Sunday, June 28, 2020

Objects of life #5 - Butterfly Bush


Buddleja Davidii
Buddleja Davidii, today in my garden

The butterfly bush in my garden is the latest in a lineage of sorts. Specifically, it's a Buddleja Davidii which originates in Central China but is named after the French naturalist and missionary, Armand David.  Like many of our garden shrubs that are technically non-native, it's found a genial and generally welcome home in the UK, often thriving in a feral fashion, like it does on the disused railway line not far from here.

As the common name suggests it was my interest in entomology that first made me aware of the Buddleja. Certainly, it's the only shrub I could have named as a youngster - and taken you to every garden which had one in the crescents and avenues that were the heft of my childhood wanderings. The largest, on Burnside Road, had white flowers which caught the afternoon sun and where, one July after school, I first saw a Painted Lady. Its sighting is marked in a copy of the Observers Book of Butterflies that I still keep by my desk. Only last week I saw a Marbled White and made a similar pencilled note in the margin. 

Almost every house I've lived in since has had a Buddleja. The one in my current garden came from a cutting given to me by my mother - it was meant for our place in France but try as I might they won't take there. So I planted it here in the worst of soils and in three years it's grown above head height. My last home had one so big it was effectively a tree - in many ways, it was why I bought the place -  and yet as events turned out, our time there coincided with some of the wettest summers on record so the list of species it attracted is more paltry than I'd hoped.

In the Alps, the unkempt bushes on the verges and riversides are festooned with species that would have made my teenage eyes alight: fritillaries, gliders, graylings, even swallowtails and the occasional Purple Emperor are all regular sightings. Back in Wales, the list may be less extensive but I'm equally delighted with a Peacock or a Tortoiseshell - each as beautiful as any species I've seen in fifty years of looking.

My latest bush came into bloom this week and yesterday our new puppy was sniffing and sneezing at its flowers. Which reminded me that the fragrance is not for our pleasure, but has a different and more practical purpose. Look closely at a Buddleja on a sultry evening - or even better with a torch after dark - and you'll be inducted into the fabulous and fascinating world of moths. Unlike butterflies, which have only 57 UK species, there are more than 2.500 of their nocturnal cousins. If common naming were more democratic - and lyrical - the Buddleja should really be l'arbuste de papillons de nuit, as they'd say across the channel.

Years ago, when our elder boys were small we hired a chalet near Annecy for the summer.  The patio terrace had a Buddleja to its side and every evening around seven the hummingbird hawk moths would hover over the flower heads, dipping their long probosci into the nectar.  We'd eat our dinner to the hum of their wing beats, Daniel marvelling at the speed and dexterity of their flight.  Later, as the sun dipped, the other moths would arrive to feed in numbers too great to count or label.

I learned recently that the species name 'Buddleja' was bestowed in honour of the Reverend Adam Buddle, another cleric and naturalist - like Armand David -  who compiled a complete English Flora early in the eighteenth century. It's ironic that the Buddleja Davidii would not have been on his list. And yet, in its binomial naming, there's a connection between the UK and France which I like to think in some small imaginative way my attention to these commonplace shrubs pays homage to still. 

The bush in my garden will flower for perhaps a month, longer if I dead-head the stems. A friend who knows about these things tells me the blossom would be bigger if I pruned it next spring, but I doubt I shall. For I'd prefer to let its branches spread, and like me, in the years since I stood in the shade of those white blooms on Burnside Road, find their own ways to the sun.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Guidebooks - a source of inspiration and memory

Just one of my shelves of guides
I suppose I’d always been a walker. But aged eighteen and barely a year into the assorted pleasures of university life, tramping the hills wasn’t exactly at the top of my ‘to do’ list.  At least that was the case until I bought a small paperback, which – no exaggeration here – changed the course of my life.

The book was The Backpacker’s Handbook by Derrick Booth, part of the Letts series that were popular in the Seventies and Eighties. More of a ‘how-to’ manual than a route guide, it had chapters covering the kit to buy, the craft of camping; even instructions on how to fashion a homemade tent!  Booth’s mantra was to keep weight to the minimum and time on the trail to the max.

But the Backpacker’s Handbook was more than mere instructions. Apart from anything else, it was beautifully written - Booth's prose resonant with the notion that the simple act of walking might contain within it, possibilities that are more profound.  Here are its opening lines:

Time was when the world was limitless. Time was when the human race moved around - if at all - on its two feet. Time was when man didn't crave freedom to wander but took it for granted...

Forty years since I first read those words, they evoke a yearning that feels as urgent today as it was for a young man uncertain of his place in the world.

Shortly after buying the book, I quit my holiday job and walked the Pennine Way. Later that summer I completed Wainwright’s Coast to Coast, tramped from Tynemouth to Berwick along the beaches of Northumberland and ticked off the major peaks of Lakeland and the Dales. In part, I did this because for family reasons I had nowhere else to go, but also, as I walked, I discovered that those deeper possibilities were real and nourishing - and that I wanted more.

If I look back on the walks and journey’s I’ve since completed, it’s interesting how many were motivated by guidebooks of one kind or another.  My shelves are crammed with volumes that range from the Munros of Scotland to Trekking in Nepal. Last year, I must have bought half a dozen more, including guides to the Haute Savoie, The Cambrian Way and a walk that’s been far too long on my tick list, The Reivers Way in Northumberland. 

Magazines and journals are formative too. It was an article by the late Richard Gilbert in the first-ever edition of High (no longer published) which encouraged me go hut hopping in Austria. In a sense, I owe to him my passion for mountain refuges and all the joy that a lifetime of alpine walking has brought me. Still today, titles such as The Great Outdoors and Trail are packed with articles that provide us with facts and information, but most importantly, inspiration!  For it is this imaginative desire that unlocks the multitude of possibilities from which we are so privileged to choose.


I’m often asked by those who are interested in walking more seriously for advice on this or that route to take. In France, where I spend much of the year, I’m invariably quizzed on the mountain huts; in Pembrokeshire, it’s usually how to make a loop from a trip on the coast path!  I’ve still not figured that last one out very well, though actually, there are guides which address precisely this challenge. Perhaps that’s another reason why I have so many – because they tap into knowledge and experience that’s invariably deeper than my own could ever be. Not every guide is as beautifully written as Derrick Booth’s, but almost all are infused with a love and care for the landscape they are recording.

And it seems to me that it’s this intangible experience of being ‘in and among’ the landscape that’s the real delight of walking. The views from Snowdon’s summit might be spectacular and I suppose there’s a satisfaction of sorts in counting steps or calories burned.  But I’d suggest it’s seldom the highlights alone – and certainly not the data - that we remember most and which compels us to keep on shouldering our sacks.

I have a friend who told me she cried when her boots wore out recently. They’d been with her, she said, at all the best moments of her life aside from the birth of her children. I don’t have that sentimentality for footwear, but somewhere in my garage I still have the rucksack that I bought the same afternoon as the Backpacker’s Handbook. To throw it away, although it is now well past practical use, would feel like discarding part of my past.

My guidebook collection is not dissimilar. The most treasured copies are embellished with notes, their pages stained with water and earth; covers that creak on opening. I have one –Cicerone’s Trekking in the Stubai Alps – that’s been cut into halves to reduce weight on the trail. In researching this piece, I opened my original copy of the Coast to Coast and a little fine sand fell from its spine to my hands.


To walk is to gather memories that make us immeasurably richer. The guides in my study are keys to that store of recall and possibility. I’m grateful to them, just as I am to family and friendships and all the joys which make for the palimpsest of our lives.  Perhaps I should order them chronologically – a sort of personal history told through the landscapes I’ve trod.  From Pennine Way to who knows where… there’s room on my shelves for more.

This post was first published as a feature article in Cicerone Extra 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Coronavirus - Wales and the five mile rule

Social distancing this week above Pontypool

Today I was quoted in a piece by Jude Rogers in the Guardian looking at the different approaches of Wales and England to the Coronavirus crisis.  The impact of devolution has been greater than most of us expected and is perhaps the subject of another post, but for now, I want to expand on my concerns over continued 'stay local' message in Wales, its impact on health, wellbeing and our civil liberties.

The rule and its impact.

Unlike in England, the Welsh Assembly Government has allowed only limited relaxation of the restriction on travel for non-essential purposes.  As a consequence, after thirteen weeks of lockdown and some of the lowest rates of infection in the UK, the people of Wales are still required to limit any travel to a radius of five miles from home. The so-called five-mile rule has been widely criticised by many in rural communities and indeed some informal concession has been made along the lines of  'use common sense', but despite increasingly urgent pleas from the tourist industry the Welsh Assembly Government remains stubbornly resistant to changing its 'stay local' message.

The impact of the rule is immense - not only does it discriminate against those who have relatives outside their immediate community, it continues to minimise access to the countryside despite all the evidence that the outdoors is the safest environment for us all.  Aside from the detriments to our health and wellbeing, it is also an immense restriction on our civil liberties. That policymakers seem increasingly oblivious or unconcerned about this speaks loudly - and worryingly so - of the extent to which we and our freedoms are being psychologically manipulated by this crisis.

Why the rule is absurd

It is quite clear that travel does not transmit the virus, nor does it magically increase in strength the further we get from home.  Staying local, in and of itself, does not reduce transmission - if anything quite the opposite.  That is why we have food delivered safely to our stores and yet suffered an epidemic in care homes. What matters is not the distance we travel but our behaviour when we arrive - it is staying APART which keeps us safe, and any rule should ultimately be a means to this end.

Currently, however, we have the situation where the 330,000 residents of Cardiff are free - and supposedly safe - to socially distance in their virtual cage, but a family there cannot travel to the empty hills above Pontypridd for a walk in the fresh air.  Yesterday a friend of mine wrote to moan that over the last 13 weeks he had walked every combination of the five-mile radius from his house in Newport - the canal he complained was rammed even in the early morning and the few parks nearby were the same. And yet by driving ten miles up the valley he - and his neighbours - could walk that same canal in much greater safety - or perhaps visit Wentwood forest which opened its car parks yesterday but under the rules is only accessible to a tiny number of people.

This is not only absurd and damaging to our mental health and wellbeing, it is also an opportunity missed in promoting the countryside of Wales as a resource for safe recreation. As we open up non-essential retail where do we think is the safest for a family to spend their leisure - St David's Centre or St David's Head; Roath Park or the Rhinogs - at Cardiff Ikea or Cadair Idris?  The answer is plain as a pikestaff.

So why does the government persist?

The Welsh government's refusal to explain its reasoning in scientific terms is telling -  the reality must, therefore, be that the rule is a proxy for managing other concerns. Here we get into the shady world of politics and its inevitable withholds, but my own conclusion is that the real reasons for maintaining the stay local message are threefold.

The first is a fear of what we might call geo-spread - the notion that visitors to the countryside will somehow bring the virus to rural areas and that local facilities would be overrun.  These fears have been exacerbated by a widely publicised letter earlier in the crisis from doctors, the whole public hysteria over the NHS and some sensationalist press reporting of gatherings at hot spots in England - frankly, the good weather hasn't helped. The logic for this fear diminishes daily and yet the concern persists with ever more desperate attempts by some communities to justify why it's not safe to come here quite yet.

This plays to the second concern - a political fear of those few loud voices in rural communities who take a fortress view to the crisis, regarding city folk as an invading plague who cannot be trusted to socially distance - as if this virus and the higher infection rates in urban areas were somehow their fault!  The recently introduced concept of 'community consent' is effectively a stealth addition to the tests set for the easing of lockdown and is clearly not relevant to the science - nor is it a justifiable reason for restricting our civil liberties, but that's for another time too.

And lastly - the really big unspoken - there is a fear of people coming in from England. Ultimately, I believe the 5-mile rule is now primarily a proxy for closing the border! I say this because we can't seriously be so concerned about the level of infection in Wales alone or indeed the adequacy of our preparations for a second wave - if so, we really do have a warped view of the importance of our freedoms and the needs of our economy.

How should we go forward?

Ideally, the government should remove the five-mile rule immediately. More realistically they should prepare for its removal at the end of the next three week review period.  In parallel, we should take two further actions.

First - despite my view that the attitudes of some in the 'stay away' lobby are somewhat shabby and ungenerous, there is clearly work to be done in reassuring local communities that a return to free movement is not to be feared.  The government should help in the provision of Covid -Secure facilities and work to promote best practice guidelines for those who would visit the countryside.  There has been much good work in areas such as the Lake District and we should take the lessons from this and apply them to Wales.

Second - there is a massive opportunity to launch a 'Get Outdoors' campaign that would have long term benefits for health, wellbeing and the tourist economy of Wales.  Rather than restricting people to their urban environments, we should promote our vast natural resources as among the safest environments to spend leisure time.  Our national parks should open as soon as possible and we should encourage people to visit less known areas rather than the traditional hot spots. This isn't about satisfying mountaineers and kayakers like me, it's about encouraging families and people of limited outdoor experience to see the opportunities and benefits of their own countryside - it's about pride and thanksgiving for the resources we have on our doorsteps and actively sharing those as widely as possible.

Conclusions

We all of us have concerns and fears in relation to this crisis - and each of us will stack and collate those in different order.  I actually have much sympathy for the difficulties politicians and advisors face - this is not easy and it's important that we try to be objective rather than simply pursuing our own interests.

But when it is clear to any intelligent person that the rules are not logical; when we have a tourist industry that is screaming to be heard - and when we have such a divide between England and Wales that it undermines our sense of nationhood - then we must think again.  And although throughout this piece I have been relatively light on the impact to our freedoms and human rights, I  suggest we should not regard their curtailment so lightly or be so trusting that they will return anytime soon  - at the very least they deserve more explanation than slogans which do not stand scrutiny.


I would like to acknowledge the influence of Nick Kemp and his excellent website Parkswatch Scotland in my forming these views - in particular, the Stay Apart slogan came from his suggestions and I would encourage those interested in these issues to follow his blog - in most part it is easy to substitute the word Scotland for Wales as the issues are much the same.


Thursday, June 11, 2020

Politics and Philosophy - a lesson in two parts



Just over forty years ago I went to university to study politics - it was around the time when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were first elected; unemployment was high, the Soviet Union remained a threat, and in my final year, reports from Afghanistan and the Falklands glued us to the TV in the Student's Union bar.

Academic politics is primarily the study of power: the ways it's structured in a world of nation-states and how they interact on the international stage. Whereas most of my fellow students preferred the classes on government and international relations I was drawn to the philosophical side, which looks not so much of how things 'are', as to how they 'ought' to be.

This distinction between the 'is' and the 'ought' is bread and butter stuff to philosophers - it's precisely the point of the exercise in areas such as ethics and justice which became my subsidiary subjects.  By the time I graduated, these were my chief interest and though many friends and family asked if I'd thought of going into public affairs, I understood by then that the two sides of the political coin have very little in common.

In the years since leaving university, I've cultivated a certain disdain for politics and it's proponents. Ironically, given my career in newspapers, I hold much the same view of the media too. For several years I actively stopped reading or viewing any news reports and still today I'm deeply sceptical of the stories that are served up as fact. The prospect of being involved in the political merry-go-round,  even on a minor campaigning basis, has remained about as attractive as the warm milk we were forced to drink at junior school - the removal of which I regard as Margaret Thatcher's best ever decision!

Or at least that was the case until the coronavirus crisis and the monstrous restriction of our civil liberties that continues to be imposed under the guise of public safety.  My use of the word 'monstrous' will make clear how I regard the extended lockdown here in Wales. It's a visceral thing, a sense that just 'is' within me, as much as something I 'ought 'logically to feel - and although I could set out all the arguments here, that's not the point of this piece.

What's relevant is that for the first time in my adult life, I've become a letter writer, a tweeter, a commentator of Facebook. I've followed every welsh politician that matters (to be fair that's not many) and bombarded them with questions; I've signed petitions, written to newspapers, sought out data and read the legislation and scientific advice in full. The National Parks have governance websites that allow you to read their policies - and like me, complain at their closure of huge areas of the countryside and general kowtowing to the wishes of their paymasters.

In part, I've done this by way of experiment. I wanted to see what difference - however small - I might make. If I campaigned hard enough, might anybody actually listen? Along the way, I've learned some of what works and what doesn't - when to challenge and when to stop - which posts get the most likes, and which are more likely to fall on deaf ears. At times it's almost exhilarating and I can see how some might find a purpose in this as a profession.

But most of all I've learned that the process is exhausting.  In fact, it feels like the intellectual equivalent of banging your head against a wall in the hope that someone takes pity on your cries. The reason for which, is that success has absolutely nothing to do with winning the intellectual argument.  Indeed, I should remove 'winning' from that last sentence - for it's now clear to me that political campaigning has almost nothing to do with intellectual rigour at all.

The historian Michael Ignatieff made this point in an interview, reflecting on his time as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.  Ignatieff is a formidable thinker and yet he described how all the skills he had acquired - and had thought would be helpful - were of little or no use in the political arena.  In politics, the protagonists have an agenda which they pursue regardless of consistency or intellectual merit - those are the niceties of losers.  What matters to lobbyists and politicians is simply to prevail -  and if that means you need to pivot your reasoning or ignore some inconvenient truths, then so be it.

Dominic Cummings wouldn't be concerned - from 'Taking Back Control' to 'Get Brexit Done' he's become the embodiment of a political method that's based on little more than the repetition of populist messages - ideally wrapped in slogans which capture the sentiment but suppresses any critical thought. The recent calls to Stay Home, Save Lives and Protect the NHS are more benign but little different in their veracity.  In a distressing reversal of the academic distinction we began with, politics in practice would has evolved to the art of promoting a partisan view of what 'ought' regardless of the truth of what actually 'is'.

But was it ever any different?

Forty years ago the slogan on billboards across the UK was 'Labour isn't Working'.  It's now famous as the Saatchi and Saatchi campaign which led to the Conservative victory in 1979.  And yet if you look carefully, you'll see that the line of supposed benefit seekers is actually the same twenty people - all of them volunteers from the Hendon Young Conservatives - photographed from different angles. What's even more ironic is that by the end of Thatcher's first term in office, unemployment had more than doubled.

That's a long time ago - and no doubt we'll look back on this crisis and its impact on civil liberties in a different light too.  But for now, I'm done with campaigning,  the toll on my wellbeing is actually too great.  Indeed, the prospect of civil disobedience is actually less stressful and easier to enact than all of that tweeting and letter writing.  In the meantime, I'm off to walk up a mountain where the only gathering is the rooks and the most important distance is the one between me and my darker thoughts.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The role of the countryside in helping us through this crisis.

Snowdonia - above the Glyders.

The events of the last few weeks will be with us for decades. Economically, there’ll certainly be pre and post Covid eras, and socially, though evidence shows we swiftly revert to our norms, most commentators expect there to be some adjustment. I wonder though, as I reflect on the ‘Stay Away’ sign that’s appeared in a lane near my house, at the deeper changes this shock to the system will bring, and the attitudinal legacies it may leave?

Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve coped well with the restrictions of the lockdown. I suppose that being an introvert, I was always going to be less affected by the lack of social interaction than I was by the limits to getting outdoors. In the event, I’ve adapted to that too, finding new ways to explore, making a virtue of what’s local; dwn ei filltir sgwar, as they say in Wales – a man of his own square mile.

But for all that I’ve found solace on my doorstep, there’s also been sadness – not in the landscape or the shrinking of my horizons, but in narrow minded insularity which the sign in that lane so typifies. Walk two miles from where I’m writing this and you’ll find others of similar ilk: Stay Home, Caravans not Welcome, No access – the internet is awash with much the same and worse.

Fear, of course, feeds our darker instincts. In the first grip of a pandemic (that very word is so emotive) we want action that keeps us safe - we don’t care about fancy pants reasoning or the niceties of whether this or that restriction offends against our individual rights.  And actually, I agree. Over sophistication would risk undermining the core message – especially when there are sections of society who seem to be determinedly irresponsible and selfish.

But that doesn’t mean, we shouldn’t call out attitudes and behaviours that in any other context we’d be quick to condemn. Of course, an urban exodus to Tenby beach or Pen Y Fan should not be encouraged – and those who flout the rules should rightly be penalised. But when the call to stay at home starts to morph into a more general ‘outsiders not welcome’ then we risk crossing a line. Last week, the tires of suspected ‘visitors’ cars were slashed in communities across Wales; there were farmers calling for footpaths to be closed, there were people posting pictures of suspiciously parked vehicles – and there were keyboard warriors glorying in the Easter stay-away, not as a regretfully necessary measure, but as a statement of neo-tribal identity.

If this were just a few individuals then perhaps I could shrug it off. But regretfully, some of those who should know better have acted poorly too. The posts on social media by the Pembrokeshire National Park for example - with their sideways digs at caravaners and second homeowners - are ill thought through, reinforcing an undercurrent of ‘us and ‘them’ that no afterthought of ‘you’ll be welcome when it’s over’ can ever mitigate.  In part, that’s because it isn’t going to be ‘over’ – at least not for a long while, and not in a clean cut way.

The real sadness in all this is that rural areas have – at least potentially - an important role to play in helping us come through what will be a messy and imperfect emergence from this crisis. If we think of those few environments that can relatively safely allow for exercise, wellbeing, families to be together – then the outdoors must come high on the list.  This week, it was reported that the Government is considering the restarting of construction projects on the basis that working outside poses a limited risk – then surely walking, or mountaineering, or surfing or sailing…must be even less so. 

On Thursday there was some clarification that the current legislation allows for a short drive of up to five minutes in order to take a much longer period of exercise. To many – myself included – this makes a huge difference to their horizons - and ultimately their mental health. We should welcome the clarity rather than feigning confusion or retreating to the comfort of inflexible prescriptions. For these are exactly the types of baby steps we will need, helping us to move beyond slogans without compromise to safety or leaping from one extreme to another. I’d like to see our National Parks (and other similar bodies) start thinking – and communicating – along similar lines, rather than promoting the blanket closure of our precious natural resources.  

But most of all, I’d like to see a change in an underlying attitude of ‘us and them’, which if not universal is worryingly to the fore. Those of us lucky enough to live in rural areas – and especially those with the ability to influence others - must come to terms with the reality that there will inevitably be some risk from visitors arriving from the city – just as those in urban areas are now taking daily risks to supply us with food and medicine and telecoms and building materials…  We live in an interconnected and mutually dependent society and the idea that its ‘our’ local health service or ‘our’ landscape or ‘our’ footpaths and that these regional assets are most definitely ‘not yours’, is not only wrong in its reasoning, it’s shabby in sentiment and actually, bad for our future too.

Last week I was struck by a simple Facebook post from my friends at Alpine Action Adventures - they were offering key workers a substantial discount on any holiday they might take this or next year. Sure, it’s a marketing device; but what a fantastic and creative gesture. They have other offers too and are responsibly encouraging guests to think ahead without the need to risk large deposits or inflexible commitments. What they are saying is Come and stay, we’re grateful for what you’ve done; we’re happy to share some of our good fortune - and these are people who live in France!  Let’s have more and similar gestures from businesses and public bodies here in the UK.

My grandfather, who lived through the great depression, was fond of the saying ‘we reap what we sow’. These too are seminal times, and we should grant some leeway for the planting of a few bad seeds. But in a few short months, the communities and the landscapes of rural Wales will have a golden opportunity to show – and share – the depth of their value to us all. In so doing, they can make a huge contribution to our national wellbeing and play a vital role in shaping some of the few positive legacies of this pandemic. Rather than putting signs on gates (either literally or online) we ought – right now - to be thinking of how we might embrace that challenge, even if the ways to do so are not immediately obvious.   

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Keep calm and carry on writing


Evening light

Last week I drafted some reflections on the Coronavirus lockdown, suggesting that a little more generosity – and reciprocity - would be no bad thing. My opening hook was a farmer’s call for the footpaths in Wales to be closed – and its contrast to the thousands who are working to keep supply chains open, serving us in shops, supporting and for that matter subsidising rural communities…

As is my way, I slept on the piece and before some final edits, explained its theme and tenor to Jane. Do you really want to wade into all that, she asked?  For the first time in more than in a decade of Views from the Bikeshed, I didn’t press the button to ‘publish’.

You might think that this period of isolation would be a delight for a writer: solitude, the time to reflect, a ready audience for their words... The reality, especially for essayists, is somewhat different. Writing - or at least, that worth reading - thrives on our openness to difference, a willingness of the reader to be challenged; at its best - whether it be poetry, fiction or a reflective blog post - writing helps us to see the world afresh.

Yet, at a time when that quality is arguably more valuable than ever, debate is not what's wanted. Rather, the wish is for our hopes to be confirmed - the reassurance that our preferences may be more than that alone. As a writer, the pressures to conform, to withhold all but the positive, are tangible - and intimidating. If you doubt me, take a look at the comments meted out to Matthew Pariss by the usually genteel readers of the Times.  Never in my writing career have I felt so stymied by the zeitgeist.

The week before last, two of my neighbours were fined for driving a mile to walk their dog – their trip considered by the police as 'unnecessary travel'. Evidently, the officers were embarrassed to issue the ticket, and no doubt did so under instruction. In the scheme of things, it's a peripheral incident - my neighbours have probably shrugged it off - and yet it leaves me with a lingering unease.

For have we really come to this? 

What became of the 'exercise of discretion' that's so essential to a sense of proportion?  Are we – even in these extraordinary times - comfortable that our law enforcement officers should lie in wait for a middle-aged couple on a midweek afternoon?  Are our reasonable concerns in danger of morphing into a public hysteria that fuels - and justifies –potentially more sinister measures? 

Already, I’m concerned about the paragraphs above.

Do they read as a rail against a lockdown that must be vastly more tolerable for those of us living in rural areas?  Should I perhaps add that we’re clearly in uncharted waters?  And acknowledge that all of us – police officers included - need some leeway to account for the lack of maps? 

The paragraphs are actually lifted from my original draft; their relevance now is only by way of illustration.  It's not so much their logic or even their message that concerns me – but that any comment now risks misinterpretation; that within days – hours even – it will look out of place, jar with the public mood; appear as an ill-timed and ill-advised utterance that was best left unsaid.

My old painting tutor used frequently to paraphrase Cezanne – if you’re stuck, then paint the stove.  His point was that despite our creative blocks we must maintain the habits of practice; and that in this regard, the ‘process’ is as important as the ‘subject’. For many writers, commonplace books are the way through. Julia Cameron, the author of the best-selling The Artists Way recommends ‘morning pages’ - a daily routine of thirty minutes non-stop, pen must not leave the page, quasi-stream-of- consciousness journaling… The author Haruki Murakami, on the other hand, claims that he runs an hour every day to be fit enough to write.

There are some, of course, revelling in the angst – from the ‘pour it all out’ brigade, to those keyboard warriors, who having feasted on Brexit seem never replete. And – I say this with real sadness – too many voices from the environmental lobby, smug in a sort of ‘we told you so – phooey to the airlines – let’s all plant veggies’ zealotry. 

But – dare I say it – few of these are writers in the true sense, or at least of the type that interests me. What, I wonder, would George Orwell make of our situation – and how would he have approached it? The Road to Wigan Pier has some of the most visceral and yet carefully crafted observations of the last century. Orwell's genius was not so much to debate, as to persuade us that his perceptive reflections are just what we've been thinking.

We have some modern-day equivalents, at least in their thoughts if not quite his eloquence. Yuval Noah Harari is a leading voice of persuasive reason - and at times dissent – as, in spanning different faiths and perspectives, are thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, Justin Welby or the Dalai Lama. Less academic, but just as enquiring, my friend Rory Maclean is a sensitive portrayer of the human side of conflict, crisis and its consequences – his recent Pravda Ha Ha is well worth a read in this lockdown.

I’m hoping this post – now so different from its beginning – will be a sort of catharsis; that it might free me from the head spin that leads to (wrongly and ironically, somewhat ungenerously) calling out fearful farmers and the actions of our under-pressure police  Perhaps, from hereon, I can return to writing about my own square mile – not literally, though I guess I might do that too – which draws its strength more from looking at my past than to the future. 

If, in doing so, I avoid the fray, then it’s not for lack of care or trying.

We all of us – writers included – need to keep calm and carry on.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Blogging - and how words have a life of their own


Red dots and the unexpected joys of blogging

Early in my writing career - long before I was a 'published author' - a friend and mentor advised me to share my work in whatever ways I could. The reason, she explained, is that once you put your words out there, all manner of coincidence and possibility will emerge.  Shortly afterwards, I started Views From The Bike Shed, and the rest, as they say, is...

I retold that story last week to some students at the University of the West Of the England where I was giving a lecture on blogging. There's no better way, I suggested, to achieve a professional online presence, and commit to the adventure that is the shaping and sharing of your thoughts. What follows, I said, may not be fame or fortune, but I guarantee it will surprise you.

By way of example, I described how from those humble beginnings, this blog became foundational to my degree, to my books, to articles being published elsewhere. Crafting the posts taught me the skills, and the care, I needed to be a serious writer - which I've since applied to both the corporate and personal sphere. To my amazement, writing is now what I do now for a living - and in ways I could never have imagined when starting out.

But perhaps, the greatest joy of blogging is its 'message in a bottle' capacity for our posts to wash up on unexpected shores.

More than ten years ago I wrote a piece about (I thought) a long-forgotten outdoor writer named Derrick Booth - it touched a chord with hundreds of others in the backpacking community, and still today I receive kind comments and occasional emails in response. To my great delight, Derrick himself once wrote to me from California. I have dozens of other examples, from pieces I've written on bothies and wildflowers that somewhat inexplicably still have a high online ranking, to articles that were later published in journals, books and magazines. The most exciting - and frustrating - thing, is that you can never tell what is going to resonate - some of what I think of as my best pieces languish long forgotten, others seem always to be making new connections.

I've made dozens of those through blogging too - including a friendship with my all-time blogging hero, who ironically,  turned out to live down the road. From similar tentative beginnings, Michelle at Vegplotting now writes for several magazines and newspapers, has a huge following and - being more sociable than me - international friendships that have taken her to the US, Canada and more.

Last week, after a long lay off, I wrote a short piece on of all things, my collection of vacuum flasks.  There were only a couple of comments on here, but I received dozens on a Facebook cross-post - that's a development I need to ponder. And I will. Because I've always approached my blogging as seriously as I do my other work. When I wrote above, that there's no better way 'to achieve a professional online presence...' the operative word was aimed more at our attitude than any prospect of payment.

For when we publish - online or in print - we have a responsibility for our words that's fundamentally different from journaling or notebooks.  It's not legal considerations that I'm hinting at here - it's that when we publish, in whatever form, we must care - and take responsibility for - the quality of what we say, as well as the tone of how we say it. Because, one way or the other, those words will find their way back to us, often in the most surprising of ways.

Yesterday morning I went to my favourite caff - a little converted canal boat that I happened to write about last year.  It's owner Kelly had been pleased with my quasi review, but little did I know she'd since followed more of my writing.  As I ordered two eggs on toast, she rummaged in her bag, handing me a tiny plastic pouch: I bought you this after reading your piece on introverts - it made me smile.  

You'll have to read the post to understand the significance, but inside the bag she gave me was a red button badge.  I think that's the oddest way that anyone has ever said thanks for something I've written - and you know what, it absolutely made my day.