Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cefn Croes windfarm - 14 seconds to make up your mind.


Let me start by sharing three recent conversations.

The first, with a writer who was once a prominent road protester. Would you have climbed those trees to stop the building of a wind farm, I asked?

The second, with a writer and environmentalist, as delightful as she was committed. I care most deeply about the landscape, I explained, my view on windfarms is really a matter of personal priorities.

And the third, with a writer whose generous mentoring has helped me more than any other. I've discovered the way to success, he said. Write nothing controversial, acknowledge all opinions and say bugger all of consequence.  He had a twinkle in his eye.

I recalled these snippets as I neared the summit of Pen y Garn on Saturday, walking on a treble-width forest track, five miles east of Devil's Bridge in the Cambrian Mountains. The 'road' leads to the Nant Rhys bothy, arguably the most perfect and isolated of all in Wales.

Of course, I knew what to expect. After all, I'd been this way before. I'd written of my hatred of the Cefn Croes windfarm, its impact on the landscape and  the inappropriateness of its turbines. I'd gone so far as to say that before passing judgement every campaigner (for or against) should stand under one of the monstrous contraptions.

You'll understand then, I'm no fence sitter on this issue - though it's fair to say that over recent years I've tried harder to listen to alternative views. Sometimes I even find myself nodding.

But as I crested the rise that visceral response hit me again... I began ranting to my walking companion... and again... reeling off photos... and again... spitting into my iphone's voice recorder: fucking turbines.. and again... arrogant, criminal... and again... they make me want to puke..  I was listening to no one and to trucking no arguments.

And you know, I was glad about that. For in those few minutes of rage I felt more authentic than any amount of reasoned argument, probing questions or careful assessment of perspectives. I didn't give a toss for the technical reports available as pdf downloads, the website propaganda of the energy companies or the paranoia of the eco-lobby that positions windfarms as a binary alternative to nuclear fuelled wastelands. Nor did I care about the European grants, the Welsh Assembly's Sustainability Strategy, or the 40,000 homes putatively benefiting from this 'clean' energy.

What I cared about was this place.

The Elenydd wilderness is one of the few mountain regions worthy of that epithet. The Cefn Croes windfarm is barely visible from the road, it takes miles of walking to get up close, it directly affects but a handful of homes and doesn't offend the tourist's windscreened view of Wales. And that's precisely why it matters so much.

This landscape is precious; it's rare and special, and I'm angry because we despoil it with industrialisation on a scale that would be unthinkable in any urban equivalent. This is wrong, and it's plain and obvious when you go there. But because most of you won't, I'd ask you to spend 14 seconds watching the video below.

Just sometimes it's entirely rational to follow our gut.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Secret Fears

Can I keep the light on please - M Charlton, circa 2001

Last week, tutoring at Ty Newydd, our course began with secret fears. In the first workshop, each delegate wrote a list of the anxieties that restrict their writing. There was silence as the group pondered the question, then a frantic scribbling into notepads. We gathered the anonymous worries and transposed them onto a flip chart.

It was me who wrote, that, said one participant, referring to a concern they'd be misunderstood. I think the same, declared their neighbour, and also, that I haven't a good vocabulary.  There were fears about style, about revealing oneself, of sounding pedestrian, of appearing selfish... As I scanned the list it occurred to me I shared them all - or had done at one time or other.

The course proved successful; we had thirteen hardworking and enthusiastic writers. There was a range of abilities and everyone made progress of sorts. We never returned to the list of fears - and it struck me that we hadn't needed to. For in the very act of declaring them (anonymous or otherwise) they had lost their power.

I suspect every artist lacks confidence -  frankly, if it were all a breeze, there'd be scant satisfaction. Of course, experience helps, and I no longer worry when I begin with little more than a notion (as I type this post, I have no idea how it will end). I used to fret about my limited vocabulary too, until I  realised it saves me from flowery prose.

It might seem strange, but despite writing this blog and publishing a deeply personal book, I find it difficult, embarrassing even, to put myself forward. The other week I went shopping with Jane and avoided the library and Waterstone's. Why not tell them about your book, she said. I made an excuse, for the truth was, I wanted to do it alone for fear of rejection. I went the next day, and guess what, the staff were generous and warm.

The truth is I'll always be reticent in some spheres. But sometimes there's a chance happening which helps us overcome. And last Friday I had a call from an agency, Hi there, I'm the publicist for Counting Steps, said the breezy voice of a seasoned PR professional. Evidently the Welsh Books Council gets behind a number of titles each year, and they've chosen mine to be one.

Have you read the book I asked her? It's beautiful, she replied, it makes me want to have children. That's a delightful endorsement, and as we talked of promotional opportunities I felt most (though not quite all) of my fears dissolving. A week later,  I have three articles lined up, I've rejoined twitter and I might even appear on the radio!

Some business guru once told me that FEAR stands for False Expectations Appearing Real. I'm not sure that's true when a tiger's on the loose - but it's not a bad daily maxim. Tutoring the course last week showed me I had something to give; that I do what I do, and that it has value. Every endorsement helps build my confidence - the publicity is a reward not a trial.

We all harbour fears, but for that we ought to be glad - for in many ways, overcoming them is what makes the effort worthwhile.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Why exactly are we doing this...?


It was raining - hard as it happens -  the traffic crawling and a snake of tail lights extending somewhere towards Birmingham. The kids were moaning in the back; the ipad was out of charge and the crisps weren't the right sort. Driving 300 miles up the M6 on a Friday night is not the time or place to be impatient...

Jane snapped, Remind me again, why exactly are we doing this?

Five hours later we reached Preston and our bed for the night at a Premier Inn.  If we get up at six, I jollied, we could reach the Lakes in a couple of hours, have breakfast in Keswick... Jane's look suggested I keep schtum.

But it's strange how moods can turn. The room was spotless, the pub next door just what we needed, and Dylan slept through the night without a murmur.  Next morning we were off (at eight thirty), driving to Penrith under a cobalt sky and debating how we might lengthen the walk in.

Our goal was Black Sail Hut, one of the oldest youth hostels in the UK and certainly, the most remote.  It's situated in the Ennerdale Valley and requires a five mile trek from almost any direction. Travelling with us was a friend and her two children (aged 6 and 7) - which explains why our sacks were bulging with sweets and chocolate as we strolled the south shore of Buttermere, heading for Scarth Gap.


Now Scarth Gap isn't a huge pass; it's one of the tourist routes up Haystacks mountain and takes about an hour for an averagely fit walker.  But when you're six or seven years old, and playing with your mates, it's a different prospect. It's steep too, and the boys took to holding a stick between them, shouting as they hauled themselves up the rocky path; one and two and three and four...  I smiled. They were counting steps, as if parodying the title of my book (that's not a contrived plug - it really happened), and I marvelled at how life so often repeats itself.

By the time we reached the last rise Dylan and and young Jack (so small I could almost fit him in my pack) were a hundred yards ahead, waving their poles and posing for photographs. The descent to the hut took half the time and twice as many stumbles - we arrived mid afternoon, dumped our coats, put on a brew and sat listing to the mountains.


An hour or so later the wardens arrived; they'd been to the pub they said, over at Wasdale Head. I must have looked puzzled. It's only a forty minute  fell-run they explained, pointing to the pass by Pillar Rock. I noticed their stick thin limbs, their sinewed calves -  and estimated their combined body mass index to be approaching 15!  They were great wardens though - proper mountain people - and it was obvious they cherished the time they were here.

Black Sail is also unique amongst the remoter UK hostels in that it provides evening meals. Dinner was soup, sausage casserole and sticky toffee pudding, washed down with Cumbrian Ale and a bottle of red. Another family was staying too and by the time the stars were out there was one conversation round the wood-burning stove and a shared sense of how special this place is.



So having driven three hundred miles, then walking another five  to sleep in a shepherd's hut, we woke the next morning and promptly walked back. There was mention of severe weather approaching, but the sun held out. As did the little ones, whom though tired, still managed to reach the pass before me. Ninety minutes later we all were back at the car and soon heading to Keswick for lunch before the long drive south.

There are few places in England that can offer such a compact adventure as Black Sail..  Of course, walking to the Ennerdale Valley doesn't risk life and limb - but it's a world away from the clutter and comfort of everyday life. It's part of the comprehensive education I want for my children,  in the hope they'll learn to  appreciate and participate in nature - to understand there's more to life than Gameboys and cinema and for that matter, Premier Inns or swanky hotels.

It's to the YHA's great credit that it keeps Black Sail running. I wish the Association would find and open others like it, for I'm sure the demand would be there. We drove home in less time than it had taken to reach Preston on the Friday night. Tired, yes, but more refreshed and ready for the week ahead than if we'd called it off.

Remind me again, Jane had asked on our way north, why exactly are we doing this?  As we unpacked the car two days later, Dylan begged,  Next time we go - could we stay a bit longer?  

Enough said.