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Posts Tagged ‘michael graeme’

My last pair of Scarpa walking boots lasted fifteen years. They were never quite broken in, but they never leaked either. They just grew more deeply scarred, and might have lasted longer, but I lost faith in them. I was worried they’d fall apart and leave me stranded up a mountain in my stocking feet. My current pair, comfortable as carpet slippers from day one, have lasted two years. Now they’re opening up, and letting the water in.

All right, it’s a very, very wet day. Indeed, the moor is as wet as a moor can be. The earth liquifies underfoot as we step on it and we’re frequently over the tops of our laces. The sphagnum is drinking the wet down in greedy gallons, and glowing green for the effort. My jacket, too, is letting the water through, at least on one side where a stiff wind is encouraging it. The weather paints me half dark, half light. I am the yin and the yang of things. This could be my cue to start grumbling about the flimsification of the modern day, but that’s not where we’re going. It’s a wild, bracing day. The year is fresh, and it’s too soon for cynicism.

I’m on Withnell moor again, up from Brinscall. I’ve come through the woods, crossed the top of the Hatch Brook Falls, and climbed Well Lane. Now we’re on the moor, approaching the gaunt ruins of Ratten Clough. Its outline is black against the steady drift of rain. Abandoned in the 1960’s, this is the most substantial ruin of the lost farms. The barn’s gables are intact, the rafters hanging on, a watery silhouette, all against the dynamic grey of the swooping sky. I wonder if, in years to come, it’ll be taken for a millionaires des-res. They have a penchant for buying up romantically charged places like this, and throwing a fortune at them to make of them something twee. But he’ll need a taste for the lonely. There’s bleak, then there’s Withnell Moor, and then there’s Withnell moor on days like these.

Given the forecast, I thought it was a waste of time bringing the big camera. I didn’t want to get it wet. Instead, I’ve packed an old, small-sensor compact. It slips easily into the pocket, and I don’t mind it getting drowned. But you can’t expect to shoot in such murk as this without red noise on a small sensor. There’ll probably be no pictures today, then, except the ones I carry in my head.

The gate to Ratten Clough is tied in several places, and intricately knotted. It’s a public way, but we require a deviation to pick it up. I imagine our millionaire will make it a priority to divert the path. Ah,… another perennial thread of mine creeping in: money buying out our freedoms, sticking up no trespass signs. But we’re not going there, either, today. These are tired old themes, and my laments will do little to change them. So much for the power of attraction, then. I seem only to attract to my attention what I most dislike. Time to let them go. Find fresh pastures, with an emphasis on a more positive kind of magic.

Where are we, now? We’re following the line of a tumbled drystone wall into a blank of mist. With a global positioning system, you’re never lost, are you? But things are hotting up between Russia and the West, and between China and US. It’s not escaped my imagination the first thing the militaries will do, in times of conflict, is encrypt the satellites. And then what? How will we find our way with a road-map, and A to Z again? How will I know how far along this wall to walk, before turning down to the ruins of Botany Bay?

The spindly beech answers. I first met it in the spring, spent a while making friends. It materialises from the grey, now. “Here you are,” it says. “Nice to see you again.” The track’s here. So we make our way down to the ruin, touch the megalith for luck, then turn left, to Rake Brook, by the ruins of Popes.

It’s hard to imagine anyone living here, just a tumble of shapeless blocks, and the brook washing by. It’s in spate today, no evidence of there ever having been a bridge, just these few precarious steppy stones at the vagaries of flood. What can we say about that? Transience? Buddhist themes of impermanence, perhaps?

Apple pies were baked in this bleak hollow, with the wind howling through the chimney pots. Wholesome stews awaited the farmer and his boys, on winter days like these. All gone, now, just names in the census records, and a lonely pile of stones. People make all the difference. Without them to bear witness, the world might as well not exist. Indeed, it might already not exist. Strange thoughts today, Michael.

Mind how we go across the brook. Yes, the boots are definitely leaking, something cold encircling the foot, now. I was going to buy myself a new computer monitor, but it looks like it’ll be a pair of boots instead. I’d been looking forward to getting a new monitor, one of those 4K ultra-high definition things, for the photography. How do we prioritise? Sometimes the fates do it for us.

Watsons farm, now, and a strong waft of cattle as we come through the gate. The cows are all cosy in the barn, steam rising from their noses, as they chew. It’s one of the few farms still working the moor. I borrowed it for my work in progress, fictionalised it, changed universes, moved it down the road a bit. I had the farmer renting rooms, and my protagonist moving into one. Here, I court themes of sanctuary, and shoulders to the weather. Then there are stunning summers on the moors, the call of curlew and the rapture of larks.

Speaking of the novel, it’s descending into chaos, and tom-foolery. We’ve reached that point where it asks me if I want to bail out around 80K words, or wander on for another year, make it an epic. I think we’ll call its bluff and go for the epic. Amid this fall of the world, this crisis of meaning, and the impending climate disaster, it’s led me of a sudden to Helena Petrovna Blavatski, to the Theosophists, and all those curious fin de siècle secret societies.

I’ve had a brush with the redoubtable Madame B before, found her intellectually seductive, but also frightening. I bailed out at that first pass, but it looks like there’s something more she has to tell me, and this time I’m ready to listen. Memo to self: order Gary Lachman’s book, and while we’re at it, the one about Trump, and the political right’s courtship of the occult. It all sounds absurd, but let’s just go with it.

Across the Belmont road now, and the path into the woods becomes a bog. The Roddlesworth river is a lively torrent. We’re four miles out, and the woods are busy with muddy bikes, wet families, and happy, yappy dogs. We swing for home via the ruins of Pimms, on the moor, then Great Hill. The rain is blowing itself out at last. There are hints of sunshine, now, but the going is steep. Great Hill has grown since I last climbed it, swollen with rains to Tyrolean proportions. The ground looks like it’s been overspilling for weeks, and squirting water under every step.

At the summit shelter, I’m able to bag the last space among a gathering of several walking groups, all huddled for lunch. Cue mutterings of overcrowding on the fells, paths churned to slime and all that,… but we’re not going there today either. In my new universe, all are welcome. A jolly dame appears from nowhere, offers mince pies, and a nip of rum for my coffee.

The sun breaks through. There’s a low, gorgeous light of a sudden, under-lit clouds, curtains of rain in the distance. Old Lady Pendle appears, a crouching lion beyond Darwen moor. I try some shots with the little camera, but they come out poorly, red dot noisy. Sometimes, the best pictures are the ones you carry in your head, and they get better with age.

A good day on the moors, then, and never mind the wet feet. There’s a pair of dry socks in the car. Fancy a hot chocolate? We’ll drive over to the Hare and Hounds at Abbey, shall we? See what they can rustle up for us. The year turns.

All is well. Bring it on.

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In my mind’s eye, I see a cold grey dawn, with a grey city silhouette like a cardboard cut out, set against a grey sky. Grey people sit in grey motor cars, bumper to bumper, as clouds of grey poison swirl around them. They stand on the streets, packed tightly, grey figures without faces, afraid of touching and yet hardly able to move without doing so. They work, they reproduce, and then they die in a slow, painless, soulless cycle.

The City moves. It creeps invisibly, like the hands of a clock, like warm tar, spreading and sprawling. It lives and grows, fed by the souls it steals. But beyond the gloomy boundaries of this strange place, people dance under blue skies, on summer scented lawns. They dress in bright colours and sing songs. Then the skies darken as the City draws near. Their bright faces shine for just a moment before the warm tar engulfs them. They become petrified and emerge as yet more grey people without faces and without souls, while their summer scented lawns become roads and streets choked with motor cars. Then the poison seeks them out and fills their lungs as they too join in the slow cycle of work and death. Their songs are forgotten, and the intricate patterns of their dance are lost for ever.

Some of the grey people manage to hide a piece of their soul. It survives and grows, filling them with horror at what they see. They break away and search for a summer scented lawn on which to lay down and rest, somewhere far from the City where they can breathe clean air and listen to the singing of the trees and feel the good, sweet earth all around them. They imagine themselves free at last. But the greyness is with them and like Midas and his gold, everything they touch turns to grey. The grass withers beneath their feet, concrete springs up as if from wells beneath the ground, and another city is born, poisoning, spreading, sprawling. This inexorable process consumes whole continents, fouling land and sea until there is nothing left but a kind of grey, living death.

Finally, and in despair, the earth splits and great fires shoot out, creating vast lava-flows. Storm clouds gather, unleashing a terrible revenge, while the land undergoes convulsions of unimaginable proportion, throwing up mountains where there were none before and creating new oceans where once had stood grey mountains, befouled and exploited. The storms last for a hundred million years.

But none of this is real. It’s just a dream; something inside my head that brings me pain when I’m asleep. I wake up sweating and then a woman’s hand curls around my arm easing me onto my pillow. I hear her voice, soft and gentle and then she runs her fingers through my hair while I slip back into the dream.

Sometimes, I see the storms subside. The clouds part and I see sunlight playing upon a new world, a world that has become one big summer scented lawn and I see creatures, strange, yet wonderful, flitting about in an unexpected paradise. But this is no happy ending: there are no people here. I travel far and wide and see only simple creatures living out their lives, oblivious to the paradise around them. There is nothing that is conscious of its existence and no one to see the beauty of it all except for me through the windows of my dream.

I cannot look upon it for long, because I too am one of the grey people. I reach out and pluck a flower but it withers in my hand; I have yet to learn I am only passing through; the flower was not mine to pluck. I should have been content with admiring it for what it was and breathing in the scent it freely gave, instead of trying to claim it as my own, guarding it jealously within the palm of my hand. Then my window breaks and there is darkness once more, until I’m wakened by the dawn and the sound of a woman singing in the kitchen, downstairs.

I drag myself from bed and draw the curtains so I might look out across the waters of the loch. It sparkles with gold-dust in the yellow light of sunrise, and beyond I see moors, dark with bracken and heather. Hills rise beyond the moor, low and rounded and then, softened by a veil of blue haze, there are mountains. I see the fold in the land, and the silver thread of water leading to a pool of morning mist. In my mind, I trace the thread to its source, to that place whose lure I find so irresistible, to that other loch whose strange songs have changed my life.

It was through the Singing Loch I glimpsed the summer scented lawns and felt the meaning of its wordless song in my heart. It has much to tell, embracing as it does the mystery and the passion that compels us all. But also, for those who would claim the wild flowers as their own, there is a message.

From my novel, The Singing Loch, first published 2005. I’ve not looked at this since 2014. It must have gone through a million drafts since the first one in 1995, but there’s a typo in the very first sentence. Still, I meant well.

See if you can spot it. Click here.

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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.

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The M65 was strewn with junk. It was mostly soft stuff – huge chunks of rock-wool insulation. Traffic was weaving about to avoid it, in case it hid anything more solid. The less cautious slammed into it and the junk exploded, fragmenting across the carriageways. Some of it stuck under axles, creating long writhing tails, which then launched surprise attacks on the vehicles behind. Plastic bottles rained in glittering storms, bounced off the Tarmac and rolled willy-nilly. I tracked a sudden burst of them, manoeuvred around the majority, caught one under the front offside tyre, heard it crack, then saw it go flying into the car beside me. There were papers, more rock-wool, more bottles, polystyrene cartons, strewn all the way from Colne to Blackburn.

I caught up with the culprit, gave him a wide berth and shot past as fast as I could. It was a flatbed truck with a skew-whiff skip on it, stacked precariously high, and slowly divesting itself of its contents as it motored along in sweet oblivion. The door of the truck was emblazoned with words to the effect of: “so-and-so’s waste services, a proud champion of the environment”. Sometimes the jokes write themselves.

The Wycoller atom

It was late afternoon, and I was driving home after a day in the hills above Colne. I’d met a friend at the Ball Grove country park, on the Keighley road, and from there we’d walked up through Trawden, across the high meadows, into the shadow of Boulsworth hill. It had been a hot day for a hike, and we’d baulked at the hill itself, plodded on instead to Foster’s Leap, and the much graffitied and vandalized atom, then down to the ever popular Wycoller village. The little café was closed, so we’d plodded back to Ball Grove park. There, we managed a brew and a piece of cake in congenial surroundings, by the old mill pond.

View from inside the Wycoller Atom

I had sweated in a new pair of walking trousers. I’ve always skimped on them, but had decided to finally push the boat out on a well-known branded pair, made from recycled bottles, though obviously not the ones I would be later dodging on the motorway. The blurb had claimed they were waterproof, and breathable. I was dubious, but prepared to take a gambol, since I could leave the weight of additional over-trousers behind. However, though of a seemingly thin, summery material, they had proved warm and sticky on the legs – not at all comfortable.

Wycoller – Pendle in the distance

The trousers weren’t the only bit of kit to perform poorly. The camera was iffy too, but that turned out to be my fault. It was a cracking day for photography among the hills and dales of this beautiful part of Lancashire. I set the shots up as I usually do, but most of them came out grainy and – well – just weird. I’d been fiddling with it the night before, and forgotten to set it back to optimal, so I’d shot the day at low resolution, and 800 ASA. I’m reaching that stage when, if I’ve lost my car-keys, I check the fridge first. I should just stick the camera on auto and leave it there. It probably knows better than me.

So we didn’t do the summit, and I regret that now, but the day was long enough at nearly ten miles in the heat. I remember it was1986, or thereabouts, when I was last on Boulsworth hill – the actual summit being known as Lad Law. A friend of mine was planning an epic book called The Hills of Lancashire, and had asked me to illustrate the bigger summits with pen and ink drawings. I remember Boulsworth was a difficult one to illustrate – it having no characteristic shape to it, and the summit was like any other, with a few grit-stone rocks and a trig point. It was memorable mainly for the walk from Wycoller, which is a fine one indeed, and much recommended. It was memorable also for the views east over a wilderness of undulating moor, all the way to Yorkshire.

For the picture of Boulsworth, I tried to add interest by drawing the summit with a chap stood at the trig point. It’s probably me, looking windswept and moody. I came across those drawings recently, the memory of them seeming fresh, yet so long ago now. Thus, my sixty-year-old self presents here a couple of sketches on a medium that was undreamed of, when I drew them in my twenties. The book never came off, and my friend is gone now. I clearly fancied myself as a bit of an illustrator back then, as well as a best-selling novelist. Neither worked out. I was wise to stick at the day-job.

I don’t know how it is with women, but until the legs actually fail on a man, there’s something in us that does not age, and probably not even then. We’d met this trio of guys at the Ball Grove café. We’d seen them earlier on the hill. They had a dry, north-country sense of humour that was quick to surface, and we responded in kind. They looked to be in their late seventies but, during our brief exchange, I saw that crusty trio transform into boys again, as did my friend and I.

But then I look at the young chap I drew on the windy summit, back in ’86, and I remember something of the moodiness of those years, also the striving for a thing I didn’t know the shape of then, and I still don’t. I suppose the difference is learning to let it go, and in that sense at least I’m a lot younger now, than I was that day I first stood on Boulsworth hill.

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Dear George,

In answer to your query, when we write long-form fiction, interesting things emerge. Whether the story ever sees the light of day or not, it is an exploration of ideas, of events salient to our attention, and to our sense of being, at least at the time of writing. It clarifies what it is we think, also what we think we think, but in fact do not. Thus, it points the finger at our bullshit, and our vulnerability to the subversion of our thinking by invasive memes.

Memes sweep the culture, inculcate it, shape it. They cling to our coat-tails like briars, and we must be careful of them. Are these the things we really think? Or are they infections we have picked up and would be better seeking a cure for them? And is there really any difference?

In our current work in progress we have picked up a few threads familiar from previous writings: the secret state, neo-pagan spirituality, depth psychology, the politics of inequality. This is normal, a kind of narrative continuity. But you are right to point out a meme I have missed, and which might be harmful to us both.

As near as I can tell, it is the meme that says the man’s too big – the man being any authority we labour under, or against. The man deploys his authoritarian tool-box to crush dissent, he twists every instrument of the law to protect himself, he is made of Teflon, nothing sticks, and no lie is too big. Indeed, lies are no longer lies in contemporary political parlance; they have become tactical deceits. As for that most urgent issue of global warming, it’s too late to alter the course of it, and since we’re all doomed anyway, why bother even talking about it?

My last hero, Rick, turned his back on climate activism and politics, and went to live with a magical woman in the equivalent of a walled, Edenic garden. I wasn’t happy with him for doing that, but given the nature of the woman, I couldn’t entirely blame him. But it was also a return to the womb, which is hardly a healthy state of affairs. The world is where we live, not the womb. That we are born at all means we have a responsibility to shape the Zeitgeist. Heaven or Hell? The choice, as you say George, is ours.

In my defence, I might argue I wanted others to be angry with Rick as well, for who else can we rely upon to put the world to rights if not our heroes? And when the heroes quit the field in despair at our apathy, it should be a wake-up call for the rest of us that something is seriously wrong. It was, then, a small gesture, rooted in reverse psychology, and probably futile. But, you ask, is there not also a danger I have fallen for my own meme, and begun to believe in it? The man’s too big, the man’s too strong. Go contemplate your navel.

In “a lone tree falls” Rick is reborn as you, George. You are a former intelligence officer, a man of middling rank, intimate with international affairs, familiar with facts that are kept from the rest of us for reasons both fair and foul, familiar too with facts that have been spun to the inverse of their original meaning. But now you too find yourself in the path of the bulldozer, and the big man bearing down. Like Rick, the solution I am suggesting for you is defeatist. You’re knocking on in years, you see the future of the UK as a kleptocratic failed state, buffeted by an increasingly violent climate, spiralling levels of poverty, and an infrastructure always on the verge of collapse. But since – forgive me George – you’ll be dead before the worst of it hits, why worry? Keep your head down. Pour yourself another G+T and salute the sunset.

However, I note your objection, and agree all of this is convenient for the kleptocrats. One wonders if such “resistance is futile” memes can be seeded in the mire of social media to purposely sprout invasive blooms of defeatist nihilism. I also note that to be accepting of what we cannot change is also touted, in the emerging self-help literature, as being psychologically mature – this particular meme coming out of the man’s misappropriation of Buddhist mindfulness techniques. We are taught now to move on from contentious issues as a form of self-preservation. We should not interfere to change the madness, says the man, but employ age-old psycho-technologies to merely cope with it, and therefore remain obligingly docile and economically productive, as we spiral down the vortex of heat-death.

Why do I suggest that you, dear George, escape your responsibilities by making off with a muse half your age, disappear on a canal boat into the sub-cultural wonderland of England’s inland waterways? Is this not another metaphor of the womb, like Rick’s Edenic garden? Have I not worked out yet that the man holds the plug, and can drain any medium of true flight? There is no escaping responsibility.

But what, exactly, are our responsibilities to the world, and to the species? To whom, or to what are we held responsible, and to what standard? I hear your complaint, George, that, though we men of senior years feel no longer capable of action ourselves, we should at the very least take care we do not infect the young, for there is nothing worse for a young person’s confidence than seeing a defeated old man preaching the nihilist memes he learned at the knee of his masters and economic betters. Who then can blame the young for retreating into the virtual worlds of their computer games, drawing their curtains against the light, and subverting intelligent activism into vile shouting matches on Twitter?

Do not be defeatist, be determined? Do not be bitter, be better? Do not resign, be resilient? I hear you, George. My powers are limited, but I’ll see what I can do to preserve your honour and dignity.

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A lone tree falls

Chapter One

Marsh Avenue, Marsden

This is the last garden in Marsh Avenue with a privet hedge, the last with a piece of lawn at the front, and flowering borders. It used to be like that from top to bottom. You could see the seasons change through the cherries in early spring, the laburnums in late May, and the deep greens of high summer. Now it’s all concrete, cracked pavers and white vans.

There were neighbours, too: Mr Williams, next door, a retired gentleman who, in my memory at least, always wore a white jacket and a bow tie. Sometimes he’d have dungarees underneath the jacket, if he was repairing bicycles. He liked old maps and cameras. Weekends would see him in a trilby hat, a second-hand Voightlander over his shoulder, setting through Durleston Wood. He smelled of pipe tobacco, and mushrooms.

His wife, a portly dame of indeterminate shape would arrive unannounced to camp my mother, and help out with the housework. Nowadays, this would be seen as an unspeakable intrusion. Back then it was more a kind of solidarity.

Then there was Mr Simpson, on the other side. His back garden was a wild profusion of blackberries and rhubarb, but he kept his front manicured. He had three mature cherry trees to mark the apexes of a triangle of lawn. When they blossomed, they were the pride and the envy of the neighbourhood. The lawn has gone now, and the trees were felled to make way for a pick-up truck. Loud music thumps out from the house all day, and late into the night.

The occupant is now a scar-faced man, who wears camo. He keeps a pair of barking bull-lurchers which, the story goes, he trains to kill badgers, and foxes. I don’t know if this is true, but he has dead eyes, like black pebbles. I have studied his sort before, and I can easily imagine it is so. When we are ruled in a more unambiguously totalitarian manner, he will be appointed the local chief of police, pulling out the fingernails of leftist dissenters until they too scream out their love for Big Brother. I have never spoken to him, so cannot call him a neighbour. His music is – well – decidedly unmusical, consisting at my end purely of beats. It jams my brain, so I cannot write when I am there.

Thump. Thump. Thumpety.

I did not intend coming back to Marsden, but I don’t regret it now, nor the circumstance that forced me. It granted time to see my father out, with grace and honour. It also eased his mind, knowing there was someone around to keep on top of the garden, keep it respectable, this being in the manner of his generation, who took pains to ease the minds of passersby that here at least, they were safe from assault and robbery.

“Remember to sharpen the edging shears before you clip round.”

“Yes, Dad.”

“The India Stone’s in the shed. I showed you how. Remember?”

I do remember. I was eighteen when we had that conversation. How long ago is that? Forty years? Except I swear it was Mr Williams who showed me how to sharpen things with an India Stone. It was also his India Stone I was always borrowing, because ours had grown concave with use. I am on the cusp of old age myself now, or late middle, or whatever they call it, but in my father’s eyes I was always a lad. I didn’t mind that. He always meant well, even when he was wrong, which, looking back, was often. It’s an important step along the path to maturity, I think, realizing your father could be wrong, and forgiving him for it.

Thump. Thump. Wackety. Thump. Thump.

He’d gone a little deaf towards the end, so he wasn’t as disturbed by the noise from next door as I am. Or if he was, he never said. He never complained about anything, even when he had much to complain about, like how the doctor hadn’t a clue what was wrong with him, until it was too late. Then his only apology was: well, Mr Swift, you’ve had a good innings.

The night he died, there was heavy metal coming through the walls as I sat with him. I’d not the courage to go round and tell the scar-faced man there was this old gentleman, my father, with a magnificent story of life behind him, a man blessed by his obscurity and his inoffensiveness, dying on the other side of the wall, and could you not for once turn the music down, let him pass into the next world in peace, and not be chased there by Banshees?

Funny, the things you feel ashamed about.

Boom. Boom. Boom.

He was a craftsman, my father, worked magic on a lathe, making valves, and far away fortunes for the oil and gas industry, yet a pittance for himself. Mr Williams was a labourer at the rubber works, Mr Simpson a retired collier with emphysema who hid black stuff he coughed up, in a clean while handkerchief which he kept there for said purpose. All were gentlemen, their wives, decent, resilient women. Their solidarity was like glue to us throughout the leaner years of growing up.

Oh,… you get the picture. Things just aren’t the same now. And perhaps there has always been this sense of decline, certainly in the north of my country, and since the Thatcher years, but lately it has taken on a more unabashed appearance, smelling of a thing more brazenly corrupt. And it’s my fault because I looked away, and let it happen.

The obvious thing to do, now my father has gone, is to sell the house, but a part of me is saying that would be to close the door on what I still believe to be a thing worth rescuing from the past. If only I could define the shape of it. But I cannot stay either, because the insult of that music, and the loss of gentleness, and the richness of colour is full of hurt for me. All I do when I’m here is scroll my phone for crass novelty, and wait for a change in tempo.

Boom. Whackety. Boom. Boom. Boom.

___________________________________________

I think this works as an opener. It sets the mood, anyway. We’re ten thousand words in, and it’s still giving, still connecting. I’ve done the cover, too. We may be on to something. Coming to a bookshop no time soon and never to be seen on Amazon, except possibly as a pirated version.

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The concluding part of my story The Man Who Could Not Forget:

In the end, I was disappointed. Lanchester’s prose was convoluted and ultimately banal. Speed reading, I devoured the entire text, looking for just one jewel of home-spun wisdom, but there were none. These were the memoirs of an ordinary, and poorly educated man, the record of an unremarkable life, bloated with pedantic minutiae. Brady and I were of the same mind: fifty pence was about its worth, and I regretted wasting my memory on it.

After finishing the book I dozed a little, only to be roused by a loud rapping on the door. I looked at Clarissa, but she was still sleeping. Thinking it might be an anxious relative, I hastened downstairs to open it.

It was Brady. “I should have guessed you’d be in it together,” he said.

“What? You followed us here? For fifty lousy pence! You’re crazy.”

“It’s the principle,” he replied. “Now, where is it?”

I still had the book in my hands and there was no point now trying to hide it. Brady reached out and took it. I felt powerless to stop him. It was his, after all.

“I don’t expect to see either of you in my shop again,” he said.

Clarissa woke after dawn, looking brighter and fresher. I knew her recovery would be short lived, though. She gave me a tender look when she saw me waiting at her bedside, but became gloomy when I told her what had happened.

I tried my best to reassure her. “He won’t come back,” I said. But she was less concerned about Brady’s visit than the book he had taken.

“I’ll never find another copy,” she said.

I tried to make light of it. “Well, from what I read – it’s not much of a loss.”

“You read it?”

“Cover to cover, while you slept.”

“So you could recite it to me?”

I didn’t like the sound of that. “It would take days.”

“You could do it, though? Word for word?”

“Of course. But it’s dross. Why waste your mind on it?”

She looked at me then, a steely determination coming over her. “I must have that book,” she said.

“Why should I help you to commit suicide?”

“Is that what you think?”

“What else am I to suppose, when you seem bent on burning yourself out? You’re almost there now. Another book will kill you.”

She looked at me curiously. “I don’t keep this knowledge, you know? I pass it on.”

“What do you mean, you pass it on?”

“I mean, literally. To students, mostly,… I’m a tutor at the college. I also do other,… freelance memory work. But you don’t understand, I pass it on directly,… from my memory to theirs – not that they’re aware of it of course. They just think I’m a good tutor.”

She could see I was struggling with this concept, so she enlightened me further. “That time we met, at college, remember? I gave you some saucy images of me, so you’d want to go out with me. They were Polaroids I’d taken of myself. I thought of them, then projected them into your mind. It was cheap, I know, but I was younger then and not so sensitive. Funny, it had always worked on men before.”

I felt myself go pale. Could it be true? Was it possible? Had she really done that?

“I’m surprised you don’t know the technique.” She grew serious then, and drew herself closer. “You don’t do you? You really don’t. You’re still carrying it all with you! Your whole life! But,…. how can you bear it?”

“What choice do people like us have?”

“But surely, you know that in passing it on, you’re relieved of the knowledge yourself? That’s why people like us live the way we do,… so we can put other stuff in there as well – like,.. like,… those bus numbers from last night and any other trifles that keep accumulating. We,…we,… excrete them.”

I shook my head in disbelief at this. “You mean you dump the garbage into other people’s heads? But don’t they know?”

“You jumble it up,” she said. “It’s just background noise to them – and quite harmless,… but to us,… to us, such a relief!”

“But, how is it done? How do choose your subjects? And what do you mean, you project it? You mean like ESP or something?”

“I don’t know about ESP,” she said. “I only know that it’s easy. You can do it to anyone – even a passer by.”

It was a revelation! Such a technique, if true, would extend my useful life to the norm. SO, the obvious question now was: “Can you teach me, Clarissa?”

She gave me a sly look. “Of course,” she said. “Just as soon as you’ve given me Lanchester’s essays.”

“But if you teach me now, I could give you the essays directly, and rid myself of them in the process.”

“It might take months to teach you,” she said, “And those essays are urgent. My client must have them, and soon.”

So we began – me typing out the essays word for word, comma for comma. It was not a difficult task, only tedious, like copying out the pages of a dictionary. Every hour or so, I would produce a sheaf of printouts, which she would then settle down to read. The task took two long days to complete, the last full stop being punched in around midnight. After that I slept on a futon Clarissa had prepared for me in her spare bedroom. I woke the following morning to find her sitting cross-legged on the floor regarding me strangely. Something was troubling her.

“You will teach me?” I reminded her. “You promised.”

“Yes, I’ll teach you. Have you realised though, the price will be your memories? Which ones and how many, only you can decide. Once gone, they are gone forever. I’m worried you’ll be reckless, destroying half your life in an attempt to preserve it.”

“Surely I’m the best judge of that.”

But already I had begun sifting my memories in an attempt to label them for execution. It had been harder than I’d thought. Was it only the good memories that sustained us? The successes? The times of deep satisfaction? Could I safely dispose of the failures? the cringing embarrassments? the heartaches, the insults? or were they as important in defining us? Was Clarissa right? Was there a danger I would destroy my person in an attempt only to preserve its mortal vessel?

She reached out and squeezed my hand. “Of course I’ll teach you.” “Besides you still have pictures of me I’d like returning.”

“Ah no, Clarissa,” I replied, teasing her. “Those pictures have kept me warm for years. Some things I will never be persuaded to part with.”

By now she was almost too weak to leave the house. It was as if Lanchester’s infernal essays had proven too much for her. In the end, I had to drive her across town to her appointment with the mysterious client. I was curious about him – even more so when she directed me through the gates of a geriatric home.

We were greeted at the door by a senior nurse. Clarissa’s client?

“Clarissa, darling. We were worried.”

“It’s fine,” she said. “I’m fine.”

“You have them?”

Clarissa tapped her head. “All in here,” she said. “Safe and sound.”

We were shown along a corridor, the air heavy with a soporific heat, and finally to a lounge whose walls were lined by the vacant expressions of many ancient souls, each one looking up in expectation as we passed. The nurse led us to a frail old guy in a wheelchair, and knelt beside him. He was in a bad way, his skin almost transparent over his bones. I offered him my hand, a gesture he returned by some long embedded reflex.

The nurse smoothed back the thinning remains of his hair. “Poor love,” she said. “Stone deaf,… Can’t even remember his own name any more.”

But I knew it of course. “Mr Lanchester, I presume.”

Now I understood the value of memory. What to me had been worthless, to him was a spotlight, cutting clean through the fog of his decrepitude to the finest of his days, days that had leaked away from him to be gathered into two temporarily stronger minds.

I tightened my grip on his hand, and Clarissa lowered her head, as if to concentrate. Then she sighed and I swear, as I looked into his eyes, I saw a glimmer of light, not much but enough perhaps to sustain him.

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Continuing from part one of my story, The Man Who Could Not Forget:

The bus station café was just across the street. It was not renowned for its cuisine, and even less for its ambiance, but it was rest and refreshment we sought, and she really looked like she needed to sit down. So we sat, and for a while we watched the buses swinging in and out. Her name was Clarissa and her memory was indeed every bit as perversely proficient as my own.

“You were reading art,” she said. “You were writing notes, in green ink. You had a lovely tortoise-shell fountain pen. The ink had stained your fingers.”

“An essay on Monet,” I recalled. “You were reading Wordsworth’s Prelude. You had on a denim jump suit, a blue scarf, and a little badge on your lapel, a teddy bear,… yellow enamel.”

As we continued to compare notes from that brief encounter, I began tingling with anticipation. Clarissa was different from all the other women I had known. We could understand one another, but almost in the same breath I saw the futility of it. A relationship with her was no more likely to succeed than any other. Indeed it seemed twice as likely to fail, neither of us ever able to forget a single word of all the words we might share, and especially the cross ones. As a distraction, I asked her why she had taken the book.

“It’s rare,” she said. “It’s the last copy in existence. I’ve searched everywhere for it and would you believe it? I find it on the day I’ve left my purse at home. It didn’t seem such a dreadful crime – and I was going to sneak it back when I’d read it. As you know, I need only read it once to possess it.”

“Woudn’t Brady have put it to one side for you?”

“You clearly don’t know him very well. I’ve asked him to do that sort of thing before and he’s always refused. He’s not exactly the most obliging of characters.”

“Actually, I do know him, and you’re right. He does have something of a cantankerous reputation.”

“It sounds irrational, but I was afraid it might be gone by the time I came back. You’ve no idea how important this book is to me right now. It’s vital to my work, to my client.”

She took the volume from her pocket and turned to the inside cover where I noted it was a first edition – 1946. Here also, the price was scribbled in the top corner: fifty pence. For all his faults and they were many – Brady did have an eye for a book’s worth. From the looks of it, J. V. Lanchester did not have much of a following.

“There’s one copy of the Lindisfarne Gospels,” I said. “That’s priceless. But this?”

“No, there are many copies of the Gospels – just the one original. But these essays are probably the last existing vessel of this man’s knowledge. Your paintings by Monet, my Wordsworth – those works have been recorded and printed many times and are in the minds of so many people, they will never be forgotten,… but Lanchester’s childhood in a Manchester slum? His experience as an overseer in a cotton mill? His views on social change in the nineteen thirties?”

“But they’re just some dead old geezer’s memories,… they’re not important. They don’t exactly make the world a richer place, do they?”

“Who’s to say?”

She broke off suddenly, overcome by a pain in her temples. She kneaded them with her fists and tried to shake her head clear.

“You’re unwell,” I said. “I should let you rest. Is there anyone I can call?”

“It’ll pass,” She looked at me. “I’m sorry to ask this when you’ve already been so kind but will you walk me home? Please don’t get the wrong idea. It’s just that I’m afraid I’ll pass out on the way.”

“Have you seen a doctor?”

“There’s nothing anyone can do,” she said. “It’s my mind. I’ve been filling it with too many books lately. Now and then it shuts down in protest, or like just now, it threatens to burst open. I’ll be fine if I can sleep a while. So, if you could just see me to my door?”

“You mean you still make a habit of reading books?”

“Of course. Don’t you?”

The thought was appalling. “Not books,… no way. There’s too much information in them. I collect pictures, that’s all. They’re a much more efficient way of saying something. You know? A picture says a thousand words, and all that?…”

It was essential to avoid filling one’s head with too much information. The numbers of the buses manoeuvring past our window? the faces of the passengers gazing back at us? I would remember them until the end of my useful life. And each day added inexorably to the burden, so it was enough without actually setting out to deliberately look for more. With care, I might have another twenty years before my mind burned out. After that lay only confusion in an asylum. Now I understood the nature of Clarissa’s sickness: she was nearing that stage already.

We walked slowly while she complained of dizziness, and paused frequently, crouching now and then on the pavement like a drunkard. Eventually, she led me to a respectable suburb and to the door of a tidy terraced cottage. It was here, while fumbling for her keys she collapsed, leaving me to carry her inside.

The house was impressively neat, though what struck me most, given her apparently suicidal thirst for text, was that there were no books. The walls were white and the floor was bare. There were just a few plain rugs ordered with geometric precision, and some simple chairs. It was much like my own home, nothing to arrest the attention, only blank spaces where one might safely stare and put the receptor circuits on hold.

There was no sofa to place her on, so I took her upstairs to her bedroom. This too was in the minimalist style with a low bed and a plain wardrobe. Everything was white, and without feature. I laid her on the bed, arranging her as best as I could, then sank down in a chair, beside her.

She was such a pretty woman, and we had so much in common, but all thoughts of pursuing a relationship with Clarissa, no matter how sweet, were pointless. We could become friends of course, but I already had a string of women with whom I shared a pointless friendship. I say pointless because all my life, I had craved so much more. Had I not been concerned for her health, had she simply passed out blind drunk, then I would have walked away, never to return, but under the circumstances, common decency obliged me to stay.

Perhaps it was boredom then that had me sliding Lanchester’s essays from the pocket of her overcoat. I admit I was also curious about him and I wondered if there might, after all, be something profound about his insights. I wondered too about the mysterious client she had mentioned. I mean what was so important here it could have driven Clarissa to possess these words at any price? I turned to the first page, and began,…

The Man Who Could Not Forget concludes with part three, tomorrow.

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yarrow re 5

And finally, part three, the concluding part of my short story, The Choices:

It occurs to me of course I can save his life, and on a fair number of occasions I have done so. It’s not difficult. I go outside and let all his tyres down, then he can’t offer her a lift back into town in the morning, like he always does. She’s not a patient sort of woman, you see? A man only gets one chance with her. One slip, like having the bad luck to get four flat tires, and she marks him as a loser. She’s quick to distance herself then, in case she catches his bad luck. She can’t see that for the times being, she is herself the bad luck fate inflicts on others.

I sip this second malt slowly, and decide against helping him. That might sound churlish, especially since I know it will end with a knife in his ribs. But you see, even when it’s in your power to help someone out of a bad fate, it’s pointless unless they understand the trap they’re in, otherwise they’ll only be back next time, making the same mistakes over and over. Maybe you’ll be around for them, or maybe you won’t. But we can only do so much, and it’s just self indulgent to lose sleep over the immanent suffering of others, when you know you can’t do anything about it. We are, I fear, each of us alone, guiding our own fate towards its mysterious conclusion. The best one can do is enlighten others to the true nature of their reality and leave the rest up the them. But, hey, no one listens to me at the best of times, so who in their right mind’s going to believe a story like this?

The landlord picks up a hefty old bell and gives it a swing. My heart sinks at its infernal clanging: last orders again! Closing time. No new players will enter the story now. There is no fresh phenomena for me to collide against, and ricochet myself to freedom. Another night in the bar of the McKinley Arms Hotel. Same old, same old. There follows now only the climb upstairs, to the room, and to bed.

It is a small, white chamber, neat and clean. But like all single rooms, it’s depressing in its capture of the sense of melancholic solitude. It’s like a harbinger of the stagnation soon to follow. There’s the Reader’s Digest Book of Short Stories in the bedside cabinet, pretty much a fixture in time, like the hotel, and me, and the woman in the red dress. So I turn to the page where I left off the last time. I know all these stories now by heart of course, but there’s a certain comfort to be had from such continuity.

Okay, so be it. In the morning I’ll drive that long road to Fort William, and I’ll climb the tourist track up Ben Nevis, like I always do. The pleasure of some things never fades, even with their infinite repetition. But there will also be regret, because I’ll know I’ve failed, and no matter how hard I try to hide from it, it’ll be sitting on my shoulder for the rest of my life. Worse, I’ll know I’m as likely to fail again, next time round, because I am blind to my choices.

Settling back against the pillows, I wonder about the nature of the connections we make. I’ve established by now we’re not the passive victims of fate we sometimes seem to be. We can shape our way, if only we can grasp the subtle nature of the connections that present themselves. I just don’t understand the mechanism. I mean, by our expectations, do we each invite the path we most deserve? Or do we attract the one we strive the most to avoid?

I realize I am smiling at the spin of my thoughts. There is nothing more to be done now, and in the absence of my deliverance, I take comfort in memories of the coming morning, because it is always bright, and Loch Lomond is always mirror-calm and oily-black, and the breakfast always fills me nicely, and then there is the freshness of the road, and that glorious drive ahead,…

This subtle run of thought takes me by surprise. I don’t recall ever being so magnanimous before at this stage in the game. Then, turning the page of the book, a slip of paper falls onto my chest. It’s makeshift bookmark left by a previous reader, a scrap torn from a notebook, bearing the pencilled address of the Sligachan Hotel, on the Isle of Skye.

This has never happened before.

Dare I hope that by such an insignificant connection, a fresh path has opened? Do the walls of this strange attractor melt as I hold the paper and read the address? Do I sense a fresh future in the flow of the hand that wrote it?

The subtlety of this moment is the most significant thing worth noting. There has been only a ripple of thought, an emotion, a feeling like a gently rising tide. It’s a thing hovering on the very edge of perception, yet it has changed everything. I’ve no idea who or what is waiting for me on the Isle of Skye, but I do know all my choices between here and there will be correct. I’ve picked up the current again, and I’m going places!

Now, don’t go shooting off at this point and thinking the key to the future always lies in a destination, or in a person, because I’ve just spent the last three and a half thousand words trying to tell you why I think it doesn’t. What is it, then? Well, it comes down to a feeling, also to one’s interpretation of the choices as they present themselves. What sort of feeling is that, you ask? Well, it’s more of a letting go sort of feeling, than a holding on and it’s like never looking directly at a a thing, more inviting it in from the periphery of your vision. But whatever it is, without it, the right choice, the right connection is never going to come along and you may find yourself stuck in some hotel bar one night, not just for the rest of your life, but for all of your lives.

Until you finally wise up.

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on pendle hill

Pendle Hill December 2019

 

My novel-to-be “Winter on the Hill” isn’t about Coronavirus. But then, like all other aspects of life, the virus hijacked it early on and, since then, it has become both backdrop and the occasional plot device.

Our protagonist, Rick (followers of this blog will have met him before) is a former left-wing activist and climate protester. But he gave all that stuff up on the night of the December 2019 election when the Conservative party and “market forces” swept to power. He took a look at his country then and decided he didn’t understand it any more, that while he felt he wasn’t wrong in his lefty, middling-socialist beliefs, he was indeed very much misguided in thinking he could ever change anything. So he joined a walking group and, Covid regs permitting, he’s been climbing hills all year. At first, he was angry and scathing about his fellow countrymen for being so damned irredeemably stupid, but as the story progresses, he experiences a strange mellowing when a deeper truth is revealed.

Meanwhile, the pandemic pulls the mask from the Government, exposing an avaricious face familiar enough to those who have been round the block a bit. Self-seeking, complacent, incompetent, contemptuous of the poor, fanatical only about BREXIT. They have presided over sixty thousand dead – official figures – and now seven months in, the death-rate is doubling again every two weeks.
 
None of this is a surprise to Rick but, in spite of the urging of his former activist colleagues, he’s too philosophical now to indulge in partisan argument, let alone direct action. Instead, he’s meditating on the nature of “truth”, and how, in a world obscured by untruths, it might be possible to live the authentic life. Or is that just for the monks, while the rest of us must construct whatever comforting false reality we can while at the same time drowning in poo?
 
There’s nothing truer than boots on a hill, he says. Everything is down to you – the energy, the route, the hill-craft, your eye on the weather. That’s what’ll get you up and down in one piece, not bluff and bluster. But will Rick, in his new-found mellowness, ever return to the political life? Will he return a wiser man, a man with a plan, something that will put it all right for the rest of us? Or will he let the clouds take him, and then his compassionate wisdom becomes lost to us? Has he already decided that in a world dominated by billionaire froth and spin, ever ready to smear him as a crazy-left-Marxist-Commie dooda who eats babies, does it matter what the earnest men and women of Rick’s ilk say anyway?
 
Let’s remind ourselves of the problem by asking a man who knows, someone very much like Rick, but who hasn’t turned away from the front lines:
 
 
I agree with George, but I would add one more thing, and perhaps not surprisingly it’s something Rick might say too. It’s gone wrong because not enough of us care about, or understand enough of what it is George is saying. We are so far down the rabbit hole, all his words can do is further polarize us – those on the left nodding in agreement, while those on the right gather their spittle. And that may be why Rick is tying on his boots and heading up into the clouds again. Election 2024? Forget it, he says. For the things that really matter, environmentally and socially, it was already too late ten years ago.
 
No, come on Rick. That’s not good enough. We want answers.
 
No you don’t, he says. All you want to know is how you can go on living a comfortable lie without the uncomfortable consequences catching up with  you.
 
And there, I think, after several rewrites and dunderheaded attempts, I have the closing lines, of Winter on the Hill – available from all good bookshops nowhere soon, but otherwise free. Just watch for the link in the margin.
 
I thank you.
 

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