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Posts Tagged ‘winter’

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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With the going of the light, and the fast fading memory of summer’s ease, Black Dog comes stalking once again. We toss him a stick, some stupid novelty or other, which he returns sodden and chewed beyond attraction. Thus, after a couple of turns, we are no longer minded to pick it up, so there he curls, our unshakeable friend, creeping ever closer until he’s in our lap, weighting down all possibility of forward movement.

Words fail in our throats, people look strange, look also strangely at us as we sink into paranoia at the apparent indifference, even of our loved ones. In pettiness, we withdraw, lose empathy, and equanimity as we huddle in imaginary self defence. We become then the worst of ourselves, favouring the lonely places, or the indoors, the impersonal, the pointless flicking at our phones,  the mindless digestion of the indigestible, the foolish, and the vain.

The soundtrack to our lives deepens to despair as Gorecki displaces once more the Red Priest from the player. A symphony of sorrowful songs de-tunes the cellos from their once ravishing Baroque concertos, splits the lustrous age-old wood, breaks the bows, shape-shifts rosin into a cold slime, and bends the dead strings into the intersecting snail-trails of man’s infinite inhumanity.

The filters of filth fail us, and we are overwhelmed by the madness of the world again, no longer able to blind-eye its deep vales of deceit, its mountains of depravity. And we see the leaders naked, as they truly are perhaps, lost or mad or utterly grotesque, letting loose their policemen, black-armoured cockroach armies to hammer blood from dissent.

Black Dog, your visions are cruel, rendered bearable only by the numbing fragrance of your breath. You are the rot of crushed leaves, the rot of wood dissolved to crumb by cringe-legged beetling lice, you are the perennial black mould on the wallpaper above my desk, you are the scratching in the night, and the sinister rustling of an infestation of mice.

We brush down our books in vain, our books of dreams, of alchemy, of transcendentalism, yet, once treasured, we find them mould-stained and dusty, and scented of you, taking with them the key to the only escape we knew, to the vast labyrinth of the esoteric. Now there is only the unsoftened day ahead, each to be taken in its turn. Thus we answer each half-lit morn the alarm clock’s shrill call, rise, stretch our stiffening limbs, pee out our aching bladder.

Is this really the only way? But what of those moments when we shook you from our lap and soared? Those days we rattled the high roads while the beatific sun beat down and tanned our faces? Where were you then? Or the glad beach-days with the soft sand and the multitudinous shades of ocean blue? Or coffee, and company, and that gentle hand to hold? Where were you then?

But these are earthly things for sure and transient as mist, the meagre sticks we toss, then you’ll chase and allow us a moment to breathe. What we seek now is the secret of another kind of cultivation, and the ability to cast it an infinite distance away.

Then go,… Fetch!

Damn you.

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thorpe-fell-top

The Weathered trig point on Thorpe Fell Top

The greatest pleasures in life are free. It’s not a particularly profound observation, but we sometimes forget. Life closes over us and we think we have to buy our way to pleasure, to satisfaction, or even just to make ourselves feel a little better. We all know this doesn’t work. What does work, is a simple walk, preferably up a hill. After a walk up a hill, no matter what life is nagging us with, we return relaxed, magnanimous, philosophical. It’s like a reset button, a thing that reliably blows away all the wormy gremlins.

Of late I’ve been seeking my hills in the Yorkshire Dales, an area unique in character and, to my mind, not as spoiled by rampant tourism, as the neighbouring Lake District. Unlike the Lakes, in the Dales we still find towns and villages that are home to a mostly indigenous population, where the trinket shops are few, and the holiday homes and b+b’s do not yet outnumber the genuine residences. Here, I find every visit yields yet another discovery, another unexpected hamlet with village green, duck-pond and homely teashop.

My most recent discovery, on this bright, frosty winter’s morning is Linton. Linton fits into the geography of Wharfedale, being just a stone’s throw from Burnsall, Hebden and Grassington. I’ve been driving up and down the Wharfe for years and not suspected Linton’s existence at all, and was drawn to it eventually simply as the starting point for this walk up Thorpe Fell. I had to check the map, and there it was.

I don’t know the stories of place here as well as I should, but this lends a touch of mystery to the land, and a void into which imagination tumbles with all the enthusiasm of the Romantic poet. I am prone to a certain mysticism in the empty places. There are many parts of the Dales, particularly what I still think of as the old West Riding, that have something of the big-house estate about them, something almost Feudal. This area is dominated by the vast Bolton Abbey Estate, and not well served with rights of way across its siren tops – we woolly hatted ones I imagine being discouraged, pre “Countryside and Rights of Way Act”, but we are now free to explore – just don’t expect many waymarked paths while you’re at it.

Thorpe Fell is one of the most stunning heather moors I’ve seen. This morning the heather is dusted with frost and presents us with rather an eerie, windswept yet curiously beguiling wilderness. I can imagine September here will be ablaze with purple, and promise myself I will return to see it.

From Linton, we make our way by meadow and country lane to Thorpe Village, from where a track begins the ascent of the moor, petering out by degrees until one is all but relying on a sixth sense. There is a feeling of isolation, of loneliness which makes all the more surprising the presence of rather a fine tea-hut on the moor’s windy edge. It isn’t marked on my edition of the Ordnance Survey map. The hut looks cosy, but is locked up tight and shuttered against intruders – I presume being solely for the use of the sons of gentlemen when they come up in their tweeds and knickerbockers to shoot grouse. But there is also rather a fine, open, grass roofed barn nearby, also not marked on the map, and in which I take brief shelter while enjoying lunch.

There is an indistinct summit to Thorpe Fell, complete with weathered trig-point, but it is not served by any path – the only path hereabouts veering off from the tea hut roughly north west, avoiding the summit which lies to the south west. The land, however, is open access, unless the gentlemen are shooting of course, and today they are not, so we are free to make a stab at its general direction. It’s a quarter mile or so of raw moor-bashing, the heather thick and springy with just the occasional weathered outcrop to provide a firmer going.

From the crumbling trig point (506 metres) the views are simply stunning. It’s also possible to see the next objective, the memorial on Cracoe Fell a little to the west of south west. It’s best to head due west from here though, rather than make a bee line, otherwise peat hags and the upper reaches of Yethersgill make for a laborious approach. Instead, due west, we pick up the line of a wall, and beside it a confident path leads us more easily to the memorial.

The memorial, a huge cairn, sitting atop a fine outcrop, adds height and drama to the fell – it bears a plaque marking the years 1914-1919, and the names of the fallen. This is the point at which we begin our descent, first to the village of Cracoe, then back through the meadows to Linton. But there is no direct route to Cracoe from the top, as I discovered in the attempting of it. I was thinking to head north west, a trackless bee-line towards an enticing bit of track that runs up from Cracoe to a weather station, but this leads quickly to bog, and for me rather a cold dip as one foot broke through the crust into something altogether less pleasant below. So, it’s better to back track a little from the memorial, back along the wall we have just come along, to where a gate gives access westwards. Either way we’re aiming for the Fell Lane track, which takes us to Cracoe, and the meadow paths home to Linton.

We’ve been walking for 5 hours now, the light beginning to leak away as we cross the various stiles and lush, frost dusted meadows. My feet always seem to know when I’m on the last mile, whether the walk is a couple of miles or ten, and they start to complain. But it’s a pleasant complaint, anticipating the eventual loosening of laces, and the body’s repose after a day in the field. Darkness is coming on, the temperature plummeting as we return to the car, and my boots begin to steam when I pull them off.

I’m always different after a walk. I’d left home that morning labouring under a cloud, my vehicle potentially stuffed at four years old with a major transmission problem . I’d been duped by the dealer I bought it from, was feeling fobbed off and badly served, facing now the prospect of a search for another vehicle and all the hazards that entails (dodgy dealers included – even the big glossy ones), or a very expensive repair. Ah,… cars eh?

Either way were looking at a serious hit in the wallet at a time of year when one can ill afford it. To be sure, it had felt like the end of the world as I’d dragged my bones from bed that morning, and mustered my walking gear, so much so I nearly didn’t bother setting off. But as I poured out my coffee in the Cracoe Cafe that evening, I could not have cared less.

It was a fine sunset, a clear azure sky, another keen, frosty evening coming on. The moon was up, Venus in attendance, with a distinctly coquettish gleam in her eye.

What more could a man want?

Well, let me see,… ah yes!

I ordered a toasted teacake.

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Mazda under cover I take a breath, click the clicky thing and I say: “Radio?”

The car responds. Female voice. Mature. Slightly bossy. “Radio.”

“FM?”

“FM,… frequency please?…”

“Ninety three.”

Pause. The car computes, and then: “Not possible.”

I try again: “Radio?”

“Radio.”

“FM?”

“FM,… Frequency please?….”

Best 1950’s BBC accent now: “Ninety three.”

Pause,… “Tuning,…. Eighty three. Not possible.”

“What? No,… I said NINETY THREE,….”

Clearly this voice recognition thing has some way to go. It isn’t exactly one of the stand-out features of the Ford Focus. Instead, I fumble for the little preset button that takes me to 93 FM, and Radio 4.

Radio 4 annoys me these days, but everything else on the radio annoys me more. I prefer silence as I drive, but my commute is long and boring, and sometimes I like a companionable background babble for a change. We are half way through my commute, about 7:45, traffic at a standstill, sleety rain, just coming light. I’ve had the car a few days and we’re still getting to know one another.

Radio 4 is broadcasting a political interview. Both the politician and the interviewer have tones like cheese graters. Prickly. Abrasive. Adversarial. I don’t want to arrive at work already irritated, so better to turn the radio off, but – and lets be honest here – I don’t know how to turn the radio off.

It’s either this or Rock FM.

“Radio?”

“Radio.”

“Off.”

“Not recognised.”

The voices drone on. In the end I turn the volume down all the way. That will have to do for now.

The voice of the car makes me feel like a dimwit. I daresay I won’t be talking to it very much.

And I’m missing old Grumpy.

Grumpy is now living in Wales. I know this because his new owner rang last night to ask about the service book. I thought I’d left it in the car, but it turns out it’s still in my hall-table drawer. I don’t know how the new owner got my number. I didn’t sell Grumpy to him. I traded Grumpy in to the dealer for a pittance, because Grumpy needed work, and I hope they did the work before selling the car on. The dealer must have passed on my number which was naughty of them, but they’ve like as not already sold it round the world anyway, so it hardly matters. And the new owner seems pleased with Grumpy. I’m glad he’s found a good home. Ages since I was in Wales.

The Focus is a decent car and, in the main, looking pretty sound. The blurb extols the virtues of this new-fangled Ecoboost engine with twin clutch automatic transmission – claims I can get 40 mpg in mixed motoring. But 36.4 seems to be the limit so far, even driving with a feather touch, and I was getting that out of Grumpy without trying. And Grumpy had a bigger, older engine, and a dull old torque converter gearbox. One wonders at the fuss and blather. Still, the Focus is half the road tax of Grumpy, and that’s the equivalent of a couple of tyres.

I’ve not seen it properly yet in daylight. Not even sure of the colour – sort of blue-grey. I bought it in the pouring rain, and it’s been raining ever since, except on the few occasions when it’s been dark. That’s what it’s like. Wintertime. The commuter mule is mostly invisible. You go to it in the morning, demist it, brush away the snow, scrape the frost,.. whatever. Then it conveys you to the dayjob at an average speed of 22 miles per hour.

But it smells nice inside, smells of “new car”, a scent you can apparently buy, and which the dealer has clearly been very liberal with. It’s comfortable, quiet, plenty of poke when you want it,… and the dashboard lights up very prettily indeed. The transmission is strange – the odd bump and shuffle, but I think this is normal for a twin clutch auto. Yes, it’s fine. It’ll do.

But,…

It does not exactly make me smile.

I have another car, not for commuting. It spends much of the winter in the garage, gathering dust, avoiding the wet and the frost. What with one thing or another I’ve not been out in it for a couple of weeks. It’s my old Mazda MX5. It’s noisy, has a gearbox that takes an hour of running before it’s silky smooth; it has an engine as tight as a duck’s bottom unless you shamelessly thrash it. It smells of venting battery and damp, is brutally hard sprung, clatters over the bumps, rattles your teeth, and the rag-top is fraying,…

The rain stopped briefly on Sunday, and a winter sun peeped through just long enough to dry the roads. So I backed the Mazda out and took her for a spin to keep her limber. She warmed quickly and began to enjoy the road. Yes the Mazda enjoys the road. I know she does. I feel it in her bones. Smooth she’s not, quiet she’s not, but, oh,… what a joy that Mazda is to drive.

And yet,…

This morning the frost was layered thick upon the Focus while the Mazda slept in, snug beneath her blanket. It was a hard sheen of ice with jewelled drops, and a fine fuzz of dendritic growth on top, like a snowy fungus. It all was a glitter under a shivery clear skied dawn. Two clicks on the dashboard and the heated front and rear screens had the car ready to go in a minute. The ice capitulated.

“So,” says the Focus, “you want to go? Well come on then. Stop messing about. Quit blathering about the road-poetry of that flipping Mazda. Let’s go!”

The back roads were a sheen of black. The Mazda would have tested my nerves and risked a nose-dive into the ditch at the first bend. With the Focus I dared to test traction with a dab on the brakes. It responded with the sure footed grind of ABS, came crouching to a straight line stop. Safe as houses.

“Well, what did you expect?” it says. “High drama? Pirouettes?”

And then: “Listen,” it says, “What you get with me is the A to B. I’m about getting you there when getting there is what matters. That flighty little Mazda is about catching up all the bits you’ve missed inbetween, and only when the sun is shining.”

Makes sense at last. Respect. If I’m not careful I’ll be giving it a name.

Just waiting for one that sticks.

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Vauxhall Astra at RivingtonMore days of endless, heavy rainfall leave the meadows sodden, rich veins of silver showing in the furrows and the ditches. Long days and nights are spent listening to the rattle of the rain against the glass. And then this afternoon, with just a few hours before it sets, the sun slides clear and the meadows take on a lush, luminous green beneath streaks of lapis blue and brilliant white. I pull on my winter coat and venture out, spirits lifting, but it’s a shy sun, dipping in again as soon as I curl my fingers around the camera for a headline shot.

And the wind bites. It has been warm thus far, but this brief clearing brings with it a more seasonal cold, and the lakes that have formed in the corner dips of the meadows are wind-combed to a nervous texture, obliterating a calmer reflected sky. Meanwhile the black earth oozes bits of red-brick, potatoes, and carrots,  all squishy and ruined, and the hay bales loosen. They buckle at the knees, shed their black wrappings and capitulate to the wet and wind. I smell mud, and rain. Walking by the farm gates I smell silage – musty, sweet. I have not smelled either in a long time – a recovering sense of smell yields unexpected memories now at every turn.

shadowmanIt’s a meditative walk, this walk across the moss beyond my gates – seizing the opportunity of oxygen before the promised rains return tomorrow. My birthday.

And I’m thinking on the fact my car is broken. I am thinking cars are second only to womankind in the litany of a man’s woes. We think about them all the time, cherish the good, lament the bad, and fear always the pain of permanent damage, of loss.

It’s been a permanently squeaky hinge since I bought it, this car, nearly new, some eight years ago. And already its age puts it beyond economical repair. This is disappointing. At 92,000 miles, I’d thought a 1.8 litre engine had a few more years in it yet. But an ominous camshaft rattle at low revs has it sounding like a diesel, and the engine management warning light is flashing intermittent excuses in a trade-code the mechanic has deciphered to “very expensive”.

lines of lightTime to move it on, he says with a shake of his wise old head, time to let the trade decide its fate – restoration or scrap. Time for the punter to buy a newer commuter mule, less miles on the clock, less of a money pit. But this continuing investment in the need to earn a living has me wondering if it would not be cheaper to stay at home, to retire, to fade out, to fizzle into the white noise of all that rain hurled against the glass, these dark winter nights, to begin the glide to death, and the inevitable return to earth among the ooze of squishy carrots and potatoes? Strange thought indeed.

I know; energy is still lacking after a bout of flu. Washing the car in speculative readiness of a trip to the dealer takes my breath away. The walk then renders my head light, and my bones heavy. I trust these morbid thoughts will pass as strength and light returns. There’s a nice red Ford Focus I’ve been half fancying on Autotrader, then dismissing in equal measure. If the dealer still has it tomorrow, I suppose I might just take a look.

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PS_20150130152500Heavy rain this morning, driven in great curtains by a roaring wind that had even the stoutest of trees swaying. The Motorway was shiny-slick with an ominous standing wet, visibility down to as far as the end of old Grumpy’s bonnet, so we crawled along at a cautious fifty, buffeted by unpredictable gusts while the fast lane streaked by pretty much as usual, sending up smoke.

It was turning to snow as we approached the borders of Greater Manchester, translucent splats landing like suicidal moths upon the screen, to be brushed away at once by Grumpy’s fussy, squealy wipers. The wash I’m using is all smeary, though it advertises itself as Super-clear, and Streak free! But like much in life our words these days boil down to little more than shallow promises. We have to look deeper for the truth of things.

Visibility clears but slowly, and by then the wipers are crossing again, dragging out more smeary mess. They mark time, mark the blurry rhythm of my life: forty miles a day, two hours drive-time, and a day job shift between. 38 years, this year. Winters are the hardest. There is nothing else to do but buckle down and weather them.

The car was a warm cocoon against the elements, against a season that is characteristically bitter, laughing at our scurrying haste, at our fragility. There was an accident here, some weeks ago, four cars caught up in what I guess began as a nose-to tail-ender. It finished with one car crushed beyond recognition, the others bent and spun off at dizzy angles. I was two hours late that night, a night lit up with the combined electric blue halo of a fleet of excited cop cruisers. The whole filthy, roaring ribbon of road was hushed, three lanes bottled down to one, the rush-hour tailback ten miles long. Meanwhile, the coppers brushed furiously at crystal shards, as I waited my turn at the clearing-gate. Others stood guard over the fluorescent coned perimeter, brusquely waving on the rubber-neckers.

I was two hours late home last night too. I don’t know what the problem was; it’s often like this now – just the way things are. I waited out the gridlock on a shopping mall carpark rather than inching bit by bit along the road. Depressing places, shopping malls on a cold winter’s night, but they do at least have food of a fashion, and toilets for the marooned. While I was there, I wandered into a swanky bed-shop, thinking to kill time by browsing pillows. I’ve had a stiff neck lately, and I’m thinking my old saggy pillow might be the problem. The lady sat in this cavernous emporium, presiding over rows of inviting divans – she was middle aged and smartly uniformed in the livery of her employer’s brand. Her smile dimmed only a little when I told her a pillow was all I wanted.

So she showed me her pillows, and I liked the way her hands patted them down and fluffed them up. She invited me to try them out on one of her beds, to lay my head upon them and feel their quality. There was something sweet in this, my fatigue lending the encounter something of a surreal quality – just she and I in this vast palace of beds. I said I would be embarrassed, which was strange, and she laughed, said I mustn’t feel that way. But I also felt unwashed and unshaved, too dirty from my day for any of her nice clean beds, and this of course was a thing not for explaining. She was, I think, in the briefest moment of our exchange, proxy for a curious kind of muse, and my sense of unworthiness was itself a telling thing.

I was persuaded there is much to be said for a quality pillow. It is, after all, where we lay our heads at the end of the day, their comfort a balmy isle, oner would hope, from which we set sail each night, on course for the more distant land of dreams. She did not tell me this, of course, but I was thinking it. And as I handed over my card I noticed her nails were shapely and painted different colours, and I fell momentarily in love, as an adept with his priestess. But I’m an old hand at spotting the faerie and I know such creatures are not for loving, living as they do inside our heads, and only pretending to be at large in the world. I crawled home at going up for eight; indigestion from my McBurger-tea, and a coffee hardly worth the name, but I slept well on my fresh duck-downy pillow, dreamed of windmills blown flat, and crumbling towers spilling grain into the wind like vast murmurations of tiny birds.

So,…

Where are we now? Coming up to my junction.

A motorbike roars past me, doing seventy. I’ve ridden a bike in the long ago, and I know the rain stings at forty, that it mists your visor so you can barely see. A twitch, a sneeze, the slightest unexpected thing, and down you go. I know; I’ve gone – hit the deck and rolled – the bike one way and me the other; walked away, then ached for years.

If he would only back off a little, tuck in behind me and old Grumpy for a while, he’d surely be safe. At least I hope so. Pray God, don’t let me die on the commute! Let it be on a warm summer’s day with a vaulted sky, on a hushed mountain top, or laying down among the bee-buzzed heather, with the larks rising; not here on this filthy stretch of miserable road, grovelling for a crust. I’m reminded though the Reaper rarely works to a time-table that permits us such dignified exits, that he has a penchant for hammering in the full stops. Before the sentence is properly ended. It’s wise to be cautious, not to tempt fate in the teeth of a howling gale, but he’ll get you however he likes in the end, so maybe we should just say to hell with it? And crash on recklessly.

Not a good choice of word when driving on the Motorway: Crash.

Mornings are a fraction lighter now, dawn advancing to the drive-times, so I arrive at least in daylight. The nights are still a hopeless case though, darkness overtaking before I’ve even joined the tail end of the red lighted queue that’ll ever so sluggishly lead me home. It’s at home my flighty little rag-top dozes under a dust-sheet in the mouse-scented garage. She only emerges these days, sleepy eyed, when the rare dry spells, and that pale winter sun, coincide with a weekend. Then she gambols in the brief openings such short days afford, while Grumpy sleeps, his week’s commuting done. She’s waiting for the spring, dreaming of a summer like the last one. And so am I. A part of me rests with her now, warmed by the memory of other times, while the remainder of me sits in this rain-washed traffic yet again, buffeted by the wind, a dull chatter coming from the radio, a voice bleating on about all the snows yet to come.

mazda in garageI think of the feel of that quality pillow, and I think of the woman who picked it out, sitting alone among her beds, late into the night, each night, and I wonder if she remembers me. I fancy the pillow has a comfort now charged with meaning by those hands that so nicely plumped and patted as if to bless, and will surely guide me safe to much warmer, and more fertile climes than these.

Sweet dreams.

 

 

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Persephone

persephoneMonday morning black as death,
First rain in ages pours as if from taps
Through gaps in gutters,
Baked long in the summer dry.

Cold wind at my elbow
Begs with menace.
She is gone, she is gone,
He cries.

There’s glee in that cracked old grin,
Glee as old as sin,
And he dances, kicks the bottles,
And the bins,
Sends them skittering.

His wizened hand, clawed,
Tugs my coat for coin,
And gloats his wicked work to see,
This awful morn,
The taking of my Persephone.

My summer love, my faery Queen,
My comfort and my rest,
Turned out into this foetid dawn.
Torn clouds, the ragged weeds,
In which she’s dressed.

Where is her beauty now?
He brays.
Her dance of summer all disarrayed,
Her flowers flattened in the dirt.
Now, he says, now you’ll pay,
And dance more to my funeral dirge.

Winter darkness drawing in,
He crows how she must once more
Make her bed with him.
His hands, cold ice and vile to touch.
Yet heed me well, I know this much:
She will not smile his joy to see,
Not like she has smiled for me.

So be gone, beggar, from my door,
Do your worst,
Let wild wind roar, and river burst,
Let oak tree creak,
And chimney moan,
And each day turn me out from home,
To sit in stagnant traffic washed,
By filthy winter storm.

And I shall remember the lingering kiss,
The loving touch, and how each gift,
With summer grace she showed.
A jewel each, a glassy bead,
All sunshine filled, and each the seed
Of her return to sow.

 

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