Thursday, November 28, 2019

Not the Sky - a memoir

Not the Sky  - a memoir.  Author Gail Ashton
Brilliantly done - my book of the year
A few months ago I resolved not to buy any books until I'd whittled down the ever-growing pile by my bedside. And in the main, I've been pretty good, catching up on a host of 'must-reads' including Chris Arthur's sublime Words of the Grey Wind, Robert Macfarlane's somewhat overrated Underland and Rory Maclean's distinctively human perspective on Eastern Europe, Pravda Ha Ha. But like most folk on a diet (even if mine is a literary one) I've had the odd lapse - and in the case of Gail Ashton's Not The Sky, boy was I glad I did!

This deceptively unassuming little memoir chronicles a working class childhood in Sixties and Seventies Birmingham, the premature death of Ashton's mother and subsequent loss of her father to a new partner, emigration and eventually cancer. Using dialogue to drive much of the narrative, she recalls her lost parents - and through their voices, explores not only the deprivation and abuses she endured but also the tensions of education, class and gender, that were a defining feature of those decades.

In a sense, Not the Sky is the antithesis of nostalgia - even allowing for the times, it's clear that Ashton had a particularly tough childhood, and while her father takes much of the blame, she is too intelligent a writer to moralise. Indeed, he comes across as one part victim - shaped by his own miscellany of expectations, sense of self, masculinity... a toxic cocktail of diminished self-worth that quickens fists and sharpens tongues. The feuds and secrets in the extended family add wider context,  even humour, to what in many ways is a compound tragedy.

As I read the book in a rather swish hotel in Keswick, I was struck by how so much of this would seem another world to my children - the past, as they say, being another country - and yet for my generation, these experiences were relatively commonplace, if seldom as intense.  Like many memoirs, Not the Sky is ultimately a story of coming through, but its resonance lies not only in the overcoming of ordeals (shocking though they seem now), as in its resurrection of the language, attitudes and behaviours of her family and community, which those of us of a certain age will recall.

The dialogue is internal too, transcending time as Ashton's parents continue to address her in the present. I laughed at her mother's description of her recent marriage to a female partner as a right funny how d'you do - closely followed by, I wonder what happened to that green duster coat I used to have?  And so, for all their faults, they remain ever-present; nudging and shaping her life, long after they've physically gone.

I find the questions of who we are and how we came to be, fascinating - more than that, they are a constant in my life and writing - which perhaps explains why I'm in awe of this brave exploration of those themes. Not the Sky has echoes of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; it reminded me too of Blake Morrison's When Did You Last See Your Father? These are lofty comparisons, but worthy. For this is a book which surpasses the ordinary - it is not so much about the past as it is about the present, and though rooted in particular experience, like all good memoir, it is really about us all.

Brilliantly done - my book of the year actually.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Red dots and the quiet life of an introvert

#reddotting on Helvellyn

Last week the Sunday Times carried an article that caught my eye. A gathering of academics at a conference on transgender issues had suggested delegates might apply colour codes to their name badges. A green dot indicated the wearer was happy to be approached for discussion; amber, that they would prefer to speak first; while a red dot signified a wish to keep one's counsel.

This struck me as a fabulous idea. Transgender might be a controversial topic, but frankly, I'm just as uncomfortable at the over-friendly chit-chat of the ladies in Waitrose. Corporate events are even more toe-curling - some years ago, until they took the responsibility off me, I set my firm's budget for client entertainment at zero! And as for any occasion with the mention 'networking'...

Just off to the shops..😂
My friend agrees - I sent her the article and suggested we could glue red discs to our respective front doors. Why restrict it to home? she replied. How about a badge for schoolyard mums, and maybe another for walking in the hills? Good shout, maybe we could launch a campaign: #reddotting - for those who don't want to be mugged...  or hugged for that matter!

The possibilities seemed endless.

And yet, when I mentioned the idea to a different friend, they were horrified. Another example, they said, of the narcissistic over-curation of our lives; why can't we just talk to each other without artificial interventions?

Putting jokes aside, I reflected that there's much truth in this. Transgender is a prime example of an issue so politicised that even curious exploration is now fraught with anxiety; colonial history is arguably another, and views on climate change are in danger of acquiring an evangelical purity. Certainly, we've come a long way from the old pub maxim that the only topics to avoid are politics and religion.

But my attraction to 'red dotting' - that hashtag idea isn't quite dead yet - is founded on a subtly different notion: that too much of our culture - and especially those behaviours we consider socially polite - are shaped by extrovert values. The line between shyness and perceived rudity is gossamer-thin, in contrast to the robustness of commonplace assumptions that silence confers a lack of interest, or not mingling at a party makes you a miserable sod. To make matters worse, many extroverts, whose preferences so dominate our norms, are constitutionally resistant to seeing it differently.

Malcolm Gladwell touches obliquely on this problem in his recent podcasts, Talking to Strangers. Why he asks, are we so poor at interpreting the feelings and intentions of others? Using examples from Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler to the trial of Amanda Knox (as well as her trial by media), he explores how our cultural norms lead to errors of judgment. Among our chief failings is what he calls the 'illusion of transparency', an entrenched preconception that a person's outward appearance is a mirror to their soul: smiling means you're happy; hesitation that you're lying; eye contact shows you're trustworthy.

But if this is an illusion, it's one that stubbornly persists.  Discussing Gladwell's podcast with Jane - who's a champion mingler and extrovert in the very best and kindest sense of the term - she countered that surely our instincts are 'right most of the time'; that these types of shortcuts make for a more efficient and smoother sociability. I sense there's truth in this too - except why do we default to the extrovert view?  Why not see silence as reflective, hesitation as truth-seeking, and eye contact as deception?
Shhh... Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash
My mother in law, bless her, kisses every family member who comes through her door, usually clasping their face in both hands. As it happens I don't mind (truly I don't), but it would no more occur to her that some people might find cheek kissing mildly uncomfortable than she could conceive of a less demonstrable welcome being just as, if not more, friendly. In a similar vein, a good pal has a habit of talking at length - and I mean great length - to random passers-by; I enjoy chatting he says - yes, but do they, I reply!  To a stereotypical extrovert, what they like, and what's socially 'right' or 'correct', are inextricably linked. It's called preference bias - and we all exhibit it to some extent.

I should add here that there's nothing wrong with being an extrovert, just as there's nothing wrong with rain, or trees or choosing pudding over cheese. Extroverts can be brilliant and funny and a million things more. The problem is not being an extrovert, it's presupposing that everyone else is too - or more to the point, establishing an orthodoxy that assumes the same. Introverts are estimated to account for up to forty per cent of the population, so the notion that one's preferences are inherently 'right and proper', or for that matter 'right most of the time', is hard to sustain.

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash
In truth, the introvert: extrovert distinction is more of a spectrum than a divide. Most of us are not wholly one or the other - though the uber-chummy cashier in our local convenience store comes close (tip if ever you're in my town - avoid his queue no matter how short). But this seems to me to make red-dotting even more attractive - for why wouldn't we want to know how others would like us to be? After all, you wouldn't serve only beef at a dinner party without first checking if there were any vegetarians.

I'm not hopeful though.  Even as I write, I can sense my more ebullient friends muttering - fiddlesticks, of course it's more friendly to be like us... 

And perhaps they have a point. For according to Gladwell, our behaviours are intrinsically contextual - even suicide is often specific to location; evidently, those prevented from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge seldom try elsewhere. The workplace is another context where our characters can change. I'm reminded too, of Jane's regular complaint at my silence when she's driving - I feel like a chauffeur, she says - and yet with certain friends, she can't shut me up.

Perhaps it's inevitable then, that in social settings, those who project themselves on the world should take the lead in setting the norms. It wouldn't work to entertain in silence, just as singing in the library doesn't go down a storm. And much though I like the idea, I'll concede that it would probably be weird to don badges in the pub. 

Though, on second thoughts, if they were all red, I'd give it a whirl.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Objects of life #4 - Haston Vallot rucksack

Karrimor Haston Vallot Rucksack
Unless you're a mountaineer - and even then, you'd have to be one of a certain age -  I very much doubt you could name, let alone recognise the significance of, the rucksack in the picture above. For most folk it would be something that's stored in the loft, deprived of light until tipped or car-booted for few quid at best. And yet, in its time, the Haston Vallot was quite the thing, as was the climber, after whom it's named.

I bought mine in June 1980, at the start of the long summer break from university. My parents had recently separated: my mother moving to a tiny flat; my father not really an option to stay with. With nowhere to else go, and some inspiration from the Backpacker's Handbook, I decided to walk from Coast to Coast. And so began a path that, in a sense, I'm following still.

The man in the shop said it was definitely the one to buy. I remember being sceptical: it was expensive, and most rucksacks in those days had metal frames and multiple pockets. This was different, he explained, an alpiniste style which didn't use a structured chassis - the hip belt and straps would do the work, and what's more, if I progressed from walking to climbing, I'd already have the right equipment...

Ten minutes later and I owned my first piece of mountaineering gear.  I bought a sleeping mat too - and a Trangia stove that's still going strong. Somewhera along the way I acquired a tent and sleeping bag; they weighed a tonne, but they saw me from Whitehaven to Robin Hood's bay and afterwards most of the Pennine Way.

In the late Seventies, Karrimor was the UK's leading rucksack brand. They were known for good quality, innovative designs. The model I bought was named after Dougal Haston, the first Britain to succeed on the direct route of the Eiger's north face. His bold style was an inspiration for a generation of mountaineers pioneering alpine style ascents in the Himalaya and beyond. My memory tells me that he designed the outer loop which stows the belt and stops it from snagging if you haul the pack up a cliff - but I can't be sure and suspect I'm getting a bit geeky... What's more relevant is that by the early Eighties all packs looked a little like this, and the sacks we use today owe their heritage to these early designs.

Austria 1983
Returning to my purchase, after that first summer it transitioned with me from walking to climbing, just as the salesman said.  I took it to the Alps, on hut tours in Austria, and for years it carried my rock gear round the crags of Northumberland. It's a regular presence in my photo albums of those years - like a hidden clue, of the sort a TV detective would spot.

And if they ever came looking, they'd not take long to find it - for I never got round to storing my sack in the loft.  In fact, I used it this week to go camping with my eldest son, retracing a walk over the Preseli Hills that we'd first made eleven years ago. He was a teenager then, and the story of that trip became the title piece of my book Counting Steps. It seemed appropriate for our return, though my nostalgic mumblings cut little ice as I fumbled with stiff zips and broken buckles - but that's another story, for another book maybe.

Sadly, Karrimor are no longer in business - they went bust in 2003, though the trademark limps after purchase by Sports Direct. Dougal Haston is gone too; he died skiing in Leysin, not far as it happens from my house in France. But I reckon my old sack has a few years in it yet - there's evidently a repair shop in Lancashire that can sort those zips, and despite the odd creaky joint, I can still smile as I shoulder the weight - and the memories - it holds.

Summit of Mount Serles, Stubai Alps

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Shopping my library - Words of the Grey Wind


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

A different path

Sugar Loaf - the approach from Forest Coal Pit

Whenever 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

Special places - The Boat Yard Tea Room

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

Words and pictures

'In my craft or sullen art' - the desk of Dylan Thomas 

For the last three months I've been lecturing at the University of the West of England, teaching copy writing and professional practice. It's been as much a journey for me as my students, and a tonic, in the twilight of my career, to feel I have something to offer.  But more than that, it's been a period of self reflection, for if I've learned  one thing about teaching undergraduates, it's that it requires looking as deeply into your own practice as theirs.

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
Over the weeks I've shown clips of Picasso at work, excerpts from documentaries, wildlife films, jazz improvisations, poetry readings...  At my last lecture we watched Damien Hirst discussing the paintings of Francis Bacon - one of my more esoteric selections. Yet despite a few blank looks, I was delighted when a student came up after class and said, I'm beginning to see where you're coming from.  

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...

Chaim Soutine
- the painter's painter 
This is the craft behind the creation. And it comes less from technique than it does from care. More than any other advice I've given my students, is that they should pay attention to the detail. And by that I don't mean checking for typos; I mean being precise, taking heed of the words - shaping the sounds - to the point of exhaustion if necessary.

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
In seeing craft as care rather than effort, we gain a different perspective. We also learn that 'process' is not only necessary for the communication of our ideas, it's a gateway to creativity itself. In this respect, I suspect that most epiphanies - be they in art or science - come as described by the mathematician Andrew Wiles, 'after stumbling round in the dark'.

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.