A sense of place

The west midlands confuses people: not the endless proliferation of local dialects; not the eccentricities of the motorway network; perplexing though both of those can be. New York might well be “so good they named it twice” but The West Midlands (capitalised this time) is apparently such a brilliantly imaginative name for a place that to use it only once would have seemed wasteful; so it’s been applied to two completely different entities – one of which resides within the other.

First, there’s The County of West Midlands: neither small nor perfectly formed, this nondescript aggregation of bits taken from Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire, all of which – reduced though they may be – still separately exist, managed to be a compromise of sorts in that it was held in almost unanimous contempt by residents of all three of its constituent parts. The reasons for their discontent might have varied – from the erosion of cultural identity to concern over the effects on property prices “If people get the idea we’re a suburb of Dudley” (yes, seriously) – but the thing that united us them was that we they just weren’t happy and that’s all there was too it. It doesn’t take much.

Then there’s the other ‘West Midlands’ which, according to Wiki is “One of the nine official regions of England”, stretching from Herefordshire and The Cotswolds to the edge of The Peaks and all points west, right up to the Welsh border. None of this is new, although it is to me.

Both versions of The West Midlands are officially designated as NUTS, which will surprise almost no-one.

Within about 10-15 minutes at a decent walking pace I can reach the remnant of an old Roman road, which marks the boundary with Staffordshire, just at the point where it is tapering down to nothing in the middle of some nondescript pasture; in rather less time again it is possible to exit Staffordshire and cross seamlessly into Worcestershire. So, I reached the Roman road, left behind the neatly suburban West Midlands (designated NUTS1) and crossed into the unkempt agricultural West Midlands (NUTS2), heading for one of those places where The Woodland Trust is doing some of its sterling work.

This is, for a while, an odd patchwork of an area: the clearly defined residential plots come to an abrupt end and are replaced by a chaotic, bits and pieces landscape of indeterminate ownership – a couple of small copses and a few fields which have remained undisturbed for, to my knowledge, the best part of 35 years. Vegetation comes and goes, proliferates, dies back, and the tracks which meander between the trees and brambles follow the same lines that they have followed for as long as I’ve known them.

At least over time the wildlife changes: the buzzards and ravens which would once have been considered exotic are now relatively commonplace, particularly the buzzards. The grey squirrel and rabbit populations ensure there is certainly no shortage of food; no doubt there are field voles out there as well, but they maintain a lower profile. These days the squirrels have to compete for cached food with the expanding population of jays – a bird with attractive plumage but frequently sounding as if it’s being tortured. Goldcrest are present in good numbers; possibly they always were and I never noticed them or, more likely, thought that anything so small would automatically be a wren.

Today the kind of snowfall we rarely see any more has thrown a pristine blanket over some of the less attractive aspects, like the unused rolls of razor wire and discarded feed sacks. The woods themselves seem to be groaning under the covering of snow and the goldcrests and wrens, as they flit between branches, set up small tremors dislodging many times their own body weight.


     

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A belated in memoriam…

Just returned from a couple of weeks based in Kingussie: tired from the M6; body back in the English midlands, head still somewhere meandering one of the endless trails; intending to make a start on a series of posts about selected days and escapades. But, before any of that, an oversight needed to be rectified…

We travelled north on Friday August 4th and there was something about the date that nagged at me; a couple of days later I would remember what it was. A year ago to the day, the blogging community sadly lost one of its finest: he went by the online name of Oldmortality and his blog – witty, erudite, original, thought-provoking, never dull – can be found among the links to the right, under the name One Small Step; OM’s final post was dated 27th July, 2016 and among the comments is one from his daughter confirming that he had passed away. If you’re not already familiar with the blog then I’d urge you to read through the backlog of posts while they still remain available; I still do, and I know I’m not alone. They are unique reflections on a life well lived.

This was where I was when I remembered why August 4th was significant…

It’s the Cairngorm Club footbridge across the Am Beanaidh, which flows north from Loch Einich, and the reason it’s significant is because it’s the spot where Oldmortality once met up with fellow blogger Mike Knipe (whose also excellent blog can be found here: northern pies); their rendezvous is also remembered in the comments attaching to OM’s final blog entry.

Memory jogged, I took a contemplative moment and resolved to do the same every time I’m fortunate enough to pass this way in the future.

Oldmortality loved his music and would often sign off with a link to a tune of his choice. I’m not sure this would have been on his playlist, but it somehow seemed appropriate…

A goodbye to 2016

So much has been said and written about 2016 that there are probably few, if any, stones left to turn. The level of attrition among well-loved and iconic celebrities seems to have been unprecedented; the shifts in the political landscape certainly caught out the commentators and experts – pollsters included; indeed pollsters in particular. If I’m left with any overriding impression, it’s of a year where seminal, potentially life-changing events seemed to have moved beyond the control of anyone and assumed a momentum all of their own.

Turmoil: it’s not exactly a new phenomenon but it does make me grateful for the cathartic effects of walking among the hills, getting some separation, if only temporarily, from what passes for reality. This year, those have been the best of times; and that’s probably true in most years.

The worst of times? If I had to single out just one, it was the senseless, incomprehensible killing of Jo Cox.

On a personal level, I shall forever miss Leonard Cohen; there won’t be another to fill that particular void, not in my lifetime. Since his passing, I’ve listened to a number of discussions about which was the best cover of Hallelujah – Rufus Wanwright? John Cale? Jeff Buckley? The list, like the debate, goes on…

There’s a custom in football of, in exceptional circumstances, ‘retiring’ a shirt number worn with distinction by an outstanding player: Cruyff, Baresi, Zola, Henrik Larsson as just a few examples. Similarly, every now and again somebody just makes a song their own, for posterity…

jo-cox

Jo Cox : 1974-2016

A happy 2017 to all: perhaps we will get to live in uninteresting times for a while.

Hay Festival 2016

SONY DSCThe Hay Festival isn’t an annual pilgrimage for me, even though, after every visit, I promise myself it will become one. That’s really because every time I do make the effort to attend, I leave already looking forward to the next time. But sometimes life – that unruly, incoherent mess of other commitments, conflicting priorities, disarray and (when time permits) even a little inertia – conspires against returning quite as quickly as I might have hoped. And of course there always has to be an event or two worth attending; it would be an unusual year when that wasn’t the case.

My overriding impression of Hay during festival week is that it would be very difficult to spend time around the place and not find yourself in a good mood. Artists – some of them familiar faces, others less so – mingle comfortably with the crowds, whether it be inside the festival grounds or simply meandering around the town. On a previous visit I exchanged affable nods and greetings with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour as if we were a couple of neighbours passing in the street. This year I bumped into George Monbiot taking some time out on the river bank. Obviously good weather helps, and it was certainly a riverbank kind of day.

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SONY DSC

SONY DSC

 

Lazy stereotyping (23/11/2014)

There’s a lot of it about: certain politicians (and by certain, I mean most); smartarse television and radio presenters masquerading as investigative journalists; tabloid hacks masquerading as human beings; lobbyists, publicists, advertisers and PR flannel merchants; football people.

It would be easy to level some of the blame at Twitter, with its 140 character limit, but this all started long before the age of the tweet. Reductio ad absurdum – that’s nearly what I’m talking about; not quite, but I don’t know much latin. It’s more this modern day partiality for reducing even the most complex and nuanced of issues to a single, over-simplified, one line conclusion.

A few days ago – in the middle of a relatively low-key conversation about turbines – someone suggested to me that it was a “well known fact” that all environmentalists are in favour of wind farms. There was genuine surprise when I responded that I consider myself to be very much an environmentalist and that there are more definitions of caring for the environment than those promoted by the high-profile NGOs and their political allies. I pointed the chap in question in the direction of some of the outdoor blogs, with the assurance that he wouldn’t find a bunch of people anywhere who cared more about the environment. I know that he took me at my word, read a good few of them, had his eyes opened and will continue to read more.

But it’s apparently easy to sell a lie; and the more glib the deception the easier the sale seems to be. Terms like ‘The environmental lobby’ are bandied around, go unchallenged, and become part of the currency; it’s convenient, precludes the need for analytical thought, and suits a particular agenda.

The alternative – acknowledging that there’s no such thing as a single, homogenised, collective representing the complete spectrum of environmental opinion and thinking – well, that’s a lot like hard work and very difficult to condense into a soundbite. It’s disturbingly easy for those with access to the right channels to marginalise others who refuse to be compliant; disturbingly easy to bypass or subvert proper democratic and consultation processes. No need to win a debate if you can arrange for it never to take place.

Quite where I’ve gone with this I’m not sure; even less sure about where to take it next. Introducing new people to the outdoor blogging community is a small start, and an enjoyable one. It will have to do until I can think of something better.

The Food Bank (13/12/2013)

The Food Bank

” Shelter line stretchin’ ’round the corner 
Welcome to the new world order…” 

Springsteen – The ghost of Tom Joad

It’s been our custom, for a number of years, to dispense with the sending of christmas cards and, as an alternative, make a donation to one or more worthwhile causes. This year we decided to put together a parcel of items for one of the local food banks.

Supporting the food bank isn’t a seasonal thing for us: it’s something we do throughout the year; something about which I have mixed feelings. While I’m happy to help those less fortunate (and they are a large and growing number) I find it a sorry state of affairs that  – here in the affluent and so-called first world – there is this mounting dependency on voluntary organisations to provide even staple foodstuffs and basic supplies. Have we really come to this? Apparently we have.

Jo has become accustomed to hearing children, at the school where she works, mentioning that their families use the food banks. More often than not, these are working families; ones where ‘working’ means a short hours/low pay contract. There’s no element of shame or embarrassment in these conversations, nor ought there to be; any shame and embarrassment should be felt elsewhere, not least by the career politicians, of all colours, with their desire to be in control of everything and accountable for nothing. Authority without responsibility: that’s as good a definition of tyranny as you’ll find anywhere.

Then I remember, with some discomfort, that the total of our food bank contribution came to less than I’d paid for a single merino base-layer, earlier in the day. Sometimes we all need to look again at our priorities; if we’re all in this together, there’s some in deeper than others.

The idiot’s approach to choosing a new camera

This is intended to be part public service announcement, part cautionary tale. It can be viewed as a plea not to try this at home or, if you must, at least adopt a different approach.

I finally bought a new camera; it’s only taken 15 months. And there’s the first obvious flaw in the process: many of the cameras which were around 15 months back have already been consigned to the dustbin of history. The clue is in the title of the post.

By the way, this isn’t a camera review; I’ve barely got the thing out of the box and there are plenty of tested to destruction accounts by expert scrutinisers to be found elsewhere. There are people out there who actually know what all of the knobs (and symbols) on a modern camera do (and mean). They’re the ones to consult. I’m just here trying to save you from yourselves.

I had, still have, two functioning cameras – a Sony DSLR and an ageing Panasonic Lumix compact. The DSLR is heavy, bulky and invariably has the wrong lens attached when the time comes for a wildlife shot; it’s fine for a day on a preserved railway, or a couple of hours parked in a hide with sandwiches and flask, but on the move it quickly becomes cumbersome and irritating.

The old Panasonic compact has been a faithful and indestructible companion. It has a bombproof quality reminiscent of (for those old enough to remember) Volkswagen’s Mark 2 Golf, fits easily into the thigh pocket of walking trousers, or those on the hipbelt of the Golite Peak rucksack. Always available, hardly noticed, no lens switching needed. The only real downsides have been the camera’s relatively short zoom range and the absence of a viewfinder; the latter being something I’ve never quite got used to.

All of this information was available to me 15 months back; in other words I had everything I needed to make a reasonably informed choice – not too heavy, not too bulky, a decent zoom and a viewfinder. Should have been a piece of cake; all I needed was to find a few cameras meeting all of those requirements, make a shortlist, then a choice. This is where the process begins to disintegrate.

Firstly, there was no single camera meeting all of my preferences; apparently I’m not a sufficiently important customer for electronics giants to produce a bespoke product tailored to my whims. There are compacts with long zooms but no viewfinder; compacts with viewfinders but only short zooms; none with both, unless I’ve missed one. I needed to compromise on something, so I reluctantly started to look at the rather larger ‘bridge’ cameras, thereby rendering all of the foregoing research pretty much redundant.

I quickly compiled a shortlist of 14, mortified myself with the size of the task at hand and drifted into a period of inaction and apathy. Eventually, energised again, I picked up the threads of the search and found that some of the manufacturers had helped me out by discontinuing several of the cameras on the list, thereby reducing it to 9. This was a bonus and I rewarded myself with some more of that inaction and apathy stuff.

From there it gets a little easier: some of the bridge cameras with viewfinders are pretty bulky and heavy themselves, so they were eliminated. Others were simply beyond the outer limits of my price range and were also discarded. I know; if they were too expensive, why were they on the list in the first place? The clue is in the title of the post.

I did eventually make a choice – it’s a Nikon P510. The manual is formidable; I’ll report back – hopefully with pictures!