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man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A MillsThis life’s dim windows of the soul,
Distort the heavens from pole to pole,
And leads you to believe a lie,
When you see with, not through the eye.

The Eternal Gospel – Blake.

A man enters the forest to cut wood. He hears music, discovers a beautiful woman dancing. She invites him to join her, and he has the time of his life, returns, stars still in his eyes, to find decades have passed, that all who knew him are gone, and he no longer has a place in the world. It’s a classic encounter with the Faery, and the meaning of it – for there is always a meaning – suggests that having once experienced the limitless bliss of the other-world, you have to find a way of forgetting it, or you cannot live in this one.

Or it might have happened the other way around, because there’s always an inverse to these things. A man enters the forest, encounters the dancing woman who lures him into an eternal life of merriment, romance and where all is wonderful. Decades pass before he tires of it – for humans will always tire of endless pleasure – and he craves a return to life, craves its imperfections, even the time bound nature of the human condition. He’s thinking all who knew him will surely be gone by now but, on his return, he discovers no time has lapsed at all and he merely picks up where he left off. The story here might be telling us the world will always find a place for those who grasp that crucial insight regarding the value of limitation in human affairs.

I’m not sure where these ideas come from, but they’re nagging me to attempt a contemporary story along similar lines, and I’m resisting it. But the more I resist, the more they nag and intrigue. I’d thought they were from Irish Faery lore, but in the main it’s mortal women and children the Celtic Faery are fond of kidnapping, suggestive of a different kind of moral altogether.

Then again it may have been something imagined or dreamed, and it’s a beguiling concept, that such ideas are eternal and floating about, waiting to be picked up by the passing mind, and it’s helpful if you can understand them. All myths come from an archetypal substrate and speak to us in a symbolic language, apparently seeking influence over human affairs.

The Faery were once understood as daemonic entities, not literally existing, but still real, visible only through the inner eye, as Blake once put it, a vision overlaid with the filter of imagination. It takes a kind of madness then, seeing fairies – indeed Wordsworth did say Blake was mad and he may have right – but not all daemonic expression is mad in a bad way. It can also be visionary. On the downside though, daemonic rumblings can spread like wildfire, leading to a dangerous shift in the Zeitgeist, to orgies of rage, to mindless persecution of the “other”, and to killing.

We needn’t look very far to find evidence of the daemonic at work in the contemporary world and have only to listen to the voices coming at us from formerly sane quarters, voices of unreason that can both pedal and believe in lies, even knowing them to be lies. For just as one half of the daemonic possess a heavenly form and fey, courtly manners, the other half knows no bounds to its depths of depravity, duplicity and ugliness. An obvious place to find it is in the comments of any social media, for once we discover the cloak of invisibility, it is the darker daemons that speak through us, and their language is foul.

This ambivalence of the daemonic is perplexing, and not something we can control nor every wholly trust in. When the genie is out of the bottle the story never ends well, except in Disneyland, because humans are outwitted with ease by the daemonic mind. Better then to ram the cork back in, cast the bottle into the sea and hope no one else finds it. Except it is the genii, the daemons themselves that seek us. And we just can’t help falling under their spell.

They require far more circumspection than we possess, especially at times of crisis, for they are the crisis, as if the daemons have gone to war with themselves, and it’s only when the Godly win out do we find peace again. But it’s never lasting, more cyclical, and I fear every other generation must learn these lessons anew.

So my guy goes into the forest, dallies only for a moment with fey beauty, because it’s infinitely preferable to the ugliness of the world he’s living in. But the world he returns to, decades later, is even worse, a world where voices threaten murder at every turn, and he witnesses a population cowering in fear and paranoia. But what’s the lesson in that, when there seems no solution to it? Are we merely to lay down and submit to such a fate, while the daemons rage war in our heads?

If we only knew them better, might we find a way to petition for a more lasting peace? But they’ve been with us since the beginning of time and if we don’t know them by now, will we ever? Or did we once, but in the rush to embrace reason, we have forgotten the Daemonic within us all, and thereby offended them?

I’m ill equipped to understand where any of this is going, lacking both the Blakean vision to see what I’m talking about, and the language to express it. And I fear in the end it doesn’t matter, because wherever the daemons lead, we follow, even if it’s off a cliff edge, and it’s really no comfort to be able say you had the eye on them all the time, and that you saw it coming.

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wordsworthTwo by two they marched into St Oswald’s churchyard, the entire complement of a seventy seater coach. At their head a suited guide, complete with microphone, broadcast his authoritative commentary over the ethereal hush. It was a vast entourage of American tourists, well heeled and,… damn, they were heading in our direction, seeking Wordsworth’s grave. It was a bold flanking manoeuvre, completely overwhelming us few native poetry bums who had gathered there. We took a deep breath, prepared to stand our ground, prepared also for our politeness to scatter us into the shadows.

There were a lot of American accents in Grasmere this afternoon and a busy-busy atmosphere pervading the early autumnal air. In the cafe queue, earlier, I’d been pressed aside by an assertive and impressively articulate dude complaining his sandwich was taking a long time and that he was under “very considerable time constraint”. This poor guy was on holiday, but he was still caught up in the world of work, in the achievement culture. I recognised his accent, his idiosyncratic use of language. It pinpointed him squarely in the nether geography of performance reviews, and endless Powerpoint presentations. I wondered if he was in this queue now, the queue for Wordsworth’s grave, a similar time constraint weighing heavy – Dove cottage and the visitor centre yet to be ticked off. And boy, there were so many graves with Wordsworth’s name written on them. Thank heavens for the tour guide and his live-broadcast commentary to home in on the essentials.

I moved on as the guide came up pointing out the poet’s resting place. Sadly he was pointing to the wrong William. It’s an easy mistake to make, but I would have expected better research from one so prepossessing as this. Willy (1810-1883), had not followed in his father’s (1770-1850) poetic footsteps, but on reflection the faux pas didn’t matter, at least not in the world inhabited by these poor souls. They had done the grave thing, ticked the box. Most would probably not remember and somehow it all meshed perfectly with the achievement culture thing: Britain by tick-box, the myth of old Englandism: a vibrant, if at times raggedy and fiercely intellectual nation reduced to no more than frock coats, bustles and Mr Darcy’s wet trousers.

To think, poor William and his family have to put up with this sort of thing every day!

I have a difficult relationship with Wordsworth. I read him like all fan-boys as if looking for the key to my own enlightenment. I do find him occasionally profound, but also pompous and immensely verbose. He walked the fells as feverishly as I walked them in my younger days, but at a time when they were not so worn out, when the paths were vague, known only to shepherds, and orange peel did not litter the summits. But the Victorians in all their chocolate box glory were also notable that in their fondness for the sublime they also had a penchant for bludgeoning it to death with words whenever it put in an appearance.

Other philosophers, of the Zen Tradition, in lands far away, had already worked out one could not define the sublime by rich, eloquent and, above all, copious wordery. The poet Basho is a case in point, writing two centuries earlier than Wordsworth, and with a stunning brevity, his Haiku verses connected the human mind with the sublime without attempting to describe it. When words fail us, it’s for a reason and it’s best at that point just to shut up and let nature fill the space in our heads.

But when our heads are enamoured of the schedule and all those dubious measures of achievement, when we are for ever under the cosh of “considerable time constraint”, it’s really all the same if it’s Willy or William we’re looking at because by then the truth is of no consequence and bluff and fakery will suffice perfectly well instead for fact.

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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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fingerless watchIn the closing stages of my novel “By Fall of Night”, lovers Tim and Rebecca linger in a world between realities, a world of mutual dreaming where time has no meaning and from where they’ve discovered they can wake back to any previous moment in their lives. This is just as well because they’ve also discovered that to return to their original lives means certain death, because an asteroid is about to strike the earth. But to avoid it by skipping realities is also to risk waking in separate branches of the multiverse, where Tim and Rebecca don’t exist for one another any more.

So, they bide as long as they can in the interstitial dream domain, resisting the call to wake up while they wrestle with the dilemma. They visit a cafe, as you do, because, as the saying goes – if in doubt, have a brew. Here they meet up with fellow dream-traveller William Wordsworth who, in the course of a somewhat poetical conversation over tea and scones, draws from the pocket of his waistcoat a watch with no fingers.

What time is it? Who can tell? And does it really matter?

This slightly Dalian dream-scene is taken from free-running imagination. It was not consciously plotted, and like much of my fiction needs to be interpreted with the looseness of a dream counsellor, rather than the clinical precision of the literary critic. What you get with me is something irrational, but since I’m just a different version of you, such things are not entirely meaningless to either of us. They are archetypal, and therefore infuriatingly obtuse to us both – yet I hope as intriguing and attractive to you, as they also are to me.

In my own version of reality a fascination with time – and in particular time-pieces – leaks through from the dream world. I wrote before Christmas about buying a broken clock, then spending a day or two cleaning it up and getting it going. Well, I went back to that same junk emporium after Christmas and found another worthless hunk of brass – this time a proper clock with springs and gears and such, this time more properly broken.

And here it is:

koma clock1It’s a torsion clock, more commonly known as an anniversary clock. They were designed to run for about 400 days from a single wind. You can usually spot them by the spinning balls. I think there’s something rather grand about them, but most of them you see these days are battery driven plastic fakes. With the original design the idea was you’d be given the clock as a gift – retirement, wedding, birthday and such, and each year, on the anniversary, you’d wind the clock to keep it going for another year. It’s a quaint idea, though now somewhat out of date (changing the battery on your birthday doesn’t have the same romantic appeal). They’re obsolete of course, though there are still plenty of these old tickers around. It’s just that the skills for maintaining them are increasingly rare and terribly expensive.

This one carries the brand “Prescott” crudely glued onto the dial, and is a bit of a misnomer – hinting at the long tradition of clock and watch making that went on in Prescott, near Liverpool, up to about 1912. But the mechanism is by Konrad Mauch, a German company who manufactured anniversary clocks from 1950 to 1958, so the Prescott thing is a bit of a mystery for now. I bought the clock with a label telling me it “needs attention” i.e. “bust”, but that was all right. In truth, I thought the clock was ugly, and I wanted it only to strip it down and learn what I could about this type of movement.

Although rather delicate and precise in their construction, there’s actually not much to go wrong with a torsion clock. They move so slowly, even ancient examples show little wear. What usually happens is the oil turns to gum over time and the torsion wire that holds the spinning balls gets kinked or broken. Either way the clock stops. So, the original owner contacts a professional clock-maker for an estimate for repair, gets quoted an eye-wateringly huge figure, and the clock goes in the attic, and later for junk.

To be honest, professional clock-makers can be a bit stuck up – I know because I’ve spoken to a few. They rightly value their skills, honed at the bench over a lifetime, but that was most likely a long time ago, and with maintenance free black-box  movements nowadays being churned out by the billion, one must be realistic. It means mechanical clocks are nowadays only for the rich, or the interested tinkerer. And tinkerers don’t always have the skills or the patience for work like this.

With my clock, the torsion wire was both busted and kinked, and the key was missing. I cleaned it all up by hand, degreased it with Methylated spirits and a little brush, cleaned up the holes in the plates with sharpened match-sticks, replaced the wire with the help of online info, oiled it all sparingly with proper clock oil, ordered a new key from the Bay, and got it running nicely, those little balls spinning slowly, mesmerisingly for days on end. But if I put the fingers back on, it stops.

It reminds me of Wordsworth’s watch – dreams leaking into fiction, and leaking into fact.

Oh, I know – in dull, practical terms it means I’m still missing something with the mechanism, that there’s something about it I don’t yet understand. But still, the metaphor is interesting. The anniversary clock marks time. The spinning balls rotate, they oscillate slowly – 8 beats a minute in the case of this little mechanism. But at such a leisurely pace, even small errors add up to something significant – the anniversary clock is not renowned for its accuracy. By contrast the quartz resonator in your modern clock operates at nearer 546 beats a minute, a pace at which small errors don’t make so much difference – seconds a month as opposed to minutes – but both are essentially mechanisms that approximate to an arbitrary unit of time. My mechanism runs, but what is it counting as its little balls spin? I put the fingers on, and the clock stops. It counts nothing, actually. And I can’t help wondering about that.

As I spend time cleaning it up and fiddling with it, the old clock begins to grow on me. I wonder what anniversary it was originally bought to celebrate. If it was a retirement in the 1950’s, its original owner probably died in the 1970’s and the clock might have been through several hands since then, or lingered lost in some damp old attic. Or was it a family piece perhaps? In one sense, it’s a shame such memories are lost, yet equally, I prefer to avoid timepieces that are clearly marked with a memorial engraving because to me that full stops the device in time and prevents me from adding something of my own momentum to it.

It may take me much of 2015 to get this old clock running properly and marking time as it should, but already, it’s taught me a lot – not just about torsion mechanisms and their idiosyncrasies. It reminds me that time is, in essence, simply we what make of it, and four hundred days is really neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things – a key wind or two, an accumulation of slow swings of the pendulum, but always an approximation to a reality we can never hope to fully grasp.

Happy New year to all.

Thanks for listening.

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alcock tarn 2The mountain tarns of the Lake District are as worthy an objective for a day’s hike as the mountaintops, particularly as we age and begin to linger longer in appreciation of their character. Once a curiosity glimpsed in passing en route for a lofty summit cairn, I now collect them in the same way I once bagged peaks. A mountain tarn is indeed a special place, bringing something of the sky down to the earth, mirroring the mood of both the day and the man.

Alcock tarn sits on a shelf above Butter Crags. Beyond it rises the massive grassy flank of Heron Pike, one of several summits on the Fairfield Horseshoe route. Look east from Grasmere and the tarn lies hidden, about half way up that wall of green, just above the highest reach of the pernicious bracken. On paper, it makes for a decent half-day’s walk, though somewhat steep, but all walks yield more on the ground than their paper promises, and so it is with Alcock tarn. At just over 1100 feet, it’s a modest enough climb, but I wouldn’t underestimate it.

My guide to the tarns of Lakeland is the water-colourist, William Heaton Cooper. He describes it as a modest and pleasant sheet of water, a mirror of the distant sky, as one looks southward towards the lowlands, Windermere and the sea. An experienced mountaineer, and native of Cumberland, Heaton Cooper would use this walk as an introduction to the fells for anyone new to him and whose “mountain form” was unknown.

I’m not sure what he would have made of me. My mountain form is best described as sluggish these days. Though I’m up a hill most weeks now, the ascent from the foot of Greenhead Ghyll was a “several stopper”, sometimes hands on knees, sometimes in full rest mode on sit mat and with binoculars drawn. My consolation lay in the knowledge that the fellsides here are uncommonly steep, and an ascent is always harder when walking alone.

The weather in the valleys was gloomy-hot, cloud base scraping 1500′, truncating the tops and trapping the heat to make a very steamy day. Humidity was 85%, so it was a very sweaty climb. A sleepy clag hugged the fellsides, ghost-horses drifting down. A light rain had me pulling on my new walking jacket, but its breathability soon proved to be disappointing; before I’d climbed a hundred feet I was wet from the inside out. And hot. Even the rain that day was warm.

The fells were silent, just the sound of my own breath on the ascent. I was thinking of my uncle as I climbed, a veteran of Dunkirk. Following the evacuation he spent the years up to 1945 training in the mountains around Fort William, with the Highland Light Infantry. By the time he embarked for Normandy, he told me he and his mates were like stags. Their mountain form must have been akin to superhuman, and a thing to be envied, though not of course the task that lay ahead of them.

I paused to rest below Butter Crags, once I’d cleared the thickest of the bracken. Bracken is a notorious habitat for sheep ticks, carriers of Lyme disease, and I’ve read they’re on the rise in the Lakes, but have yet to encounter any myself. The only problem I have with it is there’s nothing like pushing your way through its wet ferny fronds for soaking you to the skin. It also stinks at this time of year.

From there, the vale of Grasmere glowed without sun, something luminous in the mown meadows, far below, and which warmed an otherwise sleepy grey. I could see DunmaiI Raise, the steep climb of the ever busy A591 carrying tourists over the pass, on to Thirlmere and beyond. Dunmail was the last true native Celtic King. He met his end in a battle with the Saxons and the Scots in 945. Routed, his surviving clansmen rescued his crown and fled with it up the nick of Raise Beck and on to Grisedale tarn, where they hurled it beneath the dark waters for safe keeping.

King Dunmail rests in the huge pile of stones at the summit that bears his name, and by which there now flash thousands of careless cars every day. But once a year, the spirits of his clansmen return with the crown and bang on the cairn, wakening their sleeping King, and urging him to take up the crown once more. Each time he tells them the time has not yet come. Other more prosaic accounts have him dying on a pilgrimage in 975. I prefer the former myth which has something archetypal about it, like an Arthurian legend. But then the Celts  were always better story tellers than the Saxons.

I remember the climb to Grisedale tarn up Raise Beck. I did it in 1993, on a wild day in the company of friends. We went on to climb Helvellyn. The mountain was dark and angry, snow spiralling in a finger numbing, aggressive wind, and there was a feeling as we climbed, of coming to the world’s end. It was a Saturday afternoon, March 20th, the day the IRA bombed Warrington. I heard of it on the car radio, on the drive home. They had left two devices in rubbish bins on Bridge Street, a crowded shopping centre. The first device drove panicking survivors into the path of the second device. Fifty four were injured, two young boys killed. There were lots of bombings on the mainland throughout the course of the troubles, but that one was closest to home for me, and will be for ever associated with that climb up Raise Beck and onto an angry mountain.

It was an evil day.

The tragic overtones of Grizedale Tarn are carried on in the story of the Brother’s Parting Stone. It was here in 1800 William Wordsworth last said farewell to his brother, John. John was leaving Cumberland to take up command of a British East Indiaman, the Earl of Abergavenny, into which he had sunk his fortune. The vessel was lost off Portland Bill, and John drowned. Some say the event marked a steady decline in Wordsworth’s poetry.

But anyway, on to Alcock tarn!

It comes upon one suddenly, a pleasant sheet of water, as Heaton Cooper says, reedy at its northern end, and a mirror for a steely sky. Looking south along its length it forms an infinity pool, the great sliver ribbon of Windermere and the southern Lakes beyond. I’d seen not a soul all morning, but here I came upon pair already settled in with sketchbooks and watercolours. The mountains held their breath, the only sound was a lone duck dabbling in mud among the reeds at my feet. I fired off a rare haiku tweet to that effect but it felt cheap and shallow compared to the deeply patient deliberations of these two artists. All is not lost, I was thinking, that there are those still willing and able to take the time for al-fresco water-colouring.

I gave them space, waved to let them know I was harmless, then settled down to ponder over my notebook and a poem for which the muse had delivered the first two lines complete the night before, and left me to fill in the blanks. But the words would not come, and the silence was eventually broken by a party of talkers which put an end to my deliberations. They sat down not five yards from me, a flock of gassy old birds, treating me to a voluble warts and all expose of their various intimate lives and which sent the lone duck off in search of quieter waters. They had not seen me. My walking gear has morphed from fashionable fluorescence to unobtrusive greens over the years. With my hood pulled up, monk-like and sitting still in a little clutch of crags, I had apparently vanished, blurred out of the misty, muggy world, so that when I later rose to pack my things away, I gave one old bird a satisfying fright.

Sorry, dear, but I was there first.

Perfect as a circular walk, the route continues south, becoming quite airy on the descent, then fast losing itself in the densely forested glades above Town End, and the broad, well made tracks that lead you unerringly home. A couple of quiet hours up, then an hour down brings you back to the bustle of the many-peopled Wordswortharium.

I took coffee in the garden-centre cafe, and pondered the old Celtic legends. King Dunmail has been a long time dead now, and I wondered at the meaning of his clansmen keeping faith with him year on year. I wondered too what counsel he might offer in addition to his persistent procrastination as regards his throne. For me, I realised, while taking that break on the climb to Alcock tarn, he had pointed out the long lay-by beside the 591.

“Next time you come here, lad,” he said, “Get up a bit earlier. Park your car there in future, for free! And stop moaning about Broadgate Meadow!”

I shall.

It seems I have friends in high places!

alcock tarn

Alcock Tarn, Grasmere, Cumbria

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Grasmere

Grasmere

Grasmere boils in a soporific heat. The air weighs heavily on arms and legs, sapping will and thought. There are spy cameras on the Broadgate Meadow carpark now. They read number plates, and a computer is delegated the task of detecting dodgers. It’s £7, if you want to park your car for over four hours – a day’s walking. The sign says you can pay by debit/credit card – no need for all that loose change, which is as well because £7.00 worth of  change weighs a lot in your pocket. The machine will even text you when your ticket is about to expire, which is useful, but I note there is a surcharge for this service. There are plenty of spaces, but I don’t need one. My lady’s Corsa is on the hotel carpark where the sign says they will clamp you, charge you £25 to release you, and won’t do so until after 10:00 pm, so you’d better have a really good reason for being there. We do; we are guests.

My lady and I buy a £5 bottle of wine from the Cooperative store and sneak it up to the room rather than pay hotel prices. We sneak the empties out again in the morning, deposit them surreptitiously in the bin on the village green. We have difficulty accepting we are grown up enough not to be told off for such things. The hotel boasts four stars, and is expensive, but you only celebrate your silver wedding once. The food is mostly very good. The portions are small but very pretty on the plate, and flavoursome. You rise from the table gratified, but not uncomfortable. I do not rave over haute cuisine, often getting annoyed at those pompous celebrity chef programmes where they enthuse over mashed potato as if it were the answer to the middle east crisis. I am weakening to the aesthetics now, but not the price.

We walked around Grasmere lake, which is mostly road and busy, but flat, as suits my lady. There were disposable barbecues burned out and disposed of down by White Moss Common, little bags of dog poo and suspicious bits of brown smeared tissue under the bushes. It discouraged us from sitting down to picnic. This has always been a popular area, but the stress is showing, town-greyness seeping in. People smiled and said hello.

I stole a look at the Rock of Names up by the Dove Cottage visitor centre, but I thought it looked a touch jaded, though in retrospect this was probably my imagination, still suffering the assault of those bags of dog poo and bits of tissue. The light was difficult, so I did not bother with a photograph. We were not tempted to pay entrance to the visitor centre itself, which had ingeniously linked the work of Wordsworth with Matsuo Basho. I would not have made that link myself, but as I think of it, I see the connection in some of Wordsworth’s lines – he could be very Zen, though in the main far more wordy than the master of Haiku. Both poets walked immense distances, and used plain language. Basho is as revered in Japan as Wordsworth in the UK. There are many Japanese tourists still making pilgrimage to Grasmere.

Rydal Mount

Rydal Mount

As an attraction, I prefer Rydal Mount. Wordsworth spent most of his life there, but is more associated with Dove Cottage, his years in that place being reckoned by the literati to have been his best, poetically speaking. But one has only to visit Rydal Mount to intuit this house must have given him by far the greater joy and comfort. There is not the room to swing a cat at Dove Cottage and only one room with any decent light at all. Rydal Mount, by contrast, is flooded with it.

St Oswalds church in Grasmere has installed musical bells now. At certain hours we are treated to a few verses of a hymn. At 10:00 am we have “Morning is broken”, at 4:00 pm we have “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended” which my lady dislikes as she says it is for funerals. “To Thine be the Glory” is at 2:00 pm which is more jolly. I have visited Wordsworth’s grave twice, the second occasion to look for Hartley, eldest son of STC, and who is located just behind the Wordsworth family. While there I was able to point out to fellow visitors the correct Wordsworth, as there are a lot of them in the cemetery and it can be confusing. I used to struggle as well, but the clue is he died in 1850. To his left is beloved brother John, to his right, beloved daughter Dora. To John’s left, beloved sister, the ever enigmatic Dorothy.

The musical strikes remind us this is a Christian, Anglican, sacred place as well as a tourist attraction. There’s a lot of nature mysticism in Wordsworth’s poetry, but the bells also remind us he sang hymns with gusto. On a busy day in Grasmere, with tourists spilling from the pavements, it’s hard to imagine anything like a profound, spiritual stillness, but if you sit a while in pew at St Oswald’s, you will find it.

At Rydal Mount there is a copy of Wordsworth’s letter declining the poet laureateship on account of his advancing years. It is very beautifully worded. We do not write like that any more. Friend Robert Peel – the PM – assured him nothing would be required of him in return, so Wordsworth accepted.

I have the impression, mostly subliminal, I owe a lot to my reading of this man’s life and work – though his life be tending now towards myth. His work is like the Dao De Jing, meaning nothing without the ears to hear, except for Daffodils – but I think that was more Dorothy’s bidding, and beautiful in a different kind of way. I hear him more clearly now than I used to do, but still have a long way to go. I find it easier to read his poems in a plain north country accent. I don’t know Shakespeare at all, find him inaccessible by comparison, but I understand this is my own ignorance talking.

By coincidence fellow blogger Bottledworder posts an excerpt from Intimations of Immortality which I pick up via the hotel’s free wi fi.

Dinner here costs £38 per person. Coffee is extra. I do not aspire to a lifestyle where such things can be taken for granted. Wordsworth made nothing as a poet. The Prelude was published posthumously to little applause. Only now is it respected. Again, a north country accent helps in the reading of it.

£5.00 for two coffee’s in the garden centre, but the staff were friendly, unlike their trip advisor review which accused them of being surly – which only goes to show, one must treat all publicly voiced opinion with circumspection, to whit:

In my current work in progress, the protagonist, Timothy Magowan, a jaded teacher of English literature, and tweedy man of middle years, has nothing good to say about Grasmere. I have been known to say unkind things about it myself, so it’s something of a turn-up to be temporarily resident again. I dislike the cost of things and the apparent disdain in which the tourist is held, whilst being simultaneously milked as a cashcow, but I’m willing to make an effort if Grasmere can prove itself to be more accommodating, meet me half way. But then we do not see the world – including Grasmere – as it is, but only as we are.

The weather is set to cool by midweek, with the promise of a light, refreshing rain. I may venture up to Alcock Tarn, seek company among the skylarks.

So, to finish, Wordsworth and Basho,… on the Skylark!

ETHEREAL minstrel! pilgrim of the sky!
Dost thou despise the earth where cares abound?
Or while the wings aspire, are heart and eye
Both with thy nest upon the dewy ground?
Thy nest which thou canst drop into at will,
Those quivering wings composed, that music still!

To the last point of vision, and beyond
Mount, daring warbler!—that love-prompted strain
—’Twixt thee and thine a never-failing bond—
Thrills not the less the bosom of the plain:
Yet might’st thou seem, proud privilege! to sing
All independent of the leafy Spring.

Leave to the nightingale her shady wood;
A privacy of glorious light is thine,
Whence thou dost pour upon the world a flood
Of harmony, with instinct more divine;
Type of the wise, who soar, but never roam—
True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home.

William Wordsworth – 1770-1850

Above the moor,
not attached to anything,
a skylark singing.

Matsuo Basho 1644-1694

The contrast is breathtaking!

Matsuo Basho.jpg

Matsuo Basho

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I’m conscious that a lot of stuff we write as bloggers soon gets buried, and unless our tags are as hot as the current A list female celeb’s bosoms, our thoughts become like the tired old newsprint headlines of yesterday and which we next see on the counter of the chip-shop being used as fish- wrap. So, I’ve been digging back, meditating on my stuff, and if you’ll forgive me, I’d just like to put a place marker here, a few paragraphs dredged from the archives, and of particular significance to the run of my thoughts this evening. I dust them down, wonder why they caught my eye, and reblog them with a view more to self provocation than revelation:

I believe the turn of the nineteenth century saw us on the threshold of a new understanding of the nature of man, but two world wars blew all that away and an era of utilitarian globalization and consumerism seemed to get sucked into the vacuum that was left behind. Technically we’ve advanced beyond all recognition in a hundred years, but spiritually, psychologically, we’ve gone nowhere at all, and when we look at the stuff the late Victorians and Edwardians uncovered, we’re tempted to smile indulgently and say – well it was all a long time ago, so it can’t possibly be reliable can it?

Basically, I think the world we can see has a flip-side, and that’s the unconscious plane which, as the likes of Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge taught us, is a real place that you can visit if you have a mind to, or you can fall into it by accident, through a gap in time like I did in the Newlands Valley.

We’re all connected to it. We have no choice. We are alive, we are conscious, thinking beings, but this thing we call the brain is not the seat of consciousness, more of a one way valve through which a little bit of us is squirted into awareness when we’re born, and which also prevents us from flowing back into the endless ground of being from where we came. But sooner or later, that valve falls apart, we flow back, and then we wake up to who and what we truly are.

I’ll be pondering further on this in the coming week.

Thank you for your indulgence.

Graeme out.

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