Wednesday, December 10, 2008
The anthology will have a foreword by Robert Macfarlane (The Wild Places, Mountains of the Mind) and be edited by Linda Cracknell who is a writer of short fiction (collections: Life Drawing, The Searching Glance) and who received a Creative Scotland Award in 2007 for a collection of non-fiction essays in response to walks (see http://walkingandwriting.blogspot.com/).
There are no restrictions on the nationality/residency of contributors to the anthology. Previously unpublished non-fiction prose only; no fiction or poetry will be considered. Upper word limit: 8000 words. Contributions will be accepted by email only, and should be sent as a Microsoft Word attachment to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include with your submission a paragraph about your previous writing experience and publication history. The deadline for submissions is March 31 2009. Royalties from the book will be split equally between all contributors.
Friday, December 5, 2008
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Thursday, November 6, 2008
But what is the boy with red shoes doing on that secretive high ‘pram walk’ in Aros Park, and what’s going to happen to him? I have no idea, at least not yet. But such are the things that happen when you take a pen for a walk, as a small group of us did last Saturday.
The purpose of the workshop I went to Mull to run in association with the Mull and Iona Ranger Service, and An Tobar, was to use the rhythm of walking and the opportunity to really look as we walk to sharpen our senses and release our imaginations.
We used blindfolds to deny sight, sensitising us to the feel and sound of our surroundings. We looked at colours – with autumn blazing at us, defying us to trap it in words – and searched for names for them as if for a paint chart. We developed metaphors as a way of describing difficult things – tree bark as dinosaur skin, and the naked core of the trunk as sinewy silk or cool marble. We gave voices to things – an argument surfaced between the abandoned roofless turbine and the jubilant burn that has escaped its power. And then we invented a character and took them along the pram walk to understand what they would see and feel and think. By the end of the walk, the alchemy of our feet on the land had kicked up stories, and we nursed them back to An Tobar where we crafted them into words.
As Rebecca Solnit says (Wanderlust, A History of Walking, Verso, 2001), ‘Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains’. On this visit to the Isle of Mull I witnessed minds sparking against autumn trees and clear skies, steps transforming into words.
Now back to the boy in the red shoes, where are his parents? What if…?
Monday, November 3, 2008
Monday, October 27, 2008
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
“We are looking for inspiring short stories with the broad theme of' ‘experiences in wild places,'” commented competition organizer Alison Austin. “Your entry can be factual or fictional and could incorporate a journey, a place, an expedition, a mountain or river, a walk, climb, sail or kayak.” First Prize is a place on a Writing and Place course at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s creative writing centre.
I'm very honoured to be one of the judges, and get to go for the third year running to the fantastic Fort William Mountain Festival.
Monday, October 13, 2008
Thursday, October 9, 2008
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
One thing I found interesting was how quickly a narrative developed out of observations of the places we went to. The cool dark enclosure of the little-visited Advocate's Close slowed our pace after the public hub-bub, buskers, and walking tours of the High Street. A small garden amongst scaffolding and graffiti suggested the magical beneath the mundane and began to imply a character who had tended it and had perhaps sat in that abandoned, broken chair. But then the close itself, its broken windows, urine stench and Buckfast empties, started to tell another story, suggest a threat, and so the pace increased again, towards an exit.
The resulting sound piece is quite rough and raw as you might expect from several of us working together under pressure of time and at our own pace of learning, but if you'd like to listen, it can be downloaded from Jules Rawlinson's website listed as 'audio walk' (use headphones).
Monday, September 22, 2008
The trip to the bookshop was a disappointment. 'Out of print', they said. I wasn't the first there asking for it, so hopefully Canongate might get the message. Luckily my local library came up trumps and I've now had it in my hands for a couple of hours of absorption.
It made me want to dedicate the rest of my life to tramping with no particular trajectory over one area of land that I could get to know in the way she knew the Cairngorms. The writing reflects this great intimacy, as she says: 'I have discovered my mountain - its weathers, its airs and lights, its singing burns, its haunted dells, its pinnacles and tarns, its birds and flowers, its snows, its long blue distances. Year by year, I have grown in familiarity with them all.' Her own senses and body are very present in the writing - and all is discovered through the medium of walking, '...the long rhythm of motion sustained until motion is felt, not merely known by the brain, as the 'still centre' of being.... Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent.'
Monday, September 15, 2008
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Granta Magazine's issue 102 is dedicated to nature writing and makes a case for a shift - towards narratives, towards the presence of humans, the presence of the writer in the story.
There's certainly some wonderful writing in there. Kathleen Jamie's 'it's not all primroses and dolphins' nature-essay looks at the human body and its sick cells under a microscope and finds vast landscapes. Paul Farley and Niall Griffiths return to the estate on the edge of Liverpool where they both grew up, go on a sort of ghost-walk through memory, chart change and edge into what are the white pages in the A-Z - the almost rural, almost urban - where they went nesting. Having just spent a lot of time with Barry Hines' 1968 novel, 'Kestrel For Knave', for a BBC abridgment, this gave me a particular tug - that urban/rural borderland was the one solace in the lad, Billy Casper's life, and was powerfully evoked in this piece. There's Robert Macfarlane tracing a human ghost species in Norfolk; a wonderful short story by a woman called Lydia Peele I've never heard of; and Philip Marsden uncovers the life of a little known Victorian artist and archaeologist, J. T. Blight who stomped around recording things in the haunting landscape and chamber tombs of West Penwith until sent to an asylum at the age of 35.
It's a very rich collection. But two things make me uneasy. Firstly, where are the women? Two out of eighteen. Where are Valerie Gillies and Jay Griffiths? The broad and inclusive notion of nature writing that contributors have offered surely would embrace many more women writers, especially if fiction is to be included. There seems something oddly old-fashioned and anachronistic in this idea of the nature-writer as man.
But this brings me to my other uneasiness. In what sense is this 'nature writing' anyway? Isn't it just 'writing' that might appear in anthologies of work collected in the name of half a dozen different themes? At the Edinburgh Book Festival event in support of the publication, the contributors present were keen to point out that they saw their writing more as reflecting a new perception of the place of nature in our lives, and ourselves as nature. I would hesitate to call what I do by this name, although nature, and a keen observation of it, is often part of it. Perhaps I'm just not happy with narrow attempts at definition, feel it as a kind of boxing-in.
But a recommended read, nonetheless.
Monday, September 8, 2008
image from 'urban tapestries' - a research project by Proboscis
I turn from the Alps now to the old town of Edinburgh. I have wondered if being the daughter of a great Victorian alpinist helped make Virginia Woolf a writer. Presumably walking was part of family life, and might have got her observing, speculating at the people and places she saw, thus allowing her imagination to roam beyond her feet. In her 1927 essay Street Haunting: A London Adventure, it is clear that her aimless walks in the urban environment, the anonymity of walking amongst strangers, was her great adventure. ‘How could I think mountains and climbing romantic?’ she once said. ‘Wasn’t I brought up with alpenstocks in my nursery, and a raised map of the Alps showing every peak my father had climbed? Of course London and the marshes are the places I like best.’
Canadian artist Janet Cardiff is another ‘street-haunter’ and her audio walks are eerie evocations based on observations in real places laced with teasing fragments of narrative and memory. Cardiff uses binaural recording techniques that envelop you in sound - a sudden whisper in your ear, or the distant sound of feet running ahead. Her beguiling voice leads you – intimate and authoritative - and has you collaborating, as you walk, in reconstructing the ‘story’. Her installations with George Bures Miller, exhibiting at the Fruitmarket Gallery until the end of September use sound and narrative in a similar way, but it is the walks that myself and sound artist Jules Rawlinson will focus on as starting point for the workshop we’re leading for the next two Saturdays.
One of our principal resources for the workshop is the immediate area of the old town around the Fruitmarket (and of course the legs of our participants to move them around it with sound recorders). Three levels nest one above the other over the same coordinate – North Bridge, Market Street, and the esplanade of Waverley Station. Dark and shade. Underland and overland. Parallel worlds associated to different journey-purposes. The odd geography is linked by dark passages and stairways, rich in suggestion, and in sound. They are liminal places where you might pass from one imagined state to another.
In Woolf’s essay she sees streams of walking commuters as if they’re wrapped in some narcotic dream, imagining themselves to be great cricketers or famous actresses before the enchantment is broken by being ‘slung in long rattling trains’ and embraced once again in the conforming influence of their homes. I commuted for five years between Stirling and Edinburgh, walking from Waverley station for five minutes to an old town office, losing the hooted train announcements for the sound of tyres on cobbles, and the echo of a dark passage before the clang of the bell on the office door as I opened it, arriving into my non-dream, office self.
The possibilities for my own work in this environment are exciting, having spent so much time walking the rural. The anonymity of walking amongst strangers and finding mystery in every face has long fuelled my short fiction writing. But I’m also curious about the forms in which we leave marks and traces as we move in criss-cross pathways about a city, in an environment of stone and tarmac which refuses to take impressions. There are many avenues. The real and the imagined; the line of a walk coupled to a non-linear story; or as Rebecca Solnit puts it, 'the magic of the street is the mingling of the errand and the epiphany'.
Friday, July 25, 2008
Gertrude Bell wrote of the 'terrible and wonderful things that happen in high places' after climbing the north east face of the Finsteraarhorn in August 1902. She spent 57 hours in the attempt amidst a blizzard and mist, her ice axe teased by lightning, which provoked her cool words: 'It's not nice to carry a private lightning conductor in your hand in the thick of a thunderstorm'. Finally the party made a safe retreat to Meiringen, where she consumed a great many boiled eggs and jugs of hot milk and discovered her toes to be frostbitten. This made Finsteraarhorn the end of her illustrious and extraordinary climbing career.
My own attempt last Tuesday was on a far easier route - the south west flank and north west ridge that most parties take from the Finsteraarhorn Hut. The cloudless star-filled sky gave way to a lilac and rose dawn, a day that later fulfilled its promise, higher up, when it exposed below us and far away the fins, butresses, waves and ripples of the Alps. The dark rift of the snowless Rhone Valley was a shadow separating us from the further reaches of the Valais where we had climbed the week before.
Our own expedition was not hampered by bad weather but by a heavy fall of snow the previous day which made the going slow, hid the yawning crevasses from us, and turned the final ridge to a mix of ice-silled rock and slippery snow stacked loosely against the steep fin-side of this monarch of a mountain.
Mindful of the 'terrible things' that had befallen my father's party in 1952 by decending too late in the day, I'm proud of our decision to embrace the sense of height, achievement, view, and our fast-beating, roped-together, joyful hearts and turn back 100 metres from the summit. Looking back the following day as we left the mountain to descend to the green valleys via the Grunhornlucke (pictured), the wisdom of this choice was spelt out by the chaotic scribble of avalanched snow that now covered the graceful curving line our feet had drawn into the snow.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
"The Alps themselves, which your own poets used to love so reverently, you look upon as soaped poles in a bear-garden, which you set yourselves to climb, and slide down again, with 'shrieks of delight'". This was part of John Ruskin's scathing attack on climbers and tourists despoiling the Alps in his lecture 'Sesame and Lilies' of 1864.
I think I see where he's coming from. I've long loved being in a mountain environment - the views, the elevation and change of perspective away from busy life in the valleys, the physical challenge of reaching a summit. But I've not been a very conscientious munro-bagger despite living in Scotland, and as I've got older, I've been drawn more to walk amongst the human stories that haunt the lower ways, the passes and old roads, the journeys through mountain territory. There can be something gruesomely target-driven about summit fever, cars on Saturday and Sunday mornings clustered below honey-pot Munros, eroded single-track paths.
So why am I off to the Alps with the intention of climbing one particular summit - Finsteraarhorn, the highest in the Swiss Bernese Oberland at 4274 metres? The idea first occurred to me when in 2004 I went to Norway with my friend Yuli and some of her family to retrace the journey her father, Sven Somme, made in 1944 through the mountains from the west coast and across the border to safety in Sweden, after escaping Nazi arrest and certain execution. He had written an account of this journey which made it possible to retrace the route fairly accurately and to imagine some of his experiences and feelings along the way.
It began to occur to me that I could do something similar in the footsteps of my own father who died when I was very young. Perhaps I could climb a tribute towards his memory. Knowing that I shared with him a passion for mountains, but with little knowledge of his climbing experiences or their whereabouts, I began to dig about. I found more about the dramatic details of his own trip to Switzerland in 1952, and was led by a series of coincidences to find a couple of compatible climbing partners amongst friends.
So the ice axes, crampons, are assembled, muscles at least partly flexed. This is my first Alpine trip and I've heard Ruskin's warning about the culture. As I rub shoulders in mountain huts with climbers obsessed with lightweight gear and gazing up to slippery slopes, I will take care not to look at any mountain as if it's a 'soaped pole'.
Monday, June 23, 2008
Thursday, June 19, 2008
One is that most of us have chosen to write about a walk we take habitually, or at least a walk in a landscape we have grown familiar with over time. The challenge is of course to see it and communicate about it with freshness. The main theme of my own piece, about a walk I often take from my front door, snuck up on me. I didn't realise until well after I'd taken the notes and made a visual 'map' of it, as we all did prior to writing, that I was really writing about a sense of home. It was about learnt history, things that have happened to me along the route, houses I've lived in that can be seen from it, stories I've heard. Thinking about the meaning I attribute to walking has also brought me into contact with a fascinating anthropology project based at the University of Aberdeen out of which a book is coming next month, Ways ofWalking, presenting studies of walking in a range of regional and cultural contexts and the variety of meanings it can embody.
The other thing that has struck me is the very different approaches each person has taken in their writing despite undertaking similar exercises in the initial workshops. One is argumentative - setting out to show that an acknowledged beauty spot is nothing of the sort; another is an engaging mix of authoritative information and knife-sharp observation; another walked a group of children through the land on their way to school 100 years ago, a walk on which finding a piece of ceramic plate sparked a complete short story; another was the simple delight of 'what I see, what I know, what it makes me think of, and 'what a surprise!''.
It's been a privilege to see the way that over the 6 weeks the unique insight of each person has shaped what might have been similar material. And it's always good to have other people doing similar things to yourself so you can pinch ideas from them!
Thursday, May 29, 2008
'My materials are elemental: stone, water, mud, days, nights, rivers, sunrises. And our bodies are elemental: we are animals, we make marks, we leave traces, we leave footprints.' Walking and Marking catalogue, Richard Long, (National Galleries of Scotland)
So I am still pondering - what form do our marks and traces take on pavements, and surfaced paths? Narrative lines drawn in snatches of conversation or thought left hanging? Scuffs and smells and litter trails? Furrows of displaced air?
Friday, May 23, 2008
And here, last weekend, I was hypnotised by the wheeling white-tailed flight of a sea eagle, Europe's largest. Mobbed by crows, tiny in comparison, it flicked and rolled to shake them off, and creaked up and down lugubrious door-sized wings. Then there was a second, larger, one joining it in the sky, coming so low that we could see the missing ‘finger’ in its left wing, see something of its battle-scarred, tom-cat character.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Friday, May 16, 2008
Thursday, May 8, 2008
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Here's another one - a mule path through the extraordinary rock sculpture park that nature has made between Piana and Ota in Corsica. A delight to walk.
Monday, March 31, 2008
And here, out of the trees, they chose a new type of rock for you – black rather than glittering grey. As if it hasn’t seen the light for years.
Six. Hundred. Million.
Eh? That sounded like a yawn.
If you insist on waking me, prattling on and on. I was saying, you’d need your snorkel six hundred million years ago to see the deep beginnings of that vertebra you touch. Before it was ossified into this scaly mosaic.
You were underwater?
I was a forest of sea lilies then, wafting their tendrils in the currents.
Limestone. Dug from that hollow over there. The scars are grassed over now. It’s only a patch, an outcrop, floated down from the limestone pavements. Walk me a bit further and you’ll see how I return to what you call silver rock. I’m the earth turned inside out – a display of what ever’s under the turf.
They used whatever was close by?
Would you want to heave it far across the hills? Forgive me, but you don’t look very strong.
Looks can be…
It was weans and women and tinkers hauled these rocks – a heap each side of the line where they were working, building my long slow uphill spine..
They carried rocks for who?
One craftsman each side. Raising two inward-leaning walls that kissed just before they were capped. Think of the men as you walk - quick-handed, with eyes that could measure. They saw at a glance how one stone would nudge and slide against another.
I see that. Here, where there are big square straight-edged blocks at your feet. But halfway up, a massive wave-shaped rock that it must have taken two to lift into place. And around it the small flat rocks that pack against its curves, insisting on the horizontal lines again around this non-conformity. It’s like art.
They made it a rule – never pick a stone up more than once. Assess them where they lie.
A waste of effort?
If you’re being paid by the yard.
What were they like?
Men with fat fingers.
Your fingers look slim and weak.
Look how I stride along next to you though, as you ride the waves of the land. Why on earth don’t you go around these hillocks?
I’m a march boundary.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Returning myself after 32 years, I walked some of the same ways I had done whilst there on a painting holiday (which also turned into walking) at 17. And this time although still spellbound in a romantic homage to Hardy, I was captivated as if for the first time by the wonderful stiles and walls, and naturally, the crooked ways that lead to and away from them.
A gatepost graced a field entrance, crescent-shaped with its straight edge facing inwards, a slim half moon facing away from the gate. I approached it from a roadway wrapped in a tunnel of dark ivy, so that the gateway opened like a window onto light, framing the steep rise of a pale green field.
Such structures sprung up at me all over the fields where I walked. A chink in a high hedge or dry stone wall invites walkers with ingenious system of slate slabs sidelong. There are steep two-sided staircases; a kissing gate squeezed under a holly tree in the nook of a wall; slate cattle grids at a churchyard entrance. And all the slate seems silk-edged and petrol-sheened with long use by hands and feet and weather. All has been built and maintained for human thoroughfare, on foot. And it all seems like art to me.
Across open fields, the paths marked on the map often seeemd invisible. I was guided only by a chink in the hedge opposite, or by the suggestion of a darker green meandering line teased in the grass by repeated footfall, or simply by an instinct as to where the ‘desire line’ lay. This sense of the persistence of walkers, and the marks they make in the land has long fascinated me and I think I may have learnt it from early readings of Hardy’s novels.
A re-reading of The Return of the Native, my A-level text, had me following characters across the huge imperturbable face of Egdon Heath, in daylight and darkness, in confidence and fear. Eustacia Vye, the discontented dark witch-beauty, is practised in her footcraft, finding paths which are, ‘an infinitely small parting in the shaggy locks of the Heath’. Hardy shows us how the regular ‘haunters’ of the Heath feel their way in the dark: ‘The whole secret of following these incipient paths, when there was not light enough in the atmosphere to show a turnpike-road, lay in the development of the sense of touch in the feet, which comes with years of night rambling in little-trodden spots. To a walker practised in such places a difference between impact on maiden herbage, and on the crippled stalks of a slight footway, is perceptible through the thickest boot or shoe.’
For me, this ‘going back’ has been a pilgrimage of happy rediscovery rather than of penance – a rediscovery both of a place where I found new things outside and inside myself and of the literature of Thomas Hardy. It has brought with it a finer appreciation of how walking made him both the man and the writer that he was, and how he influenced my own walking and writing.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Eilean Fhianain, the island of St Finnan, sits in a twist in such a narrow point of Loch Shiel that you almost feel you can touch the island from its banks. This island was a traditional burial ground and drew coffin paths to it from all over the once heavily populated areas of Sunart, Moidart and Ardnamurchan. The ragged high land must have taxed the coffin-bearers and resting points are still marked with huge cairns.
On an OS map of 1925, on the high pass between Polloch and Strontian, where, a few metres apart, a cairn overlooks each valley, a well is attributed to St Finnan. The well suggests this path must once have been the final journey for the people of Strontian. After the mid 18th century as they dropped steeply towards Loch Shiel, the procession would have passed the Corantee lead mines. The mines are best known for the discovery of the mineral Stronianite in 1791 which was named after the village. The chemists Crawford and Cruickshank concluded that it contained a new “earth”, subsequently Dr Thomas Hope's research set the scene for the discovery of the element strontium by Humphry Davy in 1808. The hillside is still scarred and cleaved there. Building rubble, broken cogs and implements lie on the ground in rusty testimony.
So what about traffic heading the other way? Perhaps its most remarkable use was as a religious pathway at the time of the 'Disruption' of the Scottish Church in the 1840s. At this time, the Church of Scotland was ruled over by Parliament, making the reigning monarch head of the church and the local Laird ‘Patron'. This meant that he would choose his own minister rather then the congregation doing so. In 1843 unrest about this unwelcome link between politics and spirituality came to a head and most ordinary people chose to rebel by joining a break-away movement, the ‘free church’.
Such was the spiritual hunger of the people that accompanied the physical hunger of potato famine in the area, that when the Laird, Sir James Milles Riddell refused to sell them land on which to build their own ‘free’ church, they met in huge open-air services. People would walk anything up to 20 miles to the small bay at Ardnastang just a mile west of Strontian, sometimes barefoot, in order to gather in all weathers and seasons between the low and high tide marks in services that went on for several hours. The 'Corantee' path would have been the most direct route for worshippers from Polloch.
This poverty-stricken community, having recognised that the sea could not be ‘owned’, took it a step further. They resolved their situation by raising an extraordinary amount of money to commission from a shipbuilder on the Clyde an amphibious 'Iron Church' able to accommodate up to 750 people. In July 1846 it was towed by two tugs around the Mull of Kintyre and through the Sound of Mull into Loch Sunart (pictured). People lined the shores to celebrate its arrival and flocked to it by foot and boat from Morven, Ardnamurchan and Moidart. For ten years it remained anchored just off Ardnastang and during this time the popularity of its visiting ministers was gauged from the ‘plimsoll line’ of church attendance - an inch for each hundred congregation.
There are still many parts of the story to assimilate and imagine. This is a place of careering crags, jagged skylines, and tiny communities that teeter on the edge of the Atlantic. We might think of the land as 'wild' and uninhabited. But there is a sense that human footfall, industry and belief has stamped stories on these hills. This path is an important one to keep in use. I loved walking it with this great sense of history, passion, religious observance and human ingenuity beating a rhythm under my feet.
We got tuned into the place with senses of touch and sound and smell by denying our sense of sight, working in pairs - one guide, one blindfolded. One person trusted their partner enough to end up lying on the river-bank, head hanging over the racing river; another knee deep in a ditch, plunging his hands underwater to feel the skin-like texture of the bottom.
We created a character to inhabit as we walked - on a journey as film-maker, stalker, cattle drover, munro-bagger. We imagined what they had on their feet and what they carried in their pockets, what filled their heads as they walked and how their state of mind shaped their perception of the landscape. This led to some very interesting pieces including one from the point of view of a dog.
We changed scale - looking closely at a rock, lichen, moss, tree bark – and imagining it is a vast plain or forest or sea. What would it be like to walk through this landscape?
Back at the Ben Nevis Inn, participants wrote up their notes into short pieces. The diversity was astonishing - historical stories; a description of music created by the combined rhythms of river and footfall; the reaction of a rock to the fierce river that is challenging and overwhelming it today, etc. Each piece of writing was unique - the individual's response to the world in that time and place expressed through their own idiosyncratic choice of words.
Friday, January 11, 2008
‘…People should be encouraged to walk in the hills. It will increase their attachment to their country.’ Words spoken by Palestinian writer, lawyer, walker Raja Shehadeh, in conversation with a Palestinian Governor, who is trying to persuade him hill-walking is too dangerous after Shehadeh has been caught in a shooting incident in the valley just behind his house.
We might say something similar about encouragement to walk in the benign hills of Britain where the worst you might fear is the guns of deer or grouse shooters, never likely to be aimed at walkers in harassment. As access to our hills becomes enshrined in law, access to land on foot by Palestinians is shrinking and distorted by the building of walls, Jewish settlements, roads, prohibitions and a general sense of danger.
Palestinian Walks is a sad, sometimes embittered account, of the frustrated link between walking the land and belonging. With powerful evocations of the political situation and the spectacular, loved beauty of the hills which contain for the writer his past, his culture, his sense of freedom as a walker and a civilian, there is a terrible sense of erosion of this link we ourselves take for granted. The book records a series of walks through a ‘vanishing landscape’ over a 26 year period which chart the developments in one man’s relationship to the land and to his country through the redrawing of maps, the collision of two versions of history.
A walking book like no other I know. It demonstrates what a serious matter walking in the land close to our own homes can be.