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hartsop barn

When he was writing his iconic guidebook series, Alfred Wainwright gave the region east of Ullswater, Patterdale and Kirkstone, the rather exotic title: the Far Eastern Fells. It has something of the romance of old Empire about it, suggesting a region both aloof and mysterious. For two years he explored it in his characteristically painstaking and solitary manner, finally penning the last full stop of this, his second volume, in the Autumn of 1956. On its completion, he said, he felt like a man who had just come home “from a long and lonely journey”, describing a land in which he had walked from morning till dusk without sight of other human beings. It’s not quite so lonely a place now, but still a good choice for anyone wanting to escape the queues on Striding Edge.

“They are for strong walkers,” these fells, he says, “and should please the solitary man of keen observation and imagination”.

far eastern fellsIn the 50’s this region was very difficult to get at, especially for anyone, like Wainwright, without a car, and that means most people. Overnight accommodation was sparse, still is, being mostly restricted to the Patterdale valley. He relied on bus services from Kendal, and wild-camps overnight. But over-nighting on the fells for Wainwright did not involve a tent, just a blanket and endless smokes until first-light. He walked in tweeds and hobnails, and his waterproof was a button-up plastic Mackintosh. Today’s mountain rescue teams would feel obliged to consider him mad and deliver a stern lecture, but his was a more rugged, unassuming, and self-reliant generation, one that brushed off hardship. It was thus, lightly attired, he explored every nook and cranny, and of an evening he would settle down at home with pen and ink and fashion for us entirely by hand these neatly intricate and fastidiously detailed guidebooks which, like no others, are a timeless love-song to the land of the lakes. They are also of course a lasting inspiration to the generations who have followed him up the English mountains.

As he wrote his guides he worried they would soon become dated beyond use, but many an experienced fell-walker still defers to them when planning an expedition. They provide a wealth of detail, all of it conveyed with great charm. For once though, I found Wainwright of little help. I was planning a walk over Satura Crag by way of Hayeswater, then on to Angle Tarn, but the crag only manages a footnote in book two, it being really neither here nor there, just a neat little crown of crags on the way from one much bigger place to the next. It’s more notable for the view than for the climb – as we shall see – but let’s pocket our Wainwright for company anyway, and off we go.

We begin in Patterdale, at the beautiful little hamlet of Hartsop. And it’s here, I read with some sadness the notice beseeching visitors to take their bags of dog-poo home. It seems the plague of bagged-and-scattered dog-poo has reached even Hartsop now! I have imagined the spread of a crass urban greyness in many ways over the years, contaminating the sublime green with something unwholesome, but discarded bags of poo were not anticipated, nor even imagined, yet they do sum up this socially degenerate phenomenon very well, both in its physical manifestation, but also metaphorically, and even spiritually.

The climb begins at once on an unrelentingly steep track by Hayewater Gill, which, after an hour or so, leads us to the somewhat troubling revelation that is Hayeswater, a post-glacial lake, nestling in a valley at nearly 1400 feet. Why troubling? Well, it’s hard to say, but I’m not the only one to have thought so:

ENFOLDED in the mountain’s naked arms,
Where noonday wears a drearier look than night,
And echo, like a shrinking anchorite,
Wanders unseen, and shadowy strange alarms

Visit the soul ; there sunshine rarely warms
The crags, but only random shafts of light
Flit, while the black squalls shrilling from the height
Shudder along the lake in scattering swarms.

Cradle of tempests, whence the whirlwind leaps
To scourge the billows, till they writhe and rear
Columns of hissing spray ; the wrinkled steeps

Scowl at the sullen moaning of the mere ;
And luminous against the dale-side drear,
Ghostlike, the rainstorm’s scanty vesture sweeps.

hayeswater

Hayeswater from Satura Crag

So wrote Alfred Hayes of it in 1895. And the watercolourist, Heaton Cooper, writing in 1960, agrees it can be rather a sombre place. Heaton Cooper also writes of an abundance of wildlife here but that seems nowadays lacking: deer and pine-martens and birds, including cormorants, fishing for the lake’s salmon. Indeed it has an altogether more barren look about it this morning – not even sheep. There are sketchy paths that trace its shore, but it’s not a place that invites closer acquaintance and I have never been tempted by it. So we avoid the “sullen moaning of the mere” and keep to the sunnier path that winds its way up by The Knott. Here at around 2000 feet, we encounter the path connecting with the Roman Way on Highstreet, and head north. Far below us now, Hayeswater still broods, while the southern sky thickens and dissolves the warm, cloudy-brightness of the morning into something altogether more gloomy. The Met office forecast rain for 15:00, and it looks like they’re going to be right.

I realise that, like most of my walks in the Lakes, I last did this route many years ago. I also remember it as being rather easier than it feels today. As we age, we trade our fitness for “experience”. Yet it’s experience that enables us to savour places such as these all the more and it’s unfortunate then it’s this lost fitness that’s required to carry us up here, thereby curtailing our opportunity for over-indulgence in the Lake country’s mystical delights. But such convolutions aren’t getting us any further along our path, are they Michael? On we go then, the hard work of ascent behind us now, so we can enjoy an undulating and entirely unambiguous path all the way to Satura Crag. From here, northwards we get a view of one of Lakeland’s most secret valleys: the seldom seen and ever so lonely Bannerdale.

It’s a mostly deserted place, just the one lone farm at Dale Head, a white sentinel against the green, and around the corner, at the opening of Rampsgill, there’s the historic hunting lodge, built in 1912 for a visit by our game-mad cousin, Kaiser Willy. The lodge is for hire. It boasts “interesting plumbing” and costs £1400 per week at peak. As a base for exploring this remote region, I can think of nowhere finer! However, I do admit to preferring my plumbing as boring as possible.

angletarn

Angle Tarn

Continuing our way, we come down to Angle Tarn for lunch, an altogether cheerier prospect than Hayeswater. Indeed Wainwright declared this to be one of the finest tarns in Lakeland. Even in gloomy weather, it never fails to make me smile. There is something truly heavenly about it, un-shadowed by soaring crag, it reflects the mood of the sky perfectly, speaking of which, as we settle by the shore, the sky darkens, and a wind stirs the surface to an animated silver.

I was probably twenty five when I first came this way, living at home with my mum, and just a rusty old Cortina to my name. Now I’ve got kids as old as I was then, my mum’s gone, and my whole life down there in the mad churn of the world is completely different, yet right now, and from this elevated perspective, I’m reassured a vital part of me remains the same, that there is little to separate that earlier walk from this one, for such is the magic of the fells, always stripping away the egoic delusions of who and what we think we are, and dismissing too the imaginary constraints of linear time.

The best walk is always the next one, and all walks are equally memorable, yet remembered in no particular order, so for a time, we are indeed ageless. Wordsworth wrote of this in more penetrating form in his “intimations of immortality”, that it is indeed possible to recover what we feel we have lost to time. But for that to mean anything to us personally, I think we need to have a spent a life-time wandering the high-ways, among these gaunt cathedrals and echoing amphitheatres, listening to, or rather feeling, what it is they have to say to us.

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, its fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give,
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Thank you William.

But we’ve burst seventeen hundred words now, which puts us considerably to the north of verbose, so far as this particular medium goes, and here we are still, up by Angle Tarn, munching on a butty like we’ve not a care in the world. It’s also looking like the rain’s going to catch up with us any second. We don’t mind that, though we might give the Pikes a miss, and just shamble our way down to Boardale because, although we’ve only done about four miles so far, it feels more like eight, and we’ve another three back to the car which are going to feel like six. And maybe it’s time we bought a better pair of boots, maybe even a pair of Scarpas like our old ones. But it took us twenty years to wear those things out, and they still weren’t worn in by the time they fell apart, and have we even got another twenty years of blisters in us?

Sure we do.

A fish leaps, lands with a splosh and focuses down our attention to the mindful moment. Then the rain comes on, its “scanty vesture” advancing earnestly, across the fells, raises a hiss from the clear waters of the tarn. Hat’s off to the Met office; they forecast this five days ago, and they’re only half an hour out. How do they do that?

It’s a firm rain, but soft on the skin and warm. Then comes that rich scent from the earth, something fecund and exhilarating about it, like a fine malt whiskey. Sure, there are worse places to be than the Far Eastern Fells in June. Even in the rain.

Three miles still to the car, did you say?

They can wait.

Hartsop vire to threshthwaite

Hartsop

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pince nez

When we write online, we are like birds calling in the wilderness so our own kind will know us. But we should be careful not to go more than half way towards meeting whatever approaches as a result, and be prepared to withdraw at once if what we have attracted seeks to take advantage. There seems to be no way of inviting exclusively those birds of a feather without automatically attracting the wrong sort as well: the predators.

When we call into the wilderness, we tag our writings so others who share our ideas might find us. But the predators take those tags as indicative of our habit and try to hit us with some sort of service. But I am from the Old Testament era of the Internet, a time when its promise loomed large, and it had more to offer than mere shopping. Therefore I find the predators annoying in their crassness and think their growing domination and their souring of this wonderful mind-space space an utter abomination.

In response to the last blog I have received advice on how to make money online, was offered beauty products, lifestyle advice from teenagers, and budgeting advice from spivs. There were also genuine responses, easily discerned from the fake, and as ever I thank those most valued birds of a feather for being the icing on the cake of my wordsmithing. But in general, our bird-calls mainly flag our position to the hunters who ready their guns seeking to fell the money from our pockets. And in hardening myself against predators, in learning to evade them, I find I mistrust every advert that comes my way online because I suspect I have been clumsily profiled. I resent it and find it creepy. As a self-publisher though I have no choice but to operate in this territory. I suppose then I’ve become quite the snob, seeking kinship exclusively with my own kind while being infuriated to a comical degree when the predators hear my call and respond by showering me with their shite.  Those Victorian men of letters, contributing piffle to “Blackwoods” never had this problem.

As a young engineer, many years ago now, finding my feet in a huge and, at times, terrifying manufactory, I once had the privilege of working with a crusty old curmudgeon in whom I confided my utter bewilderment at the oftentimes Byzantine processes required to achieve the simplest of things, also the long hours we spent in meetings, discussing ‘policy’ without actually achieving anything. And he told me that in engineering, all there really is is cutting metal, that the rest is bullshit, that we should never lose sight of that one key fact, then all would be well – at least with us – and we would not go crazy.

It was good advice, advice that has served me well, and which can be applied metaphorically and usefully to many areas of life outside the metal-cutting business. But in a society that has de-industrialised it has also become impossible not to conclude all there seems to be left now is the bullshit, and no more so than with the online world where nothing tangible ever existed in the first place.

It’s therefore disappointing when you put up a piece of work to which most of the responses are from snake-oil entrepreneurs. It’s not disappointment that so few birds of a feather hear my call, more perhaps that there seem to be so few genuine wild birds of any feather out there at all. It’s as well then that of all the species, I am the least gregarious, and therefore well suited to the environment, happiest in small company. I am an albatross perhaps, or a stormy petrel.

It’s a very big ocean we are crossing, and meaningful encounters are  naturally rare. True, the ocean has also become a sterile environment, thick with dross and boiling with fatuous nitrates, a fact we birds of a feather recognise only by our detachment from it and we lament its loss. Everyone down there is trying to profit at the expense of everyone else, it is a place of predators and prey  like worms in a bucket where everything is a baited hook, and even imaginary concepts like “lifestyle” have their price-tag.

We follow the styles of the celebrities, ape the decor of their homes, dress the way they dress, even pretend we are celebrities ourselves with our Insta-profiles. I suppose I’m no different. It’s just that my styles are a couple of hundred years out of date. I am all frock-coat and pince-nez. I am a pocket-watch and leather-bound journal, grimacing at modernity.

Krishnamurti had much to say about such faulty thinking. Basically, he said, the world was never in trouble before we came along, and even we were fine until we started over-thinking everything, that it is our oftentimes corrupt thought, our ground-level delusions that are at the root of all suffering. It begins with thinking, and ends with killing. So, dear snake-oil entrepreneur, before you respond this time with your spam you should take time to read what I’ve written, observe the tag-traps I have set for you, then you’d realise your hits on me only become a part of the meta-structure of the very thing I’m getting at, and it’s thus I profit instead from your avarice.

But each to their own. So you keep your nose to the ground, Mr Entrepreneur, sniffing out your grubby coin, always an eye for the easy buck, weighted by your  petty ambition, while we true birds of a feather spread our wings and soar.

Squawk!

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screenshotMy computer is dead! The last update of Windows Ten killed it. I don’t like Windows Ten. It updates my computer every Friday night whether I want it to or not. Then I come to it on a Saturday, thinking to jot down a fragment of a poem, or maybe tickle through an essay, and it says: “Oh, hang on, I’m doing something much more important, you’ll have to wait.”

So you make coffee and sometimes when you come back it says it’s ready for you, but then you find it’s not working right. Sometimes you have to wait all day to find out it’s not working right, or sometimes it doesn’t work at all. The computer grinds to a halt, as if the update poured treacle into the works; the mouse becomes sticky, or sometimes you can’t get past the login screen. Sometimes you have to wait a week for the next update to fix things, sometimes you have to wait two or three. It’s a good job I’m not up against any deadlines.

This time, I’m getting what they call a 100% disk usage error. From reading the self-help forums, I’ve learned it’s a common problem for which the solutions are legion, but I must have tried them all, and none of them work. Basically, the machine enters a state of infinite effort while actually doing nothing at all, the result being a condition of stubborn unresponsiveness verging on the catatonic. I even tried resetting my computer to a state as fresh as the day that it was born – thinking I was being very clever in working that one out – but it won’t let me do it. It’s beginning to sound like Arthur C Clarke’s HAL: “I’m sorry, Dave. I can’t let you do that.”

I’ve forgotten what that poem fragment was now. I woke up with it running through my head, but its leaked away. I should have written it down. After all, Wordsworth never had this trouble did he? He wrote stuff on bits of paper with a quill pen, then sent it all off with a penny stamp, ink blobs and all, and hey-presto, he made poet laureate. Eventually. But no, I had to start fiddling, clicking this, pressing that, and all to no avail. Also, have you noticed, there’s nothing like a sick computer for spoiling your day, for making you realise how much you’ve come to rely on it, and perhaps despising yourself a little on account of that?

So how did I manage to post this then? Ah well, I have this other dead computer. The Internet killed that one too, long ago, but I managed to resurrect it with an obsolete operating system I bought of Ebay for a fiver. It’s now the fastest, most responsive and silky smooth machine in the house, but only because it can no longer connect to the Internet. I’m it’s master now, you see? So I wrote this on it, transferred it by memory card to my Android phone and posted it online that way. It’s hardly convenient, but where there’s a will there’s a way.

It’s also useful to be reminded that it doesn’t entirely serves us, this vast invisible thing we have wrapped the world in. It’s a marvellous invention of course. The simple fact of email was a step change in communications. But then most of the emails we get are junk, sent out by dumb robots, and we have to spend time sorting through them for the ones that aren’t junk and sent out by humans. And we all know our emails are scanned and parsed by the Internet anyway, looking for juicy clues about our likely buying habits. And we know too we’re being groomed and manipulated by its algorithms every day, that the non living, non self-aware intelligence of the machine is becoming far more important as an end in itself than anything we’re allowed to do when we’re connected to it.

So my poem has gone and, okay, it wasn’t going to change the world so there’s no sense getting too upset about that, but the point is the machine robbed me of a moment of human expression, which does not make it my friend. It has something far more important to do now than serve our often admittedly trivial needs, and we need to think very carefully about what kind of unthinking, unfeeling world the machine is leading us into while under the impression it’s serving us, when in fact we’re all in service to it.

Wait a minute,… I remember how that poem went now:

My computer once made me see red,
When it locked up and tried to play dead,
So I cursed it quite rough, cos I’d quite had enough,
Then I smashed it to bits with my head.

 

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avia-peseusI was reminiscing, thinking back on a particularly difficult week at the day-job that had left me feeling exhausted and resentful. So, I’d taken myself off over the moors, sat down on a hilltop and there I was revived by the sound of a skylark. It was a recovery of spirit only momentarily punctured by the nagging ping of my mobile phone, before I switched the damned thing off and tranquillity was restored.

I completed this cathartic experience some time later with a blog piece called Pandora’s little box of the absurd. It garnered a few likes, and kind comments from regular readers, and then, as is the way with these things, it sank into the sedimentary layers, I presumed never to be heard of again. More recently though, and quite unexpectedly, I picked up another comment which read – and I quote: what a load of bollocks.

Now, compared with some of the anonymous abuse that’s dished out elsewhere online, this was rather tame, and not a little ironic given the context of the piece. I hardly get anything of so blunt a nature, since I presume my little domain is rather an inoffensive backwater, and hardly to be considered “influential”. Moreover, since “what a load of bollocks” offered nothing constructive by way of explanation as to why that piece had so offended the sensibilities of the querent, I deleted it – the comment, not the piece. I have, however, been thinking about it in the larger context of abuse in general, and the increasing entrenchment of all manner of opinion, for which there seems little remedy other than for it all to play out to its own troubling and as yet entirely unpredictable, though possibly violent, conclusion.

To be sure, we live in increasingly polarised times, times when patience and tolerance are fast dissolving, when ambiguity and diversity are looked upon as untidy concepts we’d sooner be shut of, and we hark back to times when we imagine things were simpler, therefore easier to understand. Thus we read a piece of self reflective prose and, under cover of anonymity, we tell the writer it’s bollocks.

The implication is that our view of things is superior, and it may well be, but we cannot be bothered to say how or why. Yet in all cases the “how” and the “why” are of vital interest to anyone engaged in the field of existential enquiry.

I think this is bollocks because,… now, that is an opinion backed up by reasoning and experience, and we might all learn something from it, even if it is only to respectfully disagree. But mostly, we don’t know why we hold the views we do, we can’t be bothered self analysing, so we just say bollocks instead.

It’s not a nice word, though how the male testes became synonymous with a thing considered beneath contempt I don’t know, while the dog’s on the other hand,.. well, they’re considered rather fine, while a dog’s breakfast is something of a mess. And it’s doubly odd, since the male testes are, after all, not unimportant, located as they are at very foundation of the fountain of creativity, so to speak. Moreover, when brought into an harmonious coupling with certain other receptive factors – factors incidentally also used freely in derogatory speech – they further the human species immeasurably, to say nothing of giving great joy to life – at least if memory serves me correctly.

But that’s complicated – to think metaphorically, to think deeply about complex issues. It’s much easier to retreat into profanity and partisanship because then no explanation is necessary. We simply take our cue from others of our tribe, seek confirmation of our superiority in the amount of hurt we can cause, take also our reward from the cheers of approval from our fellow warriors.

We believe that by silencing argument, we win it – whether we silence it with profanity, or violence, it matters not. We don’t actually win, of course, but it can take the letting of a awful lot of blood before we realise it, before we look back, exhausted by the effort and the carnage and are totally ashamed of ourselves to the bottom of our souls.

It’s just a little world, “bollocks”, and, though offensive, it’s sanctioned as regular speech now. Placards proclaim it on the TV news every night, and certain of our politicians use it freely in their dismissal of important affairs of state – little wonder then it has found its way into my humble backwater. But if I can for a moment inflate myself, all be it delusionally, to that most modern of high offices, “the online influencer”, let me caution us all, we plucky Brits: go easy on the profanity, and if we think something is beneath contempt, then try at least to explain why we think it, in case we are asked, then we might be counted as part of the solution, rather than merely contributing to the problem.

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tmp_2019020318023776334.jpgThe bothy was built of stone, all randomly coursed, with a chimney and a neatly pitched, though slightly sagging slate roof. The door and windows were in good order, the woodwork showing a recent lick of green paint. It stood a little inland, but still within sight and sound of the sea. At its back rose the darkening profile of the mountain, though the precise shape of it was as yet only to be guessed at, it being capped by a lazy smudge of grey clag that wasn’t for budging, not today anyway.

It was the thing they all came here to climb, a multitude of guide books singing its praises, but I was only interested in it as background. Maybe tomorrow I’d get a better view of it.

It had been a few hour’s walk from the road, where I’d left the car, and a lonely stretch of road at that, five miles of single track from the cluster of little houses down by the harbour, this being the only settlement on the island. Then it was a mile of choppy blue in a Calmac ferry to the mainland, and a region of the UK with a population density as near to zero as made no difference.

It had been a shepherd’s hut I think, a neat little place kept going by the estate, a lone splash of succour in an otherwise overwhelming wilderness, a place that, even then, centuries after the clearances, still spoke of an awful emptiness and a weeping. It’s a scene that remains in my mind fresh as ever, and I have to remind myself this was the summer of  ’87, that an entire generation has come and gone since then who have never seen or known such stillness. But time stands still whenever I think of it. I’ve only to close my eyes and I’m there.

It was clean and dry inside, just the one small room, some hooks for wet kit, a shovel for the latrine, a rough shelf of fragile paperbacks. The floor was swept, a little stack of wood and newspapers by the fireplace, a half used sack of coal, and there was a pair of simple bunks, one either side of the fireplace. As bothies went this was small but relatively luxurious.

I lit the fire and settled in. It was late afternoon, June, cold and blowing for rain – typical enough for the western highlands that time of year.

There were only about a hundred bothies in the whole of Britain, all of them in lonely places, and I’d set myself the task of photographing every one. Don’t ask me why. It wasn’t like I was going to write a book, or pitch a feature to the National Geographic or anything. I’d tried all that, and was already waking up to the somewhat sobering conclusion I was irrelevant in what had become an increasingly hedonistic decade. This  wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because all of that was looking set to burst any day now, and many of us were braced for it, wondering what the hell was coming next.

I’d just turned twenty six, and if I’d learned anything of use by then it was this: establishing a purpose in life was everything to a man, whether that purpose seem big or small to him, or to others, it didn’t matter, and we all get to choose, but here’s the thing: the best choices always seem to run counter to the Zeitgeist, and it’s that problem, that paradox and how we deal with it that writes the story of our lives.

Me? I’d chosen this.

I always shot the land in monochrome because I had a notion you saw more in black and white. I used an old  OM10 with a Zuiko prime lens, still do in fact. But the camera was just an excuse really, like a magnifying glass you use to get a closer look at a thing. I didn’t know what I was looking for exactly, still don’t really, but I’ve a feeling I was closer to it then than I am now, sitting here in 2019, over thirty years later. Now, I’ve no idea where I am, feel lost in time, actually, and finding it harder every day to convince myself I exist at all.

Anyway, I’d gone out and I was squeezing off some shots of the bothy against a grey sea, just playing with compositions and line for the better weather I’d hoped would be on the morrow. And quite suddenly, was so often the way there, the clouds tore open a hole, loosing from the eternal gold beyond stray javelins of what I’d hoped was a revelatory light, touching down upon the water as if to illuminate the very thing I sought. It was all very dramatic,…

And that’s when I saw her.

 

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man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885I’ve been getting a sudden flurry of comments on Wattpad. They’re all roughly the same, telling me I’ve won Premier Membership but if you click the link it simply takes you to a story that “cannot be found”. It’s some sort of scam then, the purpose of which eludes me, but more of that later.

Wattpad is one of many self-publishing platforms now. I’ve been on there for ages, with mixed results. The Seaview Cafe topped out at around 4000 reads, which was great, but other stuff hasn’t been read at all. This is probably because I don’t game it. It’s a social network you see, and as with all such things you have to spend time building it up, virtual schmoozing and following others in order to get the clicks. But I’m socially inept, and prefer just to write.

Wattpad sells advertising. Writers use it as a vehicle for self expression, while readers read their stuff for free, and as we go along we all get served these adverts. Adverts are annoying, but so long as you can forgive them Wattpad’s maybe worth a look if you’re starting out, and you’re the chatty type, but best not taken too seriously because a writer needs to be careful they don’t lose their way.

The Wattpad model has changed recently, a kind of ‘premium membership’ being rolled out, a select group of writers testing a “paid” model. Also, if the rest of us agree to a subscription, they’ll spare us the adverts. Payment to writers is based on donations – we buy virtual coins which we toss into the writer’s hat if we like their stuff. I don’t know who those writers are, so I suppose they’ll have to be promoted in some way – sexy mugshots and all that, no English teeth, and no one over thirty five?

But this is beginning to sound like conventional publishing – about half a dozen chosen ones awarded most of the budget, and the rest dividing the pennies between them. According to the blurb, all writers will be able to join the paid ranks eventually, and that’s alluring if you’re chasing the idea of writing for a living, but unless you have millions of readers, you’ll be lucky if you make the price of a cup of coffee. And with the money of course will come the scammers, because they always find a way, and I suppose those spurious comments I’m getting now are the first exploratory wave of that.

But if Wattpad changes, or stays the same, it’s irrelevant to those of us writing the stories, because the important thing is always the story, I mean as it’s being written and experienced by you the writer, also in future years, when you’re revising and reliving the adventure, when maybe you start to wonder what the hell you were on about back then, or you realise how much your outlook’s changed, and which bits you thought were profoundly insightful turn out to have been merely stupid. Thus, in part, the story always serves you first. That’s your reward. There may also be a greater purpose, but that’s complicated and mysterious and, it may not be true, but here goes:

Most writers who’ve been at it for a decade or more already know the chances of making an actual living by it are zero, so you wonder why you’re still in the game, and that’ll take some time, maybe even another decade, and in the mean time, with luck, you’ll still be writing. My own vague conclusion at the end of this process is that writers, known or not, are explorers of the possibilities of imagination, and exploration is typically a human thing to do. And some of us can’t help it.

But more than that, all stories are based on a set of myths that rise from the deep unconscious, and there aren’t that many of them. We saw them first played out in stories from all those ancient civilisations – like the Mesopotamians, the Greeks, and the Egyptians – but they’ve been re-told in an infinite number of ways since, because times change and the myths need re-imagining for each generation. We writers needn’t be aware of this process, but if we analyse our own stories enough and dig deeply into myth we’ll find similarities. We’ll realise we’re basically saying the same thing.

And then there’s this theory that without an ongoing process of mythical renewal, the Gods might get the impression we’re no longer listening to them, so they’ll start stirring things up by unleashing troublesome daemons among us, hastening our decent into barbarism, so something fresh can rise from the ruins. So, creative types on this side of the divide try to avoid the ruination by placating the Gods, the Daemons, the Muses, or whatever by taking notes, by refashioning the myths to keep them fresh in people’s heads.

Well that’s fine, you say, but no publisher’s interested, so you stick your damned story online where you’re lucky if half a dozen people see it. What’s the point in that? Well, that’s not your problem. You’ve done your bit, and it may be that if only a dozen people see it, then maybe they’re the only ones it needed to speak to. And yes, all right, that’s romantic, and wishful, and a somewhat daring thing to say in the wrong company, but it has a certain mythical charm to it, and I like to believe in it.

But the main thing is writers on social media should be wary of getting hung up on the clicks, or the coins, or the comments, or whatever, because it’ll kill your craft, and they don’t mean a damn to your primary purpose anyway, which is simply to keep going, deep into the woods, every day.

 

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fallen beech tree

In the opening of my novel “Durelston Wood” there’s this huge beech tree that stands high on a bank, overlooking a bend in a river that runs deep through a forest. The roots are gnarled and mossy and the tree’s origins seem to hark back to a time as near the beginning of time as makes no difference. And it’s this apparent permanence in time, at least in so far as our protagonist sees it, that lends the tree the role of an existential anchor throughout the changes of his life. Whenever he feels he lacks certainty and direction, whenever it seems there’s no sure ground left to stand on, he seeks it out.

That beech tree exists. I’ve known it since I was a boy, carved my name on it in a secret place when I was ten, but unlike my protagonist, I’ve also seen how the bank has been eroding slowly over the decades, the root system more and more exposed. Some years ago, storms felled a couple of my tree’s equally mighty brethren. They’d been undermined by time and grown top heavy, so a capricious wind sent them crashing into the river. It’s a shocking thing to see, a tree of immense proportion spread out suddenly, smashed open by gravity, and I suppose it was just a matter of time before my own tree – I always think of it as my tree – succumbed in the same way.

Its prospect, sitting high on that bank grants it a certain majesty but you can also sense its vulnerability as its roots cling talon-like to an earth that is slowly vanishing beneath it. It’s five or six feet in diameter, and Professor Google says if we multiply the diameter of the tree at chest height, in inches, by six, it gives us the approximate age of the tree in years – so let’s say about four hundred years since that little beechnut first sprouted on the riverbank and crowded out all the other little beechnuts.

But one side of the root system has been getting more and more exposed, starving the tree. Sure enough, I came upon it recently to find a massive section of trunk had failed above those exposed roots. It was taken down by the storms we had in December, sent thirty feet into the river below, its irresistible arboreal tonnage smashing through a footbridge in the process.

So there’s a lesson here about impermanence, that although we all know nothing lasts for ever, at the same time it’s an axiom we seek to ignore by picking as our yardsticks something suitably long lived, like say a four hundred year old beech tree. But, in time, even the mountains are ground down and the valleys filled with their dust, and one day I’m sure to come through the forest to find this tree gone completely into the river, and a crater in the bank ripped out by the roots as it went over. And the other lesson in all of this is I’ve got to find a way of not minding any of that.

And that might even be possible, were it not also for the accompanying sense recently of an acceleration in the destruction of the known world, and the fast erosion of all certainty, like the earth that has supported my tree for four centuries being now insufficient to support the weight of our giddy times.

But perhaps in the true unwritten history of my tree, a more useful tale than its imminent demise has already been told in the beer-can someone wedged into one the boles high in the trunk, or the plastic supermarket bag trapped in its branches and just out of reach – a bag that slapped and flapped eventually to silent rags in the winds over the passage of several winters. Or the inevitable little bags of dog poo someone hung there, or the discarded sandwich wrapper and, one time, the malodorous pile of human faeces, complete with Hoover instruction booklet hastily improvised as toilet paper (well, you never know, do you?). Or indeed the ten year old boy who once carved his initials in that secret place – yes, even that, to other eyes, might have seemed a sacrilege.

All these things from time to time have come to poke fun at this illusion of the tree’s sanctity, at the idea of anything being immortal in this world, at our sentimental nature, at our propensity for hanging onto things, to people, places, even memories, long after the time has come to let them go. To one human a mighty tree and its environs are an enchanted place, a place for communing with the Faery, while to another it’s simply a convenient toilet, or somewhere to leave one’s rubbish, or make one’s mark.

In mythical terms these are the tokens of the jester, the exasperating interventions of an ever playful Mercurius, telling us to get over ourselves, that the successful alchemy of one’s life is a continuing process of coagulation and sublimation, that the falling back into ruin is as important as the rise of a transcendent vapour that follows. The remains of these trees, these icons of the most venerable life on earth, four hundred years in the making, will settle back into the earth now, and there coagulate and rot in slow-time, providing habitat for the shy creatures we do not see when we are encumbered with our yapping dogs – the creatures, like the sprites and the Faery we see only when we settle down in the forest and tune in to the deep motion of its fecund breath, and open up the eye of imagination.

There is no tragedy here, only a falling back into the alembic of my days, a further cycle of coagulation and a separating out the unnecessary from my thoughts, while we await the sublimation of some new mode of spirit, a fresh way of thinking and seeing and being.

Or at least I hope so.

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