Text & Image, Writing & Surrealism

Two ekphrastic day workshops coming up in the next couple of months:

On 21 May I’ll be teaming up again with cartoonist Malcy Duff  for our Text & Image gig – but for the first time in a library setting. We’re thrilled to be doing this at the Scottish Poetry Library, where we’ll use the archive – including some amazing concrete poetry, and the text art in the building itself – as a starting point for practical and experimental exercises in writing and drawing. This will be the fifth, sixth even, time we’ve collaborated, since co-facilitating a comic book workshop at the Fruitmarket Gallery in 2007. We’ve run Text & Image as a six-week course and as one-day and two-day workshops at National Galleries Scotland, considering many ways in which words and pictures combine – including in illuminated manuscripts, political cartoons, calligraphy and pop art. We’ve worked in a variety of mediums, including collage and acetates, and with our non-dominant hands – and our vocal chords! We look forward to adapting the exercises we devised for this new setting.

For writers, and artists, and folk who identify as both, or neither.

More details and how to book here. Please book by 6 May.

 

Back at NGS, on 25 June I have a day workshop on writing and surrealism, in response to the Surrealist Encounters exhibition which runs from 4 June – 11 Sept. There will be time to look at and discuss aspects of the exhibition, try some innovative writing exercises, and develop your own piece of work. We’ll cover topics associated with the surrealists, including automatic writing and dreams, and explore  how the relationship between chance and conscious decision-making contributes to the creative process. Includes refreshments, and a day pass to the exhibition (normally £10/8).

Details and booking information here.

Writers of all levels of experience, and in all genres, welcome on both days.

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GENERATION and regeneration

I spent a lot of time this summer and autumn at the GENERATION exhibitions celebrating art made in Scotland over the last 25 years. Sometimes I was working, as a freelancer in the NGS education department, sometimes working on my own material, and others being a tourist at other exhibitions in the series around the country.

In the RSA building on the Mound in Edinburgh there were seven rooms devoted to the work of seven different artists. To my own surprise, my personal favourite grew to be Martin Boyce’s installation of a park at dusk. This comprised skeletal steel benches, bed-frames and off-kilter bins in primary colours, was divided into sections by black mesh fences placed at oblique angles, and lit by fluorescent tubes representing trees. Originally designed for Glasgow’s Tramway, a larger, more industrial space than this, the biggest room in Robert Playfair’s RSA building, it appeared to be (re)creating a sense of urban decay and fostering a feeling of menace. I’d ask my tour groups how optiimistic it made them feel on  a scale of 1-10; most responses were between 3 and 5. The work’s apparently incongruous title,  Our Love is like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours is the chorus of the song ‘The Village’ in  New Order’s 1983 album  Power, Corruption & Lies.

Music, it strikes me,  is possibly more ‘generational’ than any other artform. Members of my tour groups tended to be either too young or too old to know  much about the post-punk and ‘industrial’ sounds, often emanating from Manchester, that became the soundtrack to the lives of students in another post-industrial city.  Boyce and a number of other artists in the exhibition studied on the Environmental Art course set up at Glasgow School of Art in the 80s. The course is credited, in the Generation Reader, a collection of essays published to  accompany the exhibition catalogue, and in a BBC documentary made about the exhibition, with being responsible for  the artist-led energy that produced such a diverse body of work during this time. Both stress how great emphasis was placed on socialising. I wondered what happened if you were an introvert with different tastes in music – what happened to the artist as outsider? – but maybe you just (just!) studied painting.

Anyway, after three months I’d settled on the Boyce room as the one most conducive to writing, low light levels notwithstanding, and I started to find it uplifting. At twenty-minute intervals, a  plangent soundtrack, specially composed for the installation, played as text slowly formed, then dissolved, on one of the walls. It was hard to read – Boyce devises his own fonts to blur the boundary between text and image – but seemed to say this place is dreaming. For a time I thought it read ‘this place is breathing’.

It occurs to me now that Boyce’s text could also be a reference to the phrase terribilis ist locus iste.  Originally from the Vulgate version of Genesis 28.17, and most often found inscribed on door lintels,  this was Jacob’s response to his vision of a ladder leading to heaven. Terribilis has been variously translated as ‘dreadful’ (King James) and ‘fearsome’ (New English); it means ‘awesome’ in the sense of sublime, terror-inducing.

This place is not terrible to me. I have partly measured out my adult life in the exhibitions I’ve seen in these rooms; sought them – and found comfort – in times of distress, shared memorable afternoons in them with friends, and been privileged to work in them.  This year, Boyce’s soundtrack and text and manufactured gloaming worked against the urban harshness of his physical materials in a way that allowed memories and imaginings to float free. This place was breathing and dreaming because it was immersive, real and unreal simultaneously, a creative and potential space. Also . . .  the portable gallery seats unintentionally referenced the steel and chain-link of the fencing and bed-frame components of the installation and, with a person seated on them,  became a temporary part of it. (These paragraphs are in the past tense because the exhibition closed on 2 November. Our Love was de-installed and returned to homes in various collections, including Tate.)

The open thresholds between the rooms gave sight-lines to works by other artists. From Our Love you could glimpse the gorgeous purples of Callum Innes‘ Exposed Painting series, or the black and white palate of a space made over to woodcut prints and ceramic works by David Shrigley that  playfully questioned the limits of black-and-white thinking. I’ve written in the company of Innes’ slow-burning paintings before, and it’s easy to find in them a meditative quality. More surprising was the  effect of sitting amidst Shrigley’s army (or pantomime cast?) of torso-less boots on plinths – boots that we are figuratively invited to fill, and that Shrigley will fill when his work is sited on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2016.

Over at the Portrait Gallery, Luke Fowler‘s 61- minute film The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott loosens the memory in a manner different to Boyce’s parkscape. Shot in 21st Century West Yorkshire, it features footage from the 1950s of Marxist historian E P Thompson, and an original soundtrack which includes a setting of Blake’s ‘London’. A voiceover (sterner in tone than that of the charismatic Thompson himself) reads from Thompson’s reports on the WEA classes in Social History and Literature in eleven West Riding towns. As well as a portrait of a man, he’s created on 16mm film a narrative of a place where industrial and rural landscapes are held in balance. Fowler’s image-assemblage maybe even works a bit like memory itself. He shows where habitation has spilled up hillsides, like a reverse landslide.  A lorry passes between gritstone walls at the pace of a horse and cart as smoke from a chimney in a field merges with cloud. Skies are punctuated with pylons and factory chimneys that look like Venetian campaniles.  Fields, olive from their gritstone underlay, are overlaid with snow. At night the moving lights of cars weave amongst the still ones from buildings, creating illuminated  townscapes where neon, sodium, street, factory and domestic lighting co-exist in a painterly fashion.  The time it takes a car to pass across the frame seems longer than if you were standing on the pavement yourself. Fowler cuts from the shot of a  factory, chimney and tower block warmed by a sunlight that makes of them a Mediterranean composition, to a close-up of the chimney’s top showing, not a cloud-capped tower, but one crowned with scaffolding. He revisits a frame from earlier in the film, but now the soundtrack has moved on.  And he dwells, too, on the details: the interiors of educational institutions, from stained-glass crests in windows opening onto more West Riding masonry, in both its hewn and unhewn states, to corridors and functional seating. (This paragraph is in the present tense because the film exists even when it isn’t being watched.)

I had a four-day interlude in the West Riding myself at half term. I visited the Hepworth Wakefield for the first time and Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the umpteenth, but  it retains its power to seep onto my soul. One of the other reasons for my visit was to look at and try to write about the horizon – the elongated concave  profile of Saddleworth Moor, the skyline as seen from the Calder valley. I was prevented from achieving this by a mist which pressed down into the valley, amplifying the hoot of the Transpennine train, and on the upland spur where I was staying accentuating underfoot textures – flag, cobble, pebble, brick, grit, leaf, mud – on by-ways with names like Beaumont’s Bolt and Pudding Lane. It insinuated itself round the midriff of Emley Moor television mast, and chilled through several layers of clothing in the  mornings, as I stood at an exposed hilltop bus stop where a big vista of high moor and industrial valley appears in clear weather. By midday sun had squeezed enough heat through the mist and onto the land for lunch to be taken outdoors at a village pub. It obfuscated plans, but it assisted memory – being up here on winter nights, high above the conurbation lights – and enabled the creation of new narratives, such as the fit between Luke Fowler’s vision of the location and my own experience if it.

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During this period the wonderful Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival  was running, this year with the theme ‘The Power to Communicate’. South Side Writers generated the text for a great wee exhibition at the Southside Centre. I attended a screening of Regeneration at Craiglockhart campus, formerly the war hospital where Wilfred Owen met Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon, who acted as poetic mentor to the younger Owen, was treated by the psychiatrist WHR Rivers, pioneer of psychotherapeutic methods used with ptsd today, and surely one of the great heroes of WW1. Rivers also worked on the regeneration of damaged nerve tissue. In the film of Pat Barker’s novel, adapted to give more of a  narrative arc (I don’t recall having any problem with the book’s narrative geometry), he is shown to experience secondary trauma. In the novels, if my memory is accurate, his own neuroses are attributed to his experiences working as an anthropologist in Melanesia in the Pacific, and a relatively minor childhood worry – one doesn’t need to have been to war to be beset by hard to-shift-demons. If one has been to war. . . well, thank the goodness that remains for Rivers and his legacy.

Afterwards there was a panel discussion involving the screen writer Allan Scott, an Afghanistan veteran and two psychotherapists from the Rivers Centre for traumatic stress at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital – where, in addition to medication and talking therapies, it seems they offer art therapy but not creative writing. Of course, there are many situations where the non-linguistic nature of art, or music, is what is needed –  but wouldn’t it be a highly appropriate tribute to Rivers and his most famous patient if, as more research is conducted into the efficacy of the ‘writing cure’, this were to be adopted in the clinic named for him?

Pat Barker, unable to attend, sent a generous message, which included a phrase that went something like: ‘while you work on the material, the material works on you’. This is an excellent encapsulation of the therapeutic benefits of creative writing. To put it another way: you generate the material; it regenerates you.

the play of work and other optical illusions

I’ve had a week off – no teaching, client work or meetings. Instead I took day trips to look at art outwith Edinburgh, for once without the agenda of preparing a workshop or a poem. I returned home in the evenings to watch highlights of the Vuelta a Espana and Tour of Britain. In the land of TV cycle touring, I’ve noticed, ‘podium’ is a verb and ‘abandon’ a noun. I wish I could say I’ve also had a week off from the Referendum coverage, but it’s too close (to polling day; to call), and too important to ignore. I had to turn the volume off during an exchange between Dennis Canavan and someone else on Reporting Scotland the other night. Of course I understand that with the stakes so high, and the subject so inflammatory,  interested parties will overheat. But as a voter and citizen, I’m just glad to be living in a fairly peaceable democracy. I’m starting to feel as I do when people over-identify with a sporting team: reactively neutral. Whatever the result, good and bad things will happen  Meantime, thank heavens for the wit and sanity of Gary Imlach, the best sports journalist I’m aware of.

On tuesday I travelled to Perth to look at the Alison Watt paintings that form part of GENERATION, the Scotland-wide celebration of art made in the last 25 years. I love her paintings of fabric; her painstaking crafting in paint of its folds, falls and crumples in works with titles like ‘Shift’, ‘Hood’  and ‘Tuck’. The Perth show is a mini-retrospective, a dozen works ranging from Watt’s self-portaits and nudes of the eighties, through the luscious work she produced after removing the model and making the figureless drapes the subject of the work, to new pieces that approach abstraction. One, Orion, completed this year, achieves the luminosity of a lit photo studio or stage set. Watt claims it alludes to Norman MacCaig’s beautiful short poem ‘Praise of a Thorn Bush’ (I couldn’t find a link, but it’s on p.319 of his Collected Poems); poetic is one of the first, and most lingering, words to spring to mind when viewing these paintings. In some of them, flesh, or plaster, are also suggested. Huge canvases absorb you as you approach them. Some seemed to draw me in towards a  vortex at their centre, where the darkest tones represent creases and folds in the mostly light/neutral/white fabrics. Once up close with the painting, our privilege is to observe the mark-making: how exactly she’s created the crack in a floorboard; shadow; toes.  I may not have been working, but I was still concentrating hard. Starting to experience sensory overload, I went out for a walk.

Beyond the North Inch parkland, a mile or so up the Tay, beyond the grand houses with lawns that terrace down towards the river, there’s a place where the current runs fast. On the far bank – the right bank, the east side, the Scone side –  is a shepherd’s hut kind of structure, quite camouflaged amongst trees. A human figure was sitting on the  bench in front of it, quite camouflaged against the walls. I sat down on a public bench opposite  and watched the current play. Eventually the person rose, picked up some tackle and waded in, making an arc from a gravel bank by the shore, through the shallows, until he was waist high in the midst of the fastest current. I watched him casting his line, slowly against the rapids, for maybe half an hour. When I returned my gaze to the bank, the verge in front of me was rotating, steadily, clockwise. My brain had however cleared enough to return to the gallery, and I walked back downstream.

Reflected in the seemingly static Tay, the arches of Perth Bridge completed into perfect circles, like portals to an otherworld.You could not help but imagine passing right through their centre. The trees on the banks also found their counterparts, sharp and solid below the water surface. Watt’s paintings were wonderful, and so was the scene outside the gallery. Attributing this to atmospheric conditions rather than any portent, or  illusion, of what the nation might become, I returned to the capital, from where I could cycle to a sunny Portobello beach on Wednesday, and on Thursday go to Jupiter Artland in the haar.

I grew up with the big Hepworths and Moores in the big landscapes of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park; this is maybe more akin to Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta at the other end of the Pentland Hills, but differently ludic to his self-styled ‘republic’. You have to seek out some of the works more subtly embedded in their wooded context.  Jupiter generously afforded opportunity for another day’s play with reality and illusion, amongst Charles Jenck’s landforms, and structures built by Andy Goldsworthy: a hut floored only with unfinished rough-hewn bedrock; an unlit interior densely furnished with  floor-to-ceiling tree trunks. Boulders from the same source as the hut – the ditch spanned with a stone arch by Hamilton Finlay, and tagged ‘only connect’ –  nestled like erratic tree-houses inside coppiced branches inside the woodland. Be wildered.

slow trains and sound bites

I went to Glasgow last Friday with the intention of working on some unfinished drafts at the Transport Museum. When I first visited last summer, the idea of having a transport theme at South Side Writers came to me whilst sunbathing on the deck between the museum and the Tall Ship. Since then we’ve used text, images and personal reminiscence featuring longships, mobility scooters, transporters, donkeys and just about every every other imaginable mode of transport to prompt explorations of character, plot, pacing, structure and sound, as well as looking closely at concepts like ‘flight’. I’d identified Zaha Hadid’s museum building as an interesting place to sit and write for an hour or two. Now it was summertime again, officially at least, and the group was on its Easter break, so I set off for the west on the slow train. This involves:  a pleasant half-hour walk to Slateford Station via the blooming gardens of Craiglockhart; avoiding congestion in  Edinburgh city centre and at Waverley Station, and a cheaper fare to Glasgow which does not carry off-peak restrictions either. The train is indeed slow,  a proper ‘stopping train’, but I like its meanderings around lesser-visited parts of the central belt, home to people I may never meet, trees and livestock.

Progress  from Central Station to  Partick was slowed further at the architecture and design centre, The Lighthouse, when I chanced across a half-hour creative writing workshop, ‘Lunchtime Bites’.   Facilitator Emily Dodd had selected a photograph from the Britain From Above exhibition, the Broxburn Oil Works. She gave us  a short introduction and set us to write for 15 minutes.  As a creative writing tutor, one  of the most satisfying aspects of an extremely satisfying job is when you hear a group’s varying responses to the same starting point, and the surprise of those who didn’t think they could do it.   Another is when you attend a workshop on your day off and get to practice  the magical process for yourself.

Some writers can produce a lot of good material in a quarter of an hour under these conditions. In recent years my personal word-processor speed has slowed – one of my best friends describes me as glacial – so I opted for a haiku . Out of the notes I’d made I linked two images –  the background slag-heap detritus of the chemical process, and the foreground canal –  in three lines. As Emily pointed out, fifteen minutes is a good time to break off anyway; when you return to your writing you’ll have an altered perspective on it.

I used my surplus material in a draft that re-worked some of Emily’s introductory material about the social and ecological environment and history. Add a bit of my own time-and-space preoccupation  and maybe or maybe not a human character, and it could become something more substantial. We were photographed and recorded  after the session. I’m here,  sounding like a northern Janet Street-Porter with a plane above my head.

Emily spoke with great enthusiasm about working with community groups who had grown up close to some of the photographed locations. Those of us present at this session hadn’t, though  I was inevitably struck by parallels with the former industrial landscapes of northern England.

After the designated half-hour I looked round the rest of the Britain from Above exhibition. It’s more accurately described as ‘oblique aerial photography’, or Britain from a bit above. This isn’t like the view from an aeroplane, unless you’re just coming in to land (at that point I have my eyes closed and I’m gripping my seat arm-rests as we dangle above some too-near coastal water). The oblique perspective affords potential for some  innovative point-of-view work – though without making much of a conscious decision I settled for being the viewer outside the frame, making references to the fact that I was viewing a photograph, not the place itself. I resolved to pedal  along the Union Canal towpath to Broxburn to have a look at the site in colour and from bicycle level this spring.

And so to my final destination of the day. I’d sort of forgotten that It wasn’t just me who was on holiday – the schools were too. It was grand to see the museum full of eager children, but useless for settling down to write. I wandered around Hyndland and Dowanhill instead, and got the slow train back in good time for the Friday night treat or torture – I’m not sure which, but I think that’s the point – that is Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s Trip to Itlay.

all points north: the poetics of peace and armitage

Simon Armitage’s 1999 essay collection All Points North was re-issued by Penguin to accompany his newer memoir, Gig, last year. I  read it just as the debate  reignited about whether the proposed high-speed train link from London to Manchester and Leeds  would heal or exacerbate the north-south divide.  All Points  is a generically eclectic mixture of ideas of north, innovative on a number of  appealing counts.

It’s largely written in the second person, the better to accentuate the difference between narrator (Armitage, or his literary persona, or a prose-writing variant thereof) from protagonist (his younger selves, including youth growing up amidst trans-Pennine rivalry, and probation officer in Manchester). ‘You were thirteen when you first went to Old Trafford’; ‘Your mum taps you on the back’. From the onset, he lets us know that his version of events, or anyone’s, isn’t necessarily to be believed, when he  follows up an urban myth in circulation amongst the probation service with another professional  anecdote, then concludes ‘that story isn’t true either’. It’s therefore entirely possible that a smattering of examples of good old-fashioned northern sexism, sometimes attributed to ‘your mate’, are made up too, to make a point – albeit an unclear one. That times have changed? That they haven’t?  Various other sorts of fiction are skilfully alluded to: he writes the the script of an imaginary northern-nostalgia TV drama; when  Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration is being filmed, he visits the  set for the Craiglockhart War Hospital, not on location in Edinburgh, but  in a Glasgow studio. His phrase ‘the Leeds of the mind’ reminds us that Armitage’s accounts of, for example, Harvey Nicks, or the DSS HQ Quarry House, are subjective versions of place, recognisble, but different to what say, Tony Harrison’s, or mine, would be; parallel to the Edinburghs of Scott’s or Stevenson’s or Ian Rankin’s minds.

Rather than appearing as stand-alone essays, chapters and fragments are thematically linked into a continuous narrative. So  ‘Jerusalem’, the invented Calderdale soap, follows a critique of the region’s status as prime location for television drama. There are transcripts of real TV films and radio features made by Armitage, too, with his poetry interpolated – on homelessness in Manchester; Saturday night in Leeds; the Humber Bridge. Finally there’s a stunning soundscape/voice collage, ‘Points of Reference – North’ (1996-97), which features the printed voices of a range of experts including Patrick Moore, Ian McCaskill when he was a weatherman, and Rowan Williams before he was an archbishop.

Accounts of print and broadcast news items trigger either personal memories or  a deadpan retelling of the same-everywhere provinciality of local news. Forays to London, Brazil, Iceland, or 1920  are punctuated with six refrains of ‘Over the Top to Manchester’, accounts of Pennine crossings for business or pleasure experienced as ritual re-enactments of a route.  A number of the travel sections start with the preposition ‘to’, a  shortcut to the place in question which becomes a form of literary shorthand: To Portsmouth.  To Rochdale. To Hull. Riffs on identity, mistaken and otherwise, abound, Armitage exploiting his generic northern surname. On page 118, no less, there is a sequence called ‘Directory Enquiries’, where Direct Line threaten to increase his insurance premium because poet is held to be a higher-risk occupation than probation officer.

In 1999 when All Points was first published, my own points of reference  and station stops were a bit further north still.  I was  preoccupied with matters such as  Ossian, and the post-Enlightenment development of the Highlands as a tourist destination. I would quite like to reclaim the term ‘North Britain’, coined after the Union to ensure the Scots knew their place. In many ways – linguistic, topographical, culinary – the northern English and lowland Scots have more in common with each other than the northern and southern English do, or the lowland and highland Scots. I like, too, the idea of being ‘northumbrian’, from (anywhere) north of the Humber.

Since the the turn of the century, my focus has been re-directed south (of the Scottish Lowlands) again. I started to re-read Harrison and Hughes and the Brontes, and seek out literary versions of the region new to me. A preoccupation with grimupnorthness was satisfied but not sated by David Peace’s Red Riding quartet: Nineteen Seventy Four, Nineteen Seventy Seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty Three, some of my formative years, written between 1999 and 2002 with a sparse lyricism.

Channel 4’s 2009 film of the novels, compressed into a trilogy, was full of   slowburning menace and menacing abstraction. Only the police beatings that regularly punctuated the action had an unfortunate ring of comedy: maybe because they  were performed by uniformed functionaries, they were a bit too much  Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition dressed up as Dixon of Dock Green. The real  nightmare for me was in the architecture, the concrete jungle: the road tunnel  under Leeds city centre,  and the gargantuan cooling towers of Ferrybridge Power Station.  We drove through the tunnel most weekends when I was young: it was the conduit to the other side of the city and what lay beyond – the Dales, the A1- and therefore a means of escape.

Red Riding and All Points North actually have an architectural feature, or location, in common: the Redbeck Cafe outside Wakefield, a no-place where police did bad things to journalists, fugitive sleuths holed up to sort out child murders and their own demons, and an am-dram troupe en route to a convention in Bridlington stopped for refreshments.

Peace, like Armitage, melds fact and fiction. But the former finds no Romantic redemption in landscape. His poetry lies in the cadences of the minimalist dialogue with which he tells of the  Yorkshire Ripper murders, child abduction, organised crime and police corruption. As for the legion of reporters who covered the ‘abduction’ of schoolgirl Shannon Matthews  in 2009, scenery only exists for Peace as metaphor for  social depravation. When his attention is directed  west of the Yorkshire conurbation, it’s towards the legacy of moors murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, rather than  the remains of Elmet evoked in poems and photography by Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin. Yet there’s also something libretto-like in Peace’s minimalism. He has   a Wagnerian grasp of theme, and ability to reprise it by flashback and in different voices. The Quartet could be a Ring Cycle for the end of the twentieth century, except that its geometry seems squarely cuboid as opposed to  circular. I’m envious of the scope of Peace’s vision, but not its content. Both Red Riding and All Points sent me back to Armitage’s poetry; to  Barbara Hepworth’s statements about the sculptural forms of the West Riding Hills, and to my own unabashed nostalgia for gritstone wall and flat vowel.

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Another cold snap, after a couple of days of the Met Office talking about ‘potentially disruptive snow’, and train companies preemptively cancelling services in case it turns out to be the wrong kind. Came across, and added to,  a piece I wrote in Yorkshire in the lull between Christmas and New Year some years ago. The photographs were taken at a later date, when I was making a seasonal record of the place where I grew up. They are therefore unlikely to illustrate the meteorological conditions described accurately. Although they were in no way intended as an accompaniment to  the writing, its prior existence could well have informed  their creation. 

The 50s semi where we lived till I was thirteen, 269 Staincliffe Road, has been extended to the extent that the daughters of doctors and bank managers  I went to school with would almost have found it respectable. There was a field behind it,  ‘my field’, the house’s natural extension for me, though it belonged to the next door neighbour, whose  house is now also  double its former size. Where my field was there are now nine smart ‘executive’ homes. If the field isn’t there any more,  the view from it, still visible from the lane that runs behind, Scar End View, is better than I remember. It seems now to bear comparison with those in the supposedly superior Dales of holidays and Sunday trips. Now I’m seeing it through eyes that, unlike my octogenarian parents’, have looked at a lot of other places; seeing it through eyes too that have read  Defoe’s respectful description of the North’s industrial valleys — eyes which perhaps first began  to recognise this as their real home when reading Defoe’s Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britian before  teaching it to students at a Scottish university. The view from Scar End looks just fine  through the sub-zero haze of late December afternoons.

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On each of these afternoons, between Christmas and New Year, I walk north along Scar End View. Bungalows are steeped up from the pavement on my right,  the new executive homes above them, while an unfenced playing field, unsnatched by property people, slopes away from the left verge. Below this are more houses, the Moor End council estate, before land  falls away across the main road, Heckmondwike Road, to pastures in  valleys and moors rise to the centre of the country. In a couple of years’ time, a child who lives here will go missing  and a temporary media camp will be established.  My recently widowed father will welcome visits from the police to check his bins and garage.

I’m left in a state of something like suspension, like the year and the season themselves as I look out across the Spen Valley to the Pennine heights; in a recession, or maybe regression from the routines of my adult life.  Then each day I take a slightly different route on Kilpin Hill, now my preferred destination on these walks, though a place I didn’t even really know as a child, despite its proximity, a little north and west of our home. My travels then always took me south and east, to dad’s bakery in Green Lane, to Grandma and Grandpa’s in Thornhill, to school in Horbury, for shopping in the town. I’m childlike now as I explore the lanes of millworkers’ cottages, artisans’ homes of millstone grit, now quite bijou and always somewhat magical, because it  never seems possible to take  the same route twice. Bower Lane, Robin Lane, Cawley Lane, Cresswell Lane, Occupation Lane. Walking daily this December within the bounds of the triangle between Halifax, Huddersfield and Heckmondwike Roads, drawn  across Spen Valley’s  eastern side, I learn more of the lie of this land,  where paths known as ginnels run off the road and lead you as the crow files, while the lane  takes the long route, or turns abruptly into a modern estate. In reality, there’s quite a lot of modern housing: bungalows and semis from every  postwar decade fill the gaps where maybe meadows, fields like mine once lay between the cottages. It is still possible, though, to frame a view with no twentieth-century buildings, that could be forty miles further north, in a pretty dale that attracts the tourists.

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What I’m drawn towards is the end of the hill, where you’ve crossed the boundary into Heckmondwike and reached Halifax Road road: no more lanes and unknown territory. I’ve usually turned back before then, to retrace my steps or discover a new way home, but today I’m compelled to continue to the end of the lane, though this promises only more of the millstone grit and postindustrial grime I remember from childhood and have glimpsed today between the gaps in the cottages of Kilpin Hill. I walk on the road because frost and ice have made the pavement  treacherous.

A large building glows opposite the late afternoon, late year sun on the other side of  Halifax road. I know it’s a nonconformist chapel because I half-remember it from childhood. It’s far larger in scale than the surrounding buildings but it hadn’t been cleaned up when I last saw it, so it wouldn’t have stood out quite so much as it does now, spotlighted by the low-angled orange sun. The facade is audaciously grand: Corinthian pillars and cupolas. Upper Independent Chapel is inscribed in large legend across the lintel. I can’t make out if it’s still in use, or if it’s now offices or apartments.

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Some small disused chapels have become homes in more rural areas; medium sized ones in small towns like this have found ironic new life as Indian restaurants. Larger ones  now house the new, non-geographically specific design and technology industries, just as  old mill buildings have  become retail spaces or art galleries. Design consultancies and architectural practices  like to get their hands on buildings like these. Even when I cross the road, carefully — it’s slippery,  although the gritter has evidently been out — I can’t see any sineage to denote the current use, so I assume that it is still the congregational chapel it always was. I could ask, but  I don’t really need to know. There’s an unimposing modern door at floor level.

Back on the home side of the road, I turn round and it’s shining still, like a monument – mosque or temple – in an eastern landscape, oblivious to its context, where all  other buildings still bear coming up for two centuries’ worth of dirt, not big or bright enough in themselves to be lit up by the setting sun. Even the hall next door, much larger than the domestic buildings, seems dwarfed. They’re all already benighted and  forever grounded while the Upper Independent  seems to float alone, a Mecca beneath the milky gauze of a day that has tried to be bright and clear but is simply too cold not to be hazy.

Next day and in very similar weather conditions, I go back, taking  a slightly different route over the hill. An Asian family  exit through the chapel door as I turn away, but  I’m mindful of my forty minute walk back, during which time the light will be lost and the pavements iced. Whichever way you go back down, by Knowles Hill, School Lane or Church Lane, the hill is steep. I’m anticipating tea and Christmas cake in my parents’ warm lounge, and I fail to ask the Muslims about the Methodist chapel.

Almost obsessively, I seem daily to be re-treading, re-occupying my childhood. I think I’m finally beginning to re-route it. The day after it’s becoming cloudier and milder, and the view from Scar End more limited. No sun: it will be dark sooner, even though theoretically the days are already lengthening, the chapel won’t be glowing and I don’t want to see it dull. So I don’t go on to Kilpin Hill, but cut up onto Staincliffe Road. Just past 269 I take a left turn, into the grounds of the hospital.  Staincliffe General Hospital,  where I was born and three of my grandparents died. I was delivered in the old building, Victorian Gothic, off Healds Road, a few years before the maternity block, now the Bronte Tower, was constructed opposite our house. It was apparently snowing when I  first made the short journey home, at this time of  year, maybe even on this day. At regular intervals during my growing up one of my grandparents was admitted to the geriatric ward, a single-story sprawl between the old and new higher-rises, and didn’t come out again. I’d go with one of the living ones to the hearing aid clinic  in Outpatients, in the room at the end of a long corridor where I also visited the orthodontist yearly. Approaching adolescence, in the couple of years before we moved down to the new house,  I’d  use the hospital grounds as  a place to hang out with my friend Mark, one of the few local children I played with.

Now it’s the District Hospital, part of the Mid-Yorkshire Hospitals Trust. Other than in the context of NHS architecture, Mid-Yorkshire doesn’t exist. Both my parents have undergone minor surgical procedures here.  Both are  on a waiting list for a further operation in one of the   new wards  that extend far back, over fields and ginnels where I also played as a child, towards Halifax Road, which eventually  passes the Upper Independent Chapel, and continues into Heckmondwike. Later my mum will receive chemotherapy at the Boothroyd Centre, named for the former Speaker of the House of Commons from these parts, and a year after her death I’ll come to the mortuary to identify my father’s body. From the other side, Westborough, where I’m now heading, the new construction isn’t so evident. Turning round to look back at the hospital from the playing field between Healds Road and Green Lane, what you see is the original Victorian building: grim,  blackened stone rising to diminutive towers, as if from  across an impoverished Magdalen Fields.

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I’m heading, towards the new house, in the direction of places with which I was better acquainted as a child: the streets of Westborough, where dad had his bakery and shop, and Crow Nest Park. Park Road, Birkdale Road and West Park Street; Reservoir Street, Oxford Road and Stockhill Street, where girls I went to school with lived in architect-designed bungalows, or Victorian villas that were once the homes of the mill owners and managers. Where Staincliffe and Kilpin Hill have undergone some gentrification and growth spurts of new building, here there are signs of decay and of subdivision. Some are  now HMOs; others home to extended Asian families.

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I was walking around here, and along  the park’s broad  avenues on mild autumnal mornings a couple of months ago, when dad was having  hernia surgery in a hospital 20 miles away and there was less time to explore further afield; missing  my daily perambulation round Hunter’s Bog in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park. Next year he’ll be back in the Mid-Yorkshire Trust’s sister hospital at Pontefract for a hip replacement. He’d have needed  to wait much longer to get it done in the hospital up the road. He’ll make a third trip along the M62 to Pontefract for a second hernia op a few months before his death from a heart attack when out shopping for a new radiator valve.

Today despite all the new building and the midwinter muddy playing field, there still is a lot of green — allotments, fields, parks — or there would be had  the weather not  toned everything down into khaki. Nearly everywhere you can see hills: the foothills of the Pennines, above  valleys where the towns of heavy industry lie hidden, in the north, east and south; the high moors to the west where there are no more towns until you reach Greater Manchester. Despite its location near the hub of the industrial revolution, and its evident scars from that time, this still isn’t properly an urban landscape. I’ve lived in cities since I left here more than 22 years ago, and what I still miss is its openness and variety. Now it’s Scotland that I don’t want to return to. I will go back north tomorrow, but today I’m spending my first New Year’s Eve in a long time back here.  I call in the Westborough co-op to buy a bottle of bubbly and head straight  back down the hill.

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