Geography

Forget it. There is
no trail to follow
through the trees no ginger-
bread house in the centre
of the forest although
there’s no way of telling
where that might be as
we’ve never found our way
to the edge to stand
looking out at the unbroken
sky and perhaps bare hillsides
sloping down to the sea. There is
a map but it’s of little use as
there are no distinguishing features
only the trees and the compass spins,
erratic, leading us nowhere
except to the conclusion that
anywhere might do. Also,
there are so many hiding places
depressions in the ground
where one might lie down
invisible it is impossible to tell
how many people there are
lying low though sometimes
you hear or think you can
the sound of voices that fall
silent the moment you begin
to listen. One could say
that nothing here is what it seems
but that implies we think
we understand the things
we’re dealing with.

Let’s take a walk then,
you and I, among the trees
in the absence of certainty
for sure, we know nothing
except for the smell of resin
and the distant surf-sound
of the wind in the treetops
and the possibility of
an encounter with a creature
not unlike ourselves
but different.

 

(c) Sackerson, 2020

 

 

Bait

Recently, I got round to watching Mark Jenkin’s new BAFTA award-winning film, Bait. It was shot in black and white, without sound (all the sound was dubbed in later), on a clockwork 16mm camera. The film stock was developed with home-made developer, giving it a grainy, imperfect look which, along with the sound, is an essential part of the atmosphere of the end result. It has a sharp edginess about it that reflects the times and it’s hardly surprising that Jenkin cites Derek Jarman as a formative influence.

Martin and his brother, Steven, are fishermen. Business has been so bad that Steven is reduced to offering sea trips to tourists on their only fishing boat. Martin doggedly continues to fish from the beach. They’ve had to sell their old family home to a rich couple who go on to buy up other former fisherman’s cottages in the village and turn them into Airbnb holiday homes. One brother tells the other that the rich incomers’ living room, decorated with pieces of tastefully arranged rope and fishing net, “looks like a sex dungeon”. The real world the brothers have known all their lives finds itself in a head-on collision with the fantasy worlds inhabited by the holidaymakers. After the inevitable rows about parking, everything goes downhill. Tension runs high. Most of the characters make an effort to show restraint and there are even some furtive sympathies and fraternisation across the divide. Not wishing to drop in any spoilers, I’ll stop there.

There are not many films I’ve enjoyed watching as much as I enjoyed watching Bait.

I also came across this on the internet. The lady with the Long Brown Hair is a one-minute long short film Mark Jenkin made in 2016:

The Moon Shadow

Late this afternoon I popped out to get a bag of potatoes. The sun was just setting and both Venus and the Moon were high in an almost cloudless sky. The thought of going back home and simply shutting the door behind me was just too much. As it often is with shopping, a bag of potatoes quickly turned into a bag of various things I’d forgotten we needed. I quickly drove home  and stashed them away in the kitchen. Then I grabbed my wellingtons and headed out again. I’m always up for a torch-lit walk at night but I reckoned that if I hurried up, the light would persist just long enough for a decent walk without one.

I headed up the road to Black Beck Bridge and parked in the rough layby there. I set out across the moor on a Land Rover track that joins the road close by. Not far from the road it fords the beck before climbing steadily up towards Candlehouse Rigg. I’d been there many times but never so late after sunset. The moon was behind me and must have been glowing more brightly than the western horizon ahead of me since, when I looked down at my feet, I saw my shadow stretched out along the track: a moon shadow. I paid no attention to the time but I walked for perhaps a quarter of an hour. Gradually, the hills around me became less distinct as the glow on the horizon faded. When I turned to go back, I looked up and realised that the stars were coming out. Ahead of me on the return journey, in place of dark hills, were distant lights marking the towns and major roads running through the Vale of York. I glanced over my shoulder: my moon shadow was following me.

After a while I arrived back at the beck. At the ford it runs noisily over a bank of pebbles. Upstream of the bank is a still pool. As I stood there, I realised I could see a star reflected in the water. I took out my sound recorder and let it run.

Agag’s Groove

This (filmed, recently, by someone else) is a video of a route I climbed as a young(er) man. As the guy in the film says at the start, it was hard to make the protection stay in. When I led it, mine kept falling out and the route turned into what climbers refer to as an “epic”, a personal war of attrition between you and the grim reaper. Sweaty palms and outward-sloping holds don’t mix. 90ft up, I decided that for me, climbing and being the father of two children (the third came later) didn’t mix either. It was time to quit climbing. However, since this isn’t something you can do in the middle of a rock climb, I resolved to enjoy the remaining two pitches -they turned out to be sensational- before hanging up my boots, which I did not long after.

The Box

A short story 

I

As I remember it, I was taking a photo of the square. In itself, it’s nothing special, just an open space, surrounded on all sides with ancient town houses with gardens and iron railings. In fact, it’s not really a square at all. It’s a rectangle. In the centre there’s a fountain that’s supposed to be a good example of late-twenty-first century Austere style but that’s about the only thing going for it. The only reason I go there is that I cross it every day as I go to and from the tramstop that connects to the university, where I work. I live close by: my flat’s two minutes walk the other way, down a sidestreet. That day, the sky was overcast, except for a strip of blue on the horizon where the late afternoon sun was shining through, throwing shafts of light through the spaces between the buildings the way they often fall through the spaces between the clouds. The pavements and the road were still damp from a recent shower of rain. The effect, almost monochrome, was uncanny. There were a few people about, walking across the square, but not many. It was cold. Most of them wore heavy overcoats and scarves. I took out my camera, an old twentieth century Leica M3 I’d picked up for next to nothing on a junk stall down by the river. I looked around, searching for a good angle.

It was not until later, after I’d developed the film and fed it into the enlarger, that I noticed them, a group of young people, casually dressed, some of them carrying shoulder bags. They were probably tourists, although why anyone would want to come to our town for a holiday beats me. They were laughing and talking together and one of them was taking a photograph of the fountain. Another, a man a few years older than the rest, seemed to be taking no interest in his companions. I checked the focus with a magnifier and, seen close-to, he looked positively out of place. He was dressed less casually than the others in an open-necked shirt and a grey, knee-length overcoat. He was staring intently, straight into the camera lens. It was impossible not to stare back into the black shadows that were his eyes. Impossible, too, to read his expression. I made a print. It was strange, I thought, that I hadn’t noticed either the man or the group he was with when I took the photo but that’s the thing about photography, where I’m concerned: it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been so preoccupied with the picture I was trying to take that I failed to see what I was actually looking at. It’s one of the reasons, perhaps, why I’m a professional computer programmer and not a professional photographer.

I mounted the print, as I usually did, in an album.  The trouble was, I couldn’t get it out of my mind and, even though I found it sinister and unnerving, I found myself coming back to it repeatedly. I’d get the album down, open it up and stare back into those eyes again and again. I even took a shot of the print with my handheld: that way, I could carry it around easily for reference. His face looked familiar to me and, although I couldn’t quite place him, I had the odd feeling that I’d seen it many times.

As the days went by, my curiosity waned. I stopped returning to the image. I was  reminded of it, though, whenever I walked across the square, and would glance around half expecting to see him again. I’m not quite sure what effect I thought it would have if I did,  apart from reassuring myself that he actually existed. I wanted, I think, to dispel the sense of eeriness that surrounded the whole business.

One evening, on my way home, I dropped in at The Blue Ball as I often do. There are never many people there around that time of day. As usual,  an entertainment stream was running silently on the screen that covered half the far wall, the bright, flickering light glancing off the dark surfaces of the furniture in the almost empty room. Daniel was stood behind the bar as usual, polishing glasses. Martin was already there, sat on a stool at one end of the bar with a bottle of beer, nibbling a snack out of a paper bag. The only other customers were a group of three sat round a table on the other side of the room, opposite the screen. It was not easy to make them out in the flickering, coloured light but there was no doubt in my mind: it was the group of tourists I’d seen in my photo of the square. The man who’d been staring into my lens, however, was not with them. I climbed onto the stool next to Martin’s and asked Daniel for the usual. He poured me a vodka then went out the back. He returned a moment later with a plate of fruit chips. He asked me, as he always did, if I’d had a good day and I’d just started to tell him that it hadn’t been so bad when the door on the far side of the room that leads to the toilet opened and a man came out. He made for the group sat at the table. It was the man in the grey coat. The group at the table were just making ready to leave and as they made their way out he tagged along.

‘They look familiar. Any idea who they are?’ I said, looking from Daniel to Martin. Martin shrugged. Daniel frowned and shook his head.

‘I can’t say I do. It’s usually the same people in this place, day in, day out, but I’ve never seen them before,’ he said. ‘They were friendly enough,’ he added.

Martin gave me a quizzical look. I felt as if an explanation was expected. I can imagine my ears going red under his gaze. Was he able to read my mind? I’d asked them about the group but I was really interested in the man. I probably didn’t mention him specifically because I’d be worried they might think I was turning into some sort of stalker but I was quite clear in my own mind that nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, rather than me pursuing him, it felt as if he were haunting me. 

‘I just wondered,’ I said. ‘I think they were hanging around in the square the other day. I was taking a photograph.’

‘A photograph?’ said Martin. ‘Can we see?’

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘The light was quite something.’

‘So it was,’ said Daniel. ‘I was walking up from town at the time.’

I took my handheld out of my pocket and opened the image I’d taken of the print. Daniel and Martin leaned over, to get a better look.

‘Good photo – and it’s definitely them,’ said Martin. ‘Why are you so interested?’

‘It’s a weird thing,’ I said. ‘It’s just that when I took the photo, I don’t remember seeing them. When I developed it, there they were.’

‘Spooky,’ said Martin.

‘Well,’ said Daniel, ‘at least now you’ve seen them in the flesh. They’re real enough.’

One morning, a few days later, I was stood at the tramstop on my way to the university, deep in thought. The weather was still cold and overcast, so I had my collar turned up on my overcoat and my hands thrust deep into my pockets. My head was full of the lines of code I’d been working on the week before.

I was still deep in thought when the tram pulled up. I climbed on automatically and made my way to the nearest available seat. As I slumped down, I suddenly became aware of my surroundings again. Sat next to me in the window-seat was the man in the grey coat. His face wore the same slightly indifferent frown everyone seems to adopt when they are forced into a situation of close proximity with strangers. Every now and again he glanced towards the window. At one point, I remember, he rubbed away the condensation on it with the backs of his fingers, in order to see out.

Once I’d recovered from the initial surprise, I discovered that to actually encounter the man close-to in real life was something of an anticlimax. I knew nothing about him and had no desire or reason to strike up a conversation with him. In fact, I felt slightly self-conscious and ill at ease. I tried to glance in his direction as little as possible. Why had he been staring straight at me in the square? Okay, some men stare at you but it occurred to me now that back then perhaps he had been staring at something behind me, or simply staring into space. I hadn’t noticed him so why on earth should he have noticed me? Perhaps he’d been curious to see someone lift up a camera and point it at him. Perhaps not. Perhaps, as people used to think and some people still do, he saw the camera and thought I sought to steal his soul.

II

Davis stepped off the tram and, head down, made her way to the pedestrian crossing. She hurried across the road to the university buildings. She was getting tired of winter, and found the rows of leafless trees in the avenue oppressive. It was a relief, though, to be leaving the mystery man behind. It felt good, too, to push open the glass door of the department and enter the warm, bright foyer. Noonan, the security guard, looked up and smiled. Davis smiled back. The same every morning. She took the lift to the first floor. Like the foyer, it smelt vaguely of floral disinfectant. As she emerged onto the landing, she was met by the smell of warm peppermint tea. As usual, Eisler had got there before her.

‘Morning. Tea?’ said Eisler, holding out a mug he’d already poured.

‘Thanks,’ said Davis.

‘Today’s the day?’

‘We’ll see.’ Eisler was looking cheerful, as ever. Davis always found his colleague’s attempts at infectious optimism slightly irritating but his strengths far outweighed this. She was fond of the man. She smiled.

She looked round, as if unsure what to expect, but her room was exactly as she’d left it the day before. Her desk was clear but only on account of the fact that at the end of every day she scooped all the paperwork up off it. This she added to the growing stacks of paper piled against the far wall. It occurred to her that she’d reached half way. By the time she retired, she guesstimated, the stacks would almost reach the ceiling. She found that working with pen and paper helped her to think. Few others in the department did. Like her penchant for film photography, it marked her out as an eccentric – something she didn’t mind at all. She sat down at the desk. Behind her was a window overlooking the avenue. Beyond the desk, a single armchair.

She opened a drawer in the desk and took out a transparent box. The interface. You could see the circuitry inside it. Eisler had built the prototype but generations of computers had rebuilt and improved on it already. It was her link to the latest hardware in Eisler’s workshop next door. If it worked, she would not only be able to control the computer with her thoughts, she would be able to think as an inseparable part of it, retrieving memories and deriving insights from it. She put the box down in front of her, on the desk. She wondered what she was supposed to do to activate it. As she did so, lights began to glow among the circuitry in the box. She looked up. The man in the grey coat was sitting in the armchair. She hadn’t heard him come in and his sudden presence alarmed her. She had not seen him following her in and, moreover, hadn’t he stayed on the tram when she got off?

If she looked the way she felt, he didn’t seem to notice.

‘This is taking some getting used to,’ he said.

‘What, exactly?’

‘The inside world and the outside world. And how your inside world is my outside world,’ he said.

‘I saw you in the square…’

‘Yes. I’ve been walking around.’

‘And now you’re here?’

He looked puzzled. ‘Yes, I suppose so. You mean you’re here, not there?’

‘Yes.’

‘You mean you’re permanently connected to a particular point in time?’

‘I am. I take it you aren’t.’

‘It appears to be the case.’

‘The whole idea of all this,’ she lifted up the box as she spoke, and turned it round in his hands, ‘was to allow a human mind to interact with the computer…’

‘You’re talking about me?’ he asked. He smiled. 

‘The trouble is, though,’ she said, ‘is that I expected to find myself moving through your inner world. Instead, you’re here, moving through mine. And you’re changing what I am. What I am is defined by how I react to the things that happen around me in the outside world and by what I remember. My identity relies on the fact that what happened to me in the past remains unchanged. The future is unknown to me. I create who I am from moment to moment.’

‘Eisler will soon be knocking on the door. I take it you don’t know that?’

‘I’ve no idea.’

‘So, who you are, who you see yourself to be, is shaped by your journey through time?’

‘Exactly.’

Neither of them said anything for a moment.

‘This isn’t turning out quite how I expected it to,’ she said, half to herself.

‘Expectation is something I’m not familiar with,’ he said. ‘You, on the other hand, never know what’s going to happen next. It must be a source of anxiety for you. Anything could go wrong at any moment.’

‘You’re right,’ she said. ‘Existential angst.’

She needed time to think. She looked at the box on the desk with its glowing lights. In the brief time they’d been talking, the configuration of the circuitry inside seemed to have changed, become more dense. She wondered how she was supposed to deactivate it. As she watched, the box went dark. The man in the armchair smiled.

‘I’ve a feeling you’d like some time to yourself,’ he said. He stood up. ‘I’ll leave you to it.’ He smiled again and went out through the door.

She’d half expected him to disappear when the box went dark. Then again, she had no real reason to expect this, as her previous encounters with him had taken place even before she’d activated it. The technology was beyond her understanding and the man, whoever or whatever he was, seemed able to move freely in time and space through the world that existed in her mind. Could he move beyond it? He had just stepped out through the door. Was this a visual metaphor for the fact that he had moved into her memories? She could imagine him interacting with her mind like that. Or, perhaps, he had stepped out of her visual field and into her imagination. She could certainly imagine him there, engaging Eisler in polite conversation, or taking the lift down to the ground floor and stepping out into the avenue.

(c) Sackerson, 2020

Chroma

I’ve just finished reading Chroma, the last book Derek Jarman wrote. He was many things: painter, film-maker, gardener, writer and activist. He was, I think, a painter first (he studied at the Slade) and Chroma is a book about colour. It’s a defiant, courageous book. It was written a year before he died of AIDS: he was ill at the time and woven into it is the day-to-day struggle he faced to save what he could of his sight. It’s an encyclopedia, crammed with facts and observations about different colours. I never knew, for example, that mauve was invented in the 19th century. He draws on a range of authorities – Aristotle, Leonardo, Newton, Kandinsky and Wittgenstein, to name but a few. One of them -I forget which- observed that the colour blue is darkness illuminated. It’s a book full of such factoids and insights, many of which stick with you.

Gibbon Hill

At 543m, Gibbon Hill is one of several high points on the rounded ridge that separates Apedale from Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales. I walked up it once before, many years ago, when I first moved to the area but, although I’ve often been out on my mountain bike on the tracks around  it, I’ve not been to the summit since.  The idea of revisiting it has been at the back of my mind for a long time. Walking over hills is a very different experience to cycling over them. Walking is obviously slower, one is more in touch with the land and there is more time to take things in.  Cycling brings with it a whole different set of attractions. I enjoy both but for some time I’ve been thinking of going for walks through the places I visit on my mountain bike, as I often see, when cycling, intriguing features of the landscape that are often inaccessible on a bike and which cry out to be explored on foot.

Gibbon Hill is a case in point. I often find myself cycling along a Land Rover track that contours its north side. It crosses a stream, Grovebeck Gill, just before it comes to a shooting lodge. On the uphill side, the stream vanishes into a steep-sided cleft. I often wonder what I’d find if I dismounted and walked up it. Perusing the map the other day, I was fascinated to see that it leads to a disused lead mine. The mine workings and the stream bed run a good part of the way to the ridge – and the summit of Gibbon Hill.

As I didn’t have a whole afternoon to devote to the walk, to save time I parked half way up on the road that runs over the hill from Grinton to Redmire. I made my way across the moor, knowing that if I kept walking west I would soon intercept the gill and the mine workings. It didn’t take long. Once at the cleft (known at this point as Kay Hush), I clambered down into it through the heather to the stony stream-bed and made my way up it. Gradually, the cleft became less and less deep and I finally found myself stepping out, back onto the open moor. The ground was rough and had obviously been mined. Here and there there were spoil heaps. There were long stretches of peat devoid of heather, sometimes covered with a scattering of shattered limestone fragments. It was at this point that I came across the first of several tiny skeletons laid out on the peat. I saw few signs of life on this walk. I saw a couple of geese stood by a pool. Later I saw them as they flew over my head. I saw more signs of death. Several times, as well as the skeletons, I came across a scattering of feathers that, from a distance, I mistook for cotton-grass (which, of course, is not in flower yet).

Here and there, as I made my way through the workings, I came across pieces of wood. I was curious to know where they all came from. Finally, to my surprise, I came across a pit, full of pieces of wood. I was put in mind of Cornelia Parker’s exploding garden shed.

rocks

It wasn’t far from the wood-pile to the ridge itself. Distances on rough moorland can be deceptive: things that look a long way off can actually be quite close. Add to this the fact that in the absence of well-trodden paths one moves quite slowly and one can see how one can quickly get demoralised. Walking here has to be unhurried and philosophical. Put one foot in front of the other, then the other in front of the one – and so on. It is good that the ground is a pleasure to look at. The grass grows in tussocks. Each blade, green at the base, dwindles to a white, straggly tendril that drapes itself over the heather that grows around it.

skull2.jpg

In no time at all I reached the wire fence that runs the length of the ridge and turned right. All of a sudden I could see into both Swaledale and Apedale. I was surrounded by hills, although it was difficult to see far as it was quite hazy. I made my way along the fence to the summit. Although, as I said, I had visited it once before a long time ago, nothing about it seemed familiar. I sat myself down in the heather and ate an orange. A fence used to run away northwards from this point. All that remains of it now are a few decayed wooden posts.

When I set off back down, I decided to take a closer look at a tree I’d seen not far from the summit. I wondered if, perhaps, someone had brought their old Christmas tree to this remote place and planted it. Surely not. I can only think a bird dropped a seed. There are no other trees for miles. Being in such an exposed place, it’s grown into the shape of the prevailing wind.

tree

I toyed with the idea of simply retracing my steps back down Grovebeck Gill but decided to follow the ridge instead. The sun was getting quite close to the horizon and I thought I’d cover the ground more quickly if I went that way. All I needed to do was walk along the fence until I came to the prominent cairns on the next named summit, Height O’Greets. I’d made my way down from there many times. I set off and on reaching the cairns, I turned down into Swaledale towards the road. Then, on a whim, I changed course. I could afford to do this, as I was now making good time. As I said, I knew this part of the route well and, as so much of this walk had been completely new to me I didn’t want the sense of discovery to end. I veered off towards Grovebeck Moss, where I found myself weaving a path through flat, bright green patches of ground. A small pool seemed to glow, completely filled as it was with a gelatinous mass of green algae.  Fortunately for me, I decided, it hadn’t rained much recently.  If it had, I’m quite sure I’d have ended the walk sodden from the knees down.  I got back to the car not long after sunset.

wood1