Archive for the ‘Memory’ Category

A few weeks ago we were down south visiting my parents. A moment came, at the top of the Devil’s Dyke, when we looked north west across the Weald, across most of the landscape I still have to walk:


More recently, we attended Journey of the Bride, the opening of an exhibition by Alice Lenkiewicz. There were readings, by Alice herself and a crew including Andrew Taylor, Cath Nichols, Janine Pinion, Robert Sheppard, Patricia Farrell, Tom George, and Ursula Hurley. And, like some grizzled beyond-hope Cinderella, even though I was meeting most of these people for the first time I got to read myself – some of my Bypass Pilgrim stuff, and a new blank-verse piece based on the part of this journey that involved walking around the perimeter of Pinewood Studios.

And went away thinking about how journeys intersect. There had been Robert Sheppard, referring to a ride on one of Brighton’s buses named after famous people. Andrew Taylor had actually lived in Woking, a place I had recently walked past, who had written a series of poems set there. A tiny picture of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the corner of one of Alice’s drawings, reminding me of the time I stumbled across a production in a Buckinghamshire village.

Tom George, fresh from a workshop in the National Wildflower Centre, a place we had driven past on the way to hospital, his Urban Beauty Shock praising a ‘solo rebel seed’ wildflower. Tiny barbs of connection in the richness of all the reading.

Then we went to Scotland for a holiday. Sometimes it looked like this,


and sometimes it looked like this:


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In 1900 a book called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published. Author L. Frank Baum stated that he intended to write ‘a series of of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with…horrible and bloodcurdling incidents’.

Despite this intention I found the film version terrifying in parts when I saw it at the pictures as a five-year-old. Shortly afterwards my parents took me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, so I guess they had some kind of plan to warp my mind through cinema.

It was on UK TV one Christmas, about 1975. This second viewing impressed me in a different way – it seemed like the kind of fantasy quest tale I enjoyed in books, in a childlike but timeless world. When Marvel and DC comics publishers teamed up to publish a comic-book version, illustrated by John Buscema who also drew The Savage Sword of Conan, I was beside myself with excitement. Despite not knowing what ‘intertextuality’ meant, I was keen on it when it came my way in a four-colour ‘Special Collector’s Issue!!’.

I suppose there’s a deep-seated urge to travel from ‘the great grey prairie’ of the day-to-day to a world of strange wonders. Perhaps this was at the back of my mind when I wagered with one of the University departments that, were they to achieve their targets, I would ‘dress as their choice of Oz character’. Naturally said targets were met, so here I am.


In some ways the Oz stories are works of realism: life is full of surprises and transformations, and sometimes you find that you’ve moved to a new world where everything is different, where people use strange words and things work according to unfathomable rules. But it’s not all good stuff. Cancer, for instance, is an unwanted transformation. It is a world with its own language and rules, but no-one wants to have to learn them. And, sadly, some people don’t make it home again. But many do, thanks to the care they receive and the research that underpins it. With this in mind, this dressing up gig is raising funds for North West Charity Research: click here to see what’s been raised, or to make a donation.

As well as being a bit of random horseplay and fundraising, this is also a serious psychogeographical experiment. I’m looking for evidence of the Emerald City in the Edge Hill campus. In the book, the Emerald City isn’t very emerald. The Guardian of the Gate gives everyone green-tinted spectacles before they enter, as ‘if you did not wear spectacles, the brightness and glory of the Emerald City would blind you’.


But as it turns out, there is plenty of emerald marvel to be seen with the naked eye…


All done now. The journey raised a lot of smiles, helping make the campus a ‘merry old town’ for a while. Got over £500 so felt I had kicked cancer in the ass with my dainty ruby slippered foot.

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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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“Again, like the Surrealists, anything you run across is actually beautiful; within a single city block, you find miraculous things. It’s a good planet — and good things can happen.”

– Lux Interior

I like this quote, not because it is a well-crafted aphorism, but because of its babbling exuberance – it conveys a rare kind of enthusiasm. For me it conjures an image of Lux Interior and Poison Ivy Rorschach, prime movers of ‘psychobilly’ band the Cramps, wandering the city like harmlessly monstrous goth-burlesque flâneurs, stumbling upon the strange artefacts of trash culture that fuelled the lurching monster of their music.

Revisiting the Cramps’ twisted world has been sad, as Lux Interior died earlier this year. It seems like a blink of an eye since I was reading a review of ‘Gravest Hits’ in the NME (now changed beyond recognition), getting a 26 bus (route now largely that of the 1/1a) into Brighton, buying the record from the Attrix shop (long since closed) managed by Rick from the Parrots (sadly no longer with us).

Everything persists – at least in electric ghost form – I could probably download the Cramps’ entire catalogue in less time than it took to walk to the bus stop. Curiosities such as their performance at the California State Mental Hospital in Napa (lovingly recreated as the movie File Under Sacred Music) are there on YouTube, to be turned on like a tap.

And at the same time nothing remains – my memories of seeing the band live will fade as I do, feedback fading into the background hum of amps on an empty stage.

For a long time, I haven’t had their music as a soundtrack. Perhaps my existence as an amiable suburbanite and vaguely serious professional dude hasn’t needed such a maniacal undertow.

I suppose their celebration of pharmaceuticals falls into the ‘do not try this at home’ category… though saying that, I take drugs very day – the kind that keep my middle-aged life in comfortable stasis. Perhaps I should invoke the Cramps as an accompaniment to my ingestion of chemicals: listen to Drug Train while I spray ‘metered actuations’ of mometasone furoate up my nose to pacify my sinuses (‘Whoo! Whoo!’); Bop Pills while I swallow the Lansoprazole capsules that keep stomach acid from overcoming my oesophagus (‘And man when they hit me, I landed in the middle of the floor’); ‘Strychnine’ while I glug cod liver oil to lubricate my perpetually-aching hip (‘You may think it’s funny, That I like this stuff, But once you’ve tried it, You can’t get enough’.)

I gather that the Cramps struggled with an (understandable) view of them as a comedy band. But they took their trash seriously, pursuing their vision with a relentless intent and utter conviction.

All of this reminds me of  Susan Sontag’s famous essay on Camp sensibility, where she talks of
“the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not…Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman.” To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater…The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful . . .”

Halloween display in Netherton bakers

I think [insert attempt to relate post to main theme of blog] my walk is this kind of camp. Not that I’m mincing my way to Brighton (despite the aforementioned hip problem); rather that I’m paying attention to the “off” stuff along the way (whilst remembering at all times the Cramps safety announcement ‘Don’t Eat Stuff Of the Sidewalk’).  Perhaps way back in the olden days I learned something deadly serious from them – marginal, neglected things can be beautiful: pointless creations can be pursued with single-minded dedication: and most importantly

“Life is short. And filled with stuff.”

– New Kind of Kick

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New readers start here

Greetings, anyone stopping by for the first time. The local paper has run a story mentioning my whimsical exploration of ‘Argleton, the non-existent town created by Google as an alternative to ‘Aughton’, so it’s possible that some new readers are checking me out. If you’re looking for what I wrote about visiting Argleton , here it is – enjoy!

I started this journey at the very beginning of 2008. The idea is to walk in sequential stages, to arrive at my birthplace, Brighton, some time around my 50th birthday in a couple of years’ time.

I have walked about once a month, blogging about each part of the journey, with sidetrips and digressions loosely related to the main theme, including a trip to Florida (a place much less real than non-existent Argleton), book reviews and a rediscovered story that I wrote at school.

The walk itself started in Southport. I made my way through Maghull and down into Liverpool, used the ferry (my one cheat so far) and walked round the Wirral and down to Chester. An account of a night in a Premier Inn and its associated pub gets a lot of hits: hopefully my speculation concerning the haunting of reclaimed brickwork is useful to people planning a stay there.

After an abortive journey into Shropshire (a county I now see as somewhat uncanny) I wandered through Staffordshire and into the Black Country. Revisiting places I have lived is part of the plan, hence stops in Wolves, Dudley and Stourbridge.

I have now reached a point south of Warwick. I hope to reach Edge Hill battleground soon, the third Edge Hill I will have visited, following trips to the University and the Liverpool district.

Why am I doing this? I suppose it’s a way of discovering my own country and my own history; travelling slowly through landacpes usually passed at speed on cars and trains; being part of an international community of walking blogging people; putting one foot in front of the other again and again.

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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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A quiet weekend, mostly spent feeling sorry for myself with the onset of a cold – though we did manage to get out to Beacon Fell today.

Old snow and ice still hadn’t entirely disappeared up here

and new snow was on its way in a heavy sky.

G*d willing, will continue the walk next week, hopefully to Warwick. I’ve been planning a photographic experiment, to see what happens when I remove deliberate choices from the process. As well as my normal masterpieces, I’ll take pictures at preset times, without looking through the viewfinder (or at the screen on the back of the camera), aiming at a compass direction. No idea what will happen; anything from mild boredom to random genius I suppose. The idea came from a discussion group at work, where we looked at the work of an American photographer, Camilo Jose Vergara. Not that he takes pictures at random – but the possibility of a less artistic way of documenting places came up in the chat and stuck with me. Maybe a way of ‘capturing the “thereness”’ to borrow a phrase from my colleague M. McA.

Coincidentally, photography was a topic in my man-flu comfort-viewing of Jack Hargreaves’ Out of Town show which I have on DVD. Those of us from the Southern TV region may recall Jack’s long-running series of reminiscences about the passing countryside and its ways.

Usually he starts the proceedings by brandishing some rural object such as an ancient ploughshare, but in the episode I watched this morning he produced a camera and talked about his father and uncle as early adopters of hobby photography. He mentioned how an early Kodak ad talked about ‘keeping youth young’, showed old pictures of farms that seem impossibly bucolic compared to today’s that ‘resemble half-broken-down factories on the outskirts of Walsall’, and of a troupe of Germans who toured the countryside with (gulp) performing bears, of the now-nearly-extinct brown variety. Later, delving back into his immense stock of films made of himself in various rural settings (which often feature him wandering about, looking appreciatively at ponycarts and pumpkins, sometimes sporting an incongruous pair of sunglasses like a long-lost member of the Rat Pack) we see him fishing for pike – reflecting that the use of live bait for fishing had fallen from favour in the 15 years that had elapsed since he made the film; ‘conventions change as we pass on.’

If I’m looking back at these pictures in 50 years time, I wonder what will have become extinct, changed beyond recognition or passed out of usage.

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