Wednesday, July 31, 2019
Earlier this year, Jane announced that she wouldn't be buying any new spring clothes. Instead, she would 'shop her wardrobe': a strategy, she explained, of restyling, recycling, and in some cases simply wearing the back catalogue of purchases that second thoughts or changing circumstance had left little used the previous years.
It would have been easy to direct a barb at what I've long felt to be the toxic combination of Instagram influencers and easy access - free returns - life will be better - clothing websites. But I wasn't about to risk a reversal, and in any case, if I'm honest, my study has it's equivalent in 'click to buy' purchases.
Though neater than a pile of clothes, and superficially more worthy than the lure of fast-fashion, the stack of unread books by my desk is just as wasteful of our resources as any unworn dress or last year's must have but now oh so passé sandals. For until we read them, printed words are mute - no more than totems of our good intentions (and reminders of their failure to be realised), clothed in fading if feel-good dust jackets.
Sure, there are those who'd claim bookshelves are storehouses of knowledge; research tools, food for the imagination and the soul; Umberto Eco had a library of 30,000 volumes, they'd say - there's proof, if ever you need it... But really? Quite how is that soul-feeding ever going to happen exactly - other than when we open them? The vast majority of unread books in my study were not bought for reference - they're simply forgotten notions that deserve revisiting, resorting, and most importantly reading, before they become buried under yet more of the same.
So taking inspiration from Jane, I've decided not to buy any books for at least six months, and instead to 'shop my library'. For the first time my holiday reading has cost me zilch - at least in the present moment - and it comes with the bonus of a ticking the list / unfinished business type satisfaction.
Which brings me to Words of the Grey Wind, Chris Arthur's sublime reflections on the interconnections of life, memory, place and time. I can't recall when I bought this book, but have a vague memory of it being recommneded by a reader of this blog - someone who'd read Counting Steps and made a complimentary connection. Has it sat on my shelves that long? What a waste if so.
Arthur's essays are not typical holiday fare - they take time and attention - every somnolant nod requires two or three paragraph of rewind. Yet there's something appropriate in reading them at a juncture which allows space for the density of his thoughts. These are marvelously crafted, deeply considered, essays; the perfect illustration of the care I was advocating in my post on words and pictures. They are like the mountains that surround me here - climbing them is never a stroll, but always worth the effort.
The collection opens with Kingfishers, weaving almost all the book's themes into its first 18 pages. A masterpiece of linked juxtapositions, the narrative shifts from nature, to memory, tragedy - insanity even - and slowly back to the bird, its and our transcience in the scheme of things. That decription is inadequate to the richness of the writing, for like in so many of these essays, Kingfishers spins question on question, picking away at, if not entirely unravelling, the Gordian knot of what it is to be human.
Many of Arthur's essays take an object or event - the ferrule on his father's cane, a conversation in a bookshop, the fossilised bone of a whale - from which he crafts reflections on the miriad of connections which lead to where we are and what we will become. There are frequent references to Ulster and his family roots, but my sense is that these are staging for his main concerns - this is not so much a book about place, as 'our place in the world'.
Words of the Grey Wind achieves that rare feat of being both deeply personal and yet universal in message. It's evident that Arthur has studied philospohy and theology, and there's a recurring influence of Buddhist teachings in many of the pieces. But mostly, there's an existential underscore to his voice - a sense of being alone in the enormity of it all - that resonates with me and is perhaps why I liked this collection so much.
I yearn to write as well as Arthur. Few books have stopped me so abrubtly in my tracks - to think that I took so long to open it. And now I want to read it again.
Saturday, June 8, 2019
Sugar Loaf - the approach from Forest Coal PitWhenever taking photographs I'm reminded of a tip I read years ago: the best pictures show a new perspective - bend low to the ground, stand high to the subject; shoot portraits from the side. The thrust of the advice is that you shouldn't keep snapping in the same repetitive pattern.
I was pondering this yesterday as I walked up Sugar Loaf mountain on the outskirts of Abergavenny. It's the nearest peak to my home and at a tad under 2000ft a high contender for the summit I've stood on most often. In truth, that frequency is more a consequence of proximity than any great love of the view. The tourist path from above the A40 might get the heart pounding, but it seldom stirs the spirit.
So what a delight that on a whim I should decide to drive north and tackle the hill from a different side. My route would start lower than usual, cross the mountain's moorland saddle, and return with views of the Grwyne rather than the roadworks on the Heads of the Valleys road. It's a fiddle to get to, takes a deal more time, and the supposedly well signed car park took me two attempts to find.
Yet almost immediately I had the sense of a good day ahead. The birdsong might have accounted for my felicity, or perhaps it was the brightening sky; or the bank of foxgloves, my favourite spring flower. But in the event, what made me smile most was an abandoned microwave and fridge, comically plugged to the earth as if making a point about its energy.
That slantwise perspective set the tone for my walk. Almost every step seemed lighter, more vivid than the norm. The path was greener, wooded, less wide; I saw a stoat, a kite circling above. The Black Mountains, their silhouettes a lesson in tonal regression, were with me all the way. In thirty years of climbing this hill, I'd never been so aware of the view or less concerned with my speed.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised. A friend mentioned to me recently that she'd hiked from Solva to Newgale on the Pembrokeshire coast, adding, it's so much better than the other way round. She's right - in that case it's something to do with the arc of the sea on your shoulder, the lie of the cliffs, and the gradual approach to a distant shore. To walk the other way is fine, but less climatic - especially in a midday sun.
Which reminds me of a related piece of advice - that when photographing landscape, it's best to wait for the lengthening shadows. The trouble is, we're seldom out that long, or free to start so late. I can think of any number of routes that are substantially different not only as a consequence of approach and direction, but also the time of day. And yet, for one reason or another, we chose to go with the familiar.
The summit of Sugar Loaf is most often viewed as a conical peak - indeed, there's a common misconception that it's an extinct volcano. The route from the north shows it to be broader, the path spiralling round in a pleasing helter-skelter approach. Wheatears flash their arses from the rocks, larks sing above the moors, and all the time there is peace to this side of the hill that is lacking on the bracken lined thoroughfares to the south.
Returning from the top, I diverted to walk on the north-east spur. The carcass of a deer was rotting by a low stone wall, its exposed spine simultaneously grotesque and intricately beautiful. Despite the stench, I leant close to photograph it from above, pondering if I'd ever seen a dead deer before. Before heading on I checked the map for the name of the little peak to my left. It's called Bryn Arw and I'd bet a lot of money that it's visited by fewer than one in a hundred who climb its famous neighbour, Skirrid Hill.
As I reach the end of the ridge I think about the coming weekend. The horizon takes a line from Offa's Dyke to the bulk of Blorenge and the South Wales valleys; in between lie the gentler fields of the English lowlands - it feels like I'm standing on the edge of what's wild. Perhaps I'll climb that little peak tomorrow instead of another trip to Skirrid? My friend reckons that's one of the best walks in Monmouthshire, and to be fair, she's a good judge of these things. But today I'm not so sure - for I'm reminded that sometimes it's good to chose a different path.
Skirrid Hill from Sugar Loaf 's north east flank
Tuesday, May 28, 2019
The brilliant Boat Yard Tea Room at Pontymoile
It's strange the places that we like the most; that bring a smile to the face whenever they're mentioned; that we love for their familiarity more than any prospect of the new...
Since returning to South Wales four years ago, I reckon the spot which has given me most joy, is a tiny little cafe, housed in a land-locked barge on the edge of the canal at Pontypool. It's at the Pontymoile Marina near the southern end of town and one of those locations that estate agents might chance as 'semi-rural'. When we were there last week, I told Jane it was my favourite place to eat, and wouldn't swap it for any of the gastro-pubs that are ten-a-penny in Gwent.
She's heard all this before. I give her the same spiel every time we come, which is about once a week and more often if I get a chance. Thankfully, Jane likes it there too, and has long since given up suggesting I change the record or widen my horizons. As I wiped the last crumbs of eggy bread from my plate I muttered something about it being the best cafe in South Wales and possibly my favourite of all time...
Which is unashamedly true.
It's ironic, that living in area renowned for pubs and restaurants, I increasingly dislike visiting all but a few. Most times there's an inverse relationship between how much a place is lauded and how much I enjoy the experience. It doesn't help that I don't drink, but it's more than that: they cost too much, they're inauthentic and they leave me cold.
Unlike at Pontymoile. Where, usually, we take a walk on the tow path to work up an appetite, reminding ourselves that in less than a mile we're in the national park, and wondering why more people don't take advantage. In truth, it's busier at weekends but on an average Tuesday we seldom pass more than a handful of ramblers on the way to our turn at bridge number fifty nine... Then it's back at a spritely pace for two eggs on toast, two slices of bacon and a cup of tea please - twice.
That all comes to around a tenner, and it's served with welcoming smiles and a chat about where we've been and who's doing what. Jane reckons I'm a different person at the cafe - that few people get to know as much about me as do Kelly and her dad James who run this little gem of a place. But then they're as much a part of why I visit as the menu.
On the subject of which, don't expect any fancy-pants bistro fare. All day breakfasts are the staple, with hot drinks, hand made cakes and often a daily special, which might be home made soup, or perhaps bubble and squeak... you get the idea. And so do lots of others - on a sunny Saturday the customers spill onto outdoor tables and we've learned to order in advance as a sell-out isn't unknown.
But as I said, it's not really about the food - or at least, nothing you'll find on the menu - because what they really serve here, is something that's hard to write down and even harder to price. I'd call it 'care' - and the whole place reeks of it! From the hearty food to the bright decor, to the thoughtful attention to their local community (we like to have cheap treats for the kids, says Kel) - it's as tangible and in your face as the smell of their sausages on a winter's morning.
And without a doubt, that's why I like this place so much.
In a world of that's full of bland shops, bland restaurants and even blander service - this place is real and alive and full of character. Sure, there's a hint of nostalgia in my liking it so much - of times and facilities we've lost - but why not, and why not celebrate and support what's still there. Kelly and James are making a go of a small business that's a little different - and a lot better - than any amount of branding could ever deliver.
So it's sad to hear that the marina is due to be redeveloped, with plans for a visitor centre putting their tearoom under threat. And how ironic that by making the place so popular they've put their own future in doubt - not that you'd sense it - only last week they held a free afternoon tea for their customers. If the revamp goes ahead I hope the trust licences any new facility to Kelly and James - they've earned that chance. But more than that, if they don't, they'll lose something special very special indeed.
Visit while you still can: The Boat Yard Tea Room at Pontymoile Marina
Sunday, April 28, 2019
'In my craft or sullen art' - the desk of Dylan Thomas
Often I start my lectures with a video, illustrating a notion that's caught the eye or snagged my memory. In part, I use these to settle the class, buying time for the inevitable stragglers; more substantively, I'm offering a sideways look at the creative processes, with a hint at its relevance to writers. Most times there's a tangential discussion, though occasionally I sense the gears and levers of my students' minds wondering if I've lost the plot.
|Bacon in his studio|
In many ways I learned to write through pictures. Not literally of course, but in the way that for words to have depth of meaning, we're required to pay close attention, the same is true of painting. As Hirst points out, Bacon's works are much greater than our first impressions. Look closely at his images - so immediate and visceral - and you'll find they dissolve into thousands of marks: each a deliberate placement, whether delicate or violent, carefully considered, worked and reworked...
- the painter's painter
How long do you think it took to write that last paragraph? And how many edits would you guess I've made? If I told you in minutes I'd be lying. And as for the changes - as I type this sentence I've gone back twice more. In the video of Bacon's paintings, Hirst draws attention to the image of an ear that's been overpainted so often the layers of pigment have congealed into sculpture.
I sense that all discovery is like this - a combination of creativity and craft. Creativity is what consciousness is to philosophy: something we experience and yet can't pin down. Craft, on the other hand, we can see and learn, and through long practice, even master. I was once rather sniffy about the idea of reworking, believing some 'deeper inspiration' to be the vital ingredient. But this is naive; a misunderstanding of what craft is, and the role it plays.
|One of my own|
For me, the practice of refinement is as critical as ever - be that as a copy writer, essayist or blogger. First drafts are interminable: the movement from notion to form, at times glacial and always fractious. But to sense the shape emerging, to respond in turn - and to do so with truth - is the greatest joy in writing.
I hope my students feel that too, and come to see it all around them.
Thursday, March 7, 2019
Westering sun from the Refuge de Bostan (photo Antonia Chapple)
I suspect the schism, between caution and enthusiasm, has always been this way.
Last week, along with family and friends, I climbed to the refuge de Bostan, above Samoens in the Haute Savoie. It’s on the GR5 trail so is popular with trekkers in the summer, but also one of the few refuges in the region to open in winter. A visit is often combined with an ascent of the Tete de Bostan; however, on this occasion our ambitions were more focused on camaraderie than challenge.
Frankly, there’s not a great deal more to say on the route finding; we climbed under cobalt skies but it would be hard to get lost here in all except a white out. The gradient is steady; snowshoes help but are not strictly necessary, the skiers found it easy; all in all, it’s about as stress free as it gets in winter.
But don’t for one moment equate difficulty with interest. To the north, the gentler slopes of the Pass de Golese steepen to the Bostan ridge; opposite, the north face of the Dent’ d’Oddaz casts a gelid shadow on the tightening valley. As we walked the final meters to the refuge an eagle soared above us, momentarily spooking the choughs that were foraging for scraps.
The refuge itself is aesthetically unremarkable, though all things here are relative; at 6,000 feet in a sublime alpine landscape I marvel at who built it; the sheer efforts they must have gone to. There’s a large deck on which we order some refreshments, drinking in the view and waiting the arrival of our second party, who’ve taken a route from the Valley de la Manche to the north.
They arrive smiling, and fourteen of us spend the next two hours chatting, marvelling and air-dropping photos. We sit and watch the snow redden as the sun dips to the west, the lengthening shadows giving form to icy couloirs, Taking their leave in a tangerine sky, the last of the coughs bicker and wheel on their way to the forest below.
Inside, the refuge has refectory tables, a small bar and a few sofas. There’s a wood burner, a sink with limited water and few Buddhist prayer flags by way of decoration. It’s Spartan and yet homely enough. Upstairs the dormitories have rows of mattresses, clean duvets and pale lighting to guide in the passages. I opt for a bottom bunk, reckoning it's easier if I need to make the 2.00am hike to the outside loo.
I guess I could tell you more about the meal we had (veggies catered for), the composting toilets or the breakfast next morning – I might even clarify that it costs 45 euros for demi-pension (less for children). But would any of that be reason to go, or for that matter to give it a miss?
For what’s important – and what will surely stay with us all – is that we laughed and drank and (some of us) snored through the night in an elemental place that’s worth infinitely more than any supposed discomfort. And I’d defy anyone who’d made the effort not to feel something of the same.
As we walked out the next morning, snowshoes crunching on the frost, I recalled my first night in a refuge. It was forty years ago at the Dresdner Hutte in the Austrian Stubai; the only information we had was three lines in a mountaineering guidebook. It’s still there and yes, you can book a room, there are flush toilets and alcohol is served. The views at 7,500ft are magical, and it's a good base for climbing the Osstlicher Daunkogel too - but if you were more attentive to the facilities than the location, I’d suggest you keep to the valley.
Sunday, December 23, 2018
I’m forever curious at how we make connections; how a chance happening can seem so pertinent to an article we read this morning; or vice versa, how the ideas we consider today, appear to shape the otherwise random events of tomorrow. Only yesterday, for example, I was reading how some writers favour long opening sentences, using repetition for effect!
Earlier this week, when browsing the Christmas Radio Times I was struck by the number of adverts from charities persuading us to assuage our festive excess. Between articles on this year’s blockbusters and the perfect party nibble, we’re invited to support refugees, sponsor a pony or leave a lasting legacy to save abandoned pets. The plethora of causes that would appear to move us never ceases to amaze me, as does the thought that so many of these organisations have the cash to advertise in the first place.
Hold that thought a moment, we’ll return to it later.
Meanwhile, I was listening to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell, part of his brilliant Revisionist History series, examining ‘things forgotten or misunderstood'. Podcasts are one of my discoveries of the year, and I’ve become mildly obsessed by Gladwell’s slantwise insight and courageous moral compass. The episode concerned philanthropic donations to academic institutions, and in particular, why rich benefactors in the U.S. might donate to, say, Stanford University, which already has an endowment of over $200 billion.
Gladwell’s contention is that the leading universities have an excess of funds, and that greater good would be done by donating to more needy, if less glamorous, institutions. His argument is rich with examples and, as always, driven by a compelling, evidence based, logic. Towards the end of the podcast, he interviews John Hennessy, the then Principe of Stanford, who'd volunteered to try and change his mind.
It’s hard not to agree with Gladwell. His view resonates with my passionate belief in the unfairness of private and privileged education. As I worked out on the cross trainer - yes I listen to podcasts in the gym - I was as good as cheering him on. There’s an almost comical moment when Gladwell asks Hennessy if Stanford might ever have so much money that he’d consider directing a benefactor elsewhere. Hennessy can’t bring himself to answer directly, and ends up sounding foolish in his evasion.
And yet I wondered if Gladwell was being entirely fair. I’ve spent the best part of twelve years representing the company I work for to its investors. If someone came to me looking to put their money into bio-tech, then in all conscience I’d have to say it's not for us; but if they’ve so much as a vague interest in distribution, my role is to present our case and secure their support. That’s the way competition works - it’s not my job to argue for others, no matter how strong their investment proposition.
Gladwell’s view is that we should expect better of our educators - and I think he has a point. There’s a difference between the goals of business and those of universities: when the prestige of an academic institution comes before its ultimate purpose then something is awry. Gladwell suggest it’s a loss to us all if a handful of wealthy institutions are pursuing ever more marginal projects, while elsewhere, vital research is closing down for lack of cash. And he goes further, suggesting that our collective knowledge is most likely to flourish if we give greater weight to the mass of talent, rather than an elite few.
But while I think Gladwell is right in principle, he’s also idealistic, and I worry his solution might be counter productive in practice.
Let’s return to those adverts in the Radio Times.
There’s a part of me that struggles to fathom the mindset of someone who’d leave a legacy to abandoned pets, when according to UNICEF, more than 3 million children die from malnutrition each year. Or for that matter, what motivates a donation to Eton public school (also a charity by the way) when there’s self-evidently greater need in areas of economic deprivation. Or… I could go on, but you get the point, and in any event, what’s the alternative?
There are over 160,000 charities officially registered in England and Wales with the true number estimated to be nearer half a million. Ought we to grade every good cause by some sort of utility index and cajole people into donating accordingly? Many leading charities are effectively a proxy means of funding what should arguably be core public services (the RNLI for example) - and yet would we really be better off taking them into government control so donations could go elsewhere?
It strikes me that the volunteers who organise a weekly cake sale for our village hall are unlikely to do the same even for a neighbouring community. If I support the mountain rescue because of my love of the outdoors and you are concerned with liver cancer because a friend died recently, isn’t that as good a way to direct our efforts as any? In similar vein, if Stanford University were not to secure the high profile donations it does, who's to say the money would go to institutions elsewhere?
Inefficient though it is, perhaps the best way to raise funds for good causes is to accept that different plights move different people, and from that cornucopia of interests and motivations - from church roofs to great crested newts, Cancer Research to Greenpeace, donkeys to refugees - we tap into an ultimately greater well of effort and enthusiasms than we ever would otherwise.
That’s another long sentence, using repetition for effect - I could probably change it for one that’s technically better, but you know, I rather like it. Sometimes we’re best to go with the flow.
Sunday, December 9, 2018
This morning's Sunday Times carries an article reporting that more than half of voters think British politics is broken. Evidently, only one in seven of us believes that Labour or Conservative represent the views of the public, and 44% say that the response of MPs to Brexit has damaged their faith in politicians.
Seldom have I empathised more.
At the height of the referendum, Richard Dawkins argued that the vote was ill conceived, citing the inability of all but a few technocrats to fathom the consequences of staying in or out of the EU. On that narrow point he was probably correct, but his objection misses the rationale of democracy - which is not to arrive at the best answer, but rather, to measure the public sentiment. We each have one vote not because we are equally clever, but because we all have a right to voice our feelings.
Conversely, and at much the same stage in the referendum process, Michael Gove famously stated that 'people have had enough of experts'. The statement is logical enough, except that he and every other prominent brexiteer has subsequently quoted any expert they could find who supports their case. The inconsistency is as staggering as it is brazen.
Watching the Brexit debacle unfold has been simultaneously toe curling and depressing, not so much for the direction of travel (distressing though that is) as for the quality of the debate. It's not the intransigence, the lack of listening or even the on-line shouting that annoys me. What I find so disillusioning, is that, after two years of wrangling, in the face of one of the most significant economic and social decision we will make, our politicians still can't bring themselves to speak the truth about their personal views.
And it seems to me that this absence of candour, more than any difference of opinion, is what lies at the root of our collective mistrust.
Take for example Teresa May's shambolic performance on a recent radio talk-in, when asked if she genuinely believed the UK would be better off under her proposed deal than by remaining in the EU? Her stuttering equivocation was palpable, undermining everything else she said, and rightly it made headlines as a result.
Why could she not simply say something like:
'It's a matter of record that I voted to Remain. But the referendum result was clear that we should leave, and my duty as Prime Minister is therefore to negotiate the best deal possible for the UK. We can debate whether the proposals achieve this or not, but my view on the benefits of remaining in the EU is no longer relevant.'
Even that answer falls short of what I suspect is the unvarnished truth - for which we would need to change the second sentence to 'I still hold the view that we are better to remain, however, the referendum result was clear...'
But if Teresa May is equivocal, the hard-line brexiteers take disingenuity to new level.
They consistently refuse to answer the conceptual question of whether they would still support our leaving if there were an unambiguous cost to our prosperity? Instead, they evade the point, replying that they don't believe this will happen, or worse, claiming the question is merely hypothetical!
Someone should tell them that all debate is hypothetical. Every manifesto is hypothetical; every policy proposal is hypothetical, as is every strategy and every claim about future outcomes. Logically, hypotheticals take the form of 'If P then Q' - note the word 'if' at the start of that statement - politics is all about 'ifs'.
So let me pose what I believe to be the acid-tests of honesty for hard-liners on both sides.
To brexiteers: "If it were conclusively shown, to your full satisfaction, that Brexit would harm the UK's long term prosperity - then would you still support leaving the EU?'
And for remainers: 'If it were conclusively shown, to your full satisfaction, that Remaining would harm the UK's long term prosperity - then would you still still support staying in the EU?'
A simple 'from the heart' answer to these questions would tell us more than all the experts could; more than any debate on the pros and cons of Canada plus or Norway squared - for it would transcend any technical analysis and get to the nub of their motivation. We'd know more of who our representatives are and where they intellectually come from - which in a void of facts, is a vital foundation of trust. That our system makes politicians so wary of answering these types of questions, is what lies behind our disillusion and scepticism.
But if they won't take that leap, we can at least ask these questions of ourselves - and by doing so, speak truth to power; maybe even set an example.
Here goes from me:
I'm a staunch remainer; I support the European idea and believe our prosperity will suffer outside of the EU - furthermore I warm to the concept of a pan european democracy and don't share the desire for national determination that seems to be at the heart of much Brexiteer disdain for the EU. Even if I were convinced that we would be marginally better off by leaving, then I would still wish to remain - for I believe the European ideals of collective democracy, freedom and security are something worth paying for.
That said, I am not blind to alternative outcomes. If there was categorical evidence that we would be materially more prosperous outside of the EU (let's say with a 5% greater £GDP), then of course, I would support our leaving, albeit with a view to maintaining close ties wherever possible. My position is therefore one of principled pragmatism: I would have liked us to stay, even at some cost - but don't hold that view at any price.
There, that wasn't so hard was it.
Any politicians want to follow me?