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Posts Tagged ‘nostalgia’

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Over this last long weekend of the Platinum Jubilee, there has been much pomp and spectacle. The British do pomp and spectacle rather well, with much spit and polishing of breastplates. Then there’s all that far-eastern manufactured bunting, to say nothing of the screaming of the Queen’s guards. As for press coverage, it has been varied, swinging from the swooning deference of The Daily Telegraph, who reminds us: “Why the British still cherish their public service monarchy” to the Guardian newspaper’s more nuanced lamentation that: “This jubilee has been a kind of soft-focus funeral for an era”.

As for the international perspective, The New York Times describes it, somewhat more pragmatically as: “The party before the Hangover,” and that the: “Queen’s Jubilee offers Britons respite from their woes”, these woes, we presume, being rampant stagflation, food shortages, the unaffordability of energy, housing, fuel, and the BA2 Covid variant. I also liked the Irish Times’ irreverent take, voiced some time ago, that: “It’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.

Taken from the broader perspective then, the British present an eccentric image, one that is admired, loathed, or seems merely ridiculous. Are we objects of pity, on the world’s stage, or deserving of our cum-uppance? Is the monarchy a stabilising force in these troubled times, or mere bread and circuses? Opinion divides. Certainly it seems odd to our international friends that whilst Britain, in common with all post-imperial powers, has been declining in wealth and influence, it should appear so averse to grasping the nettle of its own future, and instead seems prone to sentimentally idolising its past.

What the Daily Telegraph does not tell us is that it’s mostly old people who see the monarchy as still relevant to British life, while most young people don’t. This is understandable, since, for the old, most of their lives lie in the past. The young, however, have most of their lives ahead of them, and are more concerned about whether their country is a place where they can raise happy children, find fulfilling work for fair pay, and where they can live with open minds and hearts. Does the monarchy feature at all large in these respects? The data suggests the young have concluded it does not.

While the faithful waved their Union Jacks this past weekend, the former leader of the Labour Party – who could hardly be mistaken for a Royalist – reminded us of the distribution of foodbanks across the entire UK. There are rather a lot of them. Worse, they have become a normal and accepted part of our way of life, as have crippling working hours, the dismantling of the welfare state, and the seemingly wanton destruction of the health services. The justification for being proud of Britain, as it is today – a place to live, work and grow – is a flimsy one, unless you have sufficient wealth to cushion you, in which case justifications are best avoided.

But the redistributive politics of the left are not coming back. It may be the other side is just too strong in these days of late capital, and the nation’s media will dutifully demonise any even moderately left leaning voices. Or it may be the British are genetically incapable of valuing labour, even when they are the ones providing it, and will always swing towards deference at the voting box.

That said, the current Conservative government is growing in unpopularity, even among those who represent it, let alone those who voted for it. Even before the limp jubilee bunting has been taken down, there was launched a night of the long knives, and a possible leadership challenge. The pundits will no doubt enjoy this unwholesome spectacle, as it unfolds over the coming weeks. But whoever is to be the true-blue, Jack waving incumbent of number 10, they will have a difficult job winning back public trust, this side of a general election. Then again I doubt a Labour, or even a Labour led coalition will significantly alter any of the privations of modern Britain, which seem now so institutionally, and culturally embedded, it will require the work of generations to merely fill the potholes, let alone build fresh inroads to another place entirely.

But what has all this to with the British Monarchy? Well, nothing. Since it is not obvious their role is to ameliorate the excesses of their own kind, one has no expectation they will ever do so, no matter how much they are adored by those so impoverished by those same excesses. Perhaps, like actors in the grand myth of the decline of nations down the ages, they merely take their places, as do we, and all of us are powerless to divert the narrative from its nihilistic conclusion.

Thus, we line the mall at every opportunity. We wave our flags, and we tune in to the BBC’s breathless coverage. It is a very British aberration, then, one to be cherished or avoided, according to taste and demographic. Whether the Royals be wholesome fayre, or mere bubblegum, is very much a vexed issue, the discussion of which perhaps distracts from other, more pressing matters of State. But if it’s true what they say, and the myth must be acted out to its inevitable conclusion, then the British must accept their fate, in which case idolising the past is the very best we can do, if it takes our minds off the increasingly obvious and unfortunate fact, the past is all we have going for us.

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On Spitler’s Edge

You catch up with me this afternoon, on Spitler’s Edge, in the Western Pennines. It sounds precipitous, like a mountain arête, but it’s not. That said, it’s still quite an airy aspect, in a dun coloured, tussocky, bog-cottony, sky-scraping, moorland sort of way. Indeed, the views are spectacular, from the hills of eastern Lancashire, to the west coast. Southwards, we have the porcupine ridge of Winter Hill, and its cluster of transmitters, while to the north we have Great Hill. The crossing from Great Hill to Winter Hill is always a treat, not to be underestimated in bad weather, but much easier now the route has been paved to spare erosion of the precious peat and bog habitat. The highpoint here is around 1286 feet.

I’ve not come over from Great Hill, though. I’ve come up by an unfamiliar path that snakes between Standing Stones Hill and Green Withins’ Brook. Early maps tell us there was always a track here, though aiming a little lower, for the coll, and the pass to High Shores, then down to Naylors. Naylors is a ruin now, and the current map shows the track petering out in the tussocks of Standing Stones. But there’s still a clear and well trod footway that carries on, though aiming more for the featureless summit of Redmond’s Edge.

It’s a hot day, down in the valley, with a dazzling, head-bursting sun. The sky is streaked with great fans of whispy, stratospheric clouds like white dendrites against the blue, and I’ve been photographing them with various foregrounds on the way up. There’s a cool wind on top, now, and a dusty taste to the air. The moors are ripe for burning, but so far so good, and the idiots have spared us their perennial pyromania. We’re a little later setting out, having waited in for the Tescos delivery man, so it’s getting on for tea time. The light is turning mellow, and a poem is gnawing at me, wanting me to remember it from way back.

I was crossing Spitler’s Edge,
With the sun touching the sea,
When a stranger on a dark horse,
From the distance came to me.

So I took myself aside a-ways,
To let the traveller pass,
And leaning on my staff, I paused,
Amid a sea of grass.

2002, I think. No strangers on dark horses today, though – just the occasional mountain-bike going hell for leather and with an air that suggests a supreme confidence I’ll be stepping aside for it. Although we’re in a post CROW access area, this isn’t a bridle way, so, strictly speaking, bikes have no place on the edge – walkers only. It could be worse, though. It could be motorcycles. You can’t police stuff like this, though. It relies on conscientiousness, hillcraft, and good manners.

So where was I? Standing amid a sea of grass? Okay,…

From there I watched the sky ablaze,
Above a darkening land,
Until I felt a chill and spied,
The stranger close at hand.

He stood upon the hillside,
While his horse about him grazed,
And with his eyes cast westwards,
On that same sunset he gazed,…

Yes, an old poem of mine, insisting on rhyme, at the risk of meter. It came out of an odd feeling, when crossing this way, late one evening, forty years ago. It was the antiquarian John Rawlinson, in his book “About Rivington” who wrote of the origins of the name “Spitler’s Edge,” it coming from the Knights Hospitaller’s of the Holy Order of St John, who had holdings in the district – this being in medieval times – and who, legend has it, would pass this way en route. So the guy I meet in the poem is a medieval warrior-monk. So what?

He wore a cloak of coarsest wool,
Around his shoulder’s broad,
And, across his back was slung,
I swear, the mightiest of swords.

But I did not fear the stranger,
When at length his gaze met mine,
For I knew we shared that hillside,
Across a gulf of time,…

And, speaking of time, the evening I’m thinking of was some time in the early eighties. I’d had a bad day at work, plus the realisation the girl I had the romantic hots for had the romantic hots for someone else – a colleague of mine, and a decent guy I was friendly with. So I’d driven up to Rivington, and set out to mull it over. And in mulling it over, I’d walked, and walked, and walked. Thinking about it now, I would have been better just walking home that night, which would certainly have made for a shorter walk, but I turned around and came back to Rivington over the edge, as the sun set.

It was a beautiful night, a perfect stillness across the moor, a faint mist rising after the heat of the day, and I was kept company by a long eared owl whose silent, broad winged flight was the most beautiful and eerie thing. All right, I didn’t actually meet a Knights Hospitaller, but if you believe in gaps in the fabric of space-time, that would have been an evening to encounter one. The walk did me good, cleared my head. There was no way I was going to fight over the girl, and I reckoned I had it in me to find a way of finally letting her go. As for the stranger,…

I nodded my slow greeting,
And he duly did the same,
Then he climbed upon his patient steed,
And ambled off again.

But turning back, he caught my eye,
Then slightly cocked his head,
And smiled to me a kindly smile:
“Fare thee well, pilgrim…” he said,..

Not as long a walk today, but then I’m forty years older, and I feel the miles differently. Just six miles round from the Yarrow Reservoir, to which we return with the sun sparkling upon it, and the oak trees of Parson’s Bullough, with their fresh leaves luminous against the blue. I still think about that girl from time to time. She’s still married to that guy and, in retrospect, she was always going to be happier with him, than she ever would have been with me. Sometimes it’s the ghosts, and the shadows who let us in on secrets like that, but you need a vivid imagination – a mind’s eye sort of thing – and the faith in it, even if it sometimes works backwards way, and is never any use to you at the time. Still, we get by.

Fare thee well, pilgrim, and thanks for listening.

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I wish I could remember the name of that camera shop on Pall Mall. That’s Pall Mall in Chorley, not the more famous Pall Mall, in London. It’s forty years since it closed, but I can still hear the sound of the doorbell as I enter, feel the hollow ring of the place, the scent of it, see the weird photographic contraptions on the shelves: the bellows, the enlargers, the developing kits. The guy rises to meet me, suit and tie, yellow fingers from the nicotine. He knew cameras, lived and breathed them, and he didn’t mind sharing his knowledge, even with the pocket-money teenager I was then, and who could barely afford the price of film.

My father was a frequent customer. He bought second hand equipment: cameras, developing tanks. I remember ancient box enlargers too, with fixed focal lengths and grubby lenses. The stuff was always dusty, and smelled of the cigarettes of past owners. By the time it fell into my father’s hands, it was next to junk. But he’d bring it home with a gleam in his eye, like one who had discovered treasure and was eager to share it. Thus equipped, through the haze of an already bygone era, we learned the rudiments of developing film. That’s no small feat when you’re living in a small semi, without the luxury of a dark-room. Needless to say, we improvised a lot.

Our rewards were few, but precious all the same – soft images that took ages to tease out, and which would all too often fade back into the paper again for want of fixative. I couldn’t help feeling the effort taught us little, only that we needed better kit.

I swore I would have a darkroom one day, a bees-knees enlarger, and bags of space to set out those trays of sweet smelling chemicals. But then the world changed, and I didn’t need any of it. You could do it all on your computer, even on your telephone. Nowadays, I lift the ‘phone and produce effortless images in seconds, enlarge or shrink with a swipe of the finger. I can post-process too, add any number of effects and have them beamed round the world for other eyes to see. He’d be ninety now, my father. I imagine him with an iPhone in his pocket – second hand of course – but still pushing the limits of what you could do with it.

I don’t know what we were searching for back then, what rich seam of enlightenment we’d hoped to strike. Was it something in the images we sought? But those images were like ghosts, and hard to bring out, to materialize. Or was it more about the technology, such as ours was then, I mean it being near Victorian, in an age of rockets? Sure, that might have been the thing. The world can be intimidating in its complexity if you think too wide and too deep about it. But if you can master one small part of it, you feel in some way something less than small. That’s the gist anyway. We never produced enough images to get into the mystery of them. That was another universe altogether.

My father’s best camera was an early Russian SLR, again from the dusty, cigarette scented shelves of that shop on Pall Mall. It had no doubt been cast off by a more well heeled amateur, who’d upgraded. The only mode it possessed was manual. There was no metering. We read the light with a hand-held selenium meter, and dialled it in, or more often we got a feel for what would work – aperture and shutter speed – and we trusted to luck.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. But then a timely “follow” on the blog interrupts the flow of my thoughts, and promises I can: “acquire abundance of wealth, and confidence.” Also: “Happiness, and can address change smartly, what many would observe as impossible.

This is no small claim, and bears closer scrutiny.

It goes on to tell me I can: “Feel, act and live happy, because happiness is the objective of everyone’s life.”

Well okay, feel act and live happy. Nothing wrong with that, but as an aim itself it’s somewhat simplistic, and a common enough trap for the unwary, though useful for the vendors if they can harness it to the cause of commerce at our expense. Still, I’m grateful for the interruption, for my reaction points me in the right direction, closes the arc, so to speak, and we have our conclusion.

I have some decent cameras now. But in using them, the aim, the drive hasn’t changed. It’s the same as when my father and I struggled developing film in the bathroom, half a century ago, a towel over the window and a safelight that took ages to fix up and take down again when the bathroom was required for more conventional purposes – often urgently and in the middle of timing an exposure. It’s about exploration, and the desire to understand a thing bigger than oneself, for such a thing serves as the surface proxy for another kind of quest, something archetypal, something transcendent, and internal. I glimpse it now and then in the images I’m taking, and more often by chance – the camera seeing something I do not. It’s an abundance of something, call it a wordless insight. We can reject it of course, seek instead our “health, wealth and happiness” in the material world, through material things, and become ever dissatisfied slaves to it. Or we can say yes please, more of that transcendent thing, and then the world becomes at once a place of magic, and much more the worthy objective of a man’s life.

Yes, it was a treasure trove my father shared, that dusty old kit from the camera shop on Pall Mall, but mostly it was his enthusiasm for the quest, and for the insight one could still pursue the transcendent through the symbolism of the mundane. He knew something of the nature of things, I think, and was kind enough, to pass it on.

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girl with green eyesFrom the outside, the school looked much the same, but on the inside time had left its mark. I remembered drab walls, a sort of uniform eggshell blue, but now it was all pastel shades, and the corridors, which I could still hear echoing to the sound of footsteps and sliding bags, were hushed by coordinating carpets. The classrooms were neater, brighter,… less formal, and of course there were computers everywhere.

It all seemed much smaller. I looked around, puzzled by this reduced scale. Were my other memories similarly distorted? Were those lovelorn moments, those feelings of pubescent despair, also exaggerated, blown up out of all proportion?

The metalwork lab had gone, ripped out, along with the subject to be replaced by something called “technology”. I thought I knew about technology. We had rebuilt vehicles in this room – Mini Coopers, Escorts, even a vintage Alvis, and we’d raced them at Oulton Park,… but technology now consisted of making things from cardboard and coat-hangers.

I picked up a curious contraption made of paper and flimsy dowelling. It had been crudely painted in primary colours and resembled a sort of three-dimensional Picasso.

“What does this do, then?” I asked.

“Well,” said Mr Shaw,… “It sort of flaps its wings.” And then, registering my surprise, he went on defensively: “It’s not so much the object that’s important, as the way the children set about tackling the problem.”

“Right,…” I said.

Working out how to get an engine back into a car was a problem to be tackled. This just looked like,… well,… I don’t know what it looked like, but not much, that’s for sure.

“There used to be lathes in here. And in that room over there, there were drawing boards, rows and rows of them – I got my best GCSE grade in engineering drawing – that’s what set me down the road to being an engineer, I suppose.”

Mr Shaw smiled patiently. “We stripped that lot out years ago,” he said. “It wasn’t relevant any more. We’re not in the business of raising factory fodder now. No factories anyway, are there? And good riddance too. Children deserve better than that. We see ourselves as being more in the business of turning out well-rounded adults.”

Is that what I’d been then? Factory fodder? I suppose it was true. But I’d risen to become  a designer, a professional engineer. Oh, I know the factory had used me up now and was preparing to spit me out as redundant, but it had paid me reasonably well for my trouble, paid for the mortgage on my house, paid for a newish car every four or five years. Isn’t that more what it was about: making an honest living?

We finished our tour back in the reception area, where I was left feeling like an antique. By the age of sixteen, I’d learned the rudiments of cutting metal here, and how to produce an engineering drawing to the stringent requirements of British Standards. I’d stripped a Cosworth engine down to piece-parts, de-coked it, rebuilt it and watched it powering a Ford Cortina around a race-track. But it was all irrelevant now, like me, it seemed: irrelevant, brushed away by a bright new order, crushed beneath legions of brightly coloured, useless flapping things.

“Well, thank you, Mr Shaw. I’m glad I came. It all looks very nice,… very neat,… very em,… stimulating.”

Children were traipsing by, a long procession, hundreds and hundreds of them, heading from the assembly hall to their classes. Where would they go, I wondered, when they left this place? Shaw was right. There were no factories any more to open their doors every September to swallow down the latest batch of fodder. But even well-rounded adults needed jobs, needed money to live. Perhaps more of them went on to college and university than they had done in my day, but what then? They couldn’t remain students for ever? Could they?

“I’ll be off, then,” I said, and then as an after-thought I asked him: “I don’t suppose you remember a girl called Rachel Standish, do you? Same year as me. Dark haired,….”

He shrugged, glanced at his watch. “Sorry,” he said.

“It was a long time ago.”

Sure, too much water had passed, washing away all trace of Rachel and me. The world we had prepared ourselves for had begun to change almost the moment we had walked out of the door. I wondered what she was doing now. Had she found something of more lasting relevance, or was she looking back, like me, and wondering what the hell it had all been for?

I mounted the bike and cycled off slowly. There was a familiar heaviness, like I’d always felt after another day leaving this place without hearing Rachel say those words. I didn’t know if this was good or bad, because my more recent past had been void of any feeling whatsoever. Even my divorce seemed to have left me with nothing but a kind of sickly numbness. This particular pain, of Rachel, was a quarter of a century old, but at least I felt it. It proved I was still capable of feeling something, so I gathered the pain around me and I savoured it.

I retired early that night, lay in bed, twiddling the dial on my ancient VEF radio, tuning in to the static around 208 metres Long Wave. I was straining for the sound of Radio Luxembourg, for Bob Stewart and the top forty. But there was nothing,… just impenetrable white-noise where my youth had once been. What I was contemplating was impossible of course. You can never go back.

I looked over to Rachel’s photograph, a grainy enlargement from an old form taken all those years ago.

“I want to be with you,” I said.

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bootsThe last pair of Scarpas* I bought came from a walking shop in Keswick in 1993. I had kids on the way and I was thinking if I left it any longer the budget would be shredded and a pair of Scarpas would be off the menu for the foreseeable future. They’re a decent boot, made in Italy and tend to suit a narrow foot like mine. I think I paid £80 for them, quite a lot at that time, at least relative to my mortgage-denuded salary. The shop’s gone now, an old-world place of the kind that existed in the days before outdoor gear became fashionable, high-tech, and lucrative. I remember the guy who served me wore Dalesman britches, a flat cap, and smelled strongly of Condor pipe-tobacco. He also knew his stuff and I often wonder at what point in our near-past such people became extinct, and why.

It used to be that only scouts and ramblers took an interest in rain-proofs and boots and Dubbin, climbers too of course, but they were always a special breed who got their gear from places where fussing over the colour of your pants would get you thrown out. My, how times have changed!

boots2I had twenty years out of those Scarpas, walked much of the Lakes and the Dales in them. I recall they took a bit of breaking in but proved reliable and surefooted thereafter and in all kinds of weather. When they finally succumbed to the ravages of time, I bought a different, well known brand, not a cheap boot by any means but, whilst robust and comfy from the word go, they proved alarmingly slippery on rock. I persevered with them off and on at the expense of some confidence in the fells and in the end felt more secure in cheaper boots, though they tend to last only a few years, before opening up to the elements. And since my current pair of budget boots succumbed and let water in as I was fording Malham Beck, last weekend,… well,…

It was perhaps a touch of both nostalgia for those surer times that sent me out in search of another pair of Scarpas. I found them on the high-street, in what I prefer to call a hiker’s boutique. The guy selling them had no idea what they were, but when I slid my feet into them, the boots smiled and said, “Oh yes, we’re the ones for you.” So I paid the man – double what I paid in ’93.

The shop was replete with fantastically patterned high-tech fabrics, stuff I could never have for shame worn in the hills, including jackets costing £300 I’d be frightened of getting grubby, also bit and bobs of superfluous hardware I struggled to find the point of lugging. Conversely, of the more pragmatic and essential maps and compasses there were none. (we should never rely on a smartphone for map and compass).

The man offered me a discount if I signed up to a card that would have cost me £5 a year. This is a new concept  – they hook into your bank account, harvest your spending habits so they might target you with sinisterly apposite marketing, and charge you for the privilege. I declined their generosity then left with my Scarpas, feeling I had rescued them from perdition. I hope we get on well and they’re kind to me. Indeed, if I get twenty years out of them, like I did the last pair, I’ll be eighty and well pleased on account of both the boots and me having made it that far. I’ll be sure to report back here if we make it.

Oh, I know,… I have the sense of spending my whole life living out of time, and I’m never sure if it’s me who needs to catch up with the world or the other way around. But what really matters is that when we tie our boots on, we forget what the world’s up to for a while. They carry us into the hills and provide for us a secure footing so we might return safely and feeling all the better for the experience of having seen the world from a transcendent perspective, one far removed from the everyday where the nitty-gritty simply gets in your eye and stops you from seeing things as clearly as you otherwise might.

*Other boot brands are available, and Scarpa didn’t pay me to write this, though I am open to offers.

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the night sky
Night sky, Panasonic Lumix LX100 F1.7, 1 sec, 1600 ASA
It was probably winter when my father first showed me the bear. I would have been about nine, confused already, dazed by the world and feeling secure only in his company. I remember a winter sky, cold and black, the stars iced-white and my breath fogging the eyepieces of the Russian 8×24’s that were his pride and joy – though cheap as chips back then, the poor old Soviets already selling their souls for dollars amid a collapsing economy.

Prior to that his night-sky explorations had been aided by a pair of British-army cast-offs, circa 1912. I still have them, the stout leather case still smelling like new, but they were only marginally better than the naked eye. I don’t know what happened to those Russian bins. I think they got dropped, the prisms dislodged to produce a disconcerting double vision, and then my father died, and the night-sky didn’t seem important any more, not for a long time.

“You see that star there,” he said. “That’s Mizar. It forms a double with another star called Alcor. Do you see them both?”

Yes, I could indeed see both in those days, but that was half a century ago, fresh eyes, fresh mind, fresh soul.

“The Arabs used to say if you can see both,” he said, “if you can separate them, you have the gift of perfect eyesight.”

Really? That cheered me. I don’t think he realised how much. In father-son relationships, the smallest things can mean the most.

Nowadays, even with spectacles, and the optician assuring me I’m 20-20 when I’m wearing them, I can’t separate Alcor and Mizar any more. Eyesight is more than perfect lenses. It has to do with the mind as much as matter, and there’s something about that old Blakean thing about seeing through, not with the eye as well. But I do remember their names: Alcor and Mizar.

Now I’m sitting out in the back garden of my home in the rural north west of England, on a crazily warm, late September night. It must be twenty degrees still, and the sky is a soft midnight-blue, the air infinitely more inviting than those freezing stargazing nights with my father, back in the sixties. I am resting on a bench in shirt-sleeves, after a long day in the sun, and as the stars come out, I am thinking about him.

There’s a bright star directly overhead. I wonder what it is, point my phone at it and, via the Star Walk app, I learn it is Vega. Just like that! Marvellous isn’t it? I’ve heard of Vega, but try as I might it does not fit into the patterns I have fixed in my mind, patterns like the Bear and Cassiopea, and the Square of Pegasus and from Pegasus that simple route-map to Andromeda which still astonishes – that softly defined spiral that grows as the eye adjusts to darkness until it seems to fill half the sky and you wonder how on earth did I miss that: another whole galaxy, so many stars it blows the mind, and surely also so many lives,… out there.

No, try as I might I cannot separate Alcor from Mizar any more, except through binoculars – not those 1912 vintage things, though I suppose they would do, but a pair of Chinese 10×42’s off Ebay, product of another era, another quirk of the global economy. Such a long time since the British made binoculars. Such a long time since we actually made anything.

The Rider, that’s what he called Alcor,… the Rider. One star riding upon another, as a man rides upon a horse,…

My father was an autodidact, self taught to a prodigious degree and in many disciplines, a collector of disparate technical knowledge, everything from electronics to geology to archaeology and ancient astronomy. His energy and enthusiasm had carried him from the coal face of the NCB to colliery deputy, about as far as a working man could aspire in those days, and much further than it would carry him now. But more than that, it always impressed me that other boy’s fathers did not know the names of stars, indeed barely ever glanced upwards on a clear night and wondered. But when my father saw the stars, he did not see them as an astronomer, aching to have the next comet named after him, but more as an early human might at the dawn of our most fundamental awakening, and simply wondering at his place in the world.

Betelgeuse – that’s the reddish star in the shoulder of Orion. Orion isn’t up tonight – he’s a winter constellation in western Europe, frosty nights and all that, and the deeper into winter you go he’s trailing the bright sparkly dog-star, Sirius – more names my father gave me, names with vivid pictures; the magic of myth. How neatly, how perfectly it all fits the contours of the mind. I still look for those names in the night sky, gain my bearings from them, my place in time.

Vega, was it? That star up there. So the app said, but it comes without a story, slips free from memory. I could look for it tomorrow but I’ve already forgotten its place in the sky. Technology advances, grants such a narrow window on the marvellous, but without the human element, the imagination, the story, these are dead things.

My garden is a wonderful place at night, spacious, lush green lawn, and unlike the place where I grew up, not overlooked, no neighbours wondering what the hell we were up to, lurking about in the dark with binoculars. He would have loved it here, my father. He would have built a shed in it with an articulating roof to house a reflecting telescope. I smile when I imagine it. In its place I have a cabin where I sometimes write and explore the stars another way. But not tonight. Tonight I have lanterns hung out on hooks to stretch out this last gasp of summer, an Indian summer’s night, and since I am otherwise alone, I have the company of my father.

We’re not far from the equinox, he reminds me. That’s where the ecliptic plane intersects the horizon due east and west, spring and autumn, the line on which the Sun and the Moon and now the planets are strung out one by one and sink west, into tomorrow. Due west for me is an old oak tree, across the meadow that backs onto the garden. It was probably just a sapling when Newton was a lad. So much learning since then. It was his laws of motions that navigated men to the moon, and by that time the tree was old. I don’t know what it means, if anything.

There’s a star or something, just about to dip behind the tree.

“Neptune,” says my father.

Well, I don’t know. It might be. It’s a planet, that’s all I can say for sure, and I know that because he taught me you can resolve planets to a disk through binoculars, while stars are so far away – at least they were back in the sixties – that you could only make twinkly points of light of them even through the most powerful optics known to man.

I point my phone at it. “Yea, Neptune.”

“That’s amazing,” he says.

“Not really,” I tell him. “You used to explain it a lot better, tell it as a story, then it actually meant something.”

Tonight I’m no longer much, much older than he was when he told me these things. I’m not a man with a house and grown children, and forty years of work behind me, years of my life he never knew about. I’m just a kid, staring up at the night sky as it deepens and the stars twinkle softly, and I am looking at the Bear once more, with my father.

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tmp_2019020318023776334.jpgThe bothy was built of stone, all randomly coursed, with a chimney and a neatly pitched, though slightly sagging slate roof. The door and windows were in good order, the woodwork showing a recent lick of green paint. It stood a little inland, but still within sight and sound of the sea. At its back rose the darkening profile of the mountain, though the precise shape of it was as yet only to be guessed at, it being capped by a lazy smudge of grey clag that wasn’t for budging, not today anyway.

It was the thing they all came here to climb, a multitude of guide books singing its praises, but I was only interested in it as background. Maybe tomorrow I’d get a better view of it.

It had been a few hour’s walk from the road, where I’d left the car, and a lonely stretch of road at that, five miles of single track from the cluster of little houses down by the harbour, this being the only settlement on the island. Then it was a mile of choppy blue in a Calmac ferry to the mainland, and a region of the UK with a population density as near to zero as made no difference.

It had been a shepherd’s hut I think, a neat little place kept going by the estate, a lone splash of succour in an otherwise overwhelming wilderness, a place that, even then, centuries after the clearances, still spoke of an awful emptiness and a weeping. It’s a scene that remains in my mind fresh as ever, and I have to remind myself this was the summer of  ’87, that an entire generation has come and gone since then who have never seen or known such stillness. But time stands still whenever I think of it. I’ve only to close my eyes and I’m there.

It was clean and dry inside, just the one small room, some hooks for wet kit, a shovel for the latrine, a rough shelf of fragile paperbacks. The floor was swept, a little stack of wood and newspapers by the fireplace, a half used sack of coal, and there was a pair of simple bunks, one either side of the fireplace. As bothies went this was small but relatively luxurious.

I lit the fire and settled in. It was late afternoon, June, cold and blowing for rain – typical enough for the western highlands that time of year.

There were only about a hundred bothies in the whole of Britain, all of them in lonely places, and I’d set myself the task of photographing every one. Don’t ask me why. It wasn’t like I was going to write a book, or pitch a feature to the National Geographic or anything. I’d tried all that, and was already waking up to the somewhat sobering conclusion I was irrelevant in what had become an increasingly hedonistic decade. This  wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because all of that was looking set to burst any day now, and many of us were braced for it, wondering what the hell was coming next.

I’d just turned twenty six, and if I’d learned anything of use by then it was this: establishing a purpose in life was everything to a man, whether that purpose seem big or small to him, or to others, it didn’t matter, and we all get to choose, but here’s the thing: the best choices always seem to run counter to the Zeitgeist, and it’s that problem, that paradox and how we deal with it that writes the story of our lives.

Me? I’d chosen this.

I always shot the land in monochrome because I had a notion you saw more in black and white. I used an old  OM10 with a Zuiko prime lens, still do in fact. But the camera was just an excuse really, like a magnifying glass you use to get a closer look at a thing. I didn’t know what I was looking for exactly, still don’t really, but I’ve a feeling I was closer to it then than I am now, sitting here in 2019, over thirty years later. Now, I’ve no idea where I am, feel lost in time, actually, and finding it harder every day to convince myself I exist at all.

Anyway, I’d gone out and I was squeezing off some shots of the bothy against a grey sea, just playing with compositions and line for the better weather I’d hoped would be on the morrow. And quite suddenly, was so often the way there, the clouds tore open a hole, loosing from the eternal gold beyond stray javelins of what I’d hoped was a revelatory light, touching down upon the water as if to illuminate the very thing I sought. It was all very dramatic,…

And that’s when I saw her.

 

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olad-aviaSo, seventy five years from now no one will be interested in the date of manufacture of my first generation iPad. Even I don’t remember. 2010, perhaps? All I know for sure is I’d only had it six months and it was already obsolete. Such is the march of consumerism. I still use it though, resisting the inevitable upgrade because like most people I’ve less money now in real terms than I had when I bought it.

But if it still works, why worry about it?

Shame on me. This is not the spirit of consumerism.

Perhaps the internet will preserve the history of my iPad for posterity. Who knows? That’s more than can be said for the AVIA watch company, its history being something of a blur – no one seeming to have considered it worth the writing down. Like the iPad, they shelled their watches out like peas, entirely in accordance with the bean counter’s credo  that making things has never meant a damn beyond the selling of them.

But I’m an engineer, not a bean counter. I make things and I like making things, and I’m interested in the history of making things, and how things were and are and will be made. And I like AVIA watches, but don’t ask me why. They were a quality Swiss manufacture, the designs possessed of a certain nostalgic elegance that appeals to me. I’ve no idea what my first gen iPad will be worth in seventy five years, but a seventy five year old Avia wrist watch is worth,.. well, it varies, but I just paid £12 for this one, which is next to bugger all.

It still runs, just about, but cleaning and oiling will have it back on form. As for the rest of it,.. well,.. it looks knackered to be honest. The case is very worn, the gold plating rubbed through to the brass, and the face,… well,… let’s just say it’s suffered from a long term overexposure to damp. Clean it up all you like, this old watch is never going to look like new.

I’ve seen pictures of Patek Phillipes, Omegas, Rolexes, all with crusty dials – they call it patina on watches like that, aspirational watches, but on an old consumer grade AVIA, well it’s just junk, isn’t it? Sure – with a bit of patience, I can get it telling time as if it were new – get it going for another seventy five years. But who cares about that? Patina’s only worth it on a watch worth ten grand, and in the eyes of the pillock who’s prepared to afford it. To anyone with less money and a damn sight more common sense it’s just going to look,… well,… knackered, and why don’t you go and by yourself a new watch?

So, maybe I should just have my fun, learn a bit more about what makes old tickers tick, then chuck this worthless old junker away.

What’s that? Sell it back on Ebay?

Why should I? If I’m more honest than the original seller who sold it to me (nice condition, running a bit fast), it’s hardly going to make much of a profit, is it? (Old AVIA, generally knackered in appearance, but keeps good time.)

A fiver?

I asked this question on Instagram. My thanks to @grandadbeard for the reply. If it still works you shouldn’t throw it away. You should use it. But I have several dozen watches, some of them much older  and all of them a damn sight better looking than this one. I’ll never wear it, never use it.

But someone will.

It’s come a long way since those first nimble fingers put it together. Maybe in another 75 years it’ll be more valued than it is now. I sense the responsibility, reach cautiously for the screwdriver.

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greenbelt

My walk home from school was more pleasant than my walk to it. The meadows were darker on the way there, more restless and brooding, but brighter, greener, fresher on the way back. Thus the land reflects emotion, amplifies it, responds to imagination. To know the land for long enough is to have it become a part of who we are, mirror to our mood. To know buildings is not the same. It is only in the land the spirit of place can dwell, and when the land is gone, covered over with the built environment, the spirit dies.

There was a little brook by the roadside where we used to stop on the way home from school. I remember it as a dappled oasis, a stream full of little stars and reward aplenty for the indignities suffered during the school day. I remember too the faces of my pals, hear the echo of their voices, feel the mood of joyous play.

The brook has gone now. It was a nuisance to grown-ups, and is diverted through a culvert, buried beneath the entrance to a housing estate, as indeed every meadow along that mile long route to school is similarly built upon, the spirit of place expunged by “development”.

In similar vein my childhood bedroom looked out over the green of the Yarrow Valley, a place of quiet contemplation and leafy walks, to which I am still regularly drawn. To lose oneself in the quiet of a moving meditation is to envision the land with a magic others cannot see or feel. The romanticism of past ages touched me there, rendered me sensitive to dimensions beyond sight and ordinary knowing, and it’s to that place I owe my writing. But like my little stream of stars, there are rumours it too will soon be gone. Others say the rumours are false, but I’m unsettled by them all the same, grown cynical and lacking trust in my old age. Housing has encroached so much in past decades, it seems a natural progression for them to take what little remains here. 

I remember coming up from the river once, crossing a particularly lovely stretch of meadow. I was brooding on a girl I knew – or rather a girl I wanted very much to know. It was a glowering dusk, and against the skyline there was a huge, wind-blasted tree, sculpted by centuries of leaning against the prevailing wind, and there was the gentle curve of a hill, very feminine in outline, and a hint of thunder in a hot wind that rendered the leaves restless – all of this a perfect mirror for my mood. The meadow too was dewy, my footsteps forming a lone trail, lightly drawn as if upon a silvery veil, reflecting the fragility of the moment. It was such a long time ago, but whenever I return I am reminded of that night, the way my imagination connected, and how the land spoke.

Today that same perfect curve of skyline is broken by the jackknifed outline of houses, and there are these possibly pernicious rumours that speak of ripping up the meadow, as the houses move yet further south into this still glorious belt of green. I have watched the inexorable march year on year with a mixture of profound regret and puzzlement. Can it really be that, like my childhood stream of stars, it will be gone? And why do so few of us value it so much, when others value it so little they can blithely trade it on the market and dig it up.

Developers talk of greenbelt as if its preservation is an encumbrance, a distraction from the target to build and monetise an otherwise unproductive resource. But uninterrupted green is important too, its value intangible of course, at least in terms of pounds and pence, and if all we have left is a quarter mile belt around our towns, sufficient only as a place we take our dogs to defecate, we have already lost too much.

Of course there can be no permanence in the material world. All things must change; we all grow old and die, and sometimes the storms will come and fell the mighty oak, known and loved by generations. Likewise our footsteps, traced across the dewy meadow, will be gone by morning, lost to a new dawn. But let them be dissolved by sunlight, taken back into the eternal memory that is the spirit of the land, not obliterated by the ignominy of several thousand tons of brick and concrete.

 

 

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The process of forgetting is sometimes more a matter of adaptation to circumstances than mental decay. There are things I have taken great pleasure in, but which I no longer indulge, and have largely forgotten. Adaptation is the only reason I can come up with for such self denial. Anything else makes no sense at all, and mostly what I tell myself I’m adapting to is lack of time.

Listening to this opening piece (Bach’s Lute Prelude, BWV 1006) by the guitarist John Williams, I’m reminded how much the guitar once meant to me – the colours, the tones, the varied and emotive pacing. The expression here literally catches my breath and brings tears to my eyes, but then the classical guitar was once my greatest love. I was a student of the guitar for many years, but the time to practice became progressively beyond my means as life and work matured into the routine of decades. It is a pleasure I have largely forgotten now.

I never aspired to mastery of this particular piece, though I once made a good fist of Bach’s technically easier Lute Prelude, BWV 999, after hearing it played by Narcisso Yepes on his stupendous ten stringed guitar. I no longer have that recording. I wore the original vinyl out and have searched everywhere for it to no avail. But here it is in the hands of  another master, Julian Bream (a quaintly staged recording from 1962):

It took me a year of practice to grasp even the fundamentals of this piece. There were moments when I fancied I sounded not unlike Bream, or Yepes, but mostly I would fumble my way like any third rank amateur. I only played it fluently the whole way through, once. It was a defining moment, a moment of great satisfaction. I would have been around forty years old. It was about then the process of forgetting set in.

I began my studentship at the age of six with a cheap junior guitar of dubious manufacture, and from then to the age of fourteen learned only how to make a noise with it. The guitar is a difficult instrument and not everyone has the fingers for it, but I loved it for its difficulty, that an instrument of such size and apparent simplicity in construction could enable such beauty in tone and expression. To listen to a piece of classical guitar, is to experience not just the one voice, as with a solo violin, it is to experience an entire ensemble. My love of music is owed to the classical guitar. Here, it says – this is what music can do to you, now go and see what else you can find.

At the age of fourteen, I received my second instrument, a lovely Japanese Moridaria, purchased cheaply from the girl next door, who had given up on it. With this guitar I began to find more harmony around chord improvisation, also some beginners tunes with the help of books. My fingering was nimble enough and quick, but I lacked a good teacher to take me where I wanted to go.

I had been advised by now, however, music was not my forte, at least according to my school music teacher – a miserable, shouty grouch of a man. Intellectually then, music remained an inaccessible mistress, locked away under his tutelage – indeed it was no more than a source of weekly terror. Privately though, and perhaps bloody mindedly, I persevered with the guitar because it was romantic, and I had in mind it would be a sure way to impress a certain girl, should I ever get close enough to her, and have my guitar handy. Oh, the optimism of youth!

I would take lessons, of course, one day, but for now other studies were pressing, squeezing out the time I needed for such an indulgence. As soon as my O Levels were out of the way, as soon as I had done my HNC, my HND, as soon as the nerve shredding years of the Engineering Council Examinations were over – then,… yes, then I would take time to devote to the study of something I loved, rather than something I merely needed.

But by this time I was twenty five, and that’s too late to be doing anything serious with the guitar. I made a start anyway, took myself and my old Moridaria to an evening class, and there met LW, a teacher who was a classical guitarist of mesmerising skill and exquisite tone. She was also of a much sweeter disposition and considerably better looking than my old school music teacher. I signed up with her for private lessons, and discovered music was my forte after all. I had the ear she said, and the rest was just practice. So, I bought another guitar, a serious instrument for a beginner – a Cuenca, from the region of Castilla-La-Mancha in central Spain. It has a beautiful, rich tone,… and between it and my teacher, at last I became a proper student of music!

Thanks to her I could read by now and, with persistence, could work through the beginner’s repertoires of Sor , Giuliani, Dowland, and the collected Estudios of Segovia. I once heard Segovia’s Estudio number 5 – actually Sor Op 35 No 22 – played in the precinct of my local town, a hairy guy in a trench-coat, playing with the power of a God and the expression of an angel. Of all the buskers that day, he was the only one turning heads, and this a northern working class market town, on its late 80’s  uppers.

I paused to listen, felt different for the experience, felt inspired. My teacher added that piece to my repertoire, bless her, and it remains among my favourites. But the lessons petered out. My teacher and I were by now engaged to be married,… to other people. Her teaching was replaced by babies, my studentship by the slow erosion of the mundane. I have not seen her in a quarter of a century, but have only to close my eyes to hear her play.

I persevered in private, trying to maintain fluency in those pieces I knew, but without time, without practice, first the fluency, then the shape memory falls apart. Few pieces remain now. I still have the guitar, still treasure it as a symbol, a talisman, but it gathers dust. It’s years since I had the courage to pick it up and relive those days.

I would never have been able to play like Williams, or Bream, or Yepes, or my own teacher – was never even competent to play for an audience of family or friends, nor yet still that particular young lady, had I ever been granted the opportunity – the music would go, robbed by self consciousness.

I close with Julian Bream and another transcription from Bach:

Listening to Bream, I think my favourite among all the greats, I am reminded the masters are there, not to be copied, or lived up to in the competitive sense. They possess something most of us do not, a divine gift to which few can ever aspire. But what they do is grant the rest of us the inspiration, that such beauty is still within the scope of human expression, that so long as some of us at least are capable of attaining such sublime heights as these, there is sufficient hope and meaning in life that, even amid its darkest of days, makes it worth the carrying on.

One day I shall dust off the guitar, and see what I remember of it.

One day, when I find the time.

Meanwhile my thanks to John Williams, to Julian Bream, to Narcisso Yepes, for their their mastery, and their continuing inspiration, and to LW for her life changing tutelage, brief though it was.

I can only hope her guitar is not as dusty as mine.

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