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Posts Tagged ‘winter’

It beggars belief, but yesterday’s domestic news was dominated by our recently ousted PM’s unsubtly trailed and somewhat premature angling for a comeback. In her forty-day tenure – the shortest serving PM in history – she crashed the markets, wiped billions off investments, stunted the growth of defined benefit pensions for millions of workers, and ruined the UK’s reputation for sound financial governance. But, she writes, it was not her fault. She was badly advised. And worse, there are those within the now bitter dregs of her party who think she’s right. My heart sinks, says the leader of the opposition. Mine too, mate.

Then, political journalist, Andrew Marr, now released from the constraints of corporate news media, has been more frank and informative in his analysis of world events of late. Rumours of an early end to the war in Ukraine are premature, he says – though I must admit I had not heard any such rumours – and we should be prepared for it to go on for another five or ten years. This will cast a dark shadow over European – indeed world – affairs throughout the 20’s. But the UK is particularly exposed, it being now the worst performing of the western nations, including Russia, with stagnant growth and levels of entrenched inequality that are quite staggering. You are better off being poor virtually anywhere else in the world, than in the UK. We must expect energy and food prices to remain high, for a long time.

All of this paints a bleak picture, one that is in contrast to the positive vibes of the morning, with clear skies and the frost still lying across the meadows. We leave the car on Dole Lane at Abbey Village, and walk down to the Hare and Hounds, then strike out along the right of way whose signage does its best to say it is not a right of way, but access only to a private residence. But a right of way it is, and has been forever, so off we go.

Just a short walk today, more of a dog waking circuit for Abbey residents, and incomers like me, around the lower reservoirs, and the Roddlesworth plantations. We have no dog, but there is no shortage of yappy canine accompaniment, and our trousers are soon muddied by an over-friendly, jumpy creature, who gets a telling off by a scold-faced woman. I am ready to wave away her apology, but do not get one. Most people we meet are open and friendly, but we tend only to mark the ones who are not.

We’re planning a bigger walk in the Forest of Bowland for later in the week, when the weather is looking iffy, but today, being such a good day, it was a pity to waste it indoors, so here we are, but not wanting to wear our legs out for the upcoming epic. We have time to linger over familiar ways, to take photographs, and to ponder world affairs. As we move from winter’s dark into the first hints of post Imbolc light, and the snowdrops begin to show, there is the feeling of a weight lifted, of an optimism returning. The media, however, have other ideas and would sooner scotch all hope before it has the chance to bud.

I have the long lens today, not the obvious choice for woodland photography, but I’m looking for details in isolation with blurry backgrounds. The obvious targets are the lone juvenile copper birches, holding onto their leaves, and rising into shafts of sunlight against a backdrop of fuzzed out darker woodland. I’ve a feeling it’s a cliché, but I’m not selling photographs, so it doesn’t matter. There’s something in them that’s worth a moment of contemplation, anyway. The branches have poise, like a dancer, expressive of,… well,… something.

The big international news of course is this devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria. Over 5000 souls are known to be lost, so far. It’s an unimaginable and sudden tragedy that puts our European troubles into perspective. It’s also worth remembering, however, that a study by the University of Glasgow concludes we lost 335,000 souls, across the home nations, between 2012 and 2019, due to poverty alone, as caused by political austerity a fact the media seems curiously reticent about. But to dwell on these things, says our redoubtable chancellor, is to talk Britain down.

On the middle reservoir, the fly-fishermen have pulled their boats in for the winter, so the cormorants are perched instead on the mooring buoys. Patient birds, they share the character of vultures in their Victorian funeral feathers. We are also befriended by a robin which hops onto a post within arm’s reach, and eyes us cheekily. He bobs about there for ages, so enchanting we forget about the camera, and as soon as we do remember it and try to get focus, he’s gone.

Then we meet a bunch of guys we used to work with, the entire department actually, all retired, but still keeping in touch and meeting up for regular walks. It was a tonic to see them looking so hale and hearty. The chancellor scowls and tells us we are part of the problem, we, the early retired, and economically inactive, and should get back to work, along with the sick and disabled, fill in all those vacancies left by our European friends who went home post BREXIT. But the taxman still collects his dues from us, which is more than can be said for certain members of the cabinet. He will have a tough job coaxing us back into the office, should we even be wanted, which I am sure by now we are not.

We have in common our freedom from the constraints of those things we cannot alter, like the clocking machine for a start, and the daily deluge of bullshit emails. We have the freedom to focus on those things that are within our remit: to stay at home and write, do a bit of DIY, tidy the garden, come out for a walk, explore an unfamiliar part of the country, choose which lens to bring with the camera. These are small things for sure, but important all the same, if not as things in themselves, then as vehicles for exploring the deeper self. But even granted such freedom, we risk ignoring it, to go fretting instead over those things we cannot change, like what further madness the chancellor and his swivel eyed colleagues might be planning next. How about scrapping all environmental, food, employment and animal welfare standards? And making it illegal to go on strike.

I have begun a new story, about a man living alone on a remote Scottish island. He finds a humanoid robot of the type they are now developing, and hyping to a ridiculous extent, washed up on the beach. I take all the frankly improbable tech utopian projections, and bestow them in spades upon my fictional bot. It wakes up and proves itself both intelligent and an astonishingly capable companion, as well as gorgeously female in appearance. In what ways does it alter the man’s outlook on his own life?

Artificial Intelligence is a hot topic, but even as a romantic with an increasingly non-dualist perspective, I hesitate to make fun of it. It is a thing to be reckoned with and, if the impact of the Internet is anything to go by, it will render the near future unrecognisable, and in ways that are not predictable and not entirely benign either. Again, this is something we have no control over, but at least as a writer I can explore it, whilst being careful not to be too shrill in its condemnation, or as its advocate. We’re up to three chapters and the ideas are still coming, but we’ll say no more in case I jinx it.

Anyway, just two and a half miles today in frosty sunshine, then a pleasant drive back over the moors. At home, we clean and waterproof the boots for Bowland. I read on a blog recently of a method of spiritual and philosophical reflection, where we cast our minds back over the week, and ask what lessons we learned, something our former PM would do well to dwell upon. I’m not sure if I’ve heard this before – I think I might have – but it’s not something I do by habit, and it’s early in the week yet, so I hesitate to jump to conclusions.

We’ll see come Friday.

Thanks for listening

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A light fall of snow overnight clears to a frosty dawn. The forecast is too good to be skulking about indoors, so we muster our gear, then set out for Rivington, and the Hall Avenue.

Mid-week, mid-morning, and it’s busy with cars, kids and dogs. These are school age kids, and they are with working age parents. Again, I wonder to what they owe their premature attainment of escape velocity. There’s a sprinkling of snow here, and the ground feels mushy where the sun touches it, but it’ll most likely be frozen, higher up, so we pack the spikes – just in case – and off we go. Check: camera on aperture auto, shooting RAW, and set to bracket, polariser on the 18-140mm lens.

I’m a bit pie-eyed this morning, and feeling gormless. I used to be a night bird, but no longer seem able to burn the midnight oil without consequences. I’d stayed up watching a movie that had been recommended, called John Wick. Personally, I found it mindlessly violent, almost like a video game. There was one brutal set piece after the other, and then the embarrassing festishisation of ever more elaborately phallic firearms. And there was a veneer of glamour whose thrust had me wincing more than the oft-wielded knife blades. Okay, so it wasn’t my preferred genre.

I didn’t make it to the end, but fell asleep, frankly, bored. That said, John Wick’s brooding, funereal presence is still following me around this morning. I hope he’s wearing a decent pair of boots, or he’ll be grumbling later.

Unlike John’s violent and nihilistic universe, the world of Rivington is peaceful, and beautiful. We take a meandering approach to the terraced gardens – no particular route in mind, as seems usual with me these days, when on home territory. The snow cover thickens as we climb, and the low sun paints buttery highlights. There’s just enough whispy cloud to add interest to the sky without it tipping the atmosphere into something gloomy. John would prefer it gloomy, he says, while checking for the firearms secreted about his person. But this is England, and we don’t allow that sort of thing here. He’s puzzled by this. I mean, what if someone insults you?

On the great lawn, there are two summerhouses, now wonderfully restored and architecturally fascinating. I’ve just worked out one faces the morning sun, the other the evening. Mi’lord Leverhulme would have taken breakfast on fine summer mornings at one, and sipped his sundowners at the other. And me, sitting down on the steps of his morning summerhouse, basking in this buttery light, would have been seen off with dogs, and John, no doubt in Mi’lord’s employ. A century later, I have my revenge, and sit with impunity, for Time is the great leveller.

I never tire of the gardens. They’re certainly a royal way to approach the Pike, and the moors beyond. A vague plan is beginning to form. We’ll do the Pike, then chance the moor, across to Noon Hill.

The café that has recently popped up in the ruins of the old public lavatories, below the Pike, is open, and John is gasping for a coffee. It has recently installed a diesel generator, and we are treated to its noxious exhaust as we approach from downwind. I am not tempted, but John grabs a quick one, then crushes, and discards his cup in the bushes. I fish it out and put it in my bag, decide against giving him a lecture on it. He seems at times on the verge of becoming a reformed character, but a moment’s thoughtlessness, and he reverts to type.

There’s quite the procession going up the Pike, they’re also struggling, avoiding the steps, which are thick with ice. So we put the spikes on and make a traverse, spiralling round to get at the top from behind. It’s cold and blowy, people taking selfies. They’re looking at John like they know him from somewhere. Again, there are many here I would have thought of an age to be either in college or working. I wonder if they are on strike today.

The various strike actions are deepening across the country now, and the usual yapping dog presses seem to be failing in their attempts to demonise the Union officials. The government is also looking crass and incompetent, in its refusal to negotiate. The political Zeitgeist is swinging to the centre and would swing further, but the left no longer has meaningful representation. The powerful have not grasped these are not the nineteen seventies. The discontent is different, born of an inequality our parents never knew, one that has been a decade in the manufacture, at the hands of those who, by contrast, have profited handsomely by it. John confides in me, he’s been approached by several kingpins with a view to taking out ringleaders of discontent. He’s told them he’s retired and doesn’t do that sort of thing any more.

Anyway, in the summer months the route across the moor from the Pike to Noon Hill can be difficult to trace, and intermittently boggy. But today it’s plainly picked out by a dusting of snow, a thin white line squiggled over an undulating expanse of pale straw, and the ground is hard. The trick is knowing where the snow is covering bog, and how thick the underlying ice is. Will it take your weight, or will you burst through over your boots? As we get going, we look back and take a few shots of the pike in retrospect. There’s a lone man making his way up, and with a tight crop, the scene is dramatic.

Noon Hill is an unimpressive summit from this angle, just a small spur off the Winter Hill ridge. It’s more interesting when viewed from the west, where it forms a meridian with Great Hill, and I’ve often wondered if there’s any significance in the fact that, whatever the time of year, when viewed from Anglezarke, the sun will always be directly above Noon Hill, at noon. What do you think, John? John shrugs, couldn’t care less, checks instead for the knife in his sock. I’d told him to lose that, because it’s a one way ticket to chokey, if he’s caught. He looks at me like I’ve lost my mind. What kind of dumb-ass country is this where a man can’t carry a knife or a gun? Clearly, we’ve a way to go before we can restore his faith in humanity.

Noon Hill is the site of a Bronze Age saucer burial. It was first excavated in 1958 by John Winstanley who was then curator of the Hall in th’Wood Museum. It was an eventful dig, and his diary makes for interesting reading. Further information can be had at the excellent Lancashire Past website, here. There are also some fascinating period photographs of the dig here.

The ground becomes more treacherous the nearer we get to the top, and the light turns bleak as thicker clouds begin to gather from the south. The view looking back to the Pike takes on the appearance of a revelation now, as the sun fans down though whatever heavenly apertures it can find. But it is the view northwards that is the most stunning, across Anglezarke moor. Then there’s the land falling away to the plain, and finally the glittering line of the sea, to the west. And to the east, we have the stacked ranks of increasingly snowy hills, marching out towards Rossendale.

But there’s little time to settle and enjoy it, greeted as we are by a face numbing wind, so it’s a quick shot of the snowy cairn with Winter Hill in the background, then turn tail and make our way down. The time for Noon Hill is a clear summer’s day, with a pair of binoculars.

We take the short route down to the old turnpike, then the unofficial path that drops us steeply to the bend on Sheephouse lane, and finally, a very boggy return to Rivington. It’s a walk that always feels longer than it is – just over four miles, and seven hundred and fifty feet of ascent, but a pleasantly varied route, and far enough given what looks like a bit of weather moving in.

Time for a brew, now. John’s smiling a bit. You know what? I think we’ve mellowed him out. He says he’s sorry about that coffee cup, earlier on. I just hope no one picks a fight with him in the tearoom, or we’re all in trouble.

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A week of heavy rain and brutal winds defeats the lead flashing around the chimney, and the roof begins to leak. Again. I hear it dripping into the buckets in the attic, as the wind roars in the chimney. I called a roofer out, and he turned up, which is always a surprise, but his face was covered, and he kept ten paces away. A touch of flu, he said. I felt guilty then, asking him to go up on the roof, but he said he could see the problem from ground level, then disappeared back to his bed with promises to return when it stopped raining. It’s been raining pretty much for a week now. I wish him a speedy recovery, a clearing in the forecast, and hope he’s not forgotten me.

I never used to fret about the integrity of the old homestead. The former day-job tended to exhaust my allotment of anxieties. But take away one set of problems, and a mind that’s so inclined finds others to occupy itself with. Now, in retirement, I imagine the house gremlins undermining the place, so it’ll fall down around my ears, in spite of all efforts at maintenance over the decades of my residence. It doesn’t help when the foul weather keeps you indoors. There are home-birds who’d happily never set foot outside their gate, except to walk to the corner shop for a paper, but I’m not one of them. Being indoors for more than a few days drives me nuts. And it’s been over a week now.

But we were talking about writing. And of that imaginary world, the writing world, doors open and close. We cultivate the dream life for clues, we sit at the desk each morning like we’re still working from home – like during those covid lockdown days – and we tickle the keys, then delete the nonsense that comes out. The dreams are beguiling, but it’s anyone’s guess what they’re trying to say: the muse wishes to be seen as something other than what I have thus far always thought her to be, or something like that; the storm lamp I use to navigate my way through complex change has lost its wick and all its fuel; then I am required to make a sworn statement by a shallow, pompous official, who I tell in no uncertain terms to “f&*k off”. Dreams are quite the thing, aren’t they? But mostly hard to fathom. No matter – just keep stirring the pot. See what bubbles up.

Thus, we await the muse’s midnight pleasure. I’m hoping for something of a change from the usual existential rumination – a powerful romance, say, or a murder mystery, or something with a bit of humour in it. We could all do with a laugh, though the times are weighed agin’ us on the latter score, which is all the more reason to laugh at the absurdity. Shall we talk then of back-ground music?

Britain starts the new year in such a peculiar state of crisis, one that’s impossible to ignore, yet seems also pointless to mention because it’s been going on so long there is no novelty left in it that’s worth exploring. I have deleted the BBC News app from my phone, because it insists on trumpeting the Murdoch front pages. Facebook and Twitter I have never entertained. I spare the Guardian only a five-minute glance in the morning, which is plenty. It tells me the health service is in ruins, and you’re stuffed, unless you can pay. There is what amounts to an ongoing national strike, as wages are so poor workers literally cannot afford to live. Meanwhile, the government drifts into authoritarian territory, in thrall to the most cravenly disruptive elements within it, and is therefore unable to govern. And BREXIT, BREXIT,… no we dare not speak of BREXIT. Same old Muzak, then.

But that’s the thing with permacrises, I suppose, they’re – well – permanent. We adjust to the new normal, and thank our lucky stars we only have a leaking roof to deal with. But mostly I gather the media is presently obsessed with a gossipy book by an exiled Royal. I know this because everyone I know is talking about it. Well, not everyone, but enough to remind me how easily we are distracted by cakes and ale.

Oh, there is a feast of material here for someone of the stature of an Orwell, but an Orwell I am not. When on my soapbox, I am but a little dog growling at the moon, and the muse gently coaxes me back down. But where to, I ask?

Then my elusive GP sends out a questionnaire, asking me to rate his performance. There could be some material in this, for it strikes me as both obtuse and ironic. The questions don’t allow me to indicate I have tried to see him on a number of occasions, one of them urgently – or so I thought – and was rebuffed with directions to the warzone that is A+E. I throw the Byzantine missive away, his officious receptionist reminds me by text. I ignore it. We have built a world of bullshit and fantasy performance indicators, while allowing all substance to fall away. Plenty of material there – but again that’s for an Orwell.

No, the muse is drawing me to an island, or a remote valley. But we’ve already been there, and done that to death, I protest. No, this time it will be different, she says, as she relights my lamp. Trust me.

Such is the writing life, and the little gaps between.

The forecast is for dry next week. I hope that roofer turns up.

Thanks for listening.

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Town Bridge, Croston

The year begins with a peculiar dream, but more of that later. Right now we’re standing on Town Road at Croston, waiting for a group of tourists to clear off the seventeenth century Town Bridge, then I can grab a picture of it. They’re taking their time, but that’s fine. It’s a good day and there’s no rush. Meanwhile, traffic is whizzing by on its way to the seaside at Southport, this being the last day of the Christmas holidays, and the last gasp for many before it’s back to work tomorrow. It’ll be nice on the promenade, or are they just after the sales? Do actual shops that engage in sales, still exist? My, how much the world has changed in the last few years.

Grade two listed, Town Bridge forms a neat architectural group with the parish church of St Michael’s and All Angels. Then there’s Church Street, and the old school, all of them dating back to the same period, and worth a look if you’re ever passing. It’s also a good place to begin our first walk of the New Year without having to get the car out. The bridge was built in 1682, the same year Halley named his comet. Newton was still very much alive, and Wikipedia tells me we were also still hanging witches. At least we don’t do that any more.

The tourists move off, and we grab the shot.

So, anyway, home territory today, and a hike across the various moss lands to Mawdesley, then Rufford and back, a circuit of around seven miles, and dead flat. It’s a bright day, too, warm in the sunshine, and looking like the only decent day this week. We have all sorts of miserable weather to come, says the weatherman, so today’s the day. I say “home” territory, but I came to Croston in 1994, and still feel myself to be living in exile. By and large, it’s a friendly place though, and plenty of walking from the doorstep, all of it flat, which, being a hill walker, I tend to be a bit sniffy about. But if pressed, I will admit it does have its charms.

Church Street, Croston

Anyway, back to that dream. There was this old grey horse, thrashing about on its back in my garden pond. Then this foal appears and drags it out by its chin. The old horse looks like it’s been through the mill and is starving. It turns to me with a look as if to say: feed me. So I’m thinking what do horses eat, and how can I get hold of some? I’m still pondering this even as I lie awake, until I realise it’s not a real problem I need to solve. Or is it?

Off we go then. From Town Bridge, we take the cobbled way through Church street, past the church with its slightly drunken tower, then through the ginnel, by the old School. Originally built in 1660, the school is now a community resource centre. It also ran a very well attended pre-school group, but lost its funding last year, and is now closed. The effectiveness of cost seems curiously decoupled from the wider values of human need, regardless of how great, how beneficial or how very much in demand that need is.

Croston Old School

Now, we’re out across the River Yarrow and along Carr Lane, a private access road with very little traffic. Vast meadows open up, lush green and glowing in the sunshine. Dotted around are woodland coverts – much of the area still being the preserve of the armed wing of the Tory party – many an otherwise peaceful Sunday morning commencing with volleys of gunfire. Pheasant have been known to seek shelter in my garden.

Then we’re heading south, to Mawdesley, across a flat, largely featureless landscape, all squared up with drainage ditches. Huge agricultural machines lurk in the corners of meadows like slumbering dragons, and we puzzle over their function. Potato picking, maize harvesting, ditch clearing?

Apart from the great bowl of sky, the dominant feature of this stretch is the three shiny, white wind turbines at Cliff’s Farm. Only two are turning today, casting mile long, moving shadows across the land. The third is motionless, its blade tips feathering the wind. The other thing to notice, more subtle, as we pass from Croston to Mawdesley, is the way the earth changes from a sticky, dark clay to a sandy loam – ideal for carrots, which is the dominant crop here.

Wind Turbines, Cliff’s Farm

From Mawdesley we follow the line of New Reed Brook, then across Mill Ditch to Rufford, and the White Bridge, over the River Douglas. It’s a short stretch of road walking, and no pavement, also incredibly busy. Cars approach at speed, and we time it so we can press ourselves into the thorn hedge as they pass. Most give us plenty of room, the drivers wave, as if to say: it’s fine, mate, we can see you. Some don’t. Apparently, it’s a scientific fact, if you drive a BMW, you’re less likely to be considerate to other road users, especially pedestrians. Apologies if you drive a BMW, I’m sure you’re not like that.

Having survived the road section, we’re back along the green lanes, then across the railway line. Here we pick up the River Douglas, which takes us north, towards Croston. The Douglas is an unattractive river, just here. It was deepened and generally fashioned into a giant drainage channel in the eighteenth century, by Dutch engineers. Pumping stations drained the reclaimed farmland on either side, which would otherwise become lakes at this time of year, and the Douglas carries it out to the Ribble estuary. Pumping recently stopped, and the seasonal lakes are returning. It’ll be a slow process, this return to marsh, but an interesting one to observe.

River Douglas, Rufford

This is the last couple of miles of the poor old Douggie, and I find it a sluggish creature. It’s silty, weary with rubbish from all the towns it’s travelled through, also thick with nitrates and effluent from the dairy farms. It’s also tidal. The tide is up just now, but at the ebb you realise how deep the river is, and it gives me the creeps.

So now we pick up Shepherd’s Lane, a long stretch of a thing, all the way to Finney Lane and what I call the Finney Ash, a favourite tree. As I’m lining it up for a photograph, I realise the camera’s been set on “manual” all the way round, and not on “aperture auto” like I’d thought. This means most of the shots I’ve taken are probably either under or over-exposed duds, and I’ll have nothing to illustrate the blog with. Gormlessness is my default setting. Oh, well,…

Finney Lane, Croston

We return to Croston along Cottage Lane, but these are all “lanes” in the ancient meaning of the word – just paths by the field-sides, wide enough for a horse and cart. The Tarmac and the motor car never came this way. As we head east, along Cottage Lane, we can just about make out Darwen Tower, dead ahead, over twelve miles away, reminding us how far we are from the hills, that without the much maligned motor car, this really would be an exile beyond what we could bear. It would take the whole day to reach Darwen by public transport, and the Dales would only be worth the journey for a week’s holiday.

But back to that dream. The old grey horse is me, of course. Or rather, it’s an aspect of the psyche that’s been floundering on its back, in the metaphorical water, and I can relate to that. The symbolism of the foal, however, defeats me. And the hunger? Well, we’re all hungry for something, but mine seems to be vital to well-being, and I’m starving for the lack of it. And we can’t always see what that is, even when it’s staring us in the face.

Cottage Lane, Croston – a distant Darwen Tower.

Such short days, still. The sun is half an hour away from setting, and the shadows in the ditches are darkening, a fine mist beginning to rise. Back home, the car is heavy with dew, and temperatures plummeting under a clear sky. It feels like it’ll be a frosty one. Winter’s no fun when it’s in a foul mood, but on days like this, winter’s as beautiful as any other time of year to be outdoors.

Pity about those photographs.*

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*The photo pixie was looking after us, and most came out all right.

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It was a big, white fisher-bird, smaller than a heron. It was of a similar build to a heron, but more slender, more elegant. It was an egret, I think, the first I’ve seen in the wild and an incongruous sight, out among the potato fields. I’d go so far as to say it was exotic, and had the feel of an omen about it, meaning what, I don’t know,… but something, surely?

I’d come upon it suddenly, disturbed its fishing, and it had risen silently, gracefully from a deep drainage ditch between meadows. It’s not a well walked path, the path I was on. It meanders across the flats from Rufford, towards Croston. For a right of way, it’s hard to pick up and hard to navigate. As usual the way markings had gone, and it was years since I’d last walked it, so all memory of past trials had faded. You have to check the map to make sure you’re on the correct side of the ditches, or you’ll walk to a dead end, another broad ditch crossing your path. Then you’ll see your proper way on the other side, but with no way to cross and a long way to back-track.

I’ve jumped these ditches in the past, in desperation and frustration, but at times of flood, they run deep and wide and cold. They’re also steep sided, so you’d struggle to get out if you missed your step and slipped in. Anyway there’s no dignity in it. Dignity is finding your way by means of the proper way, the right of way. There are more convenient routes around here, routes that present no difficulty at all, but those are farm tracks signposted to tell you there’s no public way,… trespass and all that. Naturally the markings on those are hard to miss and tend not to disappear.

So, it was an egret, then. Swan-white, like an omen did I say? Well, maybe a blessing. Whatever, it was beautiful.

It had been a morning of contrasts. Clear and cold, the ground beginning to thaw a little, so it was firm underfoot, without being too hard. There was still a little snow lying about, and the flooded fields were sheets of ice, with a cold wind blowing off them.

I’d just come down from the cut of the River Douglas. It had dropped twenty feet from the weekend floods, stranding a thick line of unwholesome detritus, up on the banks. There were bottles, supermarket bags, footballs, tennis balls, all manner of glass and plastic, a line of rubbish stretched from Wigan, out to the Ribble, and from there to the sea, for the sea to wash it all back up on the beaches from Blackpool to the Hebrides. The supermarket bags of course would find their way into the bellies of whales, who mistake them for jelly-fish. There’s something sinister, I think, about this man-meddled stretch of the Douglas, something godless about it.

The land here, once marshland, is pretty much an open-air factory, cut up into squares, and navigated in straight lines, north-south, east-west. I’ve long found it aesthetically sterile, interest coming only sporadically in the occasional lone tree or in the skies at the day’s extremes. Lots of it has been turning back to wetland though, these past few winters, as the water-table rises.

An egret! Really? Are you sure?

I’d had the camera, but the wrong lens, and anyway, there was no time. The bird was up and off and out of range before I even thought of a photograph. I had a wide lens on, so that bird would have been a small white dot against the winter blue, indistinguishable from a seagull. Landscapes are more my speed. They give me time to fumble through the settings on the camera. It’s our fourth year together now, master and apprentice, the camera being the master, teaching me about the contemporary art of the possible. The single lens reflex cameras I grew up with from the 70’s onwards, were a much simpler affair, and easier to get along with. These modern digital versions are a bit daunting, with more options on them than I can learn in a lifetime. Fiddle with a few settings, and you’ve a whole new camera, and that’s even before you change the lens. But it’s an interest, and it gets me out.

Spot meter. That’s what I was experimenting with today. You measure the light from the brightest area of the frame, get that exposed right, so the details of it don’t burn out, but the rest gets under-exposed, which makes it go dark. It can be tinkered with on the computer to look a bit arty. Anyway, I’d shot a dozen pictures on the way round before noticing the focus was on manual, so they were all blurred. Too many things to control. Thirty shots, and all deleted when I got them on the big screen at home, except for two or three that made the cut.

The lone tree, above, shot into the sun was one. The frozen track was ablaze with reflected light. It was part intended and part good luck. I’ve photographed the same scene a dozen times in all seasons, and mostly it looks nothing like that, except this morning, it did, and for once the camera and I saw things the same way.

Then there was the weeping tree – beech or birch, I don’t know. That was an unusual find – easier to spot in winter when most other trees look dead. This one was dreaming though. It was by this tree I saw the egret, which added to the magic of that little spot – the Egret and the Dreaming Tree? Good title for a story.

Did I tell you how dreary I find it, around here, normally? Ten square miles of assorted vegetables and mud. But I have to admit, as I’ve been forced to look closer, this pandemic year, denied the distraction of broader adventures, it’s begun to open up a little, and share its secrets.

I’m wondering if the Environment Agency has stopped the pumps that drain the fields into the Douglas. Maybe that’s why the ditches are topped so frequently now, and the land turned to lakes. There were rumours of it some years back – austerity and all that. A guy once told me that if they ever stopped pumping, the giant mere you see on old maps of Lancashire would be back inside a decade. Sure, there’d be shortages of Lancashire potatoes and carrots if that happened, as a goodly portion of the crop looks to be ruined every year now anyway, but with the water, the birds are returning. And with everything else in a tailspin, that has to be a good sign, hasn’t it?

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The cars haven’t moved since New Year. One has a massive thorn sticking out of the sidewall, and it’s slowly leaking air. It’s due a service and MOT in a few weeks, so we’ll leave it until then for the local garage to sort out, if it’s open. If it’s not, we’ll have to SORN the thing until it is. The other car’s battery hovers somewhere close to death, and needs charging. I’m turning both engines over, but I feel I should really be giving them a bit of a run to stop the brakes from seizing up. Is that a necessary journey, though?

Just out for a spin officer, testing the brakes?

Do I look stupid, sir?

So anyway, I’m not travelling out by car, not even a couple of miles to “access open countryside” as the well-worn covid loophole goes. The Tesco man brings the groceries, and between times we make do. Dry January has also killed the need to go to the corner shop for the occasional bottle of wine. Instead, I’m wearing grooves in the local footpath network, taking the camera for long walks on the good days. Thirty-two miles and counting so far. I’ve discovered some gems along the way: unfamiliar and attractive footpaths, lone trees in their bare, winter magnificence, and birds.

On the less walked ways, however, I’m discovering obstruction. Yesterday it was a hundred yard stretch of public footpath, barely a meter wide, squashed between a hawthorn hedge on one side, and an electric fence on the other. The landed like their horses. What they don’t like are public paths across the meadows they’ve paid good money for and some will do whatever it takes to discourage you, within the law, and sometimes beyond it. I have also encountered stiles and bridges, long past serviceable, that have tested my mettle. And of course, I’ve fallen foul of disappearing way-markers, usually in the vicinity of farms, or where the paths swing by newly gentrified properties. A man on foot can, at times, be vulnerable to the vagaries of the way, and the will of others who are agin’ him. But the footpath network is an ancient right, and I’ll have my way. We need them now, more than ever, so I urge you to get out, find them, and use them.

Anyway, after a month of retirement I discover I am missing only two things: a walk over the moors, and a busy coffee-shop. Ordinarily, the press and noise of others irritates me. But I would give anything for half an hour with a Mocha and a bun, in a corner café, while watching the world go by. Takeaways are a big thing these days, of course. I’m resisting them as an unnecessary (and possible paranoid) risk, though I know they’re the only way the corner café’s can keep going under the present circumstances. Everyone is hugging a cardboard coffee now, many of which are then discarded in the hedgerows, along with masks and surgical gloves. Still, it makes a change from the monotony of hanging bags of poo.

I have not missed working. I’d thought I might – at least certain aspects of it. But now the first pension payment has arrived, and the time stretches ahead, unhurried, and every hour of it my own. The house’s various neglected corners are being freshened up. The long leaking gutters don’t leak any more. Yes, the economy is in ruins and Mr Chancellor wants my savings to prop it up, but no deal, mate. You’re getting not a penny, until I’ve had my jab – some time between May and June, according to the OMNI calculator.

In other news, I note Brexit is starting to bite where we thought it would: import, export, supply chains, tax, services, banking. The pesky Europeans are even confiscating the lorry driver’s butties. But on the up-side we’re told the fish are now happy to be British. Happy, however, will not be the British, queuing come summer in the slow lane at EU passport control, along with all the other foreigners.

Thirty-two miles and counting, Michael. There’s clearly life in you yet, and all from your own doorstep. Keep it up, mate.

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I’ve been thinking about the Muse and how indiscriminate she is. The Muse is where the desire to create comes from. It’s a mysterious thing, a surge of something from deep in the imagination that we can overlay upon reality. It makes the mundane magical, blissful, sometimes even shocking. It’s partly of us, but mostly, I think, it’s something “other”. Men personify it as a woman, an angel, a goddess, because its nature is akin to love. You hear her singing a song that can lift you to heaven, while being perfectly aware, as in the siren song, it might also lure you to your doom. The choice is yours, the risk is yours, because she doesn’t care, and your biggest mistake is thinking she does.

It’s like now, heading out across Lancashire’s Harrock Hill in this beautiful, late afternoon winter’s sun. Winter is a time for trees, for the bare shapes of them against the sky. There are some good, ancient specimens here, lone trees in a gentle landscape, something expressive about them, like the header picture, in this case a pair of pollarded oaks, grown together like lovers to form between them, a single perfect hemispherical dome. They are expressive, though of what, I cannot say, only that the Muse has lured me out here, teasing me with the notion I might catch a glimpse of her, if I tread carefully.

So much rain these past weeks, the paths are deep in mud now, more Wellingtons than walking boots kind of terrain, more waxed thornproof than Goretex kind of walking. Last time I came this way, I saw a buzzard, close enough to get a picture of him. He’s out again today, but keeps a wary, camera-shy distance, circles the blue in lazy sweeps, pivoting the world about his wing-tip. No muse for him though, I’m thinking, poor creature, just the will to live, and to live he must eat, and to eat he must kill. Only we humans see the poetry in him, and then only some of us. Only we sense the magic behind his manifestation, and have the strange psychological disposition to romanticize it.

It’s quiet for a Covid afternoon. I encounter just the one family with an army of small, ferocious children and big, wet, bouncy dogs, wife with a voice like a foghorn and a friendly “hello”, husband with a face like slapped arse, sullen, trailing, and wishing he was somewhere else. I hear the children squealing from a mile away. If they’re not careful they’ll disturb the faery, and they really don’t want to do that. Mud and air, a low slanting sun and the noise of children. They’re loving it, as are the dogs, crazy, unconscious, delightful creatures. My own children are in their twenties now, and forever precious, but I miss them at that carefree, squealing age, the age before mud became irksome, and the world of men got hold of them.

Anyone can cop for this burning desire to create stuff. You don’t have to have gone to a posh school and talk like Hugh Grant. Fair enough, a good education helps you to think and express yourself, so that’s a plus. Then the posh school will instil in you a pathological self belief, so if you’re a career creative, that all adds up. But if you make it big or not, or die in obscurity – again – the Muse doesn’t care. Nor does she care if your fame spreads her gifts far and wide, or if you keep them a guarded secret along with the fluff in your pocket, it’s all the same to her. I’m not sure, but I think her motive is simply to offer you the chance to let her into your life, in some ways even to be your life. Any misunderstandings as regards the nature of the relationship that henceforth develops are all yours.

The philosopher Schopenhauer held a view that the only visible manifestation of the power behind the universe was in the blind will to life. This manifests itself in nature, which appears cruel and self consuming and, like our friend the buzzard, void of any real meaning – the sort of meaning a man might hope for against the odds, and keep the glimmer of it safe in a corner of his heart. But beyond the will, reckoned Schopenhauer, there was something else, something blissful, and that’s what artists feel, and strive to give expression to. That’s where the muse lives. Such glimpses of bliss are fickle though and, as I said before, she’s indiscriminate with her favours. She can point her finger at anyone, prince or pauper, articulate Bard or poor illiterate serf.

Speaking of princes and paupers, I’ve been reading an old biography I once wrote of the Wigan poet John Critchley Prince (1808-1866). Humble beginnings, self-educated and all that, born into grinding poverty not that far from here, and died the same way. His life was interesting, heroic in an unsung sort of way. It was also terribly hard and tragic, and a story without a happy ending. I wrote about Prince because I was interested in obscurity, and what drives men to create, even when no one is listening. He did find a little recognition along the way, but judged it toxic and irksome, so he destroyed it. Prince left behind several large volumes of poetry, but isn’t considered to be one of the greats – just a minor poet, as they say – but those volumes speak of the power of the muse, and how she can drive a man all his life to create a prolific body of work, regardless of its worth to anyone else, or to posterity. She possessed him through thick and thin, and in the end she turned him to drink, and then she killed him.

Then there’s the novel I’m reading, Niall Williams’ “This is Happiness”, and his description of the musicians in the pubs of Ireland’s west, in the early ’60’s, before electricity, and maybe for centuries before that. They were unassuming men, men who came together, and all forgotten now, but who for a night, for even just an hour of spontaneous reels, became perfect channels for the Muse, and made a music that the listeners carried in their hearts to the end of their days.

Danger, beauty, bliss. You’d better be careful courting her, but so long as you can arrive at that delicate understanding, your life will be all the better for having her in it, be it in poetry, art, the writing, or even just in the shapes of trees.

Speaking of muses, men are also prone to projecting them onto mortal females, imagining them timeless, ageless. Here’s one from fifty years ago:

Keep well, and thanks for listening.

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on pendle hill

Pendle Hill Summit, December 2019

It was about six degrees in town this morning, with a light rain. It felt bitter and unwelcoming. The parking machine took most of my change, leaving little for the homeless guy sitting there with the thousand yard stare, but he accepted my bits of shrapnel with more enthusiasm than they deserved, and he called me sir. The coppers were all I could muster as symbols of my solidarity with his lot, and I felt in the “sir” a rebuff, not from him – he was grateful for anything – but more from within myself, the distance it implies, between me and him. I have never been comfortable being called “sir”.

Amid the ruins of this, my little market town, there has risen of late the paradox of a glittering high-rise that promises a “cinematic experience” and bowling, though these attractions have yet to appear. And of the quality-shopping also promised, over the years of this great carbunkle’s somewhat listless construction, only a Marks and Spencer food hall has opened. It sits uneasily like a top-hat among the ragged, alongside the vape-shops and the tattoo parlours and all the charity places.

Meanwhile I note the news-stands speak of war with Iran, the more right wing and tabloidy the title, the more strident and crass the headline, but whether to instil terror or glee I do not know. It will depend on your disposition I suppose. Me? I see only that the social fabric of the UK is in tatters, that it will improve not one jot in the decade to come, and the looming climate catastrophe is beyond help now.

Middle eastern politics never makes for comfortable reading and try as I might I’m not sure if we’ve been brought here by miscalculation or by artifice, for these are dark powers and completely beyond my knowing, but I do know another war played out as infotainment isn’t going to be fun viewing, and it’s certainly not going to fix anything that needs fixing.

Thus the New Year opens and leaves me casting round for a glimmer of hope and I am seeking it in the food aisles of M+S. A week ago I was on the top of a misty Pendle, feeling for a time that all was well. Everyone I met at 1800 feet looked fresh and happy, but that’s the tops for you and always worth the effort. It’s when you come back down to earth the shadows regroup.

I bought something for my tea, browsed the novels in Heart Foundation, but nothing took my eye. I bought a brew for the homeless guy from Gregs and walked it back up to the carpark, but he’d gone by then. So I sat in the car for a bit, watched the people cowed by winter and the flat murk that passes for daylight at this time of year, and I drank the tea myself. Milk and one sugar. That’s how I take it, but I had not stopped to think if it was all right for him.

It’s all very well, trying to help out a bit, but it’s better to pause and consider what it is that’s needed first. And maybe there’s no answer to that, no obvious place to start, which is why we’re going nowhere, and hope is so elusive.

Meanwhile I have snowdrops in the garden, green shoots appearing among the leaf-litter for the first time, and I sold another copy of The Inn at the Edge of light last night, which make two. Then I have seedlings of sweetpea to plant up for the windowsill, for planting out come spring, to bring some colour and the heady intoxication of their scent.

Small beginnings, but the best I can come up with for now.

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on the beda fell ridgeIn our closing Qigong set last night we did a thing called “open the curtains”. You do the actions slowly, mindfully, in rhythm with the breath; you open the curtains wide and you imagine something or someone of great beauty that makes you smile. It’s a powerful exercise, just smiling, something to do with endorphins. Endorphins are good for us.

Normally I imagine one of the heroines from my various novels – most recently Maggs Cooper from “Saving Grace” who I suspect is just a slightly older version of Helena Aynslea from the Sea View Cafe. Over the years I’ve come to imagine her in great detail, including her cheeky grin in response. But last night, instead, a scene popped into my head from a climb I did in 2015, when I paused to look back along the Beda Fell Ridge towards Hallin Fell, in the Lake District. It was just a flash, but stunning in its detail and the mood of soft light as it played upon the sunny uplands. Coming to me on a wet and windy night in December, it was a powerful reminder that it won’t always be dark at tea-time.

The run down to the solstice always knocks me flat. Suddenly the light has gone and we’re commuting in the dark again, mornings and evenings, driving up and down the motorway – long sections with no cats eyes now, and the white lane-markers grubbed off. Yet still the traffic rushes headlong, streaking past me as I maintain a steady pedestrian fifty-six mph while squinting mole-like into the gloom,  intermittently blinded by super-bright-luxury headlights coming at me the other way.

And then there are the trivial challenges. Things fall apart at this time of year. Things like the boiler, awakened from its summer repose, and the way it suddenly begins to make unfamiliar noises as it picks up the load for winter, and there are drips from inside the conservatory which may be a leak forced through by the hammering onslaught of extraordinarily heavy rains, or it may just be condensation – the difference is about three hundred quid. Then there are the not-so-small things like how my good lady narrowly avoided injury in a coach crash in Derbyshire this week, and how for a moment my own life hung in balance as I waited for news.

Meanwhile number two son struggles gamely out each bloodshot morn to a job that expects CEO levels of commitment for minimum pay, taking the shine somewhat from his first degree. His boss is a caricature of incivility, on whom I shall have my revenge by immortalising him as an arsehole delivered a spectacular comeuppance in a future novel. Then number one son struggles gamely to find any work at all and I wish the world would just open it’s door a crack and let him in – I mean he’s a bright lad, keen to work, and works hard, so just cut him some slack damn you! And then there’s a good writer friend of mine who’s lost his mind, and now inhabits a dream-like world where sometimes he recognises friends and family, but is generally unable to tell them apart from other characters that are entirely imagined.

Yes, the world can take on an air of threat and hopelessness at this time of year, laying bare our vulnerability to its whims, and our powerlessness to make any lasting positive change. Thus disillusioned, we tumble down the disorientating vortex to the Solstice, and on through the stupefaction of Yule, finally to skitter out onto the thin, frigid ice of January and February where anything could happen, and our naked souls are least prepared for it.

I’m sure the ancients had a way of dealing with all of this, a way of conditioning the mind into harmony with the seasons, of creating myths of meaning and ritual that protect the head and the heart, so the spirit might still thrive. And perhaps the myth said something like: when there’s no light, stay indoors and sleep.

But that’s all gone now, obliterated by this 24/7 online world where the only thing that matters is buying stuff for next year’s landfill, and where the only way to climb the ladder is to be nastier than everyone else. If all of that’s true then we are indeed inhabiting a hell of our own making. But it isn’t true, and help is at hand if we can only think ourselves sideways a bit, and find the inner smile.

I’ve noticed my own habitual response to past tragedies, the loss of loved ones and the near misses is a kind of defiance. It’s as if there is a dark power in the world that would have us throw up our hands in despair, that would have us believe there is only suffering and hardship, that we’re all ultimately alone, that there are no rich, sunny uplands to be gained after the long climb. But while this may seem to be the case – at least on the basis of the available evidence – there is no sense in abandoning one’s optimism.

Holding to optimism in the face of mischance, so far as I can tell, is not a delusion. A delusion is something ultimately harmful while optimism, though it might seem unfounded, grants us strength and the ability still to smile, to keep a light heart. Better to welcome the sun at each rising, than to lament its setting, and to trust we shall all regain the sunny uplands again, come spring.

It’s not as daft as it sounds then, so go on: open those curtains, regard the beautiful scene.

And smile.

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marsh lane

December morning,
sluggish dawn,
of greys and greens,
and mist and mud,
where water weeps
into long hollows,
and pools like eyes,
which lidless gaze
at still sleepy skies.
And the ways,
heavy under foot,
slow my passing,
and would arrest me,
arms outstretched,
gnarled fingers grasping air,
lifeless as the hawthorn,
bare and dripping drops,
of silver dew.

 

 

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