Monday, October 27, 2008

Last blast of light

‘You’ll be the last this year’, the landlords of pubs and B+B’s kept saying to us ‘pilgrims’ along Saint Cuthbert’s Way. Certainly we saw no-one else who seemed to be doing the full 62 miles from Melrose in the Scottish Borders to Holy Island in Northumberland, or the reverse. And yet it seems to me the perfect season in which to walk it, when the tree colour is mesmerising, particularly in the early stages of the walk where it’s reflected in the Tweed River, then flaming up from the monumental beeches and oaks of Dere Street and zig-zagging bright cloisters of leaf through the plains of farmland that lead towards the Cheviots.

Just before the clocks change in late October, daylight is just generous enough, and it feels to me exactly when we need some long days outside, to refresh the body with physical movement, to feel the spark of sun and rush of the wind on our skin, before we give in to the dark. On the way, I came across a poem called ‘The Invitation’ by Charles Kingsley, in which he invites a friend to walk with him in places close to home, ‘Washing brain and heart clean/Every step we take.’ I also loved his lines about what one can discover on a walk: ‘See in every hedgerow/Marks of angels' feet,/Epics in each pebble/Underneath our feet.’

This territory was relatively unfamiliar to me, and I loved the sense of discovery, of not knowing what to expect as the waymarks led us forward, out of the woods and onto the muscular Cheviot hills – St Cuthbert’s beloved ‘high, rugged places’ – towards the coast. The pebbles under our feet certainly cast up stories. The elfland under the Eildon Hills where the Fairy Queen carried off Thomas the Rhymer for seven years, feeding him a red apple which meant he was only able to speak truth. ‘Lilliard’s Stone’, commemorating a wonderful fiction about a woman who fought on her leg stumps following terrible injury in the Battle of Ancrum in 1545. A legend of leg ends, so to speak. Bede’s stories of St Cuthbert’s affinity with wild creatures and birds in particular, took flight with merlins, owls, and waders as we approached the mudflats around Lindisfarne.

Our crossing of the ‘Pilgrim’s Way’ over the sands at dusk with an incoming tide took on it’s own ‘epic’ quality. We were blessed with a couple of days of sparkling clear skies, and with that particular east coast clarity, the dusk light washed over the wet sands. It looked as though we were walking on water as we followed the marker posts across, our destination a narrow strip of land between lilac sky and lilac sheen as seals sang us in from St Cuthbert’s Isle, and the barnacle geese squabbled loudly behind us, neither groups visible. Diverting at one point to avoid the licking tongue of tide, we rejoined the marked route, not fully realising how night had taken charge until we arrived amongst the lit-up windows of stone cottages, winding through the narrow streets of Lindisfarne village towards our final stop at The Crown and Anchor.

The year's final blast of wind and sunlight, violet skies, moss-coloured seas, out in the world with the stalk and strut of wading birds. Then home, to the change in clocks, the darkness, the hermit’s life.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

wild writing competion 2009

It's time to start scribbling an entry to the John Muir Trust wild writing competition.

“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

Scribblers in the Birks of Aberfeldy

Another writer has appeared on my regular walk. I'm not sure I approve.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

walking to work

Today is National Poetry Day and this years theme is 'work'. I'm no poet, so instead I offer this (a prose poem?) about a walk to work...

For five years I walked that way, head down probably, ploughing a furrow from Waverley Station to my theatre of work. The costume went over my head as I entered the inmost cave. I tugged my face into the right shape, my hand on the door triggered the bell and I was clanged into role, arrived at my desk in Old Playhouse Close.

I wonder now, what traces I left, fossilised residues on the repeated route? Do the stones hold the memory-trail of my breaths? Did I scatter pale pebbles; breadcrumbs; sounds that I can still follow echoing underfoot? Or perhaps I trailed a scent – the coconut cream from my hands, fading morning toothpaste. Or maybe each time I walked it, I laid a thread like Ariadne’s clew, a different colour for each new mood. When the routine came to an end, perhaps they wove themselves into a colourful web I can use now as a rope to guide me.

I watch now for what people trail, what markers they leave as their clews as they move through the unscratchable, unprintable city. Shadows sometimes. Coffee-scent flowing in curls of vapour behind a Starbucks trophy. A child by the length of two arms – one long, one short. Tinkling splinters and half beats escaped from headphones in a discordant wake. The invisible electronic tracks of mobile phones. And the girl in stiletto-heeled boots, thigh-high, draws after her the long, absent glances of distracted men.

It was a journey of verticals as well as horizons. From Hades-shade to light, through the stacks of the old town cliff, its stairways and closes climbing to the High Street and then down into another darkness in the Canongait. In this part of town there are pavements for a pacing rhythm, or other ways, gaits, that invite us to saunter, shamble, stride, strut; twisting ways for us to stalk or goose-step, turn back on ourselves. A silly-walk towards the Canons of Holyrood, even a plowter in Stevenson’s time. But my train came in at 8.48. Hurrying to be seated for nine, I chose the ‘stride’ and the most direct route.

A watery light splashed through thirteen acres of cantilevered glass. It shocked up the fluorescent orange working jackets, hands stretched from them for tickets, a baton passed without a pause. Fan-tailing from ticket barriers, we danced a criss-cross quickstep on the white esplanade, dodging each others’ eyes, made our bee-line for paths up, and out. Drowning in sound, we were chased out by warped voices announcing trains, the mish-mash of whistles, coffee machines, taxi rattle, words not properly swallowed by mobile phones, heels, the rumble of suitcase-carrying wheels. Did we even notice the lapping of the ghost-loch at our ankles, sewer-strong?

Up steps, past platform eleven towards the Market Street exit. Up steps to the once-a-week Socialist Worker sellers, replaced by Big Issue sing-song when that came along. We headed now into the labyrinth, the un-mappable wilderness to the south along Market Street, the mountains and valleys of Waverley’s glass roof stretching away below us. Snatching our heads back over our shoulders, snatching for the traffic gap, the legs must keep up their clip-clop, scissor-swing till they’d stopped us at our desks. Togethering brave we jaywalked between buses, taxis, the silent swipe past of cycles, crossing for the curve of Geoffrey Street somewhere under North Bridge.

Here the grand hotels turn their dark backs onto Market Street, reserving doorways in low clean elevations for their guests on the street above. We traversed their underworld. They abandoned broken glass and empty tomato boxes in piles for collection, disgorging them amongst the pigeon shit at our feet. This is where white vans line up at lunchtime. Flasks on dashboards. A slash of red letters against the glass: The Daily Record. Men, arms folded, sleeping.

So many possible routes I could have taken, between The Mound and The World’s End. The Scotsman steps, a spiralling porthole telescoping between two layers of life, screwing you around and up past hiding smokers, dark corners with last night’s vomit piles, a door opening onto a breeze block wall. They dizzy you, steal your breath, then push you out high onto North Bridge, polished gold letters on a wall, air all around, a long view to the sea and the buses’ upper decks fabricated more of light than substance.

So many chances here for enchantment, distraction from the destination. Diversion. Play. To glimpse a volcano or watch a seagull soar from the centre of a city. Let the Playfair Steps lead you to Art. Duck into the open door of the ‘Escape Club’ and do as it says. Sneak into Chalmers Close through Jury’s Inn with its windowfulls of postcard writers, a siren wobbling into the distant streets below, leaving you with peace amongst the brass rubbings. To pedestrians who risk the narrow corridors through the precipice, the closes flourish, in different proportions, history and piss. ‘No fly posting’. Pant up one of them - Fleshmarket or Carrubers – onto the High Street. Here the walkers clutching guide books, strolling pilgrims pursuing experience, will show you your blinkered errand. Another experiment in enchantment: speak to each person you meet. Try it. They might speak back.

But why have I started to tell you how to walk to work? I ignored it all, strode on, glancing across at the World’s End, a busy cobble-purred crossroads, and down towards the bell, work, my non-play in the Playhouse. And the five years’ worth of steps I laid so loyally along my chosen way? Vanished, evaporated, rubbed quite away. The streets don’t remember.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

how to make an audio walk

Last Sunday I finished co-tutoring a workshop for the Fruitmarket Gallery with sound designer, Jules Rawlinson - three sessions to develop an intimate narrative focused on a walk around Edinburgh's old town which creates interest whilst also being open-ended. We were using Janet Cardiff's audio walks as our inspiring starting point, and like her, using binaural sound. There was a lot to learn - how to use sound recording equipment and edit the results, how to combine voice, image and captured sound to develop different textures and suggest narrative, and the whole sensitivity to what's dictated by the physical spaces we passed through. Robert Louis Stevenson provided us with some resonances with his descriptions of the decaying splendour of the old town in his day, describing it as a 'huge old human beehive', 'a black labyrinth', the great cliffs of houses piling up and up so that 'the population slept fourteen or fifteen deep in a vertical direction'.

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).