Thinking Aloud

This summer I spent a couple of weeks in Scotland. It’s one of my favourite places – not just because of its mountain scenery but because of its way of doing things. My son-in-law is Scottish. He and my daughter live in Glasgow. Had I been a free agent in my youth I would have emigrated there years ago.

Had I done so, I’d have a vote in the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence. If there’s a parallel universe somewhere, in which I did emigrate all those years ago, I wonder how my parallel self will vote? If he’s like me, when he thinks of the run down estates where he used to work in West Yorkshire he’ll want to vote no. He might think that the ordinary people there have more in common with the similarly less-well-off people of Scotland than the latter have in common with the rich people of Scotland. They, in turOran Morn, have more common interest with the people who run Britain from the South of England. But, on the other hand, when he’s looking at Alastair Gray’s murals in Oran Mor, (or reading Lanark) he’ll almost want to vote yes.

Trouble is, he probably won’t be a nationalist at heart, thinking of patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel. If so, he takes a dim view of borders generally. (There’s a sign near John O’Groats pointing out that you’re nearer to Norway than to London. It’s good to be reminded that the North Sea isn’t that wide. It’s a reminder, too, that the Russia-Ukraine border isn’t that far away either). He’s an optimist who thinks there’s a light at the end of the tunnel of history and when we reach it we’ll find the world has no borders at all. Respect for cultural identity yes, real democracy, yes, at the very least, but borders, no. He is impressed by Alastair Gray’s advice, to “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” but will think of that nation as the whole world.

But, unlike my parallel alter ego, I don’t live in Scotland so I don’t need to be persuaded, as I don’t have a vote. It doesn’t stop me thinking about the issues, though. A Scotsman who does have a vote (with whom I shared a bottle of Old Bushmills* recently)  listened to me discourse on the tunnel of history (and it’s quite a long tunnel after a couple glasses of Old Bushmills) and told me he didn’t think of himself as a nationalist with a capital “N” but wanted more democracy. I could see that if I walked two miles in his shoes I might feel incapable of voting no. However, I’m wearing my own. Unlike him,  I live in the North of England. Like him, I look at the way Britain is ruled for the South by the South. If you want to draw a line across Britain then draw it -roughly- from the Mersey in the West to the Wash in the East. You could make that the southern border of, say, a Greater Scotia. Democracy in that country would function better for the people who lived in it than the current arrangement. But that’s not the option on offer – and it’s still a border. Spare a thought for the people of Loughborough.

*Yes, yes, I know. It’s Irish whiskey.


The Burning of Bartle

Last year I ran in the annual West Witton fell race and enjoyed it so much that I resolved to try and run in it whenever I could.  I entered it again on Saturday and, this year, I actually had the dubious honour of coming last in the senior (ie, over 14) men’s race. At least it was a respectable last place – I rolled in a medalminute or two, rather than hours after everybody else. All participants get a rather smart medallion for finishing. (Rather than getting out my camera to reinvent the wheel, I’ve included a picture of last year’s. Who’d know?). Oh well, here’s to next year.

The race is run in the early evening. A couple of hours after the last person rolls in it gets dark and it’s time for the village tradition of The Burning of Bartle. We regretted missing it last year so this year we made a point of going along.

How can one describe it? The simplest and quickest way is as West Witton’s answer to The Wicker Man. If you’ve seen the film you’ll know that as the effigy burns, the locals sing Sumer Is Icumen In. Here, instead, they sing On Ilkley Moor Bar T’At. Also, Bartle is a lot smaller than the dour policeman’s wicker  crematorium. He’s just bigger than lifesize. Before the burning he’s carried round the village. The Bartle rhyme is recited whenever the procession stops, to be followed by three cheers:

On Penhill Crags he tore his rags,
At Hunters Thorn he blew his horn,
At Capplebank Stee he brock his knee,
At Grisgill Beck he brock his neck,
At Wadham’s End he couldn’t fend,
at Grisgill End we’ll mek his end!
– Shout lads Shout.

The procession ends in Grassgill Lane where the effigy is burned on the roadside. The electric eyes and Bartle mask are removed, paraffin and matches are applied and, as he burns, everyone joins in the singing of On Ilkley Moor Bar T’At.

Somebody filmed the event in 2009:



What’s it all about? It’s origins stretch back into antiquity. The local church is a St Bartholomew’s church. Bartle would seem to be a contraction of that saint’s name but just how far back does the ritual go? Was Bartle called anything before he was called Bartle? There is the legend of the Penhill Giant, a sheep-stealing giant who lived on the hill and terrorised the area around it. As I said, I’d not been to the event before but my first impression was that I was witnessing the annual casting of a spell to ward off his evil attentions.

bartle mosaic




The Guitar

When we arrived, the city, or what was left of it, was deserted. Though many buildings lay in ruins, some remained standing. Since all the original inhabitants had been killed or run away, finding shelter was not difficult. The streets were strewn with rubble. All the windows were broken. The water mains were smashed. Water, though is resourceful: freed from pipes, it takes the line of least resistance. If it needs to, it stands and waits. It wasted no time turning the gutters into rivers. Here and there it formed patient pools. Water needed to be fetched and boiled so, for the likes of Luka, Marie or myself to survive, you needed watertight containers and the means to start fires. Back then, if you had a tin can or a magnifying lens you guarded them assiduously.

We followed the guitar. We could hear someone somewhere playing a classical piece, one of those that seems to run on and on in a steady trickle of notes. It led us into a low, single-storey building: perhaps it had been a health centre. There were desks, steel trolleys, drawers full of files written in a foreign language. If nothing else, these could provide us with the fuel we needed to boil water and keep warm for a few days. But most of all there was the sound of guitar. It was getting louder, closer. seemed to be coming from a further room.

Why did we follow it? Instinct, I suppose. It sounded beautiful. There were very few beautiful things around in those days so, of course, we found ourselves drawn to it. And then there was the fact that when we found the guitar we would find the guitarist. They might be one of us, in which case they might join us. They might not be: in which case we would have ourselves a hostage.

As we walked through the open doorway the sound of the guitar suddenly got louder still. I went in first so I saw the guitar player before the others did. Behind me, Luka pulled out his knife. I shook my head and gestured to him to put it away. The guitarist was a young man in his twenties, about the same age as us. He looked at me and smiled. He kept on playing. We just stood there and listened. He kept on playing right to the end of the piece.

He told us his name was Martin. He spoke our language in an accent I’d never heard before. He said of course we did not need his permission to stay but that he would be glad of the company. So we stayed.

“What were you playing?” asked Luka.
“Bach,” said Martin. “It’s called Prelude in D Minor.”
Luka raised his eyebrows and nodded, as if to say he had made a discovery.

The four of us lived in the building for a few days – perhaps a week. We worked together foraging for food, water and fuel. Things were not so bad. We found a flat in a block nearby where the owner, we decided, had hoarded food and cans of soft drinks and bottles of beer. Of the owner there was no sign. He must have fled without his hoard, or else he was dead. In the evening we sat around the fire drinking, while Martin played the guitar. For a few hours at a time we almost forgot the terrible situation we were in and the terrible things that were going on around us.

In those days nothing stayed the same for long. First, the shelling started. We all sat together under the only desk we had not burned and listened to the shells whistling overhead. One fell close. The sound was deafening, the building shook and a blast of dust and small debris blew in through the windows. Then the tanks came. I first heard the drone of their engines when I was out fetching water. I hid in a nearby building, under the stairs. There were soldiers, too. From where I was hiding I could hear them shouting.

It was a long time before everything went quiet again. I guessed that the soldiers and the tanks had moved on. There were no people left there to kill or rape, apart from ourselves (and, by then, we knew all the good hiding places). There was nothing left to steal. Most of the buildings had been destroyed. There was nothing left for them to do.

I waited until it was dark then I made my way back to the health centre. I could see very little but there seemed to be no-one there. I thought perhaps they were hiding, like me. I sat in the dark and waited until morning. Perhaps, somewhere close by, they were doing the same.

When the sun rose, I began to look around. My friends had disappeared. I did find Martin’s guitar though, smashed, as if someone had trodden on the sound-box. Perhaps the soldiers had found them. Perhaps, I hoped against all hope, my friends had broken the guitar themselves, stumbling over it in their hurry to escape. That night, as usual, it was very cold. I burnt what was left of the guitar on the fire to keep warm.

(c) Sackerson 2014

All rights reserved

Amelia and the Angel

I posted a post the other day about Ken Russell’s early documentary film, A House in Bayswater. The film made such an impression on me that I scoured Youtube in search of other films he’d made around then.

It didn’t take me long to find Amelia and the Angel (1957), an amateur black-and-white film he made before he started making films for the BBC. I mentioned in the earlier post I referred to how Russell had actually, a few years before , been a tenant in the Bayswater house.  Watching Amelia, what I quickly realised -and  found enchanting-  was how he’d used his fellow tenants as actors in his amateur efforts.

Amelia is playing the part of an angel in the school play. Although warned by her dancing teacher to take good care of her wings, she defiantly takes them home. Her brother plays with them and ruins them. Will she be able to find replacement wings in time? A voice-over narrates it as if it’s a children’s moral tale but (like many such tales) it runs deeper than it first appears. The girl (played by Mercedes Quadros, daughter of the Ambassador of Uruguay) acts her part really well. Russell himself has a cameo role as the man she runs into in the street. And keep half an eye out for those other tenants from the Bayswater house…

An Evening on Pen Hill

A while ago I posted a series of photos I’d taken in the course of a run. I’ve been meaning to do it again and, well, yesterday I got round to it. I’ve written about Pen Hill before: it’s our local “big hill”, a high plateau that dominates the South side of Wensleydale round here.

I took the photos with a compact camera. They’re not great but the sum of them, I hope, is a bit greater than the parts. I hope they convey something of the feeling of the place – and the great feeling you can get running round it. I started running on hills years ago when my children were small. Having very little time to myself, running on hills was far more practical than spending all day walking over them. I don’t bust a gut trying to run fast – one can run on the flat and on the descents, and be content to stagger up the steep slopes. In my experience, a non-competitive fell run can actually feel easier than running a similar distance on the road.

Yesterday’s run began on a farm-track that contours the lower slopes of the hill for a mile or so. (Click on the pictures to enlarge them)…


…before turning off the track.


It steepens. Black Scar looms up ahead. It’s a case of crawling up a bilberry covered slope to the left of it (I think they were bilberries – I had a good look as they were six inches from my nose, but I’m no plant expert).


I stowed the camera away before the crawl but not before I caught a group of cattle.


Once at the top, I followed the path along the cliff edge.



The dry stone walls drop away down the hillside. They must have taken some building. I always think of drystone walls as Yorkshire’s answer to the pyramids.


It’s soon time to drop down back to the starting-point. At first it’s steep and exhilarating.


Then the slope turns more gentle…


…dropping down through a couple of fields back to the starting-point.



A House in Bayswater

Sometimes you see, read or hear something that has a real impact you. I’ve just had one such experience. I’ve just watched A House in Bayswater, an early documentary film made for the BBC in 1960 by Ken Russell. It’s about a large terraced house that’s about to be demolished and the lives of the people who live in it. Russell himself lived there in the fifties, apparently, but one wouldn’t know from the film. There’s the eccentric landlady who lives in the basement, with a weakness for flea-markets, who serves sherry to her tenants when they call – and who tries to sell them her acquisitions.There’s the married couple who work in the wine business. There’s the artist who, sadly, probably isn’t very good. There’s the photographer, who photographs a girl in a hip-bath on the balcony – he knocks out photos of girls, he says, to pay for the photos he really wants to take. There’s the retired ladies’ maid who spends her time feeding the birds, looking at the garden and looking at her photos of America, which she is nostalgic for and where she spent most of her working life. And then there’s the elderly dance teacher, who seems to have only one pupil The film critic John Baxter said:

The dancer, leading her willing, wispy pupil through a two-woman show hazed in memories of better days (“My next solo is one I did on Broadway in 1929 and I am wearing the same costume”) is faded but not absurd, the maid’s images of New York have the insouciant fever of Scott Fitzgerald, and the concierge who… cultivates toadstools and deadly nightshade in the garden with a philosophical “They might come in useful” celebrates the indestructible eccentric.

Interestingly, we see more of the imaginative life of the tenants who are not trying to make art than we do of the artist and the photographer.

I have personal reasons for falling in love with the film. I was two when I was it was made: it describes a world that was happening around me before I was really aware of it. Only a couple of years earlier my parents had lived in a flat in a shared house (though not in London). I spent the first ten days of my life there.

The film ends with the demolition of the house and Ken Russell builds up to it in an uncanny, dream-like way that explores the potency of the inner lives people live in their heads – lives that in the day-to-day anonymity of a shared house remain concealed but which are as fantastic -and touching- as the communal staircase is mundane. It’s something most people think about at one time or another, walking up and down the stairs in shared houses or flats. Ken Russell riffs on it brilliantly.

The film is also currently available to watch on BBC iPlayer.