What To Do?

What can you do when you lose all confidence in your own writing?

Write a post about my inability to write anything, I suppose.

It has been a real struggle for the last six months or so. It would be easy to blame Covid and lockdowns, and they might have played their part, but it goes deeper than that. I could blame some health issues I have, but that’s not the whole story. Every time I sit down to write, I feel stale and uninspired. Even when I have a day that seems to go well, when I read back what I have written later it seems contrived or forced. Uninteresting. I feel I have nothing worth saying; nothing anyone else would want to read.

I try to paint. I have ideas I want to try out, but it just won’t come. No sooner do I pick up a brush or a pencil than I feel I can’t be bothered with it all.

I know what part of the problem is: I want to go travelling. Travelling has always given me the opportunity to press the reset. I travel light. I write. Whether I go on a long walk or a trek, or just visit a place, it gives me the chance to reconnect with the world around me.

I was out for a walk this morning. Autumn has been here for a good six weeks or more, but it isn’t progressing very rapidly yet. Clearly, it is in no hurry. Although there are plenty of berries on the trees, the leaves seem reluctant to turn or to fall. On the other side of the wood I could see the hills towards the south, bluey-green in the distance. I always find this view really evocative, and it makes me want to grab my rucksack and disappear off for a few weeks. And that immediately makes me think of mountains. In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo says to Gandalf: ‘I want to see mountains again, Gandalf – mountains‘. He feels stale and tired of the familiar environment where he lives. (There’s more to it than just that in Bilbo’s case, of course.)

Well, that’s me.

Somewhere like this, perhaps!

Perhaps I’ll have a go at writing a few travel posts again. It has been quite a while since the last one. And before that I might re-post one or two of my earlier ones. Just to set the scene, as it were.

This way!

Apocalypse Deferred Just A Tiny Little Bit

Yesterday, I went for a walk around parts of Sussex and Kent. The sun shone – Hooray! I managed the whole walk without aching too much afterwards – Hooray again! I said good morning to some sheep and patted a very nice horse. I just knew it was going to be a Good Day.

At one point I went along a footpath I haven’t used for several years, and was delighted to see this:

And then another four miles or so later there was this:

The council have made this area a Designated Roadside Nature Reserve. Established for several years now, it has a rich variety of wildflowers and grasses, and is fairly humming with insect life.

Perhaps there is a little hope for us, after all.

Sunday Supplement – 3

Last year I wrote a post about how the Christmas season made sense to me when I thought of it as the old festival of Yule and all that entails. About nature, renewal and hope. Of course, I also wrote about my own hopes for the coming year, and the less said about that, the better! But I also wrote a post a couple of weeks ago – Winter 4 – the last in a series, discussing how I thought the Solstice might have been marked in prehistoric times. Although here in the UK we are now in yet another Lockdown, the solstice is tomorrow – marking the turning of the year – and I cannot help but see that as a reason for hope; the days begin to lengthen, the darkness slowly retreats, and whether you view that as merely symbolic, or connect that with longer, warmer, days and the pleasure they bring, as well as conditions less covid-friendly, yes, it is a reason for hope.

I finished reading H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. I’ve been very poor at writing reviews this last year, and I must make a start again. This would be a great one to begin with; so much to write about it, and a definite five star recommendation. Superb.

I then read The Girl Who Forgets How To Walk, a poetry collection by Kate Davis, published by Penned in the Margins.

As the site describes it: ‘In this remarkable first collection, tarns, limekilns and abandoned pits become portals into a dark, interior world. A woman levitates above a building site; earth slips and fault-lines open up beneath the town; the sea hides ‘a gob of virus’. The moving title sequence tells the story of a young girl with polio who struggles to find her feet — and her voice — in an unforgiving landscape where ‘the ground cannot be trusted’.’ Again, thoroughly recommended and enjoyable. I finished it last night and am wavering between a couple of books, deciding what to read next. But, at the same time, I am working my way through a couple of excellent magazines:

An Antidote To Indifference is the perfect title for a magazine that showcases the best of the writing published on the Caught by the River website. It describes itself as: ‘an arts/nature/culture clash… It began as an idea, a vision and a daydream shared between friends one languid bankside spring afternoon. Conceived as an online meeting place for pursuits of a distinctly non-digital variety — walking, fishing, looking, thinking, birdsong and beer, adventure and poetry; life’s small pleasures, in all their many flavours — it was, and still is, about stepping out of daily routines to re-engage with nature. Finding new rhythms. Being.’ The website is updated daily and the magazine is published, on average, twice a year. I bought a couple of back issues as a bit of an experiment and, again, I highly recommend them to anyone who enjoys nature in any form.

My writing has taken a bit of a hit, though, this past week. I’ve felt utterly uninspired and fed up with the novel I’ve been editing, so I’ve tossed them aside for the moment and have been doing a little work on a short story – a folk horror / ghost story – and a little artwork. Amongst my daubings was this derivative painting which I intended to do for practice, but then thought would make a good birthday card for Sabina’s birthday last week. So that’s how it ended up.

At Last!

Well, that’s it. I’ve done it. It’s finished. Somewhere around mid-morning yesterday, probably just before eleven o’clock. And in the end it wasn’t too difficult; not too painful, anyway. I thought I was going to have more problems than I did, actually. Fortunately, though, it all went quite smoothly in the end. In fact, I’m not sure what all the fuss was about.

Oh, I do beg your pardon. I was quite forgetting.

I’m referring to the book I’ve been working on for the last three or four years: A Good Place. Having thought I’d finished it around a year ago, I ended up binning the last third of the book and re-writing it. And although I’ve ended up with what I feel is a stronger narrative, and with more believable characters, there was one chapter towards the end that was just refusing to play ball.

Until yesterday.

So hopefully, I’ve now completed the final draft. I’ve sent it to my beta reader to go through, and as long as she thinks the story works I’ll put it to one side for six months and then begin what I hope will be the final edit. And if I’m still happy with it then, I’ll look to pass it to three more beta readers for their comments. If they think it worthwhile, I might then have a go at interesting a publisher in it.

Although I’ll probably just think Oh, to hell with it all and self-publish it, anyway.

And if she thinks it’s no good, I’ll hide it somewhere and sulk.

What’s it about? It is set in an Indian hill station in 1988. An English visitor arrives, bringing with him a mystery concerning his childhood, the key to which he suspects may lie with the remaining English inhabitants of the town. And like many expatriate communities around the world, these inhabitants have a complicated and, at times, difficult relationship with the other members of their community. As the visitor gets drawn further into the life of this community, he finds his own relationships with them becoming unexpectedly complicated and difficult, with tragic and unanticipated consequences for several of them.

Anyway, after all that palaver, I decided to go for a walk in the woods nearby. Up until that point, it had been a dry, if overcast, day. But as soon as I reached the woods, the rain began pelting down.

It was dark and gloomy beneath the trees, and the rain was soon drawing out the peculiarly woodland scents of autumn. There was a rich, thick, puddingy smell, as rich and thick as the deep and increasingly wet humus soil I was walking on. Soon my feet were squishing and squelching through the mud and dead leaves, the fungi and conker husks, the rotting wood and the mildewed berries.

The rain burst through the branches and leaves of the trees, hammering on my head and shoulders, running into my pockets, and down my legs. Although it was mid-afternoon, the light had the quality of a premature dusk, and the few other people I saw seemed to slip between the trees like unhappy ghosts.

It was a bloody good walk, I must say.

The Conquering Hero Comes!

This is another day when I feel frustrated because I’d like to be out travelling, although I did get to have a great long walk on the South Downs on Saturday. But rather than post about that at the moment, I have a fancy to re-post this piece I wrote a few years ago:

I’ve never wanted to ‘conquer’ mountains.

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Or any other parts of the world, really.

I’ve always felt this was the wrong way to think of a journey. It was ridiculous to think I could impose my will upon a mountain, or on a desert, or indeed upon any part of my route. That I could, perhaps, somehow bend it to my will.

I feel it is more a case of preparing as best as possible, including mentally, and then perhaps said mountain will tolerate my presence; will allow me passage.

‘Conquering’ also carries the implication of invasion, of fighting, of strife. That is not the sort of relationship I want with mountains, or with any other place I choose to travel.

Certainly, in the past I have travelled at least partly with that mindset at times.

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Some of you may recall I wrote about an extremely foolish journey I took in Oman when I lived there over thirty years ago (Mr. Stupid Goes For a Walk). Although I was running low on water, I pushed myself to the limit to reach the final ridge of hills on the route I had decided I was going to achieve one day, nearly killing my stupid self in the process. And although I achieved my aim, I didn’t feel victorious.

Only a bit stupid.

I prefer instead to think of myself as a visitor. And as a visitor, I need to have some manners. You do not expect to find the visitors pushing through your house and demanding to see this or to be given that, so I don’t.

I am not out to break records, nor to prove how tough I am.

This does not imply a lack of ambition, nor a lack of determination. Indeed, I have both – it’s just that the mindset is a little different. In particular, I give myself different priorities. I want to reach my goal but if I don’t, it does not matter. I think I’m more attuned to my own safety, and perhaps that of others. I hope I can be receptive to the feelings of others, too.

A good example in the climbing world is that of the mountains in Nepal that climbers are forbidden to reach the summit of, due to the belief that they are the abode of gods. Theoretically, a climber will stop some 10 meters or so short of the summit. Opinion is naturally divided over whether a climber would, or wouldn’t, in the absence of any witnesses, respect that ban.

I would respect it every time.

The mountains, of course, are inanimate. They do not wish me harm or otherwise. Neither do deserts or oceans. Even the most inhospitable of landscapes is neutral. It does not care whether I succeed in my aim to reach or traverse a particular part of it, and it will not hinder or help me in the attempt.

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My feelings about a landscape are just my reactions to it, and if I should choose to give this landscape a kindly or vindictive character, I am only projecting my own feelings onto it.

This may give me comfort, or otherwise, but will make no material difference.

Maybe I am simply suggesting it’s good to travel with humility.

I have touched upon that before!

An Andalusian Adventure (2)

Part 1 can be found here: Part 1

It was a long way to Colmenar. I was walking up into the Malaga Mountains, with no map and no directions other than a road sign at the edge of Malaga suggesting that by following this road I would eventually reach my destination.

I suspect I have undertaken other journeys where I have been better prepared.

But the day was perfect for walking, with high drifting clouds and a light breeze to keep me cool, and having done little for several days other than eat, drink and wander around Malaga, I was feeling fit, fresh, and eager to get going.

As the hours went by and I slowly gained height, the clouds began to build up, and the temperature gradually dropped. About an hour from my destination, it finally began to rain. Immediately the temperature plummeted, and I rapidly went from merely chilled to decidedly cold.

Usually, we approach rain all wrong. Buddhists would say unskilfully. If it begins to rain, we hunch ourselves up, both physically and mentally. We fear becoming cold and wet. We need to let go of this fear. It’s a good lesson to learn. Stop. Take several long, slow, deep, breaths, and let go of this feeling. Let go of this need. We act as though hunching ourselves up will keep us dry and make us warmer. It doesn’t. Unless one can find shelter, it is better to accept the rain and finish the journey.

It is a cliché to speak of heightened awareness, yet that is also a by-product of this letting go. We remove our focus from the rain and instead allow it to go elsewhere, where it is really needed. We should throw back our heads and embrace the rain, enjoy the freshness of the rain on our faces. Listen to the sound of the rain on the ground and the leaves around us.

Back then, I hadn’t learned that lesson. I hurried towards the town as fast as I could.

One of the first buildings I came to was an inn. I went into the bar and asked for a room. The room I was given was reached by leaving the bar again and walking around the side of the building. The door to my room had a gap at the bottom of an inch or two, but otherwise fitted the door frame well enough. It was locked and unlocked by the type of huge key frequently described as a jailor’s key. The room was furnished only with a bed, a chair, and a small chest of drawers. There was a mirror above the chest of drawers and a crucifix above the head of the bed, but other than those the whitewashed walls were bare. There was a small window which was shuttered. The floor was of flagstones, with no carpet or mat. To use toilet or bathroom it was necessary to leave the room again and continue still further around the building to reach a very basic room. But again, it was clean. And there was a toilet that worked, and a sink with a cold tap. There was also a shower set into the ceiling I could have braved, but it felt much too cold for that.

Later, I would occupy rooms like this in many other places, in many other countries. Simple, perfectly clean, and usually very cheap. I am not sure whether it is because they appeal to the minimalist in me, but in many ways I prefer them to more comfortable accommodation.

Whenever I have stayed in one, I have always felt I was carrying too much baggage with me. I have been beset with the feeling I should be throwing out some of the items I have in my bag – do I need all those clothes? All those other items? It has been a recurring regret of mine that I have never managed to live a simpler lifestyle than I have. I have never enjoyed the frenetic hurry and clamour of modern urban life, and I hate how easily my life can become complex and filled with what feels like unnecessary fuss.

Here, even the spartan contents of my rucksack seemed too much. Perhaps I had too many books with me…

But now I was here, I changed out of my wet clothes and opened the shutters so I could look out at the low cloud and misty horizon. The rain drummed comfortingly on the roof and I settled down to read a book for an hour or so. I was content, and that’s a good place to be.

I cannot remember what I had for supper that night, but I do remember I drank a bottle of cheap red wine with it. Perhaps that is the reason.

I rather think I slept well, too.

And as in all good stories, the morning dawned bright and clear, the sun shining low in a clear blue sky. Before I left the town, I passed a couple of shops and bought a few items for my lunch: bread, a huge tomato, a hunk of cheese, a couple of apples, a bottle of cheap wine.

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With the improved weather, and the fact I had more downhill stretches that day than uphill ones, I allowed myself the luxury of returning to Malaga slowly, including a stop for lunch of about an hour. Compared to the UK, Spain is a large country and the rural population is comparatively small. Although I was not far from the city, I saw almost no one else on my walk and I meandered along slowly through a mixture of low trees and bushes, many of them in flower – the distinctive Mediterranean maquis vegetation – rocky outcrops and clumps of flowers, and the occasional lone farmhouse. The ground was dry and dusty, as though the rain of the previous day had never happened, and the sun was hot. With my lunch consisting of about half a bottle of wine as well as the food, I was feeling extremely weary and footsore when I reached Malaga again. I found the hotel I’d stayed in before and got a room on the same floor. After showering, I finished the bread and cheese and decided all I wanted to do was read my book for a while and then have an early night.

There was a knock at the door and when I opened it Matthias was standing there grinning.

‘I saw you arrive earlier. We go for beer, now!’

An Andalusian Adventure (1)

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It wasn’t my first trip to Spain, although it was a long time ago now. I walked into Malaga with a rucksack on my back and followed the signs for ‘Centro’ until I found myself in the crowded central district of older narrow streets with three- and four-story shops and cafes, guest houses and cheap hotels. The second hotel I tried offered me a perfectly adequate room on the third floor at a very good price.

The hotel was old. The wooden floors of the corridors were worn and polished by the passage of countless feet, and everywhere seemed gloomy. It gave the impression of having more nooks and corners where light never penetrated than it should. But the only light came from the occasional bulbs hanging from the ceilings, and other than by returning to the street, the visitor would only encounter daylight once they had reached their room and opened the curtains.

The bed was old, and sagged a good deal more than it should, and the furniture was so dark with age it was difficult to make out the grain. As a base for a few days, I decided it would suit me fine. As I unpacked and settled in, I suddenly heard a violin being played. It sounded quite close, and I opened my bedroom door to investigate. I had just decided the sound was coming from a neighbouring room when it stopped, and then a door opened. A man about ten years older than myself emerged and stopped when he saw me.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Did I disturb you?’

He introduced himself as a German who I shall call Matthias, although I am no longer certain that was his name, and who immediately invited me to go for a beer.

It would have been rude of me to refuse.

Matthias was meandering around Europe, he told me, and supporting himself largely by busking. Later that week I was to see him playing in the street and be surprised at just how many passers-by threw coins into his hat. It seemed a particularly enjoyable way to travel. Over those beers and then over a few more later in the week, we talked travel and philosophy, music and religion. When I meet someone while travelling, I find it interesting how I often have less constraint than I would when I meet someone for the first time in more familiar surroundings. Frequently, I will reveal things about myself I would never dream of doing to someone I meet perhaps for the first time at a friend’s house, or at my writing group. I presume it is the unspoken knowledge we will never meet again.

Beside the entrance to the hotel was a little café where I made it my habit to take a breakfast consisting of strong coffee, sometimes with slices of thick white bread dipped in olive oil, sometimes with fried eggs. It was a good place to sit and watch Malaga waking up. Its clientele were a broad mixture of workers all grabbing a quick breakfast on their way to office, shop or building site. Mostly they sat in silence, reading the morning paper and smoking, other than to give their orders to the waiter. On the bar a tiny transistor radio chattered away in speech too indistinct for me to make out more than the occasional word. In a way, though, that only added to the atmosphere. Despite it being a familiar situation, there was enough of the unfamiliar and the foreign to make it feel a little exotic.

I wanted adventure, I wanted to explore. I’ve wanted to do that for as long as I can remember. I travelled in those days with a few changes of clothes in a rucksack and a minimum of half a dozen paperbacks, which invariably included something by Hermann Hesse and at least one poetry book.

That, at least, hasn’t changed much.

I liked to travel light (other than the books, of course), so I had no camera with me and probably very few of the essentials most people would think to take on a Spanish holiday. No swimwear, for example. I don’t do beaches, at least not in that way.

But I had come to Malaga because I had a peripatetic nature, and my itchy feet were troubling me. After a few days I decided to take a walk out to the little town of Colmenar, to the north of the city. I would take a room there for one night and return to Malaga the following day. Any other destination would have done just as well; the purpose was the journey, and the journey was the purpose. I chose this route simply because while wandering around the outskirts of Malaga I saw a narrow road winding up into the hills with almost no traffic on it, signposted to Colmenar. The morning after I had made the decision, I packed my rucksack and checked out of my hotel immediately after breakfast.

Part 2 to follow

It’s Been A While

A few weeks, anyway. Over the years, most of you have probably got used to me just disappearing every now and again. There comes a point where everything seems to get too much for me and even reading and commenting on posts becomes too difficult and challenging. I ignore social media except to check occasionally to see if I have any notifications, and whether these can just be ignored. As for writing a blog post, my mind just goes blank.

No snidey comments, please…

But I have been reading – reading voraciously, book after book, for a week or two. Comfort reading, for the most part. Books I know I enjoy and which are not too demanding of the reader. In between times I have made good progress with my novel A Good Place, so I’ve not just been feeling sorry for myself, staring morosely into space, and eating too much.

I’ve done that a bit, though.

I’ve even managed, finally, to take my first visit to the South Downs since the pandemic began. I took a bus down to the East Sussex town of Lewes, and from there spent a few hours walking a big loop up onto the Downs, along the top for a few miles, then back to Lewes. It felt as good as a holiday.

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I’ve written a couple of new blog posts, too, at long last. Well, it’s a bit of a cheat, really – they’re actually a couple of extracts from a travel essay I’ve been writing. I’ll put the first one up in a day or two. But I still feel I need a lot of space to switch off and think, so I apologise now if I don’t do a great deal of visiting other blogs.

If I do visit, of course, I’ll be socially distanced and masked up, so you might not even notice me there.

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.