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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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The abbot gathered the order in the meditation hall, brothers Angus and Benjamin among them, and bade them sit. Then he spoke of hard times ahead. This was nothing new, thought Angus. There had been nothing but hard times for decades, that indeed the hard times were the main reason he had turned to the monastery, for peace of mind, in the first place. But even now, after many years, he was finding peace of mind still hard to come by.

Then the abbot spoke of the recently deposed king. He reminded the monks of how the king’s misconduct, over many years, had been the cause of his eventual removal by exasperated ministers, and how the king, following his disgrace, had been cast into exile. In his place, there had been appointed a princess, a choice many had thought ill-advised, on account of her having kept company with forces believed to be allied with the barons.

Now, the barons had long ago accomplished the impoverishment and defenestration of the serfs, Angus among them, and had begun to turn their attention towards the merchants. But the barons had acted in ignorance of the full power of the merchants, who had caused a revolt, which had threatened to bankrupt the entire kingdom. In renewed desperation, and with great effort, the ministers had persuaded the princess to surrender the crown, so the merchants might be placated.

Although cloistered, Angus was only too well aware of the turbulence beyond the monastery walls. Indeed, he was ever hungry for rumours, which he picked up from the lay-brothers, who had greater contact with the outside world. What puzzled Angus now, though, was what any of this had to do with them, since the monasteries had no power, and no influence over events.

The abbot went on: so great had the chaos been in the halls of the palace, the ministers had looked about in vain for someone else among the royal line who might now take up the crown. But then some ministers had begun to look back fondly upon the days of misrule by the king, for even though his behaviour had been disgraceful, and dragged the name of the kingdom into disrepute, reducing it even to a laughing-stock among its neighbours, he had been careful never to upset the merchants. And sensing now the ambivalence of the ministers, the king, had begun petitioning for the restoration of his crown, which he saw as his by right.

Thus, the kingdom was suddenly agog with rumour that the old rogue might actually return. Now, this was news to Angus, and he sat forward, listening ever more intently. Could it be true? What would the abbot have to say about it? Opinion in the land was polarised between those aghast, and those who were delighted, for it was said the king possessed a powerful charm, gifted to him by the Goddess of Misrule, and to which only the most settled, and clear of mind were immune.

Of course, some ministers looked less forgivingly upon those days of misrule, and were inclined to dismiss the king’s ambitions as beyond the pale. But already the criers, and jesters, who had themselves called for the removal of the king only months before, and had sung in praise of the princess’s accession, were even now preparing the way for the king’s return with sweet songs, sung in the town squares, throughout the kingdom. And even among the defenestrated serfs, there were murmurs of assent.

Being themselves of the most settled and clear of mind, the monks listened to all of this news, impassively, for theirs was not the world of the town squares, or the serfs, or the merchants, or the barons, or the ministers. As for the criers, and the jesters, their duplicitous songs were transparent to anyone who was not tone-deaf. As for what the monks’ response should be to all of this, the abbot smiled mysteriously, and suggested they would do well to meditate upon it.

But this failed to quell the anxiety in Angus’ breast, and he turned briefly to Benjamin, a more experienced monk, for reassurance, only to see him tip back his head and let out a silent laugh, before nodding in approval at the abbot’s wisdom. With that, the monks were dismissed, and it was later, in the courtyard, Benjamin said to Angus: “Well, brother, you’ve got to hand it to the Abbot. He’s one crafty old devil, and a genius of a teacher.”

“But I didn’t get it,” said Angus. “What would the abbot have us do about the return of the king? Take to Twitter, or something?”

Benjamin shook his head, picked up a stone, and handed it to Angus, then instructed him to go down to the pond by the farm, at sunset, to toss the stone into the water, that by doing so he would have his answer.

So Angus did as Benjamin suggested. He went down to the pond at sunset. It was a beautiful evening, the pond was a perfect mirror for the sky, and a balm for the soul. Angus tossed the stone in and watched as the ripples broke the surface. Then the ripples were reflected, intersecting each other, until the entire pond was made up of separate shards of light all pointing in different directions, and the clarity of the reflection of the sky was lost.

He slept better that night than he had for a long time, and promised himself in future he would distance himself from the lay-bothers, whose endless gossiping kept him awake at night, wrestling with matters he had no power to influence, yet which prevented him from attaining the clarity of his own mind, and thereby the authentic nature of his being.

(Photo by Sanjay Indiresh on Pexels.com)

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Ogden Clough, Pendle

The lady on the car park at Downham is anxious she can find nowhere to pay. I reassure her it’s free, no honesty box or anything. She’s not sure if she can believe me, searches high and low again. I’ve stopped here only briefly to wipe the wax spots off the windscreen, before heading up over the moor to Barley. I washed the car last night, but didn’t make a proper job of it, and we’ll have the sun in our eyes, scattering over the glass, hence the quick pit-stop to restore clarity. Downham begs us to stay, and it’s tempting, but we walked from here last time, so today it’s Barley’s turn. We set off into the sun, leaving the lady still looking for somewhere to pay.

I suppose it’s a sign of the times, that we don’t expect anything to be free, especially not somewhere so beautiful as the village of Downham. Indeed, we expect prices to be soaring ahead of our ability, or perhaps our willingness, to keep up with them. Unlike at Downham, you must pay on the car park at Barley. This used to be an honesty box, but we arrive to find a new fangled machine has already read our number plate, and we must pay on exit. Still, £3:00 all day is not unreasonable. I wonder how long this machine will last before it breaks down, and what does one do then? As if anticipating the question, a notice tells us we must, in that eventuality, pay online. But the world is leaving behind those who are not web-savvy, I counter. The machine, being a machine, has no answer to that.

It’s a beautiful day in early autumn, and there is a rich light lending deep contrasts to the old stone of the village houses. Above the chimney pots, rises the great whale-back of Pendle Hill, aglow in morning sunshine. Of the various ways to Pendle’s summit, the direct route up the Big End, from Barley, is the quickest, but also, I find, the most brutal, and the least interesting. I prefer the approach via the reservoirs, then into the Ogden valley, and Boar Clough, which is the plan for today.

Repurposed Waterworks Buildings

First we pass the old Nelson waterworks, re-purposed as apartments. As we go we fiddle with the camera, and ponder once again this morning’s Wordle, which has me stumped: it’s the usual five-letter word, last three letters I.S.T. first letter E. But the venerable New York Times must have made a mistake, for such a word simply does not EXIST, right?

The reservoirs are low, but as we enter the clough head, we find the moor and the brooks are running healthily after recent rains. There is something awesomely bleak about the Ogden Clough as it cuts its way deep into Pendle’s flank. There is a route that follows its length, curving round eventually to meet the summit, but we shall save that one for another time. Today, our route climbs out of the valley, up Boar Clough, and across Barley Moor.

Clough Head from Boar Clough

It strikes me I have been wandering various Lancashire moors since August, and have either blinked and missed the season entirely, or the heather has not bloomed this year. Drought, heat, … changes in land management? I don’t know. I had thought Barley moor, would be a blazing sea of purple today, but it’s just your usual shades of straw and khaki, and brown. The flower heads are pale and dry, looking like last year’s blooms, and the ferny tips are blackening.

Trig Point, Pendle Hill

Is this another sign of the times, perhaps? Speaking of which, I read a couple of youngsters, protesting climate change, have thrown a tin of soup over Van Gough’s “Sunflowers”, at the National Gallery. Their argument runs: what good is art if the planet dies, and us with it? So, wake up! There is, I admit, a brutal logic to this. Which is finer: a moorland ablaze with heather, or a Van Gough? But I find I am nervous at the thought of sharing a world – should we be able to save it – with angry people who would sacrifice beloved works of art.

View from Pendle Hill, towards Barley

The view from Pendle is dramatic. The land falls away sharply, runs off in all directions, and lends a tremendous airy feeling, above a patchwork of green. Bowland, Yorkshire, East Lancashire,… and in the valleys nestle the old industrial towns, Burnley, Nelson, Colne, faded to the edge of perception by a faint Autumn haze. As we sit, a Kestrel entertains, but refuses a photograph. Such a beautiful day, I’m reluctant to come down, but down we must come, and via the knee-breaking direct route, up which pilgrims are now plodding the other way, and looking the worst for it.

“Are we nearly there,” they ask?

How does one define “nearly” Five minutes? Ten Minutes?

“Yes, nearly there, and well worth it.” We try to sound encouraging. Many who would not think to climb another hill will have a go at Pendle, and for many, Pendle was their first taste of the hills and a lifetime of enjoyment.

The downhill is as challenging as the up on this route, such a long, steep, descent it has the calves all a-tremble, long before we reach the bottom. Paragliders soar on the thermals. I do hope the Van Gough is all right. They say it was covered with glass. I wonder if the soup throwers knew that, and had it not been, would they have done it anyway?

We know we are nearing civilisation when we are once more assailed by notices claiming “private land” and “beware of the dog” and “no footpath”. Fortunately, the tide of adventure up Pendle is not deterred by such land lubberly sourness.

Autumn on Pendle Hill

Down on the car park, there is a queue of elderly ladies at the ticket machine, working out how to pay. This is not encouraging. When it’d my turn, though, it is relatively straightforward. I press on my registration number, which the machine has captured, and I pay the £3.00 gladly for a day well spent. And off we would go, but there is now an almighty and seemingly intractable snarl-up in the narrow streets of Barley, designed for horse and cart, and is caused by overlarge, luxury SUV’s, which, it is a well known fact, are not equipped with a reverse gear.

So, we settle to wait, and while we wait,.. a five-letter word, beginning with E, ending with I.S.T. No, I’m sorry, such a word simply does not EXIST.

Oh,.. Wait a sec. Got it, now. Very funny.

Thanks for listening

Graeme out.

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In Roddlesworth Woods

It’s not the first time I’ve arrived at the start of a walk to find I’ve left my boots behind. But it’s okay, we’re not climbing mountains. It’ll just be some soft, dew-damp meadows, and gravel tracks, so the cheap hiking-trainers we’re wearing will probably be okay.

We’re at Ryal Fold again, in the Western Pennines, and the plan is to explore some paths we’ve not walked before, so we can add them to that mental map of permitted ways. We’ll be wandering through extensive woodland, towards Abbey Village, returning along the reservoirs and Rocky Brook, and maybe to finish we’ll come back over the moor by Lyons Den, to check on the heather.

We’re looking for signs of autumn’s advance, now, looking to enjoy some woodland photography, but as ever, it’s about enjoying the outdoors. The scent of an autumn woodland, all mushroomy and damp, early leaves composting where they lie, all of that is a delight to be savoured. The walkers’ café at Ryal Fold is busy, lots of people sitting out with coffee, enjoying these intermittent days of warm sun, and there’s a party of ramblers setting out for Darwen Tower, all noisy with well-met chatter.

Of current affairs, our new Chancellor has gone and there are rumours the PM is to be ousted too, in the coming weeks, only having been in the job five minutes. Much of the mortal thrust of last week’s “fiscal-event” is to be reversed, but the crash it precipitated is still reverberating. Retirement nest eggs are now ten percent down, and pensions are once again under a cloud as the Bank of England winds in its support of the long term bond market. And no, I don’t understand any of this either. I would subscribe to the Macbethian world view of current events, that it is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing“, but that requires a philosophical leap when life-savings are going down the plug hole, and they’re putting security tags on tubs of butter.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

I don’t know Shakespeare at all, other than the fact we can always find bits of him to suit whatever the occasion:

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.

The man definitely had a way with words. So anyway,… before we’re “heard no more”, off we go, and plunge into the woodland. It’s still mostly green, just a thin carpeting of gold from the first fall of leaves. There’s sunlight pooling in the clearings, illuminating the canopy, spilling along the still lush sprays of beech, to be caught at last in outstretched fingers of ferny fronds, now sinking into a softening earth. There is Birdsong, but otherwise an absolute stillness, shoes and trouser cuffs already wet from their licking, as we crossed the meadows. There’s a plane of water glittering, glimpsed now and then through dense woodland as we walk. And, yes, that autumn scent.

In Roddlesworth Woods

“Have you taken any nice photos?”

It’s a large man, well padded in fleece and parka, his beanie set at a jaunty angle. He has a muddy little dog with him that looks to be having fun. I judge both to be friendly. Cameras were once a more common accompaniment. Mine now marks me as a die-hard geek. Most people are happy to make do with their phones.

“Not yet,” I tell him. “I’ll probably get some as I go up by Rocky Brook.”

“Oh aye.”

He doesn’t know Rocky Brook. I can see it in his eyes. His accent is local, but he wasn’t brought up around here. The familiar names of places no longer stick as they once did.

And no, so far I’ve been making all the same mistakes, so there are no “good” pictures in the can. I have a slow lens in a shady woodland, which means shutter speeds are dropping to 1/8th of a second, which even image stabilisation struggles with. So, it’s all motion blur, poor focus, and the usual mystery of how the eye filters out the messy confusion of a scene, which the camera subsequently reveals.

The Roddlesworth reservoirs are pretty much full, these being the first in the long chain of water-gathering that forms a semicircle around the Western Pennines. On the highest, there are rowing boats at rest, these being for use by the Horwich angling club, but which today form convenient perches for cormorants who are also fishing, and not known for returning their catch.

Fishing cormorant

And speaking of tales told by an idiot, I’m beginning to suspect the current fiction-in-progress is moribund, and I am in danger of losing touch with it. There are two types of writer. One roughs out a structure of the entire storyline, knows where he’s going before he starts, then sticks to that plan and writes to suit it. The other type, like me, doesn’t. We open with a scene, a feeling, and a handful of characters, then see how it goes. Sometimes it goes well. But sometimes you hit a hundred thousand words and things dry up, and you’ve no idea what you’re trying to say any more. Your characters get distracted by current events, so your story starts weaving about and losing momentum.

My story started off in a quiet woodland like this, with the discovery of a fallen beech tree and the age-old philosophical question: if a tree falls alone in the forest, does it make a sound? The way you answer that question puts you into one of two camps. Most people will answer yes, of course it makes a sound. How can it not? But if you think about it more deeply, you realise it doesn’t, and that’s a rabbit hole from which there is no escape.

There are several trees here in Roddlesworth that look to have come down in last winter’s storms, perhaps over-night, or otherwise, when no one was around to see them fall. And there are older trees that fell long ago, now with mushrooms growing out of them. None made a sound as they fell, which is to say we create the world of experience entirely through the senses, but that’s not how the world is in itself. How it is in itself, we don’t know. This is not woolly minded new-age thinking. You simply meditate upon the tree that falls alone, and you follow the question to wherever it leads.

My fictional protagonist is exploring the meaning of such a world-view, while trying to ignore the sound and fury of the world, and he’s trying to work out where true significance in life lies. But I think it’s led me on a bit too far, and it’s opened another door, one that requires a new story, and cannot merely be tacked on to the old. And I’m not sure I can be bothered finishing the old one, either, since it seems to have served its purpose. Or worse, I’m tempted to close it in a hurry, like: they all woke up, and it had been a dream, sort of thing. Best to let it settle, let the characters decide if they’re done or not. But it’s been all summer, and it looks like they are indeed done. I don’t know, if you write, is it best just to let a project go when it no longer resonates, even when you’re within a shout of the dénouement?

Anyway, it turns out cheap walking-trainers aren’t the best of things for walking in. After a couple of miles, you start to feel every pebble. Stand on a coin, and you can tell if it’s heads or tails. We slow the pace and linger for some shots by Rocky Brook, but here the dynamic range is more than we can capture, even bracketing the exposures. There’s a bright sparkle of sun from the little falls, and then deep shadow. The Nikon I’m using will bracket three shots automatically, but I need more, and for that I’d need to fiddle about with a tripod, and I can never be bothered carrying one. Higher up the brook we find a more shady dell and another little fall, one that that’s rarely visited, yet it’s one of the most attractive. Here the dynamic range is more within our means.

By Rocky Brook, Roddlesworth

We settle into the dell for soup. The falls too make no sound, when there is no one around to listen. Imagine that! All the beauty in the world, the sound, the scent, the vision, we do not experience it without the mind first creating it.

We pop out onto the road by the Slipper Lowe car-park. The car-park is empty, closed off, now. From here the moor rises, bright in the sun, pale as straw. We’re perhaps too early for the heather, but I had thought we’d be seeing some by now. We make a start on the climb, but the feet are burning through these thin soles, so we cut it short, contour round on another unfamiliar but beautiful path, towards New Barn, then back to the car at Ryal Fold. A splendid day, early autumn, five and a half miles round. Note to self: next time, don’t forget your boots!

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Bolton Town Hall

It was going up for nine on a bitter winter’s night, with snow on the car-park and a frost already settling. I’d been in college since eight thirty that morning, the last lecture commencing around seven, by which time not a lot was going in. You just had to keep up with your notes, and hope it made sense when you read them back in the week.

When I got to the car, the door was ajar. I wondered if I’d not shut it properly, a careless thing to have done, this being Bolton, rumoured by then to be the car crime capital of the UK. I couldn’t get the key in the ignition because there was already a bit of a key in there. Someone had broken in and tried to take the car – Ford Cortinas were notoriously easy – but the good luck fairy had seen to it the key had snapped. The thief made do with a pair of cheap driving gloves from the dash, then legged it. I was also lucky in having a toolbox – lucky again that wasn’t nicked as well – but anyway I had a pair of snout-nosed pliers in there and managed to winkle the key out. Then I drove home along snowy roads. Had my car been nicked, that would really have spoiled my day.

It sums up my acquaintanceship with Bolton. It was a place of hard work, and not always worth it, though the place also possessed a rough protective charm, one that allowed me to pass unscathed through the worst it had to offer. So, in spite of its occasionally firm hand, I still have an affection for the place.

I did two years as a day release student at the Institute of Technology. The company was paying, so it made sense to see if I could hack it. The course had a low pass rate, even among star students, and anyone with any sense did a degree instead. But degrees were full time, and you had to catch that boat earlier on in life, via the sixth forms, not as a guy already working, post apprenticeship. Your course in life was set by then, and you were lucky if you had an employer who’d let you out for study a day a week. Nowadays, there’s no chance. They want blood from the get-go.

Those were the Thatcher years, too, of course, and the slow death of the social contract. But the svengalis had sweetened it all with a veneer of easy credit that had everyone thinking they were rich, when they weren’t. Also, unknown to me as I studied to be a what I suppose you’d call an industrialist, the tide had turned, and the UK had begun shedding its industries. My timing, as always, was a bit off.

So the big manufactories were calling in the likes of Price Watermouse, who had these flip charts that showed us how you got higher returns investing your money in the City than you did from investing in manufactories, so the manufactories dwindled to piles of old brick, while the money went south to the Citadel. There, it got invested in things with no shape to them, things you couldn’t hold, or wear or eat, and which appeared only as a jiggly line on a computer graph.

If you never left London, you might be forgiven for thinking everything was fine, because the shine didn’t come off that place until it was revealed how much of its wealth had come not just from our defunct industries, but those of the recently plundered Soviet Union as well. But we didn’t know about any of that. The north just felt hollow from the early nineties onwards, and it grew increasingly obvious nothing great would ever come out of our industries again. Anything that did would be bought up by foreign money and shipped out. For those of us still working, much of the work was about managing decline amid dwindling budgets.

Anyway, driving through Bolton this morning, I have the sense of entering a parallel universe. I used to know the town well, but as I drive past the college, I don’t recognise anything. The car park where I nearly lost my car that night looks like it’s home to a huge modern building, part of the smart, new University campus, and there are students everywhere. Meanwhile, the rest of town looks like every other in the north: wrecked, and no reason for people to go there any more. The Civic buildings look as grand as ever, but radiating out from them is an earthquake of ruin, as far as the eye can see. And the impressively ingenious security for getting into the Octagon carpark, also suggests there’s still a problem with car-thievery.

I’m here for a wedding, and pleasant though that is in these unremittingly downbeat times, I cannot help but wonder at the direction of travel since I last walked these streets. In 1985, if you had an engineering degree, you were a rare individual, and respected for it. You rose with some justification above the rest, and got yourself fast tracked into the officer class, but there was still plenty of work, and good work, if you’d not got a degree in you, indeed even if you’d little in you by way of IQ at all. All you needed was confidence and drive. God knows what you’re supposed to do now.

The credit boom ignited by Thatcher and Reagan crashed to earth in 2008, and no one saw it coming. We’ve been limping along ever since, the industrial towns sinking into the crazed tarmac and buckled pavements, at an ever faster rate, while paradoxically, a new form of debt raises these glossy degree factories from the old polytechnics. This is an astonishing funding wheeze our kids will be paying off for the rest of their lives. So now the vast student populations flood these new university towns where the spivs snap up all the cheaper housing stock for rent, thus squeezing out the ordinary people, so the primary schools dwindle for want of children and the soul of the town dies.

There’s a new documentary by Adam Curtis – seemingly the last of the renegade BBC voices – that seems curiously prescient. It takes us not to Bolton, but to Moscow. The wealth of Russia was stolen from under Yeltzin’s nose by a form of hyper-capitalism, one that went off like a vacuum bomb, leaving the ordinary citizen with nothing. It meant a small number of rich people could hold preposterously luxurious parties, leaving the rest to scramble around for the basics. The extent of the crisis is neatly summed up in one memorable line in which bewildered shoppers were told: there are no potatoes in Moscow.

When I look at the shock tactics of our own governing class in recent weeks, I refuse to believe it is the result of a crass incompetence. Indeed, I feel a similar devil is at work, and sense one day soon the possibility we will go to Tesco’s to find they have no potatoes either. And, as inevitable as all that will have seemed – at least in retrospect – no one will have seen it coming.

But in a parallel world, my car did indeed get nicked that night. I remember I was a heartbeat from quitting the job anyway, because I’d a hankering after being a writer, and poet instead, and I was having a hard time suppressing that side of me for fear of a lonely life and starving to death. But I also had a novel doing the rounds of the London publishers, and I’d nearly enough money saved to buy a house outright, up in the West of Scotland, where they were dirt cheap, at least back then, before anyone had thought of Air B+B. I was thinking about taking a chance the book would come good, that I’d somehow scrape by on luck, even though I’d heard nothing from the publishers in six months. Then a Bolton car thief kicked me in the nuts, and made up my mind for me, set me on the train for Glasgow and the Fort.

I most likely starved to death some time in the later nineties, living out in the wilds of Ardnamurchan. By then, I had a reputation for being a recluse, and just one more eccentric Sassenach who’d found himself unsuited to the rat race. I never married, never had kids, and my life’s worth amounted to a pile of poems that never sold, and a collection of grainy black and white photographs of lonely loch and mountain. There would still come a time when there were no potatoes in Tescos, but that wasn’t something I’d live to see and be writing poems about.

Or maybe it wasn’t like that at all. Maybe the miners gave the cops a bloody nose at Orgreave that day in ’84, and Maggie called the army in, so then we all had to pick our sides instead of just watching it on the telly. And the poets, and the Romantics of the soft left won over hearts and minds to the social contract, which was patched up and made fit for the twenty-first century. Now no one’s scared to switch on the lights, and there are always plenty of potatoes. It’s something to ponder anyway.

Thanks for listening.

Header photo adapted from an image by Stephen McKay, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9044236

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From Peewit Hall, Anglezarke Moor

Exploring meaning, purpose, and our freedom to choose.

After a couple of cold, squally days, the weather clears, and we venture outdoors. There is no plan so, as is usual under such circumstances, the car delivers us seemingly of its own accord to Anglezarke’s Yarrow Reservoir, where we find ourselves parking along the Parson’s Bullough road. The trees here are showing their first signs of turning, and the waters of the Yarrow are a cobalt blue, sunbeams sparkling between crisping foliage. There is speculation this year’s drought will gift us, by way of apology and compensation, some spectacular autumn colours. I’m looking forward to it.

It’s been an eventful week. My nest-egg investments dropped five percent overnight. Meanwhile, company pension schemes find themselves a heartbeat from implosion, as the long term bond market collapses. All this following last Fridays’ inoffensively titled “Fiscal Event”. It’s had me considering what kind of employment I would be fit for now, after enjoying barely two years of retirement. Will I have to go grovelling back, after quitting the day job in such a fit of giddy joy?

By the Yarrow on the Parson’s Bullough Road

Paul Donovan, chief economist of UBS Global Wealth Management, likens present UK governance as resembling a Doomsday Cult. I find it hard to disagree. The PM and Chancellor meanwhile hold to the line that it’s all part of a cunning plan, one no one else has thought to try. We can only hope they are right.

Anyway, I’m glad I took the plunge and finally bought those new walking boots I’ve been banging on about, and a fresh walking jacket as well – just for the hell of it – as I might not have felt like it later on when I was browsing the job adverts. Today, though, we leave the new boots behind, having decided to walk our old ones to destruction. But we pack the jacket, because it’s half the weight of my other, and weight is everything to the walker approaching his autumn years.

We have a mostly clear sky, but with some isolated, dramatic clouds, and a bank of something more solidly changeable, coming up from the south. The latter needs keeping an eye on, but we should be fine for a couple of hours.

We take the path, still in warm sunshine, towards Jepsons, and across Twitch Hills Clough. The levelled ruin of Peewit Hall is always the first stop. The view from here is too good to rush, not only the whole of west Lancashire laid out from hill to sea, but the broader arc from Wales to Cumbria. After feasting on it through binoculars, we plod on, still with no objective in mind, meeting a few other walkers, mostly old timers, who all seem buoyed by the day, and cheerful in their greetings. Such pleasantness is infectious. The legs carry us up Lead Mine’s Clough, past the falls, and the site of James Yates’ Well. We seem to be heading for the moor, then, more specifically the Round Loaf, a remote Bronze Age burial mound.

The Round Loaf, Anglezarke Moor

The moor is heavy underfoot, splashing wet, and bog-shaky in the usual places. The heather is in abundance, but of a washed-out mauve, like last year’s colours left too long in the rain. I’d thought it was done for after the drought, but there are isolated patches showing the more vivid purple, so perhaps another few weeks will see the moors carpeted in glory as usual. We’ll be back to check. Expect a moorland scene with heather, all in unashamedly overcooked HDR, enough to make your eyes ache!

Sometimes there’s a cairn on the Round Loaf, sometimes not, and if there is, it varies in size from one visit to the next. The biggest I ever saw it, it was topped off by a sheep’s skull, and a sobering reminder that some neo-pagans embrace the diabolical. No skull today, though, but there are the usual dizzying views of moor and plain, and a choice of paths radiating at all points of the compass: Black Brook, Great Hill, Black Hill, Devil’s Ditch, Lead Mine’s Clough, Hurst Hill; take your pick,….

We choose Hurst Hill on a whim, just 1038 ft, but high enough to be several degrees cooler than when we started out. It’s a cold day up here, then, all the more noticeable after such a perpetually hot summer. Then the banked cloud swallows the sun, and the nature of the day changes. It’s another splashy path, but the boots are holding out, and the socks are still miraculously dry. There’s a more substantial cairn on top of Hurst Hill, and a persistently chill wind. A zippered fleece is of a sudden insufficient, so we delve in the bag for the new jacket. It cuts the wind in its tracks, allows us to settle, oblivious to the elements, and enjoy our soup.

On Hurst Hill

Serious though they are, I’m sure I’m over-thinking Albion’s woes when I imagine even my pension cheques drying up, and investments tanking, like they did in 1929. Still, an interest rate hike would see both my kids at risk of losing their newly acquired footing on the housing market, just so millionaires can pay less tax, and that would vex me enormously. But for the sake of argument, how does a man face his future when the future he imagined no longer exists?

It’s no coincidence I’m reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s search for meaning” at the moment. His thesis is that a sense of meaning and purpose is essential to our well-being. This runs counter to prevailing existentialist, post-modern teachings which tell us there is no meaning, that we suffer, and we do so pointlessly. But once we subscribe to such a view we lose sight of the future, relinquish all sense of meaning, become dehumanised, suffer all the more and without respite. This is the malaise of the western world, and it’s killing us.

Frankl’s views were formed during his time in the Nazi concentration camps. In such hellish places, a man was stripped of everything, until all he had left to lose was his fragile hold on life. Frankl’s observations of his fellow captives, condemned to being literally worked to death, led him to conclude those who retained a sense of personal meaning, in spite of everything, tended to survive longer, even though they might have appeared physically less able than their friends.

Meaning may well be denied both its existence and its validity in the life of a modern man, but the experience of such extremes of suffering teaches us it remains essential for well-being, even survival. It has often struck me how many of my former colleagues were so deeply invested in the working life, they cultivated no hobbies, no interests beyond the office, then fared poorly in retirement. No longer the “big man” but just another grey old fart, pushing a trolley around Tescos, they longed to be taken back.

Do we define ourselves, our purpose, by our means of earning a living? By the badge we wear? It’s possible, even productive to do so, for a time, but there also comes a time when there has to be a transition to something new. Purpose and meaning must evolve as our circumstances change. This is easier for creative types, for they shall always have their art, unless they become too invested in the idea of making a success of it, in which case, they’re sunk.

The problem facing many of us in these strange times, times in which a permanent sense of crisis seems to hold sway, is the inability to live for the future, or even to aim at a specific goal, since the future is rendered opaque. Frankl called this living a provisional existence, a loss of faith in one’s future. To live well, one must live with some sense of purpose, be it big or small, and to transition as needs must from one to the next like stepping stones to lead us on through life. But the sense of purpose, of meaning is not a thing bestowed upon us, more it is a thing we are invited to cultivate internally, in order to animate and enliven our world.

Manor House Farm, Anglezarke

For now my purpose is to find my way off this hill, follow the line of the old lead mines, touch base with a few familiar points along the way, and then, over the coming evenings, weave the whole of it, the financial crisis, Victor Frankl’s book, and this walk over Anglezarke moor, into a coherent narrative – hopefully without the stretch marks showing too much. The way leads us past the Manor House farm, where chestnuts litter the wayside. We pick one up, savour the smooth oiled sheen of it, and pocket it for good luck. Always something magical, I think, about freshly fallen chestnuts.

By Jepsons Farm, Anglezarke

One of my familiar waypoints is the stone that overlooks Jepson’s farm. I have this idea that many megalithic features were hidden in the construction of the dry stone walls, some of these latter dating from medieval times. The walls are tumbling now, and the calling cards from an earlier age are revealing themselves. Sometimes, if you have a sharp eye, you can spot them, still buried in the walls. They bear the marks of millennia of weathering, rather than mere centuries. I may be wrong in this, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t intend making a theory of it in order to convince others. It’s the interest alone, the observation, the connection, the speculation that, in this moment, is purpose in itself.

A stone in the wall, near Jepson’s Farm, Anglezarke

Another thing Frankl wrote that deeply impressed me was to the effect that a man could be deprived of every freedom, and every thing in his life, including his loved ones, and even his name. Yet he would still retain the choice of what attitude to bring to the shouldering of his burden. I hesitate to paraphrase such a powerful idea, born as it was in such a terrible darkness of suffering, but it reminds us we are all free to choose at least our inner path, no matter the nature of the constraints imposed upon us by the external world.

It’s late afternoon when we come back to the Yarrow, and the car. We’re still hours before sunset, but already seem to be losing the light. By the time we make it home, it’s raining.

Thanks for listening

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Rivington Hall

We’re in Rivington today, just parking along the Hall Avenue for the start of a walk up the Pike. The red brick of the old hall is illumined by a spot of sunlight pouring from an otherwise cloudy sky, and is looking very grand, framed by the dark of the trees. We’ll be walking a route I’ve not done for ages, up a ravine known locally as Tiger’s Clough. So far as I know there were never any tigers in it, save perhaps the sabre-toothed variety, in prehistoric times. The name actually refers to an illicit drinking den called The Tiger, tucked away, once upon a time, in its shady environs, all trace of which has now vanished. The early maps have it more properly as Shaw’s Clough. There’s a decent waterfall there, and there’s been a bit of rain, so we’ve a chance it will be running, and worth a photograph.

First though, we head down the avenue towards the glitter of more sunbeams on the Rivington reservoir. This takes us past the Great House Barn, which has been a café for as long as I can remember. It was an unfussy rendezvous for walkers, and motorcyclists, but something has happened. It’s gone posh, with table service and waiting persons in long aprons.

Great House Barn, Rivington

Friday lunchtimes would see me knocking off work, and heading over to the barn for a bite, then a walk, but post retirement, post covid, post a lot of things, I have yet to reacquaint myself with the menu. For today, lunch is in the rucksack, and the end-of-walk brew is waiting in the flask, back in the little blue car. Not all passers-by are tight-wads like me, though, and the barn seems to be doing a brisk trade.

The “Go Ape” Ape, Rivington

By contrast, I note the adjacent Go Ape place is lacking custom this morning. Some years ago they took over the woodland, bordering the reservoir, set up aerial walkways, and zip-wires among the trees, so hard-hatted and harnessed folk could whoop and scream their way from branch to branch. It’s not a place I tend to walk any more. Indeed, I don’t come down this way much at all now. It’s just that this is where we pick up the path to Liverpool Castle, our first objective on the circuit.

The castle was commissioned by Viscount Leverhulme in 1912, intended as a kind of romantic folly, on the shores of the reservoir and was modelled on the more ancient and long vanished Liverpool Castle at – well – Liverpool. It’s now a holding pen for litter, and a canvas for graffiti. Graffiti puzzles me. I’ve heard it explained as an expression of rebellion, but I only feel despair when I see it. I wonder if there is a link between graffiti, and tattoos, and if so what is the tattooed person rebelling against? But I know I’m over-thinking things, now. The castle still takes a good picture, and the worst of the urban artistry can be cloned out.

A replica of Liverpool Castle, Rivington

Now we’re heading down the tree lined avenue towards the car-park, near the high school. A former colleague of mine was once parked here, many years ago now, enjoying a packed lunch, when a half suited gentleman emerged from the small public convenience, and walked across to his vehicle. I say half-suited because he was carrying his trousers, neatly folded, over his arm, and was bare from the middle down, his modesty spared only by his shirt tails. My colleague, a lady of mature years, was upset, and telephoned the police, to be advised the car-park was a well known public sex area, so the cops generally turned a blind eye, though it was certainly news to us. I’ve no idea if this is still the case – things move on, I guess – but neither she nor I ever parked there again. It puzzles me how one is supposed to know these things, if one is not already in the know. It requires a certain level of street smartness, that is not second nature to us, the more naive denizens of rural England.

Climbing up the path by Knowle House, now, we turn towards Horwich, and find the narrow curling ribbon of Tarmac that leads up to Higher Knoll farm. A little way up here, a kissing gate lets onto a path that leads us down into the gloom of a wooded ravine. This is Tiger’s Clough, where the headwaters of the River Douglas first combine and gather pace, after trickling down from their various tributaries on the moor.

Down and down we go, following the sound of water, until we come unexpectedly across a tented encampment. It does not have the look of one of those trendy insta-wild camp things, but something altogether bigger and more permanent. I’ve encountered the homeless, living in tents in this area before, and suspect some poor soul on their beam ends. We give it a respectful swerve. Sadly, Britain is now, by and large, a poor country with, like all poor countries, some rich people making little difference to its future prospects – indeed quite the opposite.

Main falls, Tiger’s Clough, Horwich

We make our way upstream, the way impeded here and there by storm-fallen trees whose boughs force us into yogic contortions, and eventually, we come to the falls. I’ve seen photographs of them when the Douglas is in spate, and very impressive they are too, but today, there’s just a trickle going over, and we struggle for a photograph in the gloom. There is also a mess of litter: beercans, Monster Energy cans, plastic bottles, surgical gloves, and a pregnancy tester (negative), this latter placed quite deliberately upon the makeshift altar of a protruding brookside rock. I hesitate to join the dots.

We’re getting on for lunchtime now, and the tummy is rumbling, but there’s an unwholesome atmosphere, courtesy of all this detritus. Certainly, it is not the place to break out the soup-pot. So, we climb from the ravine, disappointed, and continue our way upwards and onwards, towards the bumpy track known as George’s Lane, and the main routes to the Pike.

Prospect Farm, Rivington

The way becomes cleaner as we climb. Fortunately, the kind who would besmirch the environment, paint it with expressions of rebellion/despair, are also lazy. Just before the path meets George’s Lane, we come across the levelled ruins of Prospect Farm, marked by the still upright remains of one massive buttress. The name is apt, it being a fine viewpoint, and we settle in the sun for lunch while galleons of clouds sail inland, spinnakers billowing. I’ve had many pairs of cheap binoculars over the years, but eventually splashed out on some decent ones, not too heavy in the pocket, and a marvel to settle down with in a viewpoint like this.

Lunch done, we pick up one of the more popular tracks for the ascent via the gentle flank of Brown Hill. The top of the Pike is busy: families, teens, joggers, dogs running amok, owners snapping them back to heel. Jester! Jack! Fritz! Get down! It’s early afternoon, midweek. I don’t know what people do for work any more. It’s like the whole world, young and old, has retired with me.

Rivington Pike

Speaking of work, I can see where I used to work, from the Pike, see too, the line of the M61 I used to commute along – a bleak, potholed roaring ribbon of a road it was, with no lane markings for the most part – all rubbed off – a nightmare in the dark and the wet. There’s still a shiver, when I think of those days. We turn our back to it, seeking instead the Isle of Man, which is sometimes clear from here. Not today, though. Views of the Isle of Man are rare enough to be disputed, but I swear I’ve seen it often enough.

We make our descent through the blessedly tidy terraced gardens, where volunteers are busy weeding. The Italian lake has been drained and cleaned, all of this I presume in readiness for the festival of light, in October. This is a ticket only event, and well attended, one of the highlights of the season. I note it’s sold out now. Maybe next year.

So, finally, we return to the little blue car, ready for a brew and a rest before the drive home. Alas, we note brightly coloured bags of dog doings dotting our near environs, and someone has draped a banana skin over a fencepost by the door. The little blue car is not amused. Consequently, the tea does not taste as nice as it should. We gulp it down, and do not linger. I’d thought it might be an interesting circuit, but somehow those Tigers got the better of me. Five and a quarter miles round, and the GPS assures me nearly seventeen hundred feet of ascent, which is a respectable effort. But there are certain times, and frames of mind, when Rivington looks very tired. And today was definitely one of them.

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The falls on Stepback Brook

It’s a beautiful, mid-September morning. We reverse the little blue car from the garage, and let the top warm in the sun. It folds down easier when it’s warm, and I’m trying to spare it from further cracking. It’s a little frayed around the edges now, and not surprising at twenty years old, but still keeping the water out, so I’m in no hurry to replace it. We fold it back gently, flip the baffle plate, to keep the wind from sneaking up behind our backs, and make ready for the off. Every warm day from now is a bonus, and possibly the last we can get out with the top down, and enjoy the air.

I’ve wasted half the morning trying to load music onto my phone because I want to avoid the radio, but it’s a new phone and I can’t make head nor tail of it, so we’ll make do with the company of our thoughts as we drive instead. It’s a short run today, over the moors to the Royal, at Ryal Fold. It’s cool on the road, but pleasantly so with the heater on just a touch. Of the ongoing national mourning, there’s not much in evidence en-route, a few pubs with flags at half-mast. It’s a different story in the Capital, of course, with all-night queues for the lying in state, and extra trains for the influx of tourists.

The King meanwhile courts an occasional bad press for being grumpy. This is from both the political left and right, and both the royalist and the republican media. Memes are spreading across the Internet, some humorous, some spiteful. This seems to hint at the nature of the future relationship. Meanwhile, dissenters are being arrested. Even holding up a blank piece of paper will get you nabbed.

One broadcaster mistakes a crowd protesting the killing of a young black man by the Met, believing them instead to be well-wishers. It must be difficult trying to keep the commentary up for so long, when not everyone is following the same script.

Anyway, the car park at the Royal is busy, lots of people sitting out in the sunshine, enjoying an early lunch, but the Union Jacks are absent. There is an intoxicating scent of cooking and coffee, mingled with the moorland air. The plan is a circular walk to Darwen Tower, as I have it on reliable authority it is definitely open now after its years’ long refurbishment.

We follow the route up Stepback Brook to Lyon’s Den. There’s been rain recently, and the brook is musical, the little wayside fall running nicely, a generous and shapely mare’s tail. So we sneak down into the dell and try a shot or two, but we’re shooting into the sun, and the lens is flaring awkwardly. We’ll be lucky to salvage anything from it, but no one’s counting, and it’s always fun trying. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the day, and to be out in it, and looking at it the right way round.

Eighteen months retired now, and I’m still not sure if I can call it real, not sure if I’m making the best use of the time I’ve been waiting for so long to enjoy. I’m still aware of time ticking down, but now the deadline is not the Devil dragging me back to work on Mondays. It’s something more final, numbered perhaps in summers, and it needs to be overcome, for the sense of pressing time is the Devil itself.

Climbing the track to Lyon’s Den, we spy a note pinned to the fence. Someone is expressing thanks to the kind soul who found their photographs (we presume on a memory card, or something). We sometimes don’t appreciate how much stuff we have on these things, that their loss would be devastating to us. It is a random act of kindness, then, and a reciprocal gesture of appreciation. The finder gains nothing, materially, seeks no reward. It was a rationally meaningless act, then, yet also the act of any decent human being.

Lunch is served on the bench by the little copse above Lyon’s Den. The view from here is breathtaking. The cooler air of these September days cuts the haze, and jacks the clarity dial up to infinity. The Dales are so clear, it’s as if we could walk to them in five minute, the Cumbrian Mountains, too. Closer to hand is Bowland and Pendle, barely a stone’s throw.

An old timer comes ambling slowly by, trailing a pair of ancient Irish Wolf Hounds. They have the scent of my lunch, and are curious. He’s a pleasant soul, bids me good morning, gently tugs his giant creatures onwards, in the direction of the tower. There’s an air of ease, of gentleness to the day. The tower stands out, way across the moor, a Dan Dare rocket-ship, poised for take-off.

Darwen Tower – Yorkshire Dales beyond

So, a random act of kindness – finding a memory card in the mud, and placing it where the owner might find it, should they come looking. The simple goodness of that act has extended beyond returning those treasured photographs to a grateful owner. It has coloured the morning like a charm. It ripples out in time and space.

I have spent a long time on the trail of something “other”. Those more well travelled say it’s a journey that ends with the realisation there is no “other”. I think I know what that means, now. It grants a certain degree of shape to the cosmos that makes more sense, though it actually has no shape, beyond what we grant it, that subject and object are the same thing.

But the journey is like a long breathing in. And if you hold your breath long enough you get to the point of bliss, and it seems many travellers make do with that, sit on their cushions with their scented candles, and their singing bowls, lost in the emptiness. But you need to breathe out too, and that means bringing something back into the world, a world where there’s so much suffering it’s almost impossible to get anything done, and where nothing makes sense without these random acts of kindness.

But like the breathing in, we make a meal of it, and it turns out to be much simpler if we can only look at things the right way. I’m hoping it’s the same breathing out, breathing something back into the world, that it’s no more than a question of doing the good that you know, as it arises. But it’s a good that must come from an intelligence of the heart, which in turn comes from that journey to the realisation there is no other.

The finder of those photographs felt their loss, because it was they who lost them, they who also felt the joy of their return. I know I’m not making much sense, but it doesn’t matter. The message is in this mellow air, and in the ripples coming out from that little note, the lost, the found, and the random act of kindness.

Darwen Tower

We arrive at the tower to find it is indeed open, and looking in fine fettle after its long refurbishment. I venture inside a little way, take the spiral staircase to the lower balcony. The sun is very bright now and, entering the gloom, I find my old eyes are slow to adapt to the dark these days, so I’m fumbling for the steps with my toes. I’d get there eventually, but don’t feel confident in climbing to the top. The lower balcony will do, and in itself is a stupendous viewpoint.

There are two stories about the origins of the tower. One is that it was built to celebrate the jubilee of Queen Victoria. But there is another story, one about land ownership, and the public’s rights of access to it. Once upon a time, I would not have been able to walk, as I’ve walked today. It would have been an insane trespass, and I would have been seen off by gamekeepers in the employ of an absentee landlord. But it was courageous acts of trespass, defiance, and an ensuing legal battle that opened the ways over Darwen Moor to everyone, and that’s what the tower celebrates. The intelligence of the heart says it was a good thing, securing freedoms we continue to enjoy today. But that is not to say our freedoms cannot once again be lost.

Darwen Moor

Thanks for listening.

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The Shireburn Cottages, Hurst Green

There’s a beautiful light in Hurst Green, this morning. We have strong sunshine, but there’s a mellowness to it, that lends late season contrasts. The oft-photographed alms-houses, the Shireburn Cottages, are basking in it, warming their grand facade. Meanwhile, all around us, the skies are patrolled by ominously towering cumulonimbus. We’ll be lucky if we avoid a soaking.

We’re looking to climb Longridge fell today – a ridge that runs east-west, roughly parallel to the River Ribble, for about six miles. The reward of the climb up the quiet lanes and meadows, from Hurst Green, is the sudden view of the Forest of Bowland, from the summit.

We’ll be meandering up to the trig column on Spire Hill, roughly the mid-point of the fell, as well as its highest elevation. Then we’ll head through the plantations to the easternmost tip, at Kemple End. From here, we’ll fumble our way back across the meadows, and finally through the grand environs of Stonyhurst College, to Hurst Green. It’s ground I’ve not covered before, so I’m expecting a bit of an adventure, adding a few more rights of way to the map in my head.

My thanks to Bowland Climber whose posts are a valuable source of intel on likely routes and ground conditions in this area. Longridge is heavily forested and, as with all such territory, the routes get overtaken as the forest develops, and permissive ways open up in their stead, ways which may not be familiar to a non-local walker. Then you get logging, and storm damage with trees coming down, blocking the paths, or balanced precariously, waiting for you to sneeze before crashing down on top of you. And then of course we can expect the usual difficulties on the lowland stretches, with way markers disappearing, and little used paths across meadows vanishing under crops.

I’d felt a sense of hush, leaving home, news of the Queen’s death still settling in. The hush was self-imposed, of course, and partly courtesy of the long planned and wall-to-wall reverence of the BBC. This vanished as soon as I hit the M6 of course, where the nation’s life still goes on at full throttle, as needs must, with heavies and delivery vans, drivers having to pee in bottles to meet schedules set by machines.

There are, of course, many who feel a genuine sadness, as if they had lost their own grandmother. But there are also plenty, particularly in the under forties bracket, who have no longer the luxury of time, or are too worried about feeding their children to don the sackcloth and ashes.

I am not immune to the sense of history, nor to the symbolism of a fallen monarch, especially now, adding as it does, its weight to a heaviness I already feel for the state of an Albion so besmirched and tattered. I fear it is optimistic to hope this will be one of those historic moments to galvanise the nation, for so much of the nation has other things on its mind right now, and which are hard to ignore. One wonders what next. Were I to suffer a sudden, blinding pulse of light, prior to witnessing a mushroom cloud rising in the direction of Manchester, courtesy of Vlad P, I would not be surprised. Still, one must not tempt fate.

For now, though, the only mushroom clouds are these cumulonimbus. They spread out at great altitude, into anvil heads, and they darken, broody and funereal. Climbing the quiet, rain puddled lanes towards the fell, we lose the sun, and the day turns grey, and sticky. There is the crackle of thunder, but, so far, the gathering storms seem to circle us, their dramatics kept at a safe distance.

I was grouching in my last post about the cost of NHS dental treatment. “Over sixty quid for a checkup and a clean,” I spluttered. However, as a friend later pointed out, I’m fortunate still to receive NHS treatment, and should be more grateful for it. Dentists are shedding our sort like unwanted fleas. That same check-up and clean will cost me over two hundred quid, under the private system many have now fallen victim to. More serious work – fillings, extraction, bridge-work – and it can easily run into thousands. This is beyond the means of so many in poverty-pay jobs, paying sky-high rents and energy bills. It’s little wonder, then, DIY dentistry is on the rise. I’m not sure how, or when, this happened. It just sort of crept up on us while we weren’t looking.

Spire Hill, Longridge Fell

We pause at the trig point, rather sweaty now, to rest and clean our specs – all the better to take in the panoramic sweep of the Bowland hills. They are most movingly beautiful under this rapidly changing light. There is mixed sunshine and cloud to the north, though the skies are turning an ominous green to our backs, now. There are para-gliders, launching from the precipitous north face, and seem to be defying the weather, as they defy gravity, circling and swooping like slow motions birds. I hear Vaughn Williams in my head, then another rumble of thunder.

Eastwards now, following the line of the ridge, and plunging quickly into the forest’s gloom. It’s mostly coniferous plantation, but with the occasional stretches of beautifully twisted Scot’s Pine. Then, amid the gloom of the conifers, there lurks the occasional, defiant deciduous giant, one of which I discover hung with curious trinkets. Coniferous forestry is an affront to nature, and she shows her displeasure in that eerie monocultural, mossy silence.

On Longridge Fell

The way is far from straight forward here, as we encounter damage from last winter’s storms, stacks of fallen trees laying across the path. There has been some ad-hoc clearance, plus a splintering of unofficial diversionary ways, leading off into the gloom, but no concerted effort to clear passage. So, it’s with a bit of hit-and-miss, aided by the occasionally more helpful long stretch of forestry track, we make it down to the eastern tip, near Kemple End. The Bowland fells still look balmy, while an evil looking storm sweeps the Ribble Valley, trailing rain. Was that a flash of lightning? We pause and count to ten for the rumble of distant thunder.

Logging near Kemple End, Longridge Fell

Here, we descend into the pastures along the rights of way where a helpful sign, posted by a local resident, tells us we’re probably going to go wrong here. There are some well-intentioned instructions, which we follow to the letter, but the path is little walked, and we go wrong anyway, meandering about in shin-high wet grass for a while, until we spot a possible exit.

We ford a stream where it looks like there was once a crossing, and we come up to a rusty old gate that hasn’t been opened since Tolkien last passed this way, pondering his Hobbits. I’m walking with the latest OS map, which tells us we’re bang on the right of way, at least in theory, so we plod on, following the GPS across a meadow, freshly planted, and ankle deep in soft earth. There are no markers here except the prints I leave behind, hopefully for others to follow. It pains me to do this but, as usual, a little more clarity by the landowner would not go amiss, and I’d be glad to oblige. One never knows in these situations if we aren’t simply digging ourselves deeper into the confusion of lost ways, or if a helpful marker will pop up of a sudden, and see us safely through.

More awkward stream crossings follow, more rights of way missing their markings, and no evidence of footfall on the ground. We seem to have found one of those routes long abandoned, yet it is the quickest way from Kemple End to Stonyhurst. With patient attention to the GPS, though, we locate the wobbly stiles, now slowly rotting in deep hedgerows, and the rickety stream crossings. Plucked by thorns, and stung by nettle, we come down to our way-point on the road, where a single finger post points us back to perdition. From here, a short walk brings us into the grand environs of the Stonyhurst College, where we can pass without fail or interference.

The doors of St Mary’s Hall are open, the sombre sounds of a Requiem Mass for the Queen spilling out, and following us some way along this last stretch to Hurst Green. We must ring a bell here, as there is occasional shooting across the path. There’ll be none today, I would think, but I feel obliged to ring it anyway. The jarring clang so soon after passing the spiritual music from the chapel feels irreverent.

Millie’s Pantry, our usual watering hole, is just closing, so we find ourselves in the Shireburn Arms, instead, with a large, sweet coffee and the feel of nine miles, and twelve hundred feet of ascent in our legs. I wonder if JRR himself ever sat here, nursing a pint and smoking a pipe. The bar is empt, except for a couple of ladies dressed like wedding guests. I hope my dishevelled appearance does not offend. The fates were with us, and the rains held off, but where we go from here, amid these gathering storms, is far from certain.

But there’s always another hill, another day in the outdoors to call us onwards. And the hills ask nothing but that we respect them, while they reward our efforts ten-fold.

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Ice cream on the pier

Today, we travel out to Southport for ice-cream, on the much beloved pier. We’re celebrating! We have a new PM who’s going to have our economy blasting off again, heading for the moon faster than an Artemis rocket. Where budgets have been slashed over the past decade, they’ll be slashed again to the benefit of all. As for the boring old energy crisis – I admit I was getting really worried about that – I’m confident it’ll all be sorted in the next few weeks, and I can go out and buy those new walking boots instead of being a tight wad and hanging on for news of my next energy bill. As for the benighted NHS, all that damned waste still bulking it out after twelve years of Operation Ongoing Austerity, will be purged with the strongest of laxatives, and then I’ll be able to see my elusive doctor right away, instead of sending his nurse a picture of my ailment, more in hope than expectation. No, only joking. Satire works best with a straight face.

Actually, I’m here because it’s a nice afternoon, with a hot wind, and the promise of thunderstorms tomorrow, so it’s today, or not for a while, and I don’t actually give a flying thing about who’s pretending to be in charge. The little blue car knew at once where we were going and could barely contain her excitement.

My good lady and I were also in the dentist’s chair this morning, having our teeth “deep cleaned”, and we wish to forget the experience. Heavens, what an experience that was! You’d think there’d be an easier way by now, something without all that whine and water. Indeed, I had to change my shirt when I got home. My good lady discovered, long ago, and by coincidence we were both traumatised by the same dentist, when we were children, for such is love. The downside is that, even now, in much later life, a trip to the dreaded tooth puller is never a relaxed affair, so we join forces, and find strength in mutual anxiety. The young man at the tool-end of this morning’s business is of an entirely different sort of course, and perfectly pleasant, perfectly good at his job, but much as it pains me to say it, his nurse – sweet voiced as she was – could have done much better with that damned sucker.

It’s a small private business, still begrudgingly servicing die hard NHS patients like us, while refusing to take on any more of the unwashed. Incidentally, I note it has a tree growing out of its chimney – several, actually. I would have mentioned it to the dentist, but I suppose, in these private corporate concerns, that’s always someone else’s department. Similarly, I note these private corporate concerns also have a high churn of underpaid, overworked talent, so it’s always a different dentist every time I visit. There seems to be no sense of continuity any more, with anything. Have you noticed?

Anyway, I regret I was not a good advert for their services, when I walked back through the waiting room with my wet shirt front. Twenty-three quid for a checkup, now, and then they always sting you for that deep clean at forty-two, and they want you twice a year, and that’s on the NHS. The gentleman who went in the chair ahead of me refused a clean point-blank, and good for him. The dentist scared me with a patter about gum disease, and teeth dropping out. But the name of the game is to play the game, if you’re brave enough. One checkup a year, not to get yourself struck off, for then you fall into the pit of private provision, and from which, I fear, there is no recovery.

Southport pier, September 2022

Anyway, the ice cream is truly delicious, and the memory of that dentistry, including the drowning, is fading. On the downside, it was three quid a small, single scoop. No one else is buying, and I’m feeling guilty at splashing out on luxuries, but I think we deserve it, my lady and I. The pier is looking a bit wobbly, planks coming up, and screws working loose. Some planks look to have been replaced by that legendary firm of Bodgeit and Scarper – ends rough-sawn, wonky, and a quarter inch over-cut. It does not fill one with confidence. I read Sefton council needs over two hundred thousand to replace them all properly, so for now it’s all about patching and making do. Thank heavens, plucky old Albion is not sending anyone to the moon, or it would all be gaffer tape and blobs of glue, and the inevitable consequences.

But that’s all in the past now. The economy will be booming again by Christmas, I’m sure. All it needs is a stiff upper lip, a bit of boosterism, and that good old Dunkirk spirit. As soon as those wealthy chaps have had their tax cuts, they’ll be showering us with the crumbs from their table, starting up high-tech, high wage businesses all over the place. One could almost be forgiven for forgetting we’re into our twelfth year of a Conservative administration, with the sunlit uplands always just over the horizon, that we’ve heard it all before,… that things have actually grown worse and worse and worse,… but no, I’m quite sure, this time,… oh, stop it!

Delicious ice cream done, we saunter down to the end of the pier. The tide is out a long way. Opened in 1860, it’s the oldest of our traditional iron piers, and is beaten only by Southend for length. It caused me a panic in the nineties when I had written it in to a scene in my novel Langholm Avenue, only to have the council pull it down. Fortunately this was for a major refurbishment, and they duly put it all back up again, saving me a serious re-write. It was a close run thing, though, the pier’s existence saved by a single vote, and a public subscription. The pier starts quite a way inland, which is puzzling to many visitors, but old photographs tell us this is due to the coast, which has been steadily expanding due to silting, the pier having to reach further and further out in order to get its pilings wet.

The rather modernist café, at the pier’s end, has undergone some sympathetic internal refurbishment during the covid years, and was used as location for filming the final scene of the recent BBC drama “Time” starring Sean Bean and Stephen Graham, who in my humble opinion were both utterly compelling. It wasn’t an easy watch, though, being set mostly in a generic, northern prison that was barely under control, and in a way I saw as a microcosm of civic society: underfunded, understaffed, everything cut to the bone and, for the inmates, a life of boredom rendered tolerable only by drugs, interspersed with episodes of horrific violence. Our hero, Bean, is a drunk driver who killed a man and is imprisoned for four years. It was a deeply moving story, and a surprise for me, Bean’s redemption coming as it did in the café at the end of our beloved Southport pier.

I’ve had a few good shots of the pier over the years, but it’s at its best during the golden hour. In the middle of the day, like this, it’s actually better in the rain, when you get reflections of the structure, and the lighting, off the wet planks.

We came up by the Marine Way bridge, opened in 2004, a cable tied suspension bridge, and a difficult structure to frame in one go. It’s better shot from underneath, by the marine lake, which grants it a certain dynamism. This is a massive architectural gesture, and quite beautiful. One doubts it would ever get past the planning stage now, but I have to stop talking Albion down. It’s just that I can only find these sunny uplands we are forever promised in my head these days. Once I leave the bounds of imagination, it’s hard not to trip up over all those loose planks!

The Millennium Bridge, Southport, 2022

Thanks for listening.

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