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journals-of-dorothy-wordsworthDorothy was the sister of William Wordsworth, also friend to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Though a diarist, and poet in her own right, she never sought publication and it was only in 1897, some forty years or so after her death, her earliest hand-written journals were taken up and printed by the historian William Knight.

They concern just two months of the year 1798, spent at Alfoxden, when Dorothy was 27. We also have 1800 to 1803 at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, though of the latter, only 1802 is complete. The Helen Darbishire version takes another look at the handwritten originals for the Dove Cottage years. For Alfoxden, the William Knight version is the only academic source now, Knight having ‘mislaid’ the original. She kept other journals – accounts of travel in Scotland and Europe, but these are not included here.

What’s striking is the diaries are either neutral in their bearing or wholly positive of the persons mentioned in them. We must therefore assume Dorothy was, to a degree, self-censoring, and this is fair enough, especially since it’s known she wrote with the expectation that at least her brother would be reading them – and no one is that magnanimous if a journal is guaranteed its privacy. In short, there is nothing here for the muck-raker, not even in that much psychoanalysed pre-wedding scene of June 1802.

But let’s go back to 1798. This was a significant year, marking the collaboration of William Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the publication of their “Lyrical Ballads”, a book that kicked off the English Romantic movement. The preface, written by Wordsworth, can be read as a manifesto of the movement’s aims and, for anyone who wants to know what English Romanticism is, or was, this is still the best place to start.

Then we have the early years in Grasmere, this period marking several revisions of the Lyrical Ballads. But Dorothy’s presence at the birth of English Romanticism is more significant than that, though in ways not always easy to get at. For a start, it seems rather a small slice of a life, just fragments of three and a bit years. So what is it about Dorothy’s jottings that’s kept them in print all this time? Is it simply that she was the sibling of a famous poet, is it prurient interest in the nature of their relationship, or do we glimpse something special in Dorothy herself?

Though I admire the Lake Poets, I find them difficult. Dorothy on the other hand is immediately accessible, her journals capturing with great brevity the most colourful pictures of her life and of the natural world. She was, in a sense, the mind-camera for William and Coleridge, who used her diary as a reference, the result being you will find echoes of Dorothy’s words, and the scenes she captured, in their work. She was also, in a sense, the embodiment of everything the Romantic movement was trying to get at – something profound in its simplicity, in plainness of language, and purity of feeling.

I plead ignorance of Alfoxden, but I do know the area around Grasmere, a village now so overlaid with an impenetrable veneer of chocolate-box tourism and dotted with the weekend residences of city-gazillionaires, it’s impossible to imagine any sort of authentic life being lived there at all. If we want to know what that place contributed to the Romantic movement, two centuries ago, we turn to the Lake poets, but if we want to flip through the stunningly vivid mind-pictures of life in the Lakes back then, and rub shoulders with its characters, then we read Dorothy’s journals. And in them we discover all is not lost, that if we can get away from the honey-pots, and beyond the fell gates, it’s still possible to see and feel the world as she did.

Much of the charm of these journals lies in their capture of nature; of the land and the weather and the creatures great and small, also a sense of the people in the landscape, moving upon it more intimately than we do now, and mostly, of course, on foot. The lack of petty tittle-tattle, though marked, does not diminish their interest. There is also great pleasure to be had from comparing Dorothy’s seasons in that brief window of her life with our own, and the feeling, still, of a Romantic connection with times past, as if no time has passed at all.

Given the immense age of the universe, a single life is no more than a match in the dark, a brief enough time in which to blink and respond to what we see before the light flickers and dies. But some matches are brighter than others, and some minds quicker at seeing what needs to be seen and responding with genuine heart and feeling. It’s also valuable, during the brief flaring of one’s own light if we can be shown what others have noted as worthy, because it gives us a head start in the growing of our own souls. Of course, not everyone possesses such a talent as makes it worth our while, but to my mind at least, Dorothy Wordsworth did. And I think that’s why we’re still reading her journals today.

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yarrow reservoir 1

The Yarrow Reservoir

So, we’re leaving the car by the Yarrow reservoir this afternoon, tucked into one of the cuttings along Parson’s Bullough road. It’s a cold sun sort of day, enough to tease us outdoors, but the daffodils are looking shivery, so we’ll need to zip up. There’s a good light on the reservoir, and the sun just low enough now for the contrasts to be interesting.

The Yarrow reservoir: late Victorian period, built to supply water to Liverpool and, along with its much larger neighbours, the Anglezarke and the Rivington reservoirs, it was all something of a tragedy if you consider the land and the farms and the homes that were sacrificed to progress hereabouts. But they’ve been an unchanging fixture of my own life and, as far as reservoirs go, they’re beautiful and have bedded in well.

This afternoon’s jaunt will cover about three miles, where we’ll find a varied and fast changing scenery of moors and meadows, woods and running water, also a few dark tales along the way.

yarrow reservoir mapWe start with a bit of quiet road-walking, first across Alance Bridge, which spans the tail end of the reservoir. You sometimes get idiot kids tomb-stoning from the bridge in the summer, but it achieved a different kind of notoriety a few years back when murderers crept out of one the darker cracks of Bolton and attempted to dispose of a body by dropping it over the side here. It’s not a story I’m happy to be adding to local lore, and it reminds me these remoter stretches of Lancashire are perhaps best not explored after dark.

Next comes the climb up Hodge Brow, eventually passing an old barn on our left. This is a queer building, marked as Morris House on early six inch maps. I’ve known it variously as a ruin, then a bunkhouse and more lately a millionaires des-res project that’s stalled and has now lain empty for years. It looks about another winter away from the weather getting in too. There are warnings of spycams. This is a bleak corner, the wind unchecked, roaring down off Anglezarke moor to rattle the tiles – pretty enough in Summer, I suppose, but I don’t think I’d want to over-winter here.

Past Morris’ we’re onto Dean Head Lane, a narrow cut of a road, water pooling in the reedy hedgrows as it drains from the moor. It’ll take us on to the pretty little village of Rivington eventually, or up by Sheephouse Lane and Hoorden Stoops, to the more populous Belmont. There are fine views of Anglezarke to the north and, further off to the east is Noon and Winter Hill – something shaggy and frigid about them this afternoon though, in spite of the sun, like they’re hung over or still grumpy after the summer heath fires.

yarrow reservoir 7

The path by Dean Wood

At Wilkocks farm (1670), we cut down the path along by Dean Wood which skirts the deep ravine in which the wood nestles. I’ve often fancied a closer look at the wood as legend has it there’s a fine cascade hiding in there, but this place is considered so precious to the region, it’s sealed off and managed as a secure nature reserve – access by permission only, and you’d better have a good reason for asking.

There’s something creepy about the path, an old story about a farm labourer coming along here in the early nineteen hundreds. He felt a “presence” behind him, then turned to see, in his own words, the devil “horns and all”. Terrified, he ran to Rivington and told his tale, swearing all was true. Three months later they found his body at the bottom of the ravine in Dean Wood having apparently fallen from the path around where he claimed to have had his near miss with old Nick.

It’s a story recounted first, I believe, in John Rawlinson’s “About Rivington” and I’ve been careful not to add anything of my own to it here. Writers usually can’t help embellishing where they feel a story lacks detail. What I will say though is reports of such Forteana tend to cluster in the liminal zones, and this one certainly fits that pattern: the open meadows coming down to the edge of the wood, and then the deep ravine itself forming a void of air, all of which  makes for a fine transition from one thing to another.

One theory is we “imagine” such apparitions, but that doesn’t make them any less real, at least not to those experiencing them. On a fine sunny afternoon like this it’s just a story of uncertain vintage – no names, no precise dates, so it’s impossible to research more fully. To my knowledge Old Nick hasn’t been seen again around Dean Wood, but would I come down here at dead of night? Well, let’s just say, I’d be tempted to go another way.

I remember John Rawlinson as a kindly and wise old gentleman – a leading light of the Chorley Historical and Archeological Society, also a good friend of my father’s, both of them a half century gone now, both legends in their own way and loving every inch of the moors hereabouts.

yarrow reservoir 3

Turner Embankment – Yarrow Reservoir

After offering us tantalising glimpses of the forbidden, sylvan delights of Dean Wood, and hopefully avoiding any diabolical disturbance, the path brings us out into open meadows and with a fine view of the Yarrow reservoir, overlooking the somewhat angular Turner Embankment, so named after the house that was demolished to make way for it. Rawlinson tells us the house was most likely salvaged, and the materials put into building Dean Wood house, which nestles in a cosy bower just to our left here. There’s something pleasing about the close-mown lines of the embankment, I think,  with the trees still bare against the sky and the foreground meadows all lit by late afternoon sunshine.

Now we’re off along Dean Wood lane, through a fine avenue of chestnuts, just coming into leaf, and there’s a clear brook tinkling alongside us for company. We can walk on to Rivington from here, perhaps have a brew at the chapel tea rooms, but that’s for another day. Today we’ll take the path around the Yarrow instead, which we could follow pretty much all the way back to the car if we wanted, but if you don’t mind, I want to make a bit of a detour because I can hear the rumble of water and I suspect the spillway is running.

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The Yarrow Reservoir overflow

The Yarrow spillway is a spectacular feature hereabouts, a series of cascading steps that takes the excess from the Yarrow and feeds it with style into the Anglezarke reservoir. It isn’t often running these days, but there’s a good bit of water today, and it’s always worth a photograph, especially now with the sun settling upon it and adding a golden glow to the highlights.

I try a couple of shots with the lens wide open and manage 1/2000th of a second on the shutter. This has a dramatic effect on the capture of water, freezing it and rendering an image that’s essentially true but something the eye wouldn’t normally see. There must be thousands of shots of these falls on Instagram and Flikr, and a good many of them mine, but I never tire of it.

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F1.8 – 1/2000 sec

Okay, it’s just a short way now back to Parson’s Bullough and the car. Then it’s boots off, and home for a brew. A pleasant walk in familiar territory, but always something a little different to see.

Just one last look back at that gorgeous spillway, and we’re done:

yarrow reservoir 6

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mazzy at glasson 2019

Small blue car, Glasson Basin

It was unseasonably warm, this, the last Friday of February, temperatures nudging seventeen degrees and a spring tide almost cutting off the village of Glasson. The little blue car and I are here again for our annual groundhog day. I first came in 2014, but that morning was a cold day, a winter’s day, and there was ice on the car park. Today was summery, balmy and weird. There have been years when I didn’t get the top down until April. That’s natural, today wasn’t.

I’m dressed for winter, five sensible layers and a hat. I have binoculars, camera and a Lion Bar. The plan is the same as always: walk south across boggy meadows to Cockerham Marsh, then pick up the Lancashire coastal way which leads us back to Glasson, then a brew before we paste it back home.

I’m not feeling too good, a bit of a cold breaking, so my head is woolly and there’s a fatigue hanging over me, but I’ll manage. Yes, the weather is weird, and I’m tying my coat around my waist before we’ve gone a mile, but the warmth in it is undeniably cheering. A few weeks ago we had snow.

marsh end farm

Bank End, Cockerham

Cockerham Marsh never fails to impress, one of Lancashire’s jewels – the glittering expanse of it, the greenness and the dendritic channels all patiently fished and swooped over by oystercatcher and curlew. There were murmurations of dunlin and starling too, animating a sky lit generously by a low winter sun, and with all the warmth of spring in it. I’m thrilled by the rapture of birds here as they wade and gambol out of reach of man. As I watch I find myself wondering if, when we’ve poisoned ourselves from the last corners of the planet, the birds will find a way to survive and preserve in themselves what is truly beautiful about the world.

And then it’s the coastal path and the green sward by the old abbey where the land stops and tumbles sedately into the sea, then the call of lambs in sheep-thick meadows, and the final push up a summer-sleepy Marsh Lane to Glasson. All of this in February.

lancashire coastal way

The Lancashire Coastal way, Cockerham

I get a brew at the Lock Keeper’s Rest, by Glasson Basin, settle on a bench in the sun, among the born-again bikers. I’m joined by an old dude who tells me it’s a shame they closed the pub. He speaks with the direct intimacy of an old friend. He’s just lonely for a chat, I suppose. He goes on to complain about the salt water he’s had to drive through on the way into Glasson, as if it’s someone’s fault, and how it’s no good for a car. Then it’s the price of a pint and a football ticket, his opinion amply expressed by a weary shake of the head. I ask him how long since they closed the pub, not that I’m interested, but it looks like he’s settling in and thus far it’s been a bit one-way. He seems not to understand the question, bites his lip and looks at me askance, as if I’ve offended him and he bumbles off to sit alone.

On the drive home there’s a near accident on the humped bridge over the canal at Garstang, a learner driver is approaching it cautiously, but then caught unawares by an insane hardcore wagon which appears suddenly, rising like Poseidon from the deep and steaming over the bridge at full tilt. The wagon screeches to a halt, inches from disaster, sends up a cloud of dust and is unable to move unless the learner reverses, but the learner is frozen with shock, as am I.

The hardcore driver is not a patient sort and is effing and blinding at once. The passenger gets out, the learner hastily slides over. The hardcore man continues to sully the air with foul and insulting language: You can’t drive, you’re an idiot, you shouldn’t be on the road – that sort of thing.

“Learning, mate,” says the passenger, hands wide, in a placatory tone, then points out the L plates. You know? Cut us some slack. Be patient.

But the hardcore man takes this as a challenge to his superiority. The cab door is flung open, and a tense standoff ensues. The queue for the bridge is dozens of vehicles deep in both directions by now, but we must all await the pleasure of the hardcore troll, captive audience to his vile strutting. Does he commit assault on an innocent man? mangle his car for good measure and expect us all to applaud him? The learner car backs up as quickly as possible in order to avoid fisticuffs. The hardcore man, still puffed up hurls parting curses, then thunders away to wreak havoc elsewhere.

I follow the L plate into Garstang, thinking to myself the learner will probably never want to get behind the wheel of a car again, scarred for life by an ill timed encounter with the troll. A troubling day of sorts then, mostly beautiful, but in a weird sort of way, overlaid by something surreal, courtesy of my being under the weather, and there’s an aftertaste of threat that’s been hard to shake – the un-seasonal weather suggestive of climate catastrophe, and the latter incident indicative of an increasing and vociferous intolerance among our people.

The principal threat to the natural world of course has always been the human being which seems incapable of acting in harmony with it, while the biggest existential threat to the human being, apart from an asteroid impact, has always been human beings themselves, and their propensity to act first in preservation of their own misguided sense of superiority, to the detriment of more altruistic virtues.

Anyway, mind how you go and beware of those thundering hardcore wagons.

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fallen beech tree

In the opening of my novel “Durelston Wood” there’s this huge beech tree that stands high on a bank, overlooking a bend in a river that runs deep through a forest. The roots are gnarled and mossy and the tree’s origins seem to hark back to a time as near the beginning of time as makes no difference. And it’s this apparent permanence in time, at least in so far as our protagonist sees it, that lends the tree the role of an existential anchor throughout the changes of his life. Whenever he feels he lacks certainty and direction, whenever it seems there’s no sure ground left to stand on, he seeks it out.

That beech tree exists. I’ve known it since I was a boy, carved my name on it in a secret place when I was ten, but unlike my protagonist, I’ve also seen how the bank has been eroding slowly over the decades, the root system more and more exposed. Some years ago, storms felled a couple of my tree’s equally mighty brethren. They’d been undermined by time and grown top heavy, so a capricious wind sent them crashing into the river. It’s a shocking thing to see, a tree of immense proportion spread out suddenly, smashed open by gravity, and I suppose it was just a matter of time before my own tree – I always think of it as my tree – succumbed in the same way.

Its prospect, sitting high on that bank grants it a certain majesty but you can also sense its vulnerability as its roots cling talon-like to an earth that is slowly vanishing beneath it. It’s five or six feet in diameter, and Professor Google says if we multiply the diameter of the tree at chest height, in inches, by six, it gives us the approximate age of the tree in years – so let’s say about four hundred years since that little beechnut first sprouted on the riverbank and crowded out all the other little beechnuts.

But one side of the root system has been getting more and more exposed, starving the tree. Sure enough, I came upon it recently to find a massive section of trunk had failed above those exposed roots. It was taken down by the storms we had in December, sent thirty feet into the river below, its irresistible arboreal tonnage smashing through a footbridge in the process.

So there’s a lesson here about impermanence, that although we all know nothing lasts for ever, at the same time it’s an axiom we seek to ignore by picking as our yardsticks something suitably long lived, like say a four hundred year old beech tree. But, in time, even the mountains are ground down and the valleys filled with their dust, and one day I’m sure to come through the forest to find this tree gone completely into the river, and a crater in the bank ripped out by the roots as it went over. And the other lesson in all of this is I’ve got to find a way of not minding any of that.

And that might even be possible, were it not also for the accompanying sense recently of an acceleration in the destruction of the known world, and the fast erosion of all certainty, like the earth that has supported my tree for four centuries being now insufficient to support the weight of our giddy times.

But perhaps in the true unwritten history of my tree, a more useful tale than its imminent demise has already been told in the beer-can someone wedged into one the boles high in the trunk, or the plastic supermarket bag trapped in its branches and just out of reach – a bag that slapped and flapped eventually to silent rags in the winds over the passage of several winters. Or the inevitable little bags of dog poo someone hung there, or the discarded sandwich wrapper and, one time, the malodorous pile of human faeces, complete with Hoover instruction booklet hastily improvised as toilet paper (well, you never know, do you?). Or indeed the ten year old boy who once carved his initials in that secret place – yes, even that, to other eyes, might have seemed a sacrilege.

All these things from time to time have come to poke fun at this illusion of the tree’s sanctity, at the idea of anything being immortal in this world, at our sentimental nature, at our propensity for hanging onto things, to people, places, even memories, long after the time has come to let them go. To one human a mighty tree and its environs are an enchanted place, a place for communing with the Faery, while to another it’s simply a convenient toilet, or somewhere to leave one’s rubbish, or make one’s mark.

In mythical terms these are the tokens of the jester, the exasperating interventions of an ever playful Mercurius, telling us to get over ourselves, that the successful alchemy of one’s life is a continuing process of coagulation and sublimation, that the falling back into ruin is as important as the rise of a transcendent vapour that follows. The remains of these trees, these icons of the most venerable life on earth, four hundred years in the making, will settle back into the earth now, and there coagulate and rot in slow-time, providing habitat for the shy creatures we do not see when we are encumbered with our yapping dogs – the creatures, like the sprites and the Faery we see only when we settle down in the forest and tune in to the deep motion of its fecund breath, and open up the eye of imagination.

There is no tragedy here, only a falling back into the alembic of my days, a further cycle of coagulation and a separating out the unnecessary from my thoughts, while we await the sublimation of some new mode of spirit, a fresh way of thinking and seeing and being.

Or at least I hope so.

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on smearsett scar

On Smearset Scar

There’s this soft wintry light, and a mostly clear sky, tending to a tobacco haze around the full sweep of the horizon. The sun is past the meridian now, the short day already maturing to shades of buttery mistiness. The hills and valleys are rendered in dynamic sweeps of luminous green and yellow-ochre as the light plays upon them, and all the crags and the long runs of dry-stone wall are etched in sharp relief by that pale, low slanting sun.

We can only be in the Yorkshire Dales, on top of Smearsett Scar to be precise. This is a fine hill, tucked away from casual view, though not far from the little market-town of Settle and I’m surprised it isn’t better known. We’ve seen no one on the trail since leaving the car an hour ago. I’m sure it’s well loved by Dalesmen hereabouts, but I suspect the day-tripping peak bagger is more likely to be on the hunt for bigger fish. Sure, they’ve been tearing up the Ribble to Horton since before dawn, in search of the three peaks, and that well worn circuit of the damned on which I’ve been casually bowled aside on more than one occasion. Meanwhile glorious Smearset here gets barely a look in, but I’m not complaining.

Adjoining Smearsett, to the west, we have Pot scar, its summit pricking the tranquil skyline with an inviting cairn, and between the two a precipitous escarpment falling away to the south. Thus far the climb has rewarded us with exquisite views and a sense of exhilaration out of all proportion to the relatively modest altitude and effort required to get here. We’ve left the car in Stainforth, and in a bit I’ll be taking you across the fell, to that cairn on Pot Scar, then down to the little hamlet of Feizor for a brew in the cafe there, then finally back along the valley. It’s an outing of between six and eight miles, depending on our choice of return, and already on its way to becoming one of the finest walks I’ve done in the Dales – apart from all the others of course.

Although there are good paths running either side of the hill, there was little on the map to actually guide us to the top – no well worn routes on the ground either, but on a fine day like this all became clear, and it was fairly easy to pick our way. We did the right thing, I think, tackling it from the north where that track runs up from Little Stainforth and gave us a good start on the day, plus spring-boarding a less precipitous approach to the summit. Our first glimpse of Smearsett from the Ribble was quite intimidating, but on closer acquaintance the ground proved easy enough and just a short detour to the trig-point at 363 meters.

And what a summit! What a fine sweep of the Dales! But don’t let that sunshine deceive you, this is December, closing down on the Solstice now, and not much heat in it. So don’t worry, I’m not for lingering any longer than the time it takes to grab a quick photograph or two. But in Summer this will be a grand place to settle down in the grass, to feel the  sun’s caress, and listen to the high twittering rapture of skylarks.

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Pot scar from Smearsett

So,… it’s an airy walk westwards now at an easy pace along the undulating escarpment, a route that seems little used, but we’re granted the courtesy of good stiles built into the various drystone walls to aid our passage, and to join the dots between vague twists of path. Pot Scar ends in precipitous crags above Feizor and a stout, bounding wall that tells us we must have missed a more obvious way off. But an easy detour north brings us back onto that track running up from Little Stainforth, and leads us safely into Feizor, amid the most spectacular rolling hills and limestone crags.

There’s a splendid little teashop here, and I know I’ve been promising you a pot of tea and a toastie all the while, but sadly on arrival we find there’s not a table to be had. It seems there are visitors a plenty in the Dales today, just none on the fell. So we must press on – a long but easy track now, south and east through pastures and valleys, in the first gatherings of twilight and deepening shadow, down to Stackhouse, and the weir on the Ribble.

heron at stackhouse

The weir at Stackhouse, on the River Ribble

There’s a Heron, fishing at Stackhouse. It looks ever so stately and aloof while I pause to admire its ungainly grace and to chance a photograph. It grants me the courtesy of a lingering pose, the epitome of patience, though I’d be less inclined to be so admiring if this turned out to be same Heron that took all my goldfish in the summer. Such is life. It’s all about context, I suppose.

We finish the walk with an easy stroll upstream to the falls at Stainforth, and a sudden prospect that’s like something from an old master’s painting – the thundering rapids and the sweep of the river above them running ponderously black, spanned by an ancient and slender stone arch of a bridge. There’s just one last slice of amber warming up the far bank as the day winds down to dusk now, the scene mostly deserted, but I imagine come summer this will be a popular little spot.

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The falls at Stainforth

I’m not sure how a walk earns the title “Classic” but this one has to be a contender. I know, I always say that. At the very least it’s been a grand day out, and just a pity we didn’t manage to crown it with that brew in Feizor. But no bother, let’s burn up that last half mile to the car, then we can get our boots off and cool our feet. We’ll call at the Naked Man Cafe in Settle on the way home. I’ll treat you to a brew there instead, and a toasted teacake as darkness comes on and the old town lights itself up for Christmas, all twinkly and magical!

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in martindale

 “Mazzy”, the small blue car in Martindale, Westmoreland

I wave to fellow Mazda MX5 drivers. They don’t always wave back but it cheers me up when they do. It’s mostly the guys who’ll reciprocate. Girls will only rarely acknowledge you. Mk 4’s are the worst for not responding, unless driven by an older, old-school silver fox, and then you’ll always get a wave.

It’s just part of the scene, and a pleasant one. I think old Landies and Bugs have a similar thing going on. It proves we’re still human, that we’re enthusiastic about irrational things, that we’re quirky. It tells me there’s still hope.

But I thought the Mazda was into her last year this year. Her back wings and sills were rusting out, and I’d had a quote for repair beyond what she was realistically worth. Then I shopped around a bit and got a price for the sills that would at least get her through the MOT. The guy made a pretty good job of it too – matched the paint and everything. He was pleased I was pleased. And I was pleased that he was pleased that I was pleased. As for the wings, they’re okay from a distance, and I can make a go of patching them myself once the bubbles break, slow the process down with Waxoyl, get them professionally done at some point later on. I’ve also had a dodgy ABS sensor, so all told it’s been an expensive year this year but we’re set up now for a little longer, and as winter comes on, I’m already looking forward to the spring when we can get the top down again and go explore some more narrow roads in the Dales.

At sixteen years old, I’ve got to expect something pretty much all the time now. Speaking of which there’s an occasional howl coming from the front passenger side wheel at low speed on full lock, and I don’t know what that’s about – the cheap option is a sticking brake cylinder, the expensive one is a wheel bearing. I’ll mention that at the service come December’s end, but ’till then we’ll see how it goes. Engine and transmission are still like new (touch wood). I’ve had the car five years now and she’s such a pleasure to own, I want to keep her going for ever. She’s done coming up on ninety thousand now so she’s good for a while yet. A colleague has the same marque, but his had done a quarter of a million and had just started smoking. It was worth about a hundred as scrap and he still didn’t want to let her go.

My other car, what had been my main driver, a four year old Ford Focus went in the autumn, and good riddance. The Powershift started playing silly buggers, and not for the first time, so I sold it back into the trade for a massive loss, but that was better than it bankrupting, or killing me. It’s such a pleasure to be without it I’m still basking in the afterglow one less seriously squeaky hinge, and for sure I’ll not be driving a Ford, or an automatic, again for a long time. A rusty, creaky old MX5 is my only battle-bus now, and people wave at me when I drive by.

No one ever waved at me in my Focus.

The finest run we had this year was the little Malham to Arncliffe road, with a return to Stainforth via Littondale. That was a hot day. I’d spent it walking around Malham, but the drive was as much of a pleasure, and you can’t say that about many cars. I had the top down and you could feel the air and smell the meadows as we passed. You can thread her up and down most any road with confidence, even with a wide beamed eejit coming at you the other way, and she’s a bottomless pit of torque for the hills. Sometimes I forget I’m pushing sixty, the fun I’ve had with that car. Or is it more a gesture of defiance, that you’re just a hair’s breadth from being twenty five again and it’s all a question of spirit? That’s it, I think. She revives my spirit.

The grey slab commuter mule was the thing imposed on me by forces beyond my control, and not much I could do about it and come out the other end feeling at all like a responsible adult. But come weekend, I’d toss the walking boots in the Mazda and we’d take off somewhere beautiful, just the two of us. Like a love affair.

The finest drive we’ve had to date, I think, was round Ullswater to Pooley, then Howtown and up the zig zags into Martindale, a stormy looking day but we managed the top down until our return to Glenridding when it caught us up and we had to batten the hatches down. I took coffee at the Hotel there and I remember coming out and seeing her beaded with rain and looking like a dream. We’d still a hundred miles to go but I’d no worries she wasn’t up for it. That Focus, I’d’ve been waiting for it shivering through the changes at every junction, and wondering if it was going to drop out of drive, or even take it up at all. Thanks for all your help with that one Mr Ford – I’m still waiting for your call by the way.

Japan looks like a beautiful country – don’t suppose I’ll ever go, and it seems odd to be driving a car that was put together there and got itself shipped half way round the world to end its days with me, skipping around the Lakes and Dales. I wonder if she’s ever homesick, if she’s just putting a brave face on things, or if she’s really happy?

It was a short run today, out for breakfast at a local cafe, then off to the shop for supplies. She’s resting in the garage now chatting to the mice. I passed two Mk 1’s and a Mk 2.5. All waved.

None of us were drowning.

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Survivalcraft for wordpress

Writing stories is old hat. They’re like a wind-up Swiss Watch; beautiful, intricate and hard to make, and no one wants them any more. Sure, you can still get them, but most mass market tickers are of the quartz variety. Technology has moved on. Like cut-throat razors, there’s no need for them any more and anyone still using them is seriously retro. In the same way, written stories died with the age of Television, about the time I was born, which makes it somewhat ironic I should have spent so much time writing them. I collect wind-up watches too. Speaks volumes.

Seems like I was born too late.

In the UK it died early. America hung on for a bit. Indeed, over there, it was still possible to sell fiction, even really poor fiction, well into the seventies. But now, like us, they don’t read stuff any more. It’s all visual drama, and most of it’s so up itself the only thing it teaches us is the art of celebrity.

In the UK you had a few women’s magazines and you had the People’s Friend. They’re still around but they weren’t an easy genre to figure out. I did try, but they get thousands of stories a week showered on them and they have to pick just one or two. Even if you’ve got what it takes it’s still a lottery. No room for also-rans. There were some London literary rags as well, I recall, still are, but you’ve only to read one to see they’re seriously off the strangeness scale, that only very clever people could fathom, so I never wasted stamps on them.

For Science Fiction and Speculative you had Interzone and The Third Alternative. They supported a lot of big names back in the day and were great magazines to read, with engaging and intelligent fiction, but I guess like the rest, it was just too competitive, again no room for second best with those boys. And if you don’t know your cyberpunk from your whatsamacallit, then seriously, don’t bother, you’ll just look like a fool.

I know I did.

I had some luck with Ireland’s Own, a Wexford based publication, quite old fashioned really, like something out of the fifties. I wrote traditional Irish tales for them, which was weird because I’ve never been to Ireland, and they say you should always write what you know, but they didn’t seem to mind that. They had about twenty stories off me, the sum total of my published opus, in fact, and all of them lost to obscurity now. I’ve published nothing there in ages because the market dried me up completely. And what I really wanted anyway was to publish longer stories – novels and such – the pursuit of which finally wised me up to the whole damned publishing business altogether.

I’m reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut at the moment – most recently a book called Timequake, published in ’97, part weird, zany fiction, also part autobiography, in which he was already lamenting the end of the era of pop fiction, the one he grew up in, the one that enabled him to quit his job at General Electric to write full time and make a decent living at it, just like I wanted to do. But Vonnegut was a generation ahead of me and had already concluded it was over at the same time I was still trying to doggedly break in. He was a real writer’s writer, Kurt Vonnegut, God rest him.

When I say writing stories is old hat, I don’t mean they’re no longer relevant or enjoyable, it’s just that fewer people bother with them, that’s all. Stories used to pass the time at a time when we all seemed to have more time, when the evenings after work seemed longer and there was time to just – I don’t know – just be. Nowadays by the time we’ve finished commuting and had our tea, it’s time for bed and work again. So it’s all too easy to pick up your phone in the bits of time that are left and play Candy Crush than it is to immerse yourself in a work of fiction.

Me? Guilty as charged your honour. I can lose myself for hours in Survivalcraft instead of reading or writing. See pic – that’s me! But it doesn’t exactly teach you anything of use outside the game. I’ve built an entire world in it. There are farms and mines and homesteads, and remote islands, all interlinked by tunnels, so I can get about without running the gauntlet of hungry wild animals. Years and years it’s taken me, just tunnelling away, piling up the earth to build more farmsteads, plant more crops, round-up cows. I’ve only to drop my phone and it’s all gone. But it doesn’t matter. It’s just an escape, like doing Soduku.

Stories are an escape too, yes, but they are so much more than that. In the main they present an experience as if it were shared. The writer beckons you in, and says come along with me for a bit. And along you go, finding yourself on a journey peopled by characters as real as any you’re likely to meet in real life. And they talk to you, show you things. They ask you: what do you think of this? You always come away from a story, a good story, with your soul changed in some way – a little deeper, a little wiser.

That’s the way I see it anyway.

For a time, some time post 2008, when our devices became portable and powerful, they seemed the perfect medium for written stories to migrate to, and that’s pretty much where I’ve been as an amateur hack since then, basically giving stuff away, and why not? given that most publications don’t even pay for it now anyway, what’s there to lose? But I’m not so sure about this any more. All I seem to be doing is creating reams of content for others to pepper with their advertising, or to content scrape, or simply bare-faced pirate, all of them like parasites picking at my brains. And then we’ve had the scandals of election meddling through nefarious psychological means, served out of our devices and pretty soon you come to realise our devices are not so much full of wonder any more, as full of shit. Apologies for the “S” word – Vonnegut is a bad influence, but you’ve got to love him.

So is it time we set our devices aside? Sure, if you go searching online you might find some decent stories, like flowers growing on a dung hill, but you’re not going to manage it without getting a lot of muck on your wellies too. We’d all be better going for a walk, a real walk, in the sunshine because it cheers you up, you know? Or go for a coffee and spot how many people still have their heads stuck in their phones and up their asses. Best of all buy a paper book from a charity shop, then sit down somewhere comfy and read, like we did in the old days.

I’m coming up on retirement soon, thinking to duck out early while I’ve still got breath in me for climbing a few more hills. I’ll have all the time in the world to read and to write then, but I’ll probably just sitting flicking listlessly on my phone like everybody else, or ordering tat off Ebay, or playing Survivalcraft. Then I’ll finally have become one more zombie, good as gold, incapable of stringing two coherent thoughts, or words, together.

I hope that isn’t true, but fiction is definitely niche these days, reading it and, I suppose, writing it too. Like Dandelion and Burdock pop, it conjures up memories of long ago. But, like those childhood summers, golden age of the written word isn’t coming back and, like climate-change and Neo-con economics, it’s probably too late to do anything about it. But that’s fine, because it’s still possible to find pleasure in really small things. And it’s just as well, because small things is all we’ve ever really had, or needed in the first place.

So,.. sun’s coming up. Let’s saddle up.

And ride!

Survivalcraft for wordpress 2

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