Archive for March, 2009

Kit Crisis Carousel

I thought I had it all sorted out. An Android G1 phone from T-Mobile would let me record my tracks with its nifty GPS function, and effortlessly upload them to Googlemaps. In between times, I could fire off the occasional photo to Twitter, and maintain a steady stream of random Facebook banter using the ‘always-on’ internet. And the phone does all those things, as recounted in a couple of work posts (1,2.) Here’s my test track and here’s a picture I was able to share with my Twitter readers. But it has a fatal flaw – T-Mobile coverage is puny on the Edge Hill campus, making it redundant as an actual phone…

So back to the drawing board. People keep saying iPhone, but I have an aversion to this device for two reasons:

1. It reckons itself…

…if an inanimate object can indeed ‘reckon itself’. Let me tell you a story. When I was in Junior School (seven or eight years old), there was a competition that involved making a fancy-dress hat at home. So we kids, helped by our parents, made assorted hats from things like card and felt. Mine, for instance, was a wizard hat made from a cone of paper with some stars and moons crayoned on to it. All harmless fun for the families. However one of the Dad’s took this on as a serious project, and made a hat that was also a functioning, miniature carousel. Horses rotated and went up and down. It played a tune. It glistened and gleamed. Obviously the embarrassed child beneath this item won, but he had to endure waves of mingled contempt, envy and pity overwhelming a bit of reluctant admiration from the rest of us. Who was his dad anyway? Batman villain, the Mad Hatter? A NASA scientist? I guess we all lost a bit of innocence that day, and I certainly still bear the scars. The iPhone reminds me of that hat – it is too good.

2. It’s expensive

My deal with T-Mobile cost £20/month, whereas the cheapest iPhone deal I can see is around the £30 mark. That’s an extra £120 a year, a not inconsiderable sum: enough, for instance, to commission a full re-enactment of De Sade’s ‘120 Days…’ in a Poundland shop (‘Anything You Want – for a Pound’). Don’t they know there’s a recession on?

So what now? It has occurred to me that expecting ‘converged’ devices to do many things well is unlikely. Cameras in phones will never be as good as actual cameras, for instance. So the current plan is to
a: buy a GPS logger to record where I’ve been, create accurate routemaps, position photos on them (Amod AGL3080 GPS PhotoTracker to be precise) and
b: buy a Macbook so that the processes involved in getting photos together, blogging etc are more elegant and enjoyable.

Advice from owners of such devices welcome.

As for perpetual internet, unless iPhone gets cheaper (and I can forget that damn hat), or the new Android from Vodafone has an affordable deal, I guess I’ll have to live without it. Which might be no bad thing. Forest Wisdom turned me on to a great little book called Journeys of Simplicity by Philip Harnden, which looks at the experience of travelling light through the medium of packing lists and inventories of possessions for folks as diverse as Peace Pilgrim, Basho and Thomas Merton. I keep coming back to the section quoted by FW, a brutally simple equipment list for a transcendent walk and a reminder that ‘enough’ can be very little:

Werner Herzog’s Winter Walk from Munich to Paris

Boots, solid and new
sweater and scarf
thin plastic poncho
duffel bag
with necessities

Acquired along the way:
storm cap
long johns
sticking-plaster, for blisters
Shell Oil road map

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Friday night we arrived at our friend Sharon’s house in Warwick. Weary and overwrought, we enjoyed being welcomed with good food and doggy antics. I also unwound with a bottle of beer, apparently brewed by the bloke who played Rocky in Boon.  (I liked this lager/ale hybrid and will seek out beers brewed by TV stars in future. I’m sure Arthur Mullard could construct a nice porter.)

A further luxury, having walked quite far from my home, was to be able to commence a leg first thing, without needing a long journey to get to the start. However rather than set out immediately, I attended an early Mass at the church next door (my favourite kind – no music, and hardly any people to ‘share a sign of  peace’ (eg embarrassed handshake) with.) Surprisingly, given recent online conversations about the nature of homecoming, one of the readings was the Prodigal Son.

I walked along a main road from Warwick to Leamington Spa. A daffodil on the tarmac-rivered pavement signalled a good start to a spring walk.

Sunshine was welcome after months shrouded in cloud. In the Royal Priors shopping centre I bought tea, glimpsing a man drawing a huge mind-map in an A4 journal.

I dropped down to the Grand Union Canal, where I would spend most of the morning. I walked out past estates which seemed to have been built around ancient groves, saw sunlight on blossom. After a while the dog walkers, runners and cyclists thinned out and I was in countryside, with mostly boats for company.

In a small clearing in the canalside wood, I found a firepit surrounded by benches made from logs and balks of timber, a DIY social area. It even had a doormat – a kind of red carpet for distinguished guests.

And a swing, which enabled me to make this pixel-perfect re-enactment of Fragonard’s The Swing:

I crossed the Fosse Way and walked some more canal, until it was time to turn off and head south on to the Centenary Way.

Random thoughts in a difficult time: making journeys is a creative act; countless tiny actions no-one will see or know, all ephemeral, lost; drinking around a fire in a dark wood, sparks flickering upwards; ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’

The wind was getting up, sky now gray – getting a ragged, blown-apart feeling. Reached a farm, where paths and railways met. Not sure who I would be in the Prodigal Son story; the lost son, watching the pigs eating husks (or the less-appetising-sounding ‘pods’), waiting to come to his senses and return from the dead; or the good son, doing the right things with no satisfying results, unaware of the bounty he has as of right. Or perhaps some off-stage character, dealing with the practicalities of finding robes and roasting a calf.

Another mile or so and I was in Harbury, an attractive village. Finished up in the Crown Inn, drinking a pint of Copper Dragon, waiting for Jennie and Sharon to appear with the support vehicle (now dubbable as the 50-mobile) and whisk me away…

Post-walk research tells me that an ichthyosaurus was found in Harbury once, stone image of its bones 40 feet beneath the earth, now in the Natural History Museum. A poet called Richard Jago  used to be the vicar, ‘remembered for his poem Edge-hill, or, the rural prospect delineated and moralised (1767)’. I hope to get as far as Edge Hill next time, which I am sure I will delineate and perhaps even moralise about.

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On Monday night I found myself staying in a Holiday Inn in the middle of Leicester, in St Nicholas Circle to be precise. This was part of a work trip, ‘work not walk’ as I explained to Suraj, who suggested I visit the city’s Jain centre. Nevertheless, awake early I decided to walk the territory in which I was temporarily located.

The night before, a colleague from Leicester University (University ‘of the year‘; it’s their year, we just live in it) had remarked that the Holiday Inn was built on a traffic island. Having arrived at it by taxi I had no real sense of where it was, but was mildly interested in the idea of a road-locked building. With memories of Ballard’s Concrete Island surfacing, I decided to circumnavigate the hotel as a pedestrian.

Immediately outside the hotel, I photographed various corporate Edward Scissorhands/Zen Garden features with my phone.

Walking away from the building, a lack of pavement did seem to indicate that this place was designed to be accessed mainly by car.

A sign offering WAY TO HIGH ST/SHOPS pointed along an unpromising path which did lead to some actual pavement – I was on my way.

Walking around the hotel in the gray dawn light involved several pedestrian crossings, art-like installations, spoor of absent V for Vendetta enthusiasts and another Zen garden.

I found a bridge that seems to span the whole island.

A side road looked interesting: a few yards walking took me to St Mary de Castro church. A sudden bank of flowers had me inwardly quoting a joyous line from Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May: ‘Look at all them bleeding bluebells!’

I now found myself on an official Trail, finding bits of castle and other heritage elements of the city. Apparently Chaucer was married in the church – it all seemed distant from the Holiday Inn, still looming behind me (ironically reminding me that I was at work not on holiday.) I began to feel in tourist mode, feeling a pang that I couldn’t spend the day exploring such sites.

I walked through a 1926 park, ‘a haven of peace and tranquillity’ according to an information board, and found the River Soar, overlooked by stern head-men.

From there it took just one death-defying dash across a four-lane road to get back to the precincts of the Holiday Inn. (The ‘Holiday Inn Can-do promise’, predicated on the fact that they ‘want you to stay with us again and again’, suggests some kind of timeloop or eternal moment: comforting in a way. Anything you don’t like, you can ‘call toll-free’ (an expansive, breezy, American-seeming way of calling) to a location on Brierley Hill – doubly comforting as it was a stop on my walk home.)

Back in my room, breakfast eaten, assembling my work identity from ties and PDAs, I looked down at the road I had just crossed. Over the course of a few minutes several people wandered across the traffic lanes, suggesting that this island is part of an invisible desire path, an unofficial route formed by people’s natural ways of travelling. Coincidentally, this phenomenon was referred to at the conference I attended later that day, as a metaphor for the ways people in organisations form alliances outside the official hierarchies. (Thinking now about my assemblage of cyberbuddies…)

Walk done I headed to the conference venue in a taxi. Glimpses a sign for a Nelson Mandela Park, saying THERE IS NO EASY WALK TO FREEDOM ANYWHERE in huge sans-serif lettering, which made it seem like a municipal announcement or warning. The conference, HEliX (which could mean many things, including for instance ‘lithium hex sigil’ but which actually denotes ‘The Higher Education Leading Internal Communications project’) was in Oadby – home and parish of Simon Harvey of Walking Home fame. In his post Circular blogging on the homeward theme, John Davies imagines us meeting up ‘in some Everards pub or other’, which sadly didn’t happen as our schedules didn’t coincide: our journeys intertwining helix strands rather than parts of a circle, at least for now.

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In the near future, fellow Gentleman of the Road Simon Harvey will be making a 500-mile pilgrimage from Paris back to Oadby where he lives and works. You can read about the preparation and, eventually, the journey itself at his elegantly-constructed blog.

Meanwhile in the past, John Davies walked the M62, back from Hull to his Liverpool home.

Based on sample of three, everyone’s doing it. (If you get confused, I’m the one without a dog collar.)

As John asks, what is it about walking home? The standard pattern of pilgrimage involves travelling to a significant place, rather heading for home. Why head back to base instead of a distant and exotic site?

Some flippant answers from the aisle of archness:

Ease. Pilgrimages used to involve, for instance, going to Rome on hands and knees. Compared to that kind of thing, sauntering home is considerably easier.

Avoidance of disappointment.That’s Santiago di Compostela? I thought it would be bigger somehow.’* One has a pretty good idea of what home is like and may in fact have had plenty of opportunities to be disappointed already.

Double bluff. Illustrious writers including Homer, Lovecraft, Eliot and Tolkien have indicated that the return is the most significant aspect of the journey – a discovery that comes after vast journeyings and travails. OK then, taking those guys at their word, let’s cut the tricky ‘adventure’ parts and make the return into the journey itself. Straight to the senses-shattering climax: a simple matter of efficiency.

Less flippantly, I think journeys home have some kind of resonance. They’re unique, as we all have different homes. There’s something about rediscovery of the familiar, and something about joining up meaningful places. Perhaps a sense that home is a special kind of place, maybe even a thin place, worthy of a special journey.

* One of the classic pilgrim disappointments, along with ‘Well, I walked x00 miles and have the blisters to prove it – but I don’t feel any different: dude, where’s my enlightenment?’ and ‘I spent £14 on a Moleskin notebook and all it has in it is a note that the sunset outside the airport was ‘pretty’ and a receipt from a tapas bar jammed between two pages – I didn’t even put in in the special wallet bit’. And, more recently, ‘I blogged the whole thing with GPS points, live feeds and video – and I have fewer hits than a website about the history of artex ceilings.’

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Yesterday I met two writers visiting Edge Hill University, Chris Haven and Patricia Clark, both based at Grand Valley State University, Michigan. Not wanting to meet them without having some idea of their work, I tracked down some of their writing in advance.

I enjoyed Sitcom Mom by Chris Haven, an adventure in unreality of another Dorothy.

Some of Patricia Clark’s work can be found on the internet too, enough to beguile me into buying her book My Father on a Bicycle. Late last week the book arrived from the US – I unwrapped it – and promptly dropped it in the bath. Reading the now-dripping volume, I found this powerful poem, which Prof. Clark has kindly allowed me to reproduce in full.


For another day, I’ve aligned my breath with the river,
laced up my walking shoes and set out,
miraculous, really, some days believing
I could traverse the city, keep on walking,
carry my home on my shoulders, never look back.

Today the river flowed the wrong way, the water
churning and boiling, not much to be done
but stride off my sorrow and try to praise,
if I could, the good green buds swelling at twig-joints,
and fallen catkins, red and spongy underfoot.

Let me begin again as a wet thing wrapped
in hair, let me locate, finally, the triangle of a house,
another house, and then a third. Always on foot, the walk
to Visitation School, to the parish church, and the carefree
walk to the hill, the place that was mine alone.

For another day, I’ve given in to the spangled wet
of the river’s face, to my face, and to the dog’s
unfailing heart, our sixteen year alliance one
of stepping out, of sharing the bright air, of twinned
hearts, if it comes to that, bound with a leash.

A different day looms ahead, and the dog’s gait,
her stumble, foreshadowed it, so slight, though,
it might have been imaginary, let it go now, and some
cooling air breathed us both into action, and we set off
again, almost forgetting, not looking back.

What is it that darkens my way, that swerves me from
the path? A shadowy warp-monster seems to stalk
my steps, keeping me niggling and spirit-small
when that isn’t me. What lodges inside here opens
to embrace the riverbank verge, the fields,

and the willow cracked in half, ruined by the wind
last night. In truth, the hill never was free, or mine
alone. For another day, the compass swings wild
in its case on my jacket, the river the only landmark
to follow, its water a magnetic, quick-moving, force.

From My Father on a Bicycle, Michigan State University Press, 2005
Reproduced with permission of the author

I won’t try and stumble alongside this journey – but I will quote the inscription added to my dry but wavy copy: ‘Thanks for being a poetry fan – & for keeping water in the words.’

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