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On the Parson’s Bullough Road

Today’s plans were scuppered by a couple of road closures, which had cut off our destination, White Coppice, from the rest of the world. We’d intended going up on the moors to investigate a remote ruin sources inform me has been re-purposed into a neo-pagan temple. But the gods had other ideas. So, we read the runes, accepted their counsel, and drove on, over the twisty little road, to Anglezarke.

Those who live magically say you should always be on the lookout when your travel plans are upended, that the trickster archetype is at work, and you might be about to learn something important, or that your life might be about to jump the rails into some new and fruitful direction. We’ll see. I’m not sure if this is living magically, but the road up by Manor House farm is a delight this morning, affording magical views of the misty plain. It’s a lovely sunny start to the day, but banked clouds to the north and east foretell a coming change. Ten minutes brings us to our default location, a little layby on the Parson’s Bullough road.

New car today. Well, new-ish. We were overdue. It drives well, but has a lot of gizmos I don’t really need, including the intrusion of a computer screen. I can plug my phone into it for navigational purposes, and can ring people up while on the move, should I ever feel the need, and truly hope I never do. We traded the good lady’s little Corsa for it, which appeared on Autotrader last night. The dealer is looking for a breathtaking 100% profit on what he gave us, which of course also means my new one is worth half as much as what I paid for it, but that’s the way it goes, and it doesn’t do to dwell.

So, it’s looking like a short hike up Lead Mine’s Clough, then maybe onto the moor. For all that sunshine, cracking open the door, the air feels cold, and bleak mid-winterish. This is familiar territory, walked and photographed to death, and written about here, but I couldn’t think of an alternative on the hoof, after the neo-pagan temple plan was kyboshed. If the Trickster has anything to show me, it’ll have to be in the details, something subtle I would otherwise have missed. We’ll see.

Ruined Walls and straw-coloured grasses – Anglezarke Moor

The falls are musical in Lead Mine’s Clough, emptying the moor of its recent rains, and the melting of last week’s snows, but I always find them difficult to get a decent angle on, and not dramatic enough for the scramble that would otherwise be necessary. A popular spot for picnicking down the generations, and well-loved. We hid a coin here, as children, a token of something indefinable, something magical. It’s still there.

We follow the track up onto the moor by Wilkinson Bullough, a long, bleak track, this. We have the ruins of drystone walls, above Green Withins Brook, and isolated groups of pines, sorry survivors of a more extensive forestry, planted thirty years ago, and destroyed by one heath fire after the other – all this amid a sea of straw-coloured moor-grass, upon which the wind strokes waves of silver.

Remains of forestry – Anglezarke Moor

I remember coming this way one summer and meeting a pigeon walking the other way. No, seriously. I may have told this story before. It passed me by, and I wondered why it was walking. Was it hurt? Was it just tired? I looked back, and it paused, looking back at me. I took a few steps towards it, and it carried on. I paused. It looked back. The pigeon seemed to want me to follow it, so I did, for a bit, but it was leading me back to the car, and I wanted to get on with my walk, so I gave the job up as stupid, and carried on. When I got back to the car, hours later, it had been broken into, robbed out and nearly stolen. That pigeon was trying to warn me. I’ve always been superstitious about birds. You ignore the Trickster at your peril.

Approaching Hempshaws – Anglezarke moor

Anyway, no winged messengers today. I’m tempted by Standing Stones hill, which rises bleakly to our left, and from which all the standing stones have disappeared. The old maps, however, show some features I’ve been wondering about checking to see if they’re still there – an old well, the site of a Victorian shooting hut, and the scant remains of a possible Bronze Age burial. But there are no paths up there any more, and the moor will be heavy going, so we’ll just head on round to the ruins of Hempshaws, have lunch, then wander back by the Dean Wood route.

Heinz Chicken soup today, and half a pork pie that needed eating. Delicious in the open air. We find shelter in the lee of a wall at Hempshaws, and settle down. As we do so, our eye is taken by some curious artefacts. Someone must have been having a sweep around with a metal detector. I thought there was a by-law against that on access land, but anyway, they’ve turned up what look like .303 cartridges, the brass corroded to a wafer, now. And they are displayed as if a hand had just left them there for me to find. Look at these, says a voice? What do you think?

Reminders of wartime – Anglezarke Moor

Indeed, says I, but these weren’t used for shooting grouse. They hark back eighty years, to the second world war, when the moors were closed for army training. Suddenly I’m hearing the crack of Lee Enfields, or maybe they’re from M1 carbines, because the Americans were up here too, and they could better afford the ammunition. Dark days. What must our grandparents have felt, as the world fell into chaos, and their precious boys were being called up to have little fingers of death like these pointed at them? Hempshaws is a peaceful spot, now, but it wasn’t always so.

I feel a shiver, someone stepping over my grave, as they say. It’s a story maybe, something in the casual scatter of these remnants of the past, and the way they are presented. Don’t try to grasp it, let it sink. It’ll come back more pointed if it’s serious, with a cast of characters and a snatch of dialogue to get you going. Leave them be. Next time we pass, they’ll be gone.

Is that why we’re here, then? Did the Trickster want us to see this? Or was it just the old gods didn’t want us photographing around that neo-pagan temple? I would not have blogged it, I plead – or at least I would have been vague about its location, while waxing lyrical about neopaganism. I’m not of a neo-pagan bent myself, but I would not have wanted trolls going up there and vandalising it. The gods remain silent on the matter, and fair enough.

Yarrow Reservoir

Anyway, we leave the cartridges to the elements, make our return by Old Rachel’s, and then the right of way which no longer exists, through the electrified meadow, where we must now run the gauntlet of rich people’s horses. The horses, muddy and over-coated, ignore me, but horse can have a peculiar sense of humour, and I wonder who is liable if I am kicked in the head by one.

Then it’s by the Yarrow, the light fading of a sudden, though it’s only just past two. The clouds are thickening, the weather changing, now. We sink into the car for a restorative brew from the Thermos, plug in the phone, ask it to plot a course for home. The iron brain obliges, and her voice is sweet. In another eighty years, we’ll be needing robots to tie our shoelaces, because we’ll have forgotten how.

She gives me a route, not the one I would normally take. So, we’ll go home the way we normally do, see how well she keeps up. It’ll drive her mad, but her voice is better company than the radio.

Just four miles and five hundred feet or so, give or take eighty years.

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Our elementary teachers taught us the world is made of atoms. Atoms have a middle bit called the nucleus. The nucleus is made of protons and neutrons. Then there’s a cloud of electrons that orbits the whole thing. That’s an atom. But I’m losing you already. No need to be polite, I can feel it. There’s a resistance to these matters, I know, especially among the poetic, and the romantic. The material world, for us, is all oceans and trees and fluffy clouds. It’s birds and bees, and fancy red wine. It seems impertinent, even a bit dangerous, to enquire any deeper, but I thought I’d have a go anyway, see if at the bottom of this rabbit hole, there is any poetry.

Here goes then:

If we make it to higher school physics, we learn the number of protons, neutrons and electrons decides what type of atom it is – iron, titanium, helium, zinc,… whatever. Atoms of different types can combine to make molecules. Molecules make more complex materials.

College physics goes further – and here we start our journey into a realm of exotic language. Electrons, says our old, white-coated lecturer, are stable elementary particles. They are indivisible, and have an independent existence. But protons and neutrons are made of ephemeral things called quarks. Quarks come in six varieties, or “flavours”. Someone with no sense of humour called them: up, charm, down, bottom, top, and strange.

Then we meet the spaced out post-grad, high on weed, who explains things further: on their own, quarks are flaky and useless, but they combine into groups called hadrons. Hadrons are like teams. You’re stronger and last longer, as part of a team. The hadrons come in two varieties: mesons and baryons. The mesons are pairs of quarks. These are unstable and gone in the blink of an eye. It’s always an early bath being on team meson. The baryons are three quarks in various combinations, and they fare better. We find our protons and neutrons in this group, and they’re the most stable, especially the protons. Well, they last long enough at least to make atoms, and the world, and therefore a party worth us showing up for. The rest of the baryons are little better than the mesons in being here today and gone tomorrow.

Protons have two “Up” and one “Down” quark, while neutrons have two “down” and one “up” quark. It’s a tough job, being a quark. If you want to hang around for long enough to make a difference in the world, you need to be on a team of uppers and downers.

But you remember the electron? It’s not alone in being a stable elementary particle. There are five others: the electron-neutrino, muon, muon-neutrino, tau, and tau-neutrino. These form an independent super-team called the leptons.

So, where are we? I’m getting lost now. We have leptons, and hadrons. The hadrons consist of mesons and baryons. The leptons and the quarks, which form the hadrons, are all known as fermions. The fermions are what can manifest as matter. Everything else is a ghost. But just when you were thinking you’d had enough, and your head’s starting to spin, you discover there’s another team that gives rise to the forces of nature, and these are the tough guys, the bosons.

There are five bosons: the Higgs, the photons, the gluons, the W bosons, and the Z bosons. Each force has its own boson. The strong force has the “gluon”, the electromagnetic force has the “photon”, and the weak force has the “W and Z bosons”. The Higgs is a special case, and gives rise to the mass of any particles it interacts with. Particles have no mass of their own and have to borrow it from the Higgs, which is harder to describe as a particle because it isn’t one. It’s a field that pervades the entire universe.

In fact, says that stoner post-grad, the thing is, there are no particles as such, even though we say there are. It’s just an analogy, something we can visualise, but that’s not to say particles are what they are, literally.

A better, though more mysterious, description is a field of potential. Like the surface of a lake, when you apply energy, by swishing your hand in it, it causes a ripple. The ripple is the particle. But the particle isn’t a particle, it’s a localisation of energy. It’s all energy, you see? Or rather, you don’t, because there’s nothing to see. So, the punchline is the more you peer into the materials that make up the world, the more you begin to realise there’s actually nothing there. And that’s the only way anything can be said to exist at all.

Now that’s poetry!

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A light fall of snow overnight clears to a frosty dawn. The forecast is too good to be skulking about indoors, so we muster our gear, then set out for Rivington, and the Hall Avenue.

Mid-week, mid-morning, and it’s busy with cars, kids and dogs. These are school age kids, and they are with working age parents. Again, I wonder to what they owe their premature attainment of escape velocity. There’s a sprinkling of snow here, and the ground feels mushy where the sun touches it, but it’ll most likely be frozen, higher up, so we pack the spikes – just in case – and off we go. Check: camera on aperture auto, shooting RAW, and set to bracket, polariser on the 18-140mm lens.

I’m a bit pie-eyed this morning, and feeling gormless. I used to be a night bird, but no longer seem able to burn the midnight oil without consequences. I’d stayed up watching a movie that had been recommended, called John Wick. Personally, I found it mindlessly violent, almost like a video game. There was one brutal set piece after the other, and then the embarrassing festishisation of ever more elaborately phallic firearms. And there was a veneer of glamour whose thrust had me wincing more than the oft-wielded knife blades. Okay, so it wasn’t my preferred genre.

I didn’t make it to the end, but fell asleep, frankly, bored. That said, John Wick’s brooding, funereal presence is still following me around this morning. I hope he’s wearing a decent pair of boots, or he’ll be grumbling later.

Unlike John’s violent and nihilistic universe, the world of Rivington is peaceful, and beautiful. We take a meandering approach to the terraced gardens – no particular route in mind, as seems usual with me these days, when on home territory. The snow cover thickens as we climb, and the low sun paints buttery highlights. There’s just enough whispy cloud to add interest to the sky without it tipping the atmosphere into something gloomy. John would prefer it gloomy, he says, while checking for the firearms secreted about his person. But this is England, and we don’t allow that sort of thing here. He’s puzzled by this. I mean, what if someone insults you?

On the great lawn, there are two summerhouses, now wonderfully restored and architecturally fascinating. I’ve just worked out one faces the morning sun, the other the evening. Mi’lord Leverhulme would have taken breakfast on fine summer mornings at one, and sipped his sundowners at the other. And me, sitting down on the steps of his morning summerhouse, basking in this buttery light, would have been seen off with dogs, and John, no doubt in Mi’lord’s employ. A century later, I have my revenge, and sit with impunity, for Time is the great leveller.

I never tire of the gardens. They’re certainly a royal way to approach the Pike, and the moors beyond. A vague plan is beginning to form. We’ll do the Pike, then chance the moor, across to Noon Hill.

The café that has recently popped up in the ruins of the old public lavatories, below the Pike, is open, and John is gasping for a coffee. It has recently installed a diesel generator, and we are treated to its noxious exhaust as we approach from downwind. I am not tempted, but John grabs a quick one, then crushes, and discards his cup in the bushes. I fish it out and put it in my bag, decide against giving him a lecture on it. He seems at times on the verge of becoming a reformed character, but a moment’s thoughtlessness, and he reverts to type.

There’s quite the procession going up the Pike, they’re also struggling, avoiding the steps, which are thick with ice. So we put the spikes on and make a traverse, spiralling round to get at the top from behind. It’s cold and blowy, people taking selfies. They’re looking at John like they know him from somewhere. Again, there are many here I would have thought of an age to be either in college or working. I wonder if they are on strike today.

The various strike actions are deepening across the country now, and the usual yapping dog presses seem to be failing in their attempts to demonise the Union officials. The government is also looking crass and incompetent, in its refusal to negotiate. The political Zeitgeist is swinging to the centre and would swing further, but the left no longer has meaningful representation. The powerful have not grasped these are not the nineteen seventies. The discontent is different, born of an inequality our parents never knew, one that has been a decade in the manufacture, at the hands of those who, by contrast, have profited handsomely by it. John confides in me, he’s been approached by several kingpins with a view to taking out ringleaders of discontent. He’s told them he’s retired and doesn’t do that sort of thing any more.

Anyway, in the summer months the route across the moor from the Pike to Noon Hill can be difficult to trace, and intermittently boggy. But today it’s plainly picked out by a dusting of snow, a thin white line squiggled over an undulating expanse of pale straw, and the ground is hard. The trick is knowing where the snow is covering bog, and how thick the underlying ice is. Will it take your weight, or will you burst through over your boots? As we get going, we look back and take a few shots of the pike in retrospect. There’s a lone man making his way up, and with a tight crop, the scene is dramatic.

Noon Hill is an unimpressive summit from this angle, just a small spur off the Winter Hill ridge. It’s more interesting when viewed from the west, where it forms a meridian with Great Hill, and I’ve often wondered if there’s any significance in the fact that, whatever the time of year, when viewed from Anglezarke, the sun will always be directly above Noon Hill, at noon. What do you think, John? John shrugs, couldn’t care less, checks instead for the knife in his sock. I’d told him to lose that, because it’s a one way ticket to chokey, if he’s caught. He looks at me like I’ve lost my mind. What kind of dumb-ass country is this where a man can’t carry a knife or a gun? Clearly, we’ve a way to go before we can restore his faith in humanity.

Noon Hill is the site of a Bronze Age saucer burial. It was first excavated in 1958 by John Winstanley who was then curator of the Hall in th’Wood Museum. It was an eventful dig, and his diary makes for interesting reading. Further information can be had at the excellent Lancashire Past website, here. There are also some fascinating period photographs of the dig here.

The ground becomes more treacherous the nearer we get to the top, and the light turns bleak as thicker clouds begin to gather from the south. The view looking back to the Pike takes on the appearance of a revelation now, as the sun fans down though whatever heavenly apertures it can find. But it is the view northwards that is the most stunning, across Anglezarke moor. Then there’s the land falling away to the plain, and finally the glittering line of the sea, to the west. And to the east, we have the stacked ranks of increasingly snowy hills, marching out towards Rossendale.

But there’s little time to settle and enjoy it, greeted as we are by a face numbing wind, so it’s a quick shot of the snowy cairn with Winter Hill in the background, then turn tail and make our way down. The time for Noon Hill is a clear summer’s day, with a pair of binoculars.

We take the short route down to the old turnpike, then the unofficial path that drops us steeply to the bend on Sheephouse lane, and finally, a very boggy return to Rivington. It’s a walk that always feels longer than it is – just over four miles, and seven hundred and fifty feet of ascent, but a pleasantly varied route, and far enough given what looks like a bit of weather moving in.

Time for a brew, now. John’s smiling a bit. You know what? I think we’ve mellowed him out. He says he’s sorry about that coffee cup, earlier on. I just hope no one picks a fight with him in the tearoom, or we’re all in trouble.

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A week of heavy rain and brutal winds defeats the lead flashing around the chimney, and the roof begins to leak. Again. I hear it dripping into the buckets in the attic, as the wind roars in the chimney. I called a roofer out, and he turned up, which is always a surprise, but his face was covered, and he kept ten paces away. A touch of flu, he said. I felt guilty then, asking him to go up on the roof, but he said he could see the problem from ground level, then disappeared back to his bed with promises to return when it stopped raining. It’s been raining pretty much for a week now. I wish him a speedy recovery, a clearing in the forecast, and hope he’s not forgotten me.

I never used to fret about the integrity of the old homestead. The former day-job tended to exhaust my allotment of anxieties. But take away one set of problems, and a mind that’s so inclined finds others to occupy itself with. Now, in retirement, I imagine the house gremlins undermining the place, so it’ll fall down around my ears, in spite of all efforts at maintenance over the decades of my residence. It doesn’t help when the foul weather keeps you indoors. There are home-birds who’d happily never set foot outside their gate, except to walk to the corner shop for a paper, but I’m not one of them. Being indoors for more than a few days drives me nuts. And it’s been over a week now.

But we were talking about writing. And of that imaginary world, the writing world, doors open and close. We cultivate the dream life for clues, we sit at the desk each morning like we’re still working from home – like during those covid lockdown days – and we tickle the keys, then delete the nonsense that comes out. The dreams are beguiling, but it’s anyone’s guess what they’re trying to say: the muse wishes to be seen as something other than what I have thus far always thought her to be, or something like that; the storm lamp I use to navigate my way through complex change has lost its wick and all its fuel; then I am required to make a sworn statement by a shallow, pompous official, who I tell in no uncertain terms to “f&*k off”. Dreams are quite the thing, aren’t they? But mostly hard to fathom. No matter – just keep stirring the pot. See what bubbles up.

Thus, we await the muse’s midnight pleasure. I’m hoping for something of a change from the usual existential rumination – a powerful romance, say, or a murder mystery, or something with a bit of humour in it. We could all do with a laugh, though the times are weighed agin’ us on the latter score, which is all the more reason to laugh at the absurdity. Shall we talk then of back-ground music?

Britain starts the new year in such a peculiar state of crisis, one that’s impossible to ignore, yet seems also pointless to mention because it’s been going on so long there is no novelty left in it that’s worth exploring. I have deleted the BBC News app from my phone, because it insists on trumpeting the Murdoch front pages. Facebook and Twitter I have never entertained. I spare the Guardian only a five-minute glance in the morning, which is plenty. It tells me the health service is in ruins, and you’re stuffed, unless you can pay. There is what amounts to an ongoing national strike, as wages are so poor workers literally cannot afford to live. Meanwhile, the government drifts into authoritarian territory, in thrall to the most cravenly disruptive elements within it, and is therefore unable to govern. And BREXIT, BREXIT,… no we dare not speak of BREXIT. Same old Muzak, then.

But that’s the thing with permacrises, I suppose, they’re – well – permanent. We adjust to the new normal, and thank our lucky stars we only have a leaking roof to deal with. But mostly I gather the media is presently obsessed with a gossipy book by an exiled Royal. I know this because everyone I know is talking about it. Well, not everyone, but enough to remind me how easily we are distracted by cakes and ale.

Oh, there is a feast of material here for someone of the stature of an Orwell, but an Orwell I am not. When on my soapbox, I am but a little dog growling at the moon, and the muse gently coaxes me back down. But where to, I ask?

Then my elusive GP sends out a questionnaire, asking me to rate his performance. There could be some material in this, for it strikes me as both obtuse and ironic. The questions don’t allow me to indicate I have tried to see him on a number of occasions, one of them urgently – or so I thought – and was rebuffed with directions to the warzone that is A+E. I throw the Byzantine missive away, his officious receptionist reminds me by text. I ignore it. We have built a world of bullshit and fantasy performance indicators, while allowing all substance to fall away. Plenty of material there – but again that’s for an Orwell.

No, the muse is drawing me to an island, or a remote valley. But we’ve already been there, and done that to death, I protest. No, this time it will be different, she says, as she relights my lamp. Trust me.

Such is the writing life, and the little gaps between.

The forecast is for dry next week. I hope that roofer turns up.

Thanks for listening.

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Sunset pier #1, by Deep A.I.

One of the interesting things to pop up online recently has been the subject of art generated by so-called artificial intelligence (AI). It’s a subject for contentious debate: can something really be considered a piece of art if it has been “created” by a computer program, rather than a human being?

My interest was piqued by Lee McAuley of the Cuckoo Club Archives, who mentioned it in a recent piece, and to whom I give all credit for spotting it – I’d no idea it was so advanced. In order to explore the question, is it art? I’ve been playing around with a version called Deep AI – available to try here, and I fed it the following text:

An old pier running out to sea, sun setting, people walking towards the sunset, blue skies and tobacco coloured clouds, light rays, romantic, impressionistic style.

The result was the header picture. Then again, same input:

Sunset pier #2, by Deep A.I.

And again:

Sunset pier #3, by Deep A.I.

So, each image is unique: same words, different output. There’s also a remarkable alignment with the textual prompt, whilst maintaining the look of something definitely painterly, rather than a pastiche of images brutally cut and pasted from around the Internet. There’s something interesting here and, though there’s a temptation – as a human being who likes to think of himself as “creative” – to be dismissive of it, I don’t think we should be too hasty.

The freebie images are a modest 1024×512 pixels, but useable, say for blog illustration, or, with a bit of Photoshop enhancement, as e-book covers, or simply for pondering. I find them quite haunting and, in spite of their unique nature, strangely familiar in that they combine elements I feel I have seen before, but which are just out of reach of memory.

There are other online generators, free to try, but they all have some kind of limiter, or a token system, to prevent over-use of the servers. I also like Nightcafe Studio, which I fed the following prompt:

A young woman wearing a long, red dress. She is reclining on a chaise lounge. Victorian and romantic in style.

To which it responded:

Young woman in a red dress – by Nightcafe Studio A.I.

The result is somewhat lush and stylised, though not unpleasing, and nicely lit. She has an oddly shaped thigh, strange hands and what appears to be the stump of a third arm, but for all of that it would not look out of place on a gallery wall, given a suitably pretentious blurb. It’s also unique – sort of. No image will ever come out quite like this again. However, once you’ve got the image, you can copy and paste it as many times as you like, of course, which, like all digital art, renders it nothing more than a worthless and disposable curiosity, right?

Well, that brings us to non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which I looked at last year. NFTs and digital art go hand in hand. Digital art, whether it be by human or AI, is – by our normal calculations, based on supply and demand – of no value at all, because we can copy and paste it as many times as we like, and the result will be indistinguishable from the original. However, AI generated art can come with a unique digital token, which proclaims you as the owner of the original file, which is something that, in our topsy-turvy world, can then be traded. And, though it might sound unlikely, it being essentially the value of nothing, some tokens are trading for millions of dollars – or at least those that receive the most hype.

Here’s another one. Input: Man writing at a desk, background of bookcases. Lamplight. Studious, romantic atmosphere. Impressionistic.

The result:

Man writing – by A.I.

The debate over AI generated art also throws up the old chestnut about the nature of human consciousness, and the belief among the so-called “hard AI” scientists, that it’s just a question of time, and a critical mass of artificial neural complexity, before we create a sentient computer. But this kind of thinking is bourne out of a strictly materialist paradigm, and goes too far for me. Our machines are breathtakingly intelligent, but that’s not the same thing as saying they might ever become sentient. Like a chess playing computer, it does not arrive at its moves by thinking about them like a human player, but its moves are always good ones. It does the same job, but better. Like an electric saw, it’s better than a handsaw in certain applications, but only because we have made it so. And even then, we wouldn’t use it everywhere.

AI sentience also rather presupposes the brain is what generates consciousness, and I do not subscribe to that view either. I’m deeply impressed by A.I. generated artwork, but feel there’s a danger here of setting off down the wrong path in our appreciation of what it means and that, like all A.I., we should not be tempted to make the retrograde leap from master to servant. A.I. serves a purpose. It can protect, it can run complex services on our behalf better than we can ourselves, and it can entertain, but it cannot be allowed to control and delimit, either our actions as free beings, nor supplant our imaginations.

Another one: Input: A young woman in a long red dress, fantasy forest setting, backlit, lush greenery, light rays. Output:

Woman in a red dress, in the forest – by A.I.

A human artist invests time learning how to paint. Then, having mastered the art, a large painting might take months, or even years of the artist’s time to complete, and the end result is always going to be fragile. It’s likely then, a very old painting by a recognisably competent artist will have survived any number of potential calamities, and is worth all the more for its rarity, and the simple fact of its survival. By comparison, a computer generated artwork takes seconds to make, and the result can be backed up digitally so many times as to be virtually immortal. NFTs not withstanding, I know which artwork possesses the greater intangible value, the greater allure, to my own taste and I would care nothing for who owned the digital title to an AI generated artwork. All of which is to say, while AI can produce some stunningly beautiful and provocative images, let’s not lose our heads over what it means.

Is it truly art? Well, yes, I think it is, but certainly not like anything we have known before.

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Town Bridge, Croston

The year begins with a peculiar dream, but more of that later. Right now we’re standing on Town Road at Croston, waiting for a group of tourists to clear off the seventeenth century Town Bridge, then I can grab a picture of it. They’re taking their time, but that’s fine. It’s a good day and there’s no rush. Meanwhile, traffic is whizzing by on its way to the seaside at Southport, this being the last day of the Christmas holidays, and the last gasp for many before it’s back to work tomorrow. It’ll be nice on the promenade, or are they just after the sales? Do actual shops that engage in sales, still exist? My, how much the world has changed in the last few years.

Grade two listed, Town Bridge forms a neat architectural group with the parish church of St Michael’s and All Angels. Then there’s Church Street, and the old school, all of them dating back to the same period, and worth a look if you’re ever passing. It’s also a good place to begin our first walk of the New Year without having to get the car out. The bridge was built in 1682, the same year Halley named his comet. Newton was still very much alive, and Wikipedia tells me we were also still hanging witches. At least we don’t do that any more.

The tourists move off, and we grab the shot.

So, anyway, home territory today, and a hike across the various moss lands to Mawdesley, then Rufford and back, a circuit of around seven miles, and dead flat. It’s a bright day, too, warm in the sunshine, and looking like the only decent day this week. We have all sorts of miserable weather to come, says the weatherman, so today’s the day. I say “home” territory, but I came to Croston in 1994, and still feel myself to be living in exile. By and large, it’s a friendly place though, and plenty of walking from the doorstep, all of it flat, which, being a hill walker, I tend to be a bit sniffy about. But if pressed, I will admit it does have its charms.

Church Street, Croston

Anyway, back to that dream. There was this old grey horse, thrashing about on its back in my garden pond. Then this foal appears and drags it out by its chin. The old horse looks like it’s been through the mill and is starving. It turns to me with a look as if to say: feed me. So I’m thinking what do horses eat, and how can I get hold of some? I’m still pondering this even as I lie awake, until I realise it’s not a real problem I need to solve. Or is it?

Off we go then. From Town Bridge, we take the cobbled way through Church street, past the church with its slightly drunken tower, then through the ginnel, by the old School. Originally built in 1660, the school is now a community resource centre. It also ran a very well attended pre-school group, but lost its funding last year, and is now closed. The effectiveness of cost seems curiously decoupled from the wider values of human need, regardless of how great, how beneficial or how very much in demand that need is.

Croston Old School

Now, we’re out across the River Yarrow and along Carr Lane, a private access road with very little traffic. Vast meadows open up, lush green and glowing in the sunshine. Dotted around are woodland coverts – much of the area still being the preserve of the armed wing of the Tory party – many an otherwise peaceful Sunday morning commencing with volleys of gunfire. Pheasant have been known to seek shelter in my garden.

Then we’re heading south, to Mawdesley, across a flat, largely featureless landscape, all squared up with drainage ditches. Huge agricultural machines lurk in the corners of meadows like slumbering dragons, and we puzzle over their function. Potato picking, maize harvesting, ditch clearing?

Apart from the great bowl of sky, the dominant feature of this stretch is the three shiny, white wind turbines at Cliff’s Farm. Only two are turning today, casting mile long, moving shadows across the land. The third is motionless, its blade tips feathering the wind. The other thing to notice, more subtle, as we pass from Croston to Mawdesley, is the way the earth changes from a sticky, dark clay to a sandy loam – ideal for carrots, which is the dominant crop here.

Wind Turbines, Cliff’s Farm

From Mawdesley we follow the line of New Reed Brook, then across Mill Ditch to Rufford, and the White Bridge, over the River Douglas. It’s a short stretch of road walking, and no pavement, also incredibly busy. Cars approach at speed, and we time it so we can press ourselves into the thorn hedge as they pass. Most give us plenty of room, the drivers wave, as if to say: it’s fine, mate, we can see you. Some don’t. Apparently, it’s a scientific fact, if you drive a BMW, you’re less likely to be considerate to other road users, especially pedestrians. Apologies if you drive a BMW, I’m sure you’re not like that.

Having survived the road section, we’re back along the green lanes, then across the railway line. Here we pick up the River Douglas, which takes us north, towards Croston. The Douglas is an unattractive river, just here. It was deepened and generally fashioned into a giant drainage channel in the eighteenth century, by Dutch engineers. Pumping stations drained the reclaimed farmland on either side, which would otherwise become lakes at this time of year, and the Douglas carries it out to the Ribble estuary. Pumping recently stopped, and the seasonal lakes are returning. It’ll be a slow process, this return to marsh, but an interesting one to observe.

River Douglas, Rufford

This is the last couple of miles of the poor old Douggie, and I find it a sluggish creature. It’s silty, weary with rubbish from all the towns it’s travelled through, also thick with nitrates and effluent from the dairy farms. It’s also tidal. The tide is up just now, but at the ebb you realise how deep the river is, and it gives me the creeps.

So now we pick up Shepherd’s Lane, a long stretch of a thing, all the way to Finney Lane and what I call the Finney Ash, a favourite tree. As I’m lining it up for a photograph, I realise the camera’s been set on “manual” all the way round, and not on “aperture auto” like I’d thought. This means most of the shots I’ve taken are probably either under or over-exposed duds, and I’ll have nothing to illustrate the blog with. Gormlessness is my default setting. Oh, well,…

Finney Lane, Croston

We return to Croston along Cottage Lane, but these are all “lanes” in the ancient meaning of the word – just paths by the field-sides, wide enough for a horse and cart. The Tarmac and the motor car never came this way. As we head east, along Cottage Lane, we can just about make out Darwen Tower, dead ahead, over twelve miles away, reminding us how far we are from the hills, that without the much maligned motor car, this really would be an exile beyond what we could bear. It would take the whole day to reach Darwen by public transport, and the Dales would only be worth the journey for a week’s holiday.

But back to that dream. The old grey horse is me, of course. Or rather, it’s an aspect of the psyche that’s been floundering on its back, in the metaphorical water, and I can relate to that. The symbolism of the foal, however, defeats me. And the hunger? Well, we’re all hungry for something, but mine seems to be vital to well-being, and I’m starving for the lack of it. And we can’t always see what that is, even when it’s staring us in the face.

Cottage Lane, Croston – a distant Darwen Tower.

Such short days, still. The sun is half an hour away from setting, and the shadows in the ditches are darkening, a fine mist beginning to rise. Back home, the car is heavy with dew, and temperatures plummeting under a clear sky. It feels like it’ll be a frosty one. Winter’s no fun when it’s in a foul mood, but on days like this, winter’s as beautiful as any other time of year to be outdoors.

Pity about those photographs.*

https://www.openstreetmap.org/#map=14/53.6454/-2.7724&layers=C

*The photo pixie was looking after us, and most came out all right.

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The year began with higher hopes for poor old Albion. The oracles, on the other hand, predicted another year of farce and tragedy. They were not wrong, but we cannot be blamed for our optimism. Back in January, Covid was on the wane, and we were looking forward to returning to some semblance of normality. The media, too, were itching to move on and were talking up the Sue Gray report. If you recall, this was to be the conclusion of the much vaunted enquiry into the drunken debauchery at the heart of government, throughout the Covid lockdowns. Indeed, for a time, it was all Sue Gray this, and Sue Gray that. But the oracles predicted the report would leave us nonplussed, that it would land with an insipid flop, rather than a weighty thump, and so it did. It did not bring down the perpetrators, let alone the government, for whom it ran more like water off a duck’s back, and the joke was on all of us who had stuck to the rules.

In February, Boris went to Ukraine to channel Churchill, and was successful in doing so. From there onwards, we were, to all intents and purposes, in a proxy war with the old enemy, much to the delight of the war-horny hacks, and to the horror of the rest. Thereafter, we have looked on with increasing despair it could happen on the European continent, after our assumptions a globally interconnected economy would prevent such an illogical barbarism ever happening again. But then we are not a rational species, and barbarism is more often our default setting.

For all of his boosterism, Boris and his Churchillian bluster was gone by the summer. Then came soaring energy costs, two more prime ministers, four chancellors, plunging trade, egregious levels of poverty, a financial crash, a stultifying heat wave, a litany of terrible refugee drownings, and mass industrial action by railwaymen, the health service, and firemen. Oh, and the Queen died. Now, here we are on the cusp of 2023, and no one speaks of Sue Gray any more. She is a forgotten footnote in the history of 2022.

As I write, the temperature indoors is nudging thirteen degrees, unlike the thirty-five we briefly touched in July. I am wearing fingerless thermal gloves, and a heavy fleece jacket, with a hot water bottle tucked inside. I feel quite cosy, but it’s a long way from the normality we sought this time last year, and yet I cannot help reflecting that it has been a good year. It has been a year of broadening horizons, so welcome after the Covid restrictions. It has been a year of boots on the hill – indeed, more hills this year than ever before. It has been a year of photographs framed in memory, of the Yorkshire Dales, of Bowland, of the Western Pennines, and the Lancashire Plain. It has been a year of poetry, of blogging, of completing another novel.

Back in the spring, I captured the header photo, a lone wood anemone in a quiet hollow of the horseshoe of the Yarrow valley. In winter’s grip, we can lose sight of the cycle of the seasons, that the wood anemone will flower again, and that, from a certain perspective at least, all will be well. It’s just a matter of time. It falls to each of us then to seek that perspective as best we can, seek also to frame the beauty of the world, in all its diversity. Therein lies our defiance of the disconnected tomfoolery that seems to constitute today’s high office. It is also our rejection of the ever present deeps of nihilism the media would have us wallow in.

As with the long forgotten Sue Gray report, we cannot bank on those in charge, to change what really matters to those now freezing their nadgers off. The change, the hope, the optimism we are looking for, it’s already inside of us, and only we can deliver it. Were I to consult the oracle for 2023, it would say: more of the same, probably, but be happy anyway. Be thoughtful, be wise in your self, honourable in your doings, and all will be well.

My thanks to everyone who has visited and commented here for another year, at WordPress. Your company along the way is, as always, the greatest pleasure. And to those whose blogs I follow, do press on with the good work. The view of the world through your eyes is far more authentic, and worthwhile, than anything I read elsewhere.

And finally:

A passing silence, echoes of awareness,
resisting now the urge to grasp,
whatever random lines
might be wrought and tapped out
into this story of a self.

Fading now, casting off sensation,
feeling, thought,
we reach the quiet shore
that is this observation of being.

Letting come, and go
without judgement,
these ripples
in golden cornfields
of experience
are where we reap our joy,
and it’s from here
we bring the harvest home.

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Stubai 4 point instep crampons

The cold snap continues, with temperatures down to minus four this morning. There’s been a light fall of snow since we were last out, and it’s become frozen like hammered glass, under a light powdery coating. A clear, dry day today means conditions are too good to be indoors, but we need to find the instep crampons first. I don’t want to end up like the poor old guy who broke his shoulder, and ended up strapped to a plank and driven to A+E by his granddaughter in the back of a van, because there were no ambulances.

Our health service has been running on fumes and the good will of its staff for too long now, and looks finally to have been pushed over the edge everyone, at least on the left of politics, knew was coming. Like Kinnock said in 1987: in the future don’t be young, don’t get old, or ill. He could easily have added: don’t have an accident. He was speaking of the consequences of a win for Thatcher’s conservatism at that year’s election, but our current administration makes hers seem positively benign. They are the most brazenly right-wing we’ve seen since the eighteenth century, and ideologically opposed to the very concept of socialised medicine. And the sharks who keep them in power clearly want it gone.

So, anyway, instep crampons. I bought them after a nightmarish descent from the Old Man of Coniston, one winter, many years ago. I’d gone up the south side which was clear and sunny, then came down the shadow-locked north side, which turned out to be treacherous with rime ice. Fortunately, I haven’t needed them for anything but fun since, and then only rarely do we get the conditions in lowland UK when they’re handy. Not all walking boots are suitable for your full-blown, mountaineering crampon, but with insteps you’re fine. Any old boots will do, and they take up hardly any room in the sack. Mine are old Stubai 4 points, probably considered antique now, but they still work.

The roads are clear as far as Rivington, though no further. Sheephouse Lane has been abandoned to the elements, and is closed to traffic. The first job is to remember how to put the crampons on. People are slithering about all over the place, so it looks like I’m justified in taking the precautions. We’ll do the Pike, up by the Ravine and the Great Lawn, then circle back by Wilcock’s and Dean Wood. A shorter walk than last week’s, then. About five miles and a thousand feet. The light is stunning – crisp and bright – and we should get some good shots.

The way becomes scrunchy and Christmas card-ish very quickly. I recall the insteps require a conscious effort to hit the ice with the rear spikes first, feel them bite, then roll into the front ones, but once we’ve got into the rhythm, it’s like engaging four-wheel drive. What is it about snow that gets us excited? It’s sufficiently rare here, I suppose, but it also adds another dimension to the landscape, turns the familiar into an adventure, and there’s the lovely way it paints blown-out highlights on bare trees. Then there’s the cold, and the feeling of aliveness as we warm up through our exertions in the sharp air.

The Ravine, Rivington Terraced Gardens

During the summer, the terraced garden volunteers had been working on clearing more of the Ravine, and it’s astonishing, the details they’ve uncovered – pools and runnels that have lain hidden for a century. We try a few shots here, but nothing really grabs us. It needs lots of tumbling water, so, we’ll be back after heavy rains. What we’re really anticipating as we climb, is a picture of the Pike, under snow. Along the way we note the old building that was once a public lavatory (abandoned for years as a vandalised abomination) is now re-purposed as a café, which explains the trail of discarded paper cups I’ve been following on the way up.

A glorious day, yes, and one to be enjoyed, but now and then I can’t help fretting over the various trials of my offspring, as they attempt to gain a foothold in the world. Number one son, recently moved out, has been awaiting an Internet connection for a month, and is no nearer a resolution even though he’s already paid for a month’s service – that he’s required to work from home is impacting his job, so he commutes to my place and occupies my study. And number two son, mortgaged to the eyeballs in a two bed starter home, has just found out he needs a new roof, though the survey said everything was just fine. I’m realising parenthood is for life. You never stop worrying, be they five or twenty-five. Indeed, the older they get, the worse it is, because you know you have to close your eyes, let them go, and get on with it.

There are other young men having a fine old time, here, sledging down the Pike. I wonder why they are not at work, or if the world has changed so much, I was a fool to keep going until the age of sixty, that for all those years, there were people half my age having a Beano on the Pike. I don’t know what the secret is, but do not begrudge their obvious fun. I’m only puzzled as to why it took me so long to wise up.

Rivington Pike, Winter 2022

The snow is deeper here as we reach the high point of the walk, at around 1200 ft. The crampons loosen as the boots warm up. A shake of the foot reveals the problem. Tighten the strap and on we go. We walk a little way along the path to Noon Hill, so we can shoot the Pike under snow with a starburst of sun. I wonder briefly then about carrying on to Noon Hill, across the open moor, but that’s a tougher walk than I fancy today, so we stick to plan A, come back to the Pigeon Tower, then down through the terraced gardens.

Pigeon Tower, Rivington, Winter 2022

There are mega-buck four-wheel drives – kings for a day – on the Higher House carpark, which suggests they ignored the road-closed signs on Sheephouse Lane. The road here is like glass, and nearly as hard, but the spikes keep us upright and enable steady progress to Wilcocks, along what resembles, in places, a river of ice. Then we cut for home, along the top of Dean Wood. There’s nothing like the feel of those spikes biting, and they keep you firm in places where you’d ordinairly not be able to stand up! No, now is not the time for a broken leg and A+E.

Then I’m thinking back ten years, to a night in Preston Royal. The ward was like a war zone, the staff clearly knackered, yet kind, and the surgeon with a face that betrayed the weight of the world on his shoulders, and my mother discharged into the dead of night, to die of inoperable cancer. I’d hoped they might let her rest until morning, but they needed that bed for someone they’d a chance of saving. And so it goes.

It’s fine if you’re fit and healthy, but at some point we all need care, even if it’s only for the final few weeks, to see us out. So, for pity’s sake, fellow Brits, wake up. Don’t let’s go the way where a health emergency costs us our house and our life’s savings, and our children their house, and their life savings too, and all so an already rich man, lacking in self consciousness and shame, can indulge his whim for an ocean going yacht, or a doomsday bunker in New Zealand. Don’t let me carry that one into my next novel. I’m looking for the off-ramp into the bliss of Zen, not back into the mire of class warfare.

Dean Wood Avenue

A little after two now, and the sun is creeping low. It’s dead ahead as we walk this avenue of ancient chestnuts, now – such a beautiful stretch, filled with memories of hunting conkers with my children. Pockets full, and still plenty left for all comers, and the squirrels too. I wonder at how quickly the time has flown, and how little of it we have to enjoy the company of our children – though I also recall it doesn’t always feel like that when you’re in the thick of it. Though my boys have left home now, I still collect a few conkers in passing, come the season, just for the sentiment. Anyway, the light is dreamy now, so we chance a shot – late day, winter ambiance – and then again as we walk the brookside path towards Church Meadows.

Towards the Church Meadows, Rivington

Then we’re back to Rivington, and the car, and peeling off the boots. This is such a small beat, and I’ve known it all my life, but it keeps on giving. Whatever bit of green is your part of the world, you will never know any other so well, and so intimately. And that’s a gift.

Now the temperature’s falling, and we’re looking at another sub-zero night, but the Met office says rain and ten degrees come weekend. We have to enjoy these things while we can.

Keep safe.

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A Lone Tree Falls, my fourteenth novel, is now up on Smashwords. My relief at finally nailing this one suggests it may be my last piece of long form fiction for a while. It may also be that my stories were, in part, merely an escape from the workaday life, and now, safely retired, I simply don’t need them any more. Time will tell.

The merit or otherwise of my stories, is for others to judge and for me to accept, but they were at the very least, each of them, written with a mood for something to say. Anyway, it’s available for download here, and from the margin of the page, price free, as usual. It works best if you’re reading on a phone or a pad. Clicking the link will take you to Smashwords, where you’ll see the download options, and the book should open up in your reader.

Like my previous story “Winter on the Hill”, it’s not a hopeful book, at least not in so far as the direction of travel suggested by contemporary world events is concerned. But, also in common with its predecessor, it builds on the idea of getting at a shift of perspective, one that’s always been available down the ages, yet which remains hidden or even secret, but it’s a secret that seems to come looking for you, once you’re open to it. Otherwise, it won’t make sense. It enables the individual at least to step back from the madness we see when we doomscroll on our phones, to dis-identify with it and re-orientate ourselves to a more meaningful purpose. To do otherwise is simply to participate in, and perpetuate, the suffering, not just of ourselves, but others too.

The first week always sees the most downloads, I presume because the book appears on the new releases page, and gets its brief moment in the sun. So, there’s an early peak and then a rapid tail off as we’re covered over by the sedimentary layers built up of the daily slew of new arrivals. If you keep the price free, you can expect some downloads. How many? Well, it varies, and for no reason that’s obvious to me:

My story Push Hands has been up since 2013 and has managed 720 downloads. Saving Grace is my best “seller”, having been up since 2019 and managed 2600. If you set an actual price, even as low as you’re permitted ($0.99) you can expect next to no downloads at all. My story “The Inn at the Edge of Light” is the only story I briefly set a price for, as an experiment. It made $4, so hardly a living. Even after setting it back to free, its performance has been rather poor, racking up only 130 downloads in three years. So, even at peak, downloads are a bit sleepy. Reviews and feedback are also rare, but all told I’m happy with Smashwords. It seems a solid platform, and manages to keep going.

At the moment, I don’t have another story lined up, nothing burning inside of me that wants out. The blog is proving far more meaningful in fitting in with the rhythm of my retired life – the walking, the reading, the observation. And that it enables a more regular contact with other like-minded human beings, via the comments, is far more satisfying than plugging away in isolation at a piece of long-form fiction. That may change in the coming weeks and months, as something takes shape in the subconscious, but I’m not pushing it. Each novel I write is a puzzle that demands a solution. It’s like your crossword, or your Soduko. Once you start, you can’t rest until it’s done, even though there’s no actual point to the exercise beyond your own satisfaction, and perhaps a little dopamine kick when it all comes together.

The best advice I can give to budding writers is, if you like to write, then write, because I think it’s good for the soul, and therefore perhaps benefits you more than anyone else. If it starts doing your head in, or making you miserable, then it’s not working, and you should do something else.

Thanks for listening.

Graeme out.

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Not Andrew

After a long run of wet days, you know the paths will be a quagmire, so good footwear is in order. But on the way out, I pull up at the garage for a bit of petrol, and realise I’ve left my boots at home. I’ve been distracted of late, the memory having reached capacity – one more thing in, like remembering to put the bin out, and out pops something else, like remembering to pick up the walking boots. By the time I’ve gone back for them, the time will be too short for a decent walk, so, what to do? A change of plan is required, which is why I’m now wandering Eccleston’s Grove Mill, otherwise known as Bygone Times.

The Grove has been around, in one form or another, since the seventeenth century, but finally called a halt to manufacturing in 1980. It now houses one of the biggest collections of junk, antiques, bric-a-brack and up-cycled what-nottery you can imagine, as well as several ghosts. On your first visit you pay £3.00 on the door to get life membership, and a little gold card. On subsequent visits, you just flash your card like a VIP, and you’re waved in for free.

I like to pop in now and then on the hunt for broken clocks. I’ve had an eye on an Acctim pendulum clock for a while, and I’m tempted to finally take the plunge today, if it’s still there. It is. Closer inspection, though, reveals it’s not a true mechanical movement, but “electronically assisted” and therefore beyond my competence if it proves to be a fixer-upper. Plus, at the asking price, I’d expect it to be working, and what I really want is a project, for a tenner.

Furniture, books, vinyl records, old tools, maps, a curious and fantastically hairy tweed kilt jacket with waistcoat, but minus the kilt, walking sticks, paintings, musical instruments, garden ornaments, pot-pourri, fine china, cracked china, wool, art supplies, ancient postcards, Victoriana, Art Deco, sixties chic, seventies sideburns and bell-bottoms,… it’s all here, and more. I can only manage a half hour before my head starts to spin.

Then I see Andrew.

Andrew is lying on his back amid an assortment of clock bits, springs, wheels, pendulums, empty cases, screwdrivers, hacksaws, oily bits, rusty bits, broken bits and sad bits. Gingerly, we lift him clear from this detritus and have a look for signs of life. He has a nice looking two-train movement, by Perivale, which means a passing strike on the half hour, and he counts the hours at the top. He has a platform escapement instead of a pendulum, and I’ve been after one of those for a while. They’re expensive to replace, and hard to source, when bust, but this one looks okay. His case is in good nick, but the glass is missing, and there’s no key, so we can’t give it a turn and see if he’s ticking.

Date? Late fifties to mid-sixties? Perivale’s Middlesex factory had links with Bentima, another English clockmaker, and, like the Grove Mill, was a milestone in domestic manufacturing, its rise, its decline and its final extinction.

The rear plate is thick with a gummy oil which doesn’t bode well, but for the price, Andrew’s worth a punt, and will be interesting to tinker with on rainy days. Often, a good strip and clean is all that’s required. Why do we call him Andrew? Well, it says so on the dial. Okay then, Andrew, mate. You’re coming home with me. He smells of fags, but we’ll soon cure him of that.

At home, we borrow a key from Norman, another of my clocks. (All my clocks have names). We give him a cautious wind. He’s hesitant at first, like someone woken up after a long sleep, then off he goes, and settles to a lively ticking. Goodness knows when he last ran, but he seems keen to make up for lost time. He keeps good time, too, bongs when he should, and with a rich resonance. There’s not much wrong with him. A new glass off Ebay, cleaning and oiling, and he’ll be as good as new.

Some people rescue puppies, or cats, or birds, or hedgehogs. I rescue old clocks, not your posh country house type clocks, more the clocks that might once have sat on the mantle-piece of your grandma’s house, and kept the time of an ordinary kind of living, the kind of clocks that were practical, humble, reliable, didn’t need batteries or plugging in, and were not made to be thrown away. These are the forgotten clocks, the clocks the high priests of clock mending dismiss in favour of the luxury end, and they charge the earth to get things going. So your grandma’s clock ends up in the bin, and one by one they’re disappearing from the world for want of a bit of attention.

But not Andrew.

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