Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there, I think, I have my answer.

Thanks for listening.

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

Read Full Post »

My father is remembering the trick whereby we doubled the range of the gun by dripping oil into the chamber, then firing it dry, before putting a pellet through. And as he talks, weaving over me once more the spell of past dreams, I smell the oil, feel it’s greasiness between my fingers, see my fingerprints in the blued metal of the barrel, smell the linseed I have rubbed into the stock. I smell the leather of the strap, feel the shock of the spring as the pellet is loosed, hear it smack against the tree and the flapping of an outraged bird.

“Do you know who rents the Willet place these days, Dad?”

There is no reply. These anecdotes have a momentum of their own. He might have heard me. He might answer me tomorrow or next week by way of some other seemingly unrelated tale that yields the information I’m after. But for now with the ending of his story, his eyes rest once more on the frozen game of chess.

I wonder, during these visits, if I should move a piece, but I don’t want to disturb the pattern of it, and what, in its abstractness it might mean to him. And my knowledge of chess these days, like most of the other things I once thought I understood, is dull and dimly grasped now – any ability I possessed being handicapped by the slow muddle of my thoughts.

We are in the lounge of the care-home, as we are most evenings now, an audience of other faces, all vacant, surround us. And in these long silences, when my father seems to have slipped back into his unconscious, I try to take in what else I see of this place – the aged, propped up, some with attendant Zimmer frames, the less fortunate with chipped and dented cylinders of oxygen – and I’m thinking could they not be spared the humiliation of something so obviously old and used – yet it seems a lot of trouble to paint the cylinders up like new – and would the poor souls even notice?

Contrary to popular cliché, the carers here do care. They wander around in their pale green bibs, bringing tea and talking to the old folks, and always they smile. There is nothing heavy, or rushed or too busy about them at all. The girl who seems to have taken a shine to my father is called Chelsea. She is the same age as his granddaughter, a woman who does not know him, and has never had any interest in doing so on account of his material poverty, and the unlikelihood of there ever being anything in it for her. Unlike my stick thin daughter, Chelsea is rather a plump girl. She is also fragrant, delicate in her manners, and possesses blonde hair so voluminous and fine she must be related to the fairies, for nothing so beautiful could ever exist in this mundane world without the help of magic.

In our brief talks up to now she has told me how she gained pitifully few GCSE’s, and spent all of her time at the Middleton Beacon School (now a Specialist Science College), merely surviving its incompetence, and its apparent inability to protect her from the bullying of other, slimmer girls. Yet she seems intelligent to me, and far more empathic than the rather haughty nurse I sometimes see patrolling imperiously, like a ward sister from the starched heyday of the National Health Service. It’s Chelsea who intuited my father’s love of chess, and though she does not know a bishop from a rook herself, she sets up for him these breathtaking snapshots of grandmasters’ games.

“You’ve been a bit tired today, haven’t you Mr. Hunter?”

Chelsea drops casually onto her knees by his chair and lays a gentle hand upon the back of his. I don’t know what this tells her, but for me it is the hint that I am straying close to bed-time.

“I’ll see you tomorrow Dad,” I say, and then I mouth my thanks to her, emphasise it with a nod. She receives it with an open and unaffected innocence, and with a smile. Thank you, for doing for my father what I cannot bring myself to do. She must love her work, I’m thinking, or she could not bear it, not care for these old folks, adopt these strangers with their inconvenient needs as her charges. How many tests of selfless love must she pass in the course of a single day?

She walks me to the door. This is kind of her because I’m sure I’m not part of her job description. It’s rather a fine house, Marsden Hall, once home to the Christie family, magnates in coal and cotton, but now preserved as the last port of call for many of Marsden’s disowned old-timers. And sensing perhaps my inner turmoil, and reading it as a distress caused specifically by my father’s state, she smiles and tells me he will be all right. I return the smile and tell her with a peculiar twist of black humour that my father is dying. She maintains the smile, broadens it even and tells me, that while that may be true, he will still be all right.

An extract from my novel, In Durleston Wood, from 2010.

Get the full story for free here.

Read Full Post »

In Sunnyhurst woods, Darwen, Lancashire

So, today we’re looking for trouble. We fell foul of disappearing footpaths on this walk last time, and today we’re not messing about. We’re well rested, tack sharp, and feeling assertive. We’ve also cleaned our spectacles in case we missed any obscure signage that would have seen us on our way. But since our last visit, there has been a mysterious and profuse flowering of the official green way-markers, which is frankly unexpected, since I have not yet reported any obstructions to the council. Perhaps someone read my blog? I feel my guns have been spiked, but in a good way, and whoever you are, thank you.

Thus, we are guided, without a hitch, through the formerly troublesome farmyard, and to a diversionary path. It’s not exactly as marked on the map, but it’ll do, and before we know it we’re smoothly on our way towards Tockholes. Then, at the gate, which we found to be locked last time, and had to be climbed, we note the gate is merely tied. So we untie it, and pass through with dignity. We then tie it up again with a boy-scout’s reef-knot, and a little bow on top – by way of thanks to our guardian way-fairy, for restoring safe passage. Except then, we turn to find we are greeted by a pair of magnificent horses, who must have heard us coming, and are curious. They’re big horses, too, which is a little alarming, as they canter down with purpose – their purpose being – well – us. Cobs, I think the breed is called. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to take their picture – such huge, beautiful creatures, not as big as a shire, but impressive all the same. Our alarm is uncalled-for, though. They are gentle, and their stillness invites our touch. Just mind their back legs as we get around them. Horses can sometimes have a quirky sense of humour.

It’s with some regret, then, we leave our new friends, and head off up the meadow to Tockholes. We’re going a little further than we did last time, pushing the walk out to eight miles, taking in Sunnyhurst Woods, at Darwen. I’ve not been there for ages, and it would be nice to see if it’s still as I remember it.

I put a short story up on the blog last time, wrote it for Ireland’s Own magazine, some twenty years ago. I did a lot of stories for them in the nineties and the early noughties, and, as I walk, I’m trying to remember the others. One in particular comes to mind. It was about this guy who’s aching to leave his home town and see the world. Then he meets a girl from the other side of the world, who’s travelled to his town, because she saw it on the map, and thought it sounded like a cool sort of place. Through her, the guy ends up seeing his home-turf in a new way, and he decides to stay.

Looking at the lush meadows here, as they sweep up to the shaggy moors, I’m thinking, it’s a small part of the world, this corner of the West Pennines and, beautiful as it is, it’s one I sometimes take for granted. Shall I go somewhere? or shall I just nip up the moors? But when I put out a photograph online, of Great Hill, or the spillway of the Yarrow reservoir, or when I write about walks like this, I don’t always appreciate how others from around the world, and for whom their part of the world is radically different to mine, will see them. Even the names of places, unremarkable to me, sound exotic to others, as their place names, unremarkable to them, sound exotic to me.

So, whilst it’s a pleasure, and an education, to travel, and I think we should always travel as much as we can, we’ll never know anywhere as well, and I mean as intimately, as our own allotted patch of God’s earth. So we should never feel there’s anything dull, writing about it, or photographing it. We are curating what we know, and what we love. Photographs of the landscapes of Iceland, and the Faroe Islands in particular, blow my mind, but I could never know those places intimately. Such grandness is for the Icelanders, and the Faroese, as this part of the world is for me, in all its understated beauty, also, it has to be said, its occasional ruin and imperfection.

At last, we come down to Sunnyhurst Woods. It’s a public park, actually, on the edge of a once industrial Darwen, but also on the edge of the moors. Bought out of a public-spirited ideal, and planted up in the early 19th century, it’s now a ruggedly mature gem, natural in style, well-kept and well-loved. We’re beyond peak autumn, now, with most trees are looking bare – just the occasional beech still hanging on to its coppers, and the stubborn oaks. And yes, it’s all pretty much as I remember it, and gorgeous.

There’s a pretty waterfall here. We try a shot, but the light is poor. Maybe we can tease some colour out of it in post-processing. There’s a park bench. We sit, retrieve our soup-flask from where it has settled, deep in the sack. Bacon and Lentil today, made in Wigan. Kitt Green. We do still make things in Lancashire, just not as much as we used to do. But still,…

In Roddlesworth Woods

From Sunnyhurst, we pick our way over to Ryal Fold, where we enjoy another break, and a pot of tea at Vaughn’s Café. Then it’s down through the plantations at Roddlesworth. Gone is the gold of just a few weeks ago. All is bare, now, and autumn firmly on the ground. The season is still worth some pictures, though. I’m glad to have found a properly marked way through that farm. The public rights of way network is a thing of immense value, protected in law, and a freedom not enjoyed in other parts of the world. An understated resource, it costs nothing to enjoy – good for the body and the soul, and no gym membership required.

Read Full Post »

The second and concluding part – to open the trunk or not?

Kathleen recoils from the idea, then becomes evasive. “I wouldn’t know where to find the key. I think Grandma might even have thrown it away,…”

“My tools are in the van. I could have the lock off in no time,…”

“No, thank you. I’ll think on it for a while, but I’m not sure if it’s what she would have wanted.”

I leave her cleaning the dust from the trunk, revealing inch by inch its original lustre. I’m regretting even more now that we touched it, for in doing so, I fear we have disturbed a very melancholy spirit indeed.

It’s a long job, putting things back in order. I’m weeks at Kathleen’s house, and every lunchtime she calls me down for a bite to eat. We sit in the kitchen with the trunk gleaming darkly upon the dresser, but Kathleen will not speak of it, nor even look at it in my presence. Once though, as I’m searching for some tools, I catch her bent over it, the lock in her hand, as if she’s fighting the urge to open it. And as the time passes, I noticed how she seems yet more dispirited, her grandmother’s old sorrows returning to fill again every corner of the house.

When the job’s finished, I come down from the attic to find her sitting, staring at the trunk. By now I hate the thing. I hate it’s squat, ugly shape, but most of all I hate the effect it’s having on Kathleen.

“Have you thought what you want to do with it?” I ask. “I could get rid of it for you, if you like. I’ll take it to the tip. Or we can just set fire to it in the garden and be done with it.”

“No,” she says. “We should put it back. Let it rest up there, out of sight.”

Surely not, I’m thinking. I can just imagine its grim presence lurking above her head, never more than a stray thought away.

But Kathleen insists. “If you’d just help me with it,…”

So that’s how we come to be hauling the thing back up the ladder. I remember pausing to steady myself, and resting the trunk precariously on one rung while I alter my balance. Then I lose my grip and, as the pair of us struggle to keep upright, the trunk goes crashing into the hall below.

The lock must have been hanging by a thread because the lid bursts open, and the contents, an unexpected riot of colour, spill across the carpet. I stare in wonder. There are fine dresses, letters, photographs, a handful of magazines, and the prettiest pair of silver dance-shoes. Kathleen gives a howl and is down in an instant, trying to gather the stuff together, desperate to put it back.

“Whatever would she be thinking?”

But gradually her curiosity gets the better of her, and she begins to study the things more closely, gazing at the photographs, even slipping open some of the letters,…

An hour later, we’re still at it, picking our way through a bewildering collection of poignant mementoes. Then, suddenly, there’s a change in Kathleen, a dazed confusion wrinkling her brow, as she studies the contents of an envelope that was sealed long before either of us were born.

“What’s the matter?”

She says nothing but slowly wand with a trembling hand passes me a slip of paper. As I read, I realise it’s confirmation of her grandmother’s passage to America, departing Queenstown, April 1912,…

There was one boat sailed from there at that time, a boat that has gone on to live forever in the hearts and minds of people the world over. And sure enough, printed at the bottom of the slip of paper is the name. The Titanic.

“Her whole life,” says Kathleen, “She spent it lamenting a lost chance, and she never knew how lucky she was. If she had gone, then she would surely have drowned. And my mother, and I, would never have been born.”

Seeing all those wonderful things, I’m able more easily to picture Kathleen’s grandmother now as a young girl looking ahead with all the vitality of her youth, only to become a dispirited soul, locking that brighter self up in this old trunk, and tossing away the key. That was the real tragedy, I thought, to have been miraculously spared such a terrible fate, and then to have wasted her life in ignorance of it.

Later, Kathleen and I are sitting out in the garden, gazing at the hills and the woods and the little houses, dotted along the roadside. Everything seems uncommonly beautiful of a sudden, the blue of the sky, the sunlight on the trees, even the taste of the cool evening air. She turns and looks at me, as if to speak, but there’s no need. We understand each other perfectly. Over the years, we’ve each had our share of ups and downs, and I suppose it’s only human nature that it should be the disappointments that carry the most weight. But this evening, we’re both appreciating, I think, and perhaps like no other time, what a precious thing life is.

This concludes my little story. It was first published in Ireland, around twenty years ago. I thought I’d blow the dust off it and give it a fresh lease of life, here on WordPress. Thanks for reading.

Read Full Post »

The discovery of an old trunk stirs unsettling memories,…

Crouching low in the attic, I play the torch over the roof beams, and find them fragile. Kathleen peers anxiously through the trapdoor beside me.

“Well?” she asks. “What do you think?”

For three generations this house has served her family well, but lately the roof has begun creaking ominously, in even the lightest of winds. She’d telephoned me to ask if I’d mind taking a look. It’s as well she did, for in all my years I had never seen a roof in poorer shape, at least not on a house that’s still standing.

“Well, it needs a bit of attention,” I say, trying not to alarm her. “I can start this afternoon if you like, but first we’ll have to clear all this stuff out of the way.”

I shine the torch over the mass of junk that always seems to gather in such places – the bits of carpet, the old-fashioned lamp stands, the packing-boxes crammed with all manner of forgotten odds and ends,…

She’s embarrassed by the mess. “I know,” she says. “I’ve been meaning to get around to it for ages.”

It’s while helping her to sort through everything that we come upon the trunk, a big old thing, secured by a hefty padlock. Curious, I trace my fingers through a thick layer of dust to reveal a rich, dark sheen of lacquered wood.

“This is a fine chest, Kathleen.”

Her face darkens. “Oh,” she says. “I’d forgotten this old thing.”

“Looks like its been up here a long time.”

“Since my grandmother was a girl. That must be ninety years, or more.”

“But whatever’s inside?”

“Just some old clothes and things, I expect. When we were children, we used to imagine all sorts of exotic treasures. Sometimes we’d beg her for the key, only to be scolded for our cheek and then she’d tell us that, so long as she was alive, the trunk would never see the light of day.”

“But she must have been gone twenty years,” I remind her. “Have you never thought to look since?”

“It didn’t feel right, somehow. It’s like she was still watching me.”

“Well, it’ll have to come out now.” But I can see she’s uneasy about it. I’d often heard folk say what a difficult woman Kathleen’s grandmother was, and it troubles me we might have disturbed memories Kathleen would rather remained forgotten.

Later, I sit in the kitchen while Kathleen makes tea. It’s been a long, messy job clearing the attic and we’re both covered in dust. The trunk had been troublesome, nearly pitching me off the ladder as I’d tried to get it down. Now, it squats sullenly in the corner, an uncomfortable presence hanging over it.

As I look around I notice a photograph on the wall of a young woman wearing a plain dress, in the style of the 1920’s. If I had not known better I would never have guessed this was Kathleen’s grandmother. She would have been about thirty then, and remarkably good looking, which never failed to surprise people, since most could only remember her as a bent and bitter old woman.

Indeed, the bitterness was a thing which soured her life, but it also weighed heavily upon those, like Kathleen, who’d cared for her in her sunset years. Looking at that picture now, I fancy I can see it even then, frozen into her otherwise handsome features,… a sort of tragic emptiness.

Kathleen sees me looking. “Ah,…” she says. “She was always reminding us how she might once have made something of her life. I can see her now, rocking herself by the fire, complaining about the rain and the draughts whistling through the door, and about how noisy the neighbours’ children were,… and all of us would be wishing that if only she could be a little more cheerful,…”

“Didn’t you once tell me she was a dancer?”

Kathleen sighs. In all the years I’ve known her, she’s rarely spoken of her grandmother, but now, the surfacing of the trunk has made her want to talk. Slowly, draws up a chair.

“It’s hard to imagine,” she begins. “But she worked at a theatre, in town. They say she had the music in her bones, and such a tremendous vitality on stage, all who saw her reckoned she was destined for greater things. And sure enough, she was spotted by an American lady who turned out to be the owner of a theatre in New York. There was a position going in a production they were putting on, and it was my grandmother’s, if she wanted it,…

“It must have seemed like a dream come true, starting out from such a small place as this. It would have been her first step on the road to fame and fortune. Who knows? First the theatre, then maybe, with looks like that, the movies do you think? Sure she might even have been a movie star. But she was only nineteen. That would be 1910 or 1912, and New York must have seemed a very far away place indeed,…

“My great grandfather had died, leaving only my great grandmother, a poor, sickly woman who didn’t want my grandmother to go to New York. But in the end, I suppose she must have agreed and, so the story goes, everything was set. The theatre company arranged her lodgings and I think they even booked her passage over – so they were keen to have her all right.

“But it was not to be. No sooner had she got used to the idea she was really going, than my great-grandmother was taken gravely ill, and since there was no one else in the family, the responsibility fell to my grandmother.” Kathleen shook her head. “I can imagine how she felt – all the conflicting emotions as she watched her ailing mother, while her own dreams slipped though her fingers.

“He mother lingered for years, finally passing away in 1914, by which time it was the war, and the world all upset, and my grandmother’s chance was gone,…”

Looking at the photograph again, I feel like I’m seeing it now for the first time. “The poor woman.”

Kathleen nods. “It ate away at her for the rest of her days. Oh, she settled down, met my grandfather,… raised a family, had all the things we ordinary folk enjoy,… But I don’t think any of it meant as much to her as it might have done. She must always have been thinking how different things could have turned out,… if only,…”

“And the trunk?”

“Well, they say she gathered everything up that was even remotely connected with her dreams of New York, and locked them inside. Then she had a neighbour carry it into the attic, and there it lay, out of sight, but never quite out of mind. I don’t know why she kept it. I would have burned it, if it had been mine.”

In a strange way, I think I understand, though. “Some dreams are just too hard to let go of.”

We sit for a long time, our thoughts inevitably focused upon that old trunk and, I for one, am burning with curiosity. “So,… will you be opening it, do you think?”

Thanks for reading so far. Part two tomorrow,…

Read Full Post »

In the woods at Roddlesworth

Today, we’re going to walk from Abbey Village, to Tockholes. Then we’ll circle back through the woods at Roddlesworth, which should be in peak autumn now. First, though, I want to visit the war memorial, here in Abbey, to remember a great uncle who was “lost” in the first war. Then we’ll have a wander through some meadows I used to walk with my mother. And if we make it over to Tockholes, we’ll visit the mysterious “Toches”, or “Tocca’s” stone.

I say “if” we make it, because the route leads through farms, where rights of way have a habit of disappearing. The path I’ve chosen seems the most direct and quite obvious on the map. But over recent weeks, when out and about, I’ve discovered a knack for finding rights of way that no longer exist on the ground, and I’ve learned it pays never to be too cocky setting out on paths you’ve not walked before.

My mother grew up in one of the long line of mill terraces at Abbey, so she knew this area well. I have memories of visiting my grandmother here, and aunts who were not aunts, but we called aunts. Ditto cousins, who were not really cousins – this being an era when it was claimed everyone in Abbey Village was related. From the roadside, the terraces at Abbey have rather a dour look about them. But those where my family lived, open onto meadows, and to stunning views of the Darwen moors.

Perhaps it’s because I’m still not getting into town much this year, on account of abiding Covid fears, but I’m less aware of the build-up to November’s armistice remembrance. Recently, the event has found itself caught up in the culture wars. Those of the right who would glorify war, and those of the left who would disband the forces altogether, are the two most vociferous extremes. The rest of us, I guess, including the man on the Clapham omnibus, are somewhere down the middle. I think about the half century or so of life my great uncle missed, and I wonder about the difference it would have made to the present day, if he’d found his way home from Mesopotamia. The tide of history can be cruel for everyone, but it sweeps away the poor in disproportionate numbers. Anyway, I like to come here around this time of year. I leave my small token at the memorial, then head down the backs of the terraces, and set out on the walk.

First we head across the meadows where my mother used to play, then down the dip to what I always knew as Abbey Bottoms. Sure enough, at my first encounter with a farm, the right of way disappears into an enclosure, and the only way out of it is to straddle a fence. This is tedious, coming so early on in the walk. There are cars about and the dogs are going bonkers. I wander around, looking for an opening, but there are none, and I’m beginning to feel a fool. If I want to make way, I’ll have to straddle that fence or turn tail already and call the walk off. Fine, then. I drop a pin on the GPS, make a note: “Way blocked here” and then I go for it.

Free of the farm, and with trousers intact, it’s obvious the path beyond’s not been walked in ages. But it follows the line of an ancient hedgerow, and is reasonably obvious. In other times this would be a beautiful route, pastoral, with wide-ranging views of the Darwen moors. But I’m in that liminal zone now between where I am entitled to be, and where I feel others would rather I was not. And that’s not a comfortable place. I’m aware my last three walks have landed me in a similar muddle to this, and I’m starting to repeat myself.

The Toches Stone

Then, where the map shows an exit from the meadow, a locked gate blocks the way. There is no stile, not even a rotten one. I can see a stile on the other side of the gate. It leads off on the next leg of the journey, but the only way to get to it is to climb the damned gate. Have I become so incompetent and doddery a rambler, I can no longer find my way around? Clearly this is not a route for those of limited mobility, and, given the crisis in A+E at the moment, it gives one pause climbing anything. But needs must, so up and over we go. Another pin goes on the GPS. “Effing gate blocked here.”

It’s been a struggle then, but we’ve stuck to our guns, and finally made it across the vanishing ways to Tockholes. These are paths my mother and her family would have known. My great, great-grandfather would have walked them from his weaver’s cottage in Hoddleston, to Abbey seeking work, and where he settled. They are historically significant ways, and need protecting, need walking. When I look back on my life, I see traces of the places I knew disappearing, being overwritten by novelty. Of my mother and her family’s past, here, there is now barely any trace at all.

Anyway, Tockholes is a curious and attractive hamlet, tucked out of sight. I meet a few other walkers on the road here, and we exchange greetings. The atmosphere changes from one of oppression, to welcome. Tocca’s stone is in the churchyard at St Stephens. I once drew it for an illustration in a friend’s book on the magic and mystery of Lancashire. It’s a curious monument, a mixture of early Christian and pagan. Of the facts, we can say the tall bit is probably the remains of a seventh century preaching cross. This sits atop an old, repurposed, cheese press, this in turn sitting on an inscribed plinth of Victorian vintage. And then, next to the cross, there’s the peculiar Tocca’s or Toches’ stone, from which the parish takes its name. There are scant references to it online, and they all seem to quote each other. My friend, who trawled the historical records in libraries all over the county, in the days before the Internet, is also rather vague.

The stone is said to have connections with the ancient British tribe who inhabited the valley, and one ruler in particular, the titular “Tocca”, or “Toki”. It’s also said to have magical or healing properties, and was, at one time, worn smooth by the hands of pilgrims, come to touch it. It isn’t very smooth now, so I guess the habit has fallen out of fashion. In short, little can actually be said about it at all, at least nothing that’s guaranteed to be historically accurate, but as a piece of local myth and legend, it’s quite the thing, if you believe in it, or not.

Do I touch it? Well, after the trouble I’ve had getting here, you bet I do.

Autumn in Roddlesworth Woods

And it works. We have no trouble the rest of the way, the way being over the moor to Ryal Fold, then down into the autumn-gold heavens of the Roddlesworth plantation, where the season is a revelation. We’ve had such a poor week, thus far, with torrential wet. One night it rained so hard the gutters burst and I swear I could feel the house shaking. And then today, it’s warm in the sun, we have clear blue, and plenty of water in the brook, so the falls are running. The world has the fairy tale look of an impressionist painting. Out comes the camera.

Autumn in Roddlesworth Woods

I’ll be reporting those obstructions. I’ll also be repeating the walk, because, in spite of a few local difficulties, it’s a good circular route – about seven miles – of varied scenery, in a beautiful part of Lancashire. And if no one walks the paths, the landed will take them from us, swear blind there was never anything there in the first place. And they’ll get away with it.

Read Full Post »

Tim felt at once they were not a receptive audience. There were few truly earnest faces among them, while others pretended, thinking perhaps he had more authority than he did, when in fact he had none. Worse, he felt empty of a sudden. It had seemed such a little thing at the time, just to come along and talk. But an audience’s attention isn’t guaranteed, especially not a captive one like this. He’d have to work at it. Then having won it, he’d have to come up with something worth saying, and fast. What he’d planned to say, aided by these stilted notes he clutched in increasingly his sweaty palm, just wasn’t going to do the job.

It had started as a joke. He’d written a little book about trees called, well, “A Little Book About Trees.” It had taken him all of an evening, and he’d posted it online, like he did with his other stuff. And like all his other stuff, some of it going back twenty years, he’d not given publishing a second thought. Maybe someone would appreciate the joke and leave a wry comment. There were some real wags out there in cyberspace. But then the impossible happened, and a publisher emailed him. This really doesn’t happen, ever, he’d thought, and especially not for a title like: “A Little Book About Trees” by Tim Burr. I mean, the publisher knew it was a joke, right?

The publisher wasn’t one of the big six, of course, but a small, local press, who handled history and nature. The book would be a good fit, he said, after cautioning Tim there’d be hardly any money in it, but he’d like to print the book anyway, if Tim had no objection. Well, Tim had no objection. It would even be funny, he thought, seeing it on the shelves. Trees weren’t exactly his forte. He’d simply blagged the information from a dozen places around the web and put it into his own words. Then he’d illustrated it with his own photographs. Literature it was not. Poetry it was not. And of all the things he’d ever written, this, he felt, was the least worthy of anyone’s attention.

What he had that he felt was of infinitely more value was a dozen epic novels of a romantic and metaphysical nature. With all his heart, he still believed in them, but they sat up on his web-site with the rest of his stuff, and hardly anyone read them. Still, he wondered if one thing might lead to another, and then, well,…

With publishing, there also comes marketing, so Tim found himself on a bit of a promotional book tour. Or rather, he had a ten-minute phone-in slot on the BBC local radio station. Then there was a morning in a bookshop with a pile of his books for signing. He dressed up in tweed for that, but no one got the joke, just like they didn’t get the Tim Burr bit, and no one was buying the books either. Tim didn’t mind that so much, and even understood it, having by now seen the cover-art foisted upon him by the publisher’s graphic designer. It looked like it had been dashed off in half an hour, which was fair enough, this also being about how long it had taken Tim to write the book.

That said, the book did go on to sell a thousand copies, which just about broke even. You’ll still see the occasional one in publishers clearance, but it’s fair to say Tim’s brief moment in the spotlight faded back into obscurity. So it goes, thought Tim. It never did lead to anything else, and nobody got the joke.

But then there was this teacher who taught English to adolescent students. She was the sister of a friend of a friend of Tim’s, and she’d arranged a speaker to come into school for the annual Book Week, but they’d cancelled at the last minute. This was an esteemed professor, author and arts critic, who sounded to Tim like the real thing, except he was too busy, and also rather rude having cancelled at so short a notice. So, there was a desperate trawl for anyone who might know someone who knew someone half resembling a writer. And that, to cut a long story short, is the only reason Tim was standing there now.

“Just talk a bit about writing,” the teacher had said.

Simple enough, thought Tim. Except, right now he couldn’t think of a thing to say. And he wondered if part of the reason was he knew nothing about writing after all, or if he did, he’d forgotten it, and his dozen novels of a romantic and metaphysical nature meant nothing in the scheme of things. So there was no point trying to enthuse such a reluctant, and by now fidgety crowd of youngsters over the wonder and the mystery of the literary creative arts, when Tim was losing the plot of it anyway, and when the surest route to the high-street bookshelves turned out to be a spoof title called “A Little Book About Trees”, and a subject he knew nothing about.

The teacher, a trim, middle-aged lady with a permanently harassed expression, and greying hair, was starting to look less harassed, and more worried. Was Tim all right? I mean, he was a writer, wasn’t he? And there was nothing writers liked more than boring the pants off others about their writing. So go on, Tim, just say something. Anything.

There came a titter from the back of the class. In Tim’s day there would have been spitballs to follow, but they did not seem an overly violent bunch, and he took comfort from that.

“So,…” he said, a little too loud, and while it got their attention, it didn’t stop the kids from looking at their watches. It was a half hour slot, but there was a risk this was going to be the longest half hour of his, and their lives.

“So,” he said again, softly this time. “How many writers have we got in the room? Put your hands up.”

Tim put his hand up. No one else did.

“All right, he said. “Let’s call it something else. Who keeps a diary?”

He put his hand up. Glances were exchanged. A dozen hands went up, shy at first, but helped by the hand of the teacher.

“So, you were having me on,” he said. “I’m not on my own after all. There are lots of writers.” Titters again, but this time he felt they were with him, and he relaxed. “Can you tell me this, though,” he said: “Would you ever show your diary to someone else?”

There were no takers for that. “Why write it then?” he asked. The atmosphere had changed. Already they were five minutes in, and he’d barely scratched the surface. “That’s a mystery, isn’t it? Let’s think about that.”

Then he remembered why he was a writer, and realised he’d just woken a dozen kids up to the fact they were writers too. And those who weren’t? Well, by the time he was done, he’d have shown them they could be writers as well if they wanted. He was doing none of them any favours, of course, because it was an odd thing, to be a writer. But the blood-writers among them would know that.

And they’d do it anyway.

Read Full Post »

So, today is Monday. It’s cold and rainy. I’m ironing. I’m bleeding the radiators. I’m replying to a flurry of overnight comments on the blog. I’m pondering the next chapter of “A Lone Tree Falls”. Retirement is bliss, even on rainy days. Then the phone rings.

It’s a very well-spoken young man who’s concerned I’m missing out on loft insulation deals. I don’t quite get the angle, but anyway, he says my house has come up on his database as having a certain type of insulation. It doesn’t conform to the current regulations – tut tut – but not to worry. It means I can claim for,… well,… something,…

“If we could confirm your details, sir? Name, address, postcode?…

Now, I know very well what type of insulation I have, because I’m the one who put it in. So what I want to know from him is how come he knows so much about it. I’m a little more assertive than I usually am, but there are issues of privacy at stake here:

“If I could stop you there and ask: exactly – and I do emphasise the word ‘exactly’ – how you came by that information?”

I surprise myself. I seem to be settling in for a crossing of wits here, when I could as easily hang up. That’s what I normally do, though with a polite “sorry, not interested”, thereby extending courtesy even to ne-er-do-wells whose aim is to raid my life savings. Did I get out of the wrong side of bed or something? Where is your patience, Michael? Where is your joy of living?

Anyway, the line goes dead before the young man can explain himself – a fault at his end, I presume. But never mind, all is in its place again. God is in his heaven, and the scammers are sweating the phones.

And I have more important things to be thinking about, such as November 3rd 2019. Why? Well, that’s the day I took this picture:

It was a Sunday, the first dry day, after weeks of heavy rain. The gentle undulations of the meadows had become lakes, and in the early light of that morning, they were as beautiful as they were unexpected. I don’t know why the picture strikes me now, as it has languished on the memory card for years. Perhaps it’s more the date, marking a time just before the time everything changed.

My diary fills in the details:

I had bought a new lens for the camera, and was trying it out with this shot. I had also bought “the Ministry of Utmost Happiness” by Arhundhati Roy, from my local thrift shop. I was lamenting how I’d probably never get around to reading it, that it would languish on my TBR pile, which turns out, thus far, to be true. My hall table was also full of leaflets extolling the virtues of the Labour-party. I was delivering them in batches, around my patch, for the local party office. It seems I too was caught up in the heady Corbynism of those distant times.

Then, the day after I took the picture, I sat down with my boss and took pleasure in giving him a year’s notice. Of a sudden, I tasted freedom. I was as excited by that as the thought of an imminent, and long needed, change of political direction. Yes, politics featured large in my thoughts in those days, which I find embarrasses me, now, because it doesn’t feature at all these days. In fact, quite the opposite, I find I view such matters with a very cold eye, or perhaps that too could be called political thinking? But let’s not go there.

Covid was not even a rumour in November. The first cases would appear in China in the coming weeks. But it would be March before Britain, after believing itself immune, would be on its knees. Suddenly, I could not travel even to the next village without fear of curtain twitchers dobbing me in. As for our health service, it proved to be so ill prepared, hobbyists were in their bedrooms, churning out face-masks for doctors and nurses on their 3D Printers.

But back to the photograph. I wasn’t overwhelmed by it at the time. Perhaps it was because events overtook us, and everything that came “before” seemed no longer relevant in the world. Then I tried a different crop, and it seemed to speak to me a little more.
I remember the season came on with a record-breaking wet. The year after was the same. The water table rose, filling the hollows, spoiling crops of winter wheat and oilseed. Migrant birds enjoyed their new-found wetlands. But then each spring, came a drought that baked the land, first to iron, and then to dust.

The photograph tells me the world was beautiful then, as of course it still is. But I detect also now a more deeply entrenched fatalism among its people. There is a growing acceptance of the ruin, and all the casual corruption, and that there’s nothing we can do about it. It just is. And, as if by metaphor, while once upon a time we could avoid those of low character by avoiding a particular part of town at night, now they come at us in our homes, down our telephone wires, wherever we are, and there’s no protection, other than our wits. But such a wit as that risks also tarnishing the spirit and rendering it blind to the beauty of the world. It will make us cynical, it will tempt us over the threshold into the hell of a collective nihilism. And then we are lost.

We need a powerful formula to keep the shine on things, and to keep believing it all means something. For myself, I trust it is sufficient never take our eye off the beauty of the world, never to let it be diminished in our souls, that therein lies the path to truly better days.

Now, please excuse me, the phone is ringing again. Perhaps it’s that young man with his explanation.

Read Full Post »

I don’t get into town much these days. It’s a habit left over from the various lock-downs we’ve had. If I’m heading out at all, it’s for a walk somewhere nice, and where the fact the arse is coming out of England’s trousers doesn’t show quite as much.

But I needed herbs, and I remembered the old herb-shop. It’s one of the few independent businesses hanging on from the once upon a time, though they no longer prepare as many of their own potions. Instead, it’s mostly corporate branded stuff, and quite expensive. I could have got them off the Internet much cheaper, but that’s one of the reasons the old town’s in the state it’s in. Other reasons would include the fact there’s no money here any more, and what jobs there are pay very poor wages.

The number of empty shops now is disheartening. The only businesses moving in are drinking dens and betting shops. Meanwhile, the cafés and coffee shops are closing down, as the town trade dwindles. I could get a beer from any number of places, around whose doorways stand huddles of tired-looking men with pint-pot stares, but I’d struggle for a cup of tea, and no wonder. This is not the sort of place you’d linger to watch the world go by any more. This is Middleton, from Saving Grace, it’s Middleton, from Winter on the Hill.

Decline was obvious years ago, but it looks like they were still the good years, and we’re going full Apocalyptic, now. Yet it was a nice town, and prosperous. We used to dress up to come here. I’ve seen images like this before, but they were all provincial towns in the Soviet Union, just before the wall came down. The west was puffed up and smug in shoulder pads then, not realising it was our turn next.

Having got my herbs, I take a mooch around, and wind up in B+M Bargains. It occupies the space that was once Woolworths. It’s odd, to feel nostalgic for Woolies. I’d take the kids there for lunch in the long ago, slip them a fiver, and set them loose in the toy aisle. Then we’d top it off with pick and mix – oh, heady days!

The Argos store has gone. So has WH Smiths. Still, at least B+M is bustling. If there’s any sort of vibe at all, it’s here, among the bargains. Except there’s this one old lady complaining bitterly to her friend how she’s had a wasted journey. The shop didn’t have what she wanted, and the whole thing has ruined her day. I know, the shops rarely have what you want now, other than the most common and basic items. For anything else, you have to go online and chance it.

There are kids rushing around, stocking shelves. I’m thinking they could give her chapter and verse on ruined days, indeed ruined lives, and a future promising even less than what little they’ve got right now. But they’re not complaining. Those who have the most to complain about, tend not to. The old lady carries on, finding more to grumble about, and seeking someone to blame for it. She trails her negative energy around the store like a smog.

B+M are selling solar motion-detecting lights for thirteen quid a-piece. Winter coming on, I’ve been thinking about getting some of those. They’re useful for lighting the way around the outside of the house. But for twenty-five quid I can get four of them from that online place – you know, the one that treats its workers appallingly.

The B+M versions are of a brand that’s been around since the year dot. The online four-pack will be of unknown origin, and most likely only two of them working, and then none after the first winter. What to do then? Do I pay for the one? Or do I chance-it, go online and support a business model that’ll be the ruin of us all when those are the only kinds of jobs left for human beings to do?

Then, strangely, I’m thinking of this girl I used to know. I fancied her rotten, and she knew it. She also knew I’d not the guts to do anything about it. I think she enjoyed my discomfort and the moon eyed adulation. The last time I saw her was 1982, on the Zebra crossing, here in town. She was coming one way, I was going the other. She was dressed to the nines, like everyone else, that Saturday afternoon, yet, like in one of those daft perfume ads, she was the one who stood out.

She gave me a look in passing that left me speechless, but which would later launch a million words in search of connection with the deeper meaning of what I felt for her, and the world in general. I used to go back to that crossing, the same time on a Saturday, thinking to recreate that moment, and maybe this time do something about it. But, like I said, I never saw her again. And it was all a long time ago, when everything seemed much newer, and fresher, and not so,… derelict.

The crossing’s still there, though the shops either side of it are empty. I use it on the way back to the car, remembering of a sudden how she looked that day. Funny how this should be coming back to me now. Then I look up, and guess what? No, she not there, because not even the ghosts come here any more.

Anyway, unlike that sad old girl in B+M, my trip wasn’t wasted. I got my herbal stuff. And I got my motion sensing light as well, because I only need the one, and the rocket guy can do without my business for once. It’s a small step for a man, as someone once said. But those were heady days. And certainly, here at least, among the more material aspects of contemporary provincial English reality, there’s nothing quite so aspirational as that any more.

Thanks for listening.

Read Full Post »

I am taking shelter in a bamboo house which stands above a road, on tall stilts. Access to it is by ladder to a trapdoor. The road leads off into the distance, both ahead and behind me. To the left and right are impassable ranges of forested mountains. People are processing along the road towards me. There are many of them, like a column of wartime refugees. As they pass under the bamboo house, some try to climb the ladder, wanting to get in. At first, I resist, preferring safety in isolation. But then I relent, open the trapdoor, and lower my hand to help the people up.

It’s a fragment of a dream I’ve been pondering for a few days, and it’s not making any sense. I’m also out of the habit of remembering dreams, and this fragment is the best I could rescue from a much longer dream sequence. I like to write dreams down, and mull them over. Sometimes they chime with my preoccupations, but even when they don’t, I enjoy them for the surreal imagery they serve up. Once you fall out of the habit, though, it can take several days for the dreams to start sticking again. And we’re not exactly there yet.

On the one hand then, this could be a dream about dreaming, and my neglect of it. You know? It could be an allegory about my looking to haul the dreams up into consciousness again, like I haul the people up. But the people do not strike me as representing dreams. They are people in distress, escaping a crisis, from what appears to be my future. Since all dream elements are aspects of the dreamer, what aspects of my future self might they be? What aspects of my self are migrating from a future crisis, to the past, which is (currently) my present?

I fear I am missing a significant punch-line here.

In other, not unrelated, matters, I have been pursuing this apparently new-fangled thing called “the meaning crisis”. Various learned authors are pontificating on it, and I’ve been hitching a ride with them, looking for answers, doubling down on my reading. And I’ve been listening to lengthy lectures on You-Tube. It is the main talking point for the so-called Intellectual Dark Web.

The meaning crisis is something afflicting the western world in particular. But any nation that becomes “westernised” will inevitably fall victim to it. It sounds very serious, and has to do with the individual’s loss of meaning in the midst of material plenty, including such technological wonders as the Internet and Android telephones. But then it strikes me of a sudden, I’ve been writing about this for twenty years. What seems to have happened is I’ve forgotten all of that, and allowed myself to be bedazzled by charismatic intellectuals into thinking the meaning crisis is something new, when it isn’t. Its effects are simply more prevalent now.

The Jungian school of psychoanalysis bottomed it a century ago, Jung himself describing mankind as hanging by a thin thread, that is the psyche. The poets, particularly the Romantics, nailed it too. I came to the gist of it, intuitively, through my reading in the late nineteen nineties, as my own psyche began to mature and to pick up on these things. Through that maturation, I began to see materialism not as a panacea, but for the spiritual poison that it was. I explored it in my first novel, the Singing Loch. I was clumsy and naive, though, and fudged the conclusion. I’d not a clue how you went about solving a problem like that. The clever men who write books about it now don’t know either. I think we have a better idea of the causes, not least from our understanding of Jung. But knowing the calibre of bullet doesn’t help you, when it’s aimed at your head.

A good metaphor, is the right-left brain dichotomy. The left hemisphere of the brain deals with what’s in front of it. It’s logical and mechanical, and it jumps to conclusions. Our ego finds its most natural home there. Meanwhile, the right brain hemisphere is more holistic, deals with ambiguity, and is the source of our creativity. It’s more nuanced, and can bring intuition to bear in situations of complex ambiguity that will stump the left brain. But in a materialistic society, the left brain dominates. Indeed, it shapes society in its own image. Thus, our world becomes unimaginative, superficial, materialistic, and pointless.

This is the nub of the meaning crisis.

The left brain should not be in charge. The right brain is the better master, and without it, we’d be sunk. The left brain’s proper place is as the right brain’s gopher. But the gopher has staged a coup to the extent we don’t even know what the right brain is for any more.

The left brain also killed God. This was sometime in the Victorian period. Neitzsche called it out, and said we’d never be able to wash away the blood. We can interpret this as meaning that when we stop believing in God, we discover we need a material replacement. So, the left brain presents us with any number of man-made ideologies to choose from. The downside is, the history of the twentieth century teaches us all those ideologies end in terrible suffering. The twenty-first isn’t shaping up any better.

A little before his death, Jung had a vision of the end of humanity. His daughter wrote it down and left it in the care of his associate, Marie Louise Von Frantz. If we take it in the context of its times, we were in the midst of the cold war, only a few years away from the near nuclear catastrophe of the Cuban missile crisis. Perhaps he had projected himself into an alternate future, where that particular incident went badly. I don’t know. But the thrust of his thesis was always that man is the greatest danger to himself. And his greatest danger is his inability to deal with his own shadow.

One of the great psychological conundrums concerns the most evil acts in history – there are plenty to choose from, but it’s basically this: what is it that can drive basically good people, into doing very bad things. What is that transforms the ordinary baker and candlestick maker into the mass butcher of men? It has to do with the shadow, at both the personal and the collective level. And we only spare ourselves the shadow’s excesses by realising everything we label as evil, is actually a part of us. Refusing to accept that, and to integrate the shadowy parts of us into our awareness, it takes very little for us to begin acting out what we say we are not. A group is labelled as “other”, thereby dehumanised, trumpeted in the collective-shadow-tabloids as vermin, and we too are but a heartbeat away from killing.

Religion is important in tempering the shadow. Or rather, it’s not any more. Religion is easy. You learn the lines, and you pay your lip-service once a week. Anyone can be religious. It’s the spiritual journey that tames the shadow, and spiritual matters, once upon a time the purview of religion, are more difficult. We can’t ignore the spiritual in us, though the left brain has been trying to eradicate it.

It was the Jungians who demonstrated the need for human beings to grow, spiritually. How we deal with that en-masse is a complicated business, but religions used to handle it reasonably well, until the left brain of religion decided it was all about power and influence, and to hell with that airy fairy business of the spirit. But ignoring the religious function – the spiritual function – the need to grow, people lose direction, become sick in the head, start believing in stupid things, and then they start killing each other.

The spiritual path, however you define it, is about dealing with the personal and the collective shadow. The modern psycho-spiritual types call it “shadow work.” But who has the time and patience for that, when the most pressing issue for many westerners now, is how to pay the rent, or the gas bill?

Jung hoped enough would wake up to spare the total extermination of the species, but we seem a long way off. It’s not exactly talked about, let alone taught at a level aimed at capturing the popular imagination. And of course any mention of Jung, even sixty years after his death, is still enough to trigger the shadow-splenetic of all manner of left brained intellectual and cultural punditry.

But what has all this to do with my dream of the Bamboo House? Well, given that this is an outline of my current thinking, it’s a fair bet it has something to do with it, because such is the stuff that dreams are made of. I trust another dream will come along and clarify it, that is, if I can stick around long enough to remember the punch-line.

Thanks for listening.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »