A Busy Time in West Bengal

For the last couple of months, during Lockdown and its easing, I have spent an awful lot of time up in the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal.

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Okay, that’s not strictly true, but for most of that time I have spent my working day revising, re-writing, and editing A Good Place, my novel set in a fictitious hill station there. I have some new characters to weave in, some old ones to remove, and the story line to alter in several major ways, including a different ending.

I finished the first draft some nine months ago, but there were parts I didn’t feel entirely satisfied with then, and my beta reader unerringly picked those out for major revision. I then spent a while thinking about the story line and took out nearly all the final third of the book and chucked it.

That left me with a lot to rewrite.

Much of the problem stemmed from the fact that after I published Making Friends With the Crocodile, which is set in an Indian village with peopled with all Indian characters, I wanted to write a novel dealing with the British who remained behind in India after partition. A kind of balance to my writing. That was all well and good, but I began writing the novel before I was completely satisfied with the story line, and the more I wrote of it the less I liked it. So I kept changing the story line as I wrote rather than doing what I really should have done, which was delete the whole thing and go away and write something completely different, waiting until I knew what I really wanted to write. But I’m now content that I have the story I want to tell, rather than Just A Story.

Consequently, I have been virtually living in West Bengal during these days, inevitably leading to yearnings to be there in person. Which does nothing to ease the feelings of frustration at enduring the travel restrictions of Lockdown.

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However, one of the advantages of having several projects on the go at once, which I always have, is that I can switch to another for a while when I need to. Last week, then, I spent one day giving a final edit to a short story which gave me the opportunity to spend the day (in my head!) in rural Sussex, which was very welcome. Especially as that is somewhere we can get to now, with a minimum of hassle.

And A Good Place? I’m glad you asked. I think I’m close to finishing the second draft, which will be a blessed relief.

Just so long as my beta reader doesn’t throw her hands up in horror when she reads it…

Wandering

I’m posting this poem again, as it rather illustrates what I’ve personally found particularly frustrating during the recent lockdown. We can go for longer walks now, it is true, but that’s still not the same.

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If I could just wave a wand,

I would wander the world.

With my notebook in hand,

And a bag on my back.

 

I would sleep under hedges,

In hotels and haylofts.

Drink beers under trees,

And eat cheese on the moor.

 

I’d watch clouds over hilltops,

And boats on the ocean.

Shapes and shadows at sunset,

A moon with a view.

 

And I’d write trivial poems

Of snowfall and sunlight,

Birds singing at dawn

And the sounds of a stream.

 

There’s the lure of a skyline,

And skylarks above me,

Wine and woodsmoke my welcome,

At the end of the day.

 

To travel, to journey,

There’s magic in wandering

Over moorland and downland,

Through woods and through fields.

 

The world’s full of wonders

All waiting for wanderers.

Let me follow these paths

For as long as I can.

The poem can be found in my collection The Night Bus, which is available here. should your interest have been piqued by this…

The Compleat Trespasser by John Bainbridge

This time, the review without any distracting rants. Probably.

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Sub-titled Journeys into Forbidden Britain, it immediately sets out its agenda: it is both a potted history of how the land was stolen from the inhabitants of Britain, and the long struggles to regain access to much of it, with numerous anecdotes of the author’s own escapades trespassing.

The story of how the inhabitants of Britain came to lose their access to the majority of the land is a story that has been repeated throughout most of Europe and beyond. Land forcibly taken by invading armies and distributed partly to their soldiers, but mainly their officials or nobility. Land enclosed by lords and kings for hunting purposes, burning villages and evicting their inhabitants from the land. Land taken by acts of Parliament to further enrich the gentry. Land given by kings to the established church, so that peasants might labour only to feed the rich and corrupt clergy.

Land that has been kept private and jealously guarded both by strict and cruel laws, and by equally cruel methods by the landowners themselves. Thus laws that deemed the starving and dispossessed villager might be executed for taking a rabbit from land he once lived on, to feed his family. Thus the mantrap that would cut a mans leg off. Thus countless thousands beaten and sometimes killed by gamekeepers and owners.

When I attempted to review this a week ago, it ended up turning into a full-blown rant against grouse moors (I do rants so well, these days!), but even today it is not just grouse moors that are fenced off just so the idle rich can enjoy slaughtering wildlife – there is plenty of woodland and more open land enclosed around the country and dedicated to pheasant shooting, for example. There are country houses with huge estates. Land taken by the MOD for training purposes, and never returned. There are many landowners determined to block access to legal rights of way. Although the Countryside Rights of Way act of 2000 was supposed to restore access to most of the countryside, there is still much that is off-limits.

Yet there are good landowners, too. The tales of John’s own trespassing include several encounters with sympathetic landowners happy to see walkers on their land, with the obvious proviso that they cause no damage.

The improved access rights we do have today were earned the hard way. Since Victorian times there have been mass trespasses intended to both bring the issue into the public forum, and to try to force change. The Kinder Trespass of 1932 is probably the most famous, yet many preceded that. It is thanks to the countless trespassers and campaigners of those days that we have improved access rights today.

The book finishes, though, with a plea. Firstly to campaign for further land reform, for better access rights – rights that are enjoyed in Scotland, but not England, Wales or Ireland. And secondly with a warning – the current government campaigned at the last election on a promise to criminalise trespass, so that anyone who deliberately or inadvertently strays from a public footpath onto private land might find themselves on a charge in a criminal court.

Anyone who enjoys the countryside in any form, enjoys spending time there, and walking in it, should read this book. It provides a very good, clear, account of where we are, how we got here, and what has been done to get us someplace better.

But also that we still have some way to go.

Ghost Roads

I love old roads that have fallen into disuse, or been relegated to the role of footpath.

There is one a few miles away on the edge of the next town. It used to be part of the road running from London to Hastings, but when the ‘A’ road that now serves that purpose was built, it not only rendered it redundant for the purposes of long distance travel, but the new cutting actually sliced through it, so it now ends at the top of a hill. From that point, there are only a couple of footpaths leading away in different directions.

Almost fifty years ago (really? Ye Gods!) I cycled along there on my way to the coast from the London suburb in which I lived as a teenager. Many of the roads I used that day are now very much wider, and all are much busier, save the one on the edge of that town. When I walk there from my house, it feels that for that part of the walk I am on a ghost road. I can still think myself onto my cycle, into that year, and the absence of traffic feels weird. If I think hard, I can almost feel spectral traffic going past. What adds to that effect, is that I often walk that way in the evening and the light – or lack of it – only encourages those feelings.

I think of it as a Ghost Road, but that definition really refers to a road that is haunted. Such a road is the B3212 that crosses Dartmoor, and on the stretch between Postbridge and Two Bridges it passes the cluster of buildings known as Powdermills. Powdermills is so-called because most of it was built for the manufacture of gunpowder. The buildings are spaced far apart in case of accidents (translation: the gunpowder blowing them to Kingdom Come), and for the same reason the roof of each building was of tarred paper. This allowed the blast of an accident to disperse upwards, hopefully giving the occupants of the building a slight chance of survival.

Anyway, there were many such accidents and many deaths. The B3212 is supposedly haunted at the bend nearest Powder Mills, just where it passes over the Cherry Brook, by a pair of hairy hands that try to wrench the steering wheel of unwary drivers that pass that way, causing them to crash. I admit to occasionally slowing down at that point and taking my hands off the wheel to see if anything happened.

It didn’t.

But I still like to think a Ghost Road is one that has fallen into partial or complete disuse. Perhaps old Roman roads that survive as footpaths are ghost roads; there are certainly stories around the country of spectral Roman legions marching along them at the dead of night.

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I think there is something magical about any road falling into disuse and gradually becoming overgrown. A road constructed for wheeled traffic used only by foot traffic. It has a special feel when you walk it, different to the feel of other footpaths.

A country lane at night can feel like a Ghost Road, especially in the light of a full moon.

Another type of Ghost Road is the ancient trackway. These paths criss-cross the British countryside and are often of great antiquity. Formed originally by the passage of feet, both human and animal, but used later by carts and other four-wheeled vehicles. These also seem to have that magical feel, although in this case I feel I’m sharing the passage with the ghosts of countless other travellers over thousands of years.

And in the midst of the lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic we seemed to acquire a few more of these Ghost Roads – an unexpected benefit of the pandemic, in my opinion. It seems a real shame they have become busy again.

Rant Inspired by The Compleat Trespasser by John Bainbridge

Ooh, I liked this book.

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My intention was to review it today, but as I was writing the review it gradually turned into a polemic against grouse moors and the people who own them. So I’m going to run with that and write the review (properly) next week instead.

So, why is this about grouse moors? Well, in The Compleat Trespasser, grouse moors are one of the habitats John mentions in relation to trespassing.

There’s so much to detest about grouse moors.

Firstly, the fact that they tend to be very large areas of land owned by one rich person who wants to keep everyone else off that land; land that is, to use the hackneyed but nonetheless accurate phrase, the birthright of everyone in this country. Land that has, like much other land, been stolen from us originally by force and then passed around from one rich and powerful person to another. Land that, at one time, people would have depended upon for their livelihoods in a multitude of forms, whether it was growing food, gathering wood for shelter or for fire, fodder for their livestock, or somewhere to live.

Secondly, that same owner does everything in their power to destroy all wildlife other than the grouse they protect, so those grouse can then be killed either by their rich chums, or by others who can afford to pay for the pleasure of killing other creatures. Foxes, rats, rabbits, badgers, crows, hawks…the list is pretty well endless. Trapped, poisoned, shot…the result being a landscape as devoid of life as any desert. And I hate that arrogance that says ‘all these wild animals are my property.’

Thirdly, the drab uniformity of the landscape. Nothing but heather growing, and that burned in ten year cycles to maintain that barren uniformity. And this in turn contributes to accelerated run off and flooding in periods of heavy rainfall, affecting land lower down – often villages or small towns.

And, I daresay, the lack of cover makes it easier for the gamekeepers to watch for intruders.

But, at last opinions are beginning to slowly, but surely, turn against these dreadful habitats and their dreadful owners. I’m sure it will take a while yet, but I’m hopeful that in my lifetime we will see a ban on commercial grouse moors and the beginning of their re-wilding.

Vikings

Allow me to introduce a new joint venture, a magazine (or zine, as I’m informed we hip youngsters now say):

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The final poem in my recent collection, The Night Bus, is a poem called Vikings, and it is reproduced in this here zine with a series of super illustrations.

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This is a collaboration between myself and my talented friend Mark Prestage. As already indicated the poem is mine, while Mark designed, cut and printed the linocuts.

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Mark also did the hard work of putting the zine together, while I just sat around and drank beer. The zine is printed on 16 pages of high quality paper, in a preliminary edition of 40 numbered copies.

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In the UK the price is £4.50 including postage and packaging, and it can be ordered from my Etsy site: here, or directly from me (just email me) using Paypal. Unfortunately the cost of postage overseas makes it impractical to offer outside of the UK (typically doubling the cost of the zine, or even more).

If people make lots of approving noises, we have ideas for similar projects in the future.

Mark also blogs here: drifting in lower case and twits: twit and is well worth a visit.

In My Head…

For those of us who like to travel and have been under Lockdown for a while, the frustration is obvious.

And some of us, I’m afraid, only like to make things worse for ourselves…

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Working on my novel A Good Place set in the foothills of Northern India, I’m not only writing about that place, but also referring occasionally to books, websites, and my travel journals on the area. Looking at lots of photographs, both my own and others.

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Immersing myself in it inevitably leads to frustration, although I’m making good progress on the book.

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I suppose I only have myself to blame, especially for lingering over the photos.

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But that doesn’t make it any the easier.

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Dammit.

Crows

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This is the first poem in a series still not quite completed. Although the rest of the series needs to be read as a single entity, this one works as a standalone piece.

Crows are unsettling.

They make eye contact with you,

Like all their kind:

Rooks, magpies, jackdaws and their ilk,

Black-eyed, mocking, wind-flicked feathers,

Watching you from high branches,

Scattered trees, lone rocks and open fields.

Krra icily in the harshest breeze.

 

They could be smart, dark-suited undertakers,

Clearing up dead bodies or

Smug bankers, lounging in the hotel bar with

After-dinner drinks, bragging raucously.

 

Crows solve problems, are wary, learn,

And remember you.

They may reward kindness

With coins and pieces of glass,

With golf balls, or feathers.

But crows make up murders.

They hold grudges and will plot your destruction

If you cross them.

 

New Paintings in my Shop

I’ve just got around to putting up a few new paintings in my online shop: https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/MickCanningArtworks

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The originally entitled Mountain Scene

 

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New Moon

 

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Dartmoor #3

All paintings are pastels on paper, size 11 inches x 15 inches, and cost £35.

What a bargain, eh?

Flint Flakes and Very Big Snails

We are now allowed to go out to exercise for an unlimited amount of time each day.

This may not have been top of everyone’s Relaxing-the-Lockdown-Rules-Wish-List, but other than the opportunity to finally begin to see some family and friends, I think it was top of mine. On this first day of slightly increased freedom, I take camera and notebook and go off for a longer walk than I’ve been used to this last couple of months. Nothing particularly long, but it feels good to know there is no reason at all for me to limit my walk or have to justify it to anyone.

Naturally, there are other walks I want to do even more, but I’m still reluctant to use public transport to get to somewhere I want to walk and, to be quite frank, the government has not made it clear whether I’m allowed to (although they’ve given the police a major headache if they want to try to control it). So for the moment, the South Downs will have to wait.

But now I am thinking of a walk I did almost exactly a year ago, to reacquaint myself with an area of the North Downs I lived close to a long time ago. I planned to walk along an ancient trackway running along part of the ridge of the Downs, and marked as such on the Ordinance Survey map. This is an area where many Roman remains have been found over the years, mainly in the wide river valley nearby, but I had no idea how old the trackway was thought to be, whether it pre-dated the Romans or was more recent.

But many of these routes were in use long before the Romans arrived, since the early Britons found the lower lands were frequently too marshy and thickly wooded for either easy settlement or for travel. And so it is highly likely this route is several thousand years old. One of the Old Ways. And just walking along it gives me a sense of continuity with the past.

In a wooded area the footpath passed a wide, shallow pit, although there was nothing marked on my map. Mindful that it was always possible it had been dug out by early settlers mining flints, I stopped and poked around in a few areas of exposed earth until I found a couple of flint flakes that appear to have been worked.

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To my un-scholarly eye one flake appears to just be a waste flake struck off the flint being knapped (R), but the other could be the tip of perhaps a knife that was being worked but broke in the process, or even a stone chisel (L).

Having adjusted the focus of my eyesight, as it were, to looking for worked flints, I almost missed the fact that the obvious snail shell partially revealed nearby was larger than it should have been, measuring about 5 cm across.

The Romans brought all sorts of goodies to Britain, including a large edible snail (there’s no accounting for tastes) that we now call the Roman Snail. Although found over much of Europe, they have become rare in recent times. In the UK, too, they are now only found in a few areas, including parts of the North Downs, and are protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act making it illegal to kill, handle or possess them without a licence.

The shell I found obviously belonged to one that had long ago gone to meet its maker (or maybe a few herbs and a thick gravy), although I had no way of telling how long ago.  Whether there is still a population of living snails in that area I don’t know either, since that is information that tends to be kept as secret as possible.

But both the finding of the flint flakes and the snail shell seemed to reinforce that feeling I had of continuity with the past.