Posts Tagged ‘youth’

The M65 was strewn with junk. It was mostly soft stuff – huge chunks of rock-wool insulation. Traffic was weaving about to avoid it, in case it hid anything more solid. The less cautious slammed into it and the junk exploded, fragmenting across the carriageways. Some of it stuck under axles, creating long writhing tails, which then launched surprise attacks on the vehicles behind. Plastic bottles rained in glittering storms, bounced off the Tarmac and rolled willy-nilly. I tracked a sudden burst of them, manoeuvred around the majority, caught one under the front offside tyre, heard it crack, then saw it go flying into the car beside me. There were papers, more rock-wool, more bottles, polystyrene cartons, strewn all the way from Colne to Blackburn.

I caught up with the culprit, gave him a wide berth and shot past as fast as I could. It was a flatbed truck with a skew-whiff skip on it, stacked precariously high, and slowly divesting itself of its contents as it motored along in sweet oblivion. The door of the truck was emblazoned with words to the effect of: “so-and-so’s waste services, a proud champion of the environment”. Sometimes the jokes write themselves.

The Wycoller atom

It was late afternoon, and I was driving home after a day in the hills above Colne. I’d met a friend at the Ball Grove country park, on the Keighley road, and from there we’d walked up through Trawden, across the high meadows, into the shadow of Boulsworth hill. It had been a hot day for a hike, and we’d baulked at the hill itself, plodded on instead to Foster’s Leap, and the much graffitied and vandalized atom, then down to the ever popular Wycoller village. The little café was closed, so we’d plodded back to Ball Grove park. There, we managed a brew and a piece of cake in congenial surroundings, by the old mill pond.

View from inside the Wycoller Atom

I had sweated in a new pair of walking trousers. I’ve always skimped on them, but had decided to finally push the boat out on a well-known branded pair, made from recycled bottles, though obviously not the ones I would be later dodging on the motorway. The blurb had claimed they were waterproof, and breathable. I was dubious, but prepared to take a gambol, since I could leave the weight of additional over-trousers behind. However, though of a seemingly thin, summery material, they had proved warm and sticky on the legs – not at all comfortable.

Wycoller – Pendle in the distance

The trousers weren’t the only bit of kit to perform poorly. The camera was iffy too, but that turned out to be my fault. It was a cracking day for photography among the hills and dales of this beautiful part of Lancashire. I set the shots up as I usually do, but most of them came out grainy and – well – just weird. I’d been fiddling with it the night before, and forgotten to set it back to optimal, so I’d shot the day at low resolution, and 800 ASA. I’m reaching that stage when, if I’ve lost my car-keys, I check the fridge first. I should just stick the camera on auto and leave it there. It probably knows better than me.

So we didn’t do the summit, and I regret that now, but the day was long enough at nearly ten miles in the heat. I remember it was1986, or thereabouts, when I was last on Boulsworth hill – the actual summit being known as Lad Law. A friend of mine was planning an epic book called The Hills of Lancashire, and had asked me to illustrate the bigger summits with pen and ink drawings. I remember Boulsworth was a difficult one to illustrate – it having no characteristic shape to it, and the summit was like any other, with a few grit-stone rocks and a trig point. It was memorable mainly for the walk from Wycoller, which is a fine one indeed, and much recommended. It was memorable also for the views east over a wilderness of undulating moor, all the way to Yorkshire.

For the picture of Boulsworth, I tried to add interest by drawing the summit with a chap stood at the trig point. It’s probably me, looking windswept and moody. I came across those drawings recently, the memory of them seeming fresh, yet so long ago now. Thus, my sixty-year-old self presents here a couple of sketches on a medium that was undreamed of, when I drew them in my twenties. The book never came off, and my friend is gone now. I clearly fancied myself as a bit of an illustrator back then, as well as a best-selling novelist. Neither worked out. I was wise to stick at the day-job.

I don’t know how it is with women, but until the legs actually fail on a man, there’s something in us that does not age, and probably not even then. We’d met this trio of guys at the Ball Grove café. We’d seen them earlier on the hill. They had a dry, north-country sense of humour that was quick to surface, and we responded in kind. They looked to be in their late seventies but, during our brief exchange, I saw that crusty trio transform into boys again, as did my friend and I.

But then I look at the young chap I drew on the windy summit, back in ’86, and I remember something of the moodiness of those years, also the striving for a thing I didn’t know the shape of then, and I still don’t. I suppose the difference is learning to let it go, and in that sense at least I’m a lot younger now, than I was that day I first stood on Boulsworth hill.

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West Pennine Moors, late May. Eight p.m. The sun is turning to amber. Millions are still clapping the NHS, rather than funding them the PPE they need. And with what’s looking like the worst death rate in the world, the PM has just announced a further easing of the bio-security controls.

I find the little moorland roads are crazy-busy. There are long lines of vehicles nose to tail, driving fast, all filled with youths, catching Covid. The windows are down and the thump-whack music is drowning out the curlews and the lapwings. I wonder if their parents know where they are.

I’ve left the little blue car down in the last free layby, at Parson’s Bullough, by the Yarrow Reservoir. I’d hoped it would be quieter this evening, after an aborted attempt earlier in the week, by day. I was wrong. There were people swimming in the reservoir, next to the signs that warn you not to. The water here is very deep and cold. You’d be a fool to risk it.

There was a sickly-sweet smell of weed.

My son and I climbed the quiet pastures by the old walls, towards Jepsons. It was a most treasured respite. I wouldn’t actually be here, but by neighbours had been driving me nuts all day with their boom-box music, and I’d simply had to get away. I thought they’d followed me, actually. I could hear the same mindless thump-thump-thump, two beats per second, as we climbed to Jepson’s gate.

There, we found a car all skew-wiff, both doors open, the inhabitants, a boy and a girl in their teens, hanging out. They were stoned on the nitrous oxide they were imbibing, somewhat comically, from pink balloons. Little silver cartridges were scattered everywhere. They’d clearly been at it a while, and others before them. A mid-week evening, pubs shut, so they come up here en-mass, families, swimmers, stoners.

We gave a wide berth, picked up the track for the moor, joked about the degeneration of society, about the freak show. My son, at 26, is closer to that generation than me, yet dismisses it as lost, corrupt, decadent. I laugh, though it breaks my heart. He sounds older than me at times. But he’s right, they’re lost. There is no going back from this. I see things a little differently. I see a society broken and despairing, trying to kill itself by whatever means comes to hand. Drugs, covid, driving like a loon.

What a waste.

There are a couple of stones on the hill, on the approach to Jepsons. I swear they’re megaliths. I want to show them to my father, though he’s been dead getting on a half-century now. Still, I know he would have enthused over them, theorized over them, spoken to his contacts in the local archaeology groups in Chorley and in Horwich. But I’m not sure anyone knows or cares about such things any more. And I would have hated for him to see those kids. He would have wanted to help them, call an ambulance perhaps.

I have a friend who collects those little spent nitrous oxide cartridges. He makes hundreds a year for charity, selling them for scrap. I would have picked them up to add to his collection, but I didn’t want to catch anything. It’s worth thinking about though, if your area is similarly plagued, a rich and self-sustaining vein of valuable scrap.

The sunset was extraordinary.

We drove home with the top down. It was a warm night, and beautiful. The birds were singing rapturously, the little blue car burbling along, sweetly as ever, but all of it still eerie under the circumstances. My neighbours had gone in to watch the telly, so it was quiet. They have been known to drag the telly outdoors and watch it at full blast. Small blessings then. I sat a while, as a crescent moon slipped west, lit candles.

There are over 37,000 dead now, even by the government’s own conservative figures, but it’s nearer 60,000 if you look at the real figures, the so-called excess deaths. The PM looked confident tonight as he told us all the tests had been met for a further easing of the lock-down, opening the shops and getting us all back to normal. I understand many of the died-in-the-wool, true blues who voted for him are still confident in those assurances. But most of the country isn’t actually listening any more. Even before Covid, they had no dignity in work beyond that grim glass ceiling of minimum wage slavery. They have no future, no hope. And they were all up on the moors tonight, getting stoned. A part of me couldn’t blame them. But I’d hoped to see my country in better shape than this as I drift towards retirement, better anyway than the freak-show its become.

I suppose every generation says the same.

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As I sit in the barber’s chair,
This sunny autumn afternoon,
My hair fast tumbling to my lap
In short shorn clumps of steely fuzz,
The barber’s nimble clippers buzz,
Tracing out the shape of bone,
Vibrating deep into the well,
Of thoughts and other things unknown.

And in the mirror opposite,
With spectacles removed I see
A blur that looks a bit like me,
Turned back now to a smoother flesh,
And freshly spun naivete.

A young man in the barber’s chair,
A sunny autumn afternoon,
His hair fast tumbling to his lap,
A blonde and honeyed fuzz, lit gold
In sunlight slanting bright and low.
And with much clearer eyes than mine,
He spies himself grown grey and old,
Upon the treading mill of time.

I wonder what he sees in me?
If after all these years at last,
Are we become in later life
What we both thought by now we’d be?
Or does my portrait disappoint,
This face, this hair of thinning grey,
Our path subverted and waylaid,
It seems with every single step.
And even now, come autumn’s turn,
How precious little have we learned?

And me, regarding him?
Do I consider my self now,
No wiser than I was back then.
Am I no more than old and thin?

The trim is done, and parting slow,
I quietly beseech my past,
Keep faith, we’ll one day surely see,
Relaxing in this barber’s chair,
The man we both still want to be.



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BullIf you were a fish, what colour would you be? I told them yellow, but it was the wrong answer – must have been, because I didn’t get the job. I’m assuming the question was absurd, that it didn’t really matter what colour you picked, not in any logical sense anyway. And it wasn’t about testing your imagination or lateral thinking skills either  because they didn’t ask me to elaborate on why I said yellow, so it could only be that some secret colour was the key to getting that job, and it wasn’t yellow. Right?

I had a similar thing on the application before, or maybe it was the time before that,… anyway: if a man hands you a piece of stone, how do you know he’s from Birmingham? That was easier, I thought. I said you could probably tell by his accent, but that was too logical. Not far enough out of the box. I failed that one too. There were about eight thousand went for that job, tough odds, I know, and you’ve got to whittle them down somehow. I wouldn’t have minded knowing what the right answer was though, or at least what A-Z manual of HR Guruspeak you get this stuff from because maybe there’s a general rule you can apply, and I could really do with knowing what it is.

So, this job’s worth twenty K a year, which isn’t much really, but it’s a start, but first you have to answer this question: If you have a banana, an orange and a cantaloupe, why is your shirt tail sticking out? Doesn’t make sense does it? But you’re still not getting this job until you answer the damned question because it takes a certain kind of brain to sit in front of a PC all day with a plug in your ear and the machine telling you what to say. We’re looking for the top one percent of super positive ultra proactive all singing all dancing graduate intellects here – so you just go back to your Playstation and those same four walls you’ve been waking up in since you were a baby and contemplate how dumb and useless you really are.

You can take a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead. No,… I made one that up,… no, actually I stole it from Stan Laurel. He was full of stuff like that, remember? He used to befuddle his mate Ollie with nonsense aphorisms like: A bird in the bush saves nine. Maybe Stan wrote that A-Z guide. Don’t be fooled by appearances, Stan was a clever guy, you know? A comedy genius. I wonder what he would have made of this online job application business.

Okay, let’s see. Another graduate scheme. Online application. Big supermarket this one. Another few hours of my life I’ll never get back. If a customer comes up to you and complains this cauliflower is wilting, do you (a) poke them in the eye and run away screaming (b) apologise, and offer to find a fresh one (c) call security on them for abusive behaviour?

Hmm,… careful now. I smell a trick question. No,… go on, we’ll say (b).

Failed. Told you. Application rejected. Not entirely surprised, or disappointed – I mean that job was barely minimum wage and a two hour commute each way. I would have been in more debt, on top of the fifty grand I already owe for my degree, and working like a slave for it.

I bet it was call security on them!

My dad says it was easier in his day. Jobs more or less came to you. They came to school, invited you for tests where they asked normal questions – got you to do a sheet of sums, or fold a piece of paper according to written instructions. It sort of made sense, he says, not like the bollocks I’m being asked on these online applications.

But didn’t you need degrees? He said not, that most jobs, even well paid ones you could get with a handful of GCSE’s, that only the super-brainy kids went to college. It’s a pity, now you need a degree to peel spuds. They were factory jobs most of them, and good riddance my teachers used to say – you don’t want to grow up being factory fodder, do you? But I’d give anything for a factory job now.

Dad’s coming up on retirement. He doesn’t have to. You can work until you drop now but he’s had a bit of trouble with his nerves and Mum says he’s to stop, that we’ll manage. He tells me we won’t starve, promises I’m not a pain in the arse or anything, hanging around the house all day, that things will work out. But me? I’d hate having me hanging around, I even feel like a bad smell. Dad’s worked all his life, deserves some peace, some privacy in his own home. But he says: what, you think your mother me are jumping into bed every five minutes? Laugh a minute, my dad.

But seriously, I’ve got to get out of here. I’m feeling like one of those Japanese kids, those Hikikomoris. Thirty, forty years old, still living in their bedrooms, parents grown old and grey and thin, and life just not seeming to grant them their dues. I mean there has to be some point to it all. I’ve been busting my guts on tests since I was five. That’s seventeen years of education and testing and never once being asked what colour of fish I was, or what the secret was to just knowing the right answer. It’s like waking up of a sudden and realising the world’s actually barking mad and all that education,… well it’s just a way of keeping you out of mischief in the mean time.

A blue ball, a green ball and a red ball,… which one is bigger? Nah!… who cares? Do I really want to work for a place that goes around asking damned fool questions like that and expecting us all to keep a straight face?

I’m learning how to grow vegetables, actually. Dad’s let me have a bit of the back garden, which I’ve turned over to a veggie patch. It’s better learning how to grow them than explaining online to a dumb machine what kind of vegetable you are, and why. If I can’t earn money to buy them from those one percent graduate-rich supermarkets, I’ll grow my own for nothing, thanks. I had a small crop last year and they were a bit bent but they saved some money on the week’s shop, and Dad said they tasted all right.

Me and Jess next door are thinking of going halves on some chickens. Her Dad’s got a bigger garden and there’s room for coup. Chickens sound tricky though, but she’s a bright kid, Jess, I mean for someone without a degree, and she’ll fathom it all out. She works part time in the corner shop, minimum wage, but it’s better than nothing she says, and nothing’s about all there is round here anyway. Nothing anywhere else, I tell her. She was lucky to get that job, and nobody ever asked her what colour of fish she was either.

She said she’d put a good word in.

You never know.

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mazda2I’m still in the process of relearning how to drive. Twenty years of cruising about in automatics has left me unable to judge the best gear to be in when entering bends and also what a car feels like, literally through the seat of my pants. I’m enjoying the ride though and my teacher, this old but rather lovely MX5 is very patient with me, treating me to a rediscovery of the thrill of movement while forgiving me as I fluff and bluff my way up and down the gear box. I’m told her patience will be more sorely tested in the wet, so I’m avoiding that for now.

This evening I’m touring the lanes between Rufford, Parbold and Wrightington, an area threaded through with a network of little byways that have been the backdrop to various love affairs over the years, both real and imaginary. The weather is fine, clear blue skies deepening to tobacco at the western horizon, an horizon that comes right down to the plane and is interrupted only by low hedgerows. This is a big sky kind of place. The car is proving to be something of a time machine tonight because suddenly I’m nineteen again and I’m listening to Rumours on the player, and one song in particular is proving especially emotive:

Listen to the wind blow
Watch the sun rise,…

rufford old hall

Rufford Old Hall

We’re just coming up to Rufford Old Hall on the A59 – home to the Heskeths for 500 years. They say Shakespeare debuted here in the days before patronage caught up with him. They still do his plays in the open air, on summer evenings – Midsummer Night’s Dream at Midsummer is quite special. The hall is a good day out on Sundays, somewhere to take one’s new love. You’re paying National Trust prices of course, but if there’s just the two of you it’s not so bad. In the later years it’ll be family tickets and sharp intakes of breath. But watch your speed here Michael, this is a thirty zone, remember? Down to fourth, revs settle around 2K, slight grumble from an engine that’s not quite warm yet but yearning for more throttle – mega-jolt from a pothole that rattles down the chassis.

Run in the shadows,…

Since the BBC took the bass “outro” of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and flogged it to death as the “intro” to their Formula One racing coverage, I’ve tended to skip this song out of sheer weariness, so the rest of the piece, and the lyrics in particular have atrophied to zilch. But listening to them this evening they’re winkling out startling memories as the sun sinks to ochre over the plane, and this little car shows me how to feel the road once more through both feet. In a sense it’s putting me back in touch with reality, and the song is reminding me how I once used to feel. Quick snatch down to third now, and a sharp left onto the B5246, dropping in a little corkscrew motion like we’re on smooth rails.

Damn your love,
Damn your lies,…

The song was written in 1976 at a time when the band was undergoing various upsets, marriage breakdowns and relationship break-ups. I caught up with them in 1979, around the time of the “Tusk” album, a period of romantic ups and downs for me too. The song reminds me that, in some respects, I have always been a teenager, feeling too deep, reaching too far and expecting too much, from women in particular. No disrespect girls, but it took me while to work out you were just human beings and not actually goddesses – well, except for Stevie Nicks of course who was and still is pure goddess.

And if you don’t love me now
You will never love me again
I can still hear you saying
You would never break the chain,…

At nineteen I was a third year engineering apprentice, studying for an HND at Wigan Technical college. In those days the day-job was just starting up, while inbetween my commutes, like most kids I was having my fingers burned and my heart fried in the furnace of fledgeling love. By contrast this evening I’m eyeing the endgame so far as the day-job is concerned, and having been happily married now for 25 years, it’s also a long time since I got my heart fried. Sometimes I forget this, but tonight it becomes a shade more real.

I can feel it.

And it’s interesting.

Listen to the wind blow,
Down comes the night,
Run in the shadows,…

Stevie Nicks 1977

Stevie Nicks in 1977 – Photo Wikipedia

This is not to say I don’t sometimes miss the intensity of feeling that first love brings, but it also leaves you a little numb, so you hold yourself in reserve as you age, shutting down those parts of yourself that are prone to most hurt. This is the trick of the adult – that emotional intensity would probably be too much for me now. But those early searing shocks are a natural proving ground, standing you in good stead later on, rendering you all the more able to cope with different kinds of loss – the death of friends and loved ones – and the sheer crazy mess of life.

I’d ride out this way with girls in the long ago, just for a drive and a talk and a place to be alone. I remember the scent of one girl very well and, before I became almost totally anosmic in later years, that same scent, like these lyrics, could release a long chain of memory. She’ll be fifty three now, but I’ve not seen her since ’79, so she’ll always be nineteen to me. There’s a tree, down a narrow lane off the 5246. We’d park under it and embrace while the sun set fire over the cornfields. Few travel that road, and even now you can usually guarantee the sense of being the last people in the world, at least for fifteen minutes or so. This was hardly dogging, those stolen moments. They were innocent times, times when it was sufficient for a man to thrill to the texture of a girl’s hair against his face, and the feel of her breath in his ear. Now anything goes, and nothing is too much or too depraved, or too precious to besmirch with haste.

In all my girls in those days I think I was searching for the muse I projected onto Stevie Nicks – me and a million other guys of course. Nothing worked out as planned. It was a tough learning process.

Damn your love
Damn your lies,…

The 5246, known also intermittently as Meadow Lane and Rufford Road is a lovely long run, twisty turney, lots of downshifts and then fast out of the bends, a lovely snarl from the engine out of second gear and a punchy acceleration that lights me up. It runs for a couple of miles, then brings you out onto the A5209 at Parbold. I spent the first five years of my married life here, up to ’93. Lovely village, Parbold, but stank to high heaven back then, courtesy of the Hoscar Sewerage works. I can’t smell it tonight, but that’s not saying anything.

windmill pub

The Windmill pub, Parbold

Long pull from here, up Parbold Hill, a brute of an incline, especially on a cold morning with a cold car that could barely manage 60 brake horse, but the Mazda’s nicely warmed now and even with her nose pointing at the sky the slightest nudge on the throttle yields a thrilling eagerness that’s thwarted only by the strategically placed GATSO cam.

Break the silence,
Damn the dark,
Damn the light,…

The pub at the top of Parbold Hill used to be called the Wiggin Tree, a popular watering hole, and a frequent haunt when courting. During our Parbold years, my wife and I would alternate between it and the Windmill on Friday nights. I blagged it for a scene or two in the Road from Langholm Avenue. It’s a Miller and Carter steakhouse now, a national franchise. Times have changed. Drinkers in pubs are simply in the way. The money is in food. I’ve not been in since it changed hands.

That reference to Langholm Avenue has me thinking of unrequited loves now. We’ve all had our share of those, but it’s a curse bourne in greater part by the reticent.

And if you don’t love me now
You will never love me again
I can still hear you saying
You would never break the chain,…

parbold hall

Parbold Hall

Which brings us nicely down to the ominously named Dangerous Corner at Wrightington, noting as we pass that Parbold Hall gardens are open, and I’m thinking I must make the effort one day, as those gardens are well spoken of. The house, originally dating to the 13th century but extensively remodelled in the last four hundred years, recently changed hands for 9.5 million. Nice twist here as we take the corner, very tactile steering, feeling every stone as we pick up Robin Hood Lane, then sharp left and out across High Moor, into the setting sun. There’s a faint clipping from the nearside rear disk, but it’s drowned out by an exuberant snarl as we punch along the straight.

Chain, keep us together
Running in the shadows,…

Sharp  right, past the Rigbye Arms, my current watering hole of choice, then a few nice twists and turns before the road falls away on Bannister Lane, the plane opening suddenly again and giving a brief impression of flight. I’m  keeping the speed to forty here, though the temptation is to floor it. I’m half conscious the pads are wearing thin and need a change, but I’m also wanting to resist the intimidation of this huge BMW I picked up at the Highmoor restaurant. He’s weaving about, sitting on my bumper, eager to prove his willy is bigger than mine – proof enough, if proof were needed, that we are descended from primates. There’s nowhere really for him to pass safely here but,… oh, there he goes – shower of chippings and a faint grey haze. Fast, ambitious, and obscenely monied. That car was easily worth fifty grand – more than I paid for that house in Parbold twenty five years ago, and which I’ve only just finished paying off. My car’s worth a mere two and a half thousand, but a whole lot more fun. He’s careless too as it doesn’t look like he’s bothering with the thirty zone at the bottom of the hill where you run into Bispham, just flashing through, and flashing on in his flashy self important way.

rigbye arms

The Rigbye Arms, High Moor

Down to third now and a sudden sweet reverberation from the exhaust, then slow past the Farmer’s Arms – easy to miss the right turn here onto Maltkin Lane and the final leg of tonight’s run. Here it is. Stay in third or drop to second? Hmm, too late – fluffed that one Michael. Never mind. That tug as we make the turn more than makes up for it. This is motoring in all its glory.

This is not nostalgia, this drive down the memory back-lanes of West Lancashire, in search of Stevie Nicks. This is more a searching of the past for pieces of soul we might have left stranded there. It’s good to gather them up now and then and feel oneself becoming whole again. You know it’s working when you feel yourself suddenly  energised by a thing you’ve all but forgotten. The trick is to bore deep down and be patient until you feel the energy of reconnection coursing through your veins. What does that feel like? Well, it feels something like this:

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