when they emerge.

Taken at its simplest then, the proposition is thus: how many people do we require, coming out of that room, and all reporting similar findings, for the people outside the room to believe those accounts to be the truth, given that some people are honest, while others are liars, fantasists, attention seekers, easily confused, and so on. Will it take a thousand? Tens of thousands? Millions? As the title suggests, Amberts concludes it is no longer philosophically, or even rationally, reasonable to doubt.

He points out four characteristics of the NDE supportive of the case for their authenticity:

One: in the entire history of the research we can pinpoint nothing, psychologically, sociologically or physiologically that will predict whether a person close to death is likely to have an NDE, or how deep that NDE will be. So, we don’t need to be sympathetic towards the idea, be religious, agnostic or atheist, in order to have one. It’s entirely random.

Two: Of those who have had an NDE, whether they were previously sceptical or not, the overwhelming majority are convinced their experience was indeed what it purported to be, i.e. a glimpse of some form of psychical continuation of life after death.

Three: Those reporting an NDE often describe the experience as “more real” than real life, in the same way that waking reality is more real than the dream state, that the NDE is an experience of being, of cognitive bandwidth, and sensory awareness, that is a quantum leap beyond anything previously known. Indeed, regaining ordinary consciousness after an NDE is likened to seeing the world in black and white, after having first seen it in colour.

And finally, four: We return to how common NDEs are, and the estimates are somewhere between 4 and 15% of the world’s population, or 320 million to 1.2 billion people, have reported an NDE. This means an awful lot of formerly rational, sceptical people are now convinced there is such a thing as an afterlife state, who would never have contemplated holding such a view before.

But for all of that I find myself still very much on the fence, at least as regards what it is we are seeing, exactly, in that room. But this is not to detract from the power of Amberts’ argument. It is more perhaps to illustrate, through my own doubts, the persistence of a perhaps defensive scepticism that will disregard even the strongest logic, and which also lies at the root of human experience.

What is not in any doubt is that something psychologically profound happens during an NDE, an experience that has, as yet, no rational physiological explanation, yet which has a deep and lasting effect on the psyche of the experiencer. What we don’t know, of course – should the experiencer not return to tell the tale – is does the NDE persist? Nor do we know if the 85 to 96% of those not reporting an NDE do so because they were denied entry through the Pearly Gates, and if so, the odds aren’t looking too good for the rest of us, no matter how well we conduct our lives, or swear allegiance to the various religious faiths who profess to be keepers of the gates.

The book was a fascinating, thought-provoking read, and Amberts’ argument will be of interest to believer and sceptic alike, also to students of philosophy who might have no interest in the subject one way or the other, but are looking for a case study in the diagnostic power of a thought experiment.

As the serious literature on this subject mounts, I find myself growing cautious of where the affirmative NDE arguments might lead, I mean socially and even politically. Indeed, it takes very little imagination to foresee societal structures emerging that will precipitate our departure for the next world on grounds purporting to be humane, whether we like it or not – and we don’t know anywhere near enough to be taking risks like that.

If it is true, it may be we’re not supposed to possess any certainty about it. Indeed, I suspect we may be psychologically predisposed to doubt, no matter how convincing the argument, be it religious or secular, and for our own good. Because, again, if it is true, we’re here because we have a contract to fulfil to our own being, and knowing for sure there’s a sure fire get-out clause, if things get tough, well,… that might defeat the whole point of us being here in the first place.

And if it isn’t true, well, it doesn’t matter anyway.

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Mellor Knoll from the Hodder

You know that feeling when you’ve come down off the fells, and you’re looking to pay for coffee, but can’t find your wallet? I would have been embarrassingly short, but I’d found a pound on the trail which, when added to the change in my pocket, just came to the price of the coffee. It was good coffee, but I didn’t enjoy it because I thought I’d lost my wallet. It summed up the day, a mixture of good and bad, and a feeling I’d not got the best out of it, possibly due to my own gormlessness, or possibly not.

We’re in the pretty little village of Dunsop Bridge today, central hub of the Bowland fells, also the geographical centre of the British Isles, or near enough, at least by some calculations. I have a Christmas card a friend sent me, from the post office here, in December 1992, and which he describes in his book “A Journey Through Lancashire”. It was journey’s end for the book, and he describes in his closing paragraph the bleak view of Mellor Knoll and Totridge fell that day. Here I am now, getting on for thirty years later, and my friend has since departed for a different sort of journey, though, knowing him, he’s already written several guidebooks about it. The fells have an altogether brighter look about them today. There’s a cold wind blowing, but it’s driving the clouds, so the hills are great canvasses for fast moving patches of shadow and light. The freshness is exhilirating.

The plan was for a circuit of Mellor Knoll, a prominent cone-shaped hill, following the route described by fellow blogger and guide to Bowland, BC, here , though I decided to go the other way around and get the steep bit out of the way first. Viewed from Dunsop Bridge, it’s an obvious objective for any hill walker with blood in his veins, but, though a right of way runs by it, the summit itself is technically a trespass.

With a few exceptions, the paths in Bowland generally aren’t as well walked as in other areas, and sometimes the exact line of a marked right of way on the map is more of a general idea than a dead certainty, so you need your wits about you. Options for circular walks tend also to be longer, and over rougher ground. And although access is much better than it was, post CROW 2000, there’s a sense one still has to be careful, especially now trespass has been uplifted into a criminal offence.

Towards Langden Brook

The early part of the route was straightforward, though not heavily walked, so it wasn’t always clear what line to take across open ground. But from Langden Brook, you’re basically aiming for the coll on the shoulder of Mellor Knoll. Totridge fell impressed with altitude, and an attitude of austere bleakness, and we needed little by way of persuasion to save that one for another day. I found shelter from the wind behind the wall on the coll, and watched the farmers gathering sheep in the valley below. Of resident flowering flora, I found only a lone mayflower, flowering more in hope than expectation, amid an otherwise bleak expanse.

The summit of Mellor Knoll is just a short, tantalising detour from here, but if pressed I shall claim my meandering over to the summit was strictly the result of navigational error, therefore unintentional, and, moreover, that I did not intend taking up residence. That said, the views were 360 degrees of stunning. Bowland is, at times, the jewel in Lancashire’s north. At other times, it can be deeply irritating. Speaking of which,…

Mellor Knoll

The way from Mellor Knoll continues plainly enough, but I lost it when entering a patch of woodland to the west of New Hay Barn. I’m still not sure what happened here. A gate led me confidently into the wood, and waymarkers reassured me I was on track. Next thing there were flying motorcycles everywhere, and the line of the route had vanished in a confusion of rutted scars cut by bikes, and the waymarkers had given up on me. There were motorbikes growling everywhere, and first aid boxes perched on poles, suggestive of danger to life and limb.

After a couple of aborted attempts to muddle my way through, I approached a motorcyclist, who had dismounted, and asked him where the path went. Either he misunderstood my meaning, or he hadn’t a clue, or both, but he seemed confident and friendly enough, and he pointed me in a certain direction, so I followed. He meant well, but this turned out to be down the trail used by the leaping bikes, and not the right direction at all.

I was in deep doo-dah now, well off my route, and fearing to carry on, or to go back up the fell to my last known good position. Indeed, I felt like a sitting duck, this lone twit on foot amid a melee of armoured bikers at play, that it was only a matter of time before I’d be needing the contents of one of those first aid boxes. So, I bailed out into a meadow, in some haste, climbing a gate and, putting myself into unknown, and pathless territory. To whom it may concern, apologies for this particular trespass, which was indeed intentional, but I really was in fear of injury. I was lucky in finding just the one electric wire, which I had to duck under, and then I was on a private track down to the road, by Hodder Bank farm, all of which cut a couple of miles from my intended route, and rather soured my mood.

A little road walking brought me to Burnholm Bridge, on the Hodder, where I picked up the remains of the day. From there onwards, it was a very pleasant return to Dunsop Bridge, by the river, which did much to calm my curses. All I needed now was coffee from Puddlducks Cafe, a nice drive home, and all would be well,…

Which brings us back to the beginning of my story, also the end of today’s adventure in the Forest of Bowland. But it was fine. The good luck fairy was looking after me, stumping up change for my coffee, and then arranging it so as I’d left my wallet at home. If I’d lost it on the fell, now, that would really have spoiled my day.

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I made a little lantern,
From an old glass bowl I found,
In a charity shop,
For a couple of pounds,
And rice lights, two hundred or more,
Solar ones. A tenner,
From the bargain home store.

Builder’s silicone,
Keeps out the wet,
All wiped neat and clean,
Before it could set.
Then I found some old copper wire,
Which I bent to a hanger
With a stout pair of pliers.

By day, it sits out,
And feeds from the sun.
But at night it comes in
As the darkness comes on.

It’ll take a long time
To catch up the cost,
But it’s pretty,
And persuades me
That all is not lost.

That so long as our minds,
Continue to spark,
There’ll always be something
To light up the dark.

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Oak tree, Peewit hall, Anglezarke

No two walks in the same territory, or even following the same route, are ever actually the same. It’s not necessary, therefore, to hanker after fresh ground all the time, though it is distinctly human to do so. I have walked this route up from Parson’s Bullough countless times, come over the pastures towards Twitch Hills and Jepsons, and passed beneath the two oaks that mark the line of the path to Peewit Hall.

I already know the photographs I’ll take, but though the physical perspectives are the same, there’s always a different mood by way of light and cloud. First shot then, the oak, looking towards Jepsons, with another oak on the skyline. The clouds are interesting today, but the camera will not capture them in one go. I suspect I can recover that dynamism though, using a particular software filter, and some artistic license. It comes out a bit gritty, a bit grungy, but I still like it.

For company, I have a wheatear. I think he’s a wheatear. I take a picture, then show it Google Lens, and it concurs. He’s flown in from Central Africa, where he spent the winter. I’ve never seen one before. He’s quite a dashing fellow, but doesn’t hang around to chat. I’m superstitious when it comes to birds. The lore is complex and tied up with personal stuff, but it’s a good omen for the day.

Wheatear, Anglezarke

I’m having fun with Google’s Lens app at the moment. When it first came out, I showed it my shoe. Its sophisticated, multi-billion dollar brain thought about it, then said it was a rabbit. Oh, how I laughed. But I’m not laughing now. Now I can point it at my shoe, and it will tell me where to buy another pair just like it. Or you can show it a picture of a bird or a wild flower, and it will tell you what it is.

We’re short of wild flowers today. The sheep have eaten everything, except, I note, the dandelions and the daisies. But I was in a scrap of woodland the other day and Google Lens put names to a greater diversity of flora. There were bluebells, mouse ear, red campion, garlic mustard (invasive alien), ramsons, lesser celandine, anemone and wood sorrel. I suppose at one time we would have learned these names from our countryman elders. But, apart from the more common weeds, I never did pick up the names of things, and am only now discovering the time, and the pleasure in doing so. Plus, countrymen elders are getting harder to find.

It seems a bit Victorian and reductionist, knowing the names of the bits of nature, like opening a watch and naming the components. But if it helps you find your way around the mechanism, you’re a good part of the way towards describing how it works. And how it works in my little scrap of woodland is that it supports a greater diversity of bugs. And then there are the things that feed on those bugs. Meanwhile, these pastures cover a hundred times the area, yet only sheep can thrive, and even then, they need the unremitting labours of man to keep them out of trouble. Nature does it all, it takes the whole impossibly complex diversity of the planet, in its stride.

It’s a beautiful prospect all the same, sterile though it is, this view from Peewit Hall – a small ruined farm – and my wheatear seems to like it too. Sometimes, though, we don’t understand what we’re looking at, even when we know what it’s called.

I’ve no idea where I’m going today, but the track to Lead Mines Clough is calling, and this takes us on to the ruins of Simms. There’s a Peak and Northern signpost here that lures you down into the bog. Sometimes the paths fall out of use, while the markers remain. This one’s number 260, dated 1997. The list of these robust and reassuring signposts is still growing. Signpost number one is of historical importance and dates to 1905. It lies between Hayfield and Glossop, and the cradle of the ramblers’ movement. It would be quite an achievement to visit, and photograph every one.

Peak and Northern Footpaths Society

There’s another oak of my acquaintance nearby, hanging on above Green Withins Brook. I’ve tried a few times to photograph it, but can never do it justice. Same today. I settle down with the camera, but my head’s elsewhere, and none of the shots are in focus. Sometimes we plunge into the details, and forget the basics.

I have read recently how consciousness is intentional. That means we are not aware of everything the senses throw at us, only what we focus on. And what we focus on is filtered by the psyche. But the psyche is not a machine. It’s fuzzy, and mysterious. Today I’m thinking “wild flowers” and “diversity”. Otherwise, I suppose I would not have spotted the tiny purple blooms hiding in the moss, here.

Google tells me this is heath milkwort, or polygala serpyllifolia. I feel very knowledgeable writing that down. The sheep must have missed it, and they don’t miss much. I must look out for more heath milkwort on future outings and hopefully impress someone with my countryphile’s knowledge.

We follow Green Withins Brook downstream, now, towards its confluence with the fledgling Yarrow. There’s a little waterfall here, another favourite photographic subject coming up, and I try a new angle on it: narrow aperture to get the depth of field, focus on the sky, let the ISO wander where it will, so long as it’s below four hundred. I’ve a good feeling about this one. Perhaps in monochrome with a slight sepia tint.

Small falls on Green Withins Brook, Anglezarke

Then we’re up the moor towards Old Rachels. There are oyster catchers here, piping shrill as they make their busy way over the moor. I always think of them as a maritime bird because the first time I saw them was on a beach, in the west of Scotland. They always have an exotic feel to them, though I suppose they are quite common, if you know where to look.

It’s a boggy stretch, this, and we’re testing the ground as we go. I used to carry a pole for this purpose, what I call a bog hopping stick, but seem to have fallen out of the habit. It’s a question of knowing the consistency of the ground – which areas will support a man in passing, and which will open up and swallow him, cap and all.

Sometimes the senses get muddled, and things work backwards. They end up telling us what the mind is expecting, whether it’s real or not. I’m thinking my boots are leaking, because sometimes they do. Sure enough, the feet feel wet as we come out of the bog, but when we check, the feet are dry. Then, even though we now know they’re dry, they still feel wet, all the way back to the car. Imagination is a funny thing.

Common Chaffinch

Another bird of omen greets us on return, settling on a branch and having a good look at us. He dodges about a bit, but we manage to get a shot, so we can show it to Google. Common Chaffinch, says Google, and I can almost hear it yawn. It’s such a know-it-all. But it does not tell me what a pretty little bird a chaffinch is, common or not, nor what it portends,…

for the journey home.

Thanks for listening.

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The arts put man at the centre of the universe, whether he belongs there or not. Military science, on the other hand, treats man as garbage – and his children, and his cities, too. Military science is probably right about the contemptibility of man in the vastness of the universe. Still – I deny that contemptibility, and I beg you to deny it, through the creation of appreciation of art.”

Kurt Vonnegut -1970

Unless you’re already some sort of celebrity, it’s a well established fact the arts are no way to make a living. But what they do for the ordinary Joe and Joanna, is make living meaningful, or even just bearable. It brings each of us back to the centre of our universe. It may be there is nothing to life and death, nor anything beyond it, and all our stories to the contrary are wishful thinking. But the person who takes up a pen, writes a story, or a poem, paints a picture, sings in a choir, dances, performs in amateur dramatics, or even – as Vonnegut once also put it – makes a face in their mashed potato, performs an act of defiance. If there’s art, creativity, inside of you, you have to let it out. Do not deny you have a soul, or the soul will become a demon, and it will eat you.

Trying to write for money nearly killed my desire to write in the first place. It’s likely there’s a good reason my novels never tickled an editor’s fancy, but an inability to court the art-world or write like a Hemingway or a Vonnegut is no reason not to write. My novels have taught me, and shaped me in ways that would not have happened if I’d spent every night in the pub, or watching trash TV. I dabble in watercolours too. I’m no good at it, and can only marvel at the masters, but I do enjoy working with colour. Poetry, comes and goes. Photography is more constant. I spent a good bit of yesterday setting up a shot of a watering can and a garden fork, then waiting for the sky to turn interesting. I don’t know why. Art can use technology, too. It all depends on how you use it. The picture isn’t going to win any competitions, but it’s what I saw and felt, what I was looking for, and what I was trying to express that’s the important thing. And I don’t always have words for that. Nor does it have to please anyone else.

I mention this to illustrate how when we get stuck with one form of expression, we simply turn to another. There’s an endless list of creative means. I’ve just adopted the ones that appeal to me. Thus, we cycle. If we’re not performing for money, it doesn’t matter. The work gets done, effortlessly, and the work is about you. It’s about building you by whatever means come to hand.

I enjoy reading blogs. But the blogs I follow are of a particular sort. They’re not selling anything, and are written by people with no agenda, other than to give vent to their creative energies. And what interesting personalities they are, each of them worthy of a glossy, hard-backed biography on the shelves in Waterstones, and these individual perspectives have shaped me too. But, other than through the semi-anonymity of the blogging medium, these authors have discovered the secret of contentment in being unknown. They do it because they enjoy it, and seek no explanation for it. But they’re growing their souls, and mine, all the same. They are, to quote Kurt Vonnegut again, “becoming”.

I remember an old trades union leader telling of looking up at a monolithic block of Brutlaist flats. To others, it would have presented a grey, depressing vision of “the masses”. But behind any one of those hundreds, or thousands of little windows, he said, was a potential philosopher, mathematician, writer, actor, social activist, or an inspirational leader, and to deny them the opportunity of “becoming” is the tragedy of a regressive society. To treat people as contemptible, as trash, is to diminish all people, everywhere.

I like the way Vonnegut put it in that opening quote. Yes, maybe the materialists are right, there’s no soul, no purpose, consciousness is an illusion, and we’re all just robots made of meat. Who am I to deny it? Yet, I deny it anyway. The soul is a work in progress. The tools we use are the whole panoply of creative expression. And if you don’t feel yourself to be naturally creative, you can always feed upon the art of others. Read. Look at pictures. Watch a play. Listen to music. But try not to fall for what is shallow – you can usually identify it by the fact its purpose is more to empty your pockets for little return, or to make you hate. Try to go deeper, into the sublime, and feel it. And what you will feel there, that is the only reality. Yes, there is certainly a world, a universe, without a soul, where we can erase all feelings with a pill, but it’s one we’ve created. I never said we were perfect, and perhaps it’s integral to the human condition that when it comes to the journey of the soul, we will always have a long way to go. So be creative for its own sake. Every day. It’s good for you. And it’s good for everyone else.

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The song of the skies

If clouds made sounds,
they’d fizz and they’d roar,
and they’d sail the skies proud,
impossible to ignore.

If clouds made sounds,
they’d swish and they’d rumble
as round all the chimney pots,
they tumbled.

As cumulus bubble,
their anvils ring trouble.
While high cirrus sing
their sweetest refrain,
Nimbus would rumble
and rattle with rain.

If clouds made sounds
we’d lift more our eyes,
to the beauty, and drama,
of the song of the skies.

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