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Posts Tagged ‘north west’

s-port cafeSouthport, Easter Saturday afternoon. I’m crossing the square in front of the Town Hall, thinking of lunch, when a woman steps out of the crowd and offers to pray for me. I thank her kindly, but tell her I couldn’t possibly put her to so much trouble.  She hands me a leaflet which I fold and pocket with a parting smile.

The town looks poor still, nearly a decade after the crash. There is an eerie Parisian beauty about Lord Street, but it is long past that time when people dressed up for Saturdays in town. Some make the effort but they stand out now, look ridiculous even in their finery, like peacocks strutting among pigeons. Or perhaps it’s me. Perhaps I only notice the haggard expressions and poor pigeon-clothing we wrap ourselves in. Or is it a myth, this hankering after a nostalgic vision of an England that never existed – and really we have always looked and dressed this way?

In Chapel Street, the air is lively, cut by the jangle of buskers. And there’s this wizened beardy guy shouting passages from the Old Testament – the end is nigh, that sort of thing. I note he has a bigger crowd than the buskers. But he sounds angry. It’s our stupidity perhaps he takes issue with, our refusal to be saved? Whatever that means.

It’s unkind to make rash judgements of course but I have an instinctive aversion towards angry, shouty people. And I’m only here for the cash machine, so I can pay for lunch.

Lunch is a ham and cheese and mushroom toastie. They put it in fancy bread and call it a Fungi Pannini. It grants it a certain altitude, but it’s as well not to get too carried away with these things. Obviously, I am not a gastronome. Still, it’s flavoursome, and nicely filling, and the coffee is deliciously aromatic. This is my reward after a week of six-thirty get ups, and long days that are leaving me increasingly knackered. It’s worth the wait, and the sheer quiet pleasure of it revives my spirits.

I take out the ‘droid for company. Out with it comes the leaflet from the lady who offered to pray for me. She’s wanting me to join her Evangelical Church, but it’s not really my scene. They’re heavy on the healing stuff – a long list of things they can cure by faith, but the small print cautions me to seek medical advice as a first recourse. The legal escape hatch is somewhat deflating. Even the religious fear litigation it seems. Does this mean that for all of  their assertiveness this afternoon, they lack the courage of their convictions?

I flick through the headlines on the ‘droid. The Times and The Mirror seem excited by the possibility of nuclear war. Meanwhile the Guardian has its knife in the guts of the leader of the opposition. The collective subliminal message here is that we can forget any realistic prospect of a return to calmer, more reasoned discourse. Instead we shall be distracted from ongoing economic and political turmoil by increasing talk of war. There are historical precedents for this phenomenon and we should not be surprised. These are ancient daemons, hard to outwit, filled with an infectious loathing.

I have no particular business in town other than lunch, but I visit the bookshop while I’m here. I’m looking for something by Sebastian Barry. They have nothing in the second hand section. They might have had him among the new stuff, but I do not buy new books any more – my little contribution to Austerity and my own knife in the guts of the economy. I’ll find the book I want for a couple of quid in a charity shop, when the time is right.

sport pierMeanwhile, it’s a beautiful, sunny afternoon. The trees on Lord street are budding and there is blossom aplenty. But there are more angry voices here, more shouting about God. The words are incoherent but the tone is clear: Fess up, submit, or else!

I escape up Scarisbrick Avenue, heading towards the light and the sea, but there are drunk men here with pints of beer. They are staggering, arguing volubly, incoherently. Fuck this, fuck that. Fuckety fuck it. Fuck, fuck, fuck. It’s not yet two pm, the sun a long way from the yard arm. There is no wisdom in such heroic quantities of beer, no real escape in it from the misery of latter day working lives. Only hope and the dignity of decent wages will cure it, and both are in short supply.

Along the front, by the King’s Gardens, the greens are littered with chip cartons and cellophane wrappings. It’s my eye again, black dog stalking, showing me only the decay, the despair, the sheer hopeless void of it. The pier affords an arrow to the sea. The sandy tide is in, a scent of briny freshness at last. I walk the bouncy boards at a brisk pace, breathe in the sea, take it down deep as the only bit of the day worth holding on to.

Well, that and the coffee, and the toastie.

Small pleasures amid this talk of God and War.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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chinookAfter a quieter day, one in which the village clears away the mess from recent floods, we are unsettled again. It’s not so much the weather forecast which promises storms, but the arrival of the army and the Chinook helicopter. Stealthy the Chinook is not, and the steady, thudding rhythm of its rotors has been compressing my eardrums since noon.

There are holes in the flood banks, and the Chinook will plug them by dropping grab-bags of something or other – the media say sand, but this sounds inadequate to me and I’m hoping for something rather more substantial. The media, who have by now invaded the village in strength, also tell us the banks are to the south, when in fact they are to the west and the north. This lack of accuracy is disconcerting but not altogether surprising.

The flood banks have been breached in two places. Further meaningful information, such as the extent of the damage, the resulting danger, and the feasibility of repair is unavailable. The public, those threatened by these breaches, are advised to keep away from the “area of operations”. This is sensible, I suppose. But there is also a risk here to each of us, personally, and the media can be relied upon for nothing more than emotive garbage – pictures of Christmas trees being chucked into skips and our womenfolk dutifully choking back tears for the nice journalist bastards.

So, I set out to learn what I can by observation on the ground. There is a highpoint to which I might walk and maybe glimpse what is going on,  but I fail to get through a police check-point on the main road. There’s a bigger police presence now and a WPC has me dispatched in short measure by one of her community support minions. The young man peremptorily delegated to tackle me is polite, apologetic. His accent betrays a drafting in from far away.

I try another route, threading along a network of farm tracks, out across the flooded plains. The waters have receded a little, leaving the tracks passable to Wellington boots, though the meadows are still like lakes. Here, reflections in the water have brought the sky down to earth. The effect is dizzying, beautiful. Murmurations of birds have begun to explore their novel bounty.

By this somewhat open subterfuge, I am able to approach quite close, in fact, to the “area of operations” and, through binoculars,  learn the extent of the breach. The hole in the river’s flood banks is of awesome proportions. I am humbled by it. These banks have stood for centuries. I have walked their tops on balmy summer days, confident they will stand for ever. Why now such a dramatic collapse?

Here also, I find a handful of  moss-dwellers, with whom to swap stories. The best information, the most useful, is that gained at first hand and “local”. The usefulness of information decreases the more removed its source. Information on the TV or in the paper press is of course not information at all. It is infotainment, possibly manipulative, and worse than useless.

I watch for a while as the Chinook drops its bags, four at a time, sending up an almighty splash. It is more likely building aggregate, I think, than sand, which would simply be washed away the moment it hit the water. The roar of outraged river is drowned by the roar of the Chinook’s engines. I estimate it will take a thousand bags to plug that hole, five minutes per drop. You work it out. Operations have just begun in earnest, but there’s only ninety minutes of daylight left, then the Chinook will be going home for its tea. I am  not hopeful the hole will be plugged in any meaningful sense by nightfall. This is useful information.

I’ve seen enough now, and turn for home, the light fading.

The Chinook is a mighty bird, noisy as hell and ungainly to look at, but steady as a rock and graceful in the air. A daunting job, that pilot has, stopping the next tide from coming in where it ought not to. But those bags of dropped stuff looked pitifully small, beneath its belly, and that hole dauntingly big. On the plus side the tides are tending now towards the neap rather than the spring, and the fire brigade’s massive pumps are making a difference. This also is good information.

Meanwhile, in the village, more sand has arrived, donated by builders’ merchants. Local people organised by Twitter and Facebook, shovel it into bags. Anyone with a van or a tractor and trailer tours the village, dropping off bags wherever they are needed. Unsolicited, I have acquired a pile of ten. They look inadequate, but I’m grateful, and anyway I’m sure I won’t need them.

We are all a little jumpy now, feel irrationally threatened by even the promise of a spot of rain. But the river levels have dropped to no more than boisterous levels. Only the media  insist we’re doomed. I’m sure they hope we are. Great story isn’t it?

As I write a reporter stands not fifty yards from my home, talking empty nonsense to the entire nation. I see him on the TV in realtime. It’s disorientating. Shall I run out and photo-bomb? Offer him a cup of tea? He says nothing I can remember even five minutes later.

Dark now, 11:00 pm, a storm moving over – for some absurd reason they are calling it “Frank”. It’s raising a roar of wind in the chimney, promise of more rain tomorrow. But I note there has been an adjustment in the psyche’s perceived threat level. The risk is still severe, according to the Environment Agency,  but on the front line we are less reactive, no one staying up until the small hours this time. There is less traffic on the little road outside my window. Normality is relative, and human beings are adaptable creatures, defining their normality by whatever circumstances they find themselves in at the time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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aysgarth upper fallsThe climate is changing. It’s becoming wetter, the rains harder, longer and more frequent. They saturate the ground, the rivers rise, then spill, bringing mud and ruin. Such events were rare, they were a once in a generation thing, but now they happen so frequently, even a year without a flood is counted as a blessing.

I live in a bungalow in a village suddenly prone to annual flooding. Everything I own is at ground level. If the floods come through my letter box, I lose it all. Fortunately my abode rests on a modest high spot, an understated quirk of geography, one that has never flooded in living memory. But weather “events” are so spectacular now it renders the unthinkable thinkable and the phrase “living memory” less of a comfort.

And as I write, my home is under threat from rising water. Three overburdened rivers have burst creating lakes which pool over the escape roads, rendering them impassable to all but the army in their big trucks. And the army have gone home after attending record breaking floods on Boxing Day. We’re cut off from the world, at least for now.

I’m thinking we’ll probably be all right, except I’ve just had a recorded telephone warning from the Environment Agency – flood threat, severe, my area, risk to life, cooperate with the emergency services. These warnings are a one size fits all kind of thing and, though undoubtedly necessary in some circumstances, I feel they are unnecessarily alarmist in others. I suspect the latter is the case now, but one can never be certain. It is in my nature to hope for the best, until the worst is staring me in the face.

I have been to check the spread of water around us, though it’s pitch dark and much of the power to the village is still to be restored. This makes it hard to see anything at all. The encroaching waters are discernible as patches of paleness in the black, seemingly huge spectres laid across the usual pitch void of meadow and moss. I see distant lights reflected in them. It’s hard to tell how they are moving, or if they are moving. Darkness and imagination – still ringing from the Environment Agency’s warning – adds to the possibly inappropriate sense of threat.

There are other people about, roused by the same warnings, gathered mostly into small groups. The mood is generally calm but quietly anxious. There is a murmur of voices, faces occasionally lit by the flash of a mobile phone. Some wave their torches, loosely focused shafts of light, beaming uselessly into the darkness. They seek perhaps to probe the incoming water – measure its depth, its speed, its intent. Now and then you see someone in a hi-vis jacket running, shouting unhelpfully, breaking the quiet as if with a pointed stick. They are not officials, but easily mistaken as such – their skittishness betrays their imposture.

The flood warden passes sedately on his bicycle. I recognise him. He bears an uncanny resemblance to John Le Mesurier’s Sergeant Wilson – same looks, same voice, same gentle manners. He tells me all the sandbags were taken in the preceding days of flood – these were days that saw hundreds of properties in other parts of the village washed out with silt and sewerage. He tells me there’s nothing we can do, is apologetic. I admire his stoicism, am inspired by it.

His walkie talkie scratches to life, a garbled voice speaks to him of something incoherent, he cycles off. I note homes nearer to the front line have improvised their own defences from polythene sheet, which they hold up around their door frames with bricks and planks. They might as well have saved themselves the effort, but at times of crisis it is easier to be busy, harder to be still.

By 2:00 a.m. I am alone by the silty water’s edge, the village having given up its vigil and gone to bed. Here, the tarmac of the little road disappears under an alien plane of rippling murk that spills from a meadow, and may as far as I know stretch all the way to the sea, some five miles away. I poke at it with my toe, make ripples, suspect the level might be falling. Can’t be certain. It’s been three hours now since the recorded warning of imminent threat to life and property. What are we expecting here? I imagine a tsunami bearing down on me in the still of night. It does not come.

The emergency services arrive, but International Rescue this is not. It’s just the one night-duty policeman in a minibus. He cruises down to the waterline beside me, stops suddenly when he sees it, looks surprised, gets out, shines his torch. He says nothing to me, as if a gulf of language separates us, yet we are two men alone at dead of night, on the edge of the unknown. I thought he might at least have nodded his fellowship. I leave him to it, return home to my desk.

So, here I sit and ponder what, among my belongings, I should rescue.

In a house, one can move valuables upstairs, but the best I can do is put things on the table-tops. Beyond that, the accumulated paraphernalia of my half century of life must take its chances with the goddess of destruction. I must face the possibility that this ephemera might not be here in the morning. What I can keep of it must go into my pockets. So, what shall I take?

What would you take?

Wallet and phone; these are the obvious, ubiquitous items, but I shall take also the little black codebook in which I keep passwords for my various online accounts. Computers are replaceable. Insurance documents are online now, but I have them copied for convenience to an SD card which I keep in a folder in my wallet.  I am portable, capable of letting go of what I cannot carry.

But evacuation is slow in coming, and I’m losing interest in staying up all night. I strip to teeshirt and trunks, lay my clothes at the bottom of the bed in case I must get into them quickly. Wellies and a torch are by the door. The village is quiet now, at last. I snuggle under the duvet and drift eventually to sleep and dream of mermaids.

Dawn comes, and there is no sound of lapping water around the bed. My ‘Droid assures me the imminent risk to life and property is still pending. I lie in ’till mid-morning, then walk down to the water’s edge once more. It has not receded much since the small hours, but looks less threatening in daylight. It is not the wide inundation I had imagined. There are corners to it, patches of dry.

A helicopter flies low, buzzing officiously. It loiters over breaches in the flood defences. Far away there are the flashing blue lights of a fire engine, pumping furiously. Water is still pouring in where it is not wanted, but seems to be finding a level that brings it no closer to my doorstep. For now at least.

One of the inroads to the village has cleared. We are accessible to the outside world again. The milkman delivers to those houses he can get to, the bins are emptied. The press will be here soon with their clownish satellite vans, po-faces pressing for their sound-bites. Nothing like pictures of flood and tears on the teatime news, is there?

 

 

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Mazda3

It’s a year now since I bought the Mazda – a hot Saturday, the last weekend of May. It was a clear day, sunny-bright, confetti of pink and white cherry blossom floating in a breathless air. I’d been feeling something of an old excitement all the previous week, I mean at the thought of picking her up, like a kid warming to Christmas. It was unfamiliar, this feeling, sign of a misspent middle-age perhaps? sign of that peculiar kind of maturity, one in which we had learned to reign our selves in so hard against the risk of disappointment we ‘d forgotten what there was left in life to be enjoyed. Too much of the nine to five, and not enough of one’s self, Michael.

But anyway, there I was, driving her home with the top down and feeling like a million dollars, feeling like a free man and that in some mysterious way, long coming, I had at last reconnected with a much younger and more openly enthusiastic part of my self. I was eighteen when this dream first took shape, fifty three before I drove it away. It was just an old car, 12 winters gone and needing a bit of work – a very small dream, you might say, but sometimes they are the best; richer in meaning and more yielding to interpretation.

The summer was a good one – warm, and the rains held miraculously in check, as if by charms, as soon as I peeled open the top. I explored the Dales mainly, and mainly topless, a middling stone’s throw from home, a place whose open moor-top roads I cannot now drive any other way and see them the same as I saw them last summer – see them, feel them, taste them. I remember in particular the drive from Aysgarth, towards Hawes, a morning in which Wensleydale glowed golden under a warm Godlike blessing of late morning sunlight. There came a moment in which the car no longer purred and rattled along contentedly, but became a luxurious carpet on which we glided, cushion soft, cruising mid air, and the scene became a broad skied gasp of delight.

Such was the summer, a time of warm memories, followed too soon by a winter of anticipation in which the old car lay under a dust sheet more days than not, dreaming of the summer to come. So when the road-tax man came calling for his £265 of wet blanket, I paid up, armoured against the usual frown. Ditto, the shyster insurance man who tried to sting me for £475, but dropped it to £300 when I asked if there’d been a mistake. I smiled as I asked, because I know this game, know there is no sense or reason to the oftentimes bizarre and rotten monied foundations of the world we are still far too enamoured of. And the Mazda would never be a frowny face. My Mazda MX5 is always a smile.

But now, with my legal presence on the roads negotiated for another year, I find the season much colder. It is rainy, squally, temperatures still scraping freezing on the fell-tops. And I’m reminded that the reason we revere memories of a good British Summer, is that they are so rare. A maritime climate lends a randomness to the mix, our summers being more a shake of the dice than a predictable turning up of the wick. We have to take what comes and with a smile, so we wear our summer shorts and hats, even though we shiver in the grey of a cold front, and the gale snatches our hats away.

I drove out to the coast last night, a gorgeous evening, high in blue skied contrast, but as yet still low in temperature, a stiff breeze dropping it to 6 degrees and the cherry blossom already blown away by a greedy air. The vinyl of the top felt stiff and frigid with cold as I folded it, and I wondered if I should leave it up, but that would be to waste the sun and the wide skies peeling back just then to shades of vanilla and tobacco. So, I was triple layered, warm hatted and gloved up as we rode towards the setting sun. I was perhaps considered mad by the usual parasitic coterie of rear view hogging Audis and BMW’s, ever pushing for a squeeze past.

Southport’s Marine Drive is something of a roller coaster, sinking slowly into the Ribble’s estuarine mud, becoming over time a long and curiously rippling ribbon of a road, the highs of it scored by the sparking strike of exhaust pipes, and sumps and sills. At fifty the big fat four by fours are gaily bouncing, their springs topping out, struggling to remain grounded, body-shells lolling like unballasted ships tossed in a swell. Hard sprung, the Mazda remains more firmly rooted, and we managed to lose the bully boys, at least until the bit where the limit drops to thirty. Here they had me cold and tore past in a series of multi-litred, self important flashes, doing sixty.

On the long strip of the promenade car park, people were lingering in the warm interiors of their cars, interiors lit with amber now as a post nine p.m. sun sank to within a finger’s width of the horizon. Pulling up among them I was immediately cold. A topless roadster’s warm enough when you’re motoring and the heater’s roaring louder than the engine, but stop a while and the cold will find your legs, and the tips of your ears, refuse to let you settle in. But that’s part of the fun – the drive I mean. Old cars like this are all about the drive for me, not so much the destination any more.

This can be a season of anxieties, cresting the month of mid-summer, a season of waiting for the whistle that will say the time we have been waiting for is upon us, that we might cast our top coats and stride out at ease and with the sun smiling down upon us. Yet we are stricken, downcast by the feeling that by the time we have begun, the time remaining will be already too short, the summer run, the season turning, while all we can do is wait for the chance to get out and do something.

But this year I am already doing it.

In the once upon a time I would not have driven out to watch the sun set. I would have thought about the cost of petrol, sat at home while shadows lengthened, and checked my blog stats. The Mazda is no longer a stranger to me, but I still see the road differently when I drive it. I hope in other ways too, I have learned to enjoy the world more as it is, feel more my presence in it as a thing to be enjoyed, than one to be resisted. Life is the journey, not the destination. It is not the rising nor the setting sun but every moment inbetween.

Sure, the sunset from Southport’s Marine Drive is always worth a trip, but I didn’t wait for it, and why? Well, that rippling ribbon of road is even more fun in the opposite direction!

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