Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dying Villages

Poet Tom Pow has undertaken a wonderful study of dying villages in a number of European countries, exploring the social, ecological and cultural effects of demographic change. He responds to the experience of travelling through them in a mixture of poetry, photographs, landscapes, physical artefacts and this excellent website.

I went to hear him speak about it last week at his residency at the Scottish Poetry Library and 'enjoyed' the melancholy sense of loss. Despite the photos of empty houses, weathered doors, abandoned churches, it is essentially a human story about forgotten recipes, lights going out, and other trends captured in the poignant, How to tell when a village is dying such as: 'when the village girls have no eyes for the village boys'. And yet, in the photographs, stories and interviews, the human spirit still bubbles up in the few remaining inhabitants and Tom has breathed life into the reality of rural lives in a way that I've seen no academic/formal rural development project do. In this respect it is a hopeful story, I felt.

Two beautiful, small, letterpress-printed poetry books are also available from the website.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tour de Perthshire

Look away now if you're not interested in a sponsorship request!

On 7th May 2010, my Raleigh Royal and I will have been together for 20 years and have travelled many miles.

To celebrate, and to raise money, we are going to take part in the Etape Caledonia on 16th May, an 81 mile closed-road 'race' through the hills of Highland Perthshire which passes my home in Aberfeldy. We're both a bit rusty, and I won't be the one in the yellow jersey, but if there's a prize for the greatest combined age (bike and rider), we might be in with a chance. We do hope to finish, anyway! Last year some kind soul scattered carpet tacks on the route but I'm hoping there won't be any excitement of that kind this year.

When my stepfather was ill with cancer, it was Macmillan nurses who supported my mother and improved the quality of his life with care, skill and good humour until his death in 1994. I'd love to give something back to this charity so they can do the same for others.

You can find my sponsorship page here.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Britain from above

This is quite a fascinating website if you are currently marvelling at (or infuriated by) the relinquishing of our skies to birds, air currents, volcanic ash. A short film visualises flight paths across Britain, the central 'motorways' these routes conform to, the fabric their lines weave, and the gaps above sensitive military sites etc. There's some similar animations showing taxi routes in London, the tentacles of telephone networks, pipelines of electronic data delivery, and Britain's population by light intensity.

It's all very interesting for any mapping fanatics, making invisible routes visible, and brought to my mind both Richard Long's fascination with the marks we leave, and Anthony Doerr's piece in Granta 102 (The New Nature Writing), in which he writes of animal migration:

‘Salmon, wildebeest, locusts. Stalks, swifts, snow geese. What if the torrents of animals migrating past us every year left behind traces of their routes? What if arctic terns sketched lines should the sky as they poured out of Antarctica and back; what if steelhead trout left thin, colourful filaments behind as they muscled up rivers? The skies above our fields would become a loom; the continents would be bundled in thread.’

Wouldn't it be fascinating to do this for walking journeys in various parts of the world?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Walkers as visionaries

I'm very grateful to a reader of this blog for drawing my attention to Fieldwork, a collection of essays by Ronald Blythe, and in particular to ‘John Clare and footpath walking’ written for the John Clare Society Journal in 1995. It infects me with excitement, as reading sometimes does. It articulates, with wonderful clarity and economy, my own half-developed observations and ideas; and each time I read it, I learn something new.

The essay explores the role of paths (as opposed to roads and newly-forged ways) and our fairly recent but diminishing legacy of walking as a way to get somewhere which also becomes an incidental route towards learning. It draws attention to a peopled countryside, the fields as one-time places of social intercourse, where routes of work met and crossed. This was what I wanted to capture when I walked village paths in Kenya, meeting and chatting with people going about their ordinary business on foot; walking old ways such as drove roads with their legacy of footfall; and is one of the aspects of Thomas Hardy’s novels that I relish. The sense of travel along shared paths and social routes is very precious, when so much of our recreational walking now seems to suffer from both its deliberateness and its anticipation of relative solitude.

During the recent months of snow, I was intrigued to hear of a change in ‘normal’ patterns. A woman living a mile or so from the shop in Strathtay (where most people get to and from home entirely by car) told me how she and her neighbours, unable to get their cars out, established a new ritual. Each would walk the mile along the river to the shop, returning together, and finding that they enjoyed the unaccustomed pace and company. This would have been the natural way not long ago for rural dwellers, but I suspect now spring is here, and the roads are clear, it will be a rarity again.

Clare walked both for his travel to work – lime-burning or ploughing – and for his poetry, in order to look, to solve problems and to scribble furiously as he stopped in dips and hollows in the land. The effect of walking on a creative mind is profound, as Blythe says in this essay, ‘a great amount of our best poetry, novels and essays smell, not of the lamp, but of dust, mud, grit, pollen, and, I expect, sweat.’

But more interestingly for me, Blythe highlights how the experience of walking touches everyone: ‘.. it touches us because we are all descended from the walking men, the walking women, the walking children: and not so very long ago either. Sometimes we forget that it wasn't only the poets, novelists like Hardy, who had these wonderful ideas as they walked….. Certainly, these long walks to work, these long walks to school, these long walks with a friend, these long walks just to get out of the house, etc, were part of a pattern of life of people right up until the modern age. Whilst it happened, their minds ticked over in an extraordinary way. Because men and women haven't all been able to write, or paint, or make music about certain things, it doesn't mean they haven't experienced them...’

I particularly love Blythe's idea that countless people, not just writers, whilst on the way to work, or at work itself, were unwittingly visionary. And I love this line: 'It was the landscape being articulated in their heads, via their normal work practices. ' Walking is a great leveller – it democratises the visionary and gives everyone the opportunity to learn. But with the loss of these simple ways of getting around, I can’t help wondering what else we’re losing.

Now I’m off to try and find a copy of the out of print Fieldwork so I can read the rest of the essays, and while I’m at it, Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze, a novel featuring John Clare's time at High Beach Asylum in Essex.