Saturday, 27 April 2013

Mind Ambulation

I have done a fair bit of walking lately – in the hills of Cumbria and Derbyshire and along the rough coast of north Cornwall – variously in the company of acquaintances, friends, loved ones and one or two strangers. I have walked for the purposes of companionship, exercise and the simple pleasure of being outdoors. Not once have I walked out of necessity and I know that some people consider this to be eccentric. I can recall opening a conversation with the words “I was climbing Snowdon the other day” to which my friend responded “Why?” I have asked myself that same question, from time to time, ever since.

"Walking is also an ambulation of the mind" according to one writer: the physical exertion equates to stimulation of the brain; the open horizon to the endless creative possibilities of thought and the open air to the dissipation of stale ideas. All of this I can see, but there are times when nothing creative happens on a walk - especially a long and tiring one which has reached the point where exhaustion overcomes stimulation, automaton-like movement replaces physical fluidity and a corresponding lack of mental activity sets in. Tiredness has dulled the brain; the allure of the horizon has turned to menace and the senses have been over-dosed with fresh air. Under these circumstances I have known my mind to become detached from its present situation and fixated instead on imagined places such as cosy bars, candle-lit dining rooms, steamy bathrooms and comfortable bedrooms. At times like this the question "Why?" becomes unavoidable.

When a small party of us tackled Crinkle Crags recently, my partner and I decided to walk over the shoulder of the main peak rather than take the direct, vertical route. "See you on the other side" we called as we parted company from the others. But a hill tends to obscure whatever is beyond it and, without a direct sight-line, the exact whereabouts of the "other side" became less apparent the further we walked. Before long we ended up lost, disorientated and concerned that we might not see our party again that day. This provoked a disagreement between us as to which way to go. As usual, our exchange began politely, then escalated into semi-hysteria, before eventually culminating in a truce as we realised that argument would not lead us to the path.

At this point we followed some age-old advice -"When all else fails, read the instruction book" - and reluctantly pulled out our map and compass. It was, without doubt, the rational thing to do but wilful resistance to take such action is a human instinct, born of impatience and the urge not to stop and take stock lest we discover things we don't like. It may be further resisted, as in this case, by the inconvenience of having to take off our gloves, find our specs, dig out the compass, unfold an unwieldy map, locate our exact position - and all in cold and windy conditions. While there is a certain carefree cachet to the slogan "Not all who wander are lost", at times like this it can seem rather glib.

There are ways in which walking can be made easier, less fraught, less tiring and less dangerous. You may choose to walk only well-marked paths, not to push yourself physically, to devolve responsibility to a guide, to go out only in fair weather and so on. But there is something to be said for eschewing these more comfortable options - and if all this is beginning to sound like a metaphor for life, it is. "Mediocrity" said Balzac "can be trusted always to be at its best" and that, I suppose, might be an answer to my friend's question.

Saturday, 20 April 2013


I promised to speak no more of my recent visit to Cornwall but I do have a final observation: the absence of non-white faces. It reminded me that the peninsula is one of the last bastions of the ancient, native Britons who were forced to retreat to the western fringes of their Isles by waves of immigrants coming over from the continent.

Immigrants arriving in waves tend to settle in clusters for economic and cultural support. Subsequent dispersal into the hinterland can take many generations - hence my observation. But I now have firm evidence that those Anglo-Saxon continentals have made it at last into Cornwall. I interacted with them, incomers, people who have settled there and now own businesses catering for the tourists. I admit that I found this rather disappointing, since I do still cling to the vain expectation that places such as these are unique and unchanging. To be sold "real Cornish dairy ice cream" by someone whose heritage is more Essex than Celtic seems somehow fraudulent.

Back at home in the city, however, I am accustomed to the presence of recent immigrants and even to their domination of certain spheres of economic activity despite the disadvantage of their ‘outsider’ status. One such sphere, the car-valeting business, is of particular relevance to me. My vehicle is not a car but a high-top campervan and, because of this, I also have outsider status. My van and I are often on the wrong side of prevailing conventions; toll roads do not distinguish between commercial and domestic vans and charge us higher rates (unfairly); unexpected height restrictions at the entrance to car parks necessitate awkward reversing manoeuvres in narrow approaches; car wash machines are not tall enough for us to pass through and valeting tariffs, while differentiating between cars and 4x4s, don't acknowledge our special needs at all.

This last problem, however, has been resolved by the establishment of a Somali-owned car-valeting business down the road. The big red and yellow price lists put up by the previous, Romanian owners are still on the wall but, since there is no listed tariff for campervans, I have been obliged to engage verbally with the staff. The result is a personal relationship built on old-fashioned haggling. And I can assure you that, despite the tough reputation for bargaining they have gained in the pirating business, when it comes to a car wash where they don’t have the upper hand they are a pushover.

Nevertheless the best bargains are to be had during slack periods, so it's always good practice to do a ‘drive-by’ before committing to a visit - which is how I got them to agree to an especially small sum on the last transaction. When I came to pay up, however, I realised I had left my wallet at home. My initial reaction was panic. Were their cheerful smiles merely a mask for their ruthless disposition after all? Would they turn nasty, lock me in the office, put my van under armed guard and call my relatives with a ransom demand? I searched the van for something of value to offer, found a couple of bottles of wine stashed in the provisions cupboard and offered them as surety for my return with the cash.
They refused them not, as you might think, on the grounds of disputed value, but because - and they pointed to one of their number - they might be consumed.
"But you're Muslims" I said
“Yeah, but he will drink them. He's not a real brother," they replied "Just pay us when you come back next time".

I was off the hook - yet at the same time hooked. How could I give my future custom to another outfit? Business, as they say, is all about people.

Customer waiting area.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Great Begins to Grate

The great thing about the word 'great' is that it has more than one meaning, so it can be used - knowingly or unknowingly - to convey different messages. This is an important part of linguistic nuance and there are many other examples. 'Gay' is such a word - and there are pedants who rail against its modern usage. But they may as well save their energy for enquiring into the history of how and why it came about and be consoled by the fact that context will reveal the user's intended expression.

            On the other hand, the unfortunate thing about the word 'great' is that it has been incorporated into the name of our nation. Others have names which clearly define their status: France and Germany are simply republics; America comprises several states which became united; China is a people's republic and Russia is a federation. But our own attempt at definition - The United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - is rendered ambiguous precisely by the inclusion of that adjective 'great'. It was intended to mean "the larger part" (of the British Isles) but, knowingly or otherwise, it has been misconstrued by too many for too long as meaning 'superior'.

            Whilst it is valid for a nation to claim superiority over others in terms of quantifiable factors such as size, wealth or power it is unacceptable to allow a sideways slip towards inferred moral, cultural or racial transcendence. So what, exactly, did our Prime Minister mean yesterday when he rounded off his tribute speech to Margaret Thatcher thus: "And let this be her epitaph: that she made Britain great again"? “Great”? One suspects an appeal to the irrational, nationalistic pride of his electorate. “Again”?  One detects the perpetuation of jingoistic mythology. “Patriotism” said Samuel Johnson “is the last refuge of the scoundrel”.

Back home from our excursion to Cornwall, friends are asking "How was your trip?" to which I unthinkingly reply "Great!" - as in “wonderful, inspiring or surprising”. Of course not everything came up to that mark: the romantic promise of the A30 trunk road does come to a disappointing end in an unkempt car park (charge £5) in front of the commercial complex that defines (and defiles) Land's End. But, not far away, at Minack, is the inspirational outdoor theatre cut into a cliff high above the sea. It was built by the remarkable Rowena Cade, another woman of vision, determination and strength of purpose - though she applied herself to the creation of a cultural asset rather than a financial one.

            And within a few miles there is the Tremenheere sculpture garden, a romantically inspired valley where the owner has embarked on a programme of planting and art installation, fusing the natural grace of the landscape with artistic creations to make a beautiful place for all to share in contemplation.

            Over on the north coast is the magnificently located ruin of Tintagel Castle where we can marvel at the endeavour of its builders, imagine the ancient histories and myths of England and buy souvenirs from the shops in the village.

            And St. Ives, former fishing port and home to an influential group of artists, is now the quintessential seaside resort for well-heeled families who watch the surfers from the trendy, beach-side café-bars. Nearby, the Tate celebrates the artistic connection at its modest but serene gallery where it displays world-class art for its acolytes and the holidaymakers alike.

            And all the while, brooding down in Rocky Valley, there are ancient, labyrinth petroglyphs, mysteriously enhanced by the surrounding, makeshift shrines of present-day New-Agers and Neo-Paganists.

            And all these pleasures and treasures are to be found in just one small corner of the real Great Britain.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Westward Ho

We’re on our way to a friend’s 60th birthday celebration in St. Ives, Cornwall. We could have driven there from Manchester in about eight hours but how enjoyable is that? We decided instead to allow five days – not by driving very, very slowly but by stopping off here and there to do some hiking and to visit various old friends living in Devon. It’s now day four and not everything is going to plan. The dinner party arranged by one of our Devonian pals has been cancelled because he is currently in hospital recovering from a heart attack; and so has the evening out with another couple due to one of them contracting a nasty virus. So far we have only managed a hurried meeting over coffee with a third couple - and much of our conversation was taken up with the subject of illness. Let’s hope our birthday boy remains in good health – at least until we reach St. Ives.

Otherwise the journey has had much to commend it. This part of England long ago developed a holiday industry dependent upon its landscape and agricultural heritage. Visitors seem to like the mix of soft green hills, wooded valleys, thatched cottages and rustic accents; the bleak moor-tops, cliffs, coves and sandy bays; the simple, hearty local produce such as clotted cream, pasties, seafood and scrumpy. For many of us these are the quintessential elements of childhood holidays - always associated with sunny summer days – and as adults we are drawn nostalgically back to the idyll, even though we know that it must be subject to a reality check from time to time: especially the sunny days.

Keen, therefore, to remind myself of some of those past pleasures I insisted that we stop at a cider farm at the earliest opportunity. I was aged 17 the first time I went, with my school-pal, to a Devon pub and asked for two pints of scrumpy. The landlord, a huge, unsmiling man, looked intently into my eyes and said “Scrumpy’s for the men”. We turned and scuttled off to a less principled establishment. But I’m over that now and the pretty young girl serving at the cider farm could not have guessed my journey from belittled beginner to confident connoisseur as she obligingly served me samples of the apple nectar.

“Which is the driest” I said “I like it very dry”.

“Well” she said “the Tornado: but may I suggest you try a couple of less dry ones first? It really is dry”.

“OK” I said, humouring her. What would a mere girl know of dry cider? Surely they like it sweet? She handed me a tot of the Farmhouse and stood back. My taste-buds, accustomed for so long to bland, industrially produced impersonations, sprang immediately to life; my nasal passages, hitherto quietly aspirating, stung now by sudden astringency, contracted sharply and, perhaps, visibly.

“Mmm. What else do you have?” I said, trying to maintain an aura of sophisticated appreciation.

“Well, the next one up is the Sheep Stagger. See what you think”.

This time I was more prepared. “Excellent”, I said, “but what about the dry one?”

“OK” she smiled as she poured the Tornado, though I did sense that she had not been fooled by my bluster.

There’s dry and there’s Tornado - but I was fully committed now and obliged to nod in appreciation while trying not to wince as I savoured the sample.

 I left the shop with four litres of Tornado, four of Farmhouse and four of Stagger - all in plastic containers of the sort normally used to hold industrial cleaning fluids. My manliness upheld – at a price – I am happy to declare myself pleased that traditional cider is still made and appreciated.

I have drunk most of the stuff but am saving some Tornado for the birthday after-party. It might just re-ignite memories – and more – for some of the older guests.