home county

On the final page of A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes: ‘the county was something I chose to return to again and again’. She is referring to Marin County, CA, and the last chapter of her meditation on loss in all its senses, place and memory, describes her involuntary revisiting, in dreams, of the ‘one story house’ where she grew up. She comes to realise that it held more narrative versions, and more connectedness to the wild hinterland she loved, than she had previously believed possible. It seemed an appropriate thing to read on my final day in the county I choose to keep returning to, Yorkshire.

I grew up in the West Riding, which had become West Yorkshire before I went to secondary school. We had many school trips and family days out in the Dales, about 40 miles north of the industrial towns, some of it administratively still in the West. My dad, a baker from Dewsbury, used to spend all his weekends cycle-touring up there, and later he took his family by car on practically every day off. I’m not entirely sure that was what his wife had bargained for, but his daughter took to it as eagerly as she took to her schooling, and it established in her a pattern of escaping the urban at every opportunity. It was the perfect place to study for O and A levels in Geography, though I suspect I actually became quite complacent about it, underwhelmed by the things that made other tourists gawp. And quite dismissive of the tourists. It was far more exciting to go up to the Scottish Highlands.

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Malham Cove

I live in Edinburgh, and go back to some part of Yorkshire every eighteen months or so. I’ve just returned from cat-sitting for a friend in Airton, Malhamdale. Airton was somewhere you passed through en route to limestone mecca Malham. A couple of miles south of the Craven fault-line which is the reason for the geological highlights of Malham Cove and Gordale Scar, it’s a farming village with a main green and several satellite ones, and seventeenth-century buildings, including a Quaker meeting house. It’s near the source of the Aire, which goes on to flow through Leeds, and which I always thought of as a more industrial river than, say, the Wharfe or Swale, more like the Calder I grew up beside.

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Village green, Airton

I’m not synaesthetic, but I am highly sensitive to the way bedrock and soil colour the land. Limestone has always signified light and brightness to me, in contrast to the gritstone of the southern Pennines. Millstone grit, to give it its full name. Think wuthering heights, remains of Elmet, the small-town toxicities of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley. The green over limestone has a luminescence; that over gritstone – beautiful also, despite the grimupnorth connotations – generally produces a more matt, olive tone.

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limestone green

WH Auden’s  poem ‘In Praise of Limestone‘ opens: ‘if it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones / are constantly homesick for, this is chiefly  / because it dissolves in water’.  The poem is at least as much about the karsts of southern Europe and the crises of masculinity as it is about the poet’s own formative Pennine landscapes. I have also been homesick for the red sandstone of Arran and the gneisses of the far north of Scotland and Isle of Lewis; for the coastal bluffs of the south of France. I am probably homesick for whatever sort of rock I have most recently left behind, but a real feeling of hireath is most likely to be triggered  by the sight of Pennine millstone. Limestone gives  a lighter sense of longing and nostalgia, and also, I think, of hope.

The first evening was quite disorienting: familiar and unfamiliar both, unhiemlich, even. I went to the pub in the next village, Kirkby Malham, for ‘home killed’ (not cured) gammon, sold by weight. I had the smallest, and it was huge.  Intending to continue towards Malham afterwards, I actually took the wrong road, and headed uphill towards Settle. I was rewarded with a fresh angle on Malham Cove, and southwest of me was the Lancashire witching hill, Pendle Hill, and the dark moors that extend towards Bradford and the industrial cities. I felt caught between the two, and surprisingly far from home.

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first night

Next morning I went for breakfast and provisions at the excellent local farm shop (it’s local, artisan, everything nowadays, unlike in the 70s and 80s), and felt a bit foreign, with my strange bank notes and own shopping bags and not realising you could buy alcohol before noon on a Sunday. But it’s the post Tour de France D’ales, and you can. After a couple of days of walking, eating and looking after a lovely cat called Picasso, I re-acclimatised. Oh, I love limestone! Walking down a green lane between limestone walls has long been a favourite pastime and a source of joy.

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scar, scree, walls

The contrast between the worked countryside and the wild is marked in Malhamdale, courtesy of the decisive Craven fault, though cattle graze above it, and uncultivated species blossom by the riverbank below it. Nuances within each category become discernible, when you have the leisure to savour them all on daily walks that connect places in, above and around the dale over a ten-day period at harvest-time.

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farmland, cove

 

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moor, scar

Venerable drystone walls in limestone demarcate ancient field systems above Malham village. From a distance, they resemble bobbly knitting (though admittedly there may be a chicken-and-egg issue here). Downdale, modern machinery worked the fields all day and into the night, and serially transported its loads to farm-yard, competing on the narrow lanes with tourist traffic. When not walking off-road (cattle! mud!), I hopped onto the verge to let them all pass and admired the wild flowers. As well as being the longest single stay I’ve had in the Dales, this was the first time I – a bad hayfever sufferer – had been resident in summer. I took my anti-histamine, and went out to find what was there, just as I’ve taken in recent years to going for walks at dawn and dusk, when you see, hear, smell, different things. The sparse vegetation capable of flourishing in the limestone grykes, that I’ve only seen in books before, was at its peak.

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Limestone gryke

I’m surprised by how scant my recall could be: I remembered key sites / sights, like the Cove, that tend to appear frequently on calendars and magazine covers anyway, and I remembered details like the whitewashed – now flaking – sweetshop where the roads fork in the village. But I’d failed to retain any image of  what excites me most, the  sweep of the county seen from the heights, the horizons, the extent of view. This shouldn’t surprise me, as I know all about the sublime: the unrepresentable, the unrecoverable, the impossibility of retaining what we most desire, but it does. It made me wonder (given little in the broader picture will have changed), what did I actually see as a child?

My dad, though never an assertive person, used to have set itineraries and omissions that he stuck to – there were some places we always just drove past. Maybe he had more of the cyclist’s mindset than the walker’s, and of course he’d be aware of what time he had to return to bakery duties. I’d look out of the rear window, wanting to stop and explore. Malham Tarn was one of these places, and now I finally got to linger there.

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boathouse, tarn

Last Saturday had been hot by this summer’s standards – I walked in a t-shirt, and sat for long periods with books and ice-cream. Sunday was wild, like one of those Hebridean ‘summer’ days, and it was a delight to explore the variety of topographies in the National Trust Malham Tarn estate: upland moss (raised bog) and groundwater-fed fen, bird hide, boat house, broadleaf avenue, an orchid house which has been converted into a sustainable building for group use.  I emerged tarnside to the accompaniment of waves, then crossed the flat high grassland  and dropped into the shelter of the limestone valley above Gordale.

Underfoot conditions are tougher than in my local Pentland Hills, but there are also more people around participating in recreation activities. When I fell into a deep concealed ditch in the less visited southern Pentlands last month, there was no one around (actually I wasn’t badly hurt, and I was quite glad there was no one to witness my tumble). Now, scrambling down to the top of the force (waterfall) at Gordale, as I had up to its base  the previous day, I knew that if I had newer boots with grippier soles and the rock was drier, I could still make the direct connection between the two, and was happy to leave it at that for this trip. When I was young and lithe, I took for granted what my body was capable of, in the same way as I took for granted the scenery I was privileged to be able to experience. Now I try to make the time to cherish both.

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Gordale / above

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Gordale / below

Places like Malham village were very busy on weekends and bank holidays when I was a kid. My dad’s car used to give them a swerve and head for quieter spots. Nowadays, an off-season traveller with a love of remote places, I’m even less used to tourist hotspots. One thing that struck me, though, was that in my Yorkshire youth you only ever saw white faces once you were out of the city. You still wouldn’t call it multicultural, but now there are Asians and a smattering of other ethnicities, clad in lyrcra or gortex for their chosen pursuits, or chasing their ice-cream eating children around village greens. These will be second- and  third-generation children of immigrants, now at home, in this country, in this county.

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Gordale, climbers

cycling from summer to autumn

I have a class in Linlithgow on the last Sunday of the month, and last weekend I cycled home from it. My plans for the 22 mile ride along the Union Canal towpath this summer had been stymied first – often – by weather, and then by engineering works which meant that I couldn’t get the bike to the start point by train. Weather and other commitments have also prevented me from building up much in the way of fitness, so this would be easily my longest ride of the season.

Over the course of a few hours (including two pub lunch pit stops – I said I was unfit), stony surfaces, where the hinterland was arable and open, alternated with squelchier ones on long wooded sections. The repetitions began to create a sense of deja vu in one unfamiliar with the route. Robert Macfarlane borrows a term that I like from American artist William Fox: ‘cognitive dissonance’ (The Old Ways, p.79). Macfarlane finds this chiefly in what he calls ‘data-depleted landscapes’ such as high moors and tidal strands, my own favourite terrains, but it can happen when any sort of defamiliarisation is induced. Sea voyage, test match, Ring cycle. With the canal a constant on my right hand I felt as though I was cycling from summer to autumn. I know what West Lothian looks like: I’ve travelled between Edinburgh and Glasgow regularly for twenty years. I watch it from up in the Pentlands on a weekly basis. But I don’t know it. Canals subvert our knowledge of terrain, linking places by the line of least resistance, the contour, and not the line of greatest efficiency (the road). Their sinuings show you the locality in a new way.

The route of the Union Canal makes a lengthy detour around the Broxburn bings. The red spoil heaps are a memorial to the extraction of shale for oil in this area. Accustomed to seeing them in the distance, their denuded and increasingly biodiverse proximity experienced from cycle level startles. It’s like a passage through an otherworld, or, to use another Macfarlane term, a xenotopia, in the middle of the central belt.

Progress eastwards was slow; Edinburgh seemed as though it was getting further and further away, even when the Pentland Hills and Arthur’s Seat had become visible on the horizon. Signposts – Winchburgh, Almond Aquaduct – kept indicating the passage of a ridiculously low mileage since the previous one. It was the final weekend of the Edinburgh festival, and the journey felt a bit like a (slow) progression from one stage set to another. Woodside, fieldside, woodside alternated like scenes designed to build dramatic tension – or muscle fatigue. I wanted to switch to a higher gear and higher cadence in order to get home a bit more quickly, but wasn’t able to on the narrow track.

A couple of people had told me that there was ‘a rough section’ on the towpath. I think it would be more accurate to say there was a smooth section, a surfaced stretch around Broxburn. For the rest of the route, I and my bike, which is officially and accurately classified as a rugged hybrid, were jolted along uncomfortably. On FB* there’s a photograph of me taken at a poetry reading last week. The forearm grasping my paper, honed by absorbing shock from the the rugged hybridity of Lothian cycle paths over the last couple of years, probably has even better definition now.

And the fest? As usual, I was just getting into my stride in week 3 when fatigue was setting in for everyone else. Unusually, I didn’t attend many music events, choosing to focus instead on poetry and spoken word. Refusing to make a distinction between ‘page’ and ‘stage’, or  book and fringe festivals, was liberating and enriching, though I followed with interest the debate  around the dichotomy and hierarchy between them. I went to two concerts, on the final Friday, and they were very good, but my head was still (too?) full of words. Other highlights: Juliet Binoche in Antigone; gyoza from the Harajuku Kitchen stall in George St; the moon making a guest appearance above the magical lights in Charlotte Square and George Square. Still to come: the exhibitions that stay up in September, and space to actually look at them. More cycling before it gets too cold, and some hillwalking before the heather dies away. Going back to work, and my ‘Summer’ holiday.

* Never an early adopter, I was initiated into the world of Facebook this summer and as a result my blog posts have become even more sporadic. I don’t even know if it is ethical or possible to link to the photo.

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.

le cote de blubberhouses

It was as emotional a weekend as it’s possible for a woman with absolutely no interest in football to have in front of her telly. I’d felt quite teary on hearing the announcement that the grand depart of the 2014 Tour de France would be in North and West Yorkshire, and drew big rings round the dates in my diary. Eighteen months later, last weekend, I stocked up on Wensleydale and retreated to the sofa to watch the world’s elite cyclists speeding along the routes that my father regularly rode on his day off, and which he introduced first to my mother, then me, in the car. We spent practically every weekend of my childhood driving out to the Dales or up in the local Pennines, sometimes with some grandparents, taking in a walk and  lunch. This was where I learned to love landscape and place-names, to admire the way roads (and the M62) were engineered into the contours of the uplands, and to become aware of subtle distinctions in vegetation, building materials and accent as we moved from south to north of the region.

The entire race route seemed to be filled with places of familial significance. The start was of course in Leeds. This was the city where my grandmother took me Christmas shopping (to Schofields department store, the late Fortnums of pre-Harvey Nicks era Leeds) every autumn half term, and where I took my mum to Next and the Body Shop before lunch at Pizza Express on every other trip down from Scotland – a treat for her. On the alternative visit, we’d go out of town and up into the hills – a treat for me. The roles of taker and taken varied across the county, as well as across the generations.

The cyclists pushed north-west into the Dales National Park, the Tour helicopter  performing its duty of diverting from the route to pick out landmarks, often of an ecclesiastical nature. Simultaneously, their names were engagingly captioned into French for the TV screen. Between the late nineties and 2005 I’d meet my parents for a weekend in the Swaledale area once a year.  I’d usually travel by train to Ribblehead on the Settle-Carlisle line, where they’d pick me up. We’d drive down to Hawes for afternoon tea, then over the  Buttertubs Pass, from now on in the Cote de Buttertubs,  into Swaledale, where we’d spend a few days wandering around the villages of Keld, Thwaite, Gunnerside and Muker, or driving over the high moors to Tan Hill, the highest pub in England, close to where North Yorkshire, Cumbria and County Durham coalesce. At points along the road you can see over to the Lake District and the Irish Sea; at others, to industrial Teeside and the North Sea. Everywhere there is headspace aplenty, and you feel as though you really are on the roof of the country. Another day my parents would maybe drive down to Richmond while I took an excursion on foot into the hills – the walks above the Swale from Keld to Muker, and up past the leadmining scars of Gunnerside Ghyll are in my all-time-anywhere top ten – before meeting up again for the obligatory tea and cake. We were there for their fortieth wedding anniversary in 2001 and my mum’s eightieth birthday in 2003. Last weekend I was genuinely moved by  the huge crowds at the usually deserted top of Buttertubs, already legendary in Tour and tyke lore – as well as by the sight of Jens Voigt, the oldest man in the race, who was first to the summit.

I had registered that Day One would cover the northern Dales and Day Two, the Pennine moors west of where we lived, but hadn’t actually checked out more detailed routes – it’s a bit like me not being able to engage with the Edinburgh Festival programme before August, or a travel guide before setting off on holiday. So it was a delightful surprise to learn that, after leaving York (‘change here for Leeds, Huddersfield and Manchester’ ) and Knaresborough (Mother Shipton’s Cave and a shop in the market square that sold amazing home-made biscuits in the 70s), the route continued on the A59 up to Blubberhouses Moor. Fab name, in either English or French, possibly from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘house / fortress by the bubbling stream’. Despite the initial semantic association one tends to make, its derivation has nothing to do with the emotions provoked by this occasion, but it is the scene of significant childhood and family memories.

The Simpsons, friends of my dad’s parents, farmed at Kex Gill, right upon the summit of the Cote de Blubberhouses, after being relocated a few miles upstream from their previous home, at West End (really) when the valley was flooded by the water board to create Thruscross Reservoir. Their original farm was called The Gate. A pictographic sign of a five-barred version hung from a tree beside the road. I know this because I  inherited a watercolour and an oil painting of the scene by Albert E Jackson. I have rarely felt stranger than when looking at them on the wall of my Edinburgh flat when I brought them up shortly after my dad died, eleven months after his wife. Now they’re just part of my furniture, alongside other artworks from and of the region, in a small corner of Lothian that is forever Yorkshire. I don’t even look at them properly very often, so this was a timely reminder to savour my possessions and the memories they engender. They are conveniently situated just above the TV, now showing the Tour back on French soil, minus two significant British riders.

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My own parents became friends with the next generation at Kex Gill, Shelagh and Peter Harrison, and took me there from an early age. I used to name and bottle-feed the pet lambs, those orphaned or rejected by their mothers (I can still remember calling one Hannah); and Peter taught me to drive a tractor on one of their steep fields when I was about thirteen. At that time I wanted to be a vet. Shelagh, baker of the best cakes I can remember, is in her eighties, and we still exchange Christmas cards.

The Tour turned south towards our ‘local’ moors, over Oxhenhope, close to the wuthering heights of literary fame, but better known to my family for its hostelry, the Raggalds Inn; down to Hebden Bridge, former textile town turned hub for artists and writers since its Hughes / Plath era, and up Cragg Vale, the longest continuous road climb in England. I’ve walked up, but if my own cycling renaissance of the last couple of years has taught me anything, it’s that you experience terrain very differently en velo.

After skirting Huddersfield and whizzing through Holmfirth, the peloton headed up the biggest climb of the day, Holme Moss, on the Derbyshire border, before turning towards the finish at Sheffield and the steepest climb, a previously unknown suburban street called Jenkin Road. If I hadn’t been busy wanting to be a vet, mountaineer, dancer, plumber, opera singer, writer or teacher (only some of the above remain unrealistic dreams, so I’m not entirely beset by unfulfilled professional longings),  I think I might have quite liked to be a tour planner, scouting locations and scrutinising gradients to create a route. I can imagine something of the challenge and satisfaction of orchestrating the   combination of a series of lines of tarmac on the land surface (and of  coloured inks on the map page) into a course, the template for an event. To a degree the selection is arbitrary: I also enjoyed re-imagining the roads not taken by the Tour, and in combinations possibly never taken  on our family trips either.

From a (TV) spectator point of view the route made a most satisfactory visual narrative of how moor threads to dale and limestone turns to gritstone; of the passage between agricultural and industrial, and of the ubiquity of the drystone wall. With the presence of  crowds and racers and great weather the narrative evolved into high drama. On steep and narrow sections of the road competitor and spectator became virtually indistinguishable from each other, a carnival  superimposed on the normally sombre landscape.

Holme Moss was site of one of the two great  West Yorkshire beacons, its TV masts. Like its sibling rival on Emley Moor this local landmark has been locally invested with almost mythological significance. Viewed from the Pennine foothills  where I grew up, they and a series of other communications masts punctured the horizon of the high moor at intermittent intervals; by them you found both your physical and psychological bearings. I recall a semi-rural myth that you could predict who was going to win a general election, not from the exit polls, but from the direction the clouds were scudding (they rarely sauntered) over Emley Moor.  The first sighting of the mast from a train crossing the vale of York meant that, for good or ill, I was approaching home. Like many leavers, when I was younger I did not always want to return. In the last decade I have no doubt romanticised the place, mainly because my parents died, as parents do, and the family home was sold, effectively severing my direct links; and also in resistance to some popular and press views of the region, for example in the wake of the ‘disappearnce’ of Shannon Matthews. The visit of the Tour de France has added a few further stanzas or paragraphs to this narrative of personal engagement – quite literally so, here.

According to certificates from the Mid-Yorkshire District Association of the Cyclists Touring Club, my father cycled 100 miles in 8 hours on September 16th 1945, 200 miles in 24 hours on June 22nd-23rd 1946, 100 miles in 6 hours on October 6th 1946,  150 miles in 12 hours on September 21st 1947 and 130 miles in 12 hours on May 30th 1948. Some of his cycling memorabilia has been used in Jan Bee Brown’s film and exhibition ‘Daisy Daisy’ in the Yorkshire Dales Journeys event at the Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes, which runs until 30 September.

 

 

 

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.

decoration and embellishment

We’ve just come to the end of another term at SouthSide Writers. This time the theme was Decoration. Staff at the South Side Centre are hoping to spruce up the building a bit, enhancing the walls with text and art. This set me thinking about decorative art in general. It tends to be regarded as the poor cousin of the Fine Art, which I, like many others, regularly use as a writing prompt. Yet Scotland has its own  great traditions of design:  Paisley, tartan, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, as well as work derived from Celtic motifs. Every other culture has countless  riches in media including textile, ceramics, wood, metal and stone. There are many amazing examples just round the corner from Southside at the National Museum of Scotland. Why not use some of these as a basis for a set of writing classes?

What, if anything, do artistic and literary decoration have in common? Pondering this question in the first session, while Radio 3 was celebrating its Baroque Spring, the Southside consensus seemed to be: plain style  good, ornament(ation) bad. Well, long live minimalism – and I like white cubes very well – but aren’t we now in a more tolerant, multiple and eclectic aesthetic era, the nostalgia-kitsch of some product branding notwithstanding? Embellishment  of objects adds design interest in the shape of details or features, and doesn’t just foster a sense of comfort in times of austerity. Beautification doesn’t have to equate to falsification here, so why was rhetorical embellishment regarded with such suspicion? Pursuing the connection between literary and decorative arts, we pared down our attention to the line as a unit of meaning, as championed by artists Paul Klee and Richard Long, and practiced writing lines with varying numbers of syllables and stresses. Klee’s phrase ‘take a line for a walk’  is a useful starting point for the timed or ‘flow’ writing exercises often used in writing groups, this one included, even if it tends nowadays to conjure up the undesired image of a dog on a retractable lead. Long literally walked, trod, lines into the landscape; built landforms; and produced huge text panels  that ‘captioned’  his walks.

We planned an excursion to Dovecot Weaving Studios to look at some tapestries. By happy co-incidence their current exhibition was by Julie Brook. Brook had been commissioned by the Studios to make land art in Libya and Namibia, and chose to  record  her work in the medium of film. The two main rooms  contained screens showing sequences of mesmerising, immersive moving images. Earth, water and sand moved, evolved. One of the sequences was entitled ‘Drawing a Line’; a number of Brook’s accompanying paper works, hung around the studios, also had ‘line’ in their title. Sometimes the films were more documentary, showing Brook making the work in the desert, slicing into a mudbank; or building a  stone ‘raised line’, a 3D sculptural form. (Is there a literary analogy for that?) We simply sat and wrote words and phrases that were suggested to us. I thought of the beginning of the world, in the opening of Wagner’s Ring Cycle specifically, but of cosmic origins generally, and  of Blake; of monoliths and landslips and 127 Hours; of wine-dark and blood-red seas, and of this stanza from Hopkins’ Wreck of the Deutschland:

 I am soft sift
      In an hourglass—at the wall
   Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,
      And it crowds and it combs to the fall;
I steady as a water in a well, to a poise, to a pane,
But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall
    Fells or flanks of the voel, a vein . . .

For once, I didn’t want to make a new poem, I just wanted to let the images swim around and mingle with my own associations.  I think this may have been true for the other writers too: several  turned up at the next session with streams of consciousness and series of fragments and evocative suggestions. This gave rise to an extensive  discussion of matters arising from the exhibition. We talked a lot this term: ornamentation generated conversation. Several writers suggested that the very richness of decoration was inhibiting to the writing process. I don’t think it necessarily has to be: you can, for example, use a piece of decorated crockery in fiction as a way of conveying something about the character who owns or uses it, as one member did – but I am nonetheless intrigued by the group’s views.

The evening before our visit to Dovecot some of us went to hear Brook in conversation with Don Paterson, one of a series of talks with practitioners from other fields, including dance and film as well as poetry. Paterson suggested that poetry was quite a cinematic medium. I’ve never previously used film as a writing prompt, but I’m keen to do so again. Certainly one was invited to  construct one’s own meaning, if not narrative, from the way multiple relationships played out between the moving images on Brook’s screens. Alluding to  Klee, she spoke of reducing responses to place, and form itself, to the simplest possible element: the line. It’s this interplay between the simple and the complex, the detail and the embellishment, that intrigues me, in whatever medium is used.

Paper works  accompanied the films, abstract geometric shapes or reduced forms, some using desert clay or the glorious local red Otjize pigment. Was there a literary equivalent of pigment? I asked the writers to ‘translate’ a chosen picture into words. Of course it could  be argued that there’s no point  in drawing parallels between different media in this way, but I think it is worth asking if we can gain some insight, some enhancement of creativity, from at least considering the possibility. I sometimes have Paul Klee or Richard Long in mind when making a line of text – now I will possibly also think of Julie Brook. One of the Dovecot makers, Jonathan Cleaver, produced a rug in response to Brook’s work on pigment. We learned a new word for an artistic medium: tufted.

Later on in the term we considered places where text and image are actually juxtaposed on paper: in illustration and ekphrastic collaborations (writing about art); in art which incorporates text, from illuminated manuscripts to Blake and onwards into the twentieth century; in calligraphy (when viewing a foreign script, do you ‘read’ it as a text or look at it as a picture?); in concrete poetry and ‘language art’, places where text is presented as art.

We  moved on to look at the way the material world is everywhere enhanced  – or reduced, some might say – by text, in  forms ranging from  signage, advertising and  branded clothing to standing stones and tombstones. After writing some postcards, ‘wish you were heres’ from the imaginative landscapes evoked by a set of stills from Julie Brook, we considered other applications of the word card (Are all cards used for either communicational, transactional or ludic purposes? Is ‘plastic card’ an oxymoron?). We examined playing cards, recto and verso, in a new light. Why clubs? Isn’t a diamond actually a rhombus? The answers to these questions can most likely be found on the internet, but we hadn’t thought to ask them before. Finally, we returned to the idea of line. The number of pips on the card dealt to each writer was to determine the number of syllables, or lines, to be used, and for good measure the name of the suit was to be included in the piece of writing produced.