Archive for the ‘sidetrips’ Category

In case I have any readers left after a long hiatus, here’s an update.

It’s now two months since my quintuple bypass operation. The recovery has gone well – I now feel better than I did before the operation, suggesting that it has all been worthwhile. As well as not getting angina symptoms when walking I also feel as if I get more oxygen out of each breath. This could well be the case as the bypass-enhanced arteries that feed my heart should be working much better now. I have progressed from five-minute expeditions into my own garden, to low-level strolls of a few miles. Here a link to an example from yesterday, with a map, pics and even stats Note for anyone interested in the technicalities.

This was an excellent little walk, through fields and Haskayne Cutting, where residue of dead railway has formed a nature habitat.



As well as being an essential part of my recovery, these walks have led us to explore our own environs a lot more closely. Way back near the start of the walk I commented on finding a nature reserve near my house but it has taken this to inspire us to actually go there regularly. As I intend to walk for exercise on a daily basis, rain or shine (part of the plan to keep my new mashup innards in working order for as long as possible) I anticipate seeing a lot more of these places.


I have also been writing all this time – just not here. I plan to put out a book, Bypass Pilgrim, some time in the next few months – details will be posted here.

So that’s ‘what I did on my cardiovascular repair holidays’. I plan to resume the main walk very soon – after a six-month gap I feel as if a version of me has been stranded in Langley, Bucks waiting to resume. Let’s go and rescue him.

Note: I recorded this on my iPhone using the Everytrail app. This was fun and very easy to use compared with ‘real’ geotagging. Basically you turn it on, leave it running, then turn it off and upload it at the end. You can record waypoints and take pictures as you go. What you can’t do is switch to any other app. It is also pretty hungry on battery, so I wouldn’t use it for a long trip. Note also one of the points is out of sync – it looks as if I hurled my phone away in a straight line… and that it came back using its ‘boomerang function’.BACK TO POST

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I am a Downsman lost

I am a Downsman lost on friendly hills,
snagged in gorse and fretting:
how did I arrive, here,
in this exacting valley?

Maybe my map was wrong,
a route’s turn missed, the
lucky lightning stone lost
on a hurried contour.

Maybe the soft curves of the hard
chalk lead inevitably
here, to a place that was aways mine.

Soon strangers will come,
carry me over the unwanted hill,
give me a child’s help negotiating
stiles and fences towards
familiar paths. Then I hope for
my own full steps, flowing:
down past Thunderbarrow, Rest and be Thankful
and the Crooked Moon hedge.

But for now, see
the sunlight on the black branches:
it is early yet, and the paths are generous.

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I haven’t done much walking recently, but I did manage to get a few stationary miles in today at Southport Hospital, taking what is known as a ‘treadmill test’. This is a bit like going on a stepping machine at the gym, but with wires stuck on one’s chest, and lie-detector lines being drawn on screens and paper. I was advised not to look down, but instead to focus on the noticeboard filled with holiday postcards at eye-level in front of me – cheerful things, slightly faded, with a blue cast given the relative endurance of cyan pigment. There was a girl in a thong on a Greek island, and a star-shaped promontory in St Petersburg… While I rested from the unaccustomed exertion, Dr Mohammed gave me the result: ‘you have angina’. Not really a surprise, after two months of painful one-mile walks to work in the cold air, with syncope at the edges of my vision and a floundering collapse at the end. But still, I would rather have discovered that I was being a hypochondriac, or that these symptoms were a random after-effect of some virus.


I had to take another test, so I stepped outside the hospital during the enforced break. It was a beautiful sunny day. If this was Dante’s ‘dark wood’, it was gleaming… but I felt lost nevertheless. Angina may not be very serious (I really don’t know; I don’t even know which brand of angina this is yet) but the diagnosis felt like being told which bullet has my name on it. It felt like… an end to having an everlasting body? In a way my inner being had always felt solid, ongoing, but now suddenly not so. Until today, like Norman Maccaig I might have said ‘Self under self, a pile of selves I stand/Threaded on time’ but (stumbling into the hospital’s Applejack cafe, with its surprisingly-unhealthy sausage-themed menu) I felt like just one, scared little self. A small meat object with temporary self-consciousness and a long to-do list.


An ultrasound completed the day’s entertainment. All I can say about this curiously intimate experience is that my insides seem to have a soundtrack created by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.


I finally left the hospital for the day. Feeling like a bracing bout of psychogeography, I headed for Southport’s ‘Sussex Road’, vaguely intrigued by the association between the beginning of my walk (Southport) and its end point (Sussex is where Brighton is). I walked this long street in the chilly bright sunshine. I have no idea what this angina gig will mean for the ‘walking home’ project – 20 mile hikes and Falstaffian drinking bouts may well be a thing of the past; worst of all I might even run out of words like the unspeaking couples in the hospital, simply losing life’s momentum. But I daresay I’ll power my way to the end point, buoyed by the chemical diet prescribed by Dr Mohammed (five daily pills and an optional spray), chemically-assisted arteries pumping away like fearsome cyborg engines and no worries.


One thing I do know is that moderate alcohol consumption of the ‘two unit’ variety is supposed to be good for chaps in my condition. Heck, it’s probably compulsory. Frankly, I was ready for a couple of units – if ever the dictum that ‘a pint of plain is your only man’ had been valid it was now. So I went into the Guest House, a Southport pub that is sublime beyond measure. There, over a glass of Copper Dragon, I staved off self-pity with a conversation with a man who said he was travelling the country writing a book about the ‘death of Britain’. This conversation was more fun than it probably sounds. Afternoon light moved across the wood panelling and the strange abundance of life continued to flow.


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This journey has taken nearly thirty years – from the time I met James Pyman at art school, to his wedding to fellow artist Penny McCarthy last weekend. Back in 1980, James lived in Eastbourne and we met up there a few times, exploring his vast collection of comics, little imagining that decades later we’d be masked up ourselves, drinking toasts on an island near a sinking city…

Anticipating the trip to Venice filled me with low-level dread. The idea of a place without roads, with no obvious ways to move about other than unlikely-sounding boat-like affairs, was unsettling. The helpful notes sent out in advance of the wedding said it would be hot, may smell, and that we would almost certainly get lost. My stay-at-home self thought ‘Great, a foetid maze!’… In my mind’s eye Venice loomed a sinister, dubious place, like the city portrayed in Clark Ashton Smith’s story A Night in Malnéant. As in that tale I imagined that I would ‘lose myself more and more in the grey labyrinth’, drawn inexorably towards a strange fate while the buildings ‘grew vaguer and vaguer amid the ever-mounting darkness and fog, as if they were about to dissolve into oblivion’…

I set off from Ormskirk, seeing the newly-opened station building for the first time, its acid-corporate-yellow ticket hall like a miniature pod of international travel. Liverpool South Parkway, not new but new to me, was equally forceful in its modernity – I was struck by the picture of Liverpool vinyled onto a window, its watery viewpoint foreshadowng my destination.

The airport was pleasant enough, the presence of Wetherspoons outlets complete with real ale on either side of the security gate beginning to reassure me that this trip might be OK after all. A few hours later I was walking through a surprisingly empty Venice at midnight, wondering how safe the ancient alleys were, getting lost and overshooting the hotel having radically misunderstood the scale, then realising I had arrived after all.

In the morning, woken by the heat at 4.30am, I walked about for a bit. Saw many beautiful things, found St Mark’s Square empty except for men hosing it down, looked for the famous runes on the Piraeus Lion but (story of my life) found different runes on a different beast, did find the almost-suppressed golden arches on a McDonalds near St Mark’s Square but as it was shut was forced to stumblingly order a coffee from a real place – which damn near blew my head off, in a sublime way.

At 10 I met up with the wedding people and we were into the delightful process of the day. The average period of time I hadn’t seen people was about 12 years, so there was a sense of time-displacement – as if the guests at a 90s party had been hit by an ageing ray, or extrapolated into a sitcom dream-sequence future with the addition of grey hairs, laugh-lines, partners and children (not pictured).

Walking around again the next day, finding the whole place effortlessly enjoyable now I that I realised that you’re meant to get lost and it doesn’t really matter, I thought that Venice is replete with time and it’s hard not to feel sense of ‘long ruin’ amongst the collapsing masonry.

But I also got a sense of a place that is over-viewed, burdened by the net of criss-crossed camera-angles (sign on bridge carefully planted with flowers: ‘NO PHOTOS’). Space seems to be carefully protected
too, contested with the vast numbers of tourists, with notices official and amateur asking people not to sit, stand, or PIC-NIC

and (the previous night) a waiter asking me and Andy to move our chairs a few inches to optimise his route back and forth to serve drinkers in Campo S Margherita by a microscopic degree. Frequent graffiti may be a way of reclaiming the space.

The strange city of Smith’s Night in Malnéant is the site of an uncanny, neverending funeral. By contrast, Venice – a place I am unlikely to ever visit again – has been encoded for me as the scene of an eternal, joyous wedding, redeeming time in the very midst of all its beautiful debris.

There are people I’ve always known waiting to be met in the next street and writing on a wall by St Mark’s Square says: YES! YES! YES!

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The last two days of walking have been triangulated against some kind of literature. The next will be no exception, as I am heading for Leighton Buzzard where, back in about 1974, I bought a book that has retained great meaning for me over the years – Conan of Cimmeria. This paperback, which I have in my bag, was the first collection of Conan stories I read. Robert E. Howard’s sword-and-sorcery hero captivated my teenage imagination – stories about a marvellous world combining every kind of adventure story, full of scary monsters a bit like those of H.P. Lovecraft, but with a hero who prevailed over them rather than passively subsiding into insanity as HPL’s protagonists tended to do. For me, the Hyborian Age started in the WHSmith in Leighton Buzzard, LU7 7DN – accessing a rich seam of pulp literature, and a sense that one should (as the Quakers say) ‘live adventurously’. So revisiting the place is an essential milestone on this walk.

“Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet” wrote Howard, describing what we might now call a ‘portfolio career’ – rather than specialising in, say, ‘reaving’ as a job-for-life, Conan use his transferable skills through many roles – buccaneer, mercenary, king etc. Similarly, I have multiple roles (albeit less colourful – ‘Hither came Mister Roy, a marketeer, a science fiction fan…’ doesn’t set the pulse racing). Whereas Conan tends to progress from one thing to another, my various aspects all seem to coexist, which can make me feel like the leader of a small unruly squadron, always threatening to deploy the wrong technique at the right time: doing a business presentation as a piece of performance art, turning a poem into a marketing matrix.

Life is complex like that and I guess we’re all mashups of diverse elements. As well as multiple identities, there are multiple realities to negotiate. In a great piece about London, Michael Moorcock suggest that creation of virtual identities and virtual living environments is a survival strategy, effective ‘as long as we’re fully conscious’, and talks about psychogeography as the recovery of lost London. Personally, I’m not from London, so I don’t have those particular ancient paths to rediscover. My quest is to stitch together the places and times where I’ve ended up, virtual or otherwise; an assemblage of cities, towns and villages and the unknown tracts of lands in between. Which is why I’m walking, trying to explore my own real/virtual worlds by physically slogging through them. Rather than psychogeography I’m calling what I’m doing autobiogeography – a conflation of ‘autobiography’ and ‘geography’, but also the ‘biogeography of myself’ – my own physical (blood sweat blisters and local real ale) interaction with places. As well as walking I’m creating this meandering document, like Conan in his throne-room, drawing a map of the semi-legendary places he had wandered through, because the official ones were ‘vague and faulty’ concerning his ‘northern countries’.

All of which brings me to be walking up Midsummer Boulevard in Milton Keynes, on a hot midsummer night. I haven’t discovered any evidence of Conan’s prehistoric Hyborian Age, but in a Wetherspoons I find unexpected evidence of an even more ancient world – a flyer for an art show called All Hail Atlantis, vortex of illumination.

Milton Keynes isn’t actually on the walk, but will be my base for two nights while I try a haul from Buckingham to Leighton Buzzard. This is the longest time I’ve spent in MK and the experience of visiting the centre is very enjoyable – I love the spacious walkways and unbroken modern-ness. Perhaps I’m appreciating what J.G. Ballard described as ‘the ambiguous but heady charms of alienation and anonymity’. The Encore hotel, a new sub-brand of simple-cheap-efficient sleeping machines launched by the Ramada chain, seems intent on counterbalancing any alienation with words: they are ‘exciting, passionate, fresh, stylish, vibrant, upbeat and refreshing’. By Crom, that’s a lot of adjectives – qualities I hope will infuse me during a long walk.

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