Sunday, January 12, 2014

A year of words, a cloud of electrons

It feels strange to be here, in the half-light of a northern winter, bent over the glow of the screen again.  I draw words from the heavy soil, listen to the roar of the wind in the trees, stand on the step at the front of the house and watch the moon rise over the clouds which are tipped with white, like the edge of an Edwardian napkin.

I want again, as I did last year, to release some of these words into the void of the night, into the dark space of the world-wide web (how long since I have heard it called that?), hoping that somewhere they will stick, that they may find a temporary home.

I have collected together a variety of essays and prose pieces which have been published in other places in the last twelve months (plus the odd unpublished one), and present them here as an e-book.  The link beneath the photo below (or simply by clicking here) will take you to a pdf version of the book, stored on Google Docs.  Please feel free to download it, to pass it on, to print it, or simply to look at the photos.

With thanks to all of you who have commented, tweeted, or otherwise supported my faltering efforts to write in 2013.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Fractal geometry and the river of life

From my ledge of moss, I gaze at the hillside across the valley. The grey of the scree is broken by remnants of grass and heather; patches of green in an ocean of stone. All lines tend towards the stream which flows from a couple of springs emerging from the scree; the starting point of mountain becks which gather and build westwards; springs turning to streams turning to rivers turning, finally, to the sea.
I have been indoors for too long, kept from the hills by the endless legions of low pressure systems which barrel in from the Irish Sea, one after another, like racehorses loosed from a starting gate. The wind has been almost constant; an aching drone in the fabric of the house, a hushing in the trees above the garden; it is a restless other, a presence in the dark of the night, a reminder of the force and omnipotence of the weather. From the hillside where I now sit, I can see the gathering dark of storm clouds signalling the arrival of the next weather front. I turn my eyes back to the hillside.
I am thinking of fractals; that geometric phenomenon where each whole is made up from ever-diminishing smaller versions of the same shape. As I look at the flank of Skiddaw, grey beneath a greyer sky, I lose the scale of the mountain, so that I could be looking at forests in a stone desert, or green patches on a hillside, or tiny lichenous growths on the side of small fragment of stone. A few days prior to my tea break on Skiddaw, walking across the fields at the edge of my village, I had flushed a hundred or more starlings from the skeleton of an ash tree, watched them billowing into flight, hurled sideways by the buffeting of the wind. I was struck again by the way in which birds behave in a flock; that ability to turn together as though connected by invisible threads. It is as if the birds know their position in the flock, as though they are each a single feather in a complete, beautiful sweep of wing. In the past few days, I have noticed again and again the enigmatic ability of nature to replicate itself at all scales: the way in which the individual trees in a wood lean together like the limbs of a single tree; the pillowed perfection of storm clouds as they build above the house, huge plumes made of smaller plumes; the mazed lines of map lichen on a slate boulder, looking like a landscape viewed from far in the air.

The final months of 2013 were a trial for me. I had worked too hard and too long, and fell into an extended period of low-level illness, burnt out and exhausted, incapable of seeing anything beyond the end of my bed or my desk, unable to write, spent of words. My mind retreated into a form of hibernation, dulled by the futility of communication, smothered by the incessant clamour of the trivial. This walk on the local hills, this gazing at a hillside of scree, seems part of a wider process of rehabilitation; learning to see once again, learning to taste the texture of words in my mouth once more. I yearned for periods in which I did not look at a book or a screen, but could gaze to the far horizon, as though 'longing' became a metaphysical desire for distance, for wide views of far hills, paling in the grey of evening.
Learning to write again has involved learning to see. In the depths of my tiredness, I could barely endure the effort needed to gaze into the distance, as though the perfection of the world outside was more than the soul could bear. In climbing this mountain today, I realise that it is not only my leg muscles which have grown tired through disuse. The muscles of my eyes need training, too; they need to scan slowly and carefully across these open hillsides, to pick out the details of rocks and mosses, to dwell absently on the changing colours of a winter hillside. A fractal set has been described as 'the same from near as from far'; a reminder of the changes in scale we need to make our lives whole and complete.

I descended from the hilltops by a narrow stream gorge; a deep moss-filled ravine thick with the viridian lushness of woodrush, largely untrodden by people. The stream rises from a bog pool on the moorland I have just crossed; a black sedge-lined pond from which a thin runnel of peaty water tips over the edge of the moor and gathers pace as a mountain stream. It gives me a strange satisfaction, this knowledge that I have followed the stream from its source, watched it build in volume and pace, heard the hiss of running water turn to a rush, to a roar, to a deep echoing hush. Rivers often appear in stories as a metaphor for the turns and pace-changes of an eventful life, and I believe in a moment of fancy that my purpose is no more than to follow this stream downhill, noting the falls and meanders, until, climbing the heathery sides of the gorge, I can gratefully send it on its way, downstream, beyond.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Cartographer

Let me tell you how easy it is to lose yourself.
I grew up believing that I always knew where I was. I placed my faith in the maps I learned to read as a child; the fine lines of stream and footpaths, the neat precision of churches with spires or towers, or bus stations and railway stations. I imagined the land around me laid as as though from a map: the hills ringed with brown contours, the forests arranged in neat rows of lollipop-shaped trees. I saw the narrow yellow road leading northwards from the village of my childhood, and knew that I could travel that way with certainty, protected by the knowledge folded between the salmon-coloured covers of the map I read each evening. I travelled in my mind.
I studied maps endlessly. I believed that they held some inexpressible truth; that everything we knew and did could be codified by these symbols and colours. I looked for perfection, and found it more clearly in the paper representations of the world than in the untidy, chaotic land which sprawled about me. I wanted a map for every purpose: to find my way in an argument, to find a thing I had lost, to find love.
The more I placed my faith in maps, however, the less they seem to explain what I could see around me. They could not tell me why the walk along this lakeshore can be so different in sun and in rain, or why the path through the little park can seem like an eternity to a child, yet only an instant to a pair of young lovers. They could not tell me how to truly find my way in life.
I know now that the land is made from layers of memory; strata of dreams and regrets, romances and discontents, which accumulate over the years like the soot which blackens the walls of the buildings in this small town. I know that there is a strange and tragic history between its streets, and yet I still listen for its stories of hope, its echoes of love.
I sometimes wished that everything in the world could be mapped, so that it might be possible to follow the traces of tears, the nodes of heartbreak, the thin glowing threads of ambition woven like fairy lights between office and home, between restaurant and hotel. I picture these layers of emotion, stacked one on top of another, so that it is possible to see everything that has ever happened in this place; layer upon layer of meaning, the colours blending softly from marble white to slate grey, from ochre to sienna, like the thin salty residue left when tears dry.
I drew maps of my own. I listened to the whisper of lovers at dusk, and traced the lines of their heartache with my pen. I visited park benches and mapped the people who sat there, their hopes and disappointments. I watched the swifts sketching patterns in the summer sky and imagined that these, too, could be mapped: a web of shrieking, mercurial paths, each one random, beautiful, fleeting. I watched my love walk away from me, and I etched her slow walk across the fields with a line of the darkest grey.
I knew, finally, that I needed to get off the map. I left home without planning a route, walking a path which left the town through dense woodland, shaded from the heat and pungent with the summer smells of moist earth and the citrus tang of resin. At each junction I did not look at my maps, choosing instead the route which seemed the prettiest, the most interesting, the least trodden. By this way I walked towards open country, where no footprints pitted the baked earth. Standing at the edge of an expanse of bog and moss, I saw at last the delicate colours of summer in the hills, rather than imagining the contour lines which I knew would have circled around this basin of land like the remnant paths of circling peregrines.
I slept the night in a ruined sheepfold. It was a mild summer's evening, but as night thickened and grew colder, I unfolded the maps I carried and spread them over my body to keep off the chill of the dew.
When I woke, the sun had risen above the mountains and my quilt of paper had dried and wrinkled. I folded each sheet carefully and left them stacked in a shallow niche in the stone wall against which I had rested my head. I picked up the shallow beginnings of a mountain stream and followed it downhill, knowing that soon enough it would join another, and then another, gathering pace towards the beckoning river.

'Cartographers', a play co-written by Kim Moore, Lindsay Rodden, Joe Ward Munrow and Ian Hill, directed by Stefan Escreet, will be at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick on 7 September 2013. For more details, see here

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Hoping for a god

The summer heat draws dragonflies from the grass. They flicker, yellow and blue and gold, in the fierce slanting glare of the sun. The cliff path is thick with grasses; dust spilling from their seed heads as I walk, as though through a parched desert. The furred kernels of the seeds glow golden in the late sun. The rocks which fringe the path are crusted in mealy flakes of dry, crisp lichens: Ramalina, Xanthoria, Flavoparmelia; the strange litany of their names like an ancient prayer.
I am surrounded by noise in the stillness of a summer's evening. Crickets, invisible but for the noise of their chirring, still into silence briefly as I pass, before striking up again behind me. Black-headed gulls turn and turn in the still air, shrieking this place is mine-mine-mine.

I have come here to rest with the family, to withdraw from the world for a week and gaze aimlessly at the sea. I run the cliff path each morning, flushing deer from the still-damp grass, my footsteps alerting the rock pipits as they skitter across the lower cliffs, disappearing amongst the ochre shades of the lichens. In this unusually hot weather, my eyes are clouded with sweat; my legs dimpled with grass seeds and petals which stick to me from the sides of the path.
It is a pleasure to have no commitments; to feel the length of the day yawning ahead like a featureless sea. Each day settles into a rhythm almost neolithic in its simplicity: walking, swimming, reading, eating. I realise that I have reached a time of my life when work no longer holds a purpose, where ambition pales into a pursuit for younger men, and meaning is to be found elsewhere, amongst the simple pleasures of family and place. Walking down a narrow lane in Kirkcudbright during the week, I read on a house gable the carved words from a poem by Rabbie Burns:
To make a happy fireside clime
To weans and wife,
That's the true pathos and sublime
Of human life
And I know that my task here this week is to stare at the slowly-changing clouds, the ruffled sea, to tread this path around the headland at morning and evening, silently reciting the names of birds and plants like an incantation to protect me against the world beyond.

Beyond the deep gull-scarred bay, a pair of steep ditches circle the headland. They are filled with the low-growing flowers of a coastal summer: stonecrop, thrift and trefoil. The dusty blue of harebells is a reminder of the shortening days; a sign that the best may yet be past.
The earthworks rim the site of an Iron Age fort. In this part of Scotland, such forts are almost always coastal, tucked onto clifftops and headlands such as this, facing the sea on three, safe, sides.
I try to imagine a life here; a low circular hut of oak staves and dry thatch, the near-constant wind shaking the hazel poles in the roof. I listen to the colonies of gulls bickering on the ledges beneath, and try to picture them as food: a source of eggs gathered by an agile young man lowered on a rope plaited from roots, held in a precarious balance between the need for life and the possibility of death. I wonder about the threats which drove these people to narrow, isolated headlands: the fear of raids at night, the need to sleep with the children in the centre of the circle, unaware of the spears and arrows tucked beneath their parents' heads.
It may be that I share no DNA with the three thousand year old inhabitants of this fort; that their line may have died out by the time the Romans arrived, that my own folk may be interlopers; latecomers from the low countries or Germany. Nonetheless, in the yellow light of early evening, as the sun empties its warmth onto the pale rippled sea, I feel their inheritance in the way I view the land. I yearn for their faith and patience, the journeys they would have made to find this site, the earth beneath their fingernails as they dug these ditches, their fear and sense of mystery when faced, at last, with the infinite sea.
There is a knowledge here which is buried in this dry, hard soil. I reach to touch one of the lichened rocks which have been placed end-upwards on the line of the embankment wall, perhaps as a marker, perhaps as part of some defensive system against an enemy we do not know. As I feel the stone beneath my hands, I experience that jolt of memory which reminds me that people lived here, families like mine; that they walked the same route I do today, looked at the same sea, the same view to distant islands suspended on the colourless horizon. I close my eyes and picture them hardening their sticks over a smouldering fire, casting ashes on the waters, hoping for a god who rises, like the summer sun, from the unfathomable sea.

Sunday, June 23, 2013


A pile of stones, that's all. The moss-furred stumps of walls, studded with slates collapsed slantwise, like skeleton teeth. A single hawthorn grows from the centre of the ruin; compact, hunched, lightly dusted with the creamy down of may blossom. It is far higher than any of the walls.
I can make out two or three rooms, a byre at the northern end, beside the spring which barely flows now, choked with ferns and sedge, thick with sediment. I can imagine the front doorway in the centre, flanked by protruding wings of two rooms which would have provided some shelter from northern winter winds. I picture it left open on summer afternoons such as this one, flies heavy in the limpid air, white butterflies drifting from the hawthorn flowers like a piece of blossom set free.
Today, wheatears are busy amongst the walls, gorging on the flies which have emerged into this rare summer warmth. They perch on capstones and fenceposts to sing, before darting lower to feed. Their song combines a dull chack with a high, fluted huweet; a strange mixture of two notes at once; one high, one low. It is a reminder of the fairness and foreboding which summer days like this hold: the languid warmth of high summer, the gathering darkness of rain clouds as they mass on the horizon like a memory we tried to forget. The peach-coloured breasts of the birds are too subtle for this day of blazing sun, the butter-yellow richness of the flowers, the abundant white of the blossom.
We approached today downhill, through grassy meadows dotted with bedstraw and tormentil, through seas of cotton grass whose span of flowering is as brief as a sunny day in Cumbria. My son is enchanted by this sudden blossoming of the hills, taking photographs of all he can see, turning his inquisitive gaze onto the grasses, the tiny flowers, the wheatears on the fence. I watch him move around the field as though this is a land to which he was born, which in a way is true; he has walked amongst these hills since the time when I carried him between brief spells of tottering between his parents' hands. He is shedding the awkwardness of adolescence, developing a grace and beauty in movement, an attentiveness to the world which I have worked so hard to learn. I blink, and time passes; my summers now seem as they must do to one of these butterflies: too brief, too bright, too short to visit every tree in blossom.

The ruins stand at the end of a dirt track, reached from an unmade road, on the eastern flank of an unremarkable hill. The land around is still grazed, but the hills are rarely walked; the footpaths grow blurred with disuse. I have no idea when this farm was abandoned. It may have been simply a summer steading, left closed between October and April whilst the cattle were gathered in the valley head below. It occupies a shallow shelf of land below the slopes of the fell, sheltered from the westerly winds, with a view across the mosaic of fields in the valley. A perfect site.
In 1985, there were 6,500 farms in Cumbria. Now there are less than 4,800. In those thirty years, the number of small farms – those under twenty hectares – has declined by almost a quarter. I feel their absence everywhere on these low hills, which are grazed now from distant farms; it is so rare to see anyone working these pastures any more, save for the brief dust-plumed passage of a Land Rover, the scuffle of collie dogs and sheep skittering wildly in the trailer. At times I think the land is pared to the bone: worked for a meagre living by families whose offspring would rather forget the farm and move to the town; farm buildings sold for conversion as houses and holiday cottages; land parcelled and sold to the few families who are still in the business. The ruins of old shielings like this one feel like a gateway to a forgotten world.

We turn to go as the clouds thicken to the south-west, silently pillowing into slate-coloured thunderheads. I leave with an image of Hatteringill as it might have looked a hundred years ago, busy with the work of a summer day in the hills: the smell of the wood fire, the sound of bannocks crisping on the griddle, the drip-drip of curds draining in a bucket by the spring. I picture the view from the open doorway of the bigger hills to the east, the colours they turn at the end of a sunny day, from rich copper-red, through rose pink to violet until finally, with a brief flare of light, they pale into the deep indigo of the short night.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Sea Change

Outside of the village where I live, crossing the brow of the hill, the view opens across low, rolling fields, out to the coast and the widening waters of the Solway Firth, where it meets the Irish Sea. Beyond, the hills of southern Scotland change colour and mood, depending on the weather. Whenever I pass this way, I pause at the brow of the hill and look out over the endlessly changing colours of the water, which shift from steel grey, through pale blue, to an almost colourless shade that reflects the paleness of the sky. On windy days, tiny flecks of white are barely visible on its surface, although I know that, out there, they will be large breaking waves; concentrations of noise and power, like wind made manifest. The sea is out there, somewhere, and I feel comforted.
I grew up far from the sea. Not so much geographically far, in the way that nowhere in England is more than a few dozen miles from the coast, but emotionally far, in that it did not touch my life. Once a year, we took our family holidays in seaside resorts which could be reached by train: Scarborough, Yarmouth, Folkstone; towns of a solid Victorian civility, their manicured pitch-and-put greens rolling towards the promenade, the pier, the beach. It was our annual encounter with some meek version of the wild strangeness of the sea, its rhythmic mystery and shifting tones. Holidaying inland did not seem to be an option, but it was not clear why we were by the sea. We played ball on the beach, searched for strange shaped shells, made sandcastles. Returning home, we would find a few grains of sand spilling from the toes of our socks after they were washed.
In the county where I grew up, the coast was fringed by saltmarsh; an indeterminate place which was neither land nor sea, which breathed the smell of saltiness but was perched above the distant waves, dry and pocked with the prints of birds. Rarely, we visited these unnerving flatlands to pick samphire; a soft fleshy saltmarsh plant which we blanched in a pan and pickled in vinegar, only partly disguising its salty taste, its haunting memory of the sea. On these brief visits, we stayed close to the high tide line with its car parks and footpaths, aware of a visceral but unnamed fear of the wildness which lay beyond. It was a perfect metaphor for my childhood relationship with the sea: distant, aloof, unknown.
I never thought of this relationship which we have with the sea - which I had with the sea - until I learned to sail in my mid-twenties. Not on the sea, at first, but in a dull concrete reservoir in the Oxfordshire countryside, a place where my friend had access to the local sailing club's boats. We cycled there on his tandem; two tall, lanky men on a fully laden bicycle whooping and screaming through lanes of cow parsley and hawthorn, the wind in our faces; the city over our shoulders. I learned nothing there of the sea, nothing of the movements of tides and waves, but I realised that I had been introduced to some ancient truth, had discovered a form of movement which was entirely dependent upon the world around us, on the wind and the water, as though to sail was to give up a part of one's own determinism and trust to the benevolence of the elements. It felt liberating, unfettered. I fell in love with the sound of the wind in the shroud wires, the slapping of halyards against the masts in an autumn breeze, the intense concentration required simply to continue moving in one direction when all around me was shifting and uncertain. The boats we sailed were prosaic glass fibre bathtubs, but in a good breeze, I felt like I was flying.
Later, I moved to the coast, and, for a few years, sailing become a part of my life. I sailed larger boats; ketches and cutters, clinker-built relics in which everything happened at a slower pace. I crossed the Irish Sea one summer in a friend's twenty foot sloop, and I began to understand something of the terrifying and unequal relationship which people have always had with the sea. I remember the sense of gathering darkness as the coast of Wales paled into an evening sky, and the short June night which, from our isolation in the middle of the sea, seemed to last so long: three hour watches on deck with a head torch fixed on the tiny compass on the cockpit housing; the inability to cook or eat anything in the rolling haystacks of waves; the sense of relief in seeing the coast of Wicklow appearing in the grey of morning. That evening, exhausted from a sleepless night, my body still swaying inside from the constant movement, I cupped a pint of Guinness in my hands and felt as though I had passed some test; as though I had entered a world in which my own powerlessness was dependent upon the sea, the wind, the tides. I thought of the manoeuvre in which a boat is 'hove-to': adrift yet inert; in control but unpredictable.

I no longer sail, but the sea does not fail to stir something in me. We take our family holidays on distant islands; westward fragments of a wild land, set in a wilder sea. When I step on the ferry each summer in Oban, I watch the yachts clustered in the harbour with envy and understanding. Like many people brought up in the British Isles, I carry the scent of the sea with me like an inner knowledge, like a sense of privilege, as though the sea represents some ancient freedom we might once have had, and only dimly remember.
And I begin to understand how it might always have been so; how boats are not a modern luxury toy, but a human creation forever tied to our development; like the wheel, or the plough. I read today of the discovery and excavation of a group of eight Bronze Age boats beneath a quarry in Cambridgeshire. They are estimated at 3,000 to 3,600 years old, and so well-preserved that they could still float when removed from the Fenland peat. Within them were eel traps which are almost identical to those used by eel fishers in the fens today. I thought of the importance of boats to these people, their journeys from mainland Europe, across a sea that had already covered the ice age land bridge between Britain and the continent, towards a land which, on fine days, they could see in the distance, but on stormy days would have demanded a commitment, a faith, to attempt the journey. I thought of the huge oak trees a metre wide from which some of these boats were built, adzed by hand using primitive tools, shaped into something which was both beautiful and seaworthy. I thought of the Fenland coast of my youth, the layers of silt filling its muddy creeks, the almost-silence broken by a faint hiss in the distance which could only be heard on still days; the sound of the distant sea, calling softly.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Hill of the Winds

I have told no-one this before.
Above the valley, where the trees dwindle to a few gnarled birches, a rowan overhanging the burn, are the ghosts of villages. Their shapes emerge through the early snow; a ghillie's cottage, a shieling. Some are nothing more than the traces of walls, a nettle-covered midden, the gap-toothed absence of a fireplace or a doorway. In some lights, they appear wistful and elegiac; in others, sad and abandoned.
We heard of one building with a sound roof and a wooden floor, left open as a bothy. It nested in ochre folds of land at the base of a towering, windswept hill, the dark shape like a presence of a benign spirit. Beyond, the knuckled ridges of paler hills stretched to the head of the Loch.
We walked in, three of us, through the long December twilight, the gathering dusk of short highland days. We travelled as light as we could: food for a few days, warm gear, a bottle of malt whiskey. We had no plans, as though to be in the presence of that huge hill was enough. I took a book to read, relished the idea of a few days of stillness and solitude, the wide views which can be found in the highlands in winter. By the time we arrived at the bothy, the light had paled from the sky, colour leached from the land.
The first night, my friends fell asleep quickly. I could hear their rhythmic breathing as we lay, side by side, in the old byre at the back of the room. I lay awake, drifting in and out of that liminal space between sleeping and waking, listening to the sounds of the old building creak and settle, its timbers easing into night.
Somehow, I knew there was a figure in the doorway, a paler shape against the darkness. I could not hear or see it, but I knew it in the way that one is aware of being watched, or of the presence of a loved one. I was not afraid; my mind was still slipping towards sleep, my thoughts unanchored.
The figure crossed the room slowly, soundless on the wooden floor. Above my head, over my left shoulder, it paused briefly and leaned over me. I felt the lightest kiss on my forehead.
I snapped into consciousness, fumbled for the torch. I was breathing hard, but still not afraid. The kiss had felt like an electric shock passing through me, a call to alertness. I was aware of not wanting to wake my friends, although I did not know whether this was from fear of appearing foolish, or from a willingness to hold this fading sensation which tingled through my body. Even in the darkness, I knew that there was no other person in the room; the door was still clasped shut. I felt disoriented, confused, but strangely enlivened, listening to the sighing of the silent bothy, aware of the sense of absence in the room. After a few minutes, I lay down in the darkness. Soon, I was drifting into sleep again.
The next morning, clouds had gathered above the hills, darkening the slopes of rock and heather. We walked to the lochside, listened to the limp wind stirring ripples beyond the pebbled shore. The dark hill rose above us like a nagging memory, a presence of something which could not be forgotten. We threw stones into the Loch, listless and unsettled, unwilling to climb any of the high hills as the weather worsened. I could feel the kiss on my forehead like a burn, like a benediction.
We left the bothy later that day; the weather had turned and the last threads of snow had melted from the tops of the mountains. The sky was overcast, bruise-coloured, threatening rain. On the long walk down, I was aware of the mountain over my shoulder, an implacable presence, like a figure in a doorway.
At times, I can still feel the sensation left by that kiss. In quiet moments, when I am far from the hills, it seems like a sense of promise, as though some agreement was sealed in that darkened bothy. When I think of the hills, I sometimes touch my forehead as though it is still wet, as though the mark of an angel has been left there.
I have told no-one this before.