Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Black Friday blues...

How many coats does one man need?

I write a column for an alpine club newsletter each month and thought I'd share my latest missive here on Views From The Bike Shed too.  

November reflections

Last week, when moving my motorbike in the garage its handlebars caught in the pocket of a jacket hanging nearby. Moments later, the sound of ripping fabric confirmed that my latest Gortex waterproof would now be sporting an extra-large vent across its front. After a few choice expletives, I put the bike on its stand and proceeded to remove all the coats from the rack.

Can you guess how many there were?

I’ll not tell you exactly, but let’s just say it was well into double figures. Which isn’t so bad, I reasoned, because, first of all, there are the seasons to consider: winter storm wear, summer showerproofs and autumn or spring mid-weights that double for trips to the pub. Then there’s that retro Scandinavian one, made of what we used to call poly-cotton but now some fancy pants equivalent. And lastly, there are a few that these days fit a bit snugly round the middle but I’m holding onto out of hope.

What's more, these are just my walking coats. There’s also the cycling kit, and the kayaking paraphernalia (a whole different world, believe me) — not to mention the ski gear or the various duvet jackets and the body warmers and the pack-a-macs and ponchos… Did I mention fleeces…? Honestly, the marketing guys must rub their hands when they see me coming!

But let me admit a little secret.

For all the kit that I own, the jacket I use the most is a twenty-five-year-old anorak that sports fraying seams, questionable grease stains and pockets full of sand. It’s much the same with footwear (another sad story, but we’ll not go there) for which, despite having every possible variation, I’ll most days opt for my handy pair of slip-on jungle mocs.

In fact, when I think about it, almost everything I reach for first is more battered than beautiful. My climbing gear is housed in a forty-year-old rucksack; my hat of choice came with me to Wales (so three decades ago) and I use the same pair of track pants that I did when I ran the Cardiff half-marathon in the Nineties.

Actually, they really could do with replacing…

But this year, as all those Black Friday offers come flooding in, I’m determined… indeed, I’m resolved, steadfast, hell-bent and adamant… that I won’t buy anything which isn’t absolutely necessary or an unmissable bargain (of course) or would boost my confidence or make me look slimmer or fill that gap between autumn and winter when the weather’s not quite one thing or the other…

Those marketing guys won’t be rubbing their hands quite so gleefully now, will they?

Have a great December.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Metal heads


In my twenties, I suffered a great deal from anxiety, caused I now realise by a sense of dislocation, a too-rapid and ill-grounded coming to terms with adulthood. That's long in the past now, but I remember my doctor back then saying, you know Mark if ever you get stressed, just go and polish your bikes.

At the time I lived in a small Northumberland village and everyone knew I cycled. His point was not that they needed cleaning - but rather, that when you're deeply upset, a physical and absorbing distraction is often the best and simplest medicine.  It's why I rock climbed so much, and why my bikes were always immaculate.

I was reminded of his advice this week when I travelled north, leaving my poor sick dog (whose accident had left me so distraught) to spend a day with Spike the Blacksmith. I've long loved the touch and form of metal objects; my house has Suffolk latches, handmade hooks for our coats, hearth irons on the fireplace...  There's a tangibility to them, and a mystery too, for I've often wondered how the curls and folds are beaten from the bars of iron.

Let's get you bashing, said Spike, twenty minutes after I arrived.

Her forge-cum-studio is in mid-wales, and I guess I expected more of a farrier feel than the gothic workshop that she'd shown me around.  I was treated first to her house of horrors Halloween room, complete with crawl through door, mock electric chair and a doll guillotine.  There was also a gallery, displaying metal and ceramic sculptures - a sort of mash-up of Damien Hurst, Francis Bacon and Louise Bourgeois.  They're a response to love, she said.  Not everyone would get it.

But I did and we talked throughout the day about the edge between cliche and crap, about gothic horror (her thing) and artistic Romanticism (mine), about learning and making and forging — indeed, lots on forging and the process of trial and error, call and response, theme and variation; just like painting or writing.  It's a matter of feel as much as formula.

And of hammering too.  

No smwddio! Spike would demand as I tried to shape my glowing bar with more of a nudge than a straight bash. It's the colloquial Welsh word for ironing, pronounced 'smooth-e-o'. It made me laugh and kept me on point to hit the bar straight and true over the anvil that rung out - yes, it really did - as if it enjoyed its fifty thousandth strike as much as all the ones before.

Which reminded me of Oscar, and the way that every ball I throw is just as exciting as the last...  I showed Spike a photo of his head staples; they could be gothic piercings we laughed, and got quickly back to bashing... and bending our way through the morning's session.

By midday, I'd made two coat hooks and some S-shaped hangers in anticipation of the main project that afternoon. I wanted to make a fire pit tripod, I said, suspecting it might be a bit ambitious on day one, but buoyed by Spike's confidence and 'have a go' attitude.  I'd made good progress, she said, as we worked out the design using chalk and string and few 'yep, that'll dos'.

One of the attractions of blacksmithing, Spike said, is that it works on the basis of 'about right' rather than 'perfectly precise'. She's bang on (no smwdddio) the money; there's an iterative, work-it-out-as-you-go feel to the process: cutting, sanding, heating bashing, heating, bashing, heating... repeat as necessary...  

Then once you've got your points in order, bending and twisting in the jigs. It's all very manual, down to earth and matter of fact — and yet it's guided by a knowledge that's forged from the thousands of repetitive hours that make up any mastery.

No smwddio, she berates me again.

I was pleased with the tripod I made. In six hours, I'd gone from complete newbie to, might we say, novitiate? Can that word apply to a horror goth's pupil?  It could to Spike I reckon. 'I'd like to live for six hundred years,' she said, 'to acquire all the skills I need.' Learning is an all-consuming passion she claimed. 'When I'm working on my sculptures, I forget about everything else —I've been here twenty years but it's nowhere near enough.'

We finished my lessons with a polish of the pieces; a process that's rather like framing a picture — the painter's prize, they used to say.  It brings everything into sharp relief, reminds you of the intricacy and yet simplicity of it all; of the effort you'd made, and the room to improve... next time...

Talking of which, it was getting dark outside; the day had passed so swiftly that I'd barely noticed. Putting my tripod in the car I could have sworn there were bats in the courtyard, but maybe that's my imagination —or Spike's. As I drove home, I thought of poor Oscar and the metal in his head, of the metaphorical equivalent in mine - and of the two bikes in my shed, that could do with a clean sometime soon.

-----------

Spike Blackhurst is an artist-teacher and blacksmith, based at Llanbrynmair in Mid Wales. I attended a one-to-one blacksmithing course which I paid for myself and frankly, it was fab - bonkers too, but definitely fab!  https://spiketheblacksmith.co.uk/



And he's getting better...

Monday, November 14, 2022

Fractured

The thing about whippets is that almost everything is quick. Or slow depending on the clock. Oscar spends an hour at full pelt, followed by twenty-three on the sofa... watching me from the corner of his eye, hoping for food, fearing I might leave. .. 

Even for a moment.

Which is all it takes to fracture your skull when you're running at 30 kilometres an hour, towards a ball that a greyhound has spied from the opposite direction. The chase instinct in sighthounds is irrepressible, their focus fixed, and in Oscar's case, his running line so straight that nothing distracts.  It's a joy to watch.

Until bang... 

They collide at a combined speed of 50 kilometres and there's a tumble and Oscar's going head over heels, his legs buckled beneath him... 

And he's not moving anymore.  

As I run towards him he staggers to the owners of the greyhound, and my panic eases - no broken bones... Good boy, I call...  good boy, Oscar... it's alright.

Except it's not.  His head is split and there's blood —lots of it. The greyhound's owners are apologetic. I don't stop, say 'it's just dogs' and dash away, carrying him the length of the beach to the car; to the vets, to the vets...

He whimpers as I tear through the backroads, swearing at a tractor and again at an elderly driver slowing at the speed bumps.  Easy Mark, I say,  Better five minutes late in this world...

Ten more and I carry him into the arms of the nurse, who takes him away and suddenly I'm lost — as confused in my way as the poor mite being examined for what I'd hoped was merely a puncture wound.

That diagnosis was correct - only it goes all the way through his outer skull, stopping (we hope, but can't be sure) millimetres from his brain. There follows an explanation as to why X-rays aren't much use; talk of transferring him to Bristol and whether he'd manage the eight-hour trip. 

I feel sick; can't think.

Jane arrives and holds back tears. After more talking and waiting and calls and debate, they staple his wound and we take him home, hoping for the best. 

There's nothing more to be done, they say.  Just love and rest.

And all weekend it's been like a reversal.  

We sit on the sofa and watch him for any movement; willing him to eat; fearful he'll leave us. But he's a tough little thing, looking at me now with one eye open as I type.  We're seeing the vet at 11.00; praying it's just swelling. 

Funny how much you love these bundles of fur.  

We too will be fractured till he heals.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Hope

Cwm Idwal - photo by Saskia Janicki

Why would anyone climb a mountain? 

'Because it's there,' was George Malory's famous riposte when asked about attempting Everest. And to some extent he's right. But for all its pith, his answer does little to explain the subtler motivations of those of us who set our sights on lesser peaks.

I was reminded of this at the weekend when I went to North Wales with my rock climbing club. We camped under Tryfan in the Ogwen Valley, one of the most beautiful yet starkest in Snowdonia. There were ten of us in all: four novices, some accomplished leaders and me, who I guess you might class as a late returner—historically experienced, but distinctly lacking in practice! 

In truth, I was lacking in more than that. Strength for one thing diminishes with age, as does flexibility and perhaps most importantly confidence, which is impervious to bluff. Hence I was glad that my eldest son had come along to be my partner. We've climbed together a few times this summer, the roles gradually shifting from me as mentor to him as front runner on the rope.  

On Saturday we headed to Cwm Idwal, where its eponymous slabs host some of the valley's best known routes. The 'Ordinary' may be the easiest on the crag, but it's still five pitches of balance and counterpoise, requiring trust and technique to tackle it safely. Daniel was aware I'd once climbed it with his mum. What he didn't know, is that the lake below the cliff is where we'd walked hand in hand in the January rain and knew—with a certainty borne of love—that there was no going back.

Two years later we were married in a chapel at Betws y Coed, coming to the lake the day after our wedding as a sort of pilgrimage to its power. Another time, we found a red rose lodged in a crack on the slabs, and with it a note from a girl to her boyfriend who'd died in the Himalayas. All this came back as I climbed—slowly and without much elegance—on Saturday.

But there is more to our passion than speed or style. Indeed this weekend one party had a late finish, requiring a descent in the dark that will no doubt live in their memory.  And happily so, for all were safe and smiling on their return, bonded not broken by the experience. Just as all the best climbing should be.

Another member scrambled up Tryfan only to drive thirty miles south to Cadair Idris and jog to its summit. That's over 5,000 feet in a day: dismay for some; a delight for those who are able. How I wish that ever I were...  Mountains are about more than ropes and harnesses.

This weekend I saw walkers and cyclists, runners and kayakers, cake eating tourists (me among them) and families exploring the lower paths.  There was even a hot air balloon inflated at night at Capel Curig! On the way to Idwal we passed a woman with twisted hips, each step a labour of effort, leaning on her sticks every few yards.  As we went by she beamed the broadest of smiles.

And then, there are the new friendships I made, the views at dusk, the marvelling at the milky way...  the sheer bloody joy of being in such a special place. It's been said we climb mountains, not for the views from the top, but from the bottom. Those who love the hills, or know any landscape intimately, will understand what that's getting at. 

On Sunday I was tired, my son's girlfriend joined us and wanted to climb too. I was glad, for I felt in some intangible way that my part was done; that it was their turn now. They headed back to Cwm Idwal to climb a different but parallel route to the one I'd chosen the day before. It would be their memory not mine, their time and their experience together. 

It was called Hope.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The traces we leave...

Earlier this week I disposed of an old bedside cabinet at our house in France. It was one of those items you feel guilty for dumping, but deep down know the charity shop won't want either. For the last two years, it's stood by our front door so the postman can leave small parcels. When the mice took up residence, it was time to let go.

But as is the way here, recycling it meant removing the marble top, separating the lining from its outer casing, checking each section for nails ... And in so doing, discovering a photograph that, decades earlier, someone had taped to the underside of a drawer.  An image of two girls looking into a lens saw its first light of day for lord knows how long.

Who'd put it there I wondered?  The faces suggest they are sisters, but whose daughters or granddaughters might they be? And why paste their picture where it wouldn't be seen?  Are they still with us... or gone now, like the cabinet that housed the fragment of their past?  

I guess we could weave all manner of stories from such flimsy threads. But that's what novelists do, and I'm not one of those. 

So instead I pondered the traces we leave...  

My neighbour is a mason who restores historic buildings — every time I see him at work I'm in awe. Like many craftsmen, he brushes off praise. But if you asked, he'd explain the tradition of mason's marks and how to find 'signatures' in the stone of cathedral walls. His imprint will endure for generations too. 

Many years ago my mother wrote a song for her primary school class. One of my earliest memories is her figuring the tune on chime bars at our home. It's since been published in dozens of hymn books and is widely recorded around the world. By the time she dies, how many hundreds of thousands will have sung 'I listen and I listen'?  No doubt, we will play it at her funeral.

And what will I leave?  

Some writing perhaps, at least for as long as it lasts; there are two obscure rock climbs I've given a name to; perhaps someone will keep one of my paintings...  Jane and I like to think that every house we've owned has benefited from our stewardship. With luck, there'll be some inheritance...  

But beyond these tangibilities?

Very little I hope. For legacies are not the purpose of life or indeed the best measure of our contributions. There's value in making a difference now: in helping and healing, in supporting and providing; in simply making ends meet so that those we love can flourish. In an age when we're so driven to 'succeed', some say we should live more in the moment. 

Though by historical standards, we generally do. I read somewhere that very few of us know the forenames of our great grandparents; after three generations we're lost to memory.  That seems to me, no bad thing, for I've always thought the veneration of ancestors to be misplaced. If I could visit any time in history, I'd choose the future, not the past.

As I write the conclusion to this post, I'm struck that my doing so has been delayed. 

Why?  

Because for a week I lost the picture of the girls, absentmindedly putting it down to watch the contrails in the sky across our valley.  Had I not tidied up, it would have curled and faded in the sunlight that streams through the window. Every day here, the planes go back and forth...  a web of slipstreams that momentarily sparkle, then fade to oblivion. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The Sound of Being Human

My book of the year so far - brilliantly done.

I’ve long held the view, that when writing from experience — be it for books, blogs or essays — it’s the inner story, rather than any outer narrative, that’s the true test of quality. From great epics to country diaries, readers find meaning not so much in the sequence of events as the struggles, discoveries and growth of any protagonists along the way. This is what separates literary from pulp fiction; biography from CVs; life writing from journalism…. It’s also, somewhat ironically, what makes stories universal.

Jude Rogers’ The Sound of Being Human does all this and more. Mixing deeply personal memoir with career expertise and a sprinkling of academic research, she explores how music (and particularly popular songs and their artists) shapes our sense of self, binding moments to melodies that become the soundtrack of our lives. What’s especially remarkable is that she does so with a playlist that though essential to telling her story, isn’t necessary to ours — indeed, I’d not heard of many of the tracks she chose to hook her chapters — for in truth, her choices are proxies to personal equivalents we cherish just the same.

All that’s required to appreciate the book’s central theme, is that we associate music, of whatever genre, with times and events of significance in our lives. Rogers begins with a childhood memory of her father’s parting words before going into hospital: Let me know what gets to number one. He died, aged 33, two days later... And the song that made the top spot that week — Only You, by the Flying Pickets — becomes an anchor in the storm of emotions that might otherwise have wrecked a five-year-old child, metaphorically lost at sea. More broadly, its lifelong resonance becomes a base note of the book: that music can heal and help us make sense of the rhythms and refrains of our lives.

And so the chapters continue, like verses in a song: from adolescence to coming of age; leaving home to finding love… and friendships, career, parenthood, illness...  Music accompanies us on all of these journeys — sometimes centre stage; sometimes playing in the background — and by processes we don’t fully understand, becomes so cemented to our memories that it's capable of triggering the most vivid of recollections. I especially liked the section in which Rogers lists songs as substitutes for former boyfriends; a sort of mix tape of — on the whole — generous memories that she can smile at and sing along to. Her chapter on why so many of us feel grief when famous musicians die also resonated, taking me back to seminal losses (not always musically connected) of my own.

But it was the last chapter, based on an interview with Paddy McAloon (leader singer and writer of the band Prefab Sprout) that intrigued me most. For not only is McAloon my favourite pop artist, his albums the backing track to my twenties, but the interview took place during the Covid lockdown, a period I found so severely disconnecting that only now am I (slowly) coming to terms with its impact. I should mention that Rogers interviewed me at that time, for an article in the Guardian, not about music, but about living on the border between England and Wales during the severest restrictions. She found solace in music, and particularly in McAloon’s composition I Trawl The Megahertz; I searched for it in the landscape, access to which was a chief prohibition of those terrible months.

Reading McAloon's thoughts got me wondering how (in some parallel universe) Rogers — or indeed all of us — would have coped if music had been what was forbidden?  How would we have fared without the sounds that buoy us up and soothe our souls? How many of us would have found the melodic silence unbearable: no tunes; no dance; no hymns or communal singing (indeed that was banned)…  I recalled how little music I listened to in lockdown; how I stopped playing my saxophone too. And how to me, place and music are more connected than I realised.  

I’m not sure what that says, but I suspect it’s linked to the deep anxiety —and anger — I felt at the time – and how sensory denial, especially of that which feeds our being, leads to consequences we can’t consciously control.

Of course, this is all open-ended pondering on my part. But in a sense, that’s the point of the book — and the mark of its quality. For ultimately, it's not about Jude, or her back story, or the hundreds of interviews she’s conducted as a music journalist…. Nor is it about the artists, their genius or otherwise, or the academics and musicologists whose research she summarises so well. Rather, the Sound of Being Human is about all of us and each of us alone. The soundtracks of our lives are as personal and private as they are shared and universal, as much inner as outer story.  Like the Flying Pickets' aptly acapella (literally ‘unaccompanied’) cover of Yazoo’s original, they are…  all I ever knew… only you.

The Sound of Being Human – how music shapes our lives
By Jude Rogers
Published by White Rabbit / Orion Publishing Group Ltd
ISBN: 978-1-4766-2292-9

Wednesday, June 15, 2022