Saturday, October 16, 2021

Dark clouds over Ramsey

An all too rare walk on the beach

It's often said that moving house is one of life's most stressful events—along with divorce, death of a close relative; a change of job or school... Combine two or more of these and the strain can fracture even the tightest of bonds. In our case they remain tight and intact, but there's no denying these last few months have taken a toll.  

For to live where we do exacts a price that few appreciate and most romanticise. 

The reality of rural life is somewhat different to the magazine dream—and especially so, when you add 'remote' to the mix. Chores and choices that were once incidental require careful scheduling: popping to the shops is an hour's round trip; the nearest airport, three hour's drive... Much of our life—and that of our dog's—revolves around the tides. 

But there are compensations too.

This morning we walked the silver-washed sands at Newgale, dark clouds gathering as Oscar chased his ball, oblivious. There were dead seals on the shore; pups washed up overnight... two miles in and I was regretting my decision to forego a coat. A great deal here depends on the wind.

And yet, today—like with so many of our darker thoughts— the billows passed and brighter skies prevailed. 

At the head of the beach, I caught Jane looking out to sea and remembered when we first came here, how we'd walked and walked... and made decisions that are with us still.  That they have is as much fate as it was foresight, for if these few months have taught us anything, it is that nothing is truly in our control, and that to think otherwise is hubris.

As we turned to face our home I reflected that change and stress—like birth and death—are part of life; it's how we respond that shows and makes us who we are. And if at times that's tough or taxing, it doesn't mean it's not worth the effort. 

Monday, September 27, 2021

The Class of 79

A picture of me in 1979

Has it really been eight years since I took my son Daniel to start his first term at university? He'd chosen to study in Newcastle, about as far as it was possible to get from our house without crossing the border to Scotland. The thought of leaving him, and his being so distant, was not dissimilar to grief. And yet, in our driving north, I was also going home: to the place where I'd grown up, come of age, and in many ways, never truly left.

The story of that day, and the conflicting emotions of loss and return, became the subject of an essay that was published in Meet Me There, an anthology of writings on 'place'.  More broadly, it also led to my reconnecting with the region. During his time as a student (he's an architect so that that's longer than most) our trips to see him were highlights of the calendar we looked forward to every season.

And so, it was with mixed feelings that I returned early this September to help him move flat. He has a new job in Leeds, and a fresh phase of his career to begin. I'm sad he's leaving Tyneside and yet know he needs to move on, not limit life's prospects to the nostalgic inclinations of his old man.  

Arriving mid morning, I realised there was sort of inversion—a mirrored equivalence if you like— to that first trip we made together. I'd come to help him depart, and yet that evening was planning on attending a school reunion, meeting former friends I'd not seen for more than forty years—many of them, for all I knew, could have driven that morning to the northeast too. And as for who would be there or what to expect, I had little idea.

For reunions, it seems, are not everyone's cup of tea. 

When I wrote of my learning of the event some months ago, perhaps half of the commenters suggested they'd find the prospect unbearable. My good friend, and only close contact from those days, refused to come, saying life had moved on and he wasn't one for looking back. And yet my former wife, who might have taken a view that my presence would be somewhat awkward, was actually the person who alerted me to the get-together.  

As it turned out, her being there made it even more special. It's over thirty years since we separated; time enough for wounds to heal and memories to mellow. We swapped stories, swiped our phones for photos; asked how our parents were doing... Life has treated us well, and though we might wish to alter parts of our past, we're old enough to know it's not possible—that the paths we've taken, and joys they've brought us, can't be unpicked from our parting of ways.

There must have been forty of us in all, names and faces sparking long-dormant memories: Susan teasing me about the scraps I'd had at school; Debbie recalling times from the university we attended together; my old friend Peter, who like the boy who never grew up, is just as comical and good looking as ever. On the wall was a blow-up of our year-group photo to which we added our names and had a little gossip about those who'd done this or that, or fallen off the wagon of life. 

But this wasn't a mean spirited or comparative affair.  

Indeed, I was struck by the sense of goodwill, of the mutual interest in the choices we'd taken—of the collective sense of lives well lived, and still more to come. I couldn't help but think what our teachers would have made of it all. Would they be pleased with how we've turned out, and if so, how might they arrive at that conclusion?  

I hope not in the way of today's obsession with scorecards and 'value add' tables. Because for all we could list the educational attainments, financial rewards and outstanding successes—and I've no doubt we'd rank well in the league table of life—it wouldn't get close to answering the question of whether ours was a special year.

And of course, it was. 

Not because of any dry assessment, but because it was 'ours'. Just as our children are special not because of what they become, but because they are part of us; inseparable from the hopes and dreams that chart our passage through life. We don't measure love through any analytical filter—all that matters is that we carry it with us.  

And perhaps our memories—or at least some of them—should be no different. The best are like those keepsakes which we treasure not for their intrinsic worth, but because they remind us of the places, people and events that touched our lives and made us who we are. Before going to the reunion, I dug out my old school reports which shamefully confirm I was once awarded 3% for French—my teacher said it was for spelling my name correctly! And yet I know (though quite how escapes me) that in France the word souvenir means the act of remembering

As the evening came to a close, I was delighted to catch up with a classmate who'd also studied economics at A-level. We chuckled at the memory of our teacher's futile attempts to convert us to monetarism and voting for Margaret Thatcher.  She said I'd been the star of the class—and she was right; my one and only time! Then, as if out of nowhere, we both remembered that our mums had a connection too; that they'd worked together in a junior school... and I recalled that her's used to wear knee-high boots and play opera records... I was right, she smiled.  How on earth did I know that; where had it all come from...?  We laughed and laughed, suddenly back there again.

It was a long drive home. 

The day before I'd travelled to attend, my wife's mum had passed away. I'd considered cancelling the trip, but there was nothing yet to be done and Daniel was in need of my help. Jane urged me to go too, saying her mum would have wanted it; 'take care of your boys' were the last words between us. We live today on the far west coast, where, unlike the shores of my youth, the sun sets behind the sea's curved horizon. For all my years of being here, that still feels foreign. And yet I know that tomorrow it will rise again, following an arc that can't be changed, to shine its light on where we are now. 

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Lists for blogging... and for life

Some books from 2019

Most bloggers I know keep lists, at least in their head if not on their PC or jotter. I use all three, as well as my phone and the blackboard in our kitchen and the back of a packet or two. When stressed, list-making is my go-to relief, as if ticking all the items will eliminate the source of the angst. Get everything done, I say to myself, and there’ll be time to relax… and start a new list tomorrow.

For Views From The Bike Shed, I make a note of the posts I might write, a store of ideas for when inspiration or memory fails me. It’s part of the curation process I say, the planning for a varied output that will keep my readers engaged. There are currently eleven items in my notebook, dozens more on my phone and many more that have been consigned to the bin.

On the page beside me as I type is a list that includes: The Three Peaks of Abergavenny; Collecting Jugs; Digital Minimalism; Girls Own Paper and Bookmarks.  How many of these, I wonder, will make it into print? Two would be good going; three a marvel. And those I’ve mentioned are the most likely; there’s another six I might as well cross off now.

Perhaps the problem is not so much with the making of my lists as with the nature of our epiphanies. What seems so vital and vibrant in the moment, tends to fade as the passage of time dulls our enthusiasm. How often have I woken from slumber, written down some putatively genius insight only to read it a week later and think, ‘In your dreams Mark; literally, in your dreams…’. 

But is this such a bad thing? Because for all that some ideas are lost—and this blog is sparser as a result—isn’t the unconscious mind also acting as a sort of quality control?  And frankly, if it were not for a little temporal distance between my thoughts and my keyboard, the blog you’re reading might all too easily be called Rants rather than Views From The Bike Shed. 

And that wouldn’t do.

Because sounding off seldom works out well and almost never if done too often. Indeed, rants by their nature have an impact only if they break the pattern of the norm; to be permanently raging is invariably to become blinkered and somewhat deaf to others. The exceptions that prove this rule are those rare talents such as Jeremy Clarkson, whose columns, far from being true rants, are actually humorous vexations on the absurdities we encounter.  

Which makes me wonder if my list-making—and my failure to follow through—is any different to everyday life? We all have our passing fancies; intentions that sound great in the pub or as presented on TV. But when it comes to taking action, they suddenly don’t seem so compelling. For years I’ve been saying to Jane that we really must go to Hampton Court, after all, it’s not that far… so long as we set off early, and avoid the London traffic and book in advance…

In her turn, Jane says I should be less driven; try to enjoy what’s around me instead of always looking ahead. It’s fine to be doing she says, so long as you don’t forget about being. Actually, those words are mine not hers—she’d put it more plainly and tell me to stop obsessing over things that can wait. And why, she’d ask, am I so focused on striving that I lose sight of what we already have?

She’s right of course, and yet I can’t shake the habit. There’s a body of research that claims achievement is fundamental to our happiness and sense of self-worth. I feel it keenly, together with a sense of responsibility to others as well as myself. I’m sure this explains my reluctance to retire and certainly my intention never to stop writing. 

I’m conscious too, of not wasting the opportunity and privilege we’ve been afforded. Imagine a life in which your ambitions were thwarted, your chances proscribed by custom or lack of resources. Such was the lot of most people (women especially) for millennia—and in truth, it remains the case in large parts of the world. My parents in law, two former school teachers, have visited over one hundred countries in their retirement—an achievement that’s unthinkable in historical terms.  

Theirs of course is a different kind of list to what we began with. Like those I keep of books I’ve read, it looks backwards not forward, recording rather than prompting. There’s a danger, with lists of this type, that their length becomes more important than their purpose— but at their best, they can be a trove of memory, imbuing a sense of a life well-lived. The concept of a ‘bucket list’ has become commonplace parlance, and a reflection of a predominantly secular outlook on the ticking of our clocks: carpe diem; you only live once; eternity is an awfully long time...

Which inclines me to think I’ve been rambling on quite enough. What started as a notion about blogging has morphed, through a series of unplanned diversions, into reflections on the good life. And maybe that’s a fitting conclusion: that as writers the purpose of our lists is not so much to schedule our output as it is to remind us of the wealth of the choices we have on offer. Which is a good and wonderful thing, so long as we know also when to stop.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Altered images

I've been thinking this week about pictures and photographs. In part, this was sparked by a blog on altered images—that's not a reference to the Eighties pop band but to photoshopped files and the artistic possibilities they offer. It was also prompted by my reading of a spellbinding essay in which the author (Chris Arthur) reflects on a childhood photograph of his mother. And finally, my motive was influenced by a request from one of my readers to post a picture of Oscar's new friend Eric!

The purpose of these acknowledgements is more than mere introduction.  I want in a few allocated sentences to paint as full a picture as I can; to let you in on the background as well as seeing what's up front; to put this piece in perspective and present the truth as best I can.

In which endeavour I'll inevitably fail. 

For even if my words were perfect and we had all the time in eternity they could never be more than a curated representation of things as they really are. 

Such is the way with pictures too. 

We intuitively know this with a practice such as painting. Indeed it is very much its purpose, even for so-called photorealistic art (a paradoxical term if ever there was one) which by its verisimilitude, challenges us to look more closely at the world as it is. The image in art is a product of response not representation. 

But with photographs—leaving Photoshop aside—we more typically think the opposite; often we use photographs as objective evidence or documents of record. And of course, in one sense, this is fine and appropriate. But in another—and in their filtering out of references and senses of a different sort—they are as flawed as my words will always be.

As you look at the snap of Oscar frolicking with Eric, do you get a sense that his owner was nervous; that she (or was it a he?) was at first concerned they might run off...  And what of the heat of the day, or the smell of the sea... the sand between my toes? 

Which I have to tell you was irritating and not pleasant at all—because if I didn't you'd not know it from the image. Just as you'd not know that I was there without Jane because she was nursing her mum; that Dylan and I were sad at her absence; that Oscar was out of sorts all week too. And I'm not even scratching the surface here.

Does any of this matter?

Soon after I took the picture, I passed a family setting up their blankets and windbreaks for the day.  The kids were pushing and shoving; dad was moaning about the heat; mum looked like she was frazzled already...  Until their teenage daughter shouted 'photo everyone' and all of them posed with Facebook smiles, waiting for the silent click of a virtual shutter. 

I wonder, in years to come, what recollections that picture will conjure; what stories its pixels will print on the pages of that family's memories.  And does it matter too if those are truth or myth? As my art teacher once said, 'We none of us know if the Mona Lisa is an accurate likeness.'

Which should remind us that all images are altered realities. 

The process of composing them is itself an editorial act—part of the curated representation I spoke of earlier.  What's more, in our making of pictures (and especially so with the taking of photographs) we are inescapably bound to altering our experience of the subject. Whatever our side of the shutter, are we not posing for that perfect portrait?

So perhaps the operative word in this blog title shouldn't be altered, but one I've used twice in passing. For to curate is not only to select and organise, it is to care—and if in so doing to we tint our memories with a rose coloured wash, then is that such a bad thing?  Just as our senses filter out peripheries, perhaps our taking of photographs allows us to carry our past more lightly? Perhaps the altering of our images is what's needed if we are to bear the weight of the memories they would otherwise hold. 

Sunday, July 18, 2021


Falls at Ystradfellte

Often when I walk with Jane she says I may as well be somewhere else. Other couples she points out, use walking as a chance to chat and hold hands, whereas more often than not I'm striding ahead and miles away in my mind  If this seems selfish, then I must beg forgiveness or at least understanding.  It's as if the repetitive act of this simplest of exercises gives rise to meditations that I'm powerless to resist. 

In truth, I'm glad of her presence even if inwardly elsewhere. So in an attempt to bridge the divide, I've recently taken to sharing more of what I'm thinking. I call it 'the kind of things I ponder' conversation and though more often as not it elicits an eye roll,  just occasionally it engenders a discussion that slows my pace and brings us together.  

'Things underrated' I said the other day, is one of my go-to ruminations.  We all have our lists of the best and the worst—the finest restaurant, the funniest book, the town we'd least like to live in... Whatever category takes our interest it's natural enough to rank and rate it in an order of excellence. So much is commonplace and pleasant enough to debate on a hike or a wander.

But 'underrated' is something slightly different.  It's not about what or who is the best or worst, it's about the gap between our perception and reality; it's about changing our focus from a scale based on excellence to a one of latent potential or unrecognised achievement.  

We all know that Pele and Maradona are among the best footballers of all time; but who are the lesser mentioned players that have a claim to be up there with the greats?  And while we're at it, considering what's overrated is a good muse too; which towns and counties, for example, have reputations (or house prices) that far surpass what they actually deliver?

I was thinking of all this in a slightly different context when walking in the hills this weekend.  My son had asked me earlier if I'd visited every national park and which I thought was the best.  I told him I had and although it was hard to pick a favourite I'd probably opt for The Lake District as the quintessential UK example.  Others might disagree with my assessment but that's not the point—which is that I picked an option that would almost certainly be pretty high on any public vote.  

I've no idea if such a survey has ever taken place but if one has I'd bet a lot of money that the Norfolk Broads or South Downs were not contenders for the top medals. And just to add a bit of speculative spice, if I had to declare my choice of 'least favourite' national park, I'd opt for the New Forest. This will no doubt offend some, but then we all have our preferences. And a good thing that is too.

But returning to my theme, and what occupied my walking meditations, which national park is the most underrated?  

Now that's much harder to decide.  Northumberland is the least visited, but for all I love that land, it is actually the coast (not in the park) which draws most visitors.  The North York Moors is relatively little known too, as is Dartmoor; the Trossachs are often passed over in favour of the Highlands or West Coast. And what about Exmoor, surely there's underrated potential there...  

Magnificent as these parks are I fear they will always be overshadowed by other attractions—none of them has the latent possibilities I'm looking for. On the other hand, I can't in all conscience choose the Yorkshire Dales, the Peak District or the Cairngorms: these are obvious star performers, well known and well-trod by millions.

There's no right answer of course.  

For what it's worth I'd make the case that the Brecon Beacons is the UK's most underrated national park. It's within an hour's drive of four large cities, has some of the best mountain walking south of Scotland and is vast and varied and lonely and lovely... 

Why is it so little visited compared to others?  Frankly, I'm mystified but I sense the lack of an obvious tourist centre (like say Keswick or Hawes) plays a part—so too that its major peaks are just a touch under 3,000 ft.  Maybe the Welsh language is off-putting to some - all those consonants and not enough vowels. 

The trouble of course is that what would make it more attractive to many risks destroying why it's so brilliant for the few. 

On Saturday we stopped by Maen Llia, a standing stone of  4,000 years provenance; erected by the Beaker people, we can only guess at its significance. Legend says it occasionally walks to the nearby stream for a drink—waters that feed the magnificent falls at Ystradfellte, and which hollow the caves at Dan yr Ogof, the biggest underground system in the UK.  From the hills above here, you can see the Carmarthen Fans, the Brecon Beacons, the Black Mountains; hundred of miles to explore.

And you can do so alone, or together, or like me and Jane, a bit of both! Because other than the honey pots (of which the waterfalls are one) the visitor density here is among the lowest of any high mountain area within easy reach of millions of people. And because, in a landscape like this, we are drawn to looking in as much as out, and to talking to ourselves, as much as our closest of loved ones. 

And I reckon that's underrated too. 

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Dogs know what to say

'Dogs are good when you're going through tough times - they just know what to say.' Those words came from a text my friend sent me after they learned we've had sad news. For the last fortnight, Jane has been nursing her mum, our lives temporarily upended—suspended even—as we come to terms with the limits of life.

It seems (at least in our case) that we settle quickly into roles laid down over millennia: the women caring, the men keeping going; each clutching to some semblance of normality. This week I have been in Pembrokeshire, writing and working—they merge into one, like sky and sea. Time alone feels like an indulgence, and yet there's pragmatism in it too; life goes on, jobs to be done...

Yesterday I walked with Oscar to the high cliffs at St David's Head. There were many other pilgrims, stopping for photographs at what's a highlight of the modern-day coastal path. People have been coming here for generations, seeking solace and salvation at this ending of the road. Near the car park, archaeologists are excavating a mediaeval chapel; one hundred graves are aligned east to west in the path of the sun.

It doesn't take us long to reach the cove at Porthmelgan, but already, I sense Oscar knows things are not right. Where is his pack, why are we not together on the beach?  He walks close to my knees, not from any shortening of the leash but because he's done so all week, his eyes check me every few yards. When we reach the Head he settles by my side, nose on my shoulder, snuffling in a soft steady rhythm.

Out at sea, there are gannets patrolling the flows and avenues of the tide, gliding effortlessly over what to them is its limpid surface. On the cliffs, there's a band of orange lichen that marks the limits of the salt spray, a hundred feet above the water. The rocks it washes are a mixture of granite and sediment that's half a billion years old. 

In places like this, it's natural to see our lives in perspective. We talk of being grains of sand, stars in the heavens... insignificant moments in a landscape of space and time that's beyond our knowing. And yet we come here to make connections too. For we are as much a part of this place as it is of us— like the countless trillions of quarks and atoms and cells which make up our collective whole. Had we the capacity, we could trace our roots to the genesis that brought all this into being and will ultimately bring it to an end.

The philosopher John Gray says we humans are straw dogs, fated to be forgotten and deluded by our sense of difference as a species. His reasoning—and his writing—is compelling and persuasive for those of us without faith. And yet, for all its deductive potency it somehow ‘feels’ wrong, because we don't sense or act as if our lives were insignificant, whatever the lack of a greater scheme.  

The problem with metaphors like 'grains of sand' and 'stars in the heavens' is that they are too static and temporally removed; they take no account of our churning of the waters; the disturbance in the sediment created by the waves and wakes of our lives. Our actions may not make much impression on the granite rocks of time, but there's value in the here and now, in the love and care and difference we make to our fractions of the universe, which are just as essential and eternal as any other.  

Across the ridge to the north of the headland is Coetan Arthur, the capstone remains of a neolithic burial chamber. It seems our forefathers' found significance here too, and walking towards it I find myself wondering if it also was aligned to the sun. Jane loves this sense of history, the thought that people before us were thinking and acting just as we do. She would like to be here I'm sure, but wouldn't have it otherwise for now.

As I sat with Oscar looking back on the path we'd taken, I wondered what he saw and was thinking. His ribs were pressing on my back, and I remembered that message from my friend—that dogs know just what to say.  That's a non-sequitur of sorts because, of course, we know they can't speak. But perhaps that's the point; that being present is all that matters—that sometimes, there's nothing to be said.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Ploughman's lunch

Cottage loaf - I can bake too.

If I had to make a call for 'last meal on earth', then I reckon a picnic would come top of my list—with a flask of tea and a blanket to sit on, ideally, in the lee of the Cheviot Hills. Such is my land of lost content...

But for an average Tuesday when it's more likely raining and the wind blowing hard, I'll settle for a ploughman's lunch as a close second best. Especially with a hunk of my cottage loaf to go with the cheddar, the pickled onions, obligatory chutney and of course, a sliced apple on the side. 

I made one last week—comfort food of a sort—and my son said it was like my being in France (as I'd hoped to have been). He was no doubt thinking of the brie and salami we buy at the market, the huge plum tomatoes, the fresh baguettes from our village baker...  Summers in the Alps are fuelled by this fare.

But for all the similarities I reckon he's wrong, because there are few meals more English than a hearty ploughman's - pickled onions for a start, you don't get them in the Haute Savoie. Nor do you find chutney very easily, and as for apples - pah: Golden Delicious at best and that's a misnomer if ever there was one.

I jest of course, for the food in France is fabulous, and were I to drink, the wine would be too. But we shouldn't underestimate the delights of our own. I'm serious when I say I would rank a ploughman's in my favourite meals. Last week I accompanied mine with a glass of alcohol-free beer and finished off with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Delightful.

George Orwell wrote that the best of British food lay in our bread, cheese and puddings. He rated haggis too and I'd join him in that, though not for a picnic; English apples—and Scottish raspberries—we'd both agree, are the best in the world.  I wish I'd had some home-grown tomatoes with my platter last week, that would have topped it off to perfection.

Or maybe, I could have followed it with a rhubarb fool like the one Jane made on Saturday. That's another of our specialities even if the plant comes originally from elsewhere—though try telling them as much in Yorkshire; forced rhubarb from Wakefield was once despatched daily to London to meet the demand.

As was stilton cheese which is named after the village on the A1 where the carriages stopped to pick up supplies. Pubs sometimes offer it as an alternative to cheddar in their ploughman's; others add ham, a pork pie or even a pickled egg.  No end of variation I guess, but I'll stick to the basics thanks very much.

It's not that I'm a Luddite, nor that I can't appreciate anything more sophisticated. Rather, it's that simple foods and settings are what gives me most pleasure. I'd rather have fish and chips by the quay than Dover sole in a fancy restaurant; I rate good eggs more highly than any caviar... My favourite food in all the world is homemade bread and jam.

Which come to think of it, would make a fine last meal in itself.