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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We spent a long weekend at Othona in West Dorset, participating in a ‘reading retreat’ with the title Journeys of Discovery, led by Mandy Addenbrooke. I’ll let Othona tell its own story, provide a few establishing slots from the first morning to show the kind of place it is, and say it is as familiar and dear to me as any ‘home’.

The first evening was spend meeting people, sharing a meal and some ‘reflective time’ in the Chapel. Tony Jacques read a short passage from a book called The Path by Chet Raymo, an account of the author’s repeatedly-walked one-mile journey to work, where ‘Every pebble and wildflower has a story to tell.’ Raymo’s comment that ‘Any path can become the Path if attended to with care, without preconceptions, informed by knowledge, and open to surprise’ was a good lead-in to the weekend.

In the sitting room we introduced ourselves with accounts of significant journeys, a process which sketched out a huge variety of experiences among the 14 or so participants. Along with many kinds of life-changing or -illuminating travel, the journey along the birth canal was cited, which I decided to re-enact the following morning

in the slide on the new treehouse

(DO go towards the light.)

Time for a bit of reading – something I find little time for these days. I decided to re-read Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust in the light of my recent peregrinations, finding it (like walking itself) a book full of awkward wonders which I will no doubt return to frequently.

Before lunch we gathered in the Library for some discussion, in different ways answering the question ‘What is it about travelling from A to B that makes us tell stories?’ One thing that emerged was different ideas about the value of the concept of a spiritual journey – perhaps there are other metaphors, such as a jigsaw or garden, that could be liberating or useful in different ways.

In the afternoon I decided to do some actual walking. The SW Coast path is readily accessible from Othona, but I decided to head inland. This involved walking seldom-trod, hummocky field-paths through sinister empty farms. Crows cawed overhead in a gloomy afternoon. The hills around here look archetypal, like the backgrounds of Tarot cards; here they also seemed abandoned under the piled grey clouds.

Rather than press on inland, necessitating a return trip though this Land of Grimness, I walked along a lane to Burton Bradstock where I found friendlier-seeming paths and stiles.

smelled sap from recently shorn hedgerows

and returned along the coast, grateful to get back to an Othona beneath a lowering sky.

After tea and cake we had a session sharing from a favourite book. I only found out about this aspect of the weekend about five minutes before we left, which meant I hadn’t had time to find something impressively literary, spiritual or intellectual. Instead, I had grabbed a battered copy of Tarzan Alive by Philip Jose Farmer, moved by PJFs death earlier in the week, and my memories of discovering this amazing celebration of subliterary heroic fiction as a teenager. When my turn came I referred briefly to John Clayton/Lord Greystoke/Tarzan but moved swiftly on to stuff from the Solnit book. This was a bit of a lost opportunity, as I could have spoken about the hero’s journey embodied in E.R. Burroughs’ tales of an orphan changeling, or quoted the elegaic final passage from Farmer’s book where Tarzan contemplates inevitable ecological destruction and its posthuman aftermath:

The trees would green the earth again. The earth would be, if not as wealthy and as beautiful in life as it had been, still wealthy and beautiful enough. And he would, if he were lucky, be here to enjoy it, to loaf, to invite his soul, to have adventures, to talk with the beasts and those men worth talking to. Pass the time of day and of eternity with them.
If not, so be it.
The tall, bronzed, black-haired and grey-eyed man, more Apollo than Hercules, disappeared into the green chambers.
The forest god’s skin gleamed as he crossed an open space, and the moonlight seemed to bless him.

Loafing – inviting one’s soul – having adventures; probably as good a recipe for spiritual journeying as the quote from Thomas Merton which I actually shared.

In the morning, it was slightly brighter. I took some more pictures, exploring the textures of the woodpile and the endlessly changing views of the sea and the grounds.

Then another discussion session. The zig zag passage of sailing craft, always correcting course, never going straight. Gleaning subtle information from travel and bringing it home, in the manner of bees. A gap in the fabric, through which we see ‘more’. Seeking the inexpressible. Encountering people, the unexpected, the differences and, perhaps, an underlying soul-sameness. The weirdness and inexplicable nature of the past and, indeed, the present. A mass grave of Barbie Dolls discovered by future archaeologists. Finding ‘something that isn’t us’ when we travel attentively.

Othona offers a temporary experience of community, held together by a small core who live there and run the place. Daily chores are an important part of the community experience and a great way of getting to know people. Today I was on table laying, in some ways not a good job to get as it needs doing three times. But I love the tables here, centre of the house, the place where much of the life happens. Sometimes home to leaves from the polytunnel.

After lunch I read a book that I found in the Othona library, The English Path by Kim Taplin, which ‘explores the history of footpaths through the writings of poets and novelists from Hardy and Jane Austen to Jeremy Hooker and Iain Sinclair’ in fine style. Here I discovered the ‘old Latin tag’ solvitur ambulando which ‘means something like “You can sort it out by walking”’. I decided to put this into practice with another excursion, in an afternoon that was now sunny and warm: a last day of winter offering a foretaste of summer. I played with manual exposures, self timing and worm’s eye views:

made many attempts to photograph a vapour trail and a shining oxbow pond

got mildly lost in a grotto-like stretch of woodland

and returned to Othona, beneath sunnier skies today, where there was some Dorset Apple Cake on offer.

An accidental encounter with a children’s entertainer unsettled me in unexpected ways. [Insert metaphor here: distracted me from my journey; defoliated my garden; scattered my jigsaw pieces…] Why being near someone in a chicken suit should surface feelings of loneliness and confusion (untelling my stories quicker than I could retell them) is a mystery to me. There were some grim months in my childhood, in a place that was not my, or anybody’s, home; unlike Othona, an unsafe space: perhaps during that time some State-appointed mummer, clown or pierrot added to the misery. I’ll never know; it’s as inaccessible as the precise history of the scratches on a pebble. Some memory of those times has led me to love Tarzanic accounts of captivity and escape; to value walking with a kind of solitary, aloof dignity (like Sheeta the Leopard); to want to control my own Foolishness.

After a fitful sleep, grimly planning ways to have the most adult, non-children’s-entertainer experience possible (reading Schopenhauer whilst drinking Laphroiag, smoking a Latakia blend pipe tobacco and wearing evening dress with opera playing on the Third Programme was the best idea I could come up with at 3am – an experience that would be very tar-flavoured if nothing else) I woke up to another bright day.

A final session of discussion: touchstones and takeaways; unlikely twins; how voyages might differ from journeys; pilgrimages in which you ‘come out from the centre of your life’; human-made routes having a ‘claim on the landscape’; the pleasures and virtues of being grounded on mudflats and calmly waiting for the rising tide.

And then there was just time for a few more photos, before the six-hour drive home: the participants on a break, textures, plans, the blue-pipe rune of farewell.

And we’ll be back, running a weekend ourselves in early April: The Map is Not the Territory.

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Shadow Trolls of the M5

Going to Othona, on a six-hour motorway drive, I took some more random pictures. Every fifteen minutes (the same frequency with which Simon Templar (‘The Saint’) would light a cigarette in the earlier novels of Leslie Charteris) I snapped a picture from the passenger window.

Result? Lots of wood-fringed banks, seen in a rushed-past blur. A representation of monotony, but my looking-eyes hadn’t noticed this sameness – what I saw (but didn’t photograph) where the novelties, the less-frequent items: the shaded concrete underbridges, home to whatever the modern equivalent of trolls might be; the glimpsed field-and-wood scenes of absurd picturesequeness, like sepia Merrie England end credits of afternoon films; the low steel angles of retail and enterprise zones; the unimaginable motorway neighbours, doing normal household things a few metres from a neverending torrent of speeding vehicles; the M. R. James flapping ghost-bags bleached in black branches; the fields I had once slogged through to get to a service station bed; the swathes of corporate colours dimmed by oily dust on lorries passed and re-passed; the raptors, the radio-masts and the hi-vis man wiping the reflective collars of traffic cones clean.

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