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Archive for November, 2022

Working from home

Strictly for fun:

There once was a man from Athlone,
Who worked best when he worked from home.
His boss thought it a sin,
And wanted him in,
So the man started up on his own.

Ba Bum.

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Spies are interested in secrets, and will go to extraordinary lengths to obtain them. But for all their efforts, do spies keep us safe? They protect the interests of their home countries, or at least a certain demographic within them, but, taken worldwide, is the number of innocents lost to violence, any less than if the spies, as a profession, had not bothered to glean their secrets, or is it perhaps even the worse for it?

It’s a question suggested by a line from a le Carré spy novel, and it got me thinking. Around the same time, a beech tree came down in winter storms. I’d known it since childhood and thought it would stand forever. Its loss was a shock, and seemed an ill omen, considering all that was going on in the world, and in particular my own country – politically, socially, economically. And then there’s the old Zen thing – which isn’t actually a Zen thing – about how the tree that falls alone makes no sound.

Corruption in high places, staggering levels of inequality, unaffordable rents and energy, children eating erasers at school to stave off hunger pains. Britain, in 2022. Is that enough of a dystopia, or shall we project it forward a little? 2025, say? Or 2030? It should be easy enough to plot where we’ll be, given current trends, but do we really want to go there?

This is the background music as I sit down to write, in early 2022, and what takes shape over the course of the year is a story called A Lone Tree Falls. It proposes the quest for a secret, and the searcher is a former spy turned mystic. But this is no ordinary secret. This is the Secret above all secrets.

The Secret above all secrets tells us the world isn’t what we think it is, that our obsession with the materiality of it is a misunderstanding of the way things are. It is an illusion, and all we do by our obsession with it is perpetuate it. This is not to say we have any choice. It is our fate that our mortal lives at least are spent abiding in this state, but we do have a choice in how we react to it. We can either persist in ignorance of the deeper picture, in which case we gain nothing, and we finish our lives pretty much where we started. Or we can wake up.

Waking up begins with the lone tree that falls, and the realisation it made no sound, and it goes on to the conclusion that there is no difference between you and whatever you are looking at, that all there is to anything is mental phenomena, though the strict rules, spun out of an evolving Universe, leave us no option but to deal with the world as it appears – as solidly real and (mostly) impermeable to the will. But if that revelation is not to implode into the absurdity of philosophical solipsism, one must also wake up to the notion that the essence of one’s self, like everything else, is dreamed into being by the Universe, and not the other way round.

This is the mystical path. It’s a well trodden one, but what’s the point of it? My guess – since I’m only writing about it, rather than making a career of it – is, once you arrive at that destination, it affects your dealings with other people, who, like you, are dreamed into being. So, we are all the same in this respect, both the dreamers and the dreamed. The feeling you have of your own awareness of self, is the same as everyone else’s. All that’s different is our back-story. The other man’s pain, whether you like that guy or not, is your own pain. Hurt him, and you hurt yourself.

But it’s one thing to be told a secret, quite another to believe it. But such is the quest of our protagonist, this former spy of sorts who is also mostly the Fool from the Tarot, or sometimes the Magician, when he needs to be.

I didn’t want to write this story. I wanted to write a simple boy meets girl romance, but the story had other ideas and wanted out. We’re pretty much there with it now, and I’ll have it up on Smashwords in the coming weeks. As for the conclusion, does my protagonist believe in the Secret? Do I? Can we even get there by a pathway of words and thoughts? Or is that just part of illusion as well? I don’t know. We’ll see.

Next time though, next time, it will be a simple boy meets girl romance.

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If a novel was ever written for a writer, this is the one. Blisteringly satirical, it tells the story of a writer, Willie Ashenden, and his relationship with another writer Alroy Kear, who is tasked with writing a glowing biography of the recently departed, the venerable, and much revered writer Edward Driffield. A lot of writers, then. Ashenden knew Driffield in his earlier days, when he was not so revered, and indeed despised by polite society, on account of his lowly origins and his marriage to his first wife, the vivacious, promiscuous and prolifically unfaithful Rosie.

Most reviews I’ve read focus on the story of Ashenden’s relationship with Rosy. Her free spirit and even her promiscuity are written up as a refreshing poke in the eye for a stuffy, class-ridden society that rejects truth in favour of appearances. Personally, I found her rather shallow and cruel, the sort of girl who would break an honest man’s heart. But there’s much more going on here than that.

The inspiration for Edward Driffield was the then recently deceased novelist, Thomas Hardy. Alroy Kear was the writer Hugh Walpole. The novel caused a scandal, and broke the friendship between Maugham and Walpole, who recognised himself in it at once. Hardy’s widow, his second wife, and guardian of Hardy’s saintly legacy, was equally put out. She had a friend pen a novel by way of revenge, called Gin and Bitters, under the pseudonym of A Riposte. It was subtitled “A novel about a novelist who writes novels about other novelists.” Thin-skinned, Maugham took the hump and threatened to sue, preventing publication in the UK. Naturally, I’m on the look-out for a copy, but this is a rare book.

Anyway, besides trampling his fellows into the dirt, Maugham focuses a caustic eye upon the business of writing itself, or rather the business of books and publishing, which is really the story of the relationships between writers, critics and publishers, and how appallingly these literary types treat one another in order to get anywhere. And the book does this by being in itself an example of a writer – Maugham – trashing the reputations of other writers, both dead and living. Maugham denied all of it at the time, and his denials, given in the introduction to my edition, are plausible, but whatever the truth, I dare say the publicity did him no harm.

I’m very fond of Hardy, but agree with Maugham, he had a taste for the melodramatic. Walpole I know from his Herries series of books, and agree he could be terribly long-winded, one memorable description of a person’s hat taking more than a page, though these indefatigable efforts did little to actually impress the hat in my memory. That said, he produced four Herries, books and I stuck with all of them, and gladly, so he must have been doing something right. Nor does Maugham spare himself from ridicule, painting himself as his alter ego, Ashenden, a highly cultured, but rather unlikeable and self-entitled snob.

Although first published in nineteen-thirty, the book should still find resonance, not least among the contemporary generation of us so-called independent authors, who might be thinking, smugly, we have risen above this messy fray. But we haven’t. Not really.

As Maugham says:

The critics can force the world to pay attention to a very indifferent writer, and the world may lose its head over one that has no merit at all, but the result in neither case is lasting; and I cannot help thinking no writer can hold the public’s attention for as long as Edward Driffield without considerable gifts. The elect sneer at popularity; they are inclined even to assert that it is proof of mediocrity; but they forget that posterity makes its choices not from among the unknown writers, but from among the known. It may be that some great masterpiece which deserves immortality has fallen still born from the press, but posterity will never hear of it; it may be that posterity will scrap all the bestsellers of our day, but it is among them that it must choose.

What Maugham is pointing out here – albeit a to a future audience he could not have conceived of – is that while we might easily bypass the big publishers with our use of online media, without the massive machinery of attendant critics, hacks and reviewers singing our praises, our works are no better than those he describes as falling stillborn.

The commercial book business is a messy one, says Maugham. There is much back-stabbing and hypocrisy. Its writers can be vain, jealous creatures who will court approval and posterity at any price. But it’s from this milieu the great and lasting works must necessarily be chosen. By contrast, a book, self-published, might gain only modest altitude, marketed within the humble means of its author. But without a whole industry standing up on its behalf, no matter its merit, it falls into the void when compared with those conventionally published works, regardless of their actual merit. And that’s a sobering thing, one the independent author should digest before ever setting pen to paper.

As I have written elsewhere, there is likely a good reason my own books did not tickle an editor’s fancy, and I am at peace with that. I self-publish, but the only marketing my stories get is in the margin of this quiet backwater of a blog. So it comes down to the sort of writer you want to be. My books have not, and will not change the world, but they have changed me. They have held me together over the years, provided direction, and they have introduced me to ideas I would not otherwise have entertained. More, I believe my life would have been all the smaller for not having lived a good part of it in the imagination.

So, whilst not the most in-depth review of a book on my bookshelf, I hope I’ve been able to capture at least what most impressed itself upon me, as a writer of sorts, reading about a writer of another sort, gleefully and ruthlessly sending up writers of a similar sort. Whatever kind of writer you are, I’m sure you’ll enjoy spending time in the company of Cakes and Ale.

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Wet underfoot today, after several days of rain. The path over to the head of Twitch Hill’s Clough is heavy going. It’s squelchy too as we come up the meadow to Peewit Hall. There’s a pair of picturesque oak trees here, always begging for a photograph. They’re especially striking today, holding on to golden leaves, and there’s a magnificent light to our backs from a low, wintry sun, which casts long shadows across the lush green of the pasture.

Actually, I’m not sure about that name: Twitch Hills. The first edition OS maps, up to 1849 have it on this side of Lead Mine’s Clough, tracing the line of the brook that springs in the hills by Jepson’s farm. Later ones, up to 1933, have it on the other side. Modern maps omit it altogether, so I suppose it’s gone from common usage. But I think it’s a fine name and worth using, and at least I know where I mean, though I may be getting on for two hundred years out of date.

So, we come up to the ruins of Peewit Hall, where we must make a choice: is it to be left for the Pike Stones, or right for Lead Mine’s Clough? We choose right, on a whim, but beyond that, we’ve no idea where we’re going. It’ll to be one of those days when we could end up anywhere. I was still abed and cosy at 10:00 a.m., lingering over coffee. I’m trying to limit myself to just five minutes of doomscrolling current affairs, but then get sucked into crazy cat videos, so the time goes anyway. And that would have been the day gone but for the Met office telling me if I wanted to be out walking, it was today, or a good soaking on any other day.

The sun is in and out, now, the sky clear and bright to our back, still, but layers of heavy cloud are spilling in dramatic fashion, over Winter Hill, and looking showery. It makes for an interesting and fast changing light. One minute the moors are desaturated and dour, the next they are beaming warm in tones of copper and rose-gold. Among the plantations over Lead Mine’s Clough, we have the striking juxtaposition of the occasional lone tree aflame, against a background of dark evergreens.

What news there was this morning didn’t stick, and I can’t bring any of it to mind in sufficient detail now to get hung up about it. There were various controlled leaks of the “difficult decisions” contained in the upcoming budget, but nothing that particularly surprised me. The overall message is the same as it has been for the past twelve years, that the future isn’t what it used to be. Energy is the big one at the moment. Calculations tell me I’m using half the energy I did this time last year, while paying more than twice as much for it. I have dug out thermals, and we do not run the heating in the day. Ironing is discontinued, and the oven restricted to meals that can be done in thirty minutes. All lights are LED, and even these frugal little fellows are used sparingly. Food prices are also raising a stir. There were several sharp intakes of breath from customers milling around the soup and the biscuit aisles, when I called in for my Lion Bar this morning. Lion Bars are 30% more expensive now than I remember when I first discovered them, but some things cannot be skimped. But enough of that.

We’re passing the ruins of Foggs, now, where I remember sitting one beautiful September evening, in 1977. I had left school in the summer, and this was the evening before I entered the world of nine to fives, and commutes. As the sun set over the plain, I was looking at a half century of wage-bondage, and trying to see to the other side of it, telling myself I’d come back when it was done, and look back the other way. I was lucky in bailing out five years early, but I’ve yet to sit at Fogg’s, and contemplate that journey. I think it would be to mark things with a greater significance than they deserve. After all, the journey continues. It’s just different now, and there is nothing to contemplate, only the future to embrace as best we can, whether that future will be smaller or bigger than circumstances and economic orthodoxy allow. It’s a different sentiment to one I used to hold, but that’s age for you. As a younger man, I recall writing:

I’ll go the muddy moorland way,
And into those dark hills I’ll stray.
With trusty pack upon my back,
I’ll etch my boot-prints up that track,
Until at last somewhere on high,
I find a cleaner, broader sky.
And then with flask of tea in hand,
I’ll take a stock of who I am;
Of what I’ve done and where I’ve been,
And ask if life is all it seems.
I’ll go the muddy moorland way,
And though it takes the whole long day,
I shall return a stronger man
Than when my journey first began.

Muddy moorland tracks and returning from the hills stronger and fresher? That hardly needs stating, but taking stock? Nah. It’s done. Move on.

We round the head of Lead Mine’s Clough, take the path by Old Brooks’ and then to Abbots – just piles of stone, but the names live on, at least in the vocabulary of those natives who walk these hills. Modern maps have removed them, but placed a curious blue star here instead, indicating a tourist attraction, but I can’t say if it refers to a specific thing, or to the area in general. Anyone coming looking for a café and a viewing platform will be disappointed. From Abbots, I often cut back down the Yarrow for a short walk, but the legs are itching for more today, so we pick up the track to Simms, with a view to perhaps checking out the routes around Wilkocks’ Farm. Yes, at last that sounds like a plan. From now, we’re on a mission!

Here we lose the sun, and the day takes on a darker aspect as a heaviness drags its way over Winter Hill, obscuring the masts, and the air comes at us with a fine drizzle, swarming like a cloud of microscopic midges. At Simm’s we encounter the first of the bogs as we head down the valley-side to the confluence of the fledgling Yarrow and Green Within’s Brook. There is a commotion up ahead, a woman’s voice raised in exasperation more than anger. She is berating an elderly gentleman I take to be her father. Worse, they have stolen my lunch spot. There’s a little runnel here I often photograph, but find myself self-conscious and make to pass the interlopers by, but then in a moment of rare self-assertion, I back-track, stand my ground and grab the shot like a pro.

The path from here requires careful footwork, if the bog is to be kept below one’s laces, and not up to one’s knees. There is also one quaking section I have nightmares about, and which I’m sure could swallow me whole. We’re skirting the eastern bounds of Wilcock’s pastures now, given over to horses. There are vast quantities of electric tape, shocking to beast and discouraging to man. There has been no progress in repairing the defunct gates and access, here, nor clarifying diversionary routes. Indeed, the only change I detect is the disappearance of the old rotting sign that indicates there might ever have been a public way over to Wilcock’s from here at all. I do know a way through the meadow, via an unofficial diversion, once shown to me, and perhaps indiscreetly, by a jolly, horsey lady, but it requires the leap of a deep, broad and steep sided ditch full of green slime, and I’d rather not, so we head further south to approach Wilcock’s by another way.

Here we encounter a stile that appears to have fallen over into splinters, and so we must pick our way through a tangle of wire and timber. The route is not well walked, and not surprising, as it’s most discouraging to all but the most determined rambler. As we come down to the farm, the little bridge over the brook is obstructed by an ambiguously placed plastic bollard, which we step over. One last obstacle, is the broken ladder stile at the farm wall, but we discover someone has repaired it, at least of a fashion.

All told, the feeling here is one of the dimming of access, and an increasing sense of challenge as we try to make our way. As I have said many times, it’s important we persist in keeping our rights of way open by walking them, or we risk losing them. Already, trespass has been upgraded to a criminal offence. It takes very little imagination to see the landed lobbying to have our rights of way curtailed as the anachronistic artefact of a bygone era. But in the words of Ewan MacColl:

So I’ll walk where I will over mountain and hill
And I’ll lie where the bracken is deep
I belong to the mountains, the clear running fountains
Where the grey rocks lie ragged and steep
I’ve seen the white hare in the gullys
And the curlew fly high overhead
And sooner than part from the mountains
I think I would rather be dead
.

So now we follow the rim of Dean Wood, to the Yarrow reservoir, and finally down Hodge Brow to Alance Bridge. Here we pause for next to the last shot of the day: autumn trees sweeping down to the waters of the reservoir in fading light. Built in 1867, it was a late addition to the Rivington system. It’s been rather low all summer, through the drought, but is now filled to the brim.

The last shot we save for the little blue car, waiting in all the autumn gold, beside the Parson’s Bullough road. The boots have succumbed to the various bogs we’ve crossed, but dry socks and a flask of tea await. Oh, and we forgot to have our Lion Bar.

Just four and a quarter miles round, and six hundred feet of ascent, but feeling far enough for today. Then again, from such a slow start, we did well getting out at all.

https://www.openstreetmap.org/#map=15/53.6368/-2.5643&layers=C

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I was drawn to this book on the strength of Anthony Doerr’s previous work, the Pulitzer prize winning “All the Light We Cannot See“, which I enjoyed very much. Cloud Cuckoo Land is another complex labyrinth of a novel. It is intricate, puzzling, occasionally infuriating, but also compulsive and deeply rewarding.

It jumps back and forth between the siege of Constantinople in the fifteenth century, the Korean War in the 1950s, the USA in the 40s and the present day, then also to a near future onboard a spaceship, the Argos, containing a volunteer crew from a climate ravaged earth. The crew are travelling to an exo-planet that may support human life, a journey that will take almost six hundred years, and of course which none alive at the time will ever see.

What links each of these threads is another story, the titular Cloud Cuckoo Land, an imagined “lost” text by the ancient Greek philosopher, Diogenes. The story tells of a humble shepherd who is tired of his lot but has heard of a utopian land in the sky, built by the birds. Since only a bird can get there, he visits a witch who promises to turn him into a bird, but things go wrong, and he ends up as a donkey, then a fish. He suffers every hardship imaginable, but refuses to give up on his desire to reach Cloud Cuckoo Land. Finally, he becomes a bird, but must face one last test before being admitted,…

Diogenes’ fictional book is first rediscovered in a fragile state by one of our earliest protagonists Anna, in Constantinople, who escapes the siege, and smuggles the book out with her. Eventually, her husband, a humble ox-herder takes the book to Italy, so it might be preserved, but it’s essentially lost again in the archives, only to be rediscovered by researchers in contemporary times. But by now it’s in such poor condition it takes modern technology to reconstruct its pages, though sadly with many words missing, and the pages jumbled up. Posted online as an international treasure of public interest, its cause is taken up by the humble octogenarian, Zeno Ninis, who attempts a translation and a reconstruction of the plot. To this end he enlists the help of a group of schoolchildren who work the story into a play. But on the night of its performance, they are disturbed by the young, autistic Seymour, who is intent on making an explosive statement regarding our mistreatment of nature. Although the main story jumps about in time, the ancient text is revealed in linear fashion as it passes through the hands of the various protagnists, so acting as a kind of temporal compass, preventing us from getting lost.

It’s onboard the Argos, through the eyes of a young girl, Konstance, we learn of the global catastrophe she and her fellows are escaping. The Argos is controlled by an A.I. called Sybil, whose memory contains a record of everything ever written, and which is accessible through a virtual reality experience akin to entering the ultimate library. There’s also a kind of 3D Google Earth one can visit to see what life was like back home, just prior to the calamity. Konstance is aware of the story of Diogenes’ Cloud Cuckoo Land through her father, who has been telling it to her, but she can find no copy of it in Sybil’s memory. As she searches for it, she pieces together the mystery of the translation by Zeno Ninis, and closes in on a final startling revelation regarding the voyage of the Argos itself.

For all the complexity of its structure, I found the story accessible. As with his previous novel, I found the prose beautiful, while maintaining a page turning urgency. There’s a clear warning about the climate emergency here, about the vacuity of the materialism that’s driving us to ruin, about our almost wilful blindness to everything we are risking by our inaction, but there’s also a dig at the techno-utopians who see a solution for us in the stars, instead of trying to solve the problems of a dying earth by righting our own wrongs here and now.

The story of the shepherd ends with him dissatisfied, even amid the luxurious perfection of Cloud Cuckoo Land. He discovers at last that what he wants more than anything is to return to the life he had as a humble shepherd, with all its vexations and imperfections. The moral of that one is that what we already have is always so much better than what we are forever, and so desperately, seeking elsewhere.

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This one’s not about cars. It’s more about bending life into art. Allow me to illustrate:

Soon, yes, and for a time, I am no longer thinking of Grace, but of Maggs. Again. I am sinking into Mavis, tapping with futile distraction at the ABS light, which is taken metaphorically now as a sign always of trouble ahead. And I note, these days, the light is on more often than it is not.

What is Mavis trying to tell me, then? What else could ABS stand for, other than Anti-lock Braking System? Abandon Bull Shit? Yes, that’s promising. Nothing worse than bullshit, is there? All Begins Somewhere? Hmm,… obviously true, but a little too philosophical for me, right now. So, how about: Avoid Bad Sex? The chance would be a fine thing, but actually best avoided completely – the bad, the good, and the mediocre.

From my story: Saving Grace.

Sometimes life imitates art, sometimes life becomes art, or it can be twisted into art. I drive an old car, my protagonist drives the same one and calls it Mavis. This is Mike Garrat, who volunteers at a charity bookshop run by his muse, Margaret (Maggs) Cooper. Throughout the writing of this story, I recall my car was driving me nuts, the ABS warning light coming on then going off again. It’s a common fault on my model of car, once they’re of an age, and is usually the sign of a failing sensor.

ABS means anti-lock braking system, an innovation that prevents the wheels from locking, and therefore skidding, when you hit the brakes hard, so shortening the stopping distance. When the light is on, the brakes still work, but the ABS doesn’t, so you risk coming a cropper in the wet if you slam on at high speed. It’s an MOT failure. So I’d think about taking it to the garage, but then the light would go out, and the car would be fine for weeks, and I’d forget about it, and then it would come on again. I did eventually have it repaired, and it was expensive. I wrote it into the story as a device through which Mavis would caution Mike over the things he was thinking or planning.

I’ve had a good run with mine, but the ABS light came on again this morning so, if I was Mike Garrat – which, fortunately, I am not – I’d be watching my step. Unlike last time, it’s a fairly unambiguous fault, the light staying on all the time. There are four sensors to go at, one for each wheel, but by scanning the engine control unit, you can find out which one’s on the blink. We’re booked in for a repair, and I’m hoping it’s not as expensive as last time. But whatever the cost it’s a lot cheaper than a new car, plus of course mine, ancient as it is, is irreplaceable. And then the longer she’s around, the more she justifies the carbon footprint of her manufacture.

She will eventually bite the dust, of course, and that’ll be a sad day, time to put my open-top roadster days behind me and get a grown up car again. But, like my protagonist, I seem to have conflated the notion of my own mortality with the reliability or otherwise of my car. It’s not a sensible thing to do, and certainly not rational. But threading a willing little roadster over the moors, or the high roads of the Lakes and the Dales on a fine summer’s day is worth all the frustration of ongoing maintenance, and is a dream worth preserving.

Life isn’t art, of course. It’s not an episode from a romantic story, or a movie with a soundtrack. Cars do not talk to people. Neither do the gods talk to people through their cars’ warning lights, any more than they do through other portents, or oracles, unless we choose to let them. So let’s explore the metaphor: Brakes. The brakes won’t work as well as they should. Go easy, then Mike. Not too fast. Don’t push your luck. I was planning a major expense in another area. The car is telling me not to rush into it. Warning duly noted. We’ll park that one for a bit, give it some further thought. I’ve a feeling we were going to do that anyway, but this confirms it. And we’ll also park the car, in the clutter of the garage, while she waits her turn in the workshop.

And since I’m feeling playful, I’m going to spoil Mike Garrat’s story by telling you the ending:

She’s looking a little anxious now, a little unsure of herself, as if her nerve is failing. She’s not ordered anything from the counter. Perhaps it’s just a passing visit, then. Perhaps I should ask her if she’d like something, so I might at least have the pleasure of her company over soup.

Don’t disappear, Maggs. Don’t leave it hanging like this. Let’s work something out.

“Listen,” she says, “I’ve taken that cabin in the Dales for a bit.”

“Cabin?”

You know, Mike. ‘The’ Cabin?

She clarifies: “Our Cabin.”

“Really?” Did she just say ‘our’ cabin?

“I’m going to take some time out, relax, catch up on my reading, you know?”

“Always a good idea to catch up on one’s reading, Maggs. Em,… so,… what exactly are you reading these days? Not another of those dreadful spank busters, I hope?”

She laughs, blushes.”No. Right now I’m reading the Joy of sex.”

“Really?”

“You were right, it’s rather good.”

“Précis it for me. One sentence.”

“Oh,… let me see. Taken in the right spirit, sex can be really good fun.”

“Ha! Nice one.”

“So, speaking of fun,… I thought it might be – well – fun, you know, if you joined me at the cabin, for a bit. Could you,… manage that, do you think?”

“I’m sure I can manage that, yes. “

She sighs, but only I think to cover the tremor in her voice, to steady it. “Lovely.” And then: “I,… I heard you’d built your house at last?”

“Yes. Would you like to see it?”

She nods, dives in, steals my bread roll and takes a bite of it. “Sorry. Starving. I’d like that very much, Mike.”

So, there we are,… a better place to leave it. I’ll be asking her to move in I suppose, eventually, but since we’re still pretending we’re not even in love, that might be a while off. There’s no rush, though, is there? Long game, and all that. But for now,… Cabin, Maggs, Joy of Sex,…

What more could a man ask?

Thanks for listening.

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Abbey Village

The gate to the war memorial at Abbey Village is locked. I usually visit in the week leading up to the armistice, to leave one of those little wooden crosses for my great uncle. He died in Mesopotamia in 1918, and is named on the column. He was one of the many sons of the village who did not come home.

So, what to do? Well, after a moment of indecision, I toss the little cross, as gently as I can, but still rather indecorously, through the bars, where it falls skew-whiff among the evergreens in the planter at the foot of the column. I offer a wordless apology. A token charged such as this should be placed mindfully, not tossed as a last resort, but I didn’t know what else to do. I had not wanted to walk away with it still in my pocket, for then the charge would have fizzled away to meaninglessness. I shall have to rethink arrangements for next time. I’ve been coming here for years and never encountered a locked gate before. I wonder if the village fears vandalism?

Remembrance and the red-poppy has become a political wedge issue in recent years. For myself I feel it’s simply important to keep alive the memory of one’s family’s losses in war, and that we carry that consciousness forward into the lives we lead ourselves, for if enough of us can re-imagine the grief, following those fateful telegrams home, the generation we raise might be better able to temper their reactions whenever sabres start to rattle, as they inevitably do from time to time. And they in turn might pass the same thing on.

Autumn in Roddlesworth

Abbey is a place mostly pictured for me in the monochrome and the sepia of family photographs, from the nineteen thirties to the early sixties. Time has changed it, of course. Motor cars now line the main thoroughfare, and satellite dishes bristle from the rooftops. Five minutes, though, and it is a world forgotten, while another modernity lures us in. This is a modernity of the Victorian period – the reservoir system, and the woodland plantation that surrounds it, a circuit of which will take us a couple of hours, and covers a good five miles. It was a Sunday stroll for my parents, decked out in their best threads. Now we wear storm-proofs and hiking boots, like it’s the world’s end, and the rain will melt us.

The light in November starts poor, and fades early. This afternoon we begin with the flake-white overcast that forms a backdrop to so many of L.S. Lowry’s paintings, and it takes on an increasingly blue-grey tint as sunset approaches. But the intense beauty of autumn has arrived, and the woodland around the Abbey reservoirs is a delight to walk. It is also a place of deep, mysterious shadow, but wonderfully coloured along the pathways, from the rose-gold of the fallen leaves, to the yellows of the beeches, and the pale greens still hanging on. And as the trunks and boughs emerge from their thinning foliage, they assume expressive postures, with the feel of an impressionist tableau.

Autumn in Roddlesworth

I had felt something unfriendly, even unwelcoming in that incident at the war memorial, that the modern village no longer wishes to recognise its past, of which I and my family are a part, but then I discover only smiles and hearty greetings from the few walkers I encounter on the trail. In fact, I encounter most of them twice, as we pass in opposite directions, doing the same circuit, but the other way round. There are owls calling, deep in the privacy of the woods, and I discover a working charcoal kiln, with evidence of fresh coppicing, and woodland management. The charcoal is used mostly for barbecues, but also art supplies, and the bits left over, the charcoal fines, are bagged and sold as “biochar”, a horticultural soil improver.

Charcoal burning, Roddlesworth

On the one hand, it is encouraging to see these traditional practices still being carried out, while on the other it’s disconcerting to see how much woodland is required to be fenced off from casual exploration. Not all the best photographs can be taken from the marked trails. We need some flexibility to stalk the light and the shadow, and these fences, liked locked gates, get in the way of imagination and our freedom to express ourselves.

From Abbey we descend as far as the bridge over Rocky Brook, then begin the climb towards Ryal Fold. The rambler’s café is a tempting destination, but it shuts at three today, and we’ll never make it, so we take the more direct return along the woodland ways. There are hints of a pale sun trying to break through, now, a last gasp for the day, but it never quite makes it. No matter. The woodland has an exquisite air about it this afternoon, and the autumn colours are ravishing. We return to Abbey at lighting up time. The car park of the Hare and Hounds looks busy, so we’ll pass on coffee, and begin the drive home. The woods were a sight for sore eyes today, and a balm for the soul.

Autumn in Roddlesworth

On the subject of remembrance, there is a story about a young man lost in the war, and his father holding on to the hope that there’d been a mistake, and his son would return. To this end he would go down to the local railway station every day to meet the tea-time train, thinking his son might be on it, but of course he never was. The father maintained this ritual for decades, into old age and the Beeching cuts, which saw the line closed, and the rails taken up,…

I regret I do not know the author’s name, but it was a story that touched me deeply. It could have been my great-grandfather, refusing to believe in that telegram message, that there had been a mistake, and of course his son would return, hale and hearty as he had set out. But it’s a long time since the trains ran through Abbey, and, for sure, my great uncle isn’t coming back.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells

In wild trainloads?

A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,

May creep back, silent, to still village wells

Up half-known roads.

Wilfred Owen

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The day begins with a scam text message purporting to be from the courier, Evri. It wants us to “Click here” to re-arrange delivery. I’ve not ordered anything. The sender intends emptying my bank account. I wonder how many poor souls have fallen for it, and thereby helped swell the coffers of an organised criminality the world seems unable to outwit. I wonder how they came by my number, since I am ever so careful with it. We block the sender for all the good it will do us, and, while we have the phone in our hands, we turn to the news.

In the UK, right leaning ministers of state are spurring hot-heads to violence with intemperate language. Internationally, the UN reports the last eight years were the hottest in recorded history, and that limiting global temperatures to what is calculated to be a relatively safe 1.5 degrees is now a forlorn hope with, thus far, no realistic plans in place, anywhere. In America, Trump looks set to begin a return to the presidency, following the mid-term elections, while various armed MAGA hatted militias are discussing outrages which threaten civil war. Back in the UK again, the pollster, Sir John Curtice, reports significant buyers’ remorse over BREXIT, with a 15% lead among the public for those in favour of now re-joining the EU, but the political debate has closed on that one, BREXIT being the one thing no one talks about. All this and we have only scrolled half way. What other grumblies await us down there? Shall we doom-scroll some more, and see? No, that’s quite enough.

We set the phone aside, rise into the cold of the house, make coffee and check on the washing machine.

Current affairs hold a significant fascination, dare I say even an addiction. We imagine, by keeping ourselves informed of the various goings-on, we gain a greater understanding of the world, that it is a virtuous thing to do, the mark of an intelligent, well-balanced and educated person. At least that is what I was encouraged to think at college, forty years ago. Now I’m not so sure. The media landscape has something of the nature of quicksand about it. Perhaps it always had, and I am simply less sure-footed than I was, for I suspect the older one gets, the more it seems the world is going to hell in a handcart. Things no longer conform to one’s personal expectations, and perhaps, too, one’s expectations begin to narrow, thus alienating us from life still further, whatever our disposition. And we find in media whatever data we need to support our personal hell in a hand-cart hypotheses.

There are plenty of things in life we should be wary of – alcohol and other drugs are the obvious ones, but also this connection to fast-food and short sell-by media. They each poison us, make us less useful as the eyes and ears, and the heart and soul of the universe. Our phones suck us down into a sorry world that is void of imagination, and creativity. They land us among the sterile refuse of data, where we become much less than our selves, as the spark of individual value drains from us. Then we merely subordinate our selves to a tribe who holds certain data to be sacrosanct, other data to be heretical, and thereby we become mere unreflective data-points ourselves, so we might be served more of the same unwholesome junk.

So now, the washing machine has finished its cycle. There are clothes to dry, and the maiden is still full from last week. Things dry slowly these colder, autumn days, and it serves to remind us there are only certain kinds of data that are unequivocal. Your clothes are still wet, or they are dry. Other data requires nuance. It requires a more right brained, wholistic approach in order to separate the wheat from the chaff. Anyway, after sorting that one out, we take up our coffee, pick up the phone once more, note that in the meantime there has been a glitch. The phone has rebooted itself, and come back with a curious error message in which, with brutal honesty and admirable self-flagellation, it tells me it is corrupt, and cannot be trusted.

Many a true word and all that.

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Birkacre visitor centre

Autumn is a slow burner this year. The woodland paths are thus far scattered with only a modest fall, while the canopy remains predominantly green. This was so of Roddlesworth, a few weeks ago, and is still the case with Birkacre and the horseshoe of the River Yarrow. It’s also unseasonably warm. Only the early fading of the light reminds us we’re on the eve of November, with the clocks wound back to GMT.

Which also means it’s Samhain, at least by the telling of the Gregorian calendar. I suspect, though, the ancients would have been more flexible, and gone by the moons, the dark of the moon seeming appropriate for Samhain, or the first crescent, which we passed a few days ago. The full moon on November 8th seems too late, and its bright energy inappropriate for what feels more naturally like a time of internalisation, of hibernation and contemplation.

So, today, we find ourselves at the Birkacre visitor centre. We’re looking for a short walk and some air, after a week of being confined indoors by rainy days. Autumn woodland photographs would also be nice, and to which end we are equipped with some fast glass, and an inside knowledge of the compositions, this area being where I grew up.

I prefer the traditional name Samhain, for what we now call Halloween, which seems a dowdy corruption, I mean the way it is celebrated, with its cheap plastic mummery, and the overtures of horror. I have always felt it was more a time for remembering the ancestors, for flicking through the family albums, tracing things back in time from the faded colour snaps, to the sepia of photography’s golden dawn. I used to think it was amazing that if just one of our ancestral boys had failed to meet the ancestral girl, we wouldn’t be here. Or maybe it’s inevitable we’re here anyway, and it’s just our back-story that would be different.

Drybones Dam, Birkacre

Anyway, speaking of photography, there are some long lenses out around Birkacre’s big lodge, shooting the itinerant water birds, and the resident swans. Impressive and expensive, those lenses, but they must be a devil to use hand held like that.

I read an article recently concerning a trend in America where photographers are being targeted in places such as this, our gear stolen under threat of violence. Those long lenses are worth a few months’ salary. The cops are uninterested, says the report, and the feeling is one of acceptance that certain types of crime will be carried out, nowadays, with impunity. If this is true or not, it does us no good to read such things.

Other than birders we have dog walkers, grandparents with toddlers, buggy pushers, and lovers from eighteen to eighty, but we leave them behind once we’re upstream, past the dam on the Yarrow, where we head into the damp silence of Drybones wood. The paths are softening now under persistent rains, and the mud is clinging to our boots. From the capped shaft of the old Drybones colliery, behind its rusting steel bars, we seek the path to Lowe’s Tenement. The markers are missing, and the path looks little used these days.

Footpath marker attrition

It’s odd how those green footpath markers are so fragile. No sooner does the council tack them up to guide our way across the sometimes obscure public network, they crack and fall off into the mud. Stout finger-posts, too, seem to snap and fall into the hedgerows at the slightest puff of wind. Conversely, the “no trespassing”, the “no footpath” and the “private” signs are indestructible, unmissable and a vulgar blot on the landscape. It’s so important our paths are walked, and every obstruction challenged. The land may not be ours on paper, but the right of passage is, and these paths connect us with so much more than merely fresh air, and a convenient place to empty the dog.

Footpath marker attrition

Thus wears the month along, in checker’d moods,
Sunshine and shadows, tempests loud, and calms;
One hour dies silent o’er the sleepy woods,
The next wakes loud with unexpected storms;

John Clare – November

We follow Burgh Lane now, to the edge of Chorley’s suburban sprawl, then cut down the meadow path to the former Duxbury estate, to the tree that fell into the Yarrow, and made no sound. This was a familiar tree from childhood, which came down in the winter storms of 2019. Losing it was like losing an old friend. The novel I thought it had inspired is turning out to be something else, and deeply puzzling. We plod away at it.

The tree that fell alone, and made no sound

I find woodland photography challenging. The eye, the mind, they prefer a story in shape and colour, and to that end they extract patterns from the chaos of the woodland. But a photograph reinstates at once the visual noise, and the organic riot of arboreal forms. We see photographs everywhere, but finding compositions that will not dissolve on contact with reality is the challenge, and adds another dimension of enjoyment to a woodland walk.

In Drybones Wood

From the tree that fell, we now take the ancient way through Coppull Hall Wood, towards Coppull, following the horseshoe of the Yarrow. The river is eroding the path here, so when it is high the water renders the way impassable. Today we’re okay.

The strangely subdued colours have me wondering, as with the lack of heather on the moors, is this another harbinger of crisis? I read the new PM has shunned attendance at this year’s climate conference, and speaks instead of “difficult decisions”, this being an all too familiar euphemism for stripping out the state institutions that support life. It’s a wonder anything is left, this having been inflicted, without remission, for over a decade, and upon a populace which seems, by now, stunned into submission by the perma-crises of Brexit, Covid, weird weather, worries over energy bills, and war. We don’t expect things to get any better, indeed we seem conditioned into accepting they must always get worse.

In Drybones Wood

The horseshoe of the Yarrow brings us back to Drybones wood, and some of the best compositions of the walk. It seems to be a question of framing, of watching the curve and tilt of trees – that they direct the eye into a scene, rather than away. Colour helps to balance a composition – autumn gold, or spring wildflowers against the greens and grey. A wide aperture blurs and simplifies unwanted background visual noise, and helps with shutter speed.

Just here, early OS maps show the river much wider, with an island mid-stream. Now the island is bypassed and accessible, and the beech trees upon it form pleasing frames and root patterns, with modest leaf-falls cradled among them. There are squirrels. The sun makes an effort, and the Yarrow ripples tunefully.

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

W H Davies – Leisure

Then we’re back at Birkacre, and the schools are spilling out. Kids in Southlands uniforms sit among the apparatus and the sandpits of the play area they probably knew as infants in more innocent times. They have stopped off on their walk home from school, as I used to do, a hundred years ago. There was no play-area then, of course, and you could still buy used cigarette-scented televisions from the repair-centre, which operated in the remains of the mill. All gone now to make way for car-parking, and amenity.

I’d better pick up a bag of sweets on the way, in case we’re visited by ghosts and ghoulies this evening. A short walk, if you’re passing and have an hour to spare. Just two and three quarter miles.

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