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Winter on Brinscall Moor

It feels good when a novel comes together. If the reader agrees with my closing lines or not is another matter, but “Winter on the Hill” is finished. It has served its purpose, being, by and large, a quirky romance, but also a way of coming to terms with the rout of Leftist politics in the 2019 General Election.

From about 2016 onwards, I’d been certain the Left was building a momentum for positive change, as a reaction to years of austerity economics, but it turns out we weren’t, and all the country really wanted was to get BREXIT done. It all seems such a long time ago now, but those of us still on the Left must answer the questions: what happened, and what comes next? In the writing of “Winter on the Hill”, I have meditated on it all year, and found, if not answers exactly, then at least a peaceful rapprochement that allows me to move forward, personally. The story is now live on Smashwords. My thanks to those who read the first draft on Wattpad, and who commented (you know who you are).


As for this morning, I find myself in the hamlet where one of the protagonists of “Winter on the Hill” lives: Big Al. This is White Coppice, a gem of a place on the edge of the Western Pennines. It’s a greyed out morning, and I’m crack-of-dawn early, to beat the Covid crowds. But the place is already busy, and the bumpy track to the cricket field is churned to something dire. There are only a couple of parking places left, and all of this on a bleak winter’s morning, one of those in which the dawn begins to break, then changes its mind.


My main protagonist, Rick, lives on the other side of the moor. That’s where I’m heading, to Piccadilly on the Belmont road. Then it’s through the Roddlesworth plantations and a return over Brinscsall moor, a circuit of about ten miles, and fourteen hundred feet of ascent. This is something of a challenge, especially since I’ve not done more than five miles on the flat all year, and the weather’s not exactly looking kind, but we’ll see how we go.

The track to Great Hill


The forecast is optimistic, but wrong, the moor impressively bleak and cold, the climb up to Great Hill being in the teeth of a sapping wind and rain. The trail’s a waste of mud, too many boots on the ground now – runners, walkers, bikers, all trampling and slewing a dark, wide path. In the summer I saw bikers slicing fresh trails across the moor up to Spitler’s Edge. The land is still bleeding from the cuts they left in their wake. This is such a delicate environment, I wonder if it can survive the stress. No doubt, come spring, there will be fires again.

The trails through Roddleworth are busy – bikes, horses, hikers. Large groups straddle the route, chatting, seemingly unaware of you, forcing you into the ditch as they come at you. By contrast Brinscall moor is empty, granting the first real sense of solitude I’ve had all day. I’m hitting it late in the walk though, when I’m tired, and not sure of my way. I’ve been carrying the Lumix, but not used it much yet, preferring to keep it out of the rain. Its fast lens always makes the best of bleak winter conditions, finding colour where my eyes see only grey. Only now is the unfamiliar piquing my interest and I try a half dozen shots of bare trees and gaunt ruins against a glowering sky. The header picture, is the only one that makes the cut. The rest are burred. My fault, and no surprise.

For weeks my head has been elsewhere, pondering the conundrum of occupational pension options, to be posted off ASAP, in order to fund my early retirement at the year’s end. Then it’s planning my last week of work, and how best to leave behind a tidy ship, this after forty years as a professional engineer. I stand on the cusp of becoming a full time writer now – either that or just another grey old man pushing a trolley round Tescos. It’s what I wanted to do in my twenties – defining myself as a writer – and better late than never. At least now I won’t starve following my dreams.

Perhaps that’s also why I get lost in Brinscall woods, find myself dead-ended in a darkening vale. Suddenly, above me is the sound of water and, through the mist and gloom, comes the awesome spectacle of a gargantuan waterfall. Okay, I know where I am, now. This is the elusive Hatch Brook Falls, and there seems no way around it. I’m so surprised I forget to take a photograph, but the light’s so poor now, I doubt even Ansel Adams would have made much sense of it.


I have a flask of soup, so settle amid the moss and the mud and the multifarious fungi for lunch, and some much-needed restoration. But I’ve forgotten to microwave the soup – just poured the tin into the Thermos. Its unexpected coldness turns an empty stomach. The only other thing I have is an apple, so I munch on that instead. It’s surprising how much energy there is in an apple. It restores the spirits sufficient to get me on my feet and scrambling out of the gorge, onto a path I recognize. Then it’s a couple of miles on empty legs, back to White Coppice, and the car. There’s more rain along the way, more cold, more grey, and mud. And there are processions of slow moving people with dogs running free. They’re all slobber and muddy paws – the dogs I mean – and I could really do without the attention.


Mid-afternoon now, and at a time when I would never dream of visiting White Coppice on a Covid weekend, I find the car-park’s empty. There’s no rhyme nor reason to these strange days. I drive home on the edge of light, the dawn having skipped the day and moved straight on to dusk. I’m haunted by those shots I fluffed on Brinscall moor, the crisp shapes, and the poetry of bare trees against a deepening grey of sky.


I finish the day soaking my bones in a hot bath, and with a glass of drowned whiskey on my chest. I listen to My Bloody Valentine on the player, then Slowdive, and finally Mazzy Star. Then it’s off to bed where I dream of an evening at Wigan and District Mining and Technical College, in the summer of 1985. I’m twenty-four and I’ve won the AUEW prize for my final year’s HND in Mechanical and Production Engineering – in the dream version I cannot find my car afterwards, and have to walk home in the dark. There are bare winter trees against a moonlit sky. They look a lot like those I saw on Brinscall Moor.

I don’t know what the dream is telling me – you did okay as an engineer, perhaps; you kept it together, kept going, but you can make your own way from here without all that now. Things change their names, move on, become irrelevant in terms of our own identity – Wigan Tech, the AUEW, an HND and BS 308, all gone now or transmuted into some other form, neither of us recognising the other any more. But some things retain their potency – things like a lone tree silhouetted against a grey sky, and like Winter on the hill.

Thanks for listening

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Lavender and the Rose CoverMy sincere thanks go to all of you who have written to me over the years, or commented on my novel The Lavender and the Rose. First published in 2008, I’ve been revising it this last few weeks, with a view to putting it up on Smashwords. As always, it’s been a pleasure hooking up with these characters again, and reminding myself of what we got up to back then. The Lavender and the Rose is a special story for me, being also the record of a shift in my personal, psychological outlook – no longer hanging on, but letting go; no longer maintaining a tight grip on who and what I thought I was, or wanted to be; no longer afraid of revealing what I might actually be, underneath. Instead I record in this story, a gloriously mad splitting apart into all the varied fragments of myself – bits I vaguely suspected were in there, and bits I was entirely unaware of.

A man is walking alone at dusk in the remote hills of Westmorland, an ancient county in the North of England. Coming down to a quiet mountain tarn, he discovers a woman, dressed entirely in Victorian costume, apparently waiting for him:

“Are you real?” I breathed, half expecting she would turn to smoke and disappear.

I remember she focused upon me with one eyebrow slightly raised, querying, challenging, inquisitive: “What would you do if I said not?”

She sounded real enough. “I don’t know. Are you telling me you’re not real?”

She lowered her gaze to the waters of the tarn. “Not at the moment,” she said.

“Then I’m seeing things?”

“Yes, I’m pure fantasy.”

I’m not sure what the remaining two hundred thousand words will read like to anyone who has not lived this story, as I have lived it. It will be compellingly mysterious I hope. Most commentators have said kind things about it, and it’s from this I take comfort that I am not imposing something on the world that is merely self indulgent. That said, it is a literary novel, not a thriller; if you’re expecting guns and fast cars and globe trotting assassins, you’ll probably find it a bit turgid.

It is a story in the Romantic tradition, and an explanation to myself why it is I feel and think and see things the way I do. Its genesis marks also the point at which two distinct personalities emerged from my psyche – the day-job Michael, and the other, the one who writes and who is gradually taking over the primary host personality. I am becoming him, as the characters in the Lavender and Rose also became something other than their host personalities. Or perhaps these were the people we were meant to grow into anyway, but something stopped us along the way.

The day-job Michael lives his regular sort of life, a nine to five, modern sort of life, a life spent mostly fitting in with the world of forms, which means doing things that are incomprehensible to him. This used to make him ill. He was sure he wasn’t meant to live that way, and aspire to nothing greater than what the material world seemed to offer. In tackling the Lavender and the Rose, the Michael who writes escaped, and began to live the kind of life the day-job Michael needed him to in order for them both to survive. Balance was duly restored, but only by adopting a view of life that was distinctly old fashioned and Romantic.

Romanticism is a very long essay with only vague conclusions. But it contains within it a spiritual philosophy, loosely defined and having no real interest in belief, nor evangelism. I am a mystic. I sense a connection between an essentially immortal part of myself and the universe, and I choose to both explore and express that connection in ways that are distinctly off-piste. I find clues to it in Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism, also neo-paganism, and Hermeticism. But I find it too in art and in the natural world, its pulse running through all things. But it is a presence realised only when the world is viewed through the lens of the Romantic imagination.

The grand old age of Romanticism was officially declared over in 1850, coinciding with the passing of William Wordsworth. But nobody informed the Romantics, and there are still a lot of us around.

The Lavender and the Rose was a great pleasure to write and has been a great pleasure to revisit. It’s available for free in various formats at Feedbooks, or in its newly revised edition – containing fewer typos, I hope – at Smashwords.

 

Michael Graeme

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