October 28th, 2001

2020 lack of vision

natural hair (going North, Tue 23 Oct)

So, the funeral went and nobody (else) died. And now I'm heading North with my natural hair. Dawn was bright, blue and gold, but as I pulled into Birmingham and swopped two fare-dodgers for a complex four-generation family group, the clouds began to gather, and now we are travelling under a cap of smokey grey. Georgia (fourth generation) has pale yellow hair and her favourite word is "yang!" Every time I take a sip of my irn-bru, she follows the movement of my hand with big blue jealous eyes. Bog off, squib. Jeremy's need is greater than thine. I'm not hung over, but I might as well be. To bed at 3.30, up at 6.55, it's not quite enough for me, even at my best, and certainly not after last week. (Mum, second generation, is trying to persuade Georgia of the wisdom of drawing on the paper. Fight it, kid!) Still yawning, still knocking my head against the window, wobbly snore-monster, cotton-wool head. Joe and Kirsty (third generation) are discussing their part-time jobs, teasing about girls and belly-button piercings, and trying to draw on each other with eyeliner and crayons. We roll through Stone, and Kirsty spots a digger. "Look!" she cries to Georgia, "Bob the Builder!" At Stoke-on-Trent station, there is a sculpture of a huge hand sheltering a tiny figure. The station is vasty, victorian, leafy. Not like Oxford station, which is small and bleak. Or perhaps everywhere is bleak at 7.30 on a chill October morning.

We roll on, wrapped in the smell of hula-hoops. Mum (second generation) conspires with Kirsty (third) over what to buy Gran (first, on the next seat with Bruce and Mum2) for her birthday. Georgia breaks another crayon.

Railway song

Viaducts are fantastic
And cranes are cool
But sheeps make me queasy
With their trails of greasy wool.

At Stockport, I swap the family for a Chinese guy reading a paper about Multiple Sclerosis and another guy with huge brown eyes reading The Mirror, war stories only. It makes a peaceful change from most of the half-term crowd. Funny, people tell me that it always rains in Manchester, but every time I'm here, the sun shines.

One thing I wasn't expecting from my sisters was their casual contempt of all things North of London. We knocked against the Norfolk coast at Cromer, where Granddad had spent his final years. Farm-traffic delayed, tired and panicked from crazy-lorry drivers, we steamed into our meeting place. Just time for hugs, tears, and a ritual exchange of, "It's grim up North" before the funeral. The trick is to keep moving, and we did and got through without incident or accident. Still, it was a hell of a journey, in both directions, and countryside makes me twitch. Bizarrely, we were both actually glad to see the North Circular. It didn't last.

Enough brooding. I pull out my book (Murakami, Norweigan Wood). With luck, I'll just have enough time to finish it. I have luck, almost surreal luck; I finish the last page as we pull into Penrith Station, and I'm on holiday.
The first thing I see (after hugs from Mum and Clive) is a ruined red sandstone castle against a bright autumn-blue and grey sky.

It's cool up North.
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2020 lack of vision

between the sea and the mountain (on holiday, Wed 24 Oct)

My mother moved less than a month ago, to St Bees, a small town on the Cumbrian coast. The town's namesake, St Bea/Begh/Beagher, was one of the strange Irish saints who sailed the cold Northern seas in coracles, looking for ways to get closer to God. The church she left behind dominates the valley, a heavy block of rich red sandstone against the green and grey of the rain and the grassy hills. It's a world of rain and sunshine, huge skies and vast views, trapped between the sea and the mountains of the Lake District, caught in the world of changing weather.

It's raining when I wake up, but the sun comes up for breakfast. Over the church, crows are tumbling in a huge pool of swelling light, black bonfire-ashes caught in an updraft of white gold, but the far side of the valley is still dull, caught under a drift of slate-grey clouds. I watch the sun fill the village, touch a brighter green from the far side of the valley, stain the clouds a deep blue-grey. I finish my tea, caught in a feeling of stony peace, a sense of standing planted, below the landscape, feet on rock (figuratively; I'm actually standing on powder-blue carpet). Below us, the church is huge, a great soul-barn anchored at the base of the valley, you can imagine sheltering there when the last judgement comes, a dark, solid, stone shadow in a golden cup of light.

Still tired, eyes flicking upward and shadows blooming out of their allotted spaces. Yesterday I saw a huge bubble of blackness bulge out of a Lych gate as we passed. Hm. I thought. I was very tired. I still am. The crows spin up from the church tower again.

You'd never guess Sellafield was just up the road.
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2020 lack of vision

chasing moraines (on holiday, Wed 24 Oct)

Just down the road is a long bright beach, scattered with dogs, sunshine and pebbles of every shape and colour. This, apparently, is the fault of the glacial moraines which came this way from Scotland and the Lakes and dumped them. Visiting Mum and Clive is always so educational.

It has rockpools (I discover a thrill-seeking anenome and half a crab), a slowly draining river (I get a wet foot, Mum finds some quicksand) and a huge mass of red sandstone rocks slick with algae, rain, and spray. The soft stone is malleable and friable: the weather and sea has carved it into pits, whorls, and swirls, and humans have left behind a time-line of graffitti from the late 1800s to the present day. The Victorians even carved a bathing-pool into it. I find a pornographic carving (vintage: before breast implants) a bunch of faces Clive claims are Celtic (yeah, right), some really neally modern-skate punk relief work and a really, really slippery bit just next to a deep pool.

Then I get distracted, picking up stones, or, as the book would have it, "a chaotic mixture of outwash sands, gravels, and coarse blocky moraine, deposited at the end of the Devensian Glaciation, the last major ice advance."
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2020 lack of vision

wastwater screes/the victoria dream (on holiday Thu 25 Oct)

Wastwater (wast rhymes with a northern past) appears under low clouds. Mum and Clive apologise for the view that isn't there. The clouds trail their scarfs over the peaks, muffling them in grey-white. The mountains are dressed up as volcanoes. Clive and Mum wait in irritation for the clouds to clear, but I can already see enough mountain to make me feel very small. Fortunately, this side of the lake is also very small; tiny beaches, pink and grey stones and pink and grey sheep, flat stones for stepping on, soft chaffinchy colours on the water. I jump onto rocks, stamp through the boggy bits I always seem to find, stare coldly at the sheep, and peer through the autumn trees (beeches, oaks, silver birch) at our goal, the screes. They look trackless and forbidding, a mass of tumbled rocks falling straight to the lake's edge from high dark cliffs, topped by cloud, gouged by water and haunted by the pallid fingers of the silver birch trees. It looks strange and unlikely, as if whoever generated the landscape had forgotten to put in anything to give it scale or sense.

The way lies past the Youth Hostel, a converted Victorian manor house. The grounds are full of rhodedendrons and chestnut trees. Clive discusses the age of the building, while I walk along the beach, about a foot or two wide at this time of year, covered with semi-smoothed pebbles and the twisted roots of trees. It begins to rain in earnest as the woods thicken, bright green with moss and rain, and almost on cue we come to a tiny boathouse and I try the door and it opens. Inside there are old-fashioned boats and young trout turning lazily in the light spilling through the lakeside gates. I peer through the gates at a sub-lake perfect with green weeds and the reflections of autumn-coloured trees. It even looks like the sun is shining, like the rain has stopped, even though I can hear it on the boathouse roof. We wait out the worst of the rain.

The way lies along the smaller lake, through the woods, and over a small stone bridge. By the bridge, a red sguirrel darts across the track. I blink at it, bemused, wondering if I've ever seen a red squirrel before. I don't think so.

Mum wants to go up the mountain and look from the top of the cliffs, but it's already late. We skirt the smaller lake and then it's into the screes.

Close up, the jumble of blue-grey rocks resolves into a sequence. A thin stony path through bracken, a small hawthorn tree twisted by wind and shallow soil, a trodden path of gray fist-sized stones which move, slightly and unnnervingly, under your feet; and then the sequence begins again. We look up at the high steep brown-black cliffs, cloud pouring down through water-cut gullies, toy trees jammed into green crevices, across to rain-softened bracken-brown slopes, and up towards mountains, their heights dimmed and softened in the cloud. "If only the cloud would clear," sthey sigh, but I like the greynesses of the view, after all, with every horizon softened, every crag smoothed, every colour complex with soft blue-greys. The sequence stutters to a stop with a Pine tree, green needles gilded with evening light, and a sudden dip to the lake bed. Beyond it is only boulders, a huge slope of rocks of every size stretching down to the lake and probably below the grey waters too. If there's a path there, I can't see it. Insisting on a path that patently isn't there, Clive sets out across the scree slope. Every now and again, I hear a rock shift under him. Somewhere, a raven croaks. I scramble onto the rocks, humming to myself. Michael Nyman. It helps me concentrate. We stop halfway across the scree, we've run out of day, and it's time to go look for dinner.

Looking back the way we came, I can see the path. A sort of path, partially obscured by new screefall and broken by big boulders. Clive hadn't walked along it, either.

All week, I slept badly, and woke up every morning with a head full of dreams.

I dreamt that I was Queen Victoria's mourning artist. I was way out of my depth. Likely the old lady would have been happy if I had simply painted everything black, but I found myself holding the works of previous artists, greater artists (I particularly remember a small sculpture, a pastoral scene worked in iron, sentimental, exguisite) and fearing that my touch would sully their greatness. So I hesitated, unable to work. The Queen, highly dissatisfied, sent for another artist. The answer came back; Ma'am, we regret that we are unable to spare another man. Would that it were not so, but as Your Majesty is entirely aware we are at war, and at present it is each man for himself and every man in his own place. Terrified by Her Majesty's displeasure and my reprieve (I had hoped to be replaced by a more able artist) I went back to work, redoubled my efforts and when thoughts of desecration came to mind, put them aside and applied my brush. I found a kind of satisfaction in my work.
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