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suliven2

Suliven, Sutherland, UK

I still think of Suliven. It’s a mountain to be seen with one’s own eyes before it can be adequately believed in. I saw it thirty years ago, had the passion for it then, but no realistic opportunity of getting my boots on it. My companions possessed no mountain form, and were only kind enough to humour my obsession sufficient to allow me time to get within visual range.

We had driven from Ullapool after a sojourn on the edge of the midnight sun, then north, to Sutherland and the little harbour town of Lochinver. There, I walked inland, along a narrow scrap of road and I gazed at Suliven, confirming to my satisfaction the reality of its remarkable existence. Then I had to dive out of the way as a pick-up truck came at me, clipped me with its cab mirror. The mirror broke, but I was unhurt, spared injury by my aluminium water bottle which took the hit for me, bearing ever afterwards an impressive dent.

The truck didn’t stop.

I’m certain, in the long ago, Romantics were not a target for extermination. There were no guardian trolls tearing up Wordsworth’s first in-situ drafts of Daffodils by Ullswater’s choppy shores, nor hunting him down atop Helvellyn with their fowling pieces while he sought only to settle for inspiration. Perhaps he had better protection, contracted out among the fates by his formidable muse. Anyway, thus it was, and with a certain ignominy, I left Lochinver without so much as breaking bread. I returned south then, to several decades of the whirlwind of life and did not return.

I do not lament our estrangement.

Suliven exists for me still as part of a tangible reality, a phenomenon to which I have borne witness, yet also as something on the edge of perception, therefore inhabiting a liminal zone, one to which I am forbidden entry as a mortal. And all things are relative: for the inhabitants of Lochinver, to say nothing of mad bastards in pick-up trucks, Suliven is as ubiquitous as the wind and the mist, and the rain and the bog, to say nothing of the sheep ticks that infest those wastes, and whose parasitic presence is difficult to interpret metaphorically in any way other than negative.

The far-away then is no guarantor of wise teaching and, since the landscape of myth is always viewed in part, through the eye of imagination, my own hills have had as much to say over the years as I imagined Suliven might back then. It’s all a question of interpretation.

To experience myth is to walk the path in company with, and under the protection of the faery, or the Gods, however you like to phrase it. One visits the territory, the village, the town, the safe valley of human habitation, a place that is never-the-less inspired by the transcendent vista of the hill beyond the last farm gate. The hill is Olympus rising assertively above the mundane. One fetches up in the vale, contemplates the hill from afar, measures ones mortality in the presentation of light and shadow on its flank. Then we climb and experience the path as it unfolds, interpret the course and the discourse of the hill before returning, footsore, then to be restored at the well-spring of human hospitality,…

To tea and crumpets.

But I’m talking of another hill, now, way, way south of the Norseman’s Sutherland. I’m talking of Ingleborough, in fact, in the Yorkshire Dales, and of the homely little village of Clapham where those crumpets were so aromatic after a day on the hill, they were surely delivered from the ovens of a divine refectory. I exaggerate of course, as is my wont, fashioning a moody purple from the clear blue of a benign autumn sky, and the scent of a crumpet – oh, but they were sweet and aromatic! Also, so far as I’m aware, there is no Faery-lore in the Dales, but as a mixed descendent of the Irish Celt, and of the British Setantii (according to Ptolemy),… I find the shee tend to travel with me.

Ingleborough has been a good friend over the years, and like all good friends it’s never afraid to give me a good talking to. Not long ago, amid a ferociously inclement turn of weather, it tested every step of my wobbly ascent, then tipped me over a good mile from the top and said: you’re losing it, mate. You’re no longer that twenty five year old who beheld Suliven and dared to dream of climbing it. I’d let my fitness slip below the level of aspiration. All hills worth their salt are the same in this regard, demanding of the pilgrim a certain circumspection for their ardours.

So I’ve been working on it.

The older you get, the greater prize the hills will promise you, but the harder you have to work at it. Today I climbed Ingleborough again. It was a clear day, a warm day – no horizontal rain this time – and the hill was glad to receive me without much persuasion. And there, by the summit mound, I settled to make libation to the gods with Vimto and Kitkat, while a large family – grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren, settled beside me in pointy party hats to celebrate a birthday, with cake! Well, this is Yorkshire after all, and anything can happen, though it must be said, in my experience, unexpected happenings in Yorkshire tend to be positive ones.

I do still think of Suliven, but to be honest, you can keep it. I’m certainly in no hurry to return. I’ve plenty of hills to call my own. Ingleborough’s just one of them, and not a single troll in a pick-up truck to hit and run me down.

Or maybe these days I just have better protection.

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Hartsop old wayThursday evening, came home from work early. Long weekend in the offing, glad to have nailed it after a pig of a week. Walked in, looking forward to savouring every moment, only to find my Broadband router showing a stack of red lights instead of the usual blue. Everyone is glum. No internet. Looks like a call to BT, except I need to go on-line to get the number.

Ah,… right.

So I burn a few precious minutes of 3G data on my phone. Number in hand I call the help-line. I’m connected to India in a matter of seconds. I’m half an hour on the line, and across five thousand miles they’re testing my line, testing the router. What a marvellous thing it is we have invented, this global computer. Or is it?

What devices do I hook up to, sir? Couple of laptops, several tablet devices, iPods, phones, a couple of  Playstations,… I realise the list is endless, and this surprises me. My entire life has moved on-line.

Test results inconclusive! They need to send an engineer to poke about with a screwdriver, to tug at the wires, to test the physicality  of my connection. How about next Tuesday? What? That’s nearly a week! How am I supposed to manage a week without internet? I don’t say this to the guy in India of course – he’s doing his best. My heart quaking, I just say okay.

There’s a pall of silence when I end the call. Tuesday? We’ll have to manage until Tuesday! We are a family of four, and I am not alone in my total dependence on the world wide web for passing the time, for entertainment, for education, for news, for pseudo-nourishment, for information,…

When did this happen? At what point did so much of my life begin pointing in at this window? When did so much of my life become aimed at shaping an imaginary world online, of adding to to the info-glut of words and pictures and video, writing a blog, writing fiction, playing MYST? Dammit, I’d been looking forward to chilling out for a couple of days doing nothing but playing MYST!

So,… nothing for it then. No Internet. For days and days and days.

What now?

Well, what did I used to do? Sits down to think? Write! There was always the writing, sure and most of that ending up double spaced on A4, either in the post or in my bottom drawer when I’d given up on it. I used to draw too, and paint,… I used to read – and I mean PAPER books.

So I pick up a PAPER book I’ve had since it came out in 2012 – Macfarlane’s “The Old Ways”. I’d begun the book enthusiastically, but left off a few chapters in, not because I found the book dull, but because my head is always being lured back inside the online world. And the lure is strong. But in the space of a few minutes I reconnected with the book as Macfarlane took me a walk along the Broomway, off the coast of Essex. Then he took me up to the Western Isles, to Harris, then a sail into the Atlantic in an ancient open sailboat, to a tiny speck of the British Isles that doesn’t always make it onto the maps – North Rona. This is a voyage with a salty crew who know their way around the old sea roads. I spend a night on an uninhabited island in the Minch, belly warmed by good company and fiery malt, and I meet characters who still speak the stories of place, of physical places, places I touched once, a quarter century ago when I passed this way myself and which lit up my life in ways unexpected.

A few summers and a lifetime of memory.

And I remembered my old novel, the pre internet “Singing Loch”, which was about how I felt the land die whenever the old stories were lost, ripped up, forgotten, concreted over, and how the world descended then into a kind of grey. I remember how I’d once burned with the lust of the old ways, and believed with all my heart it was important we kept a spiritual tryst with the land. Then I remembered the books of Patrick Harpur, and again the tales from the mysterious north, the lore of the Norse and the Celt, of the spirits of place and of the mysterious Shee, whom only the Irish, full blood or part descended have the eye to see. And all of this is important because, although the stories are in our minds, we meet them in the land, because the land is where we are supposed to be, and when we honour it on bended knee, the spirit of it comes to guide our way.

And then I’m looking at my father’s old maps – crumbly and curly now – Ordnance Surveys of the West Pennine Moors, six inches to the mile, mapped in the 1840’s. There are marks on the map, old ways we once walked together, and the broad arrow benchmarks we came upon upon chiselled in stone by the sapper men upon the peaty moor – days of mist when the whole world was a figment of imagination, and summer days when the larks were aloft and time stood still.

And then, as I slept the shee were whispering in my ear what I knew already, that the Broadband Router is fried, and that’s all a week’s wait for the BT guy will tell me. Inscrutable race, the Shee – wise, curious, sometimes mischievous, sometimes helpful even in their misdirection. So then I’m off to Tesco at dawn break for a new router. £50 and I’m plugging it in. Blue light is on, and we’re back online,…

But I’m not sure this is a good thing any more. Maps, books,… memories of walks, of the old ways, set aside, forgotten again. For a moment last night, the spirit of the old days, the old ways crept back in at the door, and Shee had begun to look over my shoulder, guide my hand, my heart, my mind,…

But there are no spirits of place in here, no old ways to be explored. It is a place where the Shee do not venture for old things are like as not simply deleted. There is no archaeology on the Internet, no myth, no folklore. It is a dead place! What do they mean opening this portal again and pushing me back in? I write this piece after playing MYST till my eyes bleed. I tag, I click, I post,…

What is the internet for?

And is it friend of foe?


					

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