Friday, June 27, 2014

Still life with pebble

On my desk, two pebbles lean together like eggs in a nest. I take one and turn it in my palms, run my fingertips over its surface. It is smooth, not unlike an egg, covered with the chalky dust which rises from the knapped surface of stones. I breathe on it to blush the dulled surface, and the structure of crystals flickers in the dampness. In this warm summer air, the bloom fades as I watch.
Since I was a child, I have returned from places with a stone in my pocket. They have been a source of comfort to me; smooth and slightly flattened, warm from my touch; a piece of the earth to remind me that all is well. As I position this perfect oval of quartzite to take a photograph, I think of days on western winter beaches, spent listening to the grind and squeak of stones as they shift together beneath the swell of incoming breakers. I think of storm berms warm beneath my palms on summer evenings. I think of islands, spilled onto the metallic surface of the sea. I pick up the stone again and I think of the stone bank from which it was lifted, only a week ago, above a beach of almost perfect grey-white, the colour of the pebble itself. The beach cusped the edge of a bay on the western shore of a small, isolated Scottish island. The pebble is my talisman; my memory of the place.

We arrived on the island in a slack westerly wind, the evening sun striking off the buff-coloured cliffs of skerries and islets. We had passed the journey staring into the spaces between the surrounding islands; the tidal races named by fearful fishermen in their small, fragile boats: The Corryvreckan, The Grey Dogs. The sea remained inscrutably calm throughout the voyage, only the oily slicks of unrippled water hinting at the shifting of currents beneath the surface. Gannets boobed on the gentle crests of waves, as pristine as plaster ducks.

On a small island, the sea is a vague presence; an absent reminder of the darkness beyond the margins of the land. On clear days, the view extends to a horizon shimmering like beaten zinc, where distant lighthouses hinted at rocks and reefs patient beneath the surface. Each one, each submerged hazard, has its own signature, its characteristics and foibles indicated in the area's sea chart: breaks heavily in south-easterly gales; overfalls during a falling tide; or The Great Race: Dangerous Tidal Streams. I search the chart looking for more ominous signs: unexplored region; uncharted waters; here be dragons. I am woken at night by dreams of drowning, and through the open window I can hear the sound of gulls, the hushing of the wind, perhaps through the trees, perhaps across the ruffled surface of the sea.
Each morning, I crossed the ridge outside the village and followed the traces of an old track downhill, through bog myrtle and dwarf willow, to a cusp of beach wedged between low headlands of grey rock. The Paps of Jura float above the surface of the sea, draped in cloud most mornings, bleached white in the sun. The night's high tide has flensed the beach, re-ordered the strand line of kelp and bladder wrack, freshly tipped the ripples with shimmering flakes of mica. I arrive on the beach like a penitent, grateful for the chance to step my feet into the shallow, freezing cold water. I listen to the silence.

On a day bleached with the intensity of the sun, we crossed the mile of open sand flats to the semi-detached island of Oronsay. For two hours each side of low tide, the strand emerges from the sea mud-wet and dimpled like the skin of a flayed beast. Shoals of empty cockle shells drift onto sand bars and mud flats, an accumulation of death, their paired shell halves opened like a prayer book.
The lodestone of the island is an ancient Priory, its ancient walls dated to the 13th century. It is said that Columba stopped here on his journey from Ireland in the 6th century, but that he would not settle until he was no longer in sight of his native land. It is also said that Islay was visited and left for the same reason.
The Priory, on this day of intense sun and gentle northerly wind, is pooled in shadows from the high walls. The grass which now grows inside the old cloisters is littered with daisies. It is a place of utter, profound peace; a reminder of the other-worldliness of the islands, the way in which they appear as 'the thin place', where the veil between the corporeal and the spiritual worlds is so thin as to be transparent.

Leaving the Priory, we climb the low hill of Beinn Oronsay. Below us, the land falls through banks of heather, runnels of bog grass studded with orchids, through mosses and cotton grass, to the shimmering strand of open sand. We turn and turn in the afternoon sun, naming the islands which surround us, picking out the beaches on which we have walked earlier in the week, listening for the echoes of saints.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Millstone Grit

Turning across the park, the path is puddled with the aftermath of the spring rain. The smell of wet cut grass mixes with the stale almond smell of the lime trees. Late afternoon sun spills across the skateboard ramps.
I am in the city for only a day and a night, the first time I have been here since I was eighteen years old. Before arriving, I had struggled to place any memories, any of the local geography, but being here, now, the walk along this cracked path is like a peeling-back of the years; a litany of places I passed each day, set out in front of me like the stations of the cross. I am amazed by the capacity of the memory to hoard and hide; to surprise and entice. I worry that too much is coming to the surface, too soon.

The tarmac of the path is pocked and uneven, just as I remember it beneath my adolescent feet. I must have walked this route almost every day, sometimes more than once; to and from lectures, from pubs, from sessions at the climbing wall. For the time I lived here, I walked whenever I could, simply to feel the breathing city bustling around me, the noise of traffic and the whitened canyons of the buildings alien and unnerving. I came to the city like an ingénue, wide-eyed with wonder and distaste, appealed and appalled by the light as it slanted off limestone walls, by the noise of cars and buses, the narrow lanes and steps, hiding and enticing. I would walk with my head down, my neck thrust forward, and pause occasionally to look up at spires and turrets, pediments and porticoes, realising the city existed on many levels, each rarer, purer, quieter than the one below, as though the highest rooms above the noise and dirt of the street, the attics and lofts wedged beneath slated eaves, were inhabited by gods and angels.
I look up from my memories, and a place ambushes me. The cluster of red brick buildings at the park corner seem exactly the same; the pub where I drank during my first, nervous days in the nearby hall of residence; the telephone box where I phoned my parents to tell them, a year later, that I was leaving the university and going to do something else, something different, without knowing what it might be. Thirty-three years, I think to myself. Almost two-thirds of my life. I am surprised I can remember any of this at all.

The summer before I moved to Leeds, I had been reading Glyn Hughes' Millstone Grit; a memoir of coming of age in the debatable lands of the high Pennines, its wide moorland and deep, shadowed valleys. Growing up myself in flat lands of wide skies, the book helped me to understand how the geology of a place leaves its mark on the people who live there, as though they are shaped from the rock itself, chiselled and rough-dressed.
I had found the book on my grandfather's bookshelf, wedged between his 1896 edition of The Times Atlas (the one where swathes of the Arctic were still labelled as Unexplored Region) and his fading copies of Wide World magazine. The book interested me as a Geologist – it was the subject I was going to read at University, the one which had spoken to me amongst the drear familiarities of school – but it explained to me something else; something about our connection with the land, the ties which bind us to place. My grandfather spent almost sixty years of his life in a form of exile, estranged from the northern cities in which he had grown up, still remembering roads in which bicycle tyres could get trapped in the tram lines, and where queues of working men and women jostled for spaces on Sunday returns to the coast, away from the smell and heat of the mills. In moving to Leeds, I was reliving, in a way, his memories; I felt drawn to a city I had never known, experiencing a form of vicarious nostalgia; a yearning for a place I did not remember, but which was somehow coded in my DNA; it was part of the collective mythology of my family. I needed to live there, in the same way that I needed to leave home, to move away from the familiar boundaries with which I had grown up.

At the northern edge of the university quarter, I pass the students' union building. The tarmac road where I queued outside in the chill winter night to see Doctor Feelgood or John Martyn or Judie Tzuke is now replaced with clean flags of a pale, indeterminate limestone. A blue plaque above the door indicates that this is where The Who recorded Live at Leeds in 1970. Across the road, something tugs at my memory; some significance of place that I cannot yet unravel, some association with this road junction, this 1970s block of student flats.
The rear of the building overlooks a green place; a park of sorts, although clustered amongst the laurel trees are gravestones and memorials. In summer, I remember how students would sprawl across the grass with cans of beer and stick-thin roll-ups. Today the grass is damp with spring rain, the air misted with haze.
The ground floor of the flats is faced with square-cut blocks of gritstone, sheltered from the weather by the overhanging canopy of the upper floors. It has an enclosed feel; a stone-faced walkway with one open wall facing onto the park. The mortar, I recall, had weathered between the blocks, leaving finger-size indents and pockets. The keenest members of the climbing club had colonised it as a training wall, a place to harden the fingertips on wet days and winter evenings. I can see the familiar smudge of chalked hand prints at the starting corner; further chalk marks continuing the full length of the wall; the bigger holds identifiable by the larger smudges, places to rest and shake out aching arms, to chalk up the fingers before moving on. Two people are training there now: the familiar tense balletics of rock-climbing, at once fluid and controlled. I watch for a while, and a whole part of my youth spills out of my memory: weekends hitching down to the Peak District; the smell of Sheffield bus station on a damp Friday evening, the warmth of evening sun on the gritstone edges which overlook the soft valleys of Derbyshire; evenings spent here, on this wall, in the fading light, practising the same moves again and again until they are fluid, perfect, remembered.

I reach out my hand, and before I touch the rock I know exactly how it will feel: that roughness beneath my palm, the temperature the same as my own skin, so that it feels neither warm nor cold. I sense the tenderness in the pads of my fingers that I'd feel at the end of a long day on the crags; the sore dryness that felt cool against the damp sheen on the outside of a pint of beer. I turn my hands over in the summer sun, expecting to see the familiar scars on the knuckles from a day spent on coarse gritstone, but noticing instead the darkening spots of age, the wrinkled skin, the mis-shapen joint of a broken finger; a relic of a climbing accident during those years in Leeds. It is an injury which still pains me at times; it aches in damp weather or at the end of a day of manual work. There are scars that will never heal, I think to myself. We are marked by the places we live, the people we once were. I think of the friends I climbed with; the closeness which comes from sharing an intense physical activity with others; the invincibility of youth; the fading smudge of chalk on a gritstone wall.

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.