A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

England: A Romantic View

The best way to enjoy England is on foot. And I often walk alone. But don't get me wrong! I'm no Billy-No-Mates. In fact I can be one of the most sociable and gregarious of people. At times. And at other times I seek out solitude. I'm happy with my own company. For me walking alone works perfectly. Anyhow you meets lots of people you can bond with along the way - fellow ramblers, hikers, countryside lovers. Walking solo you meet and talk to many more people than if you travel with a friend or in a group. Or so I find. And you can walk at your own pace, think your own thoughts, choose your own path. No arguments about where to go and how long to stay! On your own your senses are sharpened; you see more, and reflect more ...

History. Landscape. Literature. These are my three rune stones on my solitary journeys through England. Ted Hughes, in his poem Pike, writes of a fish pond's stilled, legendary depths, that it was as deep as England. Yes, England is deep. You only have to scratch the surface of England and it oozes history. Layers upon layers of history - Iron Age, Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Norman, Elizabethan, Jacobean, Georgian, Victorian. Oral history. Written history. Imaginative and mythical history. Read The Making Of The English Landscape by W. G. Hoskins and you will discover that the English landscape is a palimpsest which has been written on endlessly - geologically, anthropologically, socially, architecturally, culturally, politically.

The history is the landscape. And the landscape is the history. I love so many of the landscapes of England - the grand hills of the Lake District where the Lakeland poets roamed, the big skies and bird-haunted coasts of East Anglia, the bleak, curlew-calling moorlands of the Pennines, the deep, hedgebanked lanes of Devon and Cornwall, the limestone caves and gorges of Derbyshire, the stone barns, drystone walls and hay meadows of the Yorkshire Dales ... So interesting, so various. It would take many lifetimes to reveal it all, to plumb its 'legendary depths'. Perhaps my favourite landscape is the ordinary, typical scene of patchwork fields surrounding a quintessentially English village - with its church and Wesleyan chapel, its village green and pub, its thatched cottages, duckpond and cricket field ... A romantic view of England, I know - but one that persists in my imagination.

And the shining stars of English Literature illuminate these landscapes. Isn't the Lake District made more emotionally real through the creative vision of William Wordsworth? Wouldn't the enclosed fields of Northamptonshire lose some of their sad resonance without the poetry of John Clare? Can you ever visit the heaths and henges of Dorset without recalling the novels of Thomas Hardy? Can Shropshire ever quite seem the same after reading AE Housman's description of 'those blue remembered hills'? Yes, the novels and poems of English writers are interwoven like a vivid dye through the rich tapestry of English history and English landscape.

Literature. Landscape. History. These are my gateways to understanding the ancient heart of this country called England. These are the reasons why I walk its countless paths.

(With thanks to www.guardian.co.uk/enjoy-england for inspiring this post.)

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Jam And Jerusalem

Couldn't resist posting this video... 'The Village Green Preservation Society' - sung by the incomparable Kate Rusby, with lyrics by the great Ray Davies.

'God save little shops, china cups and virginity..!' Priceless.

Butts, Brochs And Blackhouses

One Friday morning I took the Calmac car ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis...

Lewis is the largest and most northerly island in the archipelago of the Outer Hebrides or Western Isles. (Actually it's joined by a narrow isthmus to the Isle of Harris further south, so the two 'isles' are in fact one complete island - known as Lewis and Harris.) Most of Lewis is flat, featureless terrain, a plateau of peat stretching from horizon to horizon. Peat cutting has always been an important part of the island's frugal economy, and you can see now and again stacks of cut turves from the roadside...

I followed the straight western coastal road right up to the Butt of Lewis, the island's most northerly point. The landscape was desolate and treeless, buffeted by North Atlantic gales. It took some getting used to after the majestic peaks and troughs of the Scottish Highlands. At the Butt fulmars and kittiwakes had colonised the high sea cliffs and gannets divebombed the choppy ocean. (Amazing how the gannets' wings fold back just before hitting the water - perfect aerodynamics!) Here was an abandoned lighthouse, designed by David Stevenson, uncle of the writer and adventurer Robert Louis Stevenson, one of my favourite childhood writers, author of Kidnapped and Treasure Island and A Child's Garden Of Verses - and, of course, Travels With A Donkey In The Cévennes, one of the books which fed my own emerging wanderlust...

Travelling south again I reached the isolated crofting community of Arnol and its cluster of deserted blackhouses. Most are in ruins, but one of these long, low cottages is preserved in Arnol's Blackhouse Museum. It's built in the traditional way with thick, drystone walls packed with earth, wooden rafters and a thatch of turf and straw. See from my pic how the roof is roped down against the wind...

In these old crofting houses man and livestock shared the same space. The living room stood next to the byre - sometimes without a partition. The floors were of flagstones or compacted earth. An open peat fire burned in the centre of the living room, and the smoke percolated up through the roof. There was no chimney. This helped dry the thatch and killed off any bugs. Why were they called 'blackhouses'? Perhaps because they were dark and smoky places. Or perhaps because of a confusion between the Gaelic words dubh (black) and tughadh (thatch)...

A little further south I came upon the broch of Dun Carloway. (You'll recall my previous post on the brochs of Dun Telve and Dun Troddan...)

It was getting late in the day, and I still hadn't found a campsite in this barren and windswept wilderness...

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Almost All The Way Up Stac Pollaidh

The next day I climbed Stac Pollaidh which lies just north west of Ullapool in the Inverpolly Forest. Of course the forest is a forest no longer. It's a vast, bare, open landscape of lochs and lochans, peat bogs and isolated mountains. Though Stac Pollaidh ('Peak of the Peat Moss') is little more than 2000 ft, it seems higher as it's not hemmed in by other hills. From the top the views are tremendous. To the west are the sea and the Summer Isles; to the north, south and east stretch the wilderness areas of Assynt, Coigach and the Cromalt Hills. And you can clearly pick out the mountain peaks of Suilven and Canisp, Cul Mòr and Cul Beag.

Stac Pollaidh is easily accessed from the road which runs along Loch Lurgainn at its foot. There's a well-maintained path to the top which I climbed without too much difficulty. I'd obviously got fitter since my travails on Ben Nevis! The eastern top is simply reached, but the higher, western top can only be gained by a scramble up rocky gullies, slabs and pinnacles. I enjoyed the scrambling - the Torridonian sandstone was firm and grippy - but I'm afraid fear got the better of me in the end when I came to a short, but exposed, near-vertical rockface. So I didn't quite make it to the highest point. (For an experienced scrambler this would have been a piece of cake - there were plenty of holds - but I didn't want to take the risk, as I was wary of getting into trouble, being on my own. I would have gone for it if a mate had been with me.) Anyway, that's quite enough talk about my sensible discretion (or cowardice? Afterwards I wished I'd gone 'all the way'...) Let the pictures now do the talking...

Before returning to my Ullapool campsite, I drove west a few miles and came upon this superb, pristine sweep of sand at Achnahaird. Here a shallow river runs from bogland into one of the narrow inlets of Enard Bay. The sun had come out and the water sparkled, changing colour from light to dark as your eye followed it to the sea, first sandy brown, then turquoise, finally aquamarine. Near the shore purple patches of water shimmered over submerged, weed-encrusted rocks. The subtle spectrum of colour and constantly shifting light in North West Scotland is simply astonishing; no wonder so many artists are attracted to this place...

Friday, 18 September 2009

Gairloch To Ullapool

From Gairloch to the Garden of Inverewe, Scotland's finest garden, situated on a promontory jutting out into Loch Ewe. Despite sharing the same latitude as Canada's Newfoundland and St Petersburg in Russia, Inverewe has a temperate climate - for it's warmed by the mild waters of the Gulf Stream. So lots of diverse plants can grow here. The rhododendron and eucalyptus collections are particularly prized. I spent several hours in this plant paradise, wandering the woodland walks in perfect contentment...

Later that day, after viewing the 'box' gorge of Corrieshalloch from a wobbly suspension bridge...

... I pitched my tent by the loch in Ullapool...

Friday, 11 September 2009

Decorator And Disturber

I'll end my brief meditations on MacCaig with this - one of his less well known poems, and one I absolutely love.

Elemental you

As the rain makes
Blue gold-shines on the puddled mud at gates
And tinily trickles over small estates

And as the wind
Hullabaloos a tree against its will
To stop the nonsense of just standing still,

On any day
You, decorator and disturber, make
Me unexpected: my gray turns crimson lake,

My thoughts that are
Great liers on their backs get up and dance
And my face shines, though I lose countenance

Being forced to agree
Mud can be trampled bright and - look at me!
I can dance too, if only like a tree.

This is such a perfect poem, so up-beat, so simple - yet perhaps not quite as simple as it first appears. Who or what exactly is the 'elemental you'? The rain and the wind for sure - but it's also creative inspiration, isn't it? And something to do with the joy, and the transforming and transformative nature, of life and thought - a magic sourced in the natural, elemental world, and which comes to us unsolicited, like an act of grace (I'm reminded of D. H. Lawrence and his poem Song Of A Man Who Has Come Through with its line about 'the wind that blows through me'). But MacCaig puts all this across in the lightest, the wittiest and the most deftly underplayed of styles.

May all our muddy puddles be 'trampled bright', and may we all dance - in body and in thought - to our own tune. I certainly hope all my own days 'make me unexpected' - for therein lies the pulse and the thrill of life (or 'the throb and mewl of life' as The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe once wrote so memorably!)

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Breathing In The Darkness

...how ordinary/extraordinary things are or/how extraordinary ordinary/things are, like the nature of the mind/and the process of observing... From An Ordinary Day by NORMAN MACCAIG.

Really you could consider most of MacCaig's poems 'praise' poems - in the tradition of Gaelic poetry and in the tradition of many great poets such as Rilke (see a post on Rilke here). Here are 2 more of MacCaig's animal poems, which celebrate the lives of a collie dog and a hare. They are sad poems, but life-enhancing poems too, celebrating as they do the energy and vitality of these animal lives...

Praise Of A Collie

She was a small dog, neat and fluid -
Even her conversation was tiny:
She greeted you with a bow, never bow-wow.

Her sons stood monumentally over her
But did what she told them. Each grew grizzled
Till it seemed he was his own mother's grandfather.

Once, gathering sheep on a showery day,
I remarked how dry she was. Pollochan said, 'Ah,
It would take a very accurate drop to hit Lassie.'

She sailed in the dinghy like a proper sea-dog.
Where's a burn? - she's first on the other side.
She flowed through fences like a piece of black wind.

But suddenly she was old and sick and crippled...
I grieved for Pollochan when he took her for a stroll
And put his gun to the back of her head.

I love the line She flowed through fences like a piece of black wind. The next poem is, I think, more profound, and plumbs some deeper places...

Interruption To A Journey

The hare we had run over
bounced about the road
on the springing curve
of its spine.

Cornfields breathed in the darkness.
We were going through the darkness and
the breathing cornfields from one
important place to another.

We broke the hare’s neck
and made that place, for a moment,
the most important place there was,
where a bowstring was cut
and a bow broken forever
that had shot itself through so many
darknesses and cornfields.

It was left in that landscape.
It left us in another.

This poem is as much about us as it is about the hare - our reaction to the mercy killing, our transportation from one emotional landscape to another in the face of death... I think it's a very fine poem. It's sad, and it's dark, and it's mysterious about the mysteries of life and death. But it's transformative too... I also like the fact that both these poems are written in a very moving way, but without any trace of sentimentality.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Ringed Plover By A Water's Edge

They sprint eight feet and -
stop. Like that. They
sprintayard (like that) and
They have no acceleration
and no brakes.
Top speed's their only one.

They're alive - put life
through a burning-glass, they're
its focus - but they share
the world of delicate clockwork.

In spasmodic
Indian file
they parallel the parallel ripples.

When they stop
they, suddenly, are


Anyone who's ever seen ringed plovers do their run-and-pause routine - as I did at the edge of Sandwood Loch this summer - will instantly recognize MacCaig's snapshot description of them here. After a frenzied, clockwork sprint, they suddenly freeze - in perfect camouflage among the pebbles.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Where A Thought Might Take me

Every step is a moonlanding, my feet sink in unpredictables and astonishments... NORMAN MACCAIG

Yes, the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig wrote that fine frog poem, as Rachel Fox knew and Weaver Of Grass correctly divined. In fact he wrote other poems on frogs too, and one on toads, and many others on earwigs, lizards, caterpillars, worms, dogs, cows, bulls, horses, goats, deer, hens, ducks, pigeons, crows, blackbirds, starlings, sparrows, wrens, gulls, puffins, cormorants, kingfishers, stonechats, greenshanks, wagtails, plovers, swans, bullfinches, blue tits, thrushes, sharks, whales, and porpoises. MacCaig loved all living creatures with their unique oddities, their individual charms; and he celebrated them in poems of wit, wisdom and panache. I'd like to explore a few more of MacCaig's poems. Why don't you come with me on the journey?

What better place to to start than with his poem Summer Farm - taken from his 1955 volume of verse, Riding Lights, and cited by Rachel Fox in her comment on my previous post. It's deservedly a much-anthologized piece, and demonstrates clearly his lucid style and gift for close observation. Yet beneath this surface transparency lie hidden depths. Metaphysics lurks in the summer farmyard heat. We pass from the ducks, to the hen, to the swallow, to the grasshopper (in language that slightly unsettles) to the human and artistic self - which reveals itself like a nest of Russian dolls. This poem is written most evidently by 'a man who never looks without thinking'...

Summer Farm

Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass
And hang zigzag on hedges. Green as glass
The water in the horse-trough shines.
Nine ducks go wobbling by in two straight lines.

A hen stares at nothing with one eye,
Then picks it up. Out of an empty sky
A swallow falls and, flickering through
The barn, dives up again into the dizzy blue.

I lie, not thinking, in the cool, soft grass,
Afraid of where a thought might take me - as
This grasshopper with plated face
Unfolds his legs and finds himself in space.

Self under self, a pile of selves I stand
Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand
Lift the farm like a lid and see
Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.

It would be really cool if we could develop what we think about this poem and its meaning in the comments' box?

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

My Last Word On Frogs

People have said to me, You seem to like frogs.
They keep jumping into your poems.

I do. I love the way they sit,
compact as a cat and as indifferent
to everything but style, like a lady remembering
to keep her knees together. And I love
the elegant way they jump and
the inelegant way they land.
So human.

I feel so close to them
I must be froggish myself.
I look in the mirror expecting to see
a fairytale Prince.

But no. It's just sprawling me,
croaking away
and swivelling my eyes around
for the stealthy heron and his stabbing beak.

I came across the work of this poem's author while in Scotland - and fell in love with it at once. He wrote many short, witty, metaphorical poems about animals and birds. I thought this delightful poem of his linked nicely with my previous posts on toads and herons. Can anyone take a stab at who the poet is?