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Archive for the ‘My Notes’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The song of the skies

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


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


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


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

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The path to Whernside

It was summer, the last time I walked this route up Whernside, which is perhaps why I remember it so well. Which summer though? Let me see: I was driving a blue, mark four Cortina, which means it was 1982, and I was 21.

It was also my summer of love, or rather it was my discovery of the love of the transcendent phenomenon that is hill walking. Girls would come later, but the hills were more constant, always a revelation, and, like the present Lady Graeme, always happy to take me as I am.

It was a hot, dry summer, that year, and no trains ran on the Settle to Carlisle line. There was a strike by ASLEF over flexible rostering. The boss-class still moan about it in their histories of the period. They never did get the unions, or class warfare.

Today is cold. Back home, down on the Lancashire Plain, it’s been spring for weeks. The hedgerows are greening, the buds are budding, and the cherries and hawthorns are blossoming. But here, in Yorkshire, it’s still winter. An arctic blast greets us at Ribblehead, as we crack open the car door. There’s ice in the roadside gulleys, and an ominous bank of cloud is jostling the sunshine, threatening hail. The three peaks each have a cap of snow, and I’m wondering if we should have packed our ancient instep crampons – purchased from Settle’s legendary “Cave and Crag”, now sadly gone. I can’t remember the last time I wore them, and probably couldn’t work out how to fasten them anyway – they were always a pain. I should get some of those newfangled microspikes, but I keep thinking my days of winter walking are over.

Still here we are.

Ribblehead Viaduct – Settle to Carlisle line

The Ribblehead Viaduct is magnificent. A soaring masterpiece, circa 1875, when Britain called itself great, and without irony, though mostly because labour was cheap, and expendable, especially Irish hands, like my grandfather’s. But let’s not go down that road. It was all a long time ago, except time is less fixed for me these days, since I am no longer called to heel by the alarm clock every morning.

Last night I dreamed I was an apprentice again, back in the old factory, a place of several thousand souls. I was seeing and talking to people I had forgotten I knew, and whom I have not seen since nineteen seventy-nine. Sights, sounds, scents, … it was strange, but comforting to know those souls are still as they were, that we are all still as we always were, always are, somewhere in this weird thing we call time.

Anyway, it’s not the most dramatic of peaks, Whernside. It lacks the shapely grandeur of Ingleborough or Penyghent. But, being the biggest of the trio, it counts itself as King, and rightly so. And it’s not without its charms. By far the biggest charm, however, is the rising perspective is grants us of its nearest neighbour, Ingleborough, whose brutal geology is starkly displayed today, courtesy of a dusting of snow, which trickles down the gulleys in crinkles of dentritic splendour. Most of my photographs today are of Ingleborough. Whernside, I find, isn’t photogenic at all.

Ingleborough

The wind drops as we enter the lee of the land, and the chill shock of Ribblehead fades as we warm on the ascent. There are few other walkers about. That ominous bank of boiling cloud is a worry, but we’ll keep our eye on it. We’re overtaken by a lady who looks to be more senior than our own years, then a gentleman more senior than hers. Age is a funny business, part driven, I think, by something inside us. In the hills, I have known a man of eighty easily outpace a man of fifty, simply because he refuses to believe he is getting on. We can grow old at any age, give up and whither at forty if we choose. All we have to do is look back, and then we stiffen.

I am climbing the path up Whernside, so I must still be 21. This is not looking back. This is participating in the eternal, and therefore timeless, adventure. It’s a mystery, to which the hills grant us a tantalising clue. Or so I tell myself.

One foot in front of the other. Pause. Admire the view. Take some pictures. Plod on. We cross the snowline. Up close, it’s just a dusting, not exactly Tyrolean. But you can’t underestimate the British hills. Here, sudden change, and overconfidence are your enemies. Check the Met office, read the sky. Pack another layer, a head-torch, a survival bag. Know how to read a map, and use a compass, or at the very least walk with someone else who can. Yes, the OS app on our phones or our Garmin is terrific, but our technology is deskilling us, and that’s a risk in the hills, where we need our wits about us.

My last visit to Whernside was not 1982. It was around 2006. I came up from Dent that day. November I think. I made the summit with the left side of me white with frost, and my ear burning. I came down with tinnitus, which still bothers me off and on. That was a very cold day, a good day, another journey in life’s album of eternal nows.

A wall runs along the summit, and there’s a curved shelter which gets us out of the wind today. We catch up with the senior lady and exchange pleasantries. She is joined by a Yorkshireman who claims never to have been up the hill before. When asked why not, he explains with a grin that he could never get his van up it.

The way off the hill used to be like free-fall but, like many of our most treasured mountains, much has been done to tackle erosion, and there is now a carefully laid, twisty path that snakes us down in double quick-time, towards the valley bottom. Then it’s a couple of miles through pleasant pastures, back to Ribblehead, and the car. About eight and a quarter miles round, fourteen hundred feet of ascent.

I was never a hill athlete. I could not have climbed Whernside, having first climbed Penyghent and walked the moors from Horton. I could never have then gone on to tackle that imposing wall of Ingleborough. Those who attempt the three peaks have my admiration. That’s a walk that takes fitness, and character.

So, anyway, back to the car. A lonely spot, Ribblehead – a collection of cottages and a pub, but it has a railway station. Coffee and cakes next, then. A toss up between Horton and Ingleton. Okay, … Ingleton it is. Beats working.

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(One of) The Twich Hill Oaks

March’s full moon ushers in a definite change. Suddenly it feels like spring, as the sky peels open to an optimistic blue, and the temperature breaks fifteen degrees. We’re sitting by the ruins of Peewit Hall, on the edge of the Anglezarke moors, looking out over the lush green of hill and dale as it runs from Jepsons, down the gentle undulations of Twitch Hills, into Lead Mines Clough. There are larks today, the first I’ve heard this year, and the rapture of them lifts the spirit. I’m sure they know this, and I appreciate their effort. We could all use some cheer. Also, somewhere down the valley, I hear the rising, scratchy call of a Lapwing.

We were late getting going today, noon already, but we’re making up for it. The car is down by Parson’s Bullough, and we’ve just come up by the oaks in the meadow above Twitch Hills. They’re always impressive these trees, fine focal points, marking the line of the path. They anchor the senses in the midst of an otherwise dizzying panorama. We have no route in mind as yet, just a vague idea of heading up to the Pikestones, then we’ll see what other ideas strike us. We’re coasting, feeling out the future by the seat of our pants, today, enjoying the sunshine and the earthy scent of spring.

The View from Peewit Hall

I’m reading a lot about the nature of time, and the fourth dimension, as they used to call it. In ordinary consciousness, we travel a single line in time. Our reality is defined by a point on that line, this being the present moment, like now, as we sit by the ruins of this old farm, looking out towards Jepsons. Memory tells us the line in time that brought us here but, ordinarily at least, we have no clue where it’s going.

This much is obvious, but what’s not so obvious is that in order to see ourselves in this beautiful landscape, there must be another awareness, another level of observation. And there’s a strong suspicion among time theorists this higher part of our selves views our reality, not as a point in time, but as a line that ventures some way into that future, and not necessarily a fixed future, either, more one of potential outcomes. And sometimes, just sometimes, it leaves clues for us in our dreams, if we pay attention to them.

And our future, from this point?

Okay, the Pikestones it is.

The Pikestones

The moor is still heavy underfoot, though it must be a week since we had any serious rain. And the Pikestones? Like most prehistoric monuments, they’re high in expectation, but ultimately low in drama. Some years ago, vandals of a neo-pagan bent, similarly under-whelmed, thought to chisel a spiral motif on the largest of the stones, I presume to spice them up a bit. Someone else chiselled it off in outrage. The damage is still evident, though in time, (talking centuries) it will weather in, I suppose. It depends on what you’re looking for, but as a place of quiet contemplation, and a viewpoint overlooking the plain of Lancashire, the Pikestones serves us perfectly well.

So, where does our line in time branch to, now? Well, I’m getting a feeling for Hurst Hill, so we navigate our way up Rushy Brow. This is always a bit vague, the hill itself being hidden over the rise, as yet, and no path. There’s a little visited ring burial here, which is a good way-point, if you can find it, then a heading north of west-ish brings you to the only tarn on this side of the moor, a small, rush fringed eye, smiling blue today, instead of its more familiar thunder-black. A vague sheep trod then contours cleverly towards Hurst Hill, avoiding the worst of the bog.

Hurst Hill

There’s a discreet surveyors mark on the summit, presumably from the very first 1845-47 survey. I found it by accident once, while descending with a low sun that just caught the crows-foot mark, chiselled into a flat rock. I make a point of seeking it out with the aid of GPS, whenever I’m passing this way. The Victorians fixed it by theodolite, and trig tables, and it’s bang on.

Since my last visit, someone else has found it, and covered it with a couple of rocks. It confused me, but it’ll prevent weathering, I suppose, and I left things as they were. So, someone else knows the secret! I wonder what relevance such a mark still has in this modern age. I wonder who the surveyors were who first, and ever so neatly, cut those marks, and what the world was like for them. What was the flavour of their own lines in time?

Normally we’d head east from here, deeper into the bosom of the moor, to the Round Loaf, or Great Hill. But then I’m thinking about the Anglezarke Reservoir, and a graceful trio of oak trees that I know, and some different photographic opportunities, so we branch out west, into another line in time, descending by the old lead mines to the Moor Road.

The mines are interesting. They have the appearance of a bombing run, a line of deep craters in the moor, with heaps of spoil thrown up around them. The surrounding grasses are a striking green, compared with the sour khaki of the moor. They’re crude bell pits, I suppose, eighteenth century, probably, as they were already noted as old, in the mid-nineteenth. Lead is found in vertical veins, so the miners chased it down from the surface as deep as they dared, before their walls caved in. Always a risky occupation, being a miner, but always, too, the siren lure of the mythical mother lode.

From the Moor Road, we choose a path we’ve never walked before, and lose it almost at once. We’re at Siddow Fold, now, a former farm, and gamekeeper’s cottage. Dated 1707, and listed grade 2, it’s seen significant gentrification in recent years, and very beautifully done. The council’s footpath marker guides us confidently enough from the road, and is our quickest route to the reservoir, but it abandons us to our devices in a meadow. I suspect we’re now tangled up in a diversion imposed upon us by the owners, the route deviating markedly from that on the map, and a bit of help would not be amiss, here. Oh well:

Anglezarke Reservoir

We follow our nose, or rather the line of a faint depression in the meadow that appears to be making a beeline for the reservoir. It’s a trespass perhaps, but not my fault. The sparkling ribbon of the reservoir is in full view here, and we meander down towards our trio of oaks, as splendid as I remember them. They’re a good place to sit for a brew, and admire the scene.

So, our line in time today, thus far, brings us here, or at least the line in time I’m aware of. If, as I sometimes like to speculate, at any given branching of the ways, more than one potentiality is realised, in another timeline, we’re also sitting atop the Round Loaf, listening to the larks and the curlews. In another, we gave up at the Pikestones, swung round by Lead Mines Clough, and returned to the car. Even as we sit here, by the sparkling Anglezarke Reservoir, among these magnificent oaks, we’re already driving home, with the top down, through Adlington, perhaps waiting for the lights by the Elephant and Castle.

And then there may be another level, one that grants a view of all the lines in time we ever chose. From this perspective, then, our lives resemble a tree, a proliferation of branches, of lines in time, of all the potentialities we were offered and realised, this being the true fullness of our being. Of course, from a very closed perspective, we’re only ever aware of this one point, moving along this one thread. But sometimes, you get a feeling about the rest.

So, anyway, here we are. We’ve still a couple of miles back to the car, and a variety of ways to choose. I guess at some point, we’ve walked them all before, even the ones we’ve yet to walk, at least in this line of time, if you know what I mean.

Any ideas?

It doesn’t matter much. They’re all good.

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The Dam at Drybones, Birkacre, Coppull

I’ve done something I’d normally advise against. I’ve bought second hand walking boots off Ebay. They’re army surplus, advertised as having seen hardly any use, and it’s true, they’re like new. My Scarpas have been leaking, off and on, and I felt I needed back-up. They look to be a good boot, decent leather, and no inner membrane. So they’re old-school, and, at £45, a bargain. What could possibly go wrong?

On the first try-out, I walked to the local shop, a quarter of a mile or so, and they were so uncomfortable, I thought I was going to have to come back in stocking feet. Anyway, a fresh insole, and here we are at the Birkacre visitor centre, at Coppull, ready to give them another go.

I grew up around here, and it always beggars belief how busy it’s become. It’s a midweek morning, a welcome bit of sunshine, and looks like the world is on holiday. Home to a bleaching and dyeing works in the long ago, all that remains now are the mill lodges, a popular spot for dog walkers, and bird-watchers – not always an easy mix. It’s handy for the carpark, but we need to get beyond the lodge, into Drybones wood, and the horseshoe of the Yarrow, before nature can get to work on us.

Sitting at home, assailed by rocketing energy bills, record petrol prices and news of wars, we can all too easily feel that life is becoming narrow, that the walls are closing in. A walk in the countryside can push the walls back out again.

There’s a dam on the river at Drybones. It was built to raise the water-level to feed the mill race and is very picturesque after heavy rains. Some nights, I would hear the thunder of it from my bedroom as I drifted off to sleep. I always slept with the window open, summer or winter, one ear to the outdoors, to the meadows, the woods and moors beyond. The rumble is still familiar, something deep in the bones, a sense of OM in its eternal reverberation, a reminder of my Coppull years, and home. So far, the boots are doing okay. They’re heavier than the Scarpas, but no hint of blisters, yet.

Around Birkacre Lodge

Beyond the dam, the path meanders past the ruins of Drybones cottage. This is a remote, off-grid place – something to do with the mines here in Victorian times, and which remained firmly in the Victorian period until about fifteen years ago, when it burned down. Since my last visit, the land has been cleared and stoutly fenced off, the path rerouted. The muddy track to the property has also been gravelled – about a half mile of it – presumably for a luxury land-rover.

It’s a lonely spot, and always something dark about it, I felt. I presume someone’s going to develop it into a des-res, but I wouldn’t want to live here. The original house features in my novel Durleston Wood as “the old Willet place”. I picked it for its symbolism at the heart of a mysterious personal darkness, a demon lurking there, to be negotiated, while holding prisoner a femme fatale, whose seduction had to be survived, before we gained redemption – all very Jungian. And while the world has moved on immeasurably since I wrote it, I’m still pondering the story. I remember how much I enjoyed writing it, how deep a connection I felt with the characters, one that seems lacking in my fiction these days.

The lone tree

Beyond Drybones, the path follows the river upstream, through a stretch of woodland that’s just coming into bud now, and we have the first of the anemones about to open. A little later in the season, there’ll be a lush pallet of bluebells, and the pungent, starry alium. We’re on an ancient way that links up with the old Duxbury estate, and which threads by the ancient beech, again featured in “Durleston Wood”, and, more recently, as the fallen tree in my present and forever halting work in progress, “A Lone Tree Falls”.

The latter story is turning out to be a struggle. The characters feel remote, dazed and numb, like they’ve all had the stuffing kicked out of them, since the days of Durlston Wood, and what I’m longing for is the deeper connection of those earlier times.

As I’ve written here before, they’re going to build houses on the meadows around Durleston, because people have to live somewhere, even if the solution is the destruction of the very reason why we live at all. To a town mouse, this might not seem like such an issue, not much of an argument – it’s progress after all, and the world moves on. But speaking as a country mouse, I know there were once spirits here, spirits of place. I’ve talked to them, and knew them as our kin. They are not literally true, of course. They are subliminal, imaginal, but all the same, without them, we are a rootless, soulless people.

The protagonist of my work in progress is a former intelligence analyst, now on the trail of the meaning of his life, but he keeps getting waylaid by the corruption of his former world. I’m not writing a spy story – I wouldn’t know where to start. What I’m trying to do is get at is how we’re so bound up in the complexity of appearances we fail to recognise the simplicity of our path. But as usual, I feel I’m groping towards something I don’t understand well enough to make much of a meaningful accounting of it. All I know is the beech tree was an old friend; I had known it since I was a child. It came down in storms, which seem as metaphorical as real, and since no one saw it fall, it fell without a sound, and the thought of that haunts me.

The Oak Tree, Birkacre

It’s mostly beech in this part of the wood, some sycamore. Coming out of Durleston, though, we see the old oak on the skyline, above the meadow. Another decade or so and it’ll be gone, obscured by the saw-tooth profile of little houses. The tree falls, the spirits flee, and the landscape is smothered, to be retained only briefly in human memory. But then we too fall, and it’s all gone, within a couple of generations, and all of it without a sound; it never was, it never fully existed, except in the eye of the mind, which suggests our imagination alone is the emotive essence of life, so we had better be careful what we do with it.

Not a long walk today. Just three miles round the horseshoe of the Yarrow. We leave Durleston, and imagination behind, return to Birkacre to the Big Lodge, to the carousel of dog walkers, and bird-watchers, and kiddies feeding ducks, and back to the car. The boots feel okay, I’d forgotten they were there, actually. You know what? I think they’ll do.

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On reflection, the Covid years haven’t bothered me much. I worked through the first year, which helped retain some semblance of normality. The second year, I retired into it, and the restrictions were irksome for a time, but the local area provided sufficient diversion as things eased, and I’ve enjoyed walking, exploring Bowland and the Dales with the camera. Covid’s still around, of course, but that story has moved on, and no one’s really talking about it any more.

There are some who haven’t been so lucky. Even if you’ve avoided catching it, certain types have been plunged by fear of Covid, and by media reporting of it into an anxiety-induced agoraphobia. While others are out shopping and pubbing, the anxious ones are still shirking company. Supermarkets, pubs, and restaurants, are still a long way away off for them. We, who are inching ourselves back into some semblance of normality, need to be mindful of that.

I’ve not been without a touch of neuroticism over Covid myself. I remember now I helped pull a woman from the river, after she’d fallen in. She was freezing cold, and really struggling to get out, and I had to get a good grip, so to speak, all of which was against the very strict rules on personal contact with strangers at the time. I worried about that for days afterwards, worried about the health of the others I’d involved in the rescue, all this while it later transpired our leaders were having “bring your own booze parties”. I feel terribly foolish that I even thought about it, now.

While we hear much less about Covid, other things have rushed to fill the void. To whit, the mainstream media seem to be ratcheting up for war against a nuclear armed state. So I’m thinking about nuclear war, and it’s a long time since I did that.

I remember my father was with the Royal Observer Corps (ROC). They had a bunker up near Brindle, part of a network that covered the UK. They were there to monitor nuclear bursts, and levels of radiation. Coupled with the weather forecasts, the aim was to give HMG some element of planning around the ensuing catastrophe. He took me to see it once. Its weird concrete protuberances frightened me. It was like a ready-made grave for the duty team who would be incarcerated in it. The ROC was disbanded long before the end of the Cold War. There is no defence, no contingency, no survival, and it’s dangerous to suggest otherwise.

The bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were relatively small, compared with the weapons we have now. It would take very few to reduce the UK to an uninhabitable wasteland. We seem to have forgotten this. The danger subsided for a time, but it’s growing again, and we need to resist the media of usual suspects and their crass headlines, with a different, and more nuanced narrative. In such febrile times, the last thing we need is the equivalent of a banal Twitter spat pushing things over the edge.

But since there is nothing I can do about it, I tell myself to chill out, to read novels, watch movies – preferably without guns, or bombs, or ‘f’ words in them – and to dream dreams, as if there was no suffering in the world. Of course, there is immense suffering, but, in the long ago, we were aware of only manageable doses of it. Now we drown in it. It pours from our devices with every bleeping notification – an endless symphony of sorrowful songs, and the human psyche is only capable of so much compassion before we lose our minds.

I saw a recent interview with the former general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbchev. He spoke of the urgency of nuclear disarmament, because he says the kind of people willing to use them are still around. It was a sobering analysis. We came ever so close, during the Cuban missile crisis. It was only doubt in the mind of one Soviet officer, and his persuasiveness, that prevented the commander of his submarine from launching a nuclear torpedo against a US warship. They thought they were under attack, that world war three had started, and they should let loose Armageddon. But it was a misunderstanding, a hair’s breadth thing, so the story goes. But in a parallel dimension, the decision went the other way, and the earth is a barren cinder.

The west has been living in a blip of relative peace and security, perhaps since the later 1980s, since Gorbachev’s glasnost, and the formal ending of the Cold War. Since then, there have been good times, boom times. We have tanned our skins on the beaches of credit-card opulence, driven our SUVs with attitude up the rear end of those we see as lesser beings. But there is something in us also that seeks the periodic red-mist of war. I remember the newspapers egging on the invasion of Iraq. It seemed an easy thing to do and, given the might of the forces unleashed, it was. What came next was the disaster so many humanitarians predicted.

Thus, I pine for a more sober approach to our present predicament, for a wiser take on the inflammatory headlines of the media with its calls for even more dogs of war to be let loose than are already in the running. As if by way of reply, my phone pings with news, of today’s horrors, and what are we going to do about it? Phones were so much better in the olden days, when all you could do with them was ring people up and say hello.

We should limit our intake, do you think? Impossible, you might say. But there’s only so much we can stand. At the very least we should not be so browbeaten we are ashamed to sing, dance, and make merry, or at least switch off and read some lighter material. It does not make us bad people. What’s more important is we remain level-headed, that we might then see through the fog, as far as we possibly can, that we make sure the wasteland of our world remains in another dimension of space and time, and is never visited upon this one.

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Each new day, since the invasion of Ukraine, I wake, reach for the phone, and dial up the news. The Russians have been shelling a nuclear power plant this week. It seems the height of lunacy. More recently, they have been shelling people evacuating in a ceasefire. Total bastards, then. Total bastards too, the images of entire apartment blocks felled by shelling, by rockets, or whatever. And cluster munitions – the devil’s own choice of arms. It’s not like in the movies. It’s even more depraved than anything Hollywood dare conceive. We know it is, because, if Jung is right – and I’ve always felt he was – it’s a thing lurking at the bottom of us all. That’s why we watch it. That’s why it compels us, and why it so deeply disturbs us.

Media, media, media. We might as well not bother. We know full well we must take everything with a pinch of salt. Images. Words. They mean nothing in relation to reality, and we might as well be writing our own story of events, for all it will resemble the truth of things. We know this of our slickly duplicitous media ecosphere by now, or we know nothing. Only those in the thick of it know the score, and thank God, that’s not us. But what’s the difference? A child in terror of a Russian bomb, or a child in Iraq or Afghanistan, in terror of a Western bomb? Both are children, both are innocent, both are bombs. The answer is complex, does not translate well into sound bites. The difference is time, distance, culture, the amnesia, and the vanity of the punditry, and so on and so on.

I have donated to the DEC . It pays for blankets, for medical supplies, for bottles of water or whatever, to help, in a small way, and helps me, too, with that feeling of uselessness. Please donate too, if you feel able. The total stands at eighty-five million, as I write, so we are short of neither compassion nor feelings of uselessness. But before we feel too virtuous about all that, we must ask how those Afghans felt, not long ago, but already forgotten. They were fleeing the fall of Kabul, having helped the western forces in great hope, and at the risk of their lives, only to find the plane fast departing contained a full complement of dogs, while they were left to the mercies of the Taliban? I know how I would have felt. Remember, nothing is simple, no matter how much we wish to boil it down to slogans.

So, this war in Europe, this latest spectacle. Pundits are talking about it as if it’s different to any of the other wars. I don’t know. Is it? All I want is to save a kid from crying. Others are baying for the West to do more, to enforce a “no-fly zone”. Bring it on they say, like it can be done magically, surgically, virtually, without NATO planes shooting down Russian ones, like the Cold War never existed, like there is such a thing as surviving a nuclear escalation.

Then I see images of captured Russian boys, presumably under duress, phoning their mothers. Are these tearful boys the devil, then? It reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five , in which, contrary to common belief, we discover wars are not fought by men at all. Men – old men – plan them, comment on them, command them, write memoirs about them, become long distance pundits of them, or they become preening news-anchors with fancy hair, who present them as glossy, po-faced infotainment. But it is our children, our boys, who must fight them. It is our children who die in them. It is mothers, fathers, who grieve, whose lives are ended by these wars as surely as if they had caught a bullet themselves.

Stop the War? Does it even need saying? But as Vonnegut also reminds us, we might as well demand we stop the glaciers. Both are natural phenomenon, immune to persuasion, though at halting the latter we are lately proving to be more adept. Of the former, I suspect the news cycle will move on, before we see anything like the conclusion we desire.

Covid. Trump. Brexit. And even now, the shameful and ever-perplexing scandal of Londongrad grinds on. What next? Ah, all right, a war in Europe – we’ve not had one of those for a while, and a fresh media frenzy, while we’re at it, to keep us all terrified, all frozen anew. Meanwhile, we know nothing, though we like to think we do, that we keep ourselves well-informed, through our devices, through our news bulletins. But our emotions, our sense of well-being, our despair, our tears,… all are nothing, or rather all are fair game in this infotainment business. We are hijacked. We are puppets at the command of forces beyond our understanding. We know this, but we keep clicking, keep scrolling anyway. We can’t help ourselves because we don’t know what anything means any more.

If this is the harvest of the rational, the material world, then give me mysticism, give me the mystery of my dreams, give me the black tide of the occult. Let me navigate my life by way of the runes and the tarot, and the yijing, because anything is better than this massively computer programmed, semi-virtual, arrogantly scientific mechanical world that’s driving us all to slaughter. We have nothing wholesome to learn from any of the clever men bestride this world’s stage, and who would command our every heartbeat, except,…

Watch out, and what’s next?

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February is blowing itself out in a whole long week of storms, one after the other. It snaps some more of my rotting fence panels, and says, there you go, suck on that. It rattles the eaves all night, and howls through the vents, keeping me awake. I put on sound-cancelling headphones, which do a good job, but then I wake at intervals with hot, itchy ears.

Mornings bring a bloodshot dawn, and days indoors, sheltering from the weather, with the mood, like the trees outside, swinging from one side to the other. The various media show me roads flooded, lorries toppling over, and all the trains are cancelled. I watch big jets on live feed, making precarious landings at Heathrow.

Now and then there is a tease of sunshine, and the wind holds its breath, tempting one to contemplate escaping out of doors. But before I’ve got my shoes on, the rain is hammering against the glass. Submit, it says, you’re going nowhere.

In one brief interlude, I cobble back the worst of the damage to the fence panels, to stop them waggling about, and creaking in the night, at least. But we’re looking at replacing them, soon, and that means finding some workmen. But workmen are difficult to find, and, when found, they are difficult to persuade to turn up, and when they are persuaded, they suck their teeth and charge the earth. Reasons are various: it’s the price of wood, you see, mate? It’s the pandemic, it’s inflation, it’s the cost of energy, it’s the lack of lorry drivers, it’s BR*XIT’s sunny uplands! All of these things, I suppose, make their contribution to these late winter blues.

It has me fretting. It disturbs my sleep as much as the wind does, this seemingly endless business of maintaining fences. Is that another panel gone? Of course, there’s more to this. Are these possibly metaphorical fences? Is it the borders of one’s-self we feel are not so secure as they were? And have we the energy to keep on renewing them? In twenty years I’ll be eighty, which is not so long, since twenty years past was five minutes ago, and I imagine that’s too old to be moithering over fence panels. We do not normally toss and turn to such thoughts. How interesting! I surmise we are actually suffering from stir craziness, or cabin fever, when a mood can be punctured by so little as dropping the end of your carefully dunked digestive biscuit into your cup of tea. And it is, after all, two weeks now, since we had a walk.

So we brave the buffeting, and take a drive to the shop for a change of scene, noting in passing petrol is once more at an all-time record high. As for the shop, the etiquette is now confusing, since Boris declared victory over Covid, having fought it on the beaches, and in the air, until it finally surrendered. I wear a mask anyway, like the health services still advise. I am alone in this, but for the other fuddy duddy, who wears his mask as a chinstrap. Half a kilogram of butter costs nearly five pounds! And wine,… well, never mind. In emergencies, cheese and wine are called for. We pick out a modestly priced French Red, and a wedge of Stilton, then head for home.

Meanwhile, Russia invades the Donbas region of the Ukraine. I did not think they would, but, in retrospect, like many things in life, I see it was now inevitable. The western press is awfully keen of a sudden to talk it up as another infotainment conflict, somehow forgetting Russia has had effective control of this region since 2014, with the result of 14,000 deaths already, and barely a peep. But I am avoiding headlines as much as I can. This is not a good time to be further oppressed by things one can do nothing about.

The house always feels cold, in windy weather. Also, since our last email from the energy company, we have set the heating to knock off early. Then again, it never does quite warm the place to cosiness, since we also set the thermostat to economy. So we read a little, we write a little. And when the cold creeps in, we toss a rug over our legs, and think of spring.

To accompany the wine and cheese, we put Amelie on the player, settle down to watch its warm, gentle whimsy. I’ve been learning French off and on for years, with the aim of one day sitting through films like this without subtitles. I find I can catch the occasional phrase, now, the occasional line, by playing them back in my head, but by then dialogue has moved on, and it’s hard to keep up. My brain is just too slow, so I put the subtitles on.

Amelie is permanently in my top ten of movies, though it must also be said my top ten has many more than ten movies in it by now. The story defies explanation, but five minutes is all it takes, and the world and the wind are forgotten.

Why fret over what we cannot fix? Those rotting fence panels? Yes, we’ll have to fix them eventually. Let the wind pick them out for us, hopefully no more than one or two at a time. But the rest of what oppresses us, the media is geared to presenting us with stuff we can do nothing about, while social media lends the illusion that by shouting about a thing, it makes a difference, when all it does is make things worse. In other news, the forecast is looking fair for Friday. We’ll pencil the little blue car in for a run to the Dales.

I think we’re overdue.

See you there.

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A quick, but not too hopeful scan of the charity shop bookshelves this morning yields an odd find, among the usual slew of well thumbed novels, cook books, and the occasional, but not unusual, copies of a “Souvenir Guide to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee”. It’s what I suppose you’d call something from the popular science genre, a kind of “Special relativity and field theory, for dummies”, with equations. It was written by Leonard Susskind, a professor of physics at Stanford University, and a terrific communicator of very hard science. I was briefly tempted by it but, after a bit of soul-searching, I put it back. As for the Diamond Jubilee books, they reminded me of something I’d read the evening before, my opinions of which were as yet unformed, but forming. More of that, later.

We’ve talked on the blog about the various piles we readers have for books. The common one is the “to be read pile” – books waiting for us to get around to them. We add books to it, as we go along, but we do eventually get around to reading them. Then I have a “books to be read again pile” – books I enjoyed, and tell myself I want to read again, though whether I ever will is another matter. Then there’s the “books which, in all honesty, I’ll never read, though I tell myself I want to” pile. I’ve had one on there, for thirty-five years, called “the makers of mathematics”. I’ve never read it, but keep telling myself, I might, one day. Another one I have on there is “Teach yourself calculus”, similar thing: thirty years, and the spine not cracked once.

They’re books I had the mind for, in my student days, and occasionally fool myself I have the mind to get back into, but never have done, and probably never will, because my mind has changed shape, over the years, and moved on. I’m thinking this book of Susskind’s will end up on that pile. There’s something worthy about it, intellectually challenging, and deeply interesting, but it’s beyond anything I could make use of these days. Plus, you can find a lot of Susskind’s lectures on YouTube, which likely cover the same material, should I feel so inclined. And these books linger on the shelves. They pine for attention like neglected puppies and, given the nature of puppies, I cannot part with them. So, it’s better not to acquire them in the first place. Thus, the decision is made, and I put the book back. Let someone else have the pleasure of it. I have enough to be going on with the “to be read” pile.

Speaking of which, I’m reading “People of the Abyss” by Jack London, prompted by a reader of the blog (thank you). We read him at school. I remember White Fang, and Call of the Wild, but People of the Abyss was never mentioned at the time – this being the account of him basically going undercover as a down-on-his luck Yankee seaman, in London’s East End, around the time of the Coronation of Edward the 7th. Along with Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, and Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, it’s one of the most detailed and damning accounts of engineered destitution ever written.

Hard as it is to say though, such works no longer fire me up, as they would once have done, and, in the case of Tressell, indeed did. I used to think the solutions to the world’s ills were obvious, and easy. Now, I’m realising there’s something contrary in human nature that defeats common sense, and stymies compassion. It causes some to treat the majority appallingly, and with contempt, and for the majority to let them get away with it. Books like “People from the Abyss”, though written over a century ago, remind us of the depths to which we might yet return, because that amoral streak is still there, and it seems there’s nothing we can do about it. There will always be rich and poor, but that there is also engineered destitution, shames us all.

Had I been born into the those times, and that class, my life would have been short and unimaginably hard, but I suppose I would have accepted it, like everyone else, and no doubt still raised my cap at the passing of the King’s coronation. Something about the opening paragraph of the book shot it to the top of my “to be read pile”, nudging aside Dostoyevsk’s Crime and Punishment, which I’m struggling with. Indeed, were the latter not hailed as a masterpiece, I would have to call it one of the most tedious books I have ever attempted, and might have been better placed on that “books I shall never read” pile – except I have read a bit of it. Should there be another pile then? Books I could not finish and set aside for later?

I do not wish to put on bibliophilic airs. I am the product of a comprehensive education system, as it was in the 1970’s, and which I have always felt was not quite as good as it might have been, though I understand it was much better than things are now. I did however pick up a middling engagement with the written word, and a love of books.

When my boys were at school, however, I discovered books were not read as avidly any more. What was more important were the bullet-pointed outlines, from which the key stage questions might be answered. Books, then, were no longer touted as being worth the love invested in them. And then of course, schools cannot afford books any more except – and now I remember those charity shop copies of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – I read every primary school child this year is to be given a book in commemoration of Her Madge’s Platinum Jubilee, this at an estimated budget of 12 million. It is a work of, as yet, unknown content, beyond the diktat that it shall be “patriotic”.

For such an administration as the one we now have, I accept such a thing is more or less obligatory, though whether the children will treasure this gift, as intended, is quite another question. Whether they will read it at all is equally doubtful. All of which suggests another list of books, which, thanks to the subliminal effects of all the other books I have read, down the years, I would want to steer clear of in the first place.

Speaking of Her Madge, back in the heady days of 2012, the time of that Diamond Jubilee, though not a Royalist myself, I saw the pomp as a unifying force for a people knocked about by the crash years, that things could not help but get better after all the jolly bunting, and a stiff cup of tea, served in jubilee china. They didn’t. They got worse. Much worse. Still, there was definitely something in the air that summer, because I wrote warmly of Her Madge as being the ideal of a nation, and something – the ideal I mean – worth polishing one’s shoes for.

We do need something to polish our shoes for, I think, but I have since returned to the straight and narrow in my search for other heroes, not of nationhood, but more elusive. It’s the best in personhood, perhaps, or at any rate a thing well beyond the sticky grasp and ken of the tabloid hacks, “influencers” and the makers of cheap memorial mugs. In 2012, I was a man who enjoyed lunching modestly in my local market town. Now my town has nowhere to lunch, beyond the newly fangled sawdust and spittoon boozers, which I shudder to frequent. Instead, I take what pleasures I can find for the fiver I might once have splashed on coffee, in the charity shops, and the bargain basements, of which there are now many. We are all, in short, a little more thread-worn, our jolly bunting derided on the world’s stage as symbolically empty, and meaningless. We are, as a nation, spent and pointless. Or so it feels from the crumbling market towns of the North.

But we were talking of books, or lists of books. And we began with that book by Leonard Susskind. How about him, or those like him? Are they not far worthier of our celebration? They are, after all, the best of us, and come from many walks of life, both high and low-born. Indeed, I raise my cap, and polish my shoes to men and women of such calibre. I have had the pleasure of knowing, and working with a few. There is a certain bias in my thinking, of course, having been inspired to higher things by the likes of them, and you may have your own candidates. But is it not better, if we are to look to others as an example, we value them in proportion to what they have to teach us. Flags and bunting teach us very little, other than which way to point a gun.

Here he is, talking about black holes, and the seriously spooky nature of the universe as a hologram.

Damn. I wish I’d got that book, now. Thanks for listening.

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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 to keep the door open. 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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