Things That the Everyday Folk Leave Behind

So I’ve had a pretty busy time of late, what with a couple of interviews I’ve conducted and am conducting for various publications, not to mention interviews and promo bits and pieces for From Destinations Set which is out on the 28th, and a spate of gigs and a tidal wave of new releases to review (90 reviews this year to date), and as a consequence, the blog’s something I’ve let slide a bit (again).

With so much to do, places to go and people to see, I find I spend all of my waking hours rushing about, and my non-waking hours spent with my mind churning through all of the things I’ve done and have got to do and should have done but haven’t yet. To an extent, that’s pretty normal for me, but lately I’ve been so preoccupied and absorbed in all of this activity that I noticed that I’ve stopped noticing things. This concerns me. I’ve always maintained that being attuned to one’s surroundings is the key to being a writer of merit (and while my merits as a writer won’t ultimately be determined by me, it’s something I like to feel I at least aspire to). Besides, it’s not something that’s entirely optional: drawing on the details and minutia of the everyday is a compulsion, it’s something I can’t help, at least under normal circumstances. Observation, those details of life and snippets of overheard dialogue have long provided me with an abundance of material for my writing, be it fiction or blogs or whatever, Absorbing information from the world around me is integral not only to my work, but who I am. Small wonder I was beginning to feel that the workload was swallowing my life: I was beginning to lose myself.

As a consequence, I resolved to pull myself back to life, and I’ve begun to try to observe my surroundings again. I have no idea why I was remotely surprised by the sensory overload this retuning induced, given that I find the wealth of extraneous information dizzying the majority of the time, but having effectively shut down for a period of time, engaging once again with my environment proved to be an immediate culture shock.

So on leaving the house this morning, I was elated to note that day was breaking. It was the first time in months I had hit the pavement in daylight. The air was cold but still. Birds were singing – something quite uncommon given the density of the housing, the lack of gardens and trees and the large number of brutal cats in the neighbourhood. On arrival at the bus stop, I was amused – and also bemused – to see that on one of the seats moulded into the shelter was a handbag. Abandoned, forgotten. Beside the handbag, stretched and strewn across the next two seats, a pair of tights. I wondered if the tights and bag had the same (former) owner. Must’ve been one hell of a night.

It’s not just physical objects that are discarded at random. Conversations, sounds, ideas, all contribute to the flotsam and jetsam. Before long, I’m on the bus, surrounded by blank individuals. The journey is soundtracked by the album The Disaster of Imagination by Sense of Scenery. It doesn’t entirely drown the chatter of the other passengers. I’m reading $20,000 by Bill Drummond. The sensory overload I’m accustomed to is back. Snippets of dialogue filter into my consciousness, on the bus, at the office. Most of it mere babble, some of it so inane it’s beyond belief. ‘Is she still Spanish?’

I’m being flooded with material, more material in a day than I can use in a lifetime. I pick them all up, all of the bits and pieces, and stow them, ready for when I need them. I never know when I might need that discarded handbag, the left-behind tights, the fragments of dialogue, the half light and the birdsong. I’m living the experience that I was supposed to be creating to an amplified degree in THE PLAGIARIST. It’s not funny any more. This is the world.

I’m back and I’m firing on all cylinders….

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Notes From a Mountain: Annual Coleridge Kick, 2011

My annual Coleridge Kick began in 1987. My father had a Winter Fell-walking trip booked with a friend of his who dropped out, so I took his place and I got a real taste for experiencing the great outdoors in the kind of conditions that keep most people sheltering indoors or heading off to sunnier climes. I’ve always been a fairly solitary individual, so the idea of spending a whole day out there without seeing a soul was part of the appeal and the excitement.

It wasn’t called the Coleridge Kick back then, of course: that came much later. Although Wordsworth’s association with the Lake District is stronger and more widely known, Coleridge also spent significant periods of time there, and I find Coleridge far more interesting, both as a poet and a character. Despite being one of, if not the first to record an ascent of Scafell Pike, England’s highest peak, Coleridge’s importance in the history of Fell walking is spectacularly eclipsed by Wainright, but Coleridge’s relationship with the mountains has long fascinated me, and I consider the darker, deeper shades of his verse to correspond and resonate with my experiences of the mountains far more vividly than Wordsworth’s.

In the intervening times since that first excursion during the February half-term week, I’ve missed a few years here and there, but have been making the trip each year since the new millennium. It’s pretty much the only time I can truly empty my mind and find a moment of inner peace, and in that sense, it’s become a sort of pilgrimage, a duty I undertake for my own mental health. Immense physical exertion, coupled with a need to concentrate on staying on the mountain while battling with snow, ice, high winds and difficult terrain requires focus, and the mind tends not to wander into the domains of fretting about one’s bank balance or getting churned up over how much you hate your job. Recording my walking experiences directly has never really been of interest to me in the past. I much prefer to absorb the atmosphere and draw on it – or otherwise escape there in my mind – when required. This year, however, I decided that I would record a few notes, not on the summits as Coleridge (supposedly) did, but each evening, at the end of the walk when I would reflect on the day’s walking.

Having been pretty busy over the last few months, I was keen to get out in the open air. The absence of snow or true winter conditions wasn’t going to impinge on my enjoyment or appreciation of the time out. No internet, no television, only sporadic mobile phone signal while on the fells and none whatsoever in the hotel nestled in the Borrowdale valley, it’s like stepping out of the century.


Day 1: 25th January 2011

The Langdale Pikes. 3 summits, relatively low – Pike o’ Stickle, Harrison Stickle, Pavey Ark. Total distance a little over 6 miles. On paper, a veritable piece of piss. In practice, rather different. The simple facts – even considering an extended distance, including a double-back detour, totaling 7.8 miles and a total ascent / descent of a fraction over 3,400ft – don’t convey any of the other factors: high wind, low cloud, rain, wind-chill, terrain that all contribute to the fatigue such an excursion can cause. Having started rather late – a little before midday – and lost time to an unplanned detour, the light was beginning to fade on the final descent from Pavey Ark. The atrociously-pitched path down didn’t help, either.

As the daylight began to fade, I felt myself growing anxious. My ever-present internal monologue, usually a reasonable travelling companion who keeps quieter when hard concentration is required, begins to take over. Today, it makes a fairly rapid transition from a calm but endless narrative to a manic scream as darkness descends. Toward the bottom, I manage to lose my footing on a stone, landing with my right leg halfway underneath my body. I bounce back in an instant and it doesn’t hurt much, and within another few minutes, I’m back at the Dungeon Gill car park, relieved to be down and uninjured, and to have made it before it became properly dark. It’s not that I’m afraid of the dark, I’m just fearful of being on a mountain in the dark. Having emerged from my state of high anxiety, I’m beginning to realize that I really do need to take more steps to address my stress levels. More headspace is clearly required, starting with a few pints, a decent meal and a hot bath.


Day 2: 26th January 2011

Skiddaw via the Edges ostensibly represents a single-summit ridge-walk on the face of it. But this nevertheless comprises lesser peaks en route – Ullock Pike, Little Man and Blakestall. The continuous, straight and clearly-marked ridge path which is, in most places, broad and not too severe in terms of gradient generally makes for comparatively easy walking (although these things are all relative), with the valleys unfolding below from the top of Ullock Pike. There are, however, steeper sections, notably toward the summit. That the ground was frozen solid on this section was frozen solid, thus rendering a purchase rather difficult, was cause for panic and it did extend the ascent time by some minutes, which felt like an eternity as I scrambled, slipped, puffed panted and panicked my way from one moment of paralysing fear to the next. Once over this short steep stretch, I found I was able to feel the joy and elation of being out there once again. I was doing this! It felt good to be alive.

Again, the headline statistics don’t account for elevation – 4,600 of ascent in total, a distance of 9.2 miles and a temperature just below freezing on the summit, reduced dramatically by a steady 35-40 mph wind. It was enough to freeze my beard, with crystals forming on my eyelashes too. Views from the summit were limited by the cloud, but dropping down below the cloud level toward Dash Falls, and sheltered from the winds, the air felt balmy and the grass looked right and fresh.

Back at the hotel with a bottle of Conniston Bluebird by the roaring log fire, having made it down well before dark, I had a sense of well-being. My mind and limbs, too weary for activity, soaked in the warmth and the alcohol. I was in bed by 10pm, although again my sleep was rent with disorienting dreams. It usually takes me a night or two to adjust to a different bed, but the focus and effort of the walking on these trips tend to override that. Clearly, I needed more walking, more focus, more beer, more time in front of the fire.


Day 3: 27th January 2011

The Coledale Round: a pleasant ride-walk punctuated by some dramatic undulations. 9.4 miles, 4063 feet of ascent in total, taking in 6 peaks. Ascending to Grisedale Pike via Kinn is a steady climb until the final section toward the summit of the Pike, when it becomes steep and rocky, and can be particularly challenging in high winds or icy conditions. Today, there were neither, but I still found it hard work. Unaccustomed to walking with a pole, I found the instrument an encumbrance, worsened by the knee injury I sustained on the descent from Pavey Ark two days previous flaring up at possibly the most inconvenient time.

It was cold and windy on the top of Grisedale Pike, but the views – Scotland was clearly visible, including the Robin Rigg off-shore wind-farm in the Solway Firth – more than compensated. This is precisely what I do this for. It’s hard to describe the exhilaration and the ‘top of the world’ feeling such vistas inspire, but it’s a sensation that fills every corner and weaves through every fibre of one’s being.

A brief saunter across to Hopegill head yielded more rewarding views as the sun began to break through, making the relatively easy-going stretch to Crag Hill via Sand Hill all the more enjoyable.  The subsequent summits were equally a joy, until it came to the descent from Sale, when my knee became unbearable and my pace slowed to an agonizing crawl only matched by the searing pain in my joint that rendered flexing my right leg – or putting any weight on it – almost impossible.

This dictated the adherence to the formal route, rather than the preferred extended version that takes in Causey Pike. Stepping cautiously, and, for the most part-sideways and using my pole as a walking stick certainly took the joy out of what should have been a downhill yomp to the finish. Still, I felt I’d earned my pint, and made myself comfortable in the Dog & Gun, Keswick for a while.


Day 4: 28th January 2011

My walking companions took pity on me with my painful and rather swollen knee, and so the planned ascent of Great Gable for the final day was shelved. Instead, leaving the car at the hotel once we’d checked out, we headed over from Rosthwaite to Watendlath, then round Watendlath Tarn, up to Dock Tarn and down through woodland back to the start – a mere 5 miles with around 2,000 feet of ascent in total. Even then, I found some of the going tough, especially on the downward sections, but a perfect blue sky and glorious golden sun on the frosted grass and frozen tarns had an undeniable capacity to lift the spirits.

I hadn’t really given Coleridge much thought over the course of the four days away. I hadn’t tried any insane descents via climbers’ routes using only my bare hands, preferring instead to keep to less risky routes. I might not have composed any great poems, and I’d barely made any notes, but I had managed to squeeze in a fair bit of reading for pleasure – a rare luxury – during the evenings. Returning home meant reconnecting with the things I enjoy about my home life, but also rejoining the world: very much a two-edged sword. I missed the Internet and wanted to escape it in equal measure. Nine-mile excursions followed by local ales and hearty grub, a spot of reading and an early night for a long sleep may be the perfect antidote to modern living, but in or out of the rat-race, life goes on. I’ve got some catching up to do…

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Holy Cow! Failed Attempts to Escape a World Gone Mad

I think it’s pretty well-established that I’m a writer by compulsion. And as a writer, I like to try to push myself from time to time. And so I had intended to try something different, for me, at least, and keep some kind of journal of the last couple of weeks, during which I’ve been out and about and on the road and home only very little. It’s something I’d attempted the last time I came to Stirling a couple of years ago, but ground to a halt after penning my observations of the four-hour train journey and recording a rainbow arching over town on my arrival in simultaneous sunshine and rain.

This time I failed even more miserably. The trouble is, it’s hard to write when you’re actually out and about and living life and gaining the experiences to write about. Rather a catch-22, in short, and introspection can get to be a real drag after a while.

The first weekend of my time away was spent on a 40-mile walk in the Peak District on a variation on the Peakland Piss-Up, detouring via Ashbourne. I generally find such walking expeditions are the perfect way – often the only way – I can clear my terminally clouded mind. Alas, it wasn’t to be, and instead I encountered the first of several examples of social insanity I witnessed over the time.

A small scenic market town, I was shocked by just how chavvy the place is. I mean positively crawling with scabbers on a Saturday night. My feet were killing me and I was ready to drop, but not having a nightclub, Ashbourne’s pubs are the main entertainment, and all seem to put on either live music, karaoke or a disco until the small hours. Not cool when your room is directly above a bar with the worst DJ in the world cranking out chart dance pap. I was reminded precisely why Basshunter’s ‘Pretty Green Eyes’ is the singular most depressing song of the last five years, while The Guru Josh project shook my floor twice (yes, twice!). That anyone could actually consider this a good night out baffles the crap outta me.

I landed in York barely able to work having sustained the nastiest ugliest blisters I can recall: they would have probably been worse but for the fact I had run out of foot surface on which to put blisters by the end of the second of the three days. I put it down to the unseasonably warm weather. Alas, the walking was impediment to any form of writing, and I only just managed to note what beers each of the dozen pubs we called at served for the benefit of my father who devised the walk with a friend of his some years ago.

Still hobbling, I headed off to Sheffield to lead a pair of back-to-back undergraduate seminars on John Donne and the Metaphysical Poets, which pleasingly managed to prompt some quite lively discussion. True to form, I managed to squeeze in an explanation of Marvell’s ‘quaint’ pun in ‘To His Coy Mistress’ much to the shock of a few of my female students, and pour scorn on one upstart who suggested that Donne’s poetry wasn’t relevant in any sense to a contemporary reader.

One day enduring the corporate grind and I was off again, this time north of the border. I’ve attended conferences in Stirling before and enjoyed the vibe, as well as the town itself, despite some very strange experiences with drunken Scots. Arriving on Thursday evening, I was pleased to discover my (very pleasant) B&B, the Auchyle Guest House sits just five minutes on foot from the Settle Inn, Stirling’s ‘auldest’ bar, and the one that most resembles what I recognise as a proper pub. Under new management, it’s not got the range of beers it had two years ago, but the Skye brewery’s Red Cullin at £2.50 a pint was more than adequate.

Friday morning I realize that for the first time in years, I’ve left the house without a notebook, so head into town and swing by WH Smith. £1.99 for a spiral-bound reporter’s pad is fucking extortion, but outside I spy a poster for a gig. I’ve heard of the headliners, Maybeshewill, and quite liked their contribution to the split 12” they did with Her Name is Calla last year. And it was that night! What are the chances?

So, evening’s entertainment sorted, I headed to the university, listened to a lot of very interesting papers (and a few less enthralling), and on the way between buildings en route to the cheese and wine reception (where there was no cheese, much to my dismay), got chatting to a couple of really interesting guy, whom I subsequently discovered was John Lavagnino, the following morning’s plenary speaker, who’s title and abstract had appealed when I first saw the conference schedule. Another chap called Ben who was also cool joined us, and we pondered the hazards of blogging – particularly when one’s blog doesn’t sit too snugly with one’s professional life.

After a couple of plastic cups of red supermarket wine, I made my excuses and bussed back from the university, out at Bridge of Allen, to my B&B near the old town. A quick change of shirt and then back out to the town centre. I arrived a little earlier than planned, so called into No. 2 Baker Street for a swift pint before heading to the Tolbooth, a cracking little venue where I saw four decent bands for £6 and scribbled some notes for the review I would later write.

Back at the conference the next day, I do my best to mingle, which really doesn’t come naturally to me, but I think I succeed in not making too much of a twat of myself to too many people as I jabber on about print on demand publishing and how poor the coffee is. There’s a really strong panel on writing and publishing in the ‘net age that my paper would have fitted well on before it’s my turn. I’m aware of just how many people have gone home already, and competing against two other strong panels, have to present to the smallest crowd of my life.

Afterwards, I go and speak to the guy who gave a fantastic paper on Mark Z. Danielewski and the physicality of books, only to be interrupted by some girl who wants him to contribute to an anthology she’s planning. Which really makes my day. I can’t help but feel that my paper might’ve gone down quite well if anyone had actually heard it, but hey. In a parallel world, there’s a huge audience, it’s hailed as a remarkable work and I’m tripping over people wanting to publish and work with me.

I return to the B&B in a state of bewildered deflation, then head out for a few pints and read the ‘November’ chapter of Kill Your Friends by John Niven, which I picked up in Oxfam about three months ago and has been keeping me amused while in transit since I left the house on Thursday. Then I return to the B&B, finish the book, watch CSI and call it a night.

The following morning I treat myself to a lie-in, despite waking around 5am, check out and get an earlier coach (all trains cancelled due to engineering work) to Edinburgh. A couple of hours there before my train back to York is time enough to sink a pint and write the first section of this piece in the World’s End on the Royal Mile and call into the ever-brilliant Avalanche records on Cockburn Street.

On my wanders round Edinburgh, I see the strangest and most disconcerting sights of the fortnight – a woman wearing a face-mask like it’s Mexico city, and a table set out in the street offering passers-by a ‘free stress test.’ the trestle is covered in copies of books by L. Ron Hubbard, primarily Dianetics, which has to be an even weightier tome than Rowling’s last Potter installment. And people are taking this test! Sitting there, clutching the ‘cans’ that connect the subject to the e-meter and being asked by the robotic, Stepfordian girls running the stall why they think they react in such a way to this and that. Now, god-botherers and ‘gouranga’ merchants are bad enough, but you know things are seriously fucked when the Scientologists – young ones at that – take to the streets and insidiously play on the stressed-out mode of living we are surely all experiencing most acutely in the techno-age and in the middle of a recession as a way of peddling their warped (not to mention money-taking) cult to unsuspecting buffoons, most of whom won’t have a clue who Hubbard is. This actually served to increase my level of stress, so I walked on by as quickly as I could.

Generally speaking, I find that travelling tires me incredibly. Perhaps it’s because I’m one of those people who’s incapable of switching off, and consequently finds themselves inundated with new information that needs to be processed. But more than ever, I find that there’s weirdness wherever you look, and the idea of taking a trip to escape the madness is as absurd as life itself.

The weirdness didn’t even stop there: heading on to Sheffield the following morning to lead a couple more seminars with my second-year undergraduates who clearly don’t give a fuck, the train lurched and then began shuddering wildly. There was a scraping sound as though a tree was stuck beneath the carriage, and dust, stones and all sorts came flying past the window until it finally ground to a halt. People were shaken, unsure if we’d even remained on the rails. Livestock on the track. Now deadstock, exploded over the front and down the sides and pulped underneath a national Express Inter-city. Needless to say I was late for my first seminar, but at least I made it. Who would’ve believed that by was of an excuse? Yes, truth really is stranger than fiction.

It’s good to be back.

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at .