Monday, November 30, 2009

Past imperfect 2 - Argyle Terrace

3 Argyle Terrace

In July 1982 I bought the ground floor of a Victorian terrace on the edge of North Shields in Tyneside. I paid £7,700 including legal fees. In return I got a huge flat with high ceilings and original features, a great view over the fields and a neighbour with a punk daughter who played the drums at all hours!

I was twenty years old and had just returned from my third year at university. There were three million people unemployed and somehow I landed a job as a sales rep for a newspaper. That single break allowed me to buy the flat and in so many ways affected the course of my life.

Putting the price of the flat into perspective, it was exactly the same as my first annual wage. I remember I borrowed £300 from my mother to cover the deposit. I was so determined to repay her that I barely did more than eat for two months. Looking back, quite why I was so fiercely independent I can't say, but I don't regret it, or what it taught me. I have remained so ever since.

I lived at Argyle Terrace for three years before moving north to Northumberland. They were three good years - formative, fun, and a long time ago in more ways than one. It would be almost inconceivable now for a young person to buy a decent first home for the equivalent of a year's wage.

And you know, it is not a good thing that they can't.

I feel immensely lucky to have reached adulthood at a time when buying a house wasn't the crippling expense it is today. A blog isn't the place to discuss detailed personal finances, but in the twenty seven years since I bought Argyle Terrace I have never had to take a mortgage more than twice my salary. That combination of good fortune and circumstance (and huge a slug of prudence) has afforded me a freedom from debt that many people only a decade younger, and for no fault of their own, have struggled to achieve.

The view from my window - and my first company car!

My Grandfather lived not far from Argyle Terrace. He bought his first house when he was in his twenties and never thought to move until he was seventy seven. His house wasn't an investment; it was somewhere to live and raise a family. That might sound old fashioned, Romantic even, but it has always struck me as the right way to look at it.

There is little that dismays me more than the property boom of recent years. At times I have wanted to scream. We are not richer when house prices rise - and certainly we are not richer as a society. Even at an individual level the 'I have equity' school of thought seldom stacks up. In my case I have supposedly made a handsome profit - but what about my children who will need a home sometime in the future? As a family we are immensely poorer.

A typical home in the UK is worth three to four times its price in 1995. But how does that supposed wealth manifest itself? It's not as if people can cash in and live for free elsewhere. In practice, the real wealth of home-owners of my generation (providing they have been prudent and not borrowed against their equity) is in having a smaller mortgage - something everyone could have enjoyed if prices hadn't risen so aggressively in the first place!

And none of this even touches on how the housing market has skewed our economy, left millions in a mortgage trap, warped our values about what is important. I could make some jokes here about Home Front and Location bloody Location having a lot to answer for - but it's way too serious to laugh at.

I feel most sad for those starting out. A few years ago young people were damned if they did and damned if they didn't. A friend of mine said recently, ' They should rent, like everyone does in Germany.' But that is unrealistic; we don't have their housing infrastructure and in any case cultural norms are an important part of our self worth - in the UK owning a house is, for the vast majority of aspiring people, an central aspect of making progress in life.

But if ownership is legitimate, a lust for rising prices and the putative wealth it brings is destructive. It has always struck me as perverse that housing is the only essential product we want to see increasing in price - imagine if we had the same attitude to energy or food. I could go on, but I would probably scream after all.

I know that every generation has its trials and fortunes, but as I look again at the photo of my first house, I think it was truly a lucky break to be starting out then. I hope one day the cost of housing will return to something near affordability - though I doubt my particular definition of that word would be possible.

More's the pity, because I suggest we'd be better off if it did.


P.S. And there you were thinking my last post of November would be a nice quiet round up. Nablopromo - no problem!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The creative vocabulary

Seascape - M Charlton
Oil painting, using only my fingers

My post yesterday was about images; it concluded with the opinion that computers are not equal the possibilities of traditional drawing and painting. The response from followers was largely in agreement, but one of the comments made me think: Elizabeth asked, 'are we just old gits?'

I don't think so. But first I should say some positive things about computers - or more correctly, digital media - lest I seem too much of a Luddite.

Digital media has brought with it a vast range of new and immensely creative possibilities, many of which we now take for granted. It's capacity to incorporate images (moving and static) with sound, words and interactive components is unsurpassed. What's more, you can create digital media at home, production is quick and cheap, and distribution to millions of people is near instant.

In a more direct comparison to drawing, programmes like Paint or Draw offer a simple and intuitive means to create images - even young children can find their way within minutes. There is barely a PC without a similar programme and printing, even from a cheap home printer, creates good quality images.

So why, with all this possibility, why do we not have more iconic images produced by computers? (I'm not talking about cartoons and moving images here - but plain images that would compare to a painting or drawing) And of those we do, why do they concentrate into the sphere of graphics rather than fine art? Accepting it is a huge generalisation, what is it about these images that makes them so much less interesting than 'proper drawing'?

I put it to you that they are flat! And that in using pixels rather than 'marks' to produce the image, they lack the creative vocabulary of drawing and painting. To extend the metaphor, computer images converse with the minimum of words - at best, this limited vocabulary encourages direct speech, easily understood and immediate on the senses (such as most graphic art); more often it is limited, crude and uninteresting. Drawing and painting, in comparison, has a vocabulary that is unbounded.

For many years I painted with a group of artists. We would meet six times a year, taking over a studio for the weekend. Always, at the start of our meetings we would begin with an exercise called mark making. I will describe it in detail, because in doing so I think it might explains what I'm struggling to say - it is also a fun exercise to try, by yourself of with your children.

Mark making

Start with a large piece of paper on an easel or a table. Take a pen, charcoal, pencil - whatever - and draw a line. Look at it. Then make a different mark: some shading perhaps, or a thinner line. Repeat the process, always making a different mark: dot, dash, smudge, splatter, wide, immense, longer, shorter...

When you've exhausted the possibility of one item - say charcoal - move onto another: pastels, acrylic paints, pencils... Try different colours, different textures - always you are trying to make a different type mark.

Gradually all your art equipment should be unpacked- oil paints, chalks, rollers, brushes, palate knives - nothing should be left unused. Remember, you are NOT trying to make a picture - you making as many different marks as you can.

And when your equipment is all laid out and you've exhausted your ideas, think again. What about complex marks (one colour or line drawn over another) or negative marks (scratching away at what is already there) - maybe you want to spit on the paper, or add some earth, or stick on a toffee wrapper, or print with potato, or your hands, fingers, nails.

Keep going - how many more can you make? Is there a mark somewhere else in the room that you can steal? How about taking a tube of paint and squeezing it thickly onto the paper - then smudging some of it, adding some sand - building an impasto for more variety. Or perhaps use a domestic paint brush and swipe it across the paper.

Don't be precious. Remember, you're not making a picture. And now I think of it, why not rip it in half and stick it back together like a collage. Or pass the whole thing through a mangle, walk on it, cry over it, kiss it.... We usually stopped after twenty minutes but I reckon I could have gone on for hours. My record was over five hundred marks.

And ultimately, this is why paintings and drawings are more interesting than graphics and computer images. Of course, this isn't universally so - there are excellent graphics just as there are dreadful drawings; there are superb books written with limited vocabulary (Runt by Niall Griffiths uses only 700 words) and iconic pictures with minimal marks (Andy Warhol). But I am talking in general terms not absolutes - and I haven't even touched on the question of feel and the physical response that you cannot have with a computer.

Digital media has undoubtedly added to our creative possibilities, as did photography before it. I am glad it has arrived in my lifetime, but I am equally glad that new media seldom kills the old. And when it comes to drawing and the images we hang on our walls, I believe the 'old gits' still have the upper hand.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A true likeness?

My middle son is creative, and like me he's interested in drawing. He's at that stage when graphics still have a strong appeal, but he increasingly knows there's more to art than cartoons.

Yesterday, he was engrossed at the computer. What was he doing I asked? 'Just some drawings,' he said,'I often make pictures on this programme.' He showed me a large collection of images; some were simple patterns, others more intricate op-art illusions; some, like the picture below, were striking poster- style graphics.

I told him they were excellent. But as we looked, he said. 'The one I like best is the tortoise, only I can't understand why.'

My heart sang, for I'd noticed that image and not said anything. It was far and away his best picture - but explaining why is not easy, especially to a thirteen year old.

It is good, I told him, because it is like a tortoise and yet not like one. Did you draw it quickly? I asked. He told me had, though he'd tried a number of times, deleting each failed attempt. 'This one just felt right,' he said, 'so I left it.' Again my heart sang.

For fiddling is the curse of good art. And had he done so I have no doubt it would have crossed that imperceptible line and become a cartoon. Look again at the images above - the tortoise is not a caricature in the way the face is; it is more like a child's drawing, though again, not quite.

The size of the head is important. For the head is the most fascinating part of a tortoise - it is what we peer at and what peers at us - hence its oversize renditions works all the more effectively. As does the mouth, a slash, a half smile - and the two pinpoint eyes. Anything more, round eyes with pupils say, and we'd be back to cartoons. As I said before - it is like, but not like.

The body too - bang, bang, bang - a few lines and you're there; it's obvious what has been drawn, no need to pretty it up. And three legs, not two, or four - the rear one cocked by a stroke of luck that is common in art, but which requires the judgement to leave it alone.

When you look at the tortoise you know it is 'wrong' and yet it feels more 'right' than a careful rendition could ever be. Why is this and what does it tell us?

In the age of photography and graphics, the role of figurative painting is diminished. Cezzane said that the purpose of art is not to copy, but to make real our sensations. Putting this another way - photo-realistic representation may be skilful, but it is also sterile. This is exactly what Michael's image avoids.

But now for a little perspective: this is not a work of genius; it is a teenager's picture of a tortoise. That said, it has within it all the elements that make for good drawing - real drawing - a sense of likeness, a feeling for the subject, and a primacy of image over craft. These things are vital and in these respects the picture shows promise.

I have only one gripe: it was done on the computer. For all its merits, the screen cannot match charcoal on paper - nor can the cursor replace the hand.

And neither will the processor - dual core or otherwise - ever replicate our instinctive response, which is the basis of all great art.

Friday, November 27, 2009

So near and yet so far

Jane and I have just returned from lunch with some friends. They live eighty miles to the east, so we met half-way at a country pub. It was great to catch up: a few hours chat, a glass of wine, an excellent menu. We must do it more often.

Our friends had flown home from Australia last week. They'd been to visit their son who emigrated two years ago; a four week trip - their second in a year - and they plan to go again in March.

The motivation isn't only their son: they have a new grandson, born earlier this year. 'It's lovely out there,' they said, 'but it's so all or nothing. By the time you get there, you've got to make a trip of it - and of course, there's the expense.'

My mother lives round the corner. She used to live four hundred miles away, and I preferred it, but that's a long story. To be fair the proximity has certain advantages: she babysits occasionally, Dylan goes for tea on Tuesdays, she can feed the tortoise when we're away. She can also pop round unexpectedly, phone up because a light needs changing, and when she was ill guess who did the nursing? Jane, you're an angel.

Our friend's daughter lives in East Anglia, she has a baby and another on the way - understandably she'd like her mum around. 'It's a difficult distance,' they said, 'not impossible now we're retired, but too far for a day trip.' Longer term, and after much consideration, they plan to move within fifty miles. 'It's a big upheaval, but then you think about your real priorities.'

Jane would live nearer her parents. When we first met she lived half a mile away; her brother lives in the same village as do the other grandchildren - his divorce proving no barrier to proximity. I suspect we will move back one day, though not to the same village. For there is a fine line between closeness and claustrophobia; between living our own lives and sharing in someone else's.

Where we live now, Jane's parents are an hour's drive. They come once a fortnight and usually stay over; we look forward to it. And they, in turn, enjoy us visiting them; they live near the mountains so we can combine it with a weekend break. This arrangement has worked perfectly for fourteen years; so long as everyone is fit and has access to a car it is a good compromise.

But there is no set formula. And I often wonder how I will feel when my boys move away. I can rationalise their need to move on, the requirements of their careers, the opportunities of bigger places. And yet beneath the surface - not even deep down - I know I will be bereft.

For years our only discussions on their personal space have revolved around tidying bedrooms. But gradually their horizons are expanding: trips into town, overnight parties, can we go to the festival please? This week Daniel signed up for an expedition to Borneo. I have told him he can go, so long as he earns his passage and keeps our trust.

This is all as it should be - it is part of the growing up and away from us that they need to do. I know it is not healthy to hold them back. But just occasionally I think, 'not so fast.' And I know that all too soon I'll be hoping, 'not so far.'

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Town Hall - Narberth (image from Narberth COT)

When I first came to Pembrokeshire I would smile at a particular road sign on the A40: it read, Arberth Narberth. Bilingual roadsigns are commonplace in Wales, and though this one appealed me for its rhyme I never thought to visit the town. It was only when a traffic accident diverted me that I chanced upon one of the hidden gems of West Wales.

Narberth (or Arberth if you're talking Welsh) is about as untypical for Pembroke as it can get. For a start, it is not near to the sea, lying pretty much in the middle of the county. It is on what is known as the Landsker, the line dividing the English and Welsh speaking areas in South West Wales. The line is pronounced, but I have a feeling the people of Narberth knew something of the best of both cultures. And perhaps that explains the subtle and slightly poetic variation in the two names.

For Narberth is a sophisticated town. It has the best and most concentrated collection of boutiques, galleries, delicatessen, dress shops, antique dealers and cafes this side of Cardiff. It has a thriving arts scene too, and for years the Queen's Hall played host to bands which would never usually venture this far. It's a sort of Notting Hill in Wales, but much much better - because it lacks the pretence as well as the prices.

This morning Jane and I sat in the Ultracomidia delicatessen and had brunch. I ordered the set breakfast: toasted ciabatta with olive oil, Serano ham, tomatoes, a glass of freshly squeezed orange and think Spanish hot chocolate. It cost less than going to Mcdonalds. Jane had the same with Comte cheese and a cappuccino. We mixed and matched and decided we really ought to book for one of the tapas evenings. Frankly, I could have sat there reading Baudelaire and not felt out of place.

Cheese at Ultracomidia

And, dare I say it, this is rare in this part of Wales. Readers of this blog will know of my affection for Pembrokeshire, but one of its lesser aspects is that the heavy influx of summer tourists means there are few businesses with aspirations beyond this obvious source of income. Much of what passes as quality is little more than polished veneer.

In many towns - St David's is a good example - the low season feels deserted and shabby. Even in high season there is the seaside equivalent of pile it high - sell it cheap with a mix of dodgy crab sandwiches and tacky souvenirs. I'm being a touch harsh here - the lack of pretension is one of Pembrokeshire's delights too - but just sometimes I need a more sophisticated fix.

Narberth gets the balance right and works hard to keep it going. In the summer there is a food festival, an arts festival, and a brilliantly conceived children's festival - nicknamed the Narby Gras. In December there is a winter carnival and, of course, they do Christmas with lights and street sellers; similar efforts are made at New Year, Easter, Halloween.

If all this sounds a touch upmarket I guess that is true. But the important phrase in that last sentence is 'a touch', because the real delight of Narberth is that it is accessible to almost all. It is not expensive - eating there is cheaper than the tourist traps - and the town actively markets itself as offering superb value. Nor do you have to like bruschetta and olives to enjoy the place - the butchers does the best faggots I know of, and the chippy on the corner (The Contented Sole) does a great fish chips and curry sauce.

I could go on. But you can already tell I like Narberth. And you probably have as good an idea as you're going to get without going there. If you are down in West Wales, I'd strongly recommend you do.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Simple pleasures

It's that time of year when we have the annual 'Christmas Present Conversation'. It goes something like this.

Jane: You're so difficult. Is there anything you'd like?

Me: Just buy me some books.

Jane: But you buy those all the time.

Me: I can't think of anything else.

Jane: How about a coat?

Me: Not clothes please.

Jane: Point taken, but you must want something?

Me: How about some nice Jam?

Jane: I can't buy you jam.

Me: Why not?

Jane: Because it's not right, unless you're Eighty.

Me: Then I'd like a saxophone. A tenor saxophone to be precise and you get them from...

Jane: Now you're just being silly.

I'm not trying to be difficult; I realise that I sound like my grandparents - note I've skipped a generation and didn't bother with the parent-like stage - but I genuinely can't think of anything I particularly desire.

Instead, I smugly ponder how it is small things in life which give me most pleasure.

Except that's not true - I like big things too!

This year I took enormous pleasure from re-roofing our cottage in slate although I could have used tiles. When I 'needed' a new computer I bought a top specification Apple-Mac because I sit at the thing for hours every day. And I'm about to pay a ridiculous amount for a new kitchen because I want it sorted and I want it now. But none of these are exactly Christmas present material.

I like specialist things too. I told Jane I fancied a Hilleburg Nalo GT 2 tent, to which she replied, 'So you'll be getting that yourself.' I'd also like a specimen of Automris Io for my moth collection but I didn't bother saying.

I realise it's the mid range I need to get better at. The present that lies somewhere between a book and a saxophone - I did suggest a banjo but that wasn't taken seriously either. A raku piece? Maybe, but I'd want to chose it, so no surprise on the day. Or what about a... I'm really struggling here; surely Christmas isn't meant to be this difficult.

So might I suggest we reconsider the merits of jam.

For the fact is, I really like it - blackcurrant especially. Good jam is one of the small but delicious pleasures I insist on each morning. I know it only costs a few pounds but why should that matter? George Orwell in his essay on the delights of English cookery, wrote, 'is there anything quite as good as the soft part of the crust from an English cottage loaf.' Well, I'd add jam - and some good coffee too.

And while I'm on a roll: a good book, some olives and goats cheese for lunch, and a brochure from World of Butterflies.

Now that would be a fabulous Christmas.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A very human prison

Deep blue sea - M Charlton 2000

I seldom bother with newspapers, but today my assistant showed me an article in the Guardian that I read three times.

The story described the ordeal of of Rom Houben, a student who was paralysed in a car crash and misdiagnosed as being in a permanent vegetative state. More than 23 years later his doctors discovered he was fully conscious - trapped and screaming at world that couldn't hear.

Houben's condition reminded me of the journalist Jean Bauby, a victim of locked in syndrome who eventually wrote of his experiences by 'blinking' out the letters of the alphabet. His book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was a bestseller and later became a film. But at least Bauby was able to communicate of sorts - he wasn't thought to be 'extinct'; the description applied to Houben by his doctor.

I kept trying to work out if there was an analogy to the 'brain in a vat' theory - was it a kind of equal and opposite condition I wondered? It is not. The 'brain in a vat' hypothesis suggests that we could all be captive brains, controlled by electric impulses that simulate reality (as in the film, The Matrix) - and yet we wouldn't know it.

But Houben was not a brain in a vat - and there was nothing artificially stimulating his brain. He knew exactly what was happening to him and why. I find it astonishing that in such circumstances he did not go out of his mind.

His solitary incarceration also brought to mind Brian Keenan's haunting book, An Evil Cradling. Keenan describes his four-year imprisonment by terrorists, much of it in isolation. But the ordeal is not comparable either; he could move and converse and elicit a response, albeit trapped in unthinkable conditions.

Ultimately, the closest analogy I could think of was those patients who have reported full consciousness under anaesthesia. They describe their helplessness as the doctors operate on their body. Houben did not have this pain, but he suffered something of the same terror for 23 years. I shuddered at the thought.

Our horror at these stories is understandable. But I find the idea of Houben's ordeal to be particularly shocking. And I think this says something about what we consider most important in being human. Ultimately it is our minds that most differentiate us and give us our place in the world. A fully functioning mind trapped in paralysed body is somehow the worst form of imprisonment.

Consider the opposite situation to Houben's - though it is quite hard to conceive how it would ever happen in reality - a one in which a the mind is paralysed but the body fully active. This is what you might call the Zombie scenario; a being that we do not consider 'alive' in the normal sense. The underlying folklore is that without the mind we are 'living dead'.

From an ethical standpoint, it is our minds that cause us to value human life over other animals. Anything less, says the philosopher Peter Singer, would be speciesism - making an analogy to racism or sexism. The reason, he claims, human life is more valuable than other forms is our ability to understand our situation, to have a sense of the past and aspirations for the future.

And yet, in Western society we are now obsessed with our bodies - well beyond any requirements of physical need. If you ask a group of young people would they like to be clever or attractive you'd get a mixed response to what is an unfair question. But what if you asked, 'would you like to be a little more pretty/handsome or a little more intelligent?' I have a horrible suspicion what the average answer would be.

Of course, we should not confuse a desire to be attractive with the ultimate value of humanity - we do not trade one for the other in our day to day lives. And neither should we underestimate the joy of physical wellbeing. Healthy body and healthy mind - all of us would wish for both, and though we might get our priorities muddled at times,we recognise it is their combination which brings the greatest joy to life.

Indeed, I was thinking about all of this as I went for a run tonight. How lucky I felt; the rain on my cheeks, the wind howling in the streets and my calves slowly easing as I turned for home and a blog post to write.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thoughts on food and sex

My blog today was going to be about food, but pondering what to write my mind drifted back to one of the first writing courses I attended...

It was more of a retreat than a course. We were sitting in the common room, a group of twelve students and a tutor-cum-facilitator. The wine was open and we'd exchanged pleasantries. What plans did we have, our tutor asked?

There came the usual replies.

One lady was writing prose poems in memory of her son; another was finishing the second volume of her historic trilogy; a doctor from Leicester was writing a farce about the Health Service - a consultant had been caught pissing in the sink; his gay lover who chaired the disciplinary panel was being bribed by a nurse with Munchausen's syndrome who was slowly...

Everyone laughed and I was nervous of explaining my modest goals. But as I came to speak I was interrupted by a very stout lady with a thick Germanic accent.

'I am coming here to write about the sex.'

There was a short pause in the chatter.

'How interesting,' the tutor replied. 'Feminism is such a challenging subject.'

A longer pause.

'I am not wanting these woman issues. I am wanting the sex.'

The chink of wine glasses on the coffee table; eyes to ceiling, window, floor...

'I'm sorry, I don't quite understand?' The tutor filled her glass.

'It is simple; I am only liking the fucking.'

The silence which followed is one of the great comedy moments of my lifetime. It is beyond my powers to describe the excruciating discomfort of those present. Eventually an elderly lady piped up.

'Might I say, isn't that a bit pornographic. I mean, sex in it's wider context is one thing, and passion as part the range human emotions goes as far back as Shakespeare... '

'No, I am only wanting the sex.'

By now I was holding my sides and the doctor from Leicester was frantically taking notes.

The German lady went on to try and make a serious point. She wanted, she said, to write about sex, and specifically the sexual act. What's more she wanted to write about it directly, not by use of context, euphemism or symbolism. This was difficult and most writers bottled out. She continued.

'It is like in writing about the food. The cooks they write about the history and the region and the preparations - but I want to know about the food. I want to know how it is tasting. I want to know what it makes my mouth feel. This is what we need with the sex is it not?'

By the end of her speech our tutor had recovered her composure. 'That sounds very challenging,' she said in a jolly voice. 'Particularity is one of the essentials of good writing. I'm sure we'll all be very interested to hear how you get on.'

And we were too. Each evening a few students would read from the work they'd written that day. The doctor made us laugh with his farce, there were nods of sympathy for the prose poems, and suitably constructive feedback on the second volume of the trilogy.

Sometimes the whole group would gather - more often it was just a few of us. But there was a full house for the night our German friend was due to read. Wine glasses were quickly filled as she opened her folder to speak...

'I have not been doing very much the fucking. So I read you about my favourite food!'

There was an audible sigh - of relief or disappointment, I couldn't possibly say.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Past imperfect 1 - Bowden Doors

December 1984 - Bowden Doors

Main Wall, 45 Feet - Hard very severe (5b)

A fine route up the centre of the first major wall of the crag. Start in a small corner below an indefinite crack. Climb the corner, exit on right and climb the wall above on good holds to the top.
Northumberland - A Rock Climbing Guide

Bowden Doors is a sandstone outcrop on Belford Moor, east of the Cheviot in the Scottish Borders. In my twenties it was the place of my dreams; the place I learned to climb and where I came of age. It is a place that has never left me.

And so I find it astonishing to think that this picture was taken 25 years ago.

The route had obsessed me for years - almost since I began climbing. Main Wall: the name said everything - no nonsense, just an obvious line up the centre of the crag; hard, steep, uncompromising. And appropriate to the bitter winds and big skies of Northumberland.

I had known for some time that I was good enough to climb it. But I wanted to do it in style and many times refused to practice on a top rope. The route took on a significance well beyond its grade, beyond most other things in my life - climbing it was about more than just moves on rock. By December I had been putting it off for months - for far too long, in fact.

I remember fragments of the day. Ken perched on a ledge taking photos; Simon and Katie flirting and not very interested. The rock, dry and sharp - the smell of it muted by the cold. There was mist that day too, a pale blue mist that the sun slowly burned away. By early afternoon the crag was warmed with a golden light. I walked over and uncoiled the rope.

In the picture I am at the crux move - a high step to leave the corner and pull onto the blank wall. I am heading for the pinkish scoop about four feet above me - there is a tiny nubbin that appears as a dark brown dot half way between my body and the scoop - I will transfer both hands to this and step up, my right foot smearing on a thin groove.

I know all this because there are certain climbs that stay with you: the easy first moves, the awkward balancing in the corner, the dry mouth, the wall above. And I remember the nubbin,the sharpness of the grit as it bit into my fingers - the tension in my tendons as they held my weight.

And the joy as I made it!

I remember too the snug placement of a nut, to save me should I fall - and stepping onto the upper wall, all difficulties behind me - powering upward - jug holds for my hands, and the rest of my life ahead of me...

The Wave - northern end of Bowden Doors, Northumberland
One of the most astonishing natural features I have ever seen

Post script:

I returned to Bowden Doors last year; it was a pilgrimage of sorts.

My father was dying and I had travelled north to see him - the first time in twenty years. That evening I drove to Wooler and the next day returned to the crag where I had sought to escape.

There was a young lad struggling on the same route. You reach for the nubbin, I said to him - place your right foot high, and pull for all your life...

When I die, I'd like my ashes to be scattered there.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Explaining Monty Hall

The other week we went to the Peak District and spent the evening as family in the pub. It's nice to spend time together, I was telling a friend, we seldom find the time now the older boys are teenagers. Some evenings, they barely say a word.

'What did you talk about,' he asked. 'Football? The X factor? Girlfriends?'

'Err, no. We discussed the Monty Hall Problem.'

"I won't ask,' he said.

We're a strange lot, but my kids are used to it by now. Michael was especially pleased as he's studying The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which happens to mention the problem - and evidently nobody in his class could understand it. And I was chuffed because for the first time I managed to explain it clearly enough so that somebody did.

Let's see if I can repeat the feat in writing, without recourse to pictures or spreadsheets, and in much plainer language than Wikipedia.

The problem

It goes something like this:

Monty Hall is a game show host and you are the winning contestant. He shows you three doors and tells you that behind one is a car; behind the other two doors there are goats. You have to pick a door, and whatever is behind your choice is yours to keep.

Simple so far.

So you choose a door (say, the middle one), but instead of revealing what is behind it, Monty Hall opens one of the other doors - there is a goat munching some hay. He then asks, 'Before I open the remaining doors would you like to alter your choice?'

The Monty Hall problem is this - should you stick with your original choice or not?

The answer

Most people say it makes no difference: you have a 50:50 chance because there are two doors left - altering your choice would not change the probability of winning. Intuitively this seems right.

But most people are wrong! The correct answer is that you should switch your choice to the other door. In fact, you are twice as likely to win the car if you do so.

Can you figure out why?

The explanation

The key to understanding the correct answer is to recognise that when Monty Hall opened the first door (to reveal a goat), he did not necessarily open it at random. This makes all the difference to the probability of winning if you switch.

Let's go through an example to see why.

Remember, there are three doors you can choose from - I'll call them A, B and C. Behind one door is a car, behind the others are goats.

We are going to assume the car is behind door A. Of course, you don't know that when you make your choice - but remember that Monty Hall does!

Now let's work through each of the options and see how switching your choice later on affects the outcome.

Remember, the car is behind door A.

Option 1 - you chose door A.

If you chose door A, Monty Hall can open any of the other doors at random (either B or C it makes no difference) and reveal a goat.

He then asks, do you want to stick with your choice of A or change?

Obviously, if you stick with your choice (A) you will win; if you switch (to B or C) you will lose.

Score so far: Sticking 1 - 0 Changing

Option 2 - you choose door B.

Now in this case - and this is the critical bit - Monty Hall can't open one of the other doors at random. He knows that the car is behind door A and you have chosen B, therefore he MUST open door C.

He then asks, do you want to stick with your choice of B or change?

If you stick with your choice (B) you will lose; if you switch (to A) you will win.

Score so far: Sticking 1 - 1 Changing

Option 3 - you choose door C.

This is exactly the same as the option above. In choosing door C you have picked a goat, so Monty can't open the other door at random - he MUST open door B otherwise he would reveal the car, which is behind A.

He then asks, do you want to stick with your choice of C or change?

If you stick with your choice (C) you will lose; if you switch (to A) you will win.

Score so far: Sticking 1 - 2 Changing

The wrap up

There were only three choices you could make - A B or C. The example above has covered all the permutations.

It shows that the person who sticks with their choice will win one out of three times - the person who switches will win two out of three times.

And the reason is that in two of the three cases (the times you will win by switching), Monty Hall is not choosing a door at random when he reveals a goat - he is choosing the only door that will keep the car concealed.

Putting this another way - if your initial choice was the door with the car, Monty can open any other door and you will lose if you switch. But if your initial choice was a goat, he must always show you the other goat and leave the car concealed. As your'e twice as likely to pick a goat with your first choice of door, you are therefore twice as likely to win the car if you switch.

So there you have it - the Monty Hall problem explained!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Talking to strangers

Not me - I promise

Last night, in a swanky London restaurant, I had dinner with some colleagues and our company's lawyers. It was a pleasant evening; we were celebrating a successful deal; intelligent, interesting company, and surprisingly, we didn't talk about work. In fact, we talked about blogs.

Not just blogs, but Twitter and Facebook and social media in general. And their question was, why? Not only why I write a blog - though we'll come to that in a minute - but why is there such a demand to connect with strangers? Their premise was: communication between friends is one thing; talking to anyone and everyone is bordering on the weird.

Now it has to be said this was a typical lawyers' conversation - bright minds, but somewhat theoretical. None had ever read a blog, they were not on Twitter and their experience of Facebook came from their children or a 'friend.' My colleague admitted to being addicted to his Blackberry, and there were empathetic nods over the Cabernet Sauvignon. But aside from email, it was clear that social media had not penetrated the Magic Circle.

The first question was why write a blog at all? Because I enjoy it, I explained, and writing is important to me - when you come to think of it, why paint, or make models or play golf? But couldn't I write without posting it online - why the urge to share? Because publishing gives me an incentive to write more clearly, to care about the words.

Fair enough, but isn't it narcissistic to be writing for strangers? Is that so different to exhibiting paintings, or publishing a book? I replied. When we do those things, we invite people to take a look - to come and see what we have found - sharing our experience is part of the point.

And in practice I do know many of the people who read my blog. All my family read it, including my wife and my children - even Dylan looks in occasionally. Today I received a letter from my father-in-law, describing it as a 'splendid project' and listing his favourite posts. Friends and work colleagues read it too, though interestingly only Sara (who also blogs) leaves comments.

I wasn't getting off that easily. Writing for family and friends is one thing; a putative relationship with other bloggers is surely another? I could argue a few semantic points on this, but the general sentiment is a fair one. I had not envisaged this when I started blogging and yet I value the comments I receive; it gives me a kick that 'strangers' read what I have to say and are prepared to acknowledge it. More than that, I am prepared to return the favour.

Though in practice it's seldom a chore. As in 'real life', where people become friends because they have shared interests and values, I follow the blogs I like and skip those I don't. This is similar to joining a writing group or a cycling club - we look for like minds and shared interests - but in doing so, we understand the unspoken rule of contributing to a spirit of community.

So thanks to all of you who share your writing and comment on the bike shed. To my friends up north, Steve and Dan, Hadriana and Her on the Hill. From Wales: Maggie, Cait and the Celtic Heart. To those sharing life abroad: French Fancy, the Fly in the Web and Abe Lincoln. And nearer to home: Carol and Darren and Michelle at Veg Plotting. As well as all the others: the Zoo Archaeologist, Mrs OMG, Catherine, Sara, Jimmy Bastard and my favourite name of all, the PinkFairyGran - I wonder how those last two would get on together? Apologies to those I forgot to mention.

And so we come to social media - where blogging gives way to Twitter and Facebook - where it is less about writing and more overtly a means to connect. This is not for me, and a side of me empathises with last night's chatter. I find it hard to envisage how it works; twitter is too short and Facebook remains a mystery. But I recognise that others have different attitudes - and where those are shared, friendships (perhaps fellowships is a better word) will quickly form.

I am conscious too that businessmen and lawyers, dining in a London hotel, are not the best judge of these things.

Last Sunday I took Daniel to task for his casual attitude to Facebook invitations. Tell me how many friends you have, I demanded. About 150 was the answer. Then I want you to delete anyone you do not personally know! 'But I know them all,' he replied, '...not like you on your blog.'

I didn't argue. But you know, I think he's not quite right on that one.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Collections 10 - Sketchbooks

Sketchbooks are things of great value. They store our ideas, aspirations, memories, mistakes. They are used by painters and sculptors, and writers too - though writers tend to call them common-place or notebooks. Sketchbooks are indispensable - as important as any finished piece of work - you should never be without one.

At least that's what the tutors say. In practice keeping a sketchbook requires more discipline than you might imagine. Remembering the thing is my biggest problem; closely followed by the dilemma of which jacket to store it in - or should I use a man-bag? And will I painting or drawing? You'd be surprised at all the gubbins you might need - it's so much easier just to pick up a camera.

And yet over the years I have filled up a fair number.

My favourites are square format black hardback - about five inches wide - made by Seawhite of Brighton. And for painting I like bound watercolour blocks sold by the art supplier Bird and Davies. For writing I'm less fussy - though I loathe anything spiral bound - my favourites are the old fashioned exercise books with manila covers and wide lined pages.

Already you will sense that sketchbooks can be very particular - you use the thing every day; you want it to be right. Now I've gone all digital I'm the same with my computer - I want it to be effective and robust, never to let me down. But computers, for all I like them, will never match the simplicity of paper and pencil.Nor can they match their possibilities - especially if you stop being precious.

My early sketchbooks were too perfect to be any good. I was in awe of people who could draw like Augustus John or sketch like Turner. I was trying to make my sketchbooks like mini exhibitions - and missing the point completely. It was only when I learned not to worry that the quality improved.

Sketchbooks are about looking - not about looking good. It doesn't matter what you put down, so long as it reminds you and strikes a true chord of response. They are also about time and place and memory When they were little, I would often let my boys draw with me - in one book I have some drawings of the Alps, mine are side by side with Michael's - guess whose are the best? Darn him!

It was from using sketchbooks that I started writing. I began by taking notes to accompany the drawings; gradually they increased - I even wrote some poems - until eventually, there were hardly any pictures at all. My boys would write in them too. Perhaps this is why I see little distinction between sketch and note books. I would hate to lose any of them. They are one of the first things I'd rescue if ever we had a flood.

But I don't pack them away - they sit by my desk; there to be used, as reference and to be added to still. And all the better for mucky fingerprints, the odd splodge of jam and few pages bent at the corners.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Objects of desire

Guess where this is?

Today, someone stole my thunder. Specifically, it was the Zoo Archaeologist with her post on good museums for children. So bang went my plan for a quick list and an early night. The only consolation is that as she works in a museum, and presumably knows a thing or two about good ones, it's gratifying that her list is close to the one I'd have written.

I suppose I should add few.

As a child I liked the museum at Keswick, which had a 600 year old cat in a casket. In my home town of Newcastle there is the excellent Hancock Museum where the curator was far sighted enough to let a future blogger spend hours with the collection of moths. Another good one is the National Media Museum in Bradford. And in Swindon there is an excellent collection of contemporary British paintings - a great example of a small town focusing its resources and gradually building a quality collection.

We all have our favourite museums, which will often reflect our interests. I once went to a museum of teapots in Conwy; there is a museum of quilts in Bath that my mother couldn't wait to visit; there are no doubt museums of odder objects than these.

And that's an interesting point, because it seems to me that some museums have forgotten the importance of the object. In fact, they seem determined to put as much between you and the display as possible, explaining and contextualising, instead of letting you get on and look at the darn stuff. It reminds me of poetry readings I've been to, at which the writer feels the need to mumble on about the poem before they recite it - just get on with it for God's sake!

To me, it is the objects that make museums worthwhile - not the gizmos and story boards and pull-this-press-that light emitting displays which take away from why I went there in the first place.

Last year I went to see the Terracotta Warriors at the British Museum. 'Would I like some headphones,' the young guide in branded t-shirt asked as I came into the display room. No thanks, I said, I was here to look, not to listen to something I could read later. The guide looked at me askance; I was the only person in the room without them. Later I asked him a question about the display. He couldn't help me; his job was to give out the brochures.

Art galleries tend to be a little better, though most have irritating plaques beside the pictures; have you noticed how seldom they say anything about the paintings - more usually it as about the artist. And galleries are one of the worst culprits for the headphone phenomenon. The recent Francis Bacon exhibition was full of people in ear candy nodding sagely as they stared at the triptych of George Dyer puking in the bog. Did anyone seriously think that was how Bacon intended them to be viewed?

Worst of all are those museums which seem to have forgotten about objects entirely. The Tate Modern is like this - nice room, pity about the furniture - though it is saved by its visiting exhibitions; the Tate Britain has a vastly superior collection of work.

But sadly, my prize for the 'worst ever museum' must go to Wales and the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea. This multi-million pound white elephant is so full of computers and interactive displays that they have forgotten to put anything in them - it's a sort of virtual museum. Dreadful!

And especially dreadful, because getting it right is not that complicated. What child ever forgets the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum? Or the model of a Blue Whale in the room next door? And what about the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, or almost everything at the V&A...

These are what we come to see. It is the objects that inspire. And therein lies their value.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A puzzle, an argument and a swan

Try to stay with it!

Yesterday's post ended with a puzzle and a promise to show how the answer could help you win an argument. The puzzle went something like this. If I tell you that I love my wife - and I tell you this is a fact - then who alone can verify this?

The answer, of course, is me - and only me. Indeed, we might describe 'I love my wife' as an internal fact because only I can know the answer. This isn't quite how we think of facts in the normal sense. Nonetheless, let me explain how these internal facts are very useful if you're having a row.

When arguing we tend to be very certain of our position; the difficulty is that our opponent is too. So telling someone they are wrong is seldom very helpful - after all, it is a matter of evidence and opinion. The same goes if you say they are domineering, they made the wrong decision, or their tie is too loud. Argue this way and you're more likely to have a shouting match than reach a resolution.

On other hand, if you stick to internal facts, you are on more solid ground. Compare saying 'you were wrong ' with 'what you did upset me deeply.' Or 'your tie is too loud' with 'I am embarrassed to be with you.' The former statements are open to challenge; the latter simply say how you feel - and only you can be the judge of that. Try it next time you're having a bust up.

At this point I ought to own up to a bit of over simplification. Because there are many philosophers who would say these aren't facts at all. They would say this is all a word game - and I am confusing three different ideas - knowledge (the things we know) and truth (things we know to be true) and facts (things we know to be true - and which can be independently verified).

I would argue that these ideas are tied together. And if you accept the definitions above, what happens to something like maths? We have already seen that mathematics can only be proved by reference to more maths - hardly independent - and yet how many of us would say that '2+2=4' isn't a fact?

So even allowing for some simplification - facts are still more tricky than we think.

But what about ordinary facts - the type we can see and feel; a fact like the sun rises in the East every morning? Surely facts like these are pretty straight forward?

Sorry; not quite.

Some ordinary facts are what philosophers call 'deductive' - we work out their truth from other information. For example, if we are told that John has only two siblings - an older brother and a younger sister - then we can deduce that John must be the second born son. The conclusion is obvious and it can't be any other way.

Except that to deduce anything we are relying on previous assumptions - which if we wanted to be really rigorous, we would also have to verify or deduce - and so on and so on, in a never ending spiral - until eventually we end up back with Descartes' aphorism I think therefore I am. So deduction is good - being a logical type I tend to like it - but it is not perfect.

The other ordinary facts are termed 'inductive'. These are the things we observe - like the sun rising every morning and apples falling from trees. We verify our knowledge - in other words we, establish the facts - by observing, checking and observing again. It is only by observing that we know that the sun will rise tomorrow - all the science which supports the sun rising is actually observation of a sort. Indeed, virtually all of what we call scientific facts are actually inductive.

No problems there. Except the teeny-weeny problem is that the more we see something, the more factual we believe it to be. And if we observe the same thing happening, say a million times, why we tend to consider it an indisputable fact. After all, that is reasonable, isn't it?

It would be - if only we hadn't discovered Australia.

Because before then, every swan we had ever seen was white. And let's be frank, we'd seen millions of them. For thousands and thousands of years every swan anyone had ever seen was white. Everyone knew that swans are white. That much was a fact, yes?

So how annoying that a certain Captain James Cook should return with news of a black one!

The case of black swans is the archetypal example of how induction can fail. And it applies to almost everything we take for granted. The philosopher David Hume argued that we really have no more reason to expect the sun to rise tomorrow than not - it is just that we are predisposed to think that way. I can't help but think it too, but I know logically Hume is correct.

So where does all this leave us?

Probably you're just glad I am nearing the end! More seriously, I think it should leave us sceptical.

What we consider to be factual is seldom as indisputable as we might wish. In the hands of politicians, facts are notoriously slippery - equally so in business.

But they are in science, and quasi science too - the 'factual' advice given to mothers in the Sixties, to let babies sleep on their tummies, is estimated to have caused tens of thousands of cot deaths.

The same goes for our assessment of other cultures, of history, of the environment... In most of these areas we are very long way from knowing the truth. And that's a fact!

Monday, November 16, 2009

A matter of fact

In philosophical mood - beer helps.

At work today we were discussing a project that had made an unexpected loss, trying to establish why we'd spent more than planned and recouped a great deal less. Something had clearly gone wrong; budgets were at risk; we needed to understand why? But there's no point talking about it now, my colleague suggested, we need to first to investigate and establish the facts.

What 'facts' tend to means in my company is always a list of figures, occasionally a reference to a contract, and sometimes a bit of hearsay thrown in for context. If we can see all this written down, so much the better. But facts in their true sense are a lot trickier than this - and as we debated the latest mini crisis my mind wandered off to more philosophical concerns....

Some facts are obvious. We know, without the need for evidence, that all bachelors are men, that circles are round and that gifts are free. We know this because these statements are no more than a play on words, which we call tautologies. Philosophers refer to these statements as 'trivial facts' because their supposed conclusion tells us no more than the premise - for example, saying 'round circles' gives us no more information than 'circles.'

If my comapny's Finance Director were reading this I suspect his eyes would have glazed over by now. All this talk of tautologies and trivial facts, it's airy-fairy nonsense; everybody knows that the real facts will come down numbers - after all, you can't argue with the maths!

Or can you? Because numbers are very strange as a matter of fact. Indeed, when you come to think of it, they don't really exist in the normal sense. I might, for example, have two apples on my desk, and I know this because I can see them in front of me - but although I can see the apples, where exactly is the number 2? And for that matter, where might I find multiplication or subtraction in the world as we know it?

Mathematics is an example of what philosophers call a-priori knowledge (purists must forgive me because I am going to use knowledge and facts interchangeably or we'll be here all night). A-priori translates as 'before observation or experience'; it means that we acquire this knowledge without any reference to external factors. Or putting it another way, the proof of mathematics is, well, more mathematics!

This strange category of a-priori facts is not constrained to mathematics - it extends to our very existence. When Descartes wrote Meditations he was trying to pinpoint the root of knowledge - what single fact, he asked, can I establish without relying on some other fact to prove it? His conclusion was the most famous a-priori statement of all time: 'I think therefore I am'. Philosophers have long argued over whether our views on ethics constitute a similar form of knowledge.

And all of this before we even get into ordinary facts - the old fashioned kind you can touch and smell and see - the kind that scientists and Hercule Poirot prefer - you know, the sort that are simply true or false. As always it's not quite that simple. But I'll save that to tomorrow's post and instead leave you with a puzzle.

If I were to tell you that 'I love my wife', such a statement would either be either true or false. Let me tell you it is true - which indeed it is. But who, to any reasonable level of satisfaction, could verify this? Who alone would be able - as my colleague suggested this morning - to investigate and establish the facts?

Tomorrow, I'll show you how this can be very useful in winning arguments.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


The novella is a strange beast; longer than a short story but shorter than a novel, it risks padding out the former or skimping on the latter. Definitions using word counts vary and don't entirely suffice; novellas also tend to have a singular focus and lack the complex perspectives of novels. According to Wikipedia it is not a popular format in English speaking languages.

But that doesn't make the novella less important. Indeed, some of the best books I've read would probably qualify as novellas - scanning my bookshelves I can pick out: Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men, Kafka: Metamorphosis, Conrad: Heart Of Darkness, Bellow: Seize the Day, Orwell: Animal Farm, Camus: The Outsider, Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Graham Green: Loser Takes All, Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea.

And on my desk is another one: Sandor Marai's Esther's Inheritance. I read its 148 pages yesterday morning, and intend to do so again tonight. It is a stunning book which explores Marai's signature themes of love, regret, and what it is to be truly alive - all concentrated into a single epic incident.

That incident is the return of Esther's ex-lover, a fantasist and scoundrel who all but destroyed her twenty years ago, and who reappears to rob her of what little she has left. I'm not giving anything away in that summary - it is laid out on the first page - because the real subject is... well, you'll need to read it to find out.

Sandor Marai was a celebrated Hungarian novelist who came to fame in the Thirties. He was later persecuted under communism before escaping to exile in the US; in all he wrote over 80 novels before his suicide in 1989, weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Marai was 'rediscovered' in 2002 with the translation of Embers, one of all-time my favourite novels.

Embers is also centred on a single incident, this time a meeting of old rivals; plot wise, it makes Kazua Ishiguro's The Remains Of The Day seem complex! The comparison with Ishiguro is also not entirely out of place: the narrative tension in both author's work is largely internal to the characters, and the writing is equally sublime - except Marai was publishing fifty years earlier.

Since 2002, two more translations have been released: Conversations in Bolzano and The Rebels. Both are fine books but to my mind they don't come near the quality of Embers. I was beginning to think that Maria was a one book wonder. However, Esther's Inheritance proved me wrong; it is a return to his ambiguous, thought provoking, brilliant best.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Personal space

Lighthouse - M Charlton

My brother in law has come to visit.

Before I go any further I should tell you he's a big chap and he reads this blog, so I've got to be carefu.... and of course he's very welcome and we love having him round!

Actually he is and we do; I shall enjoy cooking tonight, we'll have a laugh and no doubt too much wine will be drunk. But much though I enjoy his company, I always hesitate a moment when he comes to the door. The reason is that I can think of no two people who so epitomise different attitudes to personal space.

Gavin's idea of a welcome is an arm round the shoulder bordering on a bear-hug. His concept of playing with the kids is to rough and tumble, trip up and scoop up, throw skyward and cradle with love. This afternoon, he, Jane and the kids have gone swimming; I have stayed at home.

I often wonder why I so dislike physical play. I hated rugby at school, and even worse, all those playground variants with names like Murder Ball or British Bulldog. It wasn't that I feared being hurt - though I can't match Gavin's six foot and six inches, I'm hardly a delicate flower - it was the whole unstructured, grasping, mauling, upside down, back to front confusion of it ... aghhhh!

I think this explains why I have no problem with sports like boxing or judo: they have rules that contain and limit the game - you know how you stand, or fall. But I could never quite grasp how, in rugby for instance, a level of unspecified aggression is deemed acceptable - why? how much? how far?

So is it the lack of boundaries that unnerves me? Does that explain why the thought of wrestling in a play fight makes me feel sick? Or is this, as I suspect, too analytical; my response is visceral, not logical or open to justification.

And personal space is about more than physical play.

A friend once told me how he loved crowded parties; he invariably came away with phone numbers, extra business and the offer of a trip to the Arms Park. I suspect my brother in law would be centre of attention too - and brilliant at it. I know I'd be in the corner talking to the same two people all night.

Despite this, I like to think I can be a generous host and a not unpleasant house guest. I enjoy company, especially of close friends, and most of those are of many years standing. My guess is that I am near to what Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point would call a Maven: a sharer of information and ideas - but not a connector or a networker.

Most of all - and this is entirely compatible with the above - I am an introvert. That is not the same as a recluse who withdraws from the world. It is someone who needs the space to think before acting, to understand the rules before wrestling with the outcome. Ultimately, to project the world on themself, before returning the favour.

And, you know, I'm comfortable with that.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Turning tide

Thursday, 8.30 am, Dale, Pembrokeshire: what was it I wrote yesterday, 'when it's wet, go the caff.' Not an option today - it is coming over in sheets.

We walk across the mouth of River Gann, the mudflats teaming with gulls and waders; a golden eye and a cormorant in the pools to our left. A solitary fisherman is digging for bait in the silt, his Jack Russell scampering across the flats towards us; it stops, yaps, and an egret rises from the marsh. The Gann is one of the premier bird watching locations in Pembrokeshire, in weather like today all manner of them seek refuge in its sheltered waters.

The tide is lapping the stepping stones, a little higher than I'd hoped. No problems for now, but we will need to hurry to Sandy Haven, a tributory of the Daugleddau estuary where the river is only passable at low water. We press on, trying to ignore the sting of the rain.

The Daugleddau estuary is one of the deepest natural harbours in the world. For decades the refineries and storage plants brought prosperity to Milford Haven and Pembroke Dock. Many of the facilities have closed, but not all, and this is still an important port for oil and gas supplies.

As we walked I thought of the contrast with the River Tyne, where my father and grandfather worked at Swan Hunters. Only vaguely can I remember the shipyards at anywhere near capacity, or even the passage of boats on the river, or the dry docks where they came for repair. I do remember the building of the Esso Northumbria, the largest oil tanker in the world at the time, and the pride in the town when she was launched.

By the time we reach Sandy Haven the tide has risen. The stepping stones are under water which is getting deeper by the minute. We can either wade across or make a five mile diversion on dull roads in the pissing rain. I take off my boots and start over, my pole needed to steady me against the flow. Half way over I hesitate and assess the situation. Ken presses on and I follow; act now or be damned. We laugh at the far bank, pleased with our decisiveness - by the time our socks are back on the water has risen further and our chosen route no longer an option.

Reaching the oil terminals I am surprised at the lack of ships and empty docking platforms. Perhaps the weather was a factor, for it was near here that the Sea Empress ran aground in 1994, spewing oil across most of Pembrokeshire Coast. Often the tankers wait in St Brides Bay for the storms to subside before entering the harbour.

I am conscious that in most landscapes I dislike the intrusion of technology, and I have ranted often about the windfarms that so despoil the Cambrian Mountains. But this place has long given itself over to industry and the lower estuary has been used by shipping for five thousand years. It is still its defining feature: there are marinas at every inlet; the ferry leaves for Ireland twice a day; pilots chug between the many active harbours. These are all well and good, but it is the big ships that make the real difference, and today the seaway looked lonely without them.

Rounding the headland at Milford I noticed a strange ship docked on a pontoon. It was neither a tanker nor a container ship, more a combination of the two. Four silver pipes connected it to the land, where a spaghetti of tubes entered futuristic buildings in front of grey storage domes. This is the new liquid gas plant, a project that has regenerated the disused refinery. In the driving rain it looked more hopeful than I'd expected.

We reached Milford quay, the rain streaming down the hill which bounds the harbour. Milford feels like a town teetering on the edge; down but not quite out. Sixteen years ago the Tall Ships Race came here; there were plans for a major regeneration, the quayside was tarted up and units built for cafes and chandleries. There has been some improvement but it hasn't quite worked. I'd bet a lot of money that only a handful of the yachts are owned by locals.

We took shelter in Tesco, a pool of water gathering around our feet. The tills were busy and it was far cry from the desperate stores I've seen in Newport or the South Wales Valleys. I hope it stays that way. I hope the new investment works better than the fancy plan for tourism that was always a long shot. But I am not optimistic.

For amongst the christmas tinsel, there are tell-tale signs of decay: the locked spirits cabinet, the drug abuse posters, the small display of fresh vegetables - and the lengthening queue for the lottery.