Be Forgot

It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m shaving in the kitchen. The razor is in my hand and a shard of mirror is propped on the stove where I heated my water. 

This story does not take place in the past, or at least not for other people. I’ve moved outside of time, sort of voluntarily, in a similar way to which people move outside of London sort of voluntarily when they can’t afford it or it can’t accommodate them anymore. The world could not accommodate me any more in its present condition, not with what I wanted.

It started with a book. It started with the end of a book, in fact. A book of history and folklore that ended with an explanation that it was, or had turned into, the author’s contribution to “the reenchantment of the universe”. That phrase stayed in my head. It echoed and found resonances that I hadn’t been aware of, vibrations going deep, deep down into who and what I was. My mouth formed the words. The “reenchantment of the universe” I thought. And I thought “nothing less will do”.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m shaving in the kitchen. The hot water doesn’t work, not really. You can coax a minute or perhaps two of warm water from the shower but only before six in the morning and for reasons that remain a mystery to me. This suits my purposes well enough. I’ve been rising early to make use of the daylight. Every so often I have a soak in the tin bath I found in a shed by heating pans and pans of water on the range, fuelled with firewood I’ve scavenged from the garden and the park. Taking a bath is, all in, a project for a full weekend, and it puts everything out of my head until it’s done, which can be useful. 

The electricity works a little better than the hot water, but not enough for someone wanting to live a proper life. The house is not suitable for a modern person, a normal family. Not without gutting and renovating, exorcising its history and replacing it with sensitively installed modernity, or more likely simply being knocked flat and built over. Not exorcised but turned into foundations and history. Made worse. All these things and more make it suitable for me. A big kitchen range – I live mostly in the kitchen, which is warm and gets a lot of light, and retained a long and solid table – some large airy and mostly undamp rooms for my books; a smaller and damper room with a clear chimney I can keep warm enough to sleep in. High yew hedges outside, an overrun garden with trees that drop wood for the fire, nearby woods and hills and fields. An old landscape, not prehistoric like the mountains outside Edinburgh, where the bones of the earth are exposed, but historic. Overrun with human history: fields that have been worked for centuries, woods that have been forested and poached in, bumps in the hills that mark forts where soldiers watched the horizon before the birth of Christ, and stones that were raised when humans first noticed their humanity. The place I have chosen for my home.

I read. I think. I walk, tracing old paths and trying to imagine back into the landscape season by season. I spend a lot of time layering old maps, tracing changes and finding where old field names map over the new ones. I look at them through an old magnifying glass that used to belong to my grandmother. When she died, we were told we could choose something to keep to help us remember, and I chose that. Black plastic, not special, just functional. I’m trying to find the old ways, to walk a path that will lead me to some place where the old virtues of the world have remained, pooled, somewhere safe. 

Some days I work in the old outbuildings. Not true metalwork – nothing is melted and poured, but I’ve got reasonably good at reshaping old things, beating them out, folding them, remaking them into what I need. They don’t look good, but they don’t have to. They’re not decorations.

Some days I think about what my sister would say, if she was telling this story. If you were outside, looking in, you might say

“He didn’t cope well when dad died. Well, I didn’t. No one would, but he…went off the rails. We went through the house, like when gran died, and I said “do you want to keep anything? To help you remember?” I was thinking of the pocket knife dad had, and the time he had, triumphantly, removed a stone from a horse’s hoof with one of the tools and laughed and laughed. My brother looked at me – or rather, turned his eyes towards me, but he was looking somewhere else by then – and said “we’ll have the money”.

I tried not to think badly of him. He went away after that. In all sorts of ways. I wanted to help, but I had my own grieving to do, and he was so twisted up and didn’t want helping and trying to reach him was like putting your hand into a furnace or under the ice. I hope he can come back.”

Maybe something like that. That’s where I was when I finished the book. The reenchantment of the universe one. I had the book on my knee, and was turning the pages with one hand, and holding dad’s with the other. In the hospital. And he finally let go and went. I felt it. And I finished the book and read the words, and then I went to find a nurse.

And we did have the money. I didn’t mean to hurt when I said that I was just finished remembering my own life and ready to do other things, and selling a house your dad bought in Camden in the 70s and kept in good nick lets you do all sorts of things. It is, in its own way a kind of magic, especially if you’re not worried about buying in a commuter town or looking for a house that has itself been kept in good condition.

This was always in me, this retreat. Solitary, as a child, always preferring to read in my fortress of a room and as an adult reserved. Never quite willing to give myself fully to anyone or anything. Perhaps I would always have ended up here. I retained into adulthood a ritualistic, nigh obsessive approach to Christmas. I made endless lists of what I wanted to pack in over the brief season: the books and music and food and films that made Christmas, to me, Christmas. If anyone had asked me what I was doing in this frantic planning I would have called it “drawing tight the boundaries” and I wouldn’t quite have understood why.

I was equally obsessive as I drew tight the boundaries around my new home. It didn’t matter what my tools looked like, as I beat them out of old scraps of metal but in some things appearance is a tool. This was a magician’s house now and if it looked right, people would think it and say it and mean it and it would be true. So I learned to trim and care for the yew hedges and draw them up into impassable green walls, thick with red berries. The drive was raked but no car was in evidence (I seldom drove anywhere and my Landover was in a shed with a sheet thrown over it). Magicians don’t have cars. Just in view from the road was a statue I rescued from decay in a deconsecrated churchyard. A collapsed, winged thing, impossible to say if it was an angel or a gargoyle. It seemed fitting. I’d loved to see houses like this when I was a child and imagine who could live there and one of my great disillusionments was when I realised that it was mainly stockbrokers. Well somewhere in the world would be a magician’s house with a magician in residence, seeking the reenchantment of the universe.

It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m shaving in the kitchen. This is the night. Not the Solstice, not Christmas Eve – I had the house lit up with candles for that and brought in evergreens,and feasted. By myself, but a feast nonetheless. New Year’s Eve is a night to change the world. When people look up and think about new things, I will be outside, making something new. Christmas was warm and wet, but in the week since the weather has got colder and thicker, and the snow has been coming down all day. Now the skies are clear and the fields are covered in a thick white blanket. Perfect. It’s a good sign. 

An hour before midnight I assemble my tools and set out, across my gardens. A climb over the fence that marks the edge of my property – but not my boundary, which in walks and signs carved in trees has been marked somewhat further out. I reach the stone circle and stand there in the snow, under the stars. My coat flaps about me. This is a timeless moment. A man out of time stands in a stone ring older than any human civilisation. He takes a silver bowl off his back where it’s been strapped and puts it on the ground in the middle of the circle. Takes a flask from his pocket and pours it into the bowl where the stars are reflected. As above, so below.

I watch the man at work like he is not me, until everything is assembled: the silver bowl and water, the flint I knapped myself, the knife taken from the museum, the holly stick I cut from the spray in the garden. The candles, set and lit. When everything is laid out, like a doctor prepared for an operation, which is what I am in a way, I return to my body and look out through my eyes again and begin.

I quarter the bowl of water (and the sky itself) with the flint, and the knife and holly wand. I drop into it symbols I’ve made out of different metals – votives, offerings. I speak in English, Latin and a language I wrote myself. I ask the world to wake, to show itself to us again. I ask the old doors to open, the old ways to show themselves and the people of the wood to come out. I ask for the lights to be lit in old windows, old promises to be remembered, and old sins forgiven. I keep talking because I don’t want to listen to the silence. I beg the world to help me. I bring the knife across my palm and as the blood drips into the snow I beg, I beg for a single miracle, however small. I demand, snarling, to be shown something. For meaning. For it all to make sense. I beg. I pray to the oldest gods I have: to a fox god I made up when I was a boy, and to Sherlock Holmes and to Father Christmas (who is Old Father Time, and Odin and my dad) and I fall backwards into the snow, which catches me and it’s silent.

My sisters words wander across my brain. “Very sad”. “Difficulty coping”. “Breakdown”. I had failed. I was so terribly strange and lost and I don’t think there is any way back for me. I’m lying in the snow and I’d been lying to myself for a long time. The candles went out. I gave up.

 

And then the stars moved

 

The Ridgeway Day Two – Wendover to Watlington

This is going to be a slightly shorter and more impressionistic look at my last couple of days of walking, partly because I’ve put it off till weeks after the event, and partly because it rapidly became clear that I was developing a feverish cold that shoots the whole thing through with a slightly hallucinatory vagueness.

Frustrated that I hadn’t got out at all in September because of other commitments, because of laziness and because my friends, family and partner love me and want to spend time with me (selfish, they are) I spontaneously booked a room in  country pub for the first Saturday in October, allowing for a full weekend of walking, and covering somewhere in the region of 35-40 miles. I looked into diversions I could take along the route, and noticed that Sunday would take me within 2 miles of Ewelme, the village where Jerome K Jerome was buried, so in my backpack, already heavy with coffee flask, water bottle, lunch and snacks, raincoat and overtrousers, I put a tin of pineapples to bring on pilgrimage and place on his grave.

I took the first train out of Marylebone and returned to Wendover, where I’d left the Ridgeway over a month before. I’d enjoyed walking into Wendover, but I now found that nothing became the town like the leaving of it, and I made tracks as fast as I could.

You follow a minor road over a bridge and out of town. After a few houses you pass a gate into Bacombe Hill, a nature reserve, and you’re recognisably on the Ridgeway again.img_20191005_082900

That clear headed feeling of following the path kicked in, my gait relaxed to a careful amble (not fast, but sustainable) and my day had properly begun.

This time, I tried to keep track of what I could see growing on trees and in hedgerows. We’re late for all but the most lazy of blackberries, and some sloes were over too. You normally look to pick sloes after the first frost, but the hot Julys we’ve been having have sped them along, and now unless they’re sheltered and well irrigated, they’re on the way out by October. I was slightly confused by these pink berries – I’d didn’t recall seeing them before, but they were almost omnipresent this weekend.img_20191005_101905

Their plump, divided shape made them look, frankly, like little bottoms and I thought of them as Bumberries – thinking of Oscar Wilde and Algernon Moncrieff. They’re actually the fruit of the Spindle Tree, and highly poisonous. My reference went on to note that the spindle tree is hard wooded and “will hold a point” which seems like an odd thing to make note of. Maybe useful, especially if civilisation collapses but still. Odd.

The first big landmark you discover out of Wendover is the Coombe Hill Monument.img_20191005_085026

It’s a memorial to the men killed in the Boer War, and a plaque on the back notes that 30 years after it was built, it was destroyed by lightning. The local village rebuilt it almost immediately (despite being in the middle of another war) and in the 1990s it was once again struck by lightning and needed repair. Either god didn’t approve of the Boer War (very possible) or else it’s a bad idea to put a gigantic metal spike on top of the highest hill for miles around. Who can say.

It was a grey sort of a day. Not ideal for walking. Last time it had been the long and lovely end of summer, and I’d got to enjoy bees and butterflies and blackberries, as well as the gentle, friendly heat of late August. Today was neither that nor the bracing chill of autumn and winter. It was undistinguished, neither one thing nor another. What it meant was that I concentrated not on the big vistas – which were often lost in cloud anyway, but on my immediate surroundings and the feeling of the walk. The rhythm of my steps and breath, the stretches and pains that grew and waned throughout the day.

I descended from Bacombe Hill, towards a drizzily bank of cloud, and perhaps even worse, an official residence of Boris Johnson. The Ridgeway, due to some strange miracle of planning, takes you across the drive of Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence. There’s a public, and a gatehouse with a gate and a security outpost which you have to pass if you want to drive to the stately home, and then behind the security cordon, an ancient public right of way just wanders across. I considered nipping behind a tree and relieving myself in the direction of the corridors of power but a security camera started tracking my movements so I moved on.

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Overhead in the next field was a Red Kite. They’ve been reintroduced and are thriving in the wood- and farmland of the Chilterns but this weekend particularly I saw loads of them. I came to realise we favoured the same sort of landscape: wild, hilly, cropped by sheep. Treelines, but not thick woods, fields but not industrial farmland. If I could hear the keen of a Kite bouncing off the hills, I knew I’d be happy.

The next bit of my journey is some of the most pleasant walking I’d done or would do on the Ridgeway. Quiet, beautiful hillsides apparently unchanged for thousands of years but actually shaped by the entire history of human agriculture. The grass is soft, springy and mossy because sheep have been farmed there for thousands of years. Isolated trees scratch an existence but full blown woodland can’t hack it up on the downs. Gorse, and even juniper grow in clumps, giving the landscape some definition. Not bare hillside, but miniature mountain ranges and forests. I love it.

I come down from the hills again, and the presence of a road and pub implies a village somewhere, but it doesn’t make itself known.

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Instead, the path enters a wood and forces me to climb a hill which is much too steep for a man in my shape (oval). At the top, I sit on a log and a sheepdog emerges from the woods and immediately puts her head in my laptop. After a minute, her owner appears out of the trees and tells me she (the dog. Not the owner) thinks I have a treat for her. “I wish I did” I reply “She’s lovely”. “She is” her owner replies and that’s all that needs saying on the topic.

When you escape the forest (not too dank, but on a day like this wet and dripping) there’s a tremendous vista over farmland and town, and a sign informs you that below you on the hillside is the Whyteleaf Cross – a triangular carving in the chalk with a christianised cross on top. It looks a bit like the OS symbol for a church. I did a bit of research and was delighted to find that no one knows what it’s for, who made it or even when it appeared. Some think it’s Neolithic, others that’s a signpost for a Medieval monastery (there’s no monastery in the area) and others that it was dug out by Civil War soldiers hanging about between battles. Terrific.

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Once again, the Ridgeway takes you down off the hill, and skims you across the boundaries of a town called Princes Risborough. The Prince in question is the Black Prince, a jolly, popular and really really murderous figure of the feudal age with very little in common with the Purple Prince of sexy pop music.

Princes Risborough did not endear itself to me because the signage for the Ridgeway gets a bit thin in the area, and the guidebook becomes suddenly ambiguous about whether it’s telling you how to continue with your journey or divert to the train station and go home. As a result, I walked a mile in the wrong direction and saw very little for it except for a discount Italian restaurant. Apparently Princes Risborough has a nice bit with something called a Pudding Stone, but I didn’t see any evidence of it.

I did see this rather interesting house with a built in stone explaining that it was constructed for returning soldiers from the First World War. This sort of grant wasn’t something I’d been previously aware of and I intend to do some more research into it to find out if it was a national scheme or a local effort contrasting with the national narrative of neglect I’m more familiar with.

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It was at this point that I started to become aware of the cold I was incubating. My throat was scratchy and I could feel my temperature on the rise. Reaching a point of rest for the night became more of a priority and I took less photos and was generally less curious from this point on.

The trail took me across a train track (at a designated crossing point, I didn’t just through myself between speeding freight carriages) and through some really lovely paths between fields, covered by trees and high growing boundary hedges on either side.

This was classic Ridgeway walking – light even when you’re in tree cover, and often over springy open hillsides and on chalky paths. The hills soon gave way to another wood, however – mostly beech trees. I don’t know enough about the soil to say why, but most of the large trees I saw this weekend were beech, and hardly any oak at all. In my increasingly feverish state, this struck me as looking unpleasantly like a grasping hand reaching up to try and break the canopy.

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According to my guidebook, along the next ridge were some benches with a view back over towards Princes Risborough. I found I enjoyed looking back over my progress, and I was looking forward to stopping here for lunch, but some sort of mysterious signal had evidently been triggered and the hills were suddenly alive with other ramblers, all apparently ready for a break. I gave up when a Japanese couple burst out a stand of nettles three feet ahead of me and sat immediately on the log I’d been making for and I sat down on some kind of tussock and ate my sandwiches while I watched a Kite wheel against a bank of grey clouds.

I was sorry to miss diversions to Lewknor and Bledlow on this stretch of the walk. They’re both beautiful villages which have hosted horrible crimes in Midsommer Murders, Morse, Poirot and others, and both have churches I was keen to see, but I had my eyes on the prize at this point and the prize was dinner and a hot shower. This day of walking was light on lovely country churches and I was hoping to supplement my intake with those two villages.

The main landmark on this stretch of trail was the M40, which the Ridgeway heads straight towards with what might be a death wish. Vividly fantasising about lemsip, I was putting one foot in front of another without much in the way of conscious thought was pleased to see we were going to go through an underpass rather than dodging traffic.

After the brief excitement of the motorway it was a long, straight walk towards Watlington and a pub called the Fat Fox. Watlington’s a sort of Platonic ideal of a market town: the old market building now slightly inaccessible in the middle of a roundabout and surrounded by a Co-Op and part time post office, and the usual grab bag of businesses in smallish country towns. Groceries and pubs, but occasionally very high end lawyers and accountants, Michelin starred restaurants or shops of such incredible specificity they can only be money laundering fronts for the accountants. I once moored a boat in a small village on the Oxford canal that had no post office, but did have a harpsichord repair shop.

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Before I settled for the night, I explored the town a bit. Watlington grew on me quickly. It had some lovely houses that show bursts of prosperity and growth every century or so, from a modern clump of development to increasingly picturesque cottages and farm houses and finally a medieval church with a Lych gate and yew trees and the whole picture postcard effect I’d been craving.

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I checked into the Fat Fox, dropped my stuff and immediately downed a lemsip. I’d had a growing sense of oh no-ishness for the past few hours. My body was telling me things were going to be getting really unpleasant soon, and thanks to my isolated location and non-existent bus services, the only way out was another 20 miles of walking away.

Fortunately tonight I had good food (a lot of extremely good food) some good wine and, luxury of luxuries a hot bath. I was unconscious by 9pm.

Next time:

More churches than you can shake a crozier at

The hated River Thames

I go quite genuinely mad

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It’s a Lovely Day in the Village and You Are a Video Games Academic

So, the internet has been all a-honk this morning with this article, rejoicing in the definitely not controversy courting title Don’t Play The Goose Game.

I started out like most, poking good natured (bad natured) fun at the author’s pretensions.  “Almost as soon as it starts, Untitled Goose Game turns “being a goose” into “doing the job of a goose.”” was a particularly fruity example that cast my mind back to my university days of…mostly of getting drunk, failing to get off with girls and putting on plays of questionable quality instead of engaging with academic discourse, actually. But the fact remains, it reads like actual criticism: not review, not opinion, not ‘video games writing’: critical engagement with what video games are. I mock this; I welcome this; I screenshot this and say “look at this pillock”.

But as he approached his ultimate argument I began to wonder if he had a point. He described videogames as “a burlesque of labour” and it’s hard to disagree. Coming home from work and booting up any game I happen to have on the go involves staring into a screen, just as in my office job. I have to complete to-do lists imposed on me by an outside authority. I often perform digital simulations of manual labour, or complex number-crunching calculations. If I don’t have the technical skill to perform the tasks, I don’t get the rewards. What is this if not work? I have myself written about the joy I find in boring in-game labour.

Maybe the untitled goose game…is bad?

No, hold on a minute. I don’t think the untitled goose game is bad (no caps – if it’s not a title it doesn’t get capitals). I think it’s fun, as would you if you’d seen my friend Charlotte chuckling and honking over it like a child on Christmas morning. So what’s going on here?

Are games labour? What is labour anyway?

Let’s look at the second question first, and initially through the medium of this quote from the article.

“Game-play—the work of working a game—is fundamentally irritating, at least in comparison with other media forms. It’s easy to pass the eyes over the pages of a book, or to bathe in the waves of image and sound at the cinema or in your living room”

Now this is a falsehood that no academic should be indulging in. Reading is the simple act of passing your eyes over a page is it? This (let’s say this word, I’ve always wanted to, and now is my time) specious argument (so grown up!) completely ignores the intellectual engagement you have to get stuck into to get something out of any text. Sure it varies from book to book and tv show to tv show, and I don’t have to engage the brain as much with a familiar episode of Brooklyn 99 as when I’m trying to get to grips with The Name of the Rose but something is going on there beyond pointing my eyes at something. As someone who produces and consumes academic writing, Bogost ought to know that no consumption is passive, and removing the ‘labour’ from reading and watching is a huge misrepresentation he has to indulge in to set up videogames as a unique case of ‘playbour’.

Second, let’s have a go at ‘are games labour’?

There’s a great test I like to perform with contentious statements which is to respond with ‘yeah but is it?’. That list of similarities seems to make games look irrefutably like labour. Yeah but are they though? Are they actually, really labour?

Well. No. They’re chosen for one thing – I’m exempting from consideration games that use psychological techniques to try and exert addiction and keep the player coming back, rather than giving time and money to the competition. Untitled goose doesn’t, so let’s leave them for another day – and labour is largely not. People choose games that provide satisfaction, be it the satisfaction of a challenge, of exploration, of the increasingly elusive sensation of labour that brings a reward connected with the effort you put in. There are ‘fight or flight’ games players choose for the power fantasy of bounding around with a gun. There are ‘tend and befriend’ games, chosen by players who want a fantasy of life in a community (Animal Crossing is coming out on the Switch next year and I am *going in*).

Let’s segue imperceptibly into my third point and look at this question of what labour is again. Labour seems to be, in Bogost’s article, expending effort for reward. You put in the effort of piloting this weird, honking featherbeast erratically around the lovely village, you get the reward of seeing mischief caused. And that’s…bad? Because you can’t get the reward without the labour? And that’s why we shouldn’t play the goose game.

But isn’t ‘using labour to get a reward’ just how we interact with the world? There’s almost nothing you can do that doesn’t involve putting in effort to extract a reward. Not in the capitalist sense of ‘working hard for money’. Labour is just…how you exist in a physical world. If I want to enjoy the reward of having a tidy floor, I have to expend the effort of sweeping and hoovering. If I want the reward of ‘a nice time with my friends’ I have to put in the effort ‘going where they are’, ‘engaging in conversation’ and maybe ‘playing a game’. If I want the reward of enjoying a story, I have to put in the effort of ‘reading and interpreting the text’.

This is not a Calvinist injunction to save your soul through hard work, it’s an observation about how humans interact with a world that exists independent of them. It’s not a capitalist defence of taking the rewards you want: effort can be understanding, kindness, interpretation. It’s not a socialist condemnation of capitalism: even in a pre-lapsarian paradise plucking berries from the bushes to eat requires effort.

In this sense, Bogost might be onto something. Playing games does require labour. But it’s not a helpful or valuable observation, because so does everything else! He’s a fish swimming in circles shouting “Guys! Guys! There’s some water over here!”. More specifically, all games require labour. Video games are not a special, privileged case: kids playing tag in a field have to indulge in the physical labour of running to get the reward of participation. That’s not an argument against tag.

I think the error he’s making is to conflate effort with labour, and labour with work. Games require effort becomes ‘games make you work’, and that’s not true for the untitled goose. What Bogost is committing is a classic academic mistake: he’s mistaking the map for the territory. In the map, work equals labour, equals effort which, because it’s being extracted from someone under the duress of survival, is bad. But ‘work’, capitalist labour, isn’t special. It’s  a way in which effort-for-reward has been systematised, but it doesn’t pre-exist it. ‘Work’ is a form of ‘labour’, is a form of ‘effort’ and pretending it predominates is in a sense surrendering to the whole ghastly system that surrounds us.

There’s no duress in playing the untitled goose game. If you don’t enjoy it, you’re free to leave. Within the world of videogames, it’s low in price so even the psychological pressure of sunk cost is weakened. The labour here is in interacting with another object in the world independent to you: the simple stuff of life. Resenting it (as Bogost appears to for his article to have any bite), or even arguing that videogames are a special case of ‘playbour’ is a bit adolescent.

 

Roads Go Ever One – The First Leg

Why?

First steps

I had two possible versions of today. Three and a half miles away (seven miles from my starting point at Cheddington) was Tring Station, and for an out of condition man with a leg that had turned to jam a couple of weeks ago, a seven or eight mile walk up and down the chalk hills might be enough. If it wasn’t, I’d be walking on to Wendover, a further seven-ish miles, for a what, to my mind, constituted a full day’s walk.

I felt good as I started out. The air was fresh, and I had the broad chalk ridge almost to myself – after I set off, the only fellow hiker I encountered for some time was a cheerful German man who seemed as excited by the blue skies and broad, open landscape as me. We exchanged happy greetings. Butterflies danced in front of me. Harebells and late daisies bobbed in the fresh breeze. Then I found the grave.

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Continue reading Roads Go Ever One – The First Leg

Roads Go Ever On – The Beginning

Why?

I’d set an alarm for six o’clock in the morning and I actually rose to meet it with some enthusiasm. I had a few things to do and I needed to be on a train at Euston at 7.24.

I filled a water bottle and a coffee flask, took my packed lunch out of the fridge, made sure I’d packed my map and notebook, plasters, a spare blood thinner syringe and sun cream. I left the house.

At 8.03 I arrived at Cheddington, or as everyone I’d told about my plans said “where?” and I had to agree to with them.

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Continue reading Roads Go Ever On – The Beginning

Roads Go Ever On – Motive

There’s all sorts of reasons I wanted to do something.

I’d been laid up for a few days with a blood clot. It’s surprising how minor a blood clot can be. This one was a thrombo-phlebitis in a surface vein on my right leg. I was (and still am) injecting myself with blood thinners once a day and was (but am not currently) working from home with my foot up on a cushion.

There’s also the state of the world, which is an open invitation to escape. What with politics and the exposure of a number of people in the world of videogames (among them an acquaintance of mine, horribly enough) as sexual predators, I was eager for something, anything that would stop me refreshing Twitter, and indeed obsessively seeking out the worst possible voices to…torture myself with? I’m not hugely sure why but god knows, I was doing it!

So that’s an impetus.

I read a comic book by Warren Ellis called the Injection. It’s very good and you should read it to, but specifically, there’s a couple of brief scenes showing a mystical character in a big coat walking the Ridgeway. It describes it as the oldest road in Europe. It connected the South with the East over five thousand years ago. It occupies the same position on a map of England as the lifeline does on a human hand.

So that took root.

We went walking a lot when I was a child. I’ve got lots of happy memories of my dad constructing routes over OS maps – or getting them off the peg from books of walks, and then we’d set off, parking the car somewhere unprepossessing and tramping off across fields in pursuit of a tumulus or a long barrow, or a pub. Old Winchester Hill, West Kennet. That time when, due to a mistake, all four of us had to climb a steep, muddy bank to reach the road that turned out to be going past on a bridge quite a bit above the level of the path we were walking.

The books I read as a child had a lot of walking in them. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Hobbit, The Wind in the Willows all have what you might call significant rambles. And that sort of thing gets into your head. You start to think ‘could I?’. ‘If I had to, could I walk to the Stone Table or The Lonely Mountain or, you know, Mole’s House?’

And all those different bits of thinking and feeling sort of crystallised together and I found I was working out a route using a time table and a map and calculating distances and buying some walking shoes.

Card Tricks

Eight years old. Basically old enough to be given a handful of coins and free reign at a fete, if it’s in the grounds of your school and your parents are within shouting distance wherever you are. At eight years old, this is enough to feel an almost infinite sense of freedom and possibility which is only reinforced when you win a coconut on only your fifth throw. You deposit this with your distractedly proud mum, and go on to win a goldfish (an actual goldfish) and an inflatable dinosaur by hooking ducks out of a pond. Not actual ducks, of course. That would be cruel. But you still smile a bit and remember to draw a picture of an actual duck but with a hooky head in your book when you get home.

When you take the dinosaur and the goldfish back to your mum, she’s a bit aghast (Aunty Sue got you a word-a-day calendar for Christmas. You were very polite at the time but actually it’s been quite a bit brilliant and you are pleased to recognise ‘aghast’ on your mum’s face). She actually makes you choose between the dinosaur and Professor Scales McTavish and ultimately the dinosaur has to win, to your mother’s evident relief. Prof. Scales disappears into the recesses of the tea tent, there to be bestowed on some other, less lucky child. That makes you feel a bit virtuous (thanks Aunty Sue) and that, you believe is as good excuse for candy floss as any.

Five sticky minutes later, you have one fifty pence left, and a difficult choice to make. It all feels a bit urgent now and a bit more special. All the tents and stalls have taken on a magical aura. It doesn’t feel like a school fete anymore, it feels like a circus that’s come to town for one day only, and absolutely anything might be around the next corner. Nothing would surprise you: halls of mirrors that show you what most want in life, an actually magic wizard (not your maths teacher in a hat), a fortune teller. Oh. There is actually a fortune teller.

You don’t think twice. Or really even once.

Your remaining fifty pee  is shining in your tight fist like a silver sun. You go in.

It’s supposed to be Mrs Oswald, and you know because you heard her talking about it, even though you weren’t to. You didn’t tell anyone though, you just happily knew. But you knew wrong, but this woman is a stranger. She’s young and sort of fierce looking, and not how you imagine a fortune teller but she smiles and invites you to sit.

“You’re Bethan, aren’t you?”, she asks, and her voice is kind.

“How did you know?”

“Did you not see the sign? I’m a psychic. They don’t let you in the tent without the powers. Now Bethan, are you going to cross my palm with silver?”

You hold up your fifty pence, and as she smiles encouragement, you drop it into her hand. She smiles.

She smiles.

The tent feels quite small, suddenly. Just you and her. And there’s a smell: some candles are burning and they’re making the air sweet and sort of challenging. Like trying to breathe entire branch of Lush at once. She’s talking.

“These are my cards. They’re called the cards of Marseilles, and they’re a bit like my gran: they’re very old and they only tell the truth. That’s not always comfortable but then, uncomfortable isn’t always bad.”

She spreads them across the table so you can see all the images: kings and wizards and beasts and ships and on and on until it’s nearly too much. Then she gathers them up, flips the over and hands them to you.

“Shuffle them around, till you feel happy with them. Then turn over the top card, and we’ll see”

She doesn’t say what you’ll see, but you do what she says. It feels strange in the tent with the candles lit and you sort of want this to be over now.

The card shows a colourfully dressed figure at a table of dice and cups and ribbons. He looks a bit like the jack from normal cards.

“This is La Bataleur” the Fortune Teller explains. “It’s a good card. He’s a magician and a showman. Look on the table: he’s got all the tools he needs to do his tricks. He’s in control, but he’s in control because he’s prepared, and creative and very clever. If you stick close to La Bataleur, and be inspired by him, you’ll do great things.”

You smile. You sort of hoped you’d do great things, but your mum and dad only seem worried about why you hand your homework in late. They’re never interested in the stories or drawings in your book. Then again the Magician is clever and prepared so maybe…maybe…you think. You’re a bit startled when the Fortune Teller leans forward and says “Next card?”

You turn it over.

It’s La Bataleur.

You’re glad to see him again but the Fortune Teller’s not.

“That’s…there’s only meant to be…that’s not possible”. She doesn’t seem very mysterious now. It’s like she’s tripped over without leaving her chair. “Draw another”

It’s La Bataleur.

“What did you do to my cards?” she asks, like she’s trying not to shout. She doesn’t want to be scary but she is, because she’s scared. It’s scary when grown ups are scared.

“I didn’t touch them it’s not my fault! It just happened, look!”

You draw more cards, one after another.

La Bataleur

La Bataleur

La Bataleur

The Fortune Teller’s sitting back in her chair, now, in shock. “You might be a bit…this is…OK, I’ll be honest with you. I’m not a fortune teller, I’m Miss Oswald’s niece. She’s done her back so I said I take over. I’m a drama student.”

You’re still drawing cards. They’re all La Bataleur. You just keep doing it, looking the magician in the eye each time.

“I’m not special. The cards aren’t special. They’re just cards, but you – you might be special. You could do great things. Maybe. Just…I don’t know. Be careful, eh? Don’t tell anyone”

You’re done. 72 cards, all La Bataleur. You feel unusual. “Yes. I mean, no I won’t. It’s not like they’d believe me. Will I be OK?”

You look at the Fortune Teller, looking at the spread of cards. La Bataleur covers the table. “I think so” she says. “I do probably think so.”

You walk out of the tent, because there’s not much else to say to that. And you don’t tell anyone. And because you don’t tell anyone you sort of forget about it. It becomes a weird story from your childhood that you must have seen on TV and misremembered, or something that happened in an book that got lost or given away (because you did check, actually, just in case). But you do feel, even as you grow up, a little bit of confidence. La Bataleur’s watching out for you, so maybe you’re a bit more clever and a bit more prepared than you would have been.

That’s how you grow up.

Image result for le bateleur

*******

The Time Traveller watches the sticky little eight year old back out of the tent, then she stands up. She pulls off the flouncy costume dress she’s been wearing, dislodging the deck of Tarot cards she dropped into her lap, before she passed the Magician deck to Bethany.

Conjuring tricks? She’d been pulled out of the army and made to learn conjuring tricks like the worst kind of teenage boy, then dressed up like an idiot and sent two hundred years back in time to play a prank on a child. This was not why people joined the army. People join armies to defend their homes, stand side by side with comrades and get shot at in interesting countries you don’t normally get to visit.

“I hope that was worth it, Greyhound” she mutters into her watch “Because, assuming permission to speak freely, I felt like a proper berk. That’s got to be the most expensive lie anyone has ever told a child”

“Well, TimeFly” The reply came as the world went all woozy, prior to a Jump “You’ve just given a sense of destiny to a clever, inventive little girl who’s going to make a much better Prime Minister than Lewis Beckham”

“What?”

“Remember when your grandad died in World War Three?”

“What? No!”

“Not anymore you don’t”

The Crack in the Sky

(A microwrites story from this prompt https://microwrites.wordpress.com/2019/07/01/microwrites-prompt-july-2019/)

We live in a world with a crack in it. That’s always been true: the world has always been broken, but it became visible on the 1st of January 2021. The midnight revellers of New Year’s Eve went to bed, and when they woke up, blinking in the cold light of a new year, they saw it. 

The crack – The Fracture is how most media and governments refer to it – runs around the world. It shatters through the sky of London, runs in a rough line Southeast across Europe, Africa and the Indian Ocean to Australia, Northwest across Ireland and Canada and the long emptiness of the Pacific. One of the best things about it (I thought) was the way America doesn’t seem to know if it’s relieved to have been missed, or annoyed at being somehow left out. 

I prefer to call it the crack in the sky. Giving it a name lets us pretend we understand it, and for all that we talk about it, we do not. A description is all we’re qualified to offer. 

It’s a thin crack, black, running across the sky like a more mundane one might run across the icy surface of a pond in winter. Sub-fractures spider out from it, like the one over Iceland. It has no substance, no dimension, no measurement. The crack isn’t hot or cold or heavy or light. It doesn’t push or pull, and nothing comes out of it. It’s just there. It’s very just there-ness is talking up a whole world’s worth of talk and action. 

Clouds drift across the crack, and the other side emerges slightly off kilter, at a fractionally different position in sky. Aeroplanes appear to do so from the ground: those on the flight experience no sensation whatsoever. Tourism, briefly interrupted, is renewed. People from the clear skied countries travel to see the crack in the sky. Americans flock to watch the Northern Lights flicker across the black absence, turning the ancient curtains of silent light into an anxious, broken kaleidoscope. 

No one saw it appear, despite all the eyes looking up at any given moment, and all the satellites looking down. It wasn’t there on side of the night, and somehow, in a single, omnipresent blink, it was there on the other. No world power or terrorist organisation has claimed responsibility – though many since have taken it as an omen of their preferred judgement day – and no scientists emerged shamefaced from the Large Hadron Collider to accept the blame. Scientific consensus is, broadly and in longer words, that’s it’s simply one of those things, and we should all try to get on with our lives. 

But no one is getting on with their lives. The crack in the sky, once seen, can’t be ignored or forgotten. Parliaments and papers fill up with it, till the crack doesn’t just run across the clouds but through our thoughts and across whole societies. All anyone talks or thinks about is the crack – entirely insubstantial as it is, it’s eating our world and growing no bigger. 

Wars break out, the earth heats and islands drown. And we all chatter about this nothing. The crack in the sky has even eaten this letter to you, darling, though I suspect it’s the last one I will have the chance to write you. I wanted context, and all I got was this damn fracture that runs through everything.  

 

Full Stop – A Story for #microwrites

She was short and thin, I was tall and fat. It was one of the many ways we weren’t a classic double act. She’d never liked me, and I’d always hoped to win her round but it wasn’t looking likely. The car had gone as far east as it was going to do and turned south, lodging in traffic between the Tootings. No blues and twos, our corpse wasn’t getting any deader.

“So, they think it’s…him?”

She’d not told me much, just that there was a body. Since we got in the car she’d been quiet, muttering threats at other motorists. Subvocal. I’d hurried back to the station just to hurry out again. We spend out lives rushing in circles, until we stop.

Eventually, her gaze comes back inside the windscreen, takes me in. Remains unimpressed. “Fits his profile. Petty little local boy taken down a rung or two. Buried under the ladder. We think he was shaking down a shop that was already paying protection elsewhere.”

“The owner told you?”

“Hinted. Not exactly forthcoming, but I can take the hint.”

She had frosty eyes and a frizz of blonde hair. I couldn’t imagine her in uniform, but her record spoke for itself. You could say the same about me if you were being nasty.

“Morden”

It was a rebuke of a word. To those in the comfortable South West it was where the map ended. On the tube but beyond the pale. The sort of place murders are done. I didn’t know why we were going out this far.

“It’s not him”

“Why do you say that?”

I didn’t know. I hadn’t planned on blurting that out, I was operating on instinct. “Doesn’t fit the pattern. Too far out. Too petty a hit.”

“He’s a petty operator. Mopping up after the big boys”

That needled me. “He’s a killer” I murmured and I simmered the rest of the way down the long road to Morden, wondering what was waiting for me.

Off the high street, off the back streets, by an overlooked park fenced by the sort of houses where people dodn’t notice things is where she finally pulled up. I think I’d worked it through by then. I certainly didn’t feel surprise, only dread and relief.

“Out”, she said. I didn’t hesitate.

We sat on a bench. The sky overheard was grey, like ink dropped into cold water. She broke the silence.

“Why?”

“Just the money”. No point holding back. “I lost a lot. The divorce, some drinking. I woke up poor with retirement coming, and I thought ‘why should I put up with this?’. I’ve done a tough, shitty job for years and the world hasn’t got any better.”

“You had the contacts, you had the expertise.”

“They had the money. I become a cleaner.”

She looked me in the eye, then. I think she understood even as she said “So now it’s over. End of the line, Terry. You’re nicked”

***

Much happier with this. I wasn’t planning anything with it, just enjoying the grey clipped voice of modern noir. Entre nous, you may enjoy this little digression on the Pg Wodehouse/Raymond Chandler Paradox

Lamplight – for Microwrites

Everyone focusses on the sodding ravens. I swear, they have the best publicity in the world – some Tudor Max Clifford did his career best work on the ravens. “If they ever leave the Tower the kingdom will fall” my right gonad. They’re a moderately intelligent corvid sure, but the Men in Red still have to clip their wings to stop them fucking off en masse.

My beat takes me from Buckingham Palace, up the Horseguards (oi oi!), down the Mall and through Green Park. And if it occurs to me to stop putting one foot in front of the other and fly away, we are in trouble with a capital F, for fucked.

I’ve got three colleagues and one boss, and on the org chart we’re a small unit within British Gas, but that’s not who we really are. We’re the thin line between civilisation and anarchy. We go out with the dusk and come in with the dawn. We’re the lamplighters, sonny, and you don’t know what darkness means and that’s because of us.

Do you know it hasn’t been properly dark for centuries? Candles and fires, pitch braziers and gas, electric bulbs and strip lighting and luminescent trees now. The story of humanity is driving back the darkness. Making a circle you can live in, where you don’t stub your toe in the night and the wolves can’t you. That’s what civilisation is like: driving back with the wolves.

There are people who bang on about light pollution, and I get it. I really do. The sky is huge and lovely and we’re blotting it out. But. I was there in 2008 when a busted fitting put out the gas lamps round Buck House and something bad came out to play. You need to keep the darkness under control because the things that live in it are so bad only children remember what they’re like. There are no wild wolves in England any more, but a thing that is the memory of wolves has a tarry black life of its own and I’ve seen it.

So every night we go out, we put one foot in front of the other, round the Palace, up and down the Mall, across the parks. We hold the line. We light the lights, we grease and polish clockwork mechanisms that have been ticking quietly since before the old queen died. We pass down stories about things that are worse than the memory of wolves, because some things must never be forgot.

If you want to worry about anything, worry about funding. We’ve been fighting the dark for a long time now, but there’s not many of us left, and fewer and fewer people who understand why we do what we do. We’ve seen off a few cutbacks, but we can’t win every time, and one day soon the lights are going to go off and everyone’s going to remember the wolves.

****

This is not the story I wanted to write this week. But everything the prompt stirred up was horrendously personal without being actually interesting. Maybe I’ll find a way to tell that story one day that isn’t terribly dull, but for now you’ll have to settle for me doing an impression of myself, for the sake of saying anything at all. Keep moving.