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on smearsett scar

On Smearset Scar

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

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

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

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

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

towards pot scar

Pot scar from Smearsett

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

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

heron at stackhouse

The weir at Stackhouse, on the River Ribble

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

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

stainforth falls

The falls at Stainforth

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

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mazda southportFull moon and a Spring tide draws me to the coast. The coast for me is Southport, North West England, a place you rarely catch the sea – at least not splashing up against the promenade, even at high tide, so the opportunity is not to be missed. I have in mind an hour’s stroll along the front, and some sea air, but I am an hour late in arriving and the tide is already on its way out, a slow peeling back of muddy foreshore puncturing my boyish optimism.

Instead I am faced with a dilemma. To park on the promenade for just an hour now is over a pound. I fumble for change, but it seems an extravagance given the receding tide and the all pervading mood of “Austerity”. Do I stay, or do I just go home? I split the difference and drive to the Ocean Plaza instead where it’s free to park so long as you intend buying something.

I buy coffee.

Two pounds buys a medium Americano at the Pausa Cafe  in Dunelm Mill. Luck gets you a balcony table overlooking fabrics and curtains. The coffee is really good.  I come here a lot on wet weekends – for the coffee, not the fabrics.

When I sit down I’m thinking about the work in progress, a novel that seems intent, as usual, on self destruction about three quarters of the way in. Such single minded preoccupation is irrational when it doesn’t matter a damn if it’s ever finished or not, and will in any case never make me a bean. It’s just a vast puzzle to be solved, something satisfying only to my convoluted psyche, the end result being something I have made and can post online. And it gets me out of bed.

A couple of overnight pings in response to a sample posted on the blog have revealed potential avenues for exploration, and I’m thinking about those. My thanks to elmonoyd on Wattpad, and Steve on WordPress. I make notes, add them to the mix, let them stew. Then I fall back on the secondary preoccupation: the apparently perilous state of Western Civilisation, its dearth of progressive leadership, its alarmingly retrograde motions this past twelve months, and its lack of answers to the most pressing questions of our times.

What now after the collapse of Capital?

The world is disintegrating on so many levels, and no one knows what to make of it, let alone what to do. The best us Brits can come up with is Brexit, God help us, but that’s like sawing off the branch we’re sitting on. Me? I’m done. All I have in mind now is a little cabin in my back garden, so when retirement comes, soon I hope, I can sit in it and make writing the sole purpose of my life, instead of just a hobby.

My solution to the world’s ills then will be to get up at nine in the morning, instead of six, and never have to commute another fucking mile – a sort of wry three fingered salute. Of course there will be no more purpose in this than there is to my writing now. But I feel too old these days, and too muddled to make a difference to anything more worthy. I see my life’s challenge as simply not to waste any more time moaning about stuff I cannot fix.

But there’s a snag, and it’s to do with the energy of reaction. We’re ten years into a recession, though no one’s actually calling it by that name. In the broader picture it is the sudden acceleration of a decline that’s been steadily ongoing since the seventies – in practical terms by this I mean the availability of well paid work for working men, and free education so the sons of working men can aspire to better paid middle class work. Irt is the struggle of the majority against the minority.

But that’s all over now.

Think about it.

Things are no better, ten years on, employment trends being to divest the employers of all responsibility for employees, while driving wages down to Victorian levels that fall short even of subsistence. In the mean time it overhangs everything, like a chest infection, every breath we take a reminder of its cloying presence, that foul delusion of our times: Austerity.

Is my little cabin still a viable proposition? Sure I can build it, but can I really close the door on a world gone mad, retreat into my fantasies? On the one hand I don’t see why not since I can do nothing about any of this. Putting the world to rights is for the pub, and self indulgent blogging, but on the other hand it seems morally bankrupt to turn my back when the generation I have nurtured in hope and optimism is left with no future and no credible leadership of any colour at all, and there is only the turmoil of populism and layer upon layer of toxic social media to inform opinion.

What the hell?

Suddenly I’m aware the old girl at the table behind me is talking too loudly and has nothing nice to say about anyone. Then there’s a sharp mouthed mother shouting abuse at her child for dolloping something on the table. A baby squeals loud for hunger, for comfort, for sleep. It seems my troubled thoughts are sending waves out into the world, unsettling it. Time to move on before I bring the ceiling down as well.

I look in Pound Stretcher and Matalan while I’m passing, further justifying my free parking, but they are drab and uninspiring this afternoon, and I don’t buy anything. I never do. I cannot help but think big out of town shopping centres like this will all be gone soon – nothing to sustain them with the world and his dog on minimum wage. Then all we’ll have will be our threadbare highstreets with their thrift shops, their pawn shops and  their pay-day loan sharks.

And coffee shops, I hope.

I return to the car the long way via the end of Southport Pier. It adds perspective, and a glimpse of emptiness, of infinity.

It begins to rain.

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barcode

Here’s something to think about. You’ve pushed your trolley round the supermarket, done the big shop, got a pile of stuff and now you’re going to put it all through the checkout. You say hello to the checkout guy/girl, they take the first item, scan, then slide it down to where you’re waiting to bag it up.

This is where things become interesting.

You don’t want to look like a dope, so you pick the item up and bag it quick. The next item comes at you a little faster than the first, but you get it in the bag before the third item is coming at you. But the third item is a little faster still, and this time you don’t quite get it in the bag before the next item’s coming at you. You speed up, the checkout person speeds up too. What kind of game is this? Who does this checkout jerk think they are, pushing you like this?

Well, it’s easy enough to understand, once you see it from their point of view. The checkout guy/gal doesn’t want to look like a dope either, so the faster you pick up that first item, the faster they’re going the scan the second. The faster you go, they faster they think you’re expecting them to go. Maybe they’re thinking you’re a grumpy old git hissing at them while they struggle to find the barcode on that packet of crisps, or maybe the barcode won’t scan at all, or maybe the machine’s playing up today.

Not a word’s been said, but both of you are struggling now with negative perceptions of one another, both feeling threatened, and all simply because nobody wants to look stupid.

Insecurities start with negative perceptions, not just of others but of oneself. I can be a bit slow, especially when it comes to thinking on my feet, so when others are rushing about making decisions, or talking fast at me and expecting me to pick up complex information, I feel vulnerable, threatened, and this awakens the ego whose job it is to put me back on the pedestal of my supposed competence, and from which I feel I’m slipping. Ego tries to make us feel safe by making us feel strong. But mostly it ends up making us appear either mean or stupid.

Here’s another illustration. I called into a coffee shop, asked for a coffee. It cost £1.75. (Pay attention now) I offered the girl a fiver but she’d no change. So I pieced together £1.75 in bits and bobs, including coppers, from the corners of all my pockets, and gave it to her. She kept my fiver and gave me change (which I’d thought she was short of). I’ve no idea how much change she gave me, exactly, but it seemed a lot. I was now very confused and queried the fact she’d kept my fiver, even though I’d just given her the £1.75, and what was all this change, and was that right, and could she explain it to me?

She looked a little nonplussed, and gave me my fiver back. This didn’t feel right either, but I was also feeling self conscious and stupid for not getting it by now , so I walked away with my fiver, plus the change. As I went I made a rough assessment of the change, and it amounted to well over £5.00, but some of this was mine to begin with, so whatever the nature of the misunderstanding here, I felt sure I was considerably in profit.

I returned to the till to say I felt there was still a mistake, and could we start again? At this point however, the Maitre D became involved and, from the sourness of her expression I guessed she thought I was attempting to take advantage of the girl. I did the best I could, returned all the change that was in my hand – hers plus whatever unknown quantity was my own, but kept my fiver. I’ve still no idea if I actually paid for that coffee, and if I did, how much I’d paid for it, but I had the feeling throughout my drinking of it that I’d overpaid, and yet, paradoxically, that my custom wasn’t welcome any more because I’d tried to pull a fast one.

The girl had been a little slow, and so had I, neither of us with bad intentions, but the assumption of maleficence on the Maitre D’s part, or at least my imagining of it turned a quiet coffee into an embarrassing ordeal and a resentment of the Maitre D’s ugly cats-arse mouth which even now I’m struggling to expunge from memory. I was polite throughout, Ego wouldn’t let me get away without feeling a fool, and without making me promise (to myself) I would never frequent that establishment again – actually the coffee wasn’t that great – gave me indigestion – and the Maitre D was a real sour-puss, so this won’t be a problem at all.

But we can see how quickly the tension mounts as soon as we feel vulnerable and lose our basic trust in the good intent of others. To live well and happy lives we have to assume the other person is like us, wanting to do the right thing, wanting to help when needed, and maybe spread a little happiness along the way. Nor must we feel threatened by our own shortcomings. (I never was any good with money)And we have to assume that if we’re struggling, and we ask for help, others will be big hearted enough to help without strings or questions.

You might say, however, approaching each day with a naive trust in everyone’s best wishes makes us vulnerable to the con-merchant. But if someone cheats me, even though it’s obviously my loss, it’s not really my problem. My problem is how not lose touch with myself, or lose balance when things start to fall apart and my abilities are tested.

This isn’t easy of course when every day our email inboxes are infested with suspicious junk that wants us to “click here”, when scammers ring us up at home claiming to be from our bank in order to steal our money, or when the car insurance renewal notice arrives and you query it because it seems expensive, and they instantly knock off the two hundred quid they were trying to cheat you out of anyway. It’s not easy when even the State takes your children and saddles them with a lifetime of eye-watering debt because they wanted to get a university education. So, yes, I admit, it’s even more tempting than ever to capitulate and retreat to a defensive position, crouch behind the barricades, simmering with anger or quivering in fear.

Except,…

How can we live like that?

If at least in our every day interaction with the people we meet, we try to assume good intent, if we assume that should we struggle, others will help, and for no other reason than it’s the human thing to do, then we’re each pushing back the tide that sometimes feels as if it’s going to overwhelm us, swallow us down and wash us up as yet more zombified pawns, blind and amoral instruments of the machine.

So,..

Starting with the checkout tonight. Pick up that first item really slow, bag it like there’s all the time in the world, and see what happens.

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coffeecupFrom a corner of this corner coffee shop I command a view of two streets in this archetypal northern market town of mine, and mainly what I see are people lost in thought. And since we all have a habit of thinking in a way that is essentially corrupt, I’d say most of us are in trouble, most of the time. And the troubling thing for me is, I know what those I see are thinking because it’s all around them.

When I say “thought”, I’m talking more in abstract terms, as an outward expression of the human mind in the built environment. I’ve just come back from a walk on the moors, which has rendered me philosophical and still, and observational. Nature has been slowly reclaiming the moors since our forbears stripped the land of its trees in ancient days. The moors are not pristine, not yet a meditation entirely void of thought; you can still see traces here of what we think: the run of a fence, the straight line of an irrigation ditch sliced deep into the peat. There are traces too of the way we used to think: a ruined farm, tumbled now to something that resembles pre-history, thoughts of a way of life that was overtaken by yet other thoughts, thoughts of an economic expediency that rendered an entire way of living in those otherwise bleak wastes obsolete.

I pause at this point and read back over my words, try to decide if what I’ve written is what I believe to be true, or if I’m just plucking strings at random, searching for cute harmonies. I find no discord, find I do believe what I am saying, but then belief is never a guarantee of truth, indeed it’s every bit as vulnerable to corruption as the thoughts that give rise to it.

An image appears on the TV screen, the ever intrusive news bulletin, the ever intrusive informer of a particularly corrupt kind of thinking. It shows a masked man bringing down a sledgehammer, breaking up works of art that were crafted 3000 years ago. This act takes place in what was once ancient Assyria, and we are viewing it in my northern market town, several thousand miles away.

There are two versions of this story – one is that the masked man’s beliefs tell him these works are idols, that the highly literal interpretation of his belief system commands their destruction because they insult his deity. Another version of the story is that the potent imagery is designed to become a viral thought, carrier of a lethal pathogen, fatal to hope, carried far and wide on the winds of an ever hysterical media, greedy for such proofs of the world’s descent into chaos, and our powerlessness to act against it.

Idolatry. I hold with that thought for a moment, reminded of the journal of Margaret Wilson, an early Christian missionary to India who spoke of the love she had for her children being idolatrous, that it distracted her thoughts, tempted her away from the love of her God. In this she did not mean she loved her children any less, but that she was conscious of the difference and careful not to confuse the two. Such were the careful, self analytical thoughts of a religiously devout woman born two hundred years ago. There were idols aplenty in the community she served, and in which she eventually died, but she never sought their destruction. I watch these stone idols fall, smashed to dust in the early second millennium AD, and am saddened by their loss, by the apparent barbarism of our times. I realise too how the value of education lies not in the mere passing on of fact, nor even in teaching the young how to think, but also how to question and to test, independently, and without fear, for the trueness in one’s thoughts and the thoughts of others.

The high mountain is a meditation, crafted not from thought, but by nature. The water falls down the gullies in a way that is at times awe inspiring, yet no human thought, no master landscape designer decided it should fall that way. The lakes in the valleys too take their shape, not from the thought of man, yet they are infinitely pleasing to the eye and the spirit. They transcend us, yet they are also a part of us, triggering within a memory, as if for a forgotten love, a curious longing for that sweet, sublime perfection we have since the days of Eden, lost.

From the corner coffee shop my senses drown in thought. The built environment overwhelms me, with only a narrow slit of sepia sky to hint at greater things beyond. The road, the pavement, the scratty shops, all are the imperfect physical manifestation of our thoughts. The clothes we wear, even the shape of our spectacles are decided by the curious interplay of thoughts, thought somewhere, and by someone. But in achieving an inner stillness, I also see the pavements are broken, that in the side streets there gathers a tide of fast food cartons, that the roofs are missing tiles, that the grime washed render, once proud white, is cracked and coming away to reveal the scars of spalled brick underneath, that a man stands suddenly doubled over as if in pain, while another nearby, and apparently oblivious, holds a bucket for charity. The man is drunk, fails to vomit up his intake, then unsteadily joins the flow of passers by.

What are we thinking? Why indeed am I sitting here, a lone scribe with notebook while my neighbours text to others and play Candycrush to while away the empty time between movement from one place to the next? Are they thinking anything at all? And when they lift their eyes what do they see of the thoughts of the world? How do they interpret, filter, inflate, suppress? Do these thoughts we see inspire or depress the spirit?

What are you thinking, right now? How much of it is true, how much of it corrupt? And how would we know the difference anyway?

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