Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Rabbits Against The System

There seems to be a growing trend of passive protest in this country. We are developing a tendency for highlighting issues through negative action and I think this is a reflection of the British, certainly the English, temperament. In France, in protest to Sarkozy’s proposed reforms, public sector workers have gone on strike. In the UK… Hang on, that example doesn’t work. If train drivers, local council officers, utility maintenance workers went on strike nobody would notice any change from normal. I mean, there’s an elderly couple in Essex who for the past eighteen months have had their electricity cut off every single evening due to a clerical error. In Italy police accidentally shot and killed a football fan and half the nation’s cities were in flames before the weekend was out. In Britain we spend three years taking the Met to court for Health & Safety issues. In Colombia a football fan was so disgruntled by his team’s perceived lack of effort on the pitch that he shot and killed one of the players. That would, at least, end the debate over whether Gerrard and Lampard can play in the same team or not.

Bear with me. There is a point to all this.

Wednesday was No Music Day. You might not have been aware of this, but don’t worry, I only found out by chance, half listening to Front Row in the car on the way back from Sainsburys, on Tuesday night. It’s the brainchild of Bill Drummond, formerly of 90s pop pranksters the KLF, the idea being that there’s too much music in our lives, we’re saturated in it and it is only by isolating ourselves from music for a period of time that we can take a step back and think about what music means to us. Apparently Drummond’s original idea was to do it for a year, but clearly that wasn’t going to work. He tried it for a month and failed pretty quickly, then a week with the same predictable result until he got it down to just a day.

Drummond was trying to drum (heh-heh) up support for the campaign by speaking with the manager at the HMV shop on Oxford Street and Jeremy Irons, the Radio 2 presenter. They were both more interested in whether he really did burn a million quid or not. I, however, was quite intrigued by the idea.

On Wednesdays I have to go into college so I wasn’t going to be able to just lock the spare room door and hide away for twenty-four hours, but I was determined to see if I could avoid music for the day. I remembered not to listen to the radio or have the TV on first thing in the morning and ate my breakfast reading the paper in utter silence save for the bin men running up and down the road. I walked down to college, nipped into the library and then spent two and a half hours in a workshop. We then had lunch in the cafĂ© in the University building which, to my surprise, doesn’t play music. So far, so good.

Things started to go a bit awry in the afternoon. For some unknown reason we have our afternoon seminars in the music department. So whilst trying to listen to the guest speaker we were subjected to a regular snare drum beat and the occasional primeval howling, increasing in volume whenever anyone opened one of the doors in the corridor outside. After the session a group of us descended down to the Hobgoblin for a beer or two. It’s a student bar, so whilst I was pleased by the fifteen percent discount, the juke box was blaring. Still I managed to tune most of it out only having a Leona Lewis song pointed out to me by one of the girls (I still have no idea who she is) and I caught the chorus of the Hoozier’s Worried About Ray, which always reminds me too much of the Lemonheads.

It was only a quick drink so I was back home by seven making some pasta and intending to watch eleven overgrown schoolboys ineffectively chase after a ball for ninety minutes. I turned the TV on deliberately late to avoid the Match of the Day theme tune, but forgot to anticipate the national anthems which resulted in a frankly unnecessarily dramatic dive across the lounge towards the remote. I didn’t stay tuned in after the final whistle to hear the inevitable Keanly-Cold-Patrol-shite themed slo-mo shots of multi-millionaires feigning anguish at missed chances. However, Beck was still not back from visiting her friend’s new babies/keeping out of the way as I have a one-sided argument with the TV and the house seemed very, very quiet. Even next door had decided against spending the entire evening running up and down the stairs for once. I tried to read but the complete absence of noise was a little disturbing and I resorted to playing darts, the rhythmic thud-thud-thud being quite reassuring, whilst pretending to myself that I was thinking about the piece of writing I’d been working on.

Continuing a theme, it would appear that Saturday was Buy Nothing Day, an international event since 1992. No, I’d never heard of it either. In fact, I only discovered its existence by reading an article in the Guardian, the irony being that in order to find out about No Shop Day I had to go to the newsagents and buy a newspaper first. This particular anti-capitalist programme is being spearheaded in the UK by a group of “compactors”, people who not only take their recycling to militant levels, but refuse to acquire anything new beyond the essentials of toiletries, food, drink and - er - a pet rabbit.

However, by the time I actually got around to reading page nine I’d also bought some milk and Beck had bought some lamb chump steaks for our dinner. Whilst I applaud the sentiments I decided we were too far gone down our road of corrupt bourgeoisie-ness and that we might as well continue with our plan of going to a bar in the evening.

I’m lucky. When I worked for a large media company most of the men surrounding me would arrive on a Monday morning complaining about yet another Saturday afternoon spent following their missus up and down Oxford Street, or if they were lucky nipping off to something more interesting, like counting bricks, before reconvening in Cost-Ner-Bucks to listen to her whitter on about the great bargains she found over a jumbo cup of muckachino. I loathe going shopping. The volume of people, the sweatiness of over-heated stores, the bland inanity of it all drives me up the wall. Fortunately, whilst Beck quite enjoys it, she rarely has the time to go and even then seems to have decided that she’d rather take a friend than have me muttering about Chinese sweat shops, scowling at the staff and innocently asking “haven’t you already got a pink jumper?”

“Compacting”, though, seems quite interesting. In many ways it’s quite similar to the decisions I’ve taken now that I have no income. My savings are only going to stretch so far so I’ve cut certain things out. I’ve been getting books from the public library (which also helps stem the tide of paper taking over the house), I’ve not brought any music since I picked up second hand copies of Ryan Adam’s Heartbreaker and Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand back in July (although Beck did bring me back some cool Canadian, acoustic, folky stuff) and despite having only one pair of jeans without a potentially embarrassing crotch hole I haven’t brought any new clothes.

But what do we term essential? I would deem beer pretty damn essential and it’s still included in the weekly groceries, although I have downgraded from bottled real ale to cans of Tetleys. I would also include leisure, cultural and sociable activities - all of which tend to require some kind of expenditure. Even if you only want to watch a low budget, independent thought provoking film rather than, say, XXX2: The Next Level you still need to pay for a cinema ticket, rent or buy the DVD or at the very least buy a TV and a licence (although I did manage to get our TV for free, but that’s kind of beside the point).

Humans are sociable creatures. You need to spend time with friends, but can you do this in a economically positive way? On Saturday night we went out to a local wine bar run by a husband and wife team who’ve been there for years. We brought a bottle of Grenache from a little Languedoc vineyard and supported two small businesses rather than going to an All Bar One and having a couple of glasses of Jacob’s Creek. Surely this positive action is actually better than hiding away and doing nothing?

The woman in the Guardian’s article talks about how she used to register that the seasons were changing by the arrival of different clothes in the shops (actually, wouldn’t this make her about six weeks early all the time?) but now she just goes for long walks in the countryside and takes in nature at work. A nice image and I love walking at all times of the year and seeing the differences, but for those of us who don’t have a Dale attached to the back garden (and I’ve no idea whether she does or not) won’t we still be putting money into the system by buying petrol or a bus ticket or whatever?

Whatever we feel about it, whatever our personal ideals we cannot escape from the fact that we live in a capitalist consumer driven society. The economy works by us being able to go out and buy shit and a strong economy makes it easier for people, like me, to live their life how they wish to. It’s easier to go without if it’s a choice rather than an imposition. The truth is that if we completely remove ourselves from consumerism, if we just eat home-grown vegetables, make our own clothes, generate (somehow) our own electricity then we remove ourselves from society and, to a large extent, from reality.

Mind you, for twenty-fours hours once a year that’s probably not a bad idea.


I’ve just googled for compactors, wondering if they have a website I can link to, but all I can find is companies offering either compacting advice or services. Now there’s an irony. In the absence of anything more useful you can read the Guardian article here:


You can find out more on No Music Day and Buy Nothing Day, in preparation for twelve months time, here:




Tuesday, 20 November 2007

The Stalker

I’m being stalked.

It all started back in September. Yawning early one Saturday morning I stagger out of the house off to buy a newspaper. As usual my shoes are undone, I’ve just pulled on yesterdays clothes and in many ways I feel still undressed. Ninety-eight strides later I enter the newsagents with the tinkle of the bell above the door and I nod a cheery good morning to the owner. I hadn’t noticed the stalker yet, but he wasn’t far away.

It was walking back, leafing through the Guardian’s supplements that I first spotted him. At around the forty-second step I saw him staring back out of the cover to the magazine. Dressed in a blue-ish t-shirt, his eyes have a faraway dreamy look and he seems uncomfortable in a room that appears to be a recording studio. He almost seems to be trying to look over his shoulder at something disturbing going on out of the photograph. He is Simon Armitage, the Poet.

I don’t know why I’ve attached his profession like a grand title to him: Simon Armitage, the Poet. I can’t think of another Simon Armitage that it’s necessary to distinguish him from. I think it might be something I’ve sub-consciously picked up from Beck who frequently refers to people whom she’s worked with by their profession. John the Playwright, Tom the Actor, Andy the Jazz Pianist, Heather the Tap Dancer. Curiously I never hear of Chet the Milkman anymore.

Anyway, back to the plot. Simon Armitage is writing in the Guardian about defying middle age and going back to his teenage dreams of being a rock-star. He and a friend get together, write some songs, Simon’s appropriately enough responsible for the lyrics, they record a EP. I don’t actually get around to reading it until Tuesday on a bus steamed up from warm breath against torrential rain battered glass. Despite having to cut out the background cackle of teenage girls I find it an extremely witty and interesting article. I enjoy greatly, but here’s the thing - Poetry isn’t really my bag so I didn’t have a clue who Simon Armitage was. The name, however, tugged at my brain.

A couple of days later I’m sitting at my computer looking at blank screen when I start to lazily look around the room. Above the computer there’s poster of the Manhattan skyline on the wall with the Brooklyn bridge in the distance murky in the heat haze. I love this poster. It’s enables me to pretend that I have a spectacular view to take inspiration from rather than the off-white plaster, or if I move to Beck’s desk then the irregular pattern of tumble down fences, overgrown gardens with varying amounts of dumped bedroom furniture and the occasional ginger cat. Next to this, attached with a scrap of blue tack, is a copy of my course reading list. I’ve coded each of the books by type. F for fiction, L for life writing, P for poetry and R for literary theory works. There’s also various ticks or notes to myself, such as to collect my Henry James anthology from my parents’ house. I suddenly notice that there’s one book I don’t seem to have categorised. It is the The Penguin Book Of Poetry From Britain Since 1945. Presumably the title was too self-explanatory to warrant my effort in placing a capital P inside a circle next to it, but I realise that it’s co-edited by Robert Crawford and Simon Armitage.

Odd coincidence.

Later that same week I start the ignition in the car and the radio automatically blares into life. It’s pre-tuned to Radio 4, but I fancy listening to some music so I instantly press the seek button. Just before the tuner veers off into the ether of the FM waveband I catch the name Simon Armitage from the presenter. By the time I’ve re-tuned the radio they’ve moved on to something else and I never do find out either the context they were speaking in or even if I heard correctly. For the rest of the journey down to Staples in Peckham to buy some printing paper it’s as though there’s someone else in the car with me.

In October one of the seminars for my course is held in the Poetry Library within the South Bank Centre. I suspect that we’re extradited from darkest South-East London because it suits the schedule of the guest speaker, who happens to be a poet, but it also allows us to have a look around the library. It’s a pretty good resource, if you’re into poetry. They hold at least one copy of every poem published in England and the majority of those published in the English Language. We listen to a fairly standard induction talk about the history of the collection and are then invited to have a wander round. As I said, I don’t really “do” poetry so I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular. I seemed to amble aimlessly into the shelves holding the limited edition magazines. I ran my fingers along the cool metal shelves before, without even looking, pulling out one at random. The cover boasts a list of contributors and right at the top: Simon Armitage. I’m beginning to get a little disturbed by this and I hold the magazine at arm’s length, almost afraid of it. Before I can decide whether to open the cover or run away squealing one of my classmates calls down that everyone’s starting to head into the lecture hall. The magazines are reference only so I place it back on the shelf.

We listen to the poet talk. She’s good. I enjoy it, even though it’s insanely hot and I start to feel slightly woozy. At the end she hands out some photocopied pieces - example of poetry, writings about poetry. I flick through them on the train on the way home. They include Simon Armitage’s Top Tips For Poetry Readers. I stuff it back into my bag unread and drum by fingers against the window as it begins to drizzle.

Two weeks ago I have a meeting with my external tutor, a London based writer who, essentially, reads our stuff and then tells us what he thinks of it. He recommends some books for me to read and straight after the meeting I dutifully trot over the library. I collect the works I’m interested in and check my watch. It’s just before four. At six-thirty I’m planning on attending a seminar on the Shakespeare-Marlowe question - namely, did Christopher Marlowe fake his own death, flee to Northern Italy and write the plays usually attributed to Shakespeare? This isn’t a part of my course, but it’s something I’ve been reading about for years and as I’m technically part of the English department I’m going to listen in. I decide that I can’t be bothered to go home and that I’ll just read in the library.

It’s pretty busy for a Wednesday afternoon and there are only a couple of free tables. I take one by the window overlooking the congested A2. There are two books already there. One of them is Simon Armitage’s Xanadu. I get up and walk away, the hairs on the back of my neck tingle and I start to glance over my shoulder fully expecting the book to be collected up by the poet himself.

A few days later I’m browsing the book shelves at home. I’m looking for Paul Auster’s True Tales Of American Life (this later turns out to be helpfully filed under the bed) when my attention is drawn to a shockingly pink book spine. Yep: Simon Armitage’s Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus The Corduroy Kid. I slide the slim hardback out of it’s slot. It feels weird in my hands, almost electric. I don’t remember having ever seen it before. I’m a little concerned as to how it arrived here without so much as a crinkle to the cover.

The beginnings of my love affairs with various authors have not always been conventional. When I was at University a neighbour of my parents lent them a copy of Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum. For some reason it sat in my room for almost a year and a half. I kept intending to take it to Sheffield with me, but always forgot. When I finally began reading, it was difficult to put it down until I’d turned the last page and even then I wanted to go back to the beginning and start again. When I eventually “remembered” to take it back home the neighbours had moved. When I was seventeen I brought a copy of Graham Swift’s Last Orders primarily because it had a picture of a pint of beer on the front. Around the same time I was mesmerised by the first few pages I of Seamus Deane’s Reading In The Dark which I read in the Solihull branch of Waterstones without any money to pay for it. When I returned a few weeks later, cash in hand, I had forgotten both the book’s title and it’s author. All I could recall was the striking image on the front of a battered black and white photograph showing two young boys and the bright yellow-orange strap across the top. Beck and I proceeded to take virtually every single book off the shelves until we found it.
Weirdness can be a good omen.

Resigned to the seemingly inevitable I sat down in the large, dusty leather chair that we’d liberated when Beck’s friend Jo (Jo the What? I can’t remember.) was going to chuck it in a skip. I open the covers and inhale that new, untouched book smell.

I begin to read.

You can find out more about Simon Armitage here:


You can read the entire Guardian article that triggered this odd little episode here:


You can buy Simon Armitage’s poems and prose (and you should consider it, they’re good) here:


Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Fifty-two Days and a Wake-Up.

To borrow a phrase commonly used by American soldiers in Vietnam when counting down the length of their tour. As in x number of days and then I wake up, get the hell out of his nightmare and go back home.

A somewhat over-dramatic comparison to draw with the experience of Beck and I being separated by the Atlantic and a seven hour time difference, but there’s no harm done by going over the top every so often. So, fifty-two days apart. Seven and a half weeks. Almost two months. One-thousand-two-hundred-and-forty-eight hours. And so on and so forth.

It hasn’t actually felt very long. It’s not like when she went to California for a fortnight last year and I had evening of near mental instability which I associated with missing her. Perhaps, in retrospect, it said more about my life beyond our relationship than my position within it. This time I’ve had both more and less distractions to keep me occupied. More things of interest happening, just a whole change of life style, but also less. As in less pressure, less stress, less to be worried about. Aside from whether I was actually going to interact with a real person or go outside today.

Still, this is something of a benchmark. I’m pretty certain that it’s the longest we’ve ever spent apart in the eleven years we’ve been together. When I was studying at Sheffield and she in London we were never one of those couples who saw each other every weekend and consequently imploded by Christmas, but I think we went met up on an average of every five or six weeks. In my first year and again in her third, when the other was living in Solihull with our respective parents, Beck doing an Art Foundation course as a precursor to her degree, me working in the pub and wondering what to do next (you may notice a theme here), we saw each a little more frequently.

Anyway, it’s definitely the longest we’ve been apart in the six plus years we’ve been living together. The initial wrench was strong, I think, given that we’d just spent the longest period continuously together certainly this year and I suspect since 2004 if not longer. But the trauma of separation soon abated,

Incredibly, it’s probably the longest period of time we’ve spent apart in the twelve years that we’ve known each other. From the party just before Christmas in 1995, when my mate Mike first pointed her out as his girlfriend (he was lying, but they did end up then going out on and off for about eight months, so perhaps he was just being optimistic. Beck claims that we actually met about two months previously through my then girlfriend, but I have absolutely no recollection of this and it‘s my blog. Hardly at first sight stuff, though, is it?) to when we finally let go of each other on the concourse of terminal three at Heathrow.

Twelve years ago.

One hundred and twenty four months.

Six hundred and twenty four weeks.

Four thousand three hundred and sixty eight days.

And so on and so forth.

I’m a little surprised that I haven’t written anything about our relationship whilst she was still away. I seem to have subconsciously waited for her to get back. Perhaps I wanted to be sure she actually did come back? No, I think it’s more that, to my complete and utter surprise, being apart for so long didn’t actually feel that strange. I still felt connected to her, yet totally isolated from her experiences for the first time. I don’t know what that says about us, really.


Anyway, she definitely is back now and things are as though she never went away. Well, you know, aside from the fact I manage to fall over the still to be unpacked cases left in the middle of the bedroom floor every morning and on Friday when I awoke to realise that there was someone else in the bed my brain went into a total panic as I tried to remember just what the hell I’d been up to Thursday night.

Seven and a half weeks. It’s not exactly long in terms of the human experience. Seventy-five years, or thereabouts, for the individual or two hundred thousand years for the whole species, but like Pavlov’s dog it appears that we (or me at any rate) are remarkably quick to develop certain habits when our environment or living pattern changes. So without any sense of shame or decorum, here’s seven and a half things it’s possible to start doing when you spend too much time on your own.

1. I’ve taken to drinking a whole pot of filter coffee every morning (plus half a dozen mugs of tea in the afternoon). On holiday in Croatia I managed to cut back my caffeine dependency to two or three coffees a day. It seemed to be successful, but now it’s back and more ferocious than ever:
“What are you doing?” I try to ask nonchalantly.
“Just pouring some coffee,” she replies sweetly.
“You can’t.”
“Why not?”
“It’s my coffee. I made it. There won’t be enough for both of us.”
“This thing holds, like, eight mugs. There’s plenty.”

2. I decided that cooking for one was a pain in the arse, that it was much easier to cook for two and then freeze the other half for the next week. It also meant I only had to think about buying food on a fortnightly basis. Strangely enough over a period of time it seems that the freezing process reduces the amount of food to something resembling more a snack portion than a main a meal so I’d have to eat that for lunch and cook something else later. Around the same time my plates started to generate an optical illusion whereby the food I was serving out seemed to be an enormous pile when I’m sure it was the same as I would normally eat. Have I put on weight, you ask? No, no, the scales are broken again. Ah, it’s just this t-shirt…

3. Farting to warm the bed at night seems to be a reasonable alternative to central heating when there’s no-one sharing the duvet with you. You forget how farts always smell worse to other people. In fact, as I rarely feel the cold, I had been dispensing with central heating altogether. If I’m a little chilly I’d just put on a jumper. So what if the thermometer was reading nine degrees Celsius in the bedroom? Our ancestors didn’t have radiators, did they? A big raging fire, yes, but you can’t have everything. Just put more clothes on, all your clothes if need be and stop moaning. Think about how expensive gas is. Actually, it’s quite stuffy in here - I think I’ll open the windows.

4. At some point I decided to listen to all the bands for whom I own four or more albums and then to listen to those records in chronological order to get a sense of their musical progression. E.g: A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt Pepper’s, “White”, Abbey Road, Let It Be. Honestly, it’s not weird or obsessive. Everybody wants to listen to eighteen David Bowie records virtually non-stop over the course of three days. Yes, even the experiment with drum n bass from 1997. Why wouldn’t they? No, we can’t listen to the Flaming Lips for the time being. Because we only own three albums by them and besides that begins with F and we’re on M for Manic Street Preachers.

5. Not closing the toilet door. Ever. In fact it’s quite enjoyable to sit on the crapper, at the top of the stairs, watch the post come through the front door. If I wave the postman sometimes does a double take at the flash of movement behind the frosted glass. I don’t have to pause a movie if I need a piss, I just turn the volume up. If I’m reading then I don’t have to stop at all. I just hold the book in my one hand and my appendage in the other. I do have to remember to wipe the seat afterwards, though, as my aim without looking isn’t as good as I think it is.

6. Leaving the standard lamp permanently attached to a timer switch saves the significant amount of time and energy involved in noticing that it has become dark, getting up and switching it on. Plus it also reminds you that its time to go to bed when the lounge plunges into darkness.

7. When slouching on the sofa reading or watching TV it’s quite comforting to slip one hand down my trousers and to cup my testicles. I really had no idea I was doing this and it’s proving to be a worryingly hard habit to break.

7.5. Talking to people who aren’t there is completely normal, even if there really is someone else present and the words coming out of their mouth don’t match the ones I’m hearing in my head. It’s fine. There’s no need to worry.

It’s not just me, though. Beck has, including our holiday, spent nearly a quarter of this year in hotels or on campsites or staying with relatives, eating in restaurants, having people to tidy up after her, anything other than in a normal domestic environment and she too seems to have picked up some unusual habits. She keeps asking for the desert menu after we eat and this morning, as I type away and she is still sleeping upstairs, a “do not disturb” sign has appeared on the door.

Interestingly the anticipated conflict over the use of office/studio room seems to have been postponed. Essentially Beck has arrived back, taken one look and decided that her space is too messy to work in. Rather than actually tidying up (because it’s in her contract that she needs to tidy only twice a year and the next one’s not due till March) she’s decamped to the dining room table. Basically we’ve swapped places. Personally, I think she’s just ducking out of a perfectly good argument.

Mind you, the above may have just provoked one. I’ll let you what the score is next week.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

To the Ends of the Earth

“Where rose the mountains, there to him were friends” - Lord Byron.

Tiny grains of dirt flick up as my boot stamps against the hillside. There’s a damp patch spreading across the small of my back where my rucksack keeps the sweat contained. My breathing is becoming slightly laboured as my ribcage vibrates to the beat of my heart. I feel fantastic in the cool and bright air - despite it being frustratingly too cold for just a t-shirt and my exertions making it too hot for my fleece. For November it is unseasonably dry, for our luck the weather is shockingly fine.

We slither, single file up the side of Dale Head, our footsteps following the zig-zag originally laid out by miners six hundred years ago. I don’t remember it being this steep when I came this way three years ago. My memory increasingly plays tricks on me, things are rarely quite as how I recollect. The seven of us are a little spread out and I can picture how we must look from one of the other ridges, or from down in the valley. Seven perfectly black silhouettes against the smoulderingly grey sky, each delicately perched on the very tip of the horizon, on the edge of the world.

It feels great to be out of the city, out in the clean Cumbrian air high above the carbon monoxide and the stench of people rammed together. Away from the claustrophobia of endless roads of stationary traffic, away from the smothering, incessant noise of everyday life. Here there is just us and the mountain, the relationship between man and nature is pure. Well, the mountain, us and a couple of dozen Geordies.

I love the solitude you can sometimes find in the Lake District, but it’s harder to do at this time of the year. In the summer I’ve disappeared over the fells and only seen a couple of people in eight or nine hours of walking, but in the Autumn there is a limited amount of daylight and so there’s a greater concentration of walkers on the routes which can be completed in the available timeframe. This particular hike, up over Cat Bells, along Maiden Moor and onwards over High Spy is one of the more popular ones. Even Wainwright, not one normally given to hyperbole, describes the views from Cat Bells as “ravishing”.

There’s a long tradition of associating walking with writing. The Romantics, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, would think nothing of walking forty miles a day and relaxing in the evening over a case of wine or an opium pipe. Coleridge and Wordsworth would walk between each other’s homes in Somerset and the Lakes respectively. Wordsworth walked to Paris to celebrate Bastille Day, Keats walked to the Alps to get some mountain air.

Walking slows you down. It empties the mind and you become locked in to the rhythm of striding out. Your sense take in the world with a new keenness. There’s a clarity of awareness as all the trivia dissolves away back into the regular life tied to a desk and a computer and, instead, your thoughts can soar.

Robert Louis Stevenson was a young man in turmoil. Torn between his desire to write and his family’s expectation of a more respectable trade he took to his heels. He and his long suffering donkey walked for twelve days solid through the Cevennes region in France and along the way he strengthened his resolve to live by his pen.

Peter Ackroyd claims to walk for at least two hours a day around London. He lets the city wash over him and the words come together. Whole pages will form in his head ready to be written down, perfectly formed at birth.

Graham Greene, struggling with writer’s block after a series of early mediocre novels, decided he needed a challenge. Greene became one of the first white men to walk through inland Liberia. One of the first modern, independent African states and virtually untouched by western colonialism the dangers of this expedition were many. But Greene, who had never done anything like this before, left his wife and children in rural England and along with his young cousin, Barbara, headed into the wilderness. The pressure each day of to reach the next remote village combined with the climate, inadequate supplies and outdated equipment even for the 1930s all made the physical exertion immense. On his eventual return to England he, almost magically, metamorphosed into a far superior writer and embarked on a run of novels which include some of the finest ever written. It was as though walking through that uncharted landscape, alone with his thoughts, had removed all his mental inhibitions and had awoken the genius within.

They all march out of history. Left, right. Left, write.

Whilst I have no intention of comparing myself to such illustrious company I do find a similar need to get some miles under my boots in times of difficulty. I pace around the house incessantly whilst trying to write. Occasionally I can only manage a couple of sentences before I’m up on my feet, darting down the stairs, circling the lounge, pointlessly going into the kitchen or the bedroom, but it’s not a very big house and it doesn’t take long for me to need more than it can offer. So I hit the road. I go out into the streets of the city, walking in ever widening circles, along familiar and unrecognisable streets, sometimes with a plan, sometimes just ambling. Sometimes I look up and find myself outside a favourite museum or sometimes I am suddenly, completely lost. I walk absorbed by the characters speaking in my head.

But London is too full of distractions, it doesn’t have the purity of the countryside. Here high amongst the clouds there is just the joking, the nonsensical ramblings, the bickering of friends, and the sweet lilt of people from Gateshead. At the same time there is an eternal silence.
At the top of Dale Head I look back into Borrowdale. From this angle the valley is virtually uninhabited, save for a couple of cottages, the farm at Little Town and the tiny white church hidden amongst the trees. The ridge we have just tramped along dominates the entire Eastern view, its black scree is ominous in the encroaching afternoon mist.

Someone recently suggested that the next time I find myself atop a mountain I try to picture the valley full of water. I shut my eyes for a second and when I open them water laps at the hillside just a few feet below my boots. The tarn and gills flood out to swamp the land in murky rain water. Nothing offers resistance to the surge. I can see how the tide has ebbed away at the rock and carved the horseshoe shape out of the mountains, how the drama of the landscape has unfolded. In my mind’s eye I leap off the cliffside and dive down into the cold water. The chill bites at my bone marrow, but, no, this is a metaphor too far and all my amused imagination can see is soggy sheep struggling with the tide. I’m pulled, gasping for air, back to the surface by laughter as the camera records reality.

I had planned to take us further on, over Robinson, but we decide to drop down off Hindscarth instead. It’s a steeper descent, but we’re running out time. There’s a real need to be off the hill before it gets dark and in Keswick there’s beer to be drunk. It always tastes better when you’ve earned it and whilst the ale flows freely aching legs are not hollow ones. We persevere against our weariness, fool around, reminisce, ridicule each other’s foibles and with each pint I grow increasingly nostalgic. The drunken part of me wants every day to be like this; out on the hills and then down the pub, but it cannot last.

The next afternoon I drive the length of the country back to London, depositing people at various locations on my way. As I drive the tiredness kicks in. We start boisterous and chatty, but the voices get progressively quieter and fewer and the milometer ticks over again and again, a never-ending beat of haste. We drive through the sunshine, through the unexpected fog and through the night until, eventually, there is just me trundling through south London, alone. The inside of the car is lit softly by the glowing dashboard. The occasional glare of passing headlights serve to illuminate my hands tightly gripping, as though welded to, the steering wheel. My eyelids are locked open by exhaustion and my vision is bombarded by endless rows of red brake lights. The Artic Monkeys are blaring out tales of Sheffield through the speakers, but all that I can think of is that beautiful, narrow ridge across the sky. Alex Turner may be singing, but all I can hear is a line from a different song repeating again and again long into the night.