Tuesday, January 22, 2013


I step into a world in decay; a place where time has crystallised, thickened into a slow-moving torpor. Although the land slopes to the south, opening onto views of familiar hills and the wide meandering river below, it is a disquieting and unfamiliar place, a maze of landforms and woods, spoil heaps and mad-made earth banks, each of which protects a fading asbestos building, protection from blast damage, from the bombs and missiles that were stored within.
I am here to research an article I have been writing, examining the legacy of military and ex-military sites in this wildest of rural areas, thinking how the land which somehow feels part of our birthright has been appropriated, fenced, secluded from view. It is a place which holds an allure purely because of its secrecy; a thousand acres of untouched landscape, untrampled, free from farm chemicals and the everyday clatter of cars and machinery, the dithering of human activity.

Within the fence, there are almost three hundred buildings, most used for military storage, the central group used for research and administration. In each, the doors are missing, the windows smashed, the floor littered with either animal shit or the debris of vandalism and neglect: peeling tiles, smashed fibreboard walls, rusting light fittings.
Dereliction holds a fascination for us because of its inevitability, a visual entropy, as though all things tend to decay, all our grandest endeavours flake and peel into fissile dust, the dull patina of abandonment. Tout passe, tout lasse, tout casse, we say, reveling in the surety of our decline, the certainty that the mightiest schemes are those that will fall the soonest, proving once again our desire for nemesis, our frailty and impotence.

Places such as these lose their physical fabric as they rot and collapse, but are peopled by ghosts and echoes that outlive the buildings; fragments of other worlds, other people who worked here, with their individual lives and worries, their families and fears. I think of the stories that accumulate in these places, layers upon layers of human fragility and impermanence, as though each of us sheds a skin in the places we live and work, a microscopic ingredient of the dust which settles on the floors and discarded washbasins, along with the flakes of paint, the particles of asbestos, the pollen from the pine trees which surround the cluster of buildings and which wave, so gently, soundlessly, in the winter breeze.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Solvitur Ambulando

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”
SΓΈren Kierkegaard

Wordsworth knew it, as did Coleridge. Thoreau hymned it from his one-roomed cabin at Walden Pond; Chatwin spent his life trying to explain it. As I crouch from the wind on the slopes of this grey-green hill, pausing to watch a kestrel as it dips from the twitch of its flight into the heather below, my walking rhythm is interrupted, and the words that are forming in my mind are stilled. I realise that I have, almost without realising it, been weaving sentences and stanzas in my head in time with the beat of my feet. I briefly grasp the association between words and walking, between language and movement, and feel happy to be here on this hillside, alone, thinking in time with the scuff of my boots.
I am walking out a sense of listlessness which comes with the turning of the year, the end of the holidays, the pall of cloud which has hung for days over the hills. I am walking out my need for air and daylight, however faint, filtered through layers of stratonimbus. I am walking out my inability to write, the words not coming in the way that they should, my mind grasping for phrases which are seen as though through the thick hill mist which surrounds me on this walk; indistinct, unfocused. I am doing what I have done for the whole of my life when unsure of what to do next; I am going for a walk.
It is a pleasure to be out on a day like this; the mist clustered round the top of the fells, a chill wind driving over the pass from the west. I am completely alone, sequestered in mist, aloof from the noise of the world, lost in thought. Two ravens lift from the sedge, heavy in their restlessness, and coast sideways on a cushion of wind. Their scratchy croaaack is lost as they slip from view over the ridge.
Walking is a natural way to induce thought, a simple iambic rhythm which is as familiar as the beat of our hearts: di-dum, di-dum, di-dum, di-dum. It is a rhythm which is known to us from childhood poems and popular songs, as comforting as the click-clack of railway tracks or the gentle rocking on a parent's knee. Our lives have grown with this two-tone beat, and it is replicated by walking; our language reflects it when we talk of writing having pace and metre. Even if the best lines, the most memorable phrases evaporate as soon as one stops, walking can imprint on the mind a train of thought which survives long enough to get home and dash some words into the notebook.
As I descend from the hills, walking the long ridge of yellowed grass towards the valley, a single red grouse stutters from the heather and drifts low over the bog pools and mosses, its wings fluttering nervously, brown against the brown of the moor. I feel the tiredness in my legs that is like a wanton ache, a physical memory of the day. I think of it as a kind of writer's cramp, a sign that my mind has been working out the words, my legs keeping pace with the beat, my mood lightening with the miles. It can be solved by walking.