Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Spies are interested in secrets, and will go to extraordinary lengths to obtain them. But for all their efforts, do spies keep us safe? They protect the interests of their home countries, or at least a certain demographic within them, but, taken worldwide, is the number of innocents lost to violence, any less than if the spies, as a profession, had not bothered to glean their secrets, or is it perhaps even the worse for it?

It’s a question suggested by a line from a le Carré spy novel, and it got me thinking. Around the same time, a beech tree came down in winter storms. I’d known it since childhood and thought it would stand forever. Its loss was a shock, and seemed an ill omen, considering all that was going on in the world, and in particular my own country – politically, socially, economically. And then there’s the old Zen thing – which isn’t actually a Zen thing – about how the tree that falls alone makes no sound.

Corruption in high places, staggering levels of inequality, unaffordable rents and energy, children eating erasers at school to stave off hunger pains. Britain, in 2022. Is that enough of a dystopia, or shall we project it forward a little? 2025, say? Or 2030? It should be easy enough to plot where we’ll be, given current trends, but do we really want to go there?

This is the background music as I sit down to write, in early 2022, and what takes shape over the course of the year is a story called A Lone Tree Falls. It proposes the quest for a secret, and the searcher is a former spy turned mystic. But this is no ordinary secret. This is the Secret above all secrets.

The Secret above all secrets tells us the world isn’t what we think it is, that our obsession with the materiality of it is a misunderstanding of the way things are. It is an illusion, and all we do by our obsession with it is perpetuate it. This is not to say we have any choice. It is our fate that our mortal lives at least are spent abiding in this state, but we do have a choice in how we react to it. We can either persist in ignorance of the deeper picture, in which case we gain nothing, and we finish our lives pretty much where we started. Or we can wake up.

Waking up begins with the lone tree that falls, and the realisation it made no sound, and it goes on to the conclusion that there is no difference between you and whatever you are looking at, that all there is to anything is mental phenomena, though the strict rules, spun out of an evolving Universe, leave us no option but to deal with the world as it appears – as solidly real and (mostly) impermeable to the will. But if that revelation is not to implode into the absurdity of philosophical solipsism, one must also wake up to the notion that the essence of one’s self, like everything else, is dreamed into being by the Universe, and not the other way round.

This is the mystical path. It’s a well trodden one, but what’s the point of it? My guess – since I’m only writing about it, rather than making a career of it – is, once you arrive at that destination, it affects your dealings with other people, who, like you, are dreamed into being. So, we are all the same in this respect, both the dreamers and the dreamed. The feeling you have of your own awareness of self, is the same as everyone else’s. All that’s different is our back-story. The other man’s pain, whether you like that guy or not, is your own pain. Hurt him, and you hurt yourself.

But it’s one thing to be told a secret, quite another to believe it. But such is the quest of our protagonist, this former spy of sorts who is also mostly the Fool from the Tarot, or sometimes the Magician, when he needs to be.

I didn’t want to write this story. I wanted to write a simple boy meets girl romance, but the story had other ideas and wanted out. We’re pretty much there with it now, and I’ll have it up on Smashwords in the coming weeks. As for the conclusion, does my protagonist believe in the Secret? Do I? Can we even get there by a pathway of words and thoughts? Or is that just part of illusion as well? I don’t know. We’ll see.

Next time though, next time, it will be a simple boy meets girl romance.

Read Full Post »

In Roddlesworth Woods

It’s not the first time I’ve arrived at the start of a walk to find I’ve left my boots behind. But it’s okay, we’re not climbing mountains. It’ll just be some soft, dew-damp meadows, and gravel tracks, so the cheap hiking-trainers we’re wearing will probably be okay.

We’re at Ryal Fold again, in the Western Pennines, and the plan is to explore some paths we’ve not walked before, so we can add them to that mental map of permitted ways. We’ll be wandering through extensive woodland, towards Abbey Village, returning along the reservoirs and Rocky Brook, and maybe to finish we’ll come back over the moor by Lyons Den, to check on the heather.

We’re looking for signs of autumn’s advance, now, looking to enjoy some woodland photography, but as ever, it’s about enjoying the outdoors. The scent of an autumn woodland, all mushroomy and damp, early leaves composting where they lie, all of that is a delight to be savoured. The walkers’ café at Ryal Fold is busy, lots of people sitting out with coffee, enjoying these intermittent days of warm sun, and there’s a party of ramblers setting out for Darwen Tower, all noisy with well-met chatter.

Of current affairs, our new Chancellor has gone and there are rumours the PM is to be ousted too, in the coming weeks, only having been in the job five minutes. Much of the mortal thrust of last week’s “fiscal-event” is to be reversed, but the crash it precipitated is still reverberating. Retirement nest eggs are now ten percent down, and pensions are once again under a cloud as the Bank of England winds in its support of the long term bond market. And no, I don’t understand any of this either. I would subscribe to the Macbethian world view of current events, that it is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing“, but that requires a philosophical leap when life-savings are going down the plug hole, and they’re putting security tags on tubs of butter.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

I don’t know Shakespeare at all, other than the fact we can always find bits of him to suit whatever the occasion:

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.

The man definitely had a way with words. So anyway,… before we’re “heard no more”, off we go, and plunge into the woodland. It’s still mostly green, just a thin carpeting of gold from the first fall of leaves. There’s sunlight pooling in the clearings, illuminating the canopy, spilling along the still lush sprays of beech, to be caught at last in outstretched fingers of ferny fronds, now sinking into a softening earth. There is Birdsong, but otherwise an absolute stillness, shoes and trouser cuffs already wet from their licking, as we crossed the meadows. There’s a plane of water glittering, glimpsed now and then through dense woodland as we walk. And, yes, that autumn scent.

In Roddlesworth Woods

“Have you taken any nice photos?”

It’s a large man, well padded in fleece and parka, his beanie set at a jaunty angle. He has a muddy little dog with him that looks to be having fun. I judge both to be friendly. Cameras were once a more common accompaniment. Mine now marks me as a die-hard geek. Most people are happy to make do with their phones.

“Not yet,” I tell him. “I’ll probably get some as I go up by Rocky Brook.”

“Oh aye.”

He doesn’t know Rocky Brook. I can see it in his eyes. His accent is local, but he wasn’t brought up around here. The familiar names of places no longer stick as they once did.

And no, so far I’ve been making all the same mistakes, so there are no “good” pictures in the can. I have a slow lens in a shady woodland, which means shutter speeds are dropping to 1/8th of a second, which even image stabilisation struggles with. So, it’s all motion blur, poor focus, and the usual mystery of how the eye filters out the messy confusion of a scene, which the camera subsequently reveals.

The Roddlesworth reservoirs are pretty much full, these being the first in the long chain of water-gathering that forms a semicircle around the Western Pennines. On the highest, there are rowing boats at rest, these being for use by the Horwich angling club, but which today form convenient perches for cormorants who are also fishing, and not known for returning their catch.

Fishing cormorant

And speaking of tales told by an idiot, I’m beginning to suspect the current fiction-in-progress is moribund, and I am in danger of losing touch with it. There are two types of writer. One roughs out a structure of the entire storyline, knows where he’s going before he starts, then sticks to that plan and writes to suit it. The other type, like me, doesn’t. We open with a scene, a feeling, and a handful of characters, then see how it goes. Sometimes it goes well. But sometimes you hit a hundred thousand words and things dry up, and you’ve no idea what you’re trying to say any more. Your characters get distracted by current events, so your story starts weaving about and losing momentum.

My story started off in a quiet woodland like this, with the discovery of a fallen beech tree and the age-old philosophical question: if a tree falls alone in the forest, does it make a sound? The way you answer that question puts you into one of two camps. Most people will answer yes, of course it makes a sound. How can it not? But if you think about it more deeply, you realise it doesn’t, and that’s a rabbit hole from which there is no escape.

There are several trees here in Roddlesworth that look to have come down in last winter’s storms, perhaps over-night, or otherwise, when no one was around to see them fall. And there are older trees that fell long ago, now with mushrooms growing out of them. None made a sound as they fell, which is to say we create the world of experience entirely through the senses, but that’s not how the world is in itself. How it is in itself, we don’t know. This is not woolly minded new-age thinking. You simply meditate upon the tree that falls alone, and you follow the question to wherever it leads.

My fictional protagonist is exploring the meaning of such a world-view, while trying to ignore the sound and fury of the world, and he’s trying to work out where true significance in life lies. But I think it’s led me on a bit too far, and it’s opened another door, one that requires a new story, and cannot merely be tacked on to the old. And I’m not sure I can be bothered finishing the old one, either, since it seems to have served its purpose. Or worse, I’m tempted to close it in a hurry, like: they all woke up, and it had been a dream, sort of thing. Best to let it settle, let the characters decide if they’re done or not. But it’s been all summer, and it looks like they are indeed done. I don’t know, if you write, is it best just to let a project go when it no longer resonates, even when you’re within a shout of the dénouement?

Anyway, it turns out cheap walking-trainers aren’t the best of things for walking in. After a couple of miles, you start to feel every pebble. Stand on a coin, and you can tell if it’s heads or tails. We slow the pace and linger for some shots by Rocky Brook, but here the dynamic range is more than we can capture, even bracketing the exposures. There’s a bright sparkle of sun from the little falls, and then deep shadow. The Nikon I’m using will bracket three shots automatically, but I need more, and for that I’d need to fiddle about with a tripod, and I can never be bothered carrying one. Higher up the brook we find a more shady dell and another little fall, one that that’s rarely visited, yet it’s one of the most attractive. Here the dynamic range is more within our means.

By Rocky Brook, Roddlesworth

We settle into the dell for soup. The falls too make no sound, when there is no one around to listen. Imagine that! All the beauty in the world, the sound, the scent, the vision, we do not experience it without the mind first creating it.

We pop out onto the road by the Slipper Lowe car-park. The car-park is empty, closed off, now. From here the moor rises, bright in the sun, pale as straw. We’re perhaps too early for the heather, but I had thought we’d be seeing some by now. We make a start on the climb, but the feet are burning through these thin soles, so we cut it short, contour round on another unfamiliar but beautiful path, towards New Barn, then back to the car at Ryal Fold. A splendid day, early autumn, five and a half miles round. Note to self: next time, don’t forget your boots!

Read Full Post »

We think we know ourselves through our thoughts, our emotions, and our memories. We think about things, we feel things, as we explore our being in the world, and memory shows us there is a continuity, a story of ourselves we can rewind and play back in our heads. For most of us, this is enough. But what if there’s more? Would you want to go there? Do we have any choice?

The first inkling we get is when we recognise there is an awareness behind these things. Without this awareness we could not be “aware” of our thoughts, feelings and memories, because these things are not conscious in themselves. We must refer them to something else in order to see them. We could not experience the world, nor ponder its nature, without awareness. So, we have thoughts, emotions, and memories, but this does not mean we are them. We experience them, so it is the “experiencer” we must look to for an idea of who we really are. This might sound like nit-picking, but it puts on the path of a world view as laid out by the philosophies of Advaita Vedanta, also western idealism, and non-dualism. Literally, there is only one thing, and that is consciousness.

Thoughts and emotions come and go, memories rise and sink back. We extend our sense of self into our things, into possessions – cars, houses, clothing, all the bits and bobs of life. Then we mistake our selves for what we imagine those things say about us, that they differentiate us from others. But again, possessions come and go. If we were to lose everything, we would not stop existing. We might not like it, but “not liking” is an emotion, which, again, is not who we are.

Through meditation, we can separate our awareness out from the noise of our thoughts and become aware of observing them. Like chairs and tables, we identify them as things, and give them names: Thinking. Emotion. Memory. They exist solely in consciousness. And if we explore this idea a little further, we can say the whole of experience, that all things, exist solely in consciousness, including the apparent materiality, the very chairs and tables, of the universe.

This is not to say the universe exists solely in my consciousness, or your consciousness. We speak here of a transcendent consciousness, one that we all share, and are discreet localisations of. Nor are we saying the chairs and tables are conscious, only that they exist, like all other things, within the transcendent consciousness. It is not to deny the reality or the solidity of things, only that we misunderstand their underlying nature. Thus, the universe can be described as an idea, coming into awareness of itself, and exploring itself through us. This also means the awareness that observes the world through your eyes, and grants you your sense of being, is the same as mine.

This realisation can either be a wonderful thing, or it can be an unpleasant shock. Indeed, it can be such an awful revelation, we try to shut it out. We retreat back into the known territory of the material world. We nestle back into the familiar comfort of our thoughts, emotions, sensations and memories, what we call the Ego. But while the Ego can be a familiar companion, it is never comfortable for long, for “discomfort” and “dissatisfaction” are its very nature.

As a way of being, identifying through the Ego works to a point, and has carried us this far in our evolution. But the problem with it is it traps us at a finite level of being, one beyond which we can evolve no further. We are twenty-first century people, still possessed of a mind adapted for hunting woolly mammoths, and avoiding sabre-toothed tigers. It is a limiting of vision, through which the universe can explore no further this awareness of itself.

For the spiritually, and the philosophically minded, there is a belief we will all eventually awaken to this point of view, that the world is stuck unless we do. To identify more fully with one’s awareness is to be “present”. It is to be able to observe one’s thoughts and emotions, moment by moment, and to maintain a buffer around them. When we feel anger, we observe it, recognise it for what it is, and the anger subsides, allowing us to act or to speak without its influence. People who are fully present tend to radiate stillness, and never react angrily, even to the most severe provocation. Conceptually, then, we might say taking this view of reality to heart, and living it, has its attractions – both personally and for the world in general.

But what has this to do with the creative process? Well, whilst we can identify an inward call to awaken, to become more present in the world, it’s also important to balance that awakening with the realisation of an outward flow, of a universe exploring the idea of itself, and that we must also flow with it.

When we write, when I write, it’s impossible to say where the words come from. I do not think each word into place, except to follow linguistic and grammatical convention. The ideas, the characters, the stories, the thoughts, arise through me, and in some sense are mine, but only in so far as I am a channel for a deeper expression, one that is not me, or at least not my Ego.

The finest poetry is never written by an Ego. The poet settles, quiets the Ego, tunes in to that deeper frequency, like chasing static on the short wave, which, as anyone of a certain generation might recall, is mostly whistles, pops, and the ocean roar of signals we do not understand. But then, with patience, suddenly, there comes a voice, clear as a bell.

All of this sounds a bit highbrow, a bit esoteric, but it need not be like that. There is also a playfulness about it, a sense of joy in the experiment, and the creation. When writing, I find ideas popping up all over the place, wanting to be included, to have their say. They want to see what sticks, what pathways will open, see what evolves, what works, and of course what fails. This is the universe of ideas evolving through us. In this sense then, the Ego becomes, at best, the parent of these creations, these up-wellings from a universal consciousness. In writing, then, we should be nurturing, encouraging, but never too controlling of the spontaneity. And when it works, we know, because we are rewarded with a sense of joy in the participation.

And when it doesn’t work,… well we’ve all been there.

Thanks for listening

Ref.

Kastrup – Why Materialism is Baloney

Spira – The Transparency of things

Tolle – A New Earth

Read Full Post »

(One of) The Twich Hill Oaks

March’s full moon ushers in a definite change. Suddenly it feels like spring, as the sky peels open to an optimistic blue, and the temperature breaks fifteen degrees. We’re sitting by the ruins of Peewit Hall, on the edge of the Anglezarke moors, looking out over the lush green of hill and dale as it runs from Jepsons, down the gentle undulations of Twitch Hills, into Lead Mines Clough. There are larks today, the first I’ve heard this year, and the rapture of them lifts the spirit. I’m sure they know this, and I appreciate their effort. We could all use some cheer. Also, somewhere down the valley, I hear the rising, scratchy call of a Lapwing.

We were late getting going today, noon already, but we’re making up for it. The car is down by Parson’s Bullough, and we’ve just come up by the oaks in the meadow above Twitch Hills. They’re always impressive these trees, fine focal points, marking the line of the path. They anchor the senses in the midst of an otherwise dizzying panorama. We have no route in mind as yet, just a vague idea of heading up to the Pikestones, then we’ll see what other ideas strike us. We’re coasting, feeling out the future by the seat of our pants, today, enjoying the sunshine and the earthy scent of spring.

The View from Peewit Hall

I’m reading a lot about the nature of time, and the fourth dimension, as they used to call it. In ordinary consciousness, we travel a single line in time. Our reality is defined by a point on that line, this being the present moment, like now, as we sit by the ruins of this old farm, looking out towards Jepsons. Memory tells us the line in time that brought us here but, ordinarily at least, we have no clue where it’s going.

This much is obvious, but what’s not so obvious is that in order to see ourselves in this beautiful landscape, there must be another awareness, another level of observation. And there’s a strong suspicion among time theorists this higher part of our selves views our reality, not as a point in time, but as a line that ventures some way into that future, and not necessarily a fixed future, either, more one of potential outcomes. And sometimes, just sometimes, it leaves clues for us in our dreams, if we pay attention to them.

And our future, from this point?

Okay, the Pikestones it is.

The Pikestones

The moor is still heavy underfoot, though it must be a week since we had any serious rain. And the Pikestones? Like most prehistoric monuments, they’re high in expectation, but ultimately low in drama. Some years ago, vandals of a neo-pagan bent, similarly under-whelmed, thought to chisel a spiral motif on the largest of the stones, I presume to spice them up a bit. Someone else chiselled it off in outrage. The damage is still evident, though in time, (talking centuries) it will weather in, I suppose. It depends on what you’re looking for, but as a place of quiet contemplation, and a viewpoint overlooking the plain of Lancashire, the Pikestones serves us perfectly well.

So, where does our line in time branch to, now? Well, I’m getting a feeling for Hurst Hill, so we navigate our way up Rushy Brow. This is always a bit vague, the hill itself being hidden over the rise, as yet, and no path. There’s a little visited ring burial here, which is a good way-point, if you can find it, then a heading north of west-ish brings you to the only tarn on this side of the moor, a small, rush fringed eye, smiling blue today, instead of its more familiar thunder-black. A vague sheep trod then contours cleverly towards Hurst Hill, avoiding the worst of the bog.

Hurst Hill

There’s a discreet surveyors mark on the summit, presumably from the very first 1845-47 survey. I found it by accident once, while descending with a low sun that just caught the crows-foot mark, chiselled into a flat rock. I make a point of seeking it out with the aid of GPS, whenever I’m passing this way. The Victorians fixed it by theodolite, and trig tables, and it’s bang on.

Since my last visit, someone else has found it, and covered it with a couple of rocks. It confused me, but it’ll prevent weathering, I suppose, and I left things as they were. So, someone else knows the secret! I wonder what relevance such a mark still has in this modern age. I wonder who the surveyors were who first, and ever so neatly, cut those marks, and what the world was like for them. What was the flavour of their own lines in time?

Normally we’d head east from here, deeper into the bosom of the moor, to the Round Loaf, or Great Hill. But then I’m thinking about the Anglezarke Reservoir, and a graceful trio of oak trees that I know, and some different photographic opportunities, so we branch out west, into another line in time, descending by the old lead mines to the Moor Road.

The mines are interesting. They have the appearance of a bombing run, a line of deep craters in the moor, with heaps of spoil thrown up around them. The surrounding grasses are a striking green, compared with the sour khaki of the moor. They’re crude bell pits, I suppose, eighteenth century, probably, as they were already noted as old, in the mid-nineteenth. Lead is found in vertical veins, so the miners chased it down from the surface as deep as they dared, before their walls caved in. Always a risky occupation, being a miner, but always, too, the siren lure of the mythical mother lode.

From the Moor Road, we choose a path we’ve never walked before, and lose it almost at once. We’re at Siddow Fold, now, a former farm, and gamekeeper’s cottage. Dated 1707, and listed grade 2, it’s seen significant gentrification in recent years, and very beautifully done. The council’s footpath marker guides us confidently enough from the road, and is our quickest route to the reservoir, but it abandons us to our devices in a meadow. I suspect we’re now tangled up in a diversion imposed upon us by the owners, the route deviating markedly from that on the map, and a bit of help would not be amiss, here. Oh well:

Anglezarke Reservoir

We follow our nose, or rather the line of a faint depression in the meadow that appears to be making a beeline for the reservoir. It’s a trespass perhaps, but not my fault. The sparkling ribbon of the reservoir is in full view here, and we meander down towards our trio of oaks, as splendid as I remember them. They’re a good place to sit for a brew, and admire the scene.

So, our line in time today, thus far, brings us here, or at least the line in time I’m aware of. If, as I sometimes like to speculate, at any given branching of the ways, more than one potentiality is realised, in another timeline, we’re also sitting atop the Round Loaf, listening to the larks and the curlews. In another, we gave up at the Pikestones, swung round by Lead Mines Clough, and returned to the car. Even as we sit here, by the sparkling Anglezarke Reservoir, among these magnificent oaks, we’re already driving home, with the top down, through Adlington, perhaps waiting for the lights by the Elephant and Castle.

And then there may be another level, one that grants a view of all the lines in time we ever chose. From this perspective, then, our lives resemble a tree, a proliferation of branches, of lines in time, of all the potentialities we were offered and realised, this being the true fullness of our being. Of course, from a very closed perspective, we’re only ever aware of this one point, moving along this one thread. But sometimes, you get a feeling about the rest.

So, anyway, here we are. We’ve still a couple of miles back to the car, and a variety of ways to choose. I guess at some point, we’ve walked them all before, even the ones we’ve yet to walk, at least in this line of time, if you know what I mean.

Any ideas?

It doesn’t matter much. They’re all good.

Read Full Post »

On dreams, and facing down the scallywags of the past

The philosopher Ouspensky reminds us the act of studying our dreams changes them. They take on a form that acknowledges the fact they are observed and alter their contents accordingly. This has also been noticed by the psychoanalysts. There is a difference in the way analysts of the Freudian and Jungian schools interpret dreams, which would seem to make a nonsense of the whole business, but for the fact those under Freudian analysis experience Freudian dreams, and those under Jungian analysis experience Jungian dreams. The unconscious psyche, to which dreams and other altered states are our only clue, appears to respond intelligently. This suggests dreams are more than the disjointed garbage of a sleeping brain. There is an intelligence behind them. But anyone who dreams regularly, already knows this.

I circle the literature from time to time, on the lookout for something new that will explain more of the nature of dreaming. But I find this is well trodden ground, that most new sources are based largely on the old, that what there is to know, or what it is possible to know about dreams, and dreaming, has already been written.

My most valued sources include the psychoanalysts, mainly Jung, and Hillman. Then there are the writers who were dreamers – J B Priestly especially, Ouspensky also, and the time theorist JMW Dunne. Less familiar, and less accessible, are the Tibetan Buddhist texts for which I have a great respect, but there seems a gulf of culture and language separating me from them. I have gleaned the occasional gem, however, including how to protect oneself from the night ghouls that occasionally bother us. Of the philosophers, the idealists are best suited to this territory, though the only one to have saved me from the infuriating trap of solipsism is Bernado Kastrup, to whose clear explanation of analytical idealism, and his enlightened reading of Schopenhauer, I am grateful for the leg up. Of the contemporary, western, new-age shamanistic scene, I find Robert Moss particularly engaging. On the other hand, the purely scientific literature tends to be of the dismissive sort, which I find disappointing. The exception is the Lucid Dream research of Stephen Laberge, though of lucid dreaming itself I am not an adept, and am instinctively cautious of treating the dream realm as a playground. It is a strange land, and, as in all strange lands, we should tread lightly.

My own dream life has faded. I trace it to the acquisition of the first smartphone, around a decade ago. On waking, the phone is now immediately the centre of attention. I read the news, I do a chess puzzle, I do the daily Wordle. Before you know it you’re down the rabbit hole, and anything you might have dreamed has already slipped through the neck of the hourglass, the grains of any possible dream-meaning, lost to memory and cognition. Not many dreams can compete with the noise of the material world intruding before our feet have even touched the carpet.

But sometimes reading about dreams and dreaming is all it takes to break the habit, that and installing a journal app on the smartphone, on which to dab such dream snippets as I can remember, before current affairs, chess, and Wordle make their demands.

Sometimes I can capture no more than a few brief snatches, other times I remember more, but, in general, I think the dreams are returning. I remember how I once scoured them for evidence of precognition, as per Dunne. I remember how I once dismantled them for meaning as per the analysts, how I once sought the lucid experience, as per LaBerge. My footsteps were heavy in those days. Indeed, I could easily say I trampled all over my dreams, when I think the thing is to tread lightly, as per Hillman, or at any rate just settle back and enjoy them. If they’ve anything serious to say, they’ll say it, and you’ll know. Not all dreams are the same in tone or depth, and you know them by the way they feel. With important dreams, you wake not only with a memory of the dream, but also a definite feeling. A dream that triggers an emotion is not one that is easily ignored, and it requires nothing more by way of analysis than that we do it the honour of dwelling upon it as best we can, but without tearing it apart.

As for actual dreams, Last night I was walking along a road in the village I grew up in. It was an area I never knew very well, on account of it leading to what we always believed were the rougher estates. A kid from my end would only get roughed up there by the gangs of territorial scallywags. Anyway, of a sudden, there I was, and much to my surprise it was a pleasant area, rural, with a deeply bucolic air about it. I was so taken aback, I chided myself for never having had the courage to explore this way before. I mean, just look what I’d been missing!

I rounded a bend and found myself in a scene that could have been from the sixteenth century, with ancient white-washed buildings, all in perfect repair. It was like a sprawling farm, but it also had the air of something monastic, about it. And there was this guy, in monk’s robes. He was working a patch of land with a hoe. As I drew level with him, he asked me kindly to mind my step, and take care of the moss on the path. I asked him if it was all right, my being there. Oh, yes, it was perfectly all right, he said. I had simply to mind the moss. The way was soft, and easily worn away by busy feet.

Through tall pines, I could see a tower with a red-tiled roof. It had a clock, but I could not see the time. The time was held aloft for decoration, but, actually, not as important as we ordinarily believe it to be. The sky was a deep blue, with puffy clouds, the light was honey-coloured, and beautiful. I was thinking I could spend hours here with the camera, checking out perspectives. For now though, many of the ways I might have explored were impassible due to floodwaters from heavy rains, but I had the feeling these would subside, as the season matured, and I could return. I would find my way around all right. I looked back at the scene, half farm, half monastery, whitewashed walls, red-tiled roof,… there was something numinous about it, vivid contrasts, and its details easily recalled. This place exists, I’m sure of it, if not in material reality, then as a fixture in a realm more ethereal, at least in the symbolic sense.

I was welcome there. We all are. Not all ways are open at once, but with patience they will be. Time is not important. Above all, we should tread lightly, for the way is soft, and easily worn out by feet that are too busy. Oh, and we need not fear getting duffed up by gangs of scallys. Those were just stories put up to frighten away the children.

Read Full Post »

My last pair of Scarpa walking boots lasted fifteen years. They were never quite broken in, but they never leaked either. They just grew more deeply scarred, and might have lasted longer, but I lost faith in them. I was worried they’d fall apart and leave me stranded up a mountain in my stocking feet. My current pair, comfortable as carpet slippers from day one, have lasted two years. Now they’re opening up, and letting the water in.

All right, it’s a very, very wet day. Indeed, the moor is as wet as a moor can be. The earth liquifies underfoot as we step on it and we’re frequently over the tops of our laces. The sphagnum is drinking the wet down in greedy gallons, and glowing green for the effort. My jacket, too, is letting the water through, at least on one side where a stiff wind is encouraging it. The weather paints me half dark, half light. I am the yin and the yang of things. This could be my cue to start grumbling about the flimsification of the modern day, but that’s not where we’re going. It’s a wild, bracing day. The year is fresh, and it’s too soon for cynicism.

I’m on Withnell moor again, up from Brinscall. I’ve come through the woods, crossed the top of the Hatch Brook Falls, and climbed Well Lane. Now we’re on the moor, approaching the gaunt ruins of Ratten Clough. Its outline is black against the steady drift of rain. Abandoned in the 1960’s, this is the most substantial ruin of the lost farms. The barn’s gables are intact, the rafters hanging on, a watery silhouette, all against the dynamic grey of the swooping sky. I wonder if, in years to come, it’ll be taken for a millionaires des-res. They have a penchant for buying up romantically charged places like this, and throwing a fortune at them to make of them something twee. But he’ll need a taste for the lonely. There’s bleak, then there’s Withnell Moor, and then there’s Withnell moor on days like these.

Given the forecast, I thought it was a waste of time bringing the big camera. I didn’t want to get it wet. Instead, I’ve packed an old, small-sensor compact. It slips easily into the pocket, and I don’t mind it getting drowned. But you can’t expect to shoot in such murk as this without red noise on a small sensor. There’ll probably be no pictures today, then, except the ones I carry in my head.

The gate to Ratten Clough is tied in several places, and intricately knotted. It’s a public way, but we require a deviation to pick it up. I imagine our millionaire will make it a priority to divert the path. Ah,… another perennial thread of mine creeping in: money buying out our freedoms, sticking up no trespass signs. But we’re not going there, either, today. These are tired old themes, and my laments will do little to change them. So much for the power of attraction, then. I seem only to attract to my attention what I most dislike. Time to let them go. Find fresh pastures, with an emphasis on a more positive kind of magic.

Where are we, now? We’re following the line of a tumbled drystone wall into a blank of mist. With a global positioning system, you’re never lost, are you? But things are hotting up between Russia and the West, and between China and US. It’s not escaped my imagination the first thing the militaries will do, in times of conflict, is encrypt the satellites. And then what? How will we find our way with a road-map, and A to Z again? How will I know how far along this wall to walk, before turning down to the ruins of Botany Bay?

The spindly beech answers. I first met it in the spring, spent a while making friends. It materialises from the grey, now. “Here you are,” it says. “Nice to see you again.” The track’s here. So we make our way down to the ruin, touch the megalith for luck, then turn left, to Rake Brook, by the ruins of Popes.

It’s hard to imagine anyone living here, just a tumble of shapeless blocks, and the brook washing by. It’s in spate today, no evidence of there ever having been a bridge, just these few precarious steppy stones at the vagaries of flood. What can we say about that? Transience? Buddhist themes of impermanence, perhaps?

Apple pies were baked in this bleak hollow, with the wind howling through the chimney pots. Wholesome stews awaited the farmer and his boys, on winter days like these. All gone, now, just names in the census records, and a lonely pile of stones. People make all the difference. Without them to bear witness, the world might as well not exist. Indeed, it might already not exist. Strange thoughts today, Michael.

Mind how we go across the brook. Yes, the boots are definitely leaking, something cold encircling the foot, now. I was going to buy myself a new computer monitor, but it looks like it’ll be a pair of boots instead. I’d been looking forward to getting a new monitor, one of those 4K ultra-high definition things, for the photography. How do we prioritise? Sometimes the fates do it for us.

Watsons farm, now, and a strong waft of cattle as we come through the gate. The cows are all cosy in the barn, steam rising from their noses, as they chew. It’s one of the few farms still working the moor. I borrowed it for my work in progress, fictionalised it, changed universes, moved it down the road a bit. I had the farmer renting rooms, and my protagonist moving into one. Here, I court themes of sanctuary, and shoulders to the weather. Then there are stunning summers on the moors, the call of curlew and the rapture of larks.

Speaking of the novel, it’s descending into chaos, and tom-foolery. We’ve reached that point where it asks me if I want to bail out around 80K words, or wander on for another year, make it an epic. I think we’ll call its bluff and go for the epic. Amid this fall of the world, this crisis of meaning, and the impending climate disaster, it’s led me of a sudden to Helena Petrovna Blavatski, to the Theosophists, and all those curious fin de siècle secret societies.

I’ve had a brush with the redoubtable Madame B before, found her intellectually seductive, but also frightening. I bailed out at that first pass, but it looks like there’s something more she has to tell me, and this time I’m ready to listen. Memo to self: order Gary Lachman’s book, and while we’re at it, the one about Trump, and the political right’s courtship of the occult. It all sounds absurd, but let’s just go with it.

Across the Belmont road now, and the path into the woods becomes a bog. The Roddlesworth river is a lively torrent. We’re four miles out, and the woods are busy with muddy bikes, wet families, and happy, yappy dogs. We swing for home via the ruins of Pimms, on the moor, then Great Hill. The rain is blowing itself out at last. There are hints of sunshine, now, but the going is steep. Great Hill has grown since I last climbed it, swollen with rains to Tyrolean proportions. The ground looks like it’s been overspilling for weeks, and squirting water under every step.

At the summit shelter, I’m able to bag the last space among a gathering of several walking groups, all huddled for lunch. Cue mutterings of overcrowding on the fells, paths churned to slime and all that,… but we’re not going there today either. In my new universe, all are welcome. A jolly dame appears from nowhere, offers mince pies, and a nip of rum for my coffee.

The sun breaks through. There’s a low, gorgeous light of a sudden, under-lit clouds, curtains of rain in the distance. Old Lady Pendle appears, a crouching lion beyond Darwen moor. I try some shots with the little camera, but they come out poorly, red dot noisy. Sometimes, the best pictures are the ones you carry in your head, and they get better with age.

A good day on the moors, then, and never mind the wet feet. There’s a pair of dry socks in the car. Fancy a hot chocolate? We’ll drive over to the Hare and Hounds at Abbey, shall we? See what they can rustle up for us. The year turns.

All is well. Bring it on.

Read Full Post »

By the Goit, White Coppice

Six days after the most appalling storm, I’m here at White Coppice, in sparkling sunshine. There’s not a breath of wind, and the ground is hard with frost. Most of the trees are bare now, with only the oaks still clutching, defiant, to the tatters of their leaves.

In my previous piece, I put up an extract from my first novel, the Singing Loch. That story dealt with the way powerful forces shape small lives, and sometimes erases them. And it asked: what does that mean for the small lives? And what does it mean to us who, in the course of our own small lives, examine their traces? What can we learn, about ourselves, and the world?

Here at White Coppice, we look out across the always-summer green of the cricket field, with its attendant little whitewashed cottages. Winter begins where the moor rises, atop the line of the Brinscall fault. Sometimes moody, sometimes benign, the moor has a look of wild desolation. But it was not always so. Much of it is criss-crossed with drystone walling, marking the early enclosures. And there are piles of worked stone, overgrown, now, with moor grass, and clumps of soft rushes. These are the remains of farms, each a late formed tumulus, and a marker of past lives. Then there were any number of quarries, and small mines scratching out rare minerals. They’re all gone now, swept away by time, and, in the case of the hill-farms, by the need of burgeoning cities, and their industries, for water. In the small lives of the lost farms, here, there are untold stories of love, endurance and tragedy. We are left only to imagine them, and imagine them we must, or the only story remaining to us is one of catching water into the reservoirs, and delivering it to Liverpool. And where is the awe and the reverence in that?

It’s quiet at White Coppice this morning. We park without difficulty at the cricket field. Things are getting back to normal, after the scramble for green spaces during the peak of the lock-downs. I’m not planning a long walk. I’m looking for trees. There are some fine ones here, some I know, some specimens I’ve read about, and which I’m searching for. This is my own Covid legacy, this late found friendship with trees.

We begin by following the line of the Goit. This is a shallow canal, between the reservoirs around Tockholes, and the larger Anglezarke and Rivington system. Just here it is natural in appearance, and pleasing, but becomes more industrial and dull, further upstream. We turn off, at the edge of the woods around Brinscall, and enter the still crisp, frosted meadows of the Goit valley.

Ash tree, Goit valley

There’s an ash tree here, looking beautiful with the sun caught up in its boughs. We try a few shots, then seek out a likely spot for lunch. There’s a mound of stones nearby, with some flat bits we can sit upon. So we sit, and dig out the soup pot.

The old maps tell us this was a farm, called Goose Green. There are tiny mushrooms sprouting from the mosses. I imagine their myclelial network feeding from the dissolving timbers, deep below us. Mycology is beginning to interest me. We’re taught to be terrified of mushrooms, except the ones you can buy from Tescos. And, fair enough, some mushrooms will kill you, but most won’t. That’s not so say I recommend foraging, unless you know what you’re doing.

The more secret mushrooms, the magical, psychoactive ones, aren’t difficult to spot. They’re especially profuse in England’s climate, so it’s puzzling they do not form a greater part of our story than they do. These particular mushrooms are not of the magical variety. But if they were, to pick one, and put it in my pocket, would put in me in possession of a class A controlled substance. Interesting. I make do with Chicken soup.

This is one of the many Lost Farms of the Brinscall Moors, as documented in David Clayton’s fascinating book of the same name. It looks centuries old, this ruin, but, within the memory of my grandfather, it was still standing, and these now bracken and reed choked pastures, fallen to bog, were being worked.

You couldn’t reach this place with a modern vehicle, but there are the walled remains of old track-ways, designed for horse and cart. Some of them are walkable, others have reverted to nature. Our way traces one such track, up the steep slope of the fault-line. From the looks of it, the mountain bikers have made a big dipper of it. It looks an exciting way to descend. We’ll see where it leads us.

There’s a sunken track, deep with ancient use, but now filled with tussocks and reeds, and heather. There are a couple of gate posts, indicating the way down to another of the farms. This would be Fir farm, I guess. The census records tell us it was home to a young couple, the Warburtons, in the 1880’s. Not bad going for paper records. I wonder what will be left of our digital fingerprints a century from now? Will there be any trace of us? Will there even be a machine to read them? I couldn’t read what’s on the 3 1/2″ floppies in my attic, and they’re not twenty years old.

One of the gate posts leans in at a precarious angle, and looks weathered enough to be thousands of years old, rather than a few hundred. The way down to the farm looks impassable. But what a beautiful place to have lived! It colours the moor differently, to know the name of the people for whom this place was home.

We stick to the high ground, following the narrow ways, that could either be the trod of man, or of sheep. As we close with the line of the ridge, the walk takes on an airy, exposed feel. It’s mostly imagined, but it lifts the mood. There look to be ancient ways up onto Brinscall moor, and worth exploring another time. Another pair of gateposts provide foreground interest for a grand old tree, stunted by the weather. After I take the shot, the sky darkens, as a blanket of finely textured cloud rolls in, and the perceived temperature plummets. Time to press on, then, to wend our way back to White Coppice. I’d forgotten that unforgiving bite of winter.

On Brinscall moor

It’s an intriguing area, one I’ve often passed through, on the way to somewhere else, but as with all these places, it’s worth the slowing down, and taking a closer look for stories in the composition of stones and reeds and weathered trees. Worth it too are the old maps, and the census records that retain the names of lost places.

So, to answer the question, what does all this mean to the passing of small lives? Well, from a rational, clinical, left-brained point of view, it means nothing. But we don’t have to look at things that way. We can layer the world instead, with a vision that is essentially romantic. It’s not difficult. You’ve only to sit a while to feel it. And then, no matter the changes that sweep our small lives away, there’s always a discernible trace that’ll make a difference to someone, as it has made a difference to me, this morning.

Now, as I write, in this, during the dark of the new moon, it’s blowing a gale again. The rain rattles hard against the glass, and there’s a devil in it. It’s laughing at us, perhaps for what ecologists have widely hailed as the depressing, but the entirely predictable failure of the COP 26 summit. I have not seen the sun for days, which reminds me it’s all the more important to enjoy it whenever we can.

Oak tree, Goit valley

Read Full Post »

The second and concluding part – to open the trunk or not?

Kathleen recoils from the idea, then becomes evasive. “I wouldn’t know where to find the key. I think Grandma might even have thrown it away,…”

“My tools are in the van. I could have the lock off in no time,…”

“No, thank you. I’ll think on it for a while, but I’m not sure if it’s what she would have wanted.”

I leave her cleaning the dust from the trunk, revealing inch by inch its original lustre. I’m regretting even more now that we touched it, for in doing so, I fear we have disturbed a very melancholy spirit indeed.

It’s a long job, putting things back in order. I’m weeks at Kathleen’s house, and every lunchtime she calls me down for a bite to eat. We sit in the kitchen with the trunk gleaming darkly upon the dresser, but Kathleen will not speak of it, nor even look at it in my presence. Once though, as I’m searching for some tools, I catch her bent over it, the lock in her hand, as if she’s fighting the urge to open it. And as the time passes, I noticed how she seems yet more dispirited, her grandmother’s old sorrows returning to fill again every corner of the house.

When the job’s finished, I come down from the attic to find her sitting, staring at the trunk. By now I hate the thing. I hate it’s squat, ugly shape, but most of all I hate the effect it’s having on Kathleen.

“Have you thought what you want to do with it?” I ask. “I could get rid of it for you, if you like. I’ll take it to the tip. Or we can just set fire to it in the garden and be done with it.”

“No,” she says. “We should put it back. Let it rest up there, out of sight.”

Surely not, I’m thinking. I can just imagine its grim presence lurking above her head, never more than a stray thought away.

But Kathleen insists. “If you’d just help me with it,…”

So that’s how we come to be hauling the thing back up the ladder. I remember pausing to steady myself, and resting the trunk precariously on one rung while I alter my balance. Then I lose my grip and, as the pair of us struggle to keep upright, the trunk goes crashing into the hall below.

The lock must have been hanging by a thread because the lid bursts open, and the contents, an unexpected riot of colour, spill across the carpet. I stare in wonder. There are fine dresses, letters, photographs, a handful of magazines, and the prettiest pair of silver dance-shoes. Kathleen gives a howl and is down in an instant, trying to gather the stuff together, desperate to put it back.

“Whatever would she be thinking?”

But gradually her curiosity gets the better of her, and she begins to study the things more closely, gazing at the photographs, even slipping open some of the letters,…

An hour later, we’re still at it, picking our way through a bewildering collection of poignant mementoes. Then, suddenly, there’s a change in Kathleen, a dazed confusion wrinkling her brow, as she studies the contents of an envelope that was sealed long before either of us were born.

“What’s the matter?”

She says nothing but slowly wand with a trembling hand passes me a slip of paper. As I read, I realise it’s confirmation of her grandmother’s passage to America, departing Queenstown, April 1912,…

There was one boat sailed from there at that time, a boat that has gone on to live forever in the hearts and minds of people the world over. And sure enough, printed at the bottom of the slip of paper is the name. The Titanic.

“Her whole life,” says Kathleen, “She spent it lamenting a lost chance, and she never knew how lucky she was. If she had gone, then she would surely have drowned. And my mother, and I, would never have been born.”

Seeing all those wonderful things, I’m able more easily to picture Kathleen’s grandmother now as a young girl looking ahead with all the vitality of her youth, only to become a dispirited soul, locking that brighter self up in this old trunk, and tossing away the key. That was the real tragedy, I thought, to have been miraculously spared such a terrible fate, and then to have wasted her life in ignorance of it.

Later, Kathleen and I are sitting out in the garden, gazing at the hills and the woods and the little houses, dotted along the roadside. Everything seems uncommonly beautiful of a sudden, the blue of the sky, the sunlight on the trees, even the taste of the cool evening air. She turns and looks at me, as if to speak, but there’s no need. We understand each other perfectly. Over the years, we’ve each had our share of ups and downs, and I suppose it’s only human nature that it should be the disappointments that carry the most weight. But this evening, we’re both appreciating, I think, and perhaps like no other time, what a precious thing life is.

This concludes my little story. It was first published in Ireland, around twenty years ago. I thought I’d blow the dust off it and give it a fresh lease of life, here on WordPress. Thanks for reading.

Read Full Post »

In the woods at Roddlesworth

Today, we’re going to walk from Abbey Village, to Tockholes. Then we’ll circle back through the woods at Roddlesworth, which should be in peak autumn now. First, though, I want to visit the war memorial, here in Abbey, to remember a great uncle who was “lost” in the first war. Then we’ll have a wander through some meadows I used to walk with my mother. And if we make it over to Tockholes, we’ll visit the mysterious “Toches”, or “Tocca’s” stone.

I say “if” we make it, because the route leads through farms, where rights of way have a habit of disappearing. The path I’ve chosen seems the most direct and quite obvious on the map. But over recent weeks, when out and about, I’ve discovered a knack for finding rights of way that no longer exist on the ground, and I’ve learned it pays never to be too cocky setting out on paths you’ve not walked before.

My mother grew up in one of the long line of mill terraces at Abbey, so she knew this area well. I have memories of visiting my grandmother here, and aunts who were not aunts, but we called aunts. Ditto cousins, who were not really cousins – this being an era when it was claimed everyone in Abbey Village was related. From the roadside, the terraces at Abbey have rather a dour look about them. But those where my family lived, open onto meadows, and to stunning views of the Darwen moors.

Perhaps it’s because I’m still not getting into town much this year, on account of abiding Covid fears, but I’m less aware of the build-up to November’s armistice remembrance. Recently, the event has found itself caught up in the culture wars. Those of the right who would glorify war, and those of the left who would disband the forces altogether, are the two most vociferous extremes. The rest of us, I guess, including the man on the Clapham omnibus, are somewhere down the middle. I think about the half century or so of life my great uncle missed, and I wonder about the difference it would have made to the present day, if he’d found his way home from Mesopotamia. The tide of history can be cruel for everyone, but it sweeps away the poor in disproportionate numbers. Anyway, I like to come here around this time of year. I leave my small token at the memorial, then head down the backs of the terraces, and set out on the walk.

First we head across the meadows where my mother used to play, then down the dip to what I always knew as Abbey Bottoms. Sure enough, at my first encounter with a farm, the right of way disappears into an enclosure, and the only way out of it is to straddle a fence. This is tedious, coming so early on in the walk. There are cars about and the dogs are going bonkers. I wander around, looking for an opening, but there are none, and I’m beginning to feel a fool. If I want to make way, I’ll have to straddle that fence or turn tail already and call the walk off. Fine, then. I drop a pin on the GPS, make a note: “Way blocked here” and then I go for it.

Free of the farm, and with trousers intact, it’s obvious the path beyond’s not been walked in ages. But it follows the line of an ancient hedgerow, and is reasonably obvious. In other times this would be a beautiful route, pastoral, with wide-ranging views of the Darwen moors. But I’m in that liminal zone now between where I am entitled to be, and where I feel others would rather I was not. And that’s not a comfortable place. I’m aware my last three walks have landed me in a similar muddle to this, and I’m starting to repeat myself.

The Toches Stone

Then, where the map shows an exit from the meadow, a locked gate blocks the way. There is no stile, not even a rotten one. I can see a stile on the other side of the gate. It leads off on the next leg of the journey, but the only way to get to it is to climb the damned gate. Have I become so incompetent and doddery a rambler, I can no longer find my way around? Clearly this is not a route for those of limited mobility, and, given the crisis in A+E at the moment, it gives one pause climbing anything. But needs must, so up and over we go. Another pin goes on the GPS. “Effing gate blocked here.”

It’s been a struggle then, but we’ve stuck to our guns, and finally made it across the vanishing ways to Tockholes. These are paths my mother and her family would have known. My great, great-grandfather would have walked them from his weaver’s cottage in Hoddleston, to Abbey seeking work, and where he settled. They are historically significant ways, and need protecting, need walking. When I look back on my life, I see traces of the places I knew disappearing, being overwritten by novelty. Of my mother and her family’s past, here, there is now barely any trace at all.

Anyway, Tockholes is a curious and attractive hamlet, tucked out of sight. I meet a few other walkers on the road here, and we exchange greetings. The atmosphere changes from one of oppression, to welcome. Tocca’s stone is in the churchyard at St Stephens. I once drew it for an illustration in a friend’s book on the magic and mystery of Lancashire. It’s a curious monument, a mixture of early Christian and pagan. Of the facts, we can say the tall bit is probably the remains of a seventh century preaching cross. This sits atop an old, repurposed, cheese press, this in turn sitting on an inscribed plinth of Victorian vintage. And then, next to the cross, there’s the peculiar Tocca’s or Toches’ stone, from which the parish takes its name. There are scant references to it online, and they all seem to quote each other. My friend, who trawled the historical records in libraries all over the county, in the days before the Internet, is also rather vague.

The stone is said to have connections with the ancient British tribe who inhabited the valley, and one ruler in particular, the titular “Tocca”, or “Toki”. It’s also said to have magical or healing properties, and was, at one time, worn smooth by the hands of pilgrims, come to touch it. It isn’t very smooth now, so I guess the habit has fallen out of fashion. In short, little can actually be said about it at all, at least nothing that’s guaranteed to be historically accurate, but as a piece of local myth and legend, it’s quite the thing, if you believe in it, or not.

Do I touch it? Well, after the trouble I’ve had getting here, you bet I do.

Autumn in Roddlesworth Woods

And it works. We have no trouble the rest of the way, the way being over the moor to Ryal Fold, then down into the autumn-gold heavens of the Roddlesworth plantation, where the season is a revelation. We’ve had such a poor week, thus far, with torrential wet. One night it rained so hard the gutters burst and I swear I could feel the house shaking. And then today, it’s warm in the sun, we have clear blue, and plenty of water in the brook, so the falls are running. The world has the fairy tale look of an impressionist painting. Out comes the camera.

Autumn in Roddlesworth Woods

I’ll be reporting those obstructions. I’ll also be repeating the walk, because, in spite of a few local difficulties, it’s a good circular route – about seven miles – of varied scenery, in a beautiful part of Lancashire. And if no one walks the paths, the landed will take them from us, swear blind there was never anything there in the first place. And they’ll get away with it.

Read Full Post »

Tim felt at once they were not a receptive audience. There were few truly earnest faces among them, while others pretended, thinking perhaps he had more authority than he did, when in fact he had none. Worse, he felt empty of a sudden. It had seemed such a little thing at the time, just to come along and talk. But an audience’s attention isn’t guaranteed, especially not a captive one like this. He’d have to work at it. Then having won it, he’d have to come up with something worth saying, and fast. What he’d planned to say, aided by these stilted notes he clutched in increasingly his sweaty palm, just wasn’t going to do the job.

It had started as a joke. He’d written a little book about trees called, well, “A Little Book About Trees.” It had taken him all of an evening, and he’d posted it online, like he did with his other stuff. And like all his other stuff, some of it going back twenty years, he’d not given publishing a second thought. Maybe someone would appreciate the joke and leave a wry comment. There were some real wags out there in cyberspace. But then the impossible happened, and a publisher emailed him. This really doesn’t happen, ever, he’d thought, and especially not for a title like: “A Little Book About Trees” by Tim Burr. I mean, the publisher knew it was a joke, right?

The publisher wasn’t one of the big six, of course, but a small, local press, who handled history and nature. The book would be a good fit, he said, after cautioning Tim there’d be hardly any money in it, but he’d like to print the book anyway, if Tim had no objection. Well, Tim had no objection. It would even be funny, he thought, seeing it on the shelves. Trees weren’t exactly his forte. He’d simply blagged the information from a dozen places around the web and put it into his own words. Then he’d illustrated it with his own photographs. Literature it was not. Poetry it was not. And of all the things he’d ever written, this, he felt, was the least worthy of anyone’s attention.

What he had that he felt was of infinitely more value was a dozen epic novels of a romantic and metaphysical nature. With all his heart, he still believed in them, but they sat up on his web-site with the rest of his stuff, and hardly anyone read them. Still, he wondered if one thing might lead to another, and then, well,…

With publishing, there also comes marketing, so Tim found himself on a bit of a promotional book tour. Or rather, he had a ten-minute phone-in slot on the BBC local radio station. Then there was a morning in a bookshop with a pile of his books for signing. He dressed up in tweed for that, but no one got the joke, just like they didn’t get the Tim Burr bit, and no one was buying the books either. Tim didn’t mind that so much, and even understood it, having by now seen the cover-art foisted upon him by the publisher’s graphic designer. It looked like it had been dashed off in half an hour, which was fair enough, this also being about how long it had taken Tim to write the book.

That said, the book did go on to sell a thousand copies, which just about broke even. You’ll still see the occasional one in publishers clearance, but it’s fair to say Tim’s brief moment in the spotlight faded back into obscurity. So it goes, thought Tim. It never did lead to anything else, and nobody got the joke.

But then there was this teacher who taught English to adolescent students. She was the sister of a friend of a friend of Tim’s, and she’d arranged a speaker to come into school for the annual Book Week, but they’d cancelled at the last minute. This was an esteemed professor, author and arts critic, who sounded to Tim like the real thing, except he was too busy, and also rather rude having cancelled at so short a notice. So, there was a desperate trawl for anyone who might know someone who knew someone half resembling a writer. And that, to cut a long story short, is the only reason Tim was standing there now.

“Just talk a bit about writing,” the teacher had said.

Simple enough, thought Tim. Except, right now he couldn’t think of a thing to say. And he wondered if part of the reason was he knew nothing about writing after all, or if he did, he’d forgotten it, and his dozen novels of a romantic and metaphysical nature meant nothing in the scheme of things. So there was no point trying to enthuse such a reluctant, and by now fidgety crowd of youngsters over the wonder and the mystery of the literary creative arts, when Tim was losing the plot of it anyway, and when the surest route to the high-street bookshelves turned out to be a spoof title called “A Little Book About Trees”, and a subject he knew nothing about.

The teacher, a trim, middle-aged lady with a permanently harassed expression, and greying hair, was starting to look less harassed, and more worried. Was Tim all right? I mean, he was a writer, wasn’t he? And there was nothing writers liked more than boring the pants off others about their writing. So go on, Tim, just say something. Anything.

There came a titter from the back of the class. In Tim’s day there would have been spitballs to follow, but they did not seem an overly violent bunch, and he took comfort from that.

“So,…” he said, a little too loud, and while it got their attention, it didn’t stop the kids from looking at their watches. It was a half hour slot, but there was a risk this was going to be the longest half hour of his, and their lives.

“So,” he said again, softly this time. “How many writers have we got in the room? Put your hands up.”

Tim put his hand up. No one else did.

“All right, he said. “Let’s call it something else. Who keeps a diary?”

He put his hand up. Glances were exchanged. A dozen hands went up, shy at first, but helped by the hand of the teacher.

“So, you were having me on,” he said. “I’m not on my own after all. There are lots of writers.” Titters again, but this time he felt they were with him, and he relaxed. “Can you tell me this, though,” he said: “Would you ever show your diary to someone else?”

There were no takers for that. “Why write it then?” he asked. The atmosphere had changed. Already they were five minutes in, and he’d barely scratched the surface. “That’s a mystery, isn’t it? Let’s think about that.”

Then he remembered why he was a writer, and realised he’d just woken a dozen kids up to the fact they were writers too. And those who weren’t? Well, by the time he was done, he’d have shown them they could be writers as well if they wanted. He was doing none of them any favours, of course, because it was an odd thing, to be a writer. But the blood-writers among them would know that.

And they’d do it anyway.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »