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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From my story: Saving Grace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cabin?”

You know, Mike. ‘The’ Cabin?

She clarifies: “Our Cabin.”

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

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

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

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

“Really?”

“You were right, it’s rather good.”

“Précis it for me. One sentence.”

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

“Ha! Nice one.”

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

“I’m sure I can manage that, yes. “

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

“Yes. Would you like to see it?”

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

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

What more could a man ask?

Thanks for listening.

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In Roddlesworth Woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Roddlesworth Woods

“Have you taken any nice photos?”

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

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

“Oh aye.”

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

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

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

Fishing cormorant

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

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

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

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

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

By Rocky Brook, Roddlesworth

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

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

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The Anglezarke reservoir

It seems a while since I made it out, the past few weeks having been spent sheltering from an oppressive heat. And even though today is much cooler, I didn’t fancy a hill, so we’ve settled on this circuit of the Anglezarke Reservoir, just to get us back into the swing.

It’s a cloudy-bright sort of day, still dry, with barely a drop of rain in ages. The paths are pot-hard, and wearisome. We’ve left the little blue car on the causeway, at the southern end, and are now approaching the halfway point, along the Heapey fold Lane. It’s an uninspiring stretch, all barbed wire, straight lines and miles of that electrified white tape the horsey people use, whether to deter horse or man is open to debate. As for the reservoir, it’s very low, as most of them are now, and, thus far, we’ve had only a few glimpses of it as the path veers shy.

There’s something wrong with my GPS tracker. Every time the phone goes to sleep, it forgets where we are, only to pick us up when I wake the phone again. Which is why our track is as the crow flies, and about a mile long, instead of all wiggly and about two. It’ll be something to do with how Android manages background apps, but this isn’t the time to be sorting that out. I know how far round this walk is anyway: Four and a quarter miles. Flat. Why I think I need the phone tracking us in the first place is a mystery, but we persuade ourselves it’s interesting to know these things, then all we end up doing is fiddling with the phone instead of absorbing properly what the walk has to offer.

We’re late season now, second half of August, and we have several trees along the way showing heat-stress, crisping up for an early autumn. And there are blackberries in the hedgerows, looking plump.

Just here, there’s a fine ash tree, and a good place to settle for lunch, before we plunge into the woods below Grey Heights, and Healey Nab. Heinz mushroom soup today, £1.40 a tin! I fancy the energy bills at their Kit Green factory must be getting on for the GDP of a small nation. I was also saddened to read the Coppull chippy, “Oh my Cod“, is to cease trading, due to the price of energy. I imagine many chippy’s are in the same boat; cafes, coffee shops, too, all victims of the killer watts.

Speaking of which, I’ve been trying to run an energy calculation in my head, one that’s vital to my own well-being. So: if it takes four minutes to boil water using a three kilowatt kettle, and electricity costs 28p per Kilowatt hour, how much for a cup of tea?

It’s taken me a couple miles to come up with the answer: 6p. Now, how many times do I brew up in a day? A lot, for if in doubt have a brew, and I am often in doubt, so let’s say six times. And six sixes are thirty-six, so thirty six pence a day! Times three hundred and sixty-five is,… em,.. calculator on the phone,… 13140. That’s pennies, so divide by a hundred, and we arrive at around £131 a year, brewing up. So, where I’m going with this is,… if we halved the number of brews?

No, wait a minute. Economies like that – like sitting in the dark – won’t even touch the sides. Anyway, when a man has to think twice before brewing up, he no longer lives in a civilised country, and I’d sooner preserve the illusion a while longer.

I’ve been sitting quite still by this tree, and maybe that’s why the ladies’ rambling group comes by and doesn’t notice me, or at least no one thinks to say hello. They’re a fragrant, and colourfully Lycra clad party, and very noisy as they enter the wood, sending up a flock of outraged pigeons. Which all goes to show, when you’re out with your mates, you’re not thinking about how much it costs to brew up, and maybe I should join a rambling group myself. Except, I never notice anything when I’m with a group, and I’m self-conscious lingering over photographs.

Anglezarke Reservoir, August 2022

Built between 1850 and 1857, the Anglezarke reservoir is perhaps the most attractive of its neighbours. But the best walking is along the east bank, where we’re closer to the water and get that lovely dancing light. Today we’re short of water, this northern end in particular, being shallow, emptied early, and is now green with an entire season’s worth of wild grasses and flowers. There’s just this narrow channel snaking down towards the southern end, which retains the appearance of a reservoir. Here, though, the land is reverting to its pre-1850 aspect. I venture down below the winter water-line, back in time, so to speak, to take a picture of the Waterman’s Cottage.

Waterman’s Cottage, Anglezarke reservoir, August 2022

Built in the mock Tudor style. It used to be one of those places I’d dream of living. It’s looking badly neglected now, though – sorry if you live there. But then everywhere’s the same, nothing heading in the right direction any more. It always made for a good photograph, reflected in dark waters, but is now suspended over a sea of green.

Waterman’s Cottage, Anglezarke Reservoir

Just past the cottage, we pick up the path below Siddow fold, and follow the pretty eastern shore towards the Bullough Reservoir. The views open out here, and we can see the deeper, southern end of the reservoir, where it still makes a good show of catching the light. This is the best section of the walk, even when we pick up the Tarmac water-board road, with the sparkle of water coming through mature plantation. Then we meet Moor road, where it snakes down from Lester Mill. The spillway of the Yarrow is dry, of course, and looks like it has been all summer, judging by the vegetation sprouting out of it. Then we’re back at the causeway, where we pick out the smile of the little blue car, waiting. A long four miles, somehow, and ready for a brew.

So we peel back the top, open the flask and enjoy a cup of sweet tea, relaxing in a cooling breeze coming off the water. Sixpence, remember? Or rather no,… forget that. Forget how much it costs to brew tea, for therein lies madness. A quick burst of data on the phone, allows the notifications to catch up. There’s one from Amazon letting me know they’ve dropped off my folding solar panel. That’s to keep my powerbanks and charged for, when the power-cuts begin. It’s another economy that’s not going to touch the sides, but it makes you feel like you’re at least doing something, stealing sunshine. So long as we can walk and write, all will be well. Less so, I fear for others. There is a real sense of teetering on the brink of something awful, but so long as you’re in the mood to read, I’ll be posting my way through it. And I might even finish that novel, before the year runs into Yule!

Thanks for listening.

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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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My last pair of Scarpa walking boots lasted fifteen years. They were never quite broken in, but they never leaked either. They just grew more deeply scarred, and might have lasted longer, but I lost faith in them. I was worried they’d fall apart and leave me stranded up a mountain in my stocking feet. My current pair, comfortable as carpet slippers from day one, have lasted two years. Now they’re opening up, and letting the water in.

All right, it’s a very, very wet day. Indeed, the moor is as wet as a moor can be. The earth liquifies underfoot as we step on it and we’re frequently over the tops of our laces. The sphagnum is drinking the wet down in greedy gallons, and glowing green for the effort. My jacket, too, is letting the water through, at least on one side where a stiff wind is encouraging it. The weather paints me half dark, half light. I am the yin and the yang of things. This could be my cue to start grumbling about the flimsification of the modern day, but that’s not where we’re going. It’s a wild, bracing day. The year is fresh, and it’s too soon for cynicism.

I’m on Withnell moor again, up from Brinscall. I’ve come through the woods, crossed the top of the Hatch Brook Falls, and climbed Well Lane. Now we’re on the moor, approaching the gaunt ruins of Ratten Clough. Its outline is black against the steady drift of rain. Abandoned in the 1960’s, this is the most substantial ruin of the lost farms. The barn’s gables are intact, the rafters hanging on, a watery silhouette, all against the dynamic grey of the swooping sky. I wonder if, in years to come, it’ll be taken for a millionaires des-res. They have a penchant for buying up romantically charged places like this, and throwing a fortune at them to make of them something twee. But he’ll need a taste for the lonely. There’s bleak, then there’s Withnell Moor, and then there’s Withnell moor on days like these.

Given the forecast, I thought it was a waste of time bringing the big camera. I didn’t want to get it wet. Instead, I’ve packed an old, small-sensor compact. It slips easily into the pocket, and I don’t mind it getting drowned. But you can’t expect to shoot in such murk as this without red noise on a small sensor. There’ll probably be no pictures today, then, except the ones I carry in my head.

The gate to Ratten Clough is tied in several places, and intricately knotted. It’s a public way, but we require a deviation to pick it up. I imagine our millionaire will make it a priority to divert the path. Ah,… another perennial thread of mine creeping in: money buying out our freedoms, sticking up no trespass signs. But we’re not going there, either, today. These are tired old themes, and my laments will do little to change them. So much for the power of attraction, then. I seem only to attract to my attention what I most dislike. Time to let them go. Find fresh pastures, with an emphasis on a more positive kind of magic.

Where are we, now? We’re following the line of a tumbled drystone wall into a blank of mist. With a global positioning system, you’re never lost, are you? But things are hotting up between Russia and the West, and between China and US. It’s not escaped my imagination the first thing the militaries will do, in times of conflict, is encrypt the satellites. And then what? How will we find our way with a road-map, and A to Z again? How will I know how far along this wall to walk, before turning down to the ruins of Botany Bay?

The spindly beech answers. I first met it in the spring, spent a while making friends. It materialises from the grey, now. “Here you are,” it says. “Nice to see you again.” The track’s here. So we make our way down to the ruin, touch the megalith for luck, then turn left, to Rake Brook, by the ruins of Popes.

It’s hard to imagine anyone living here, just a tumble of shapeless blocks, and the brook washing by. It’s in spate today, no evidence of there ever having been a bridge, just these few precarious steppy stones at the vagaries of flood. What can we say about that? Transience? Buddhist themes of impermanence, perhaps?

Apple pies were baked in this bleak hollow, with the wind howling through the chimney pots. Wholesome stews awaited the farmer and his boys, on winter days like these. All gone, now, just names in the census records, and a lonely pile of stones. People make all the difference. Without them to bear witness, the world might as well not exist. Indeed, it might already not exist. Strange thoughts today, Michael.

Mind how we go across the brook. Yes, the boots are definitely leaking, something cold encircling the foot, now. I was going to buy myself a new computer monitor, but it looks like it’ll be a pair of boots instead. I’d been looking forward to getting a new monitor, one of those 4K ultra-high definition things, for the photography. How do we prioritise? Sometimes the fates do it for us.

Watsons farm, now, and a strong waft of cattle as we come through the gate. The cows are all cosy in the barn, steam rising from their noses, as they chew. It’s one of the few farms still working the moor. I borrowed it for my work in progress, fictionalised it, changed universes, moved it down the road a bit. I had the farmer renting rooms, and my protagonist moving into one. Here, I court themes of sanctuary, and shoulders to the weather. Then there are stunning summers on the moors, the call of curlew and the rapture of larks.

Speaking of the novel, it’s descending into chaos, and tom-foolery. We’ve reached that point where it asks me if I want to bail out around 80K words, or wander on for another year, make it an epic. I think we’ll call its bluff and go for the epic. Amid this fall of the world, this crisis of meaning, and the impending climate disaster, it’s led me of a sudden to Helena Petrovna Blavatski, to the Theosophists, and all those curious fin de siècle secret societies.

I’ve had a brush with the redoubtable Madame B before, found her intellectually seductive, but also frightening. I bailed out at that first pass, but it looks like there’s something more she has to tell me, and this time I’m ready to listen. Memo to self: order Gary Lachman’s book, and while we’re at it, the one about Trump, and the political right’s courtship of the occult. It all sounds absurd, but let’s just go with it.

Across the Belmont road now, and the path into the woods becomes a bog. The Roddlesworth river is a lively torrent. We’re four miles out, and the woods are busy with muddy bikes, wet families, and happy, yappy dogs. We swing for home via the ruins of Pimms, on the moor, then Great Hill. The rain is blowing itself out at last. There are hints of sunshine, now, but the going is steep. Great Hill has grown since I last climbed it, swollen with rains to Tyrolean proportions. The ground looks like it’s been overspilling for weeks, and squirting water under every step.

At the summit shelter, I’m able to bag the last space among a gathering of several walking groups, all huddled for lunch. Cue mutterings of overcrowding on the fells, paths churned to slime and all that,… but we’re not going there today either. In my new universe, all are welcome. A jolly dame appears from nowhere, offers mince pies, and a nip of rum for my coffee.

The sun breaks through. There’s a low, gorgeous light of a sudden, under-lit clouds, curtains of rain in the distance. Old Lady Pendle appears, a crouching lion beyond Darwen moor. I try some shots with the little camera, but they come out poorly, red dot noisy. Sometimes, the best pictures are the ones you carry in your head, and they get better with age.

A good day on the moors, then, and never mind the wet feet. There’s a pair of dry socks in the car. Fancy a hot chocolate? We’ll drive over to the Hare and Hounds at Abbey, shall we? See what they can rustle up for us. The year turns.

All is well. Bring it on.

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The Pike Tower, Rivington

The year has blown itself out. It’s exhausted, its dreams have turned to ash, its spirits are damp with endless rain. Whenever the phone rings, it’s to let us know someone has died. Covid Omicron is circling with bat wings and horns, and the NHS Website is glowing red with demand for boosters. The temptation is to pull up the drawbridge, and write dark poetry. But then the Met office gifts us a brief chink of sunlight, so we fill the flask, grab the camera, and head up the Pike!

Rivington Pike is beloved of millions, a distinctive pimple of a hill atop the moor, and visible for miles. It was a natural choice for one of the network of early warning beacons for the threatened invasion of 1588. Since the late seventeen hundreds, it’s been crowned with this little stone tower. Originally a hunting lodge, the structure was almost demolished by Victorian vandalism, then fortified to its present impregnable status. Its walls bear centuries of graffiti, now eaten by acid rain into deep engravings. One of my lot added their name to it in 1881.

So anyway, it’s a midweek morning, and the causeway between the Rivington and Anglezarke reservoirs is rammed to a single lane. The Rivington Barn eatery is doing a brisk trade, and the Hall avenue is solid from top to bottom with parked cars. I spent a long time working towards retirement, only to find the whole world made it ahead of me, and got the last parking space. Well, not quite – I exaggerate for effect. I got the last one.

A December sun is a peculiar thing; virtually no heat, but incredibly bright. Capturing the dynamic range of a landscape on a digital sensor is a challenge at this time of year. Anything lit by the sun tends to burn out, so I’m experimenting. Then, I post-process at home.

I’m enjoying photography more than writing fiction at the moment, seeing more in what I can bring out of images than I do in words. My characters refuse to live, as if wearied by what they’re trying to say. Thus, the work in progress languishes, limps along a little, then collapses into a heap of uncertainty. It seems at times remote and stupid, like I’m losing my mind, at other times like I’m preaching, at other times like I don’t care, and I’ll say it anyway. But it will not take on a life of its own, as it once used to do.

I used to escape into fiction as a distraction from the day-job, which, like all jobs, involves wearing a face that is to some degree invented, while keeping what I felt to be my truer self incognito. But I also write as active imagination, which is a journey to unravel further aspects of the hidden self. I think I know the nature of that journey’s end now, which is to reveal one’s original face, as they say in Zen. The stories have pointed to the gate, and all that remains is to walk through it. But I’m not sure writing stories is part of that journey any more.

I’m feeling a little strange this morning. I dreamed of a fish – well, two fishes, actually – one large, one small, living in a puddle. I drop them some food, and the little fish pushes the big one right out of the puddle, then eats the food. The big one lies there, remote, sidelined, forgotten, expiring for want of oxygen. Fishes in dreams are thoughts, or at least they seem so in mine. And if they are so, then the big ideas are getting sidelined by the trivia, which is consuming all the energy. Or you could look at it the other way and say the old and the listless is being displaced by the fresh and the new. So which is it? The dream wasn’t explicit. They never are. It just asked me to think about it.

We start our walk with a meandering ascent through the terraced gardens, gradually working up to the summit of the Pike. You can get three or four miles out of it, and seven hundred feet of ascent. It’s not a long walk then, but a fairly stiff one, if you go for the Pike.

The seven arched bridge, Leverhulme’s terraced gardens, Rivington.

The first point of interest along the way is the so-called seven arch bridge. Like everything else here, it was built in the early nineteen hundreds, purely for fancy. It’s part of the then Viscount Leverhulme’s “palace in the clouds”, a collection of now mostly grade two listed historic structures. Picks, shovels, an army of men, and horses gave shape to it, and years in the making. It was the brainchild of prolific garden designer Thomas Mawson.

Once a year, Leverhulme would throw open his garden to the hoi polloi. They’d dress in their finest, and come wander. Times change, as do fashions. Now, it’s mountain gear, like we’re ascending Everest, instead of cloth caps and gaberdine. A fuss over trifles. But at least we can come and wander whenever we please.

The Great Lawn Summer House. Rivington Terraced Gardens.

I save my soup for one of the beautifully restored summer houses. Here, also sunning himself, I recognise a man I knew vaguely from the day job, and who retired some years before me. I cannot remember his name, though. Likewise, I can tell by his expression, he thinks he should know me, but cannot remember my name either. We avoid unintentional offence by the peculiar social dance of pretending not to know one another at all or, knowing each other so well, we need no introduction beyond “owdo”. Thus girded, we pass the time of day, and in hope of the connection making itself known, but it does not. So, we comment on the brightness of the sun, and the lack of warmth when out of it, on the wetness, and the windiness of previous weeks, and what a good job the heritage trust have made of restoring the gardens. We part with a nod and a “sithi'”, still trying to remember each other’s names.

So, on to the Pike, now, always a good indication of how fell-fit one is, by the amount of puff left when you hit the final flight of steps. As usual, I’m middling, but we’ll do, and of course it does you no harm to get out of puff now and then. A mountain biker, a girl with her phone, and an elderly couple, are my companions for the moment, here, all socially distanced of course. The elderly lady wears a surgical mask. She’s taking no chances with this bat-winged, horned monster that is Omicron, and judging from the reported “R” value, I don’t blame her. I wait for them to depart before I get the camera out. The girl lingers, dreamily, lost in her phone.

The Pigeon Tower, Levelhulmes terraced gardens, Rivington.

There’s much to see from the Pike: Manchester, the Peak District, North Wales, Liverpool, the coast as far as Blackpool, the Lakes beyond that. Sometimes you’ll see the Isle of Man, but that’s very much dependent on the atmospheric conditions, and has rather the appearance of a mirage when it appears. Speaking metaphorically, it’s a pity we can’t see further out, say two years from now. But given recent events, would we really want to?

It’s a beautiful afternoon. I take the long way back: Pigeon tower, Italian lake, cross the top of the seven arched bridge, then meander down to the car. It gets late early at this time of year, and the light is turning golden, now, the sun already flirting with dusk. The phone pings a notification from the BBC, an earth-shattering announcement to be made at tea time.

It’s fine. Just some more dead catting. I’ll wait for the bullet points in the morning.

We’ll pick up wine and cheese on the way home. Celebrate the midweek, why not? There’s nothing quite like a hill for straightening you out. Dark poetry be gone.

Thanks for listening.

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By the Goit, White Coppice

Six days after the most appalling storm, I’m here at White Coppice, in sparkling sunshine. There’s not a breath of wind, and the ground is hard with frost. Most of the trees are bare now, with only the oaks still clutching, defiant, to the tatters of their leaves.

In my previous piece, I put up an extract from my first novel, the Singing Loch. That story dealt with the way powerful forces shape small lives, and sometimes erases them. And it asked: what does that mean for the small lives? And what does it mean to us who, in the course of our own small lives, examine their traces? What can we learn, about ourselves, and the world?

Here at White Coppice, we look out across the always-summer green of the cricket field, with its attendant little whitewashed cottages. Winter begins where the moor rises, atop the line of the Brinscall fault. Sometimes moody, sometimes benign, the moor has a look of wild desolation. But it was not always so. Much of it is criss-crossed with drystone walling, marking the early enclosures. And there are piles of worked stone, overgrown, now, with moor grass, and clumps of soft rushes. These are the remains of farms, each a late formed tumulus, and a marker of past lives. Then there were any number of quarries, and small mines scratching out rare minerals. They’re all gone now, swept away by time, and, in the case of the hill-farms, by the need of burgeoning cities, and their industries, for water. In the small lives of the lost farms, here, there are untold stories of love, endurance and tragedy. We are left only to imagine them, and imagine them we must, or the only story remaining to us is one of catching water into the reservoirs, and delivering it to Liverpool. And where is the awe and the reverence in that?

It’s quiet at White Coppice this morning. We park without difficulty at the cricket field. Things are getting back to normal, after the scramble for green spaces during the peak of the lock-downs. I’m not planning a long walk. I’m looking for trees. There are some fine ones here, some I know, some specimens I’ve read about, and which I’m searching for. This is my own Covid legacy, this late found friendship with trees.

We begin by following the line of the Goit. This is a shallow canal, between the reservoirs around Tockholes, and the larger Anglezarke and Rivington system. Just here it is natural in appearance, and pleasing, but becomes more industrial and dull, further upstream. We turn off, at the edge of the woods around Brinscall, and enter the still crisp, frosted meadows of the Goit valley.

Ash tree, Goit valley

There’s an ash tree here, looking beautiful with the sun caught up in its boughs. We try a few shots, then seek out a likely spot for lunch. There’s a mound of stones nearby, with some flat bits we can sit upon. So we sit, and dig out the soup pot.

The old maps tell us this was a farm, called Goose Green. There are tiny mushrooms sprouting from the mosses. I imagine their myclelial network feeding from the dissolving timbers, deep below us. Mycology is beginning to interest me. We’re taught to be terrified of mushrooms, except the ones you can buy from Tescos. And, fair enough, some mushrooms will kill you, but most won’t. That’s not so say I recommend foraging, unless you know what you’re doing.

The more secret mushrooms, the magical, psychoactive ones, aren’t difficult to spot. They’re especially profuse in England’s climate, so it’s puzzling they do not form a greater part of our story than they do. These particular mushrooms are not of the magical variety. But if they were, to pick one, and put it in my pocket, would put in me in possession of a class A controlled substance. Interesting. I make do with Chicken soup.

This is one of the many Lost Farms of the Brinscall Moors, as documented in David Clayton’s fascinating book of the same name. It looks centuries old, this ruin, but, within the memory of my grandfather, it was still standing, and these now bracken and reed choked pastures, fallen to bog, were being worked.

You couldn’t reach this place with a modern vehicle, but there are the walled remains of old track-ways, designed for horse and cart. Some of them are walkable, others have reverted to nature. Our way traces one such track, up the steep slope of the fault-line. From the looks of it, the mountain bikers have made a big dipper of it. It looks an exciting way to descend. We’ll see where it leads us.

There’s a sunken track, deep with ancient use, but now filled with tussocks and reeds, and heather. There are a couple of gate posts, indicating the way down to another of the farms. This would be Fir farm, I guess. The census records tell us it was home to a young couple, the Warburtons, in the 1880’s. Not bad going for paper records. I wonder what will be left of our digital fingerprints a century from now? Will there be any trace of us? Will there even be a machine to read them? I couldn’t read what’s on the 3 1/2″ floppies in my attic, and they’re not twenty years old.

One of the gate posts leans in at a precarious angle, and looks weathered enough to be thousands of years old, rather than a few hundred. The way down to the farm looks impassable. But what a beautiful place to have lived! It colours the moor differently, to know the name of the people for whom this place was home.

We stick to the high ground, following the narrow ways, that could either be the trod of man, or of sheep. As we close with the line of the ridge, the walk takes on an airy, exposed feel. It’s mostly imagined, but it lifts the mood. There look to be ancient ways up onto Brinscall moor, and worth exploring another time. Another pair of gateposts provide foreground interest for a grand old tree, stunted by the weather. After I take the shot, the sky darkens, as a blanket of finely textured cloud rolls in, and the perceived temperature plummets. Time to press on, then, to wend our way back to White Coppice. I’d forgotten that unforgiving bite of winter.

On Brinscall moor

It’s an intriguing area, one I’ve often passed through, on the way to somewhere else, but as with all these places, it’s worth the slowing down, and taking a closer look for stories in the composition of stones and reeds and weathered trees. Worth it too are the old maps, and the census records that retain the names of lost places.

So, to answer the question, what does all this mean to the passing of small lives? Well, from a rational, clinical, left-brained point of view, it means nothing. But we don’t have to look at things that way. We can layer the world instead, with a vision that is essentially romantic. It’s not difficult. You’ve only to sit a while to feel it. And then, no matter the changes that sweep our small lives away, there’s always a discernible trace that’ll make a difference to someone, as it has made a difference to me, this morning.

Now, as I write, in this, during the dark of the new moon, it’s blowing a gale again. The rain rattles hard against the glass, and there’s a devil in it. It’s laughing at us, perhaps for what ecologists have widely hailed as the depressing, but the entirely predictable failure of the COP 26 summit. I have not seen the sun for days, which reminds me it’s all the more important to enjoy it whenever we can.

Oak tree, Goit valley

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In my mind’s eye, I see a cold grey dawn, with a grey city silhouette like a cardboard cut out, set against a grey sky. Grey people sit in grey motor cars, bumper to bumper, as clouds of grey poison swirl around them. They stand on the streets, packed tightly, grey figures without faces, afraid of touching and yet hardly able to move without doing so. They work, they reproduce, and then they die in a slow, painless, soulless cycle.

The City moves. It creeps invisibly, like the hands of a clock, like warm tar, spreading and sprawling. It lives and grows, fed by the souls it steals. But beyond the gloomy boundaries of this strange place, people dance under blue skies, on summer scented lawns. They dress in bright colours and sing songs. Then the skies darken as the City draws near. Their bright faces shine for just a moment before the warm tar engulfs them. They become petrified and emerge as yet more grey people without faces and without souls, while their summer scented lawns become roads and streets choked with motor cars. Then the poison seeks them out and fills their lungs as they too join in the slow cycle of work and death. Their songs are forgotten, and the intricate patterns of their dance are lost for ever.

Some of the grey people manage to hide a piece of their soul. It survives and grows, filling them with horror at what they see. They break away and search for a summer scented lawn on which to lay down and rest, somewhere far from the City where they can breathe clean air and listen to the singing of the trees and feel the good, sweet earth all around them. They imagine themselves free at last. But the greyness is with them and like Midas and his gold, everything they touch turns to grey. The grass withers beneath their feet, concrete springs up as if from wells beneath the ground, and another city is born, poisoning, spreading, sprawling. This inexorable process consumes whole continents, fouling land and sea until there is nothing left but a kind of grey, living death.

Finally, and in despair, the earth splits and great fires shoot out, creating vast lava-flows. Storm clouds gather, unleashing a terrible revenge, while the land undergoes convulsions of unimaginable proportion, throwing up mountains where there were none before and creating new oceans where once had stood grey mountains, befouled and exploited. The storms last for a hundred million years.

But none of this is real. It’s just a dream; something inside my head that brings me pain when I’m asleep. I wake up sweating and then a woman’s hand curls around my arm easing me onto my pillow. I hear her voice, soft and gentle and then she runs her fingers through my hair while I slip back into the dream.

Sometimes, I see the storms subside. The clouds part and I see sunlight playing upon a new world, a world that has become one big summer scented lawn and I see creatures, strange, yet wonderful, flitting about in an unexpected paradise. But this is no happy ending: there are no people here. I travel far and wide and see only simple creatures living out their lives, oblivious to the paradise around them. There is nothing that is conscious of its existence and no one to see the beauty of it all except for me through the windows of my dream.

I cannot look upon it for long, because I too am one of the grey people. I reach out and pluck a flower but it withers in my hand; I have yet to learn I am only passing through; the flower was not mine to pluck. I should have been content with admiring it for what it was and breathing in the scent it freely gave, instead of trying to claim it as my own, guarding it jealously within the palm of my hand. Then my window breaks and there is darkness once more, until I’m wakened by the dawn and the sound of a woman singing in the kitchen, downstairs.

I drag myself from bed and draw the curtains so I might look out across the waters of the loch. It sparkles with gold-dust in the yellow light of sunrise, and beyond I see moors, dark with bracken and heather. Hills rise beyond the moor, low and rounded and then, softened by a veil of blue haze, there are mountains. I see the fold in the land, and the silver thread of water leading to a pool of morning mist. In my mind, I trace the thread to its source, to that place whose lure I find so irresistible, to that other loch whose strange songs have changed my life.

It was through the Singing Loch I glimpsed the summer scented lawns and felt the meaning of its wordless song in my heart. It has much to tell, embracing as it does the mystery and the passion that compels us all. But also, for those who would claim the wild flowers as their own, there is a message.

From my novel, The Singing Loch, first published 2005. I’ve not looked at this since 2014. It must have gone through a million drafts since the first one in 1995, but there’s a typo in the very first sentence. Still, I meant well.

See if you can spot it. Click here.

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I was at a junk market, where I found myself seduced by an Agfa Silette, a commercially successful camera, from the 1950’s. It fit the hand well. Instinctively, the thumb sought the lever, and cocked the shutter, finger moving easily to the release. It would have been a fine camera to use in its day. Later models, with the built-in light metering, would have been the bees knees, and the mainstay provider of pictures for the family album. I pressed the shutter, but there was no click. The shutter was broken. This camera’s journey was over. Still, the guy wanted twenty quid for it.

There’s a fashion for these things, I know, but the lenses on most of these old timers are pretty much gone now, with mould seeping between the elements. This one was heading the same way Much as it’s nice to see old tech still functioning, when it’s beyond repair, you need to let it go. There are cameras of this vintage, still in good nick, but they’re rare. And people pay good money for them. But why? Would it be for show, do you think? Did it even matter if the camera was junk? Would it simply end up on a hipster’s book-shelf, along with coffee table tomes of Ansel Adams and David Bailey?

You can still get film. Indeed, according to the marketing, it’s seeing something of a revival just now. A roll of 36 shots will cost you a tenner. You can get it processed for another a tenner, even digitised. So, twenty quid for 36 shots, half of which will be duds, and the rest murky, when ten thousand clear shots, on a digital camera, won’t cost you anything. And these weren’t easy cameras to handle. You had to know photography. Without the ability to read the light, the exposure was guesswork, ditto focusing. There was a skill to it, one your Uncle Fred, the camera buff, took pride in. But there are no Uncle Freds any more. Now everyone’s an expert, because the camera does it for you. Even the camera on a cheap phone will knock spots off this old thing.

The first, low resolution digital cameras were enough to make me abandon film, twenty years ago. I went from a sophisticated Pentax film SLR, with a bag full of lenses, to a simple, fixed focus Kodak. And what I lost on the one hand, in optical quality, I felt I had gained plenty. I could shoot a hundred pictures, review them on the camera, and delete the ones I didn’t like, thus making room for more shots, without having to change the film roll. I could apply techniques with software I would have needed a darkroom to do before. And I could print my own photographs.

Then, over those twenty years, and like all digital technology, cameras have seriously overtaken their analogue cousins. Whether in darkness or full sun, they’ll grab a usable image that would have been impossible with film. The software for post-processing is endless in its variety. It renders the dark-room obsolete, moving it onto your computer. And yet,…

I was still drawn to this old camera. It fit the hand so well? I’d disposed of my film cameras years ago, and never looked back. And if you really must have that quirky, murky, antique look, you can simulate it in digital. No need to go to the trouble and expense of reverting to film. Is it because it’s all too easy now? Do we prefer some limitation? Does the surprise of one or two cracking shots, from a roll of 36, trump the ease of a decent shot every time?

All right, I think my interest was most likely on account of a camera of similar vintage making an unexpected appearance in my current work in progress. A Voightlander. I don’t know what it means, nor why it should be a Voightlander, and not an Agfa, like this one, or a Kodak. But there it is, and it’s been teasing me to make sense of it.

It’s about images from the past, right? A way of seeing, that we’ve lost? Too much of the left-brain’s utility, while the right-brain’s existentially holistic overview diminishes, and leaves us barren, lobotomised, robotic creatures. Or am I overthinking it? The metaphors are endless and beguiling. And maybe if this camera had been a Voightlander, and working, for a tenner, I might have bought it for the vibe, though not for the use of it. As it was, I put it back.

Metaphorical explorations are best kept in the heart and the head. No sense going literal with this one. But clearly there’s a message here, and it’s demanding to be explored. I’m strictly digital these days, but I’ll be the first to admit there’s still something tempting, indeed something very much of the romantic, about those old cameras. I mean, just imagine the times they might have known, and the things they might have seen, when their eyes were still bright.

And there, I think, I have my answer.

Thanks for listening.

Header image, original source file, attribution: Jonathan Zander, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons. Crop and further editing in Luminance HDR, and Corel PP9 by the author. Edited image subject to same terms.

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