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Archive for the ‘My Notes’ Category

Mossy bridge in Sunnyhurst Woods

I’m sitting by the ornamental lake in Sunnyhurst Woods, near Darwen, having walked over from Ryal Fold. It’s a mild, soft lit day, in mid-January, a faint mist washing out the distant hills. The woods are deep-shaded in this poor light of winter, and they are moist. The breath is rising, and the luncheon soup-pot is steaming. The stonework of the bridge I’ve just crossed is thick with moss. There is something of fairyland about it.

I came out to take a picture of the ruins on Green Hill, which I first saw some weeks ago, and I’ve done that, now. I’ve also shot the ornamental falls, here in the woods. The Green Hill ruins are not accessible, being on private farmland, but I have a long lens that got me within useful range. As a strictly amateur photographer, it’s hard to explain what I’m trying to achieve, wandering the North in all seasons, like this, taking landscape photographs. I mean this in the sense of what difference it makes to anything, at least in the materially measurable, tangible way.

The ruin on Green Hill, Ryal Fold.

Intangibly, though, the difference is felt in the gut. My photography and my writing about it on here, brings me into a deeper relationship with the land, and that’s enough, indeed that’s all any of the contemporary arts are about, as practised by most of us, just deepening the soul a bit. What does that mean? Well, it’s like keeping the door open on something “other”, because, so long as that door is kept open, the “other” will get to work on us in ways that makes us feel more whole, more connected. It provides a balance to the material life, which has no meaning and connects us with nothing, other than a pathological craving for more of the same. We don’t need a camera for that. A notebook, a pencil and a box of watercolours did it for the Romantics. Anyway, I’m mostly following my nose today, probably heading up Darwen Moor next.

The ornamental falls, Sunnyhurst Woods, Darwen, Lancs

To get here, I’ve walked the amusingly named Trash Lane, a rutted quagmire, towards the equally amusing Tottering Temple. The latter is no longer marked on the maps. I’m referring to an 1849, six inch edition, courtesy of the National Library of Scotland, along with the more contemporary GPS version, so both past and present are informing the imagination. There’s a definite charm about those early, hand-drawn, OS maps, and they pick up a lot of detail that would otherwise be lost to us: Tottering temple, Mount Pleasant, Back o’th Moor. I don’t know how these places got their names, or if they’re still used.

Anyway, next up, we’ll tackle the hill, and see how the restoration of Darwen Tower is progressing, then return via Stepback brook. It’s about five miles round, lots to see along the way. So, we climb out of the woods to the Lych Gate, turn left for the Sunnyhurst pub, then right, up the ginnel, and onto the moor. The tower, built in 1897, is wrapped in plastic, now, and nestles within an exoskeleton of scaffolding, while extensive works are undertaken. I decide to avoid it, skirting below instead, to the 1200 ft contour. Here, the westward view tempts a sit down with the binoculars.

It’s from here I spot an interesting waterfall on Stepback brook. That’s another curious name, “Stepback”, this one taking us back to the 1640’s, and the English civil war. Local legend has it Cromwell’s men were after a bunch of Royalists in the area, but called the chase off, and “stepped back”. I’m not sure if I believe in that one, though. If you look at the landscape hereabout from over Withnell way, it appears as a set of giant steps, rising to Cartridge Hill, and I prefer that explanation, though I admit, the Cromwellian one is much more colourful.

The area certainly saw a lot of action in the civil war. Indeed, one of the most appalling atrocities ever committed on English soil was carried out by Royalists, not far from here, when James Stanley, the 7th Earl of Derby’s, men went berserk, murdering and raping in Bolton, in May 1644. One of those who came to grief in that terrible event was a young girl from Whewell’s farm, now a bleak ruin on the moor’s edge, and just a short walk from where I’m sitting now.

It was her father, George, who had the later satisfaction of beheading the Earl of Derby, by the market cross in Bolton. George Whewell’s skull resides to this day in the Pack Horse pub, at Affetside. At least, legend has it this is Whewells’s skull. How it came to be detached from his body is the subject of another legend, which tells of how, after the Restoration, the Royalists had their revenge on George. The skull is associated with paranormal activity, if it’s ever moved. So it stays where it is. I’m still wrestling with the moral of this one. I suppose the nearest I can get is that violence begets violence, and a continuation of suffering, long into the future, no matter how right the violence seems at the time.

So, anyway, we make our way down from the hill, pick up the path by the brook, wander upstream a bit, and there’s the fall, a lovely cascade spilling over a lip of gritstone. It’s enchanting, and I spend a good while here fiddling about with the camera. I thought I knew the area fairly well, but there’s always something new to discover. A wonderful note on which to end our walk,

The falls on Stepback Brook, near Ryal Fold, Darwen, Lancs

It’s mid-afternoon, now, and the best of the light is going. On the way back to the car, at Ryal Fold, I meet plenty of pilgrims setting out for the tower. An elderly couple asks directions. I worry about them; it’ll be dark by the time they’re off the moor. I’ve noticed this before, people heading up the hill, when I’ve calculated my descent in the last hour of daylight. A friend of mine has concluded they’re not humans, but aliens, going up to meet the mother-ship. Any other reason would be too far-fetched.

All told, then, a good day, making the best of the forecast, and discovering a new waterfall. It’s given cold and gloomy for a few days now. Indeed, it’s looking like stormy days ahead in other ways, too, but the past teaches us there’s nothing new under the sun. England in the civil war was hell on earth, now mostly forgotten, except for some place names, and some intriguing legends, not least among them the abiding mystery of the Affetside Skull.

Thanks for listening.

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A focus on the Self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A lone cop on the skyline

A run to Malham. Midweek, mid-morning, busy as hell. The village sits at the apex of a triangle of some of the most iconic landscape features in England. So, on the one hand we shouldn’t be surprised by its popularity, and on the other, if we don’t like it, we should learn to avoid it. But I like it – how can one not? So here we are again.

The day will leave me pensive, but it doesn’t start out like that. I’m here in company with my son, and the day is for enjoying. It’s a fine day, clear blue skies, but there’s an edge to the air, and a chill in the shade. We do the features: Janet’s Foss, Gordale Scar, then come out atop Malham Cove. It’s a well-worn tourist circuit, easy to follow. You just have to be careful on the Cove, and mind the edge.

For those who don’t know the Dales, Malham Cove is a vast, curving limestone pavement with exposed drops of several hundred feet. It’s a stunning spectacle, easy to get to, and therefore always busy with enthusiastic visitors.

We see the cop early on. Odd that, a cop, atop Malham Cove. Never seen that before. Then the Air Ambulance flies in, this fragile little yellow whirligig, and lands at the cove bottom. The crowds on top gather to the edge to watch, mobile phones held high. Exposed heights give me the willies, so I’m way back, watching the cop, and from whose body language I’m writing the story in my head. I hope I’m wrong, but it looks like someone has fallen. And to fall from the cove, I can think of no survivable scenarios.

The helicopter is taking off as we reach the cove bottom. There’s another audience here, filming with their phones. A 4K record of the event seems inappropriate. How to assimilate this? I imagine the last few seconds of a life, slipping from the edge on an otherwise lovely, sunny day. I did not see the fall, but I feel it.

As we leave the valley of the raised phones, we look back and see the cop. He’s on the skyline of the eastern face, looking down. It needs no photograph. The image is burned into the mind’s eye. The east face is the most treacherous. There is a lovely sward of close-cropped grass on top. It dips gently, tempting one into closer acquaintance with the drama of the cove. But it ends in a slip and sudden free-fall.

I’ve read how people often come off there. The cops go up to look for personal effects, the bodies are brought down to await the undertaker. The emergency services make their reports. There is a paragraph in the local newspaper. The earth turns. The gathered crowds pocket their phones. Life goes on.

This is my second attempt at writing. The first, my muddled subliminal self, deleted as being somehow ill-considered. I mean, what’s the difference between standing there with my phone out, and recording here with the imagery of words? I hope there is a difference, and that it means something more than mere voyeurism.

Amongst all the venerable mountain-men I have known, there is this belief, that to have died on, or going up, or coming off a mountain, is infinitely better than to have been hit by a car, or to have languished long in an old folk’s home. I am tempted to share that belief, and to hope I will share also in the imagined cleanness of its fate. But then I remember that lone cop, on the sky-line of Malham Cove. He seems to ask: are you sure you mean that?

Thanks for listening.

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Photographers are complaining about Instagram. They’ve spent years cultivating, and indeed buying, followers, and they’ve enjoyed watching the number of “likes” they get, soar. They’ve reached the point where they can put up a picture of a bent, rusty nail and tens of thousands will see it and like it. They feel epic. Hundreds are flocking to their linked web-sites, clamouring to buy prints of their work – they say. Life is good.

But then Instagram’s algorithm changes. Suddenly they’re lucky if they’re getting a hundred hits, and their entire business model collapses. It means anyone with an old Android phone can now put up a wonky snap of a girl in her underwear, and it’ll easily trump the pernickety artisan’s rusty nail pictures, taken with his pro-camera gear. I sympathise, but are we really surprised?

As an amateur photographer, I’ve enjoyed Instagram. It took a while for my pictures to gain any kind of traction, but eventually you find a group of like-minded people, follow them, and they follow you and, without gaming the system, your pictures are getting liked, and you’re swapping comments in that social media kind of way. Personally, I’ve not noticed a collapse in my support, but then I’m not selling anything. True I could get more attention if I started putting up pictures of girls in their underwear, instead of trees, I mean if it’s the popularity I crave, which I suppose it is. But not that way.

Of course, you can argue Instagram is more of a lifestyle blogging, “influencer” social media thing, anyway, and was never intended to be infiltrated by serious photographers. There are better places for them to put their stuff, I suppose. I don’t know. It depends on what you mean by serious.

Photographers using Instagram, amateur or otherwise, lifestyle influencer or otherwise, produce original content – the stuff that’s worth looking at – for Instagram to then pepper with adverts. In other words, on social media sites, it’s not about us at all. It’s about ad-revenue and selling stuff. True, without us, there’d only be adverts, and no one would be looking at them. But we avail ourselves of a free service for our own ends – whatever they may be – and we can’t complain when we have no say in how the platform is run.

I’ve been on Instagram for many years, and it’s not made me famous. The idea was to lure people across to the blog, and my books, but it rarely does. What it has done though is introduce me to parts of the world others have found worth photographing, and has inspired me to put them on my list of places to visit, also to up my game in terms of picture taking. As an enthusiastic amateur, I’ve derived a great deal of pleasure from it, so I’m not of a mind to quit the platform in a huff.

But what other options are there for the huff-taken photographer? Well there’s Flikr of course. Flikr’s been around since the year dot. While Instagram was originally aimed at spontaneous quick-snapping phone photographers, Flikr was more for your enthusiast or professional, with a proper camera. You’re not limited to the low-res format of Instagram, and you can use it to store images for yourself and others to download (presently up to a 1000). Flikr offers a free (ad supported) account, or a paid Pro account, costing around a fiver per month. Personally I’ve found it a bit of a wilderness though. I’ve had pictures on there for years, and they’ve attracted no visitors – I really don’t know what the secret is.

Which brings us finally to YouPic [Y]. Like Flikr, YouPic is aimed at the enthusiast and the professional photographer. Pro prices start at around £10 a month, but again there is a free option, which comes without the frills, and it limits you to just one upload per day. That sounds a bit tight, but if you’re spending time post-processing a picture to get it looking awesome, you’re not going to be churning them out. It makes you selective, and I’m happy with that.

There also a “gamey” feature where you gain points as you go along, though I’m not entirely clear for what yet, nor how many levels there are (I’m currently at level 6 but if that means dunce or demi-god, I don’t know). I’ve tried a few recent pictures on there, and the immediate response has been surprisingly positive, with lots of views and comments, and, significantly, no adverts. It remains to be seen if this level of exposure continues, or if it’s just a teaser to lure you in, and will tail off over the coming weeks. But, so far, I’m impressed. Naturally, the paid members get greater exposure, and fair enough. The quality of photography on there is generally very high.

But why showcase our pictures anyway? Is it not a bit, “look at me”? As always, there is a danger in chasing the fake approval of the “like” button. But we’re also social creatures, and like to share our experiences. And a photograph is an experience. “Here, I saw this. What do you think?” It’s partly to affirm our own existence, but also to seek connection with those who are like-minded. Decades ago, the amateur photographer was sending his transparencies to the photography or the walking magazines, in the hope of publication. Or he was a club member, entering competitions and putting on exhibitions. Those are still options of course, but I found the magazines were a dead loss, and the clubs were cliquey. Online suits me fine.

Which is the best platform for sharing photography? Probably the one I’ve yet to discover. But of the three listed above, they all have their pros and cons. Use them all, but don’t expect them to make you a famous photographer. That’s more of a calling and, as with any other art, it requires a single-minded approach with unassailable levels of enthusiasm, self belief, as well as superlative levels of skill. And not a little luck.

Happy snapping.

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The Brandywine? Ribble Valley, Lancashire

It’s Galadriel who points out the sand martins, nesting in holes in the sandy banks, where the Calder meets the Ribble. The adults are scooping insects up from over the river and delivering them to their young. This is exhilarating for the watcher, but it’s clearly no fun being a bird. Being a bird, she says, is evolution cut to the bone. Only men and elves have evolved the time and the luxury to write poetry. Elven poetry of course is far superior, she adds, and it would be bad form for me to disagree.

There used to be a ferry here, a rowing boat across the Ribble. She tells me it was possibly the inspiration behind the ferry the hobbits used to escape their ghoulish pursuers in the opening trilogy of J R R Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings. It’s also said by those in search of Middle Earth, the confluence of the rivers, the Hodder and the Calder, feeding into the Ribble matches the confluence of the Brandywine, Withywindle and the Shirebourn – the three rivers of Tokien’s mythical Shire. Personally, I think that’s a bit of a stretch, since the Hodder feeds in about a kilometre upstream from here. But okay, let’s say the Ribble Valley might have inspired the work, along with many other parts of the English countryside, but does Lancashire make too much of its place in Tolkien lore? Oh, very much so, she says. But such is life, and the way of celebrity. We agree the man himself would have been nonplussed to have a walk named after him. For a guide to all the landscapes that might have inspired Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Galadriel says to click here.

The Hodder

When I first came this way, it was not called the Tolkien Trail. I’m not sure when that happened. She suspects it was to do with the movie trilogy, and certain enterprising publicans in Hurst Green. As for actual Tolkien scholars, she doubts we’re much on the radar. Tolkien lived in and around Stonyhurst college for a time, when his son was studying for the priesthood. That period coincided with his writing of the Lord of the Rings, which took him from 1937 to 1949. That it only appeared in print in 1955 is suggestive of some of the problems he had with his publishers.

If he was looking for a few hours walk, a quick squint at the map would have yielded a likely route. That’s how I pieced it together, and others before me. Maybe he did the same. It’s impossible to say, but that’s what they call it now: The Tolkien Trail. Weekdays, says Galadriel, one can still enjoy the tranquillity of it, but come weekend, it’s getting hammered, and in places the stress is showing.

Arriving earlier in Hurst Green, we were assailed by notices warning us not to park stupidly. There was plenty of space on the village hall car-park, with its honesty box. But I’m guessing of a weekend you’ll need to come crack of dawn-ish, or not at all.

We had a murky start, with a heavy, moody overcast, and a humid stickiness. By degrees, though, the day freshened, and the trees began to move. The camera was on the last bar of charge, but I had a spare battery, so I wasn’t bothered, until I realized I’d left the battery in the car. By now we were a mile out, and I wasn’t for turning back. I’d have to be sparing with the shots, and anyway, she reminded me, you’ve seen it all before, and the best bits you can’t take pictures of anyway. You just have to feel them.

We skirted the college, came down to the Hodder through Over Hacking wood, then followed the river downstream. The river was low and moving sleepy-slow. From a distance, it has the look of stewed tea, but up close there are attractive shades of green as it reflects the trees. We met a few walkers along the way, exchanged greetings. None noticed Galadriel. Elven folk can be like that – invisible to all but those they allow to see them.

It was mostly tranquil. There was just the one incident where a dog leaped a fence and set an entire meadow of sheep running for their lives, and the man chasing the dog seeming only to make matters worse. Each to their own, she mused, but wondered why people did not adopt small children instead. They’re much less trouble, can be taught to behave without having to tie them to you all the time. Also, the payback is immense. I tell her people are strange creatures and can rarely be fathomed rationally. She agrees.

Just before the Hodder enters the Ribble, we arrive at the busy B6243 and Cromwell’s Bridge, or so called – a romantic ruin spanning the river. It features large on Instagram. There were more warnings here about parking stupidly. I didn’t bother with a photograph. You can’t get a good one anyway without trespassing, and I wanted to save the battery. Here’s one I took earlier.

So then we come to the Ribble, and the sand-martins nesting in its banks, and we watch them for a while. Then she points out this lone fisherman, mid-stream casting his fly into the turbulence where the waters meet. I ask if I should cook up a haiku about him, but she says not to bother. He’s looking strangely at us. Perhaps he doesn’t like the way we’ve come down off the path to get a better view of the sand-martins. The river bank here bristles with the Anglefolk’s proprietary warnings. It’s his loss, she says.

The Winkley Oak

I read Tolkien’s books when I was in my twenties. There’s a lot in them. Indeed, they contain the life scholarship of a very clever man. It’s also where I first met Galadriel. The movies are a significant achievement, given that, for such a long time, the story was considered un-filmable. But, good as they are, they lack the literary depth of the novels, obviously. The novels can sustain several re-readings, and always a fresh discovery at a mythic or an archetypal level.

Tolkien was about so much more than elves and wizards, goblins, and trees that talk. But I guess that’s all he’ll be remembered for. It’s interesting how the Lord of the Rings and its prequel, The Hobbit, enjoyed by so many readers, young and old, have also been banned from conservative Christian homes, and institutions for their “irreligious” themes. Galadriel wrinkles her nose at that one, but agrees the stories touch a nerve at many levels.

We leave the fisherman to it, make our way back to Hurst Green. The path climbs from the river valley, the lower reaches of it washing away now with erosion from a heavy footfall. It will be challenging in the wet, and needs some restoration work. Finally, it’s across a meadow of lazy, sunbathing sheep, to emerge at the back of the Shireburn Arms.

“Fancy a drink?” I ask, though I’m not sure if this is the proper etiquette when dealing with Elven royalty.

She pulls a face. “No, let’s just paste it home, and have a cup of tea in the back garden, shall we?”

Sounds good to me. But of course, long before I’ve hit the M6, I turn to her, a question on my lips, and she’s gone. Elves are like that.

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The story of the Fisher King is best known as a fragment of the Arthurian Grail myth. It comes to us from various sources, the earliest being Celtic paganism. Later versions are more Christianized and somewhat opaque to analysis – at least for me. But essentially, the story speaks of the wasteland of the world, and a malaise we feel unable to heal. I’ve been confused by its various tellings, and am therefore grateful to Robert Johnson’s book, “The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden”, for stripping away the layers of literary flourish, romanticism, and religiosity, and for helping me to get to grips with the mythical core of it.

We each react to life in different ways, depending on our personality type. In Jungian typology there are four functions: Thinking, Intuiting, Sensing and Feeling. Thinking, we weigh the facts, but in doing so our thoughts attach no particular value to themselves. Sensing, we take the world in through our senses, but again our senses themselves pass no judgment on those sensations. Intuiting, we leap the gaps in logic, but we intuit no value to our intuitions. Only the feeling function adds life-value, adds meaning to the world we perceive but, sadly, most of us are underdeveloped in the feeling function. Life therefore lacks meaning, and we compensate by chasing it through the other functions: thinking, and seeking ever more sensual experience, but this is fruitless; only feeling can bring meaning back into our lives. Only feeling can restore the full richness to a world that is on the one hand technologically advanced, but on the other emotionally bankrupt.

This is what the story of the Fisher King is about – our loss of feeling, the reasons why, and, like all myths, having lost it (because as humans we always lose it) how we get it back.

So, the story goes, we find ourselves in a barren land, night coming on amid an endless forest and, just as we think we are lost, we discover a lake. On the lake there is a boat, and in the boat there is a man, fishing. We are looking for shelter, for nourishment, for safety, so ask directions. The man tells us there is no dwelling, no nourishment, no place of safety within thirty miles, but if we go down the road we’re on, just a little way, then turn left, we will find a castle. If we cross the drawbridge and enter, we will be received and welcomed.

So, here’s a contradiction: there is no place of safety for many miles, yet, just down the way a little, turn left, and there’s a castle, the ultimate symbol of fortified safety. But this is no ordinary castle. This is the Grail castle, place of legend – the Grail being any one of various symbolic maguffins, depending on which version of the story you read. Later Christian versions have it as the cup of Christ, earlier versions as a Celtic cauldron, the source of all life, still others as a stone that fell from the heavens. However you choose to represent it, and whatever the nature of your malaise, the important thing to remember about the Grail is that its mere proximity can bring healing.

All of this is mythical, metaphorical – not literal – so the castle does not exist anywhere but in the imagination. That’s what the mysterious fishing man means – no dwelling within thirty miles, nothing in the material world will bring us safety. So carry on a bit – do as you were doing before – but turn left, symbolic of the way of the inner life. To find safety therefore, we must cross a liminal zone, cross the castle moat, the drawbridge. There we find ourselves in a special place, the infinite ground of being, the collective unconscious, the underworld, the world of the Fey, the place where myth plays out.

Every night there is a ceremony at the castle, just as every night we dream. The castle is the inner self. Every night, the Grail is paraded, and each participant is invited to partake of it. Everyone does so, except for the one man who cannot. This is the man we encountered earlier, the fisherman. But it turns out he’s also the king, the keeper of the Grail, and he’s a sick man, too ill to live, yet unable to die. Another contradiction! Could it be, we are describing ourselves here, and the condition of the modern man?

What’s wrong with him? Well, there are various explanations, but most stories have it, he was shot through the groin by an arrow that cannot be pulled out. The wound has left him infertile. He’s unable to rule effectively, so his kingdom ails, as he ails. It has become a wasteland. The only thing that gives him temporary respite is fishing on the lake, symbolic of our dabbling with anything that connects us with the unconscious, no matter how tenuous.

He might be cured of his ills, but only by an innocent stranger attending the ceremony of the Grail, and asking a specific question. Are we that innocent stranger? And what is the question? Don’t worry about the answer, the answer will be given. Just asking the right question is sufficient to unlock the puzzle, and cure the king.

All the characters in the myth, as in our dreams, are aspects of ourselves, so we are both the innocent traveller, and the king. We also possess the healing properties of the grail, but are unable to partake of it. To understand why, we need to know more about how the king was wounded, how we were wounded. To be wounded in the groin is symbolic – obviously boding ill for our ability to be fertile, to create. So, it’s bad for the man, and bad for the future of his generations. So our kingdom stagnates. How did things come to such a dreadful pass? Well, it all began with a fish, but not just any fish: the King of fish, the Salmon.

The Salmon harks back to the Celtic roots of the story, it having echoes in the Salmon of Knowledge, from the Irish, Fenian Myth cycle. There, the Salmon gains all the wisdom in the world by eating the hazelnuts that fell into the Well of Wisdom from the trees that encircle it. To catch the Salmon and eat it would therefore bestow the wisdom of the world upon the eater. At this point the stories diverge significantly. In the Celtic, the eating of the salmon indeed brings wisdom, but not to the man intended. In the English and continental European versions, the knowledge is so fierce it burns the eater, and results in his dreadful wounding.

Being all-knowing robs us of a sense of the value and meaning of life. Only contact with the Grail can temper such hardness and help us back on the path. But the wounded fisher is, ironically, too weakened by his wisdom to partake of it, even though he is charged also with being the holder and protector of his own salvation. It requires a return to a certain unaffected innocence, and reminding ourselves of the question:

What question? “Whom does the Grail serve?”

And the reply: “It serves the King.”

By the King, here, is meant something bigger than ourselves. We can call it service to God(s), to the awakening universe, or All that Is, either by seeking direct communion with it, or indirectly through selfless service to others. The story of the Fisher King teaches us that, by the acquisition of knowledge alone, we serve only a part of our selves. We facilitate our technological development, our civilization, but all of this comes at the price of our ultimate development, our evolutionary destiny, as a species.

We are far more technologically advanced now than we were in the Middle Ages, but are no more psychologically evolved, which makes us only the more dangerous to our selves, as our technology outstrips our ability to use it wisely. Without humility and the sense of serving something greater, the world will always lack meaning. And without that sense of meaning, we can never realize our potential, no matter how powerful a gift, the gift of the Salmon of Wisdom.

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I begin with an apology to those who have downloaded my story “Winter on the hill”. I’ve been going through it in recent days and discovered it’s riddled with more typos than usual. This is embarrassing. There’s a fresh copy on Smashwords now which tidies it up somewhat. Still, there’s no getting away from the fact I’ve been a bit distracted this year. We all have, I know. But worse, I began the year angry, and that’s never a good sign, and certainly not a good start.

It suggests there were more shadow issues inside me than I’d thought. This is always the case, the shadow leading us on a merry dance all our lives – a blessing when we can spot his tricks, a curse when we do not. The trigger for my anger was the result of the December 2019 election and the rout of Leftist politics, to which I’d hitched my wagon, my shadow plainly visible in those talking heads I’d labelled “right wing nutjobs”, “gammons” and “swivel eyed loons”. I’d seen the election as the last chance for a reversal in our direction of travel as a nation – less poverty, a renewal of the regions, and a green new deal. The majority of my countrymen, however did not agree.

2019 was an ugly year, a year of lies, fakery and flying spittle. It was also the year I realized it was no longer possible to make sense of anything, that the optical apparatus of the western world is so bent out of shape it swerves all semblance of truth. We have resolved it out of the equation of our life and times, and are thereby building a new Zeitgeist on quicksand, one in which the poor sink first, while sustaining the rich on their backs. In some respects, then, 2020 is the year we deserved, if only as a reminder there are some things that have an inescapable truth about them. You can ignore them all you like, say they’re not true, but that won’t make them go away. There were those who denied the existence of Covid from the beginning. Indeed, even with seventy-five thousand dead in the UK, some still do.

So the lesson of 2020 is that truth does not belong to those who shout the loudest, or to those who pour the most money into public relations. I don’t know where we’re going as a nation, only that I’m not angry about it any more, and I have “Winter on the Hill”, and my dialogue with its various characters to thank for that. I accept some people firmly believe in things I think are strange, and I accept persuading them otherwise is not a matter of pointing out my own version of the truth. Indeed, this is as likely to inflame them, as it runs counter to their own world view, that dialogue – true dialogue is presently impossible.

This is not to say I no longer believe, for example, that BREXIT is the biggest act of self harm in our post-war history. It’s an opinion based on an analysis of geopolitics and global economics, at least in so far as I understand these things. Many more of course understand things differently and therefore disagree with my view. But Winter on the Hill has taught me not to label these contrary opinions as merely crackpot, or even dare I say dangerous? It has also granted me some insight into the reasons Brexiteers think the way they do. But reaching this point you find you have transcended politics. You have swapped partisanship for the hill-craft necessary in crossing the daunting terrain as it now presents itself in 2021 and beyond.

The sight of Londoners fleeing the Capital, before the new Tier 4 rules came in, reminds me we shall not be spared the stupidity of crowds any time soon. The temporary blockading of the Channel ports and the halting of continental freight is a reminder of the fragility of the supply chains keeping our supermarkets stocked. But my hill-craft also tells me this is simply the nature of the new landscape we are traversing, and this, the incoming and decidedly inclement weather. Better to prepare for it than merely shake our fist.

I wish I could say I think 2021 will be any less “distracting”, that the stories I write will be free from error, but I suspect this will not be the case. What I can say though is that a partisan anger at the poverty, the foodbanks and the holes in the road has gone, and is in any case counterproductive. It doesn’t solve the problem, but if the best I can do is buy the homeless guy a sandwich and a cup of tea, then so be it. That’s all I could ever do. Compassion is a bottom up thing, and we’d all do well to remember that, because it’s only by the grace of God it’s not us sitting there instead of him.

And yes, come the next election, there’s a chance we’ll be falling over ourselves again to vote for more of the same, because most of us are not interested in solutions to longer term questions, even those concerning the sustainability of the species. We just want to know how to go on living as we are right now, without changing anything, even when we know change is likely coming, and the truth of the world is poking us in the eye day by day, by way of warning.

True hillcraft requires more than knowledge of the ropes and a gung-ho spirit. It requires a calmness of mind. It requires us to have the confidence not to go jumping at every passing fluffy cloud that sweeps the tops, but equally we must beware the overconfidence that scorns the anvil-heads. Angry, we remain blind to the subtlety of the way ahead, and come to grief in quick-time. Only by calmness do we navigate winter on the hill, and see ourselves safely to the other side. This is not to say I’m done with the shadow, only this particular manifestation of it. Heaven knows where he’ll take me next.

My thanks to everyone who has kept me company over the year and my very best wishes to you all.

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1630020_000I’m writing this for my friend Ken, who died last week. I’d lost touch with him in recent years, then heard he’d fallen ill with vascular dementia. I rang him up last Christmas, but he didn’t know me. He spent a while in a care home in the earlier part of this year, then passed away alone, in a hospital far from home.
 
Ken was a writer, the first, the only real live writer I have ever known personally. Like me though, he never made his living by it. We worked as engineers and that’s how we met. We began as strangers, peeing into neighbouring urinals. By way of breaking the ice he turned to me and said:
 
“What I want to know is who’s Armitage, and what’s Shanking?”
 
I laughed. Oh, how I laughed. Indeed, I laughed my way throughout the 80’s with Ken. And we walked. I didn’t think you could devise a twenty-mile hike in the West Pennines, but Ken managed it. And as he walked, he imparted jewels of quirky wisdom. He came to my wedding, was godfather to my firstborn. Then, he got potted in the great downsizing that began in the nineties. I was devastated for him, but he described it as the best thing that ever happened. It released him from servitude at the age of forty-nine. It got him a pittance of a pension, but enough for him to realize his dream of writing full time, and freedom. You manage he said. I should have starved to death decades ago, but you don’t. You manage.
 
His cars were always interesting, a variety of makes, though all of them decrepit. The most impressive was a Vauxhall Viva whose gear-box was held in place by rope. The rope gradually stretched, lowering the box to the ground, from which it raised sparks. He generally had warning of this as the gear stick became shorter, and he knew to tighten the rope when he got home.
 
He could have bought a better car but had this theory about the universe. It only ever gave you so many problems in life to solve. So he preferred to have them contained in one place, in his car. If he’d ever solved all those problems, say by buying a better car, goodness knows where they’d show up next. A bad leg? A bad heart? And fair enough, who’d want to risk that?
 
He and his good lady read my early stories, were enthusiastic about them, told me to keep going. But he also warned me there was a dark secret to writing that few authors cared to admit. It was that, actually, there was no money in it, even if you got published. Also, you should beware the vanity of authorship. If you wanted to write, you had no choice in the matter, because it was in your blood. That’s all. Some of us were just made that way. Writing shaped our lives, our thoughts, our interests. That was the mark of writing, and its true reward, even if no one else read a single word of it.
 
It was advice I was a while warming to, because I wanted more than anything to be a successful novelist. I wanted to wear the tweed jacket, and sign books for an adoring fan-ship, in a proper book-scented bookshop. He had that pleasure once, and I was pleased for him, excited for him, but it didn’t bring him fame and fortune. He never courted it, because he didn’t want it.
 
On hill-walking he held the view that no matter how arduous the climb, the respectful walker never claimed the summit cairn, but veered away from it, as if within reach of the last few feet, you settled back and said: enough. It was the difference between respecting the hill and conquering it. The wise man never sought to conquer it, because that just fed the ego. And if you struggled with that concept, your ego was already too big.
 
Although a devout Catholic, there was also something of the pagan about him. He saw God moving in mysterious ways. It was his last wish he be seen out by the full-monty of a Requiem Mass. I’m not a Catholic, but have attended a few of those, and for sure that’s a Roll’s Royce of a way to be signed off for the next life. He was denied it though – covid and all that. There were just three people at his funeral. It was a done deal before I caught up with news of his departure, and which is partly why I’m writing this now. I’m sure the universe will forgive the humbleness of his bon-voyage, because he paid it plenty of respects while he was living. I only hope the universe will also forgive my neglect of our friendship in his final years.
 
The value of a person’s life may not be apparent to that person themselves. Indeed, it would be narcissistic to value oneself. Rather, it’s in the hearts of those who knew them, were guided and influenced by them, either directly or indirectly. Ken, if you’re listening, my friend, you made a big difference to my life. There was always a twinkle in your eye, a sense of irreverent mischief never far from the surface, and always a good yarn. But more than that, you were a steadying hand, a listening ear, and your quirky philosophies were always reassuring that I wasn’t actually as odd as I sometimes felt myself to be, if only because you were much odder, though in a way to be treasured.
 
I was always better, lighter, happier for an hour in your company. Then, I’d return home with the boot of my car full of rubbish you’d been clearing out. It was ancient books mostly, but once I recall a broken old valve radio no one in their right minds would give house-room. After electrocuting myself on it several times, I somehow managed to restore it. If I still had that old thing now, I’d be tuning in to the static around the names of stations that no longer exist. And there I’d be half expecting to hear your voice coming out of the aether, saying to me:
 
“What I want to know is, who’s Armitage and what’s Shanking?”
 
God bless you Ken, you were a legend, and though there weren’t many around to see you off, there were many, many more whose lives were all the brighter for knowing you.

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on pendle hill

Pendle Hill December 2019

 

My novel-to-be “Winter on the Hill” isn’t about Coronavirus. But then, like all other aspects of life, the virus hijacked it early on and, since then, it has become both backdrop and the occasional plot device.

Our protagonist, Rick (followers of this blog will have met him before) is a former left-wing activist and climate protester. But he gave all that stuff up on the night of the December 2019 election when the Conservative party and “market forces” swept to power. He took a look at his country then and decided he didn’t understand it any more, that while he felt he wasn’t wrong in his lefty, middling-socialist beliefs, he was indeed very much misguided in thinking he could ever change anything. So he joined a walking group and, Covid regs permitting, he’s been climbing hills all year. At first, he was angry and scathing about his fellow countrymen for being so damned irredeemably stupid, but as the story progresses, he experiences a strange mellowing when a deeper truth is revealed.

Meanwhile, the pandemic pulls the mask from the Government, exposing an avaricious face familiar enough to those who have been round the block a bit. Self-seeking, complacent, incompetent, contemptuous of the poor, fanatical only about BREXIT. They have presided over sixty thousand dead – official figures – and now seven months in, the death-rate is doubling again every two weeks.
 
None of this is a surprise to Rick but, in spite of the urging of his former activist colleagues, he’s too philosophical now to indulge in partisan argument, let alone direct action. Instead, he’s meditating on the nature of “truth”, and how, in a world obscured by untruths, it might be possible to live the authentic life. Or is that just for the monks, while the rest of us must construct whatever comforting false reality we can while at the same time drowning in poo?
 
There’s nothing truer than boots on a hill, he says. Everything is down to you – the energy, the route, the hill-craft, your eye on the weather. That’s what’ll get you up and down in one piece, not bluff and bluster. But will Rick, in his new-found mellowness, ever return to the political life? Will he return a wiser man, a man with a plan, something that will put it all right for the rest of us? Or will he let the clouds take him, and then his compassionate wisdom becomes lost to us? Has he already decided that in a world dominated by billionaire froth and spin, ever ready to smear him as a crazy-left-Marxist-Commie dooda who eats babies, does it matter what the earnest men and women of Rick’s ilk say anyway?
 
Let’s remind ourselves of the problem by asking a man who knows, someone very much like Rick, but who hasn’t turned away from the front lines:
 
 
I agree with George, but I would add one more thing, and perhaps not surprisingly it’s something Rick might say too. It’s gone wrong because not enough of us care about, or understand enough of what it is George is saying. We are so far down the rabbit hole, all his words can do is further polarize us – those on the left nodding in agreement, while those on the right gather their spittle. And that may be why Rick is tying on his boots and heading up into the clouds again. Election 2024? Forget it, he says. For the things that really matter, environmentally and socially, it was already too late ten years ago.
 
No, come on Rick. That’s not good enough. We want answers.
 
No you don’t, he says. All you want to know is how you can go on living a comfortable lie without the uncomfortable consequences catching up with  you.
 
And there, I think, after several rewrites and dunderheaded attempts, I have the closing lines, of Winter on the Hill – available from all good bookshops nowhere soon, but otherwise free. Just watch for the link in the margin.
 
I thank you.
 

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winter hillTier three Covid restrictions, now – what do they mean to me? Nothing more than I seem to have been living with for most of the year, except for a brief respite in the summer when the brakes came off. But now, with the death-rate creeping up again, things look set for the foreseeable, while not ruling out the possibility of a handbrake turn. No bother. I’ve a weeks’ leave in front of me, but it’s also half-term, so I’d not be travelling out much anyway – kids and congestion and all that – though I would have liked another trip to the Dales, before we see the year out. Unlikely now, I know. Still we make do.

After a morning of torrential rain, the skies cheered up, so the small blue car and I made the short hop from the bleakly hopeless flat of the Lancashire plain – in various stages of unprecedented flood now – to the moody Western Pennines. Here, we parked up by Parson’s Bullough. There were times in the summer when you couldn’t squeeze a car in here, those long, hot, Covid days and nights, but, tier three or not, things seem to have drifted back to normal, everyone either at work by day or cramming the boozers by night.

I’m out with the camera today, looking for some magic, looking for the faery, in a sense – though not literally, of course. By the camera, I mean “the camera”, an APS-C format Nikon DSLR with a medium zoom, which makes for a serious carry, and which also means it gets left behind more often than not. But it also offers the maximum in photographic potential, given the prevailing light today, and the landscape.

Odd, I’m seven weeks out from retirement now and wondering if this’ll constitute my new routine – you know? Lie in a bit with coffee and a book, then early lunch, and out with the camera, unless I’m travelling further afield – Covid permitting? If so, it’s something to be looking forward to, and I can scarcely believe it’s within grasp. I’ve been digging this tunnel for forty-three years and I’d hate for it to collapse on me at this point. Thus I approach with caution.

Anyway, leaving the car behind, I slip up the hill by Parson’s Bullough, already with a bothersome tail. It’s a couple of off-duty coppers. I can tell from their conversation – an over-loud recounting of a recent, dramatic massed arrest and drugs-bust one of them had the pleasure of participating in. There was much bravado and mimicking the accents of the bad-guys. I sat down to let them pass. Much as I respect our boys and girls in blue, they were disturbing of the peace within a quarter mile radius, to say nothing of being indiscrete.

winter hill treeThere are a couple of trees I admire here, very photogenic, I think. I try a few shots, but the sun is shy and the light is flat. I have better luck with a shot of Winter Hill, the light hitting it just right of a sudden. There are ugly transmitter masts on Winter Hill which should ruin the shot, but they’ve been there for ever now, and we’d probably complain if they were ever pulled down.

Then I’m skirting the top of Lead Mine’s Clough, where I encounter a proper photographer with the same camera as mine, but his is set up on a tripod, and the long zoom is pointing at me as I approach. Am I his human interest within the landscape, I wonder? What with himself and the tripod, he’s blocking the path, and he only steps aside as an after-thought.

“Hope I didn’t spoil your shot,” I tell him.

He mumbles something incoherent in reply, refuses eye contact. He’s not a conversationalist, and neither am I, really, so I leave him to it.

I’ve not been out with a tripod for years – can’t be bothered with them any more. I recall I once carried a sturdy old Cullman on many a hike in the Lakes, but I was in my twenties then and pack-weight wasn’t a thing. I still have some of those shots, crisp black and whites from an Olympus OM10. Sadly, that gem of a camera was stolen from my car, but they left the Cullman behind. I still miss that OM10.

With a tripod you set up camp in a particular spot, and you wait on the light. It’s like fishing, I suppose. It slows the whole process of photography down, makes you more mindful, and of course that tripod grants you extra crispness if you’re shooting in poor light, and with a slow lens, or you’re fiddling about with high dynamic range stuff. Myself though, I prefer to shoot on the fly, otherwise it slows the walk down too much, interrupts the perambulating meditation. Plus of course, if it’s the faery you’re after, they never come out if you’re waiting for them. You only ever glimpse them in passing, and out the corner of your eye. Modern lenses usually come with image stabilization now anyway, and that lets you get away with a lot you couldn’t have imagined twenty years ago. So, tripod? No thanks.

2ZSctI0EIt’s a familiar circuit, this one, Parson’s Bullough and Lead Mine’s Clough, a little detached from the more popular West Pennine routes, but packed with interest and, even after a lifetime, it has not exhausted all its photographic possibilities for me. There’s  always something different, a different light, a different mood. I manage around thirty-six shots, the length of an old 35mm roll, then cull them when I’m home to just three that are worth a second look. Sometimes the camera sees more than you do. Sometimes it doesn’t see what you see, and that can be frustrating, but it gifts you the unexpected, which is one of the rewards of photography for me.

Coming back down through the autumnal-shaded vale, I overtake an old guy and his lady. He’s got the stiffness of gait of a man in his eighties who is contemptuous of his years, and would rather die on a hill than slumped in front of the telly. I note good-quality boots, and mountain jackets. They are veterans of the high places, this pair. It’s in their weather-worn faces and in their eyes. And it’s in their smile as we greet in passing. God willing I’ll be that guy in another twenty years, aching hips perhaps, stiff knees, fragile back, and whatever passes for the latest in amateur photographic technology slung across my back.

But definitely no tripod.

It had begun a dour, wet day, but as I return to the little blue car, the sun is slanting through autumn gold, and glittering from the surface of the Yarrow Reservoir. In company with many, my horizons have been somewhat narrowed this year, but when you can’t see far, the rewards are to be found more in the details of what’s under your nose.

Keep well.

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