Thursday, September 17, 2009

Annandale Way opened with feet and words

Last Saturday, mist cleared to another blue-ceilinged September day and brought over a hundred walkers and runners onto sections of the Annandale Way to meet for celebrations at Lochmaben. Lady Hope-Johnstone spoke and unveiled a finger-post to officially open the 55 mile route, and two of the pupils who had walked and written with me read from the creative writing work which is incorporated into the guide and the wayside interpretation. (More about the development of the project here) Get your copy of the very attractive guide from Sulwath Connections.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Wilder Vein back from the printers

What a delight it has been to receive the anthology that I've edited hot of the press from Two Ravens Press. Although publication date is 2nd November, it's for sale before then from their website ONLY at the great price of £8.99, for delivery from 1st October. This not only gives the reader a good deal, but is good news for this small press who are severely challenged by the commercial discounts required by many booksellers.

This is a quality book - looks good, feels gorgeous and packed with diverse and beautifully written responses to the wild places of Britain and Ireland. It includes the extended version of Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh's piece, pre-published in The Guardian in July. It's very gratifying to see so much work by so many going out to make its way in the book world. Please help it on its way!
Launch events at The Aberfeldy Watermill, Tuesday 27th October with Andrew Greig, Mandy Haggith, Alison Grant and Kenny Taylor; and as part of the Edinburgh Radical Book Fair on Thursday 29th October with readings by Judith Thurley, Ken Wilkie, Andrew Greig and Jane Alexander.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Walking The Wall

Last week I walked a 40 mile section of Hadrian's Wall path, starting in the east, on the outskirts of Newcastle, and climbing up to the escarpment of the whin sill where the Wall clings to its tippy edges through the Northumberland National Park. We finally left a rain-sluiced wall at Birdoswald Fort not far from Brampton in Cumbria.

I had glimpsed a tiny section of the wall only once before, and knew little of the World Heritage Site or what to expect. It's not the first time I've written about following a wall on foot, and many of the same fascinations surfaced for me - its fluidity as it snakes across crag-filled landscape; the antique patina of wear and lichen on the stone; the personal legacies of graffiti or other markers left by the builders. However the great age and endurance of the Roman one inevitably raised an even greater sense of marvel at the builders' skills, audacity, and an intrigue with what the Wall has witnessed.
I remember when I was at art college in the 80s and writing a dissertation linked to Land Art that I came across the startling image above - Christo and Jeanne-Claude's 'Running Fence' in California. They described their aim for their art, as to present a different way of looking at landscapes that have become familiar to the general populace, as well as to make the world look more beautiful. It seemed to me as I walked, and as the line of the Wall drew the eye - clinging, curling, cornering, bucking along its scarp like a line of piping on clothing, that at one level Hadrian's Wall provided a stunning visual and aesthetic experience. I hadn't realised that it had originally been plastered and painted white. At fifteen feet in height with regular 'milecastles' and interspaced turrets, journeying at least in its mid sections through high land visible from a great distance on each side, the visual impact must have been enormous. Might people have actually travelled to see it? Of course it was also a massive statement of power, a geopolitical icon with a military function.

As a contemporary walk, the opportunity for absorption in the Roman theme is considerable as the days' march between each major fort gives you the chance to visit Chesters and Housesteads Forts, as well as other less 'museumified' remnants of Roman civilisation. Here I found my imagination rebuilding entire impressive facades from remnants of gates and buildings. I was fascinated by the sophisticated ways of moving water for need and pleasure - for the bath houses, and particularly the technology associated with toilets. Stones moulded to butt up against wooden doors; the circular depression in a flagstone where a door pin would rotate; the contrariness of blundering yet exact placement of stones for function, and its regularity against nature. This engineering reminded me greatly of my explorations of the Mozarabic trails in south-eastern Spain, and made me think I had perhaps under-appreciated the legacy of the Roman precedent to the Arab engineering wonders there.

As you walk, there is a steady drip drip of information which starts one dreaming, questioning, speculating about the life along the Wall from then until now. Walking from the east provided an easy, flattish, start for the first day, but the Wall was a phantom. The lumps and bumps of the defensive earthworks either side had to suffice. The 'Military Road' (B6318) sizzling with Bank Holiday traffic on the first day felt too close a companion. A lazy path follows a road I thought. But had to adjust my thinking. General Wade's 18th century road was built on the Wall and is still in use. Its retaining wall often bears the hallmark of regular cut whinstone, clearly one and the same with Hadrian's masterpiece (see above). The path therefore had to follow the road, at least until the rise up to Sewingsheilds Crag. From there, road and Wall separate, and there is a considerable stretch of well-preserved masonry right up until Walltown quarry, perhaps for the very reason that access for locals to remove and 'recycle' stone for houses, churches etc was less easy.

Some other links of interest to the Wall: A community creative writing project called 'Writing on the Wall' ran between 2001-6 and was inspired by the 2000 year old Vindolanda Tablets, discovered at a Roman fort just south of the Wall. (They're the earliest written texts in Britain, now held in the British Museum. Fascinating reflections of everyday life including a request for more beer, and for underpants!) I've also just discovered that Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie are currently walking it for a series of their shows on BBC Radio 2. Thursday's will include poet Simon Armitage so worth a listen I would think. And finally Durham University have been involved in an interesting research project, 'Tales of the Frontier', exploring the significance of the Wall and its landscape as both monument and icon from the time of Bede (C8) until today.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Jessie Kesson's nature writings

One thousand feet up on the hillside at Abriachan where the winds sing over the brow of the steep western slopes of Loch Ness, a dormer-windowed house straddles lush pasture land and the scratch of heather on the open moor above. This is Achbuie, where at the age of nineteen, prolific writer Jessie Kesson (1916-1994) went to rehabilitate after a ‘lost year’ of virtual imprisonment in a mental hospital. She was ‘boarded out’, as the practice was known, living with and helping an elderly woman on her croft. The experience of Spring here flushed her into an ecstatic appreciation of nature, and spelt out for her recovery, re-growth and a sense of freedom. Amongst the smell of bracken-mould and primroses, on a hill so high up that ‘you feel any moment you might topple into Loch Ness below’, she walked ‘without limits of walls’.

When I set off to explore Kesson’s terrain in 2008 for my own essay for Doubling Back, I wanted to draw more than a glimpse of her hillside. I wanted to share her exuberance and find the Red Rock she wrote about. I ‘found’ Jessie’s hillside, in the sense that my own rambles seemed to correspond with the joyful arrangements of her own words evoking Spring here, and because I took the sunny green slopes below Achbuie rather than the bleak moor bristling above.

I sought out her other writing, read more of the fictionalised re-workings of her own traumatic childhood years. The dull bass beat of pain was always there, but somehow overlain with bright, poetic joys found in nature or brief moments of love and belonging.

I've written before here about Jessie Kesson's life and writing of this time and place, which bubbled up in much of her later work, including the twelve essays she wrote as 'Ness MacDonald' for the Scots magazine during 1946, entitled 'The Country Dweller's Year'. Last year I had to go to the National Library of Scotland in order to read them, but I'm delighted that these essays and various other pieces of her writing - essays, drama for radio, poetry, fiction - in response to nature during her early writing career, have recently been collected by her biographer Isobel Murray and issued by Kennedy and Boyd. As Murray says they demsonstrate 'a passionate response to the natural world' in a style of writing that is lyrical even in prose, and yet earthy and direct as if the language itself is inflected by place, smell, and song.

Walking the World

This collaboration between Orion magazine and Words Without Borders looks interesting - writings in translation about varied walks.