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On the Parson’s Bullough Road

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

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

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

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

Ruined Walls and straw-coloured grasses – Anglezarke Moor

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

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

Remains of forestry – Anglezarke Moor

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

Approaching Hempshaws – Anglezarke moor

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

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

Reminders of wartime – Anglezarke Moor

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

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

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

Yarrow Reservoir

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

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

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

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

https://www.openstreetmap.org/#map=14/53.6336/-2.5493&layers=C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally:

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

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

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

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Stubai 4 point instep crampons

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

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

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

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

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

The Ravine, Rivington Terraced Gardens

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

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

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

Rivington Pike, Winter 2022

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

Pigeon Tower, Rivington, Winter 2022

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

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

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

Dean Wood Avenue

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

Towards the Church Meadows, Rivington

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

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

Keep safe.

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She’s a neatly-dressed woman, not young. I see her sitting on the same park bench every Saturday, at two. I can’t say exactly when my orbit became synchronised with hers, or why I persist with it now. I could always walk another way to the station. Indeed, I don’t need to walk to the station at all any more. It’s just a habit: catch the train into town, coffee in the corner café. And now her.

What’s most striking is her serene aura. She’s never lost in her phone, like most of us are these days. Sometimes she’s reading a paperback, sometimes she’s feeding the birds. But most of the time she sits and looks out across the parkland, and the pretty little lake. I’ve never spoken to her, not even caught her eye. I walk past, take the train into town, and that’s it.

At first, I was curious. You don’t see many women out on their own. I’ve read that the Internet has turned all the men into perverts. Or at least it’s convinced all the women that all the men are perverts. I don’t want her thinking that about me. But I’m wondering if she ever thinks about me at all, is curious about me, like I’m curious about her, this guy who walks by, every Saturday at two.

I’m not so old I can’t remember the urgent allure of girls, nor the lengths I went to to be with one. You could sit down next to a girl on a park bench in those days and say hello without her calling the cops – well, maybe not the same bench, but the bench opposite, perhaps. Was it that we were all so much younger, and trusting then, still working out what was the right way to enter into the full bloom of being? And somewhere along the way, something went wrong and turned us all into paranoid strangers, fearful of one another.

It was never about sex for me. I wouldn’t have admitted that to other guys, though – guys whose woman-talk never rose above the level of whether so-and-so was a good shag. They didn’t mean it, by the way. Well, not all of them did. That kind of talk used to embarrass me. And now? Well, now the prize would be someone to share a coffee with, someone to come home with, kick off our shoes, make dinner together, and watch TV.

She’s wearing a white shirt-dress today, looks summery and cool, looks like she’s waiting for someone, actually. That’s most likely it. At two-o-five, when I’ve gone by, this guy comes up, and they stroll off arm in arm. Except you wouldn’t arrange a date for two-o-five, would you? It would be two, on the dot. Or am I just over thinking things?

In truth, I don’t know how it goes any more. I met my wife of twenty-five years at work. I can’t remember which of us spoke first. It just sort of happened. It seemed to happen more easily back then. Now it doesn’t. Now you have to go on the Internet and sell yourself. But if you’ve nothing to sell, what then? I was no looker to begin with, and age has hardly improved things. But is that the best way to make a first impression, anyway?

I’ve wondered about saying hello. I mean, that’s still okay, isn’t it? I say hello to other people when I’m out walking, and they say hello back. It’s polite. It’s like saying: I’m a nice person, and you can trust me. And it usually comes with a smile, and you can tell a lot about a person that way. But it needs a bit of eye contact first, and she’s never scanning for it. Her eyes are always in her book, or watching the birds, or admiring the view. So as simple a thing as that might sound, saying hello, it never actually works out.

It would be best to break the habit, I suppose. It’s getting so my Saturday afternoons begin with the tingly anticipation of seeing her in the park, then it all falls flat, and what used to be a pleasant distraction in town suddenly isn’t any more. The train ride, the coffee, maybe a mooch in a bookshop, these things used to be a way of dodging the loneliness. But now they seem only to highlight it, and bring to the fore an aching desire to fix it.

I’m not saying she’s the right person. I mean, who knows? I’d have to talk to her first. But at least the fact I’m attracted to her is a start. Right? Plus, she might be lonely, too, and these Saturday afternoons on a park bench are her way of dealing with that. Maybe she’d like nothing more than for someone to hello. She just never gives that impression. Indeed, that air of serenity speaks of a rock-solid self-containment, and maybe that’s what I’m attracted by – that what she possesses most is the very thing I lack in myself.

Anyway, here we are again, Saturday at two. She must have noticed me. That’s what people do, they recognise patterns. She sits there, same time, same day, and this same guy comes walking by. And if she was at all curious about me, she’d be looking to make eye contact, if only to sound me out as harmless. So, perhaps today’s the day. Here we go: I give her a glance, an opening, so to speak, like I always do. It’s for her to respond, now. I can do no more but, once again, she doesn’t seem to notice me, so I look away, weigh once more the ache in my gut, and ride the train into town.

So,… coffee, in the corner café. I’d thought I was done with all this teenage stuff. I’d thought I was happy on my own, but it turns out I’m still looking for completion in the body and the soul of another, and all that crap. And worse, I also know myself by now, that I’m trapped in this groove, unable to veer left or right to dodge the hurt. And the only way this will work itself out is when I walk by one Saturday, and she’s no longer there. Then I’ll be that free man again, drinking coffee, alone, flicking on his damned phone, but all of that, at least, without this ache in his gut.

Or maybe, just maybe, next Saturday, at two,…

Header image adapted from: here

Footer image adapted from: here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening.

Graeme out.

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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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If a novel was ever written for a writer, this is the one. Blisteringly satirical, it tells the story of a writer, Willie Ashenden, and his relationship with another writer Alroy Kear, who is tasked with writing a glowing biography of the recently departed, the venerable, and much revered writer Edward Driffield. A lot of writers, then. Ashenden knew Driffield in his earlier days, when he was not so revered, and indeed despised by polite society, on account of his lowly origins and his marriage to his first wife, the vivacious, promiscuous and prolifically unfaithful Rosie.

Most reviews I’ve read focus on the story of Ashenden’s relationship with Rosy. Her free spirit and even her promiscuity are written up as a refreshing poke in the eye for a stuffy, class-ridden society that rejects truth in favour of appearances. Personally, I found her rather shallow and cruel, the sort of girl who would break an honest man’s heart. But there’s much more going on here than that.

The inspiration for Edward Driffield was the then recently deceased novelist, Thomas Hardy. Alroy Kear was the writer Hugh Walpole. The novel caused a scandal, and broke the friendship between Maugham and Walpole, who recognised himself in it at once. Hardy’s widow, his second wife, and guardian of Hardy’s saintly legacy, was equally put out. She had a friend pen a novel by way of revenge, called Gin and Bitters, under the pseudonym of A Riposte. It was subtitled “A novel about a novelist who writes novels about other novelists.” Thin-skinned, Maugham took the hump and threatened to sue, preventing publication in the UK. Naturally, I’m on the look-out for a copy, but this is a rare book.

Anyway, besides trampling his fellows into the dirt, Maugham focuses a caustic eye upon the business of writing itself, or rather the business of books and publishing, which is really the story of the relationships between writers, critics and publishers, and how appallingly these literary types treat one another in order to get anywhere. And the book does this by being in itself an example of a writer – Maugham – trashing the reputations of other writers, both dead and living. Maugham denied all of it at the time, and his denials, given in the introduction to my edition, are plausible, but whatever the truth, I dare say the publicity did him no harm.

I’m very fond of Hardy, but agree with Maugham, he had a taste for the melodramatic. Walpole I know from his Herries series of books, and agree he could be terribly long-winded, one memorable description of a person’s hat taking more than a page, though these indefatigable efforts did little to actually impress the hat in my memory. That said, he produced four Herries, books and I stuck with all of them, and gladly, so he must have been doing something right. Nor does Maugham spare himself from ridicule, painting himself as his alter ego, Ashenden, a highly cultured, but rather unlikeable and self-entitled snob.

Although first published in nineteen-thirty, the book should still find resonance, not least among the contemporary generation of us so-called independent authors, who might be thinking, smugly, we have risen above this messy fray. But we haven’t. Not really.

As Maugham says:

The critics can force the world to pay attention to a very indifferent writer, and the world may lose its head over one that has no merit at all, but the result in neither case is lasting; and I cannot help thinking no writer can hold the public’s attention for as long as Edward Driffield without considerable gifts. The elect sneer at popularity; they are inclined even to assert that it is proof of mediocrity; but they forget that posterity makes its choices not from among the unknown writers, but from among the known. It may be that some great masterpiece which deserves immortality has fallen still born from the press, but posterity will never hear of it; it may be that posterity will scrap all the bestsellers of our day, but it is among them that it must choose.

What Maugham is pointing out here – albeit a to a future audience he could not have conceived of – is that while we might easily bypass the big publishers with our use of online media, without the massive machinery of attendant critics, hacks and reviewers singing our praises, our works are no better than those he describes as falling stillborn.

The commercial book business is a messy one, says Maugham. There is much back-stabbing and hypocrisy. Its writers can be vain, jealous creatures who will court approval and posterity at any price. But it’s from this milieu the great and lasting works must necessarily be chosen. By contrast, a book, self-published, might gain only modest altitude, marketed within the humble means of its author. But without a whole industry standing up on its behalf, no matter its merit, it falls into the void when compared with those conventionally published works, regardless of their actual merit. And that’s a sobering thing, one the independent author should digest before ever setting pen to paper.

As I have written elsewhere, there is likely a good reason my own books did not tickle an editor’s fancy, and I am at peace with that. I self-publish, but the only marketing my stories get is in the margin of this quiet backwater of a blog. So it comes down to the sort of writer you want to be. My books have not, and will not change the world, but they have changed me. They have held me together over the years, provided direction, and they have introduced me to ideas I would not otherwise have entertained. More, I believe my life would have been all the smaller for not having lived a good part of it in the imagination.

So, whilst not the most in-depth review of a book on my bookshelf, I hope I’ve been able to capture at least what most impressed itself upon me, as a writer of sorts, reading about a writer of another sort, gleefully and ruthlessly sending up writers of a similar sort. Whatever kind of writer you are, I’m sure you’ll enjoy spending time in the company of Cakes and Ale.

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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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Abbey Village

The gate to the war memorial at Abbey Village is locked. I usually visit in the week leading up to the armistice, to leave one of those little wooden crosses for my great uncle. He died in Mesopotamia in 1918, and is named on the column. He was one of the many sons of the village who did not come home.

So, what to do? Well, after a moment of indecision, I toss the little cross, as gently as I can, but still rather indecorously, through the bars, where it falls skew-whiff among the evergreens in the planter at the foot of the column. I offer a wordless apology. A token charged such as this should be placed mindfully, not tossed as a last resort, but I didn’t know what else to do. I had not wanted to walk away with it still in my pocket, for then the charge would have fizzled away to meaninglessness. I shall have to rethink arrangements for next time. I’ve been coming here for years and never encountered a locked gate before. I wonder if the village fears vandalism?

Remembrance and the red-poppy has become a political wedge issue in recent years. For myself I feel it’s simply important to keep alive the memory of one’s family’s losses in war, and that we carry that consciousness forward into the lives we lead ourselves, for if enough of us can re-imagine the grief, following those fateful telegrams home, the generation we raise might be better able to temper their reactions whenever sabres start to rattle, as they inevitably do from time to time. And they in turn might pass the same thing on.

Autumn in Roddlesworth

Abbey is a place mostly pictured for me in the monochrome and the sepia of family photographs, from the nineteen thirties to the early sixties. Time has changed it, of course. Motor cars now line the main thoroughfare, and satellite dishes bristle from the rooftops. Five minutes, though, and it is a world forgotten, while another modernity lures us in. This is a modernity of the Victorian period – the reservoir system, and the woodland plantation that surrounds it, a circuit of which will take us a couple of hours, and covers a good five miles. It was a Sunday stroll for my parents, decked out in their best threads. Now we wear storm-proofs and hiking boots, like it’s the world’s end, and the rain will melt us.

The light in November starts poor, and fades early. This afternoon we begin with the flake-white overcast that forms a backdrop to so many of L.S. Lowry’s paintings, and it takes on an increasingly blue-grey tint as sunset approaches. But the intense beauty of autumn has arrived, and the woodland around the Abbey reservoirs is a delight to walk. It is also a place of deep, mysterious shadow, but wonderfully coloured along the pathways, from the rose-gold of the fallen leaves, to the yellows of the beeches, and the pale greens still hanging on. And as the trunks and boughs emerge from their thinning foliage, they assume expressive postures, with the feel of an impressionist tableau.

Autumn in Roddlesworth

I had felt something unfriendly, even unwelcoming in that incident at the war memorial, that the modern village no longer wishes to recognise its past, of which I and my family are a part, but then I discover only smiles and hearty greetings from the few walkers I encounter on the trail. In fact, I encounter most of them twice, as we pass in opposite directions, doing the same circuit, but the other way round. There are owls calling, deep in the privacy of the woods, and I discover a working charcoal kiln, with evidence of fresh coppicing, and woodland management. The charcoal is used mostly for barbecues, but also art supplies, and the bits left over, the charcoal fines, are bagged and sold as “biochar”, a horticultural soil improver.

Charcoal burning, Roddlesworth

On the one hand, it is encouraging to see these traditional practices still being carried out, while on the other it’s disconcerting to see how much woodland is required to be fenced off from casual exploration. Not all the best photographs can be taken from the marked trails. We need some flexibility to stalk the light and the shadow, and these fences, liked locked gates, get in the way of imagination and our freedom to express ourselves.

From Abbey we descend as far as the bridge over Rocky Brook, then begin the climb towards Ryal Fold. The rambler’s café is a tempting destination, but it shuts at three today, and we’ll never make it, so we take the more direct return along the woodland ways. There are hints of a pale sun trying to break through, now, a last gasp for the day, but it never quite makes it. No matter. The woodland has an exquisite air about it this afternoon, and the autumn colours are ravishing. We return to Abbey at lighting up time. The car park of the Hare and Hounds looks busy, so we’ll pass on coffee, and begin the drive home. The woods were a sight for sore eyes today, and a balm for the soul.

Autumn in Roddlesworth

On the subject of remembrance, there is a story about a young man lost in the war, and his father holding on to the hope that there’d been a mistake, and his son would return. To this end he would go down to the local railway station every day to meet the tea-time train, thinking his son might be on it, but of course he never was. The father maintained this ritual for decades, into old age and the Beeching cuts, which saw the line closed, and the rails taken up,…

I regret I do not know the author’s name, but it was a story that touched me deeply. It could have been my great-grandfather, refusing to believe in that telegram message, that there had been a mistake, and of course his son would return, hale and hearty as he had set out. But it’s a long time since the trains ran through Abbey, and, for sure, my great uncle isn’t coming back.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells

In wild trainloads?

A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,

May creep back, silent, to still village wells

Up half-known roads.

Wilfred Owen

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