Tuesday, May 31, 2005


There was a rather splendid sunset tonight...

with some interesting wispy cloud formations, seen more clearly in the wider angle view...

Looks better without the TV aerials though...

Unreasonable Expectations 

It is unreasonable of me to expect that:
I should have such complete control of my life that I can create at will long, uninterrupted spans to devote wholeheartedly to whatever pursuit takes my fancy.

It is unreasonable of me to expect that:
I should always be capable of filling such spans with stunningly original thought, astonishing depth of feeling, amazingly profound insight, and so give birth to perfectly structured posts of breathtaking clarity and perfect language.

Even if, just occasionally, circumstances defeat me, I should nevertheless be able, at the drop of a hat, to take advantage of every interstitial moment when my attention isn’t required elsewhere, by instantly homing in on some feature of my immediate everyday surroundings, unnoticed by the insensitive masses, and penning an incisive, pithy piece that will draw gasps of admiration, scores of comments and be the envy of all.

It is unreasonable of me to expect that:
if I should happen across another’s post which generates in me the germ of a feeling of kinship or endorsement or gratitude or wonder, then I should be able instantly to translate that indistinct feeling into a cogent, insightful, well-crafted, caring and uplifting comment.

After all, the fact that I struggle to display such attributes when fully engaged in normal daily tasks has no relevance whatsoever. I should be able to do all these things.

As I say, such expectations are entirely unreasonable. I will stop beating myself up over them.

Or is that too an unreasonable expectation?

Sunday, May 29, 2005


Crows, heard through an open window, shouting defiance at each other. Or are they just shouting at the world in general? Shouting because they can and no-one can stop them. Contemptuous of the disturbance their raucous din brings to a Sunday morning’s peace.

Feet may stand indoors in suburbia on a warm spring day, but for a moment the crow’s call transports soul to a woodland in autumn on a chill, damp but equally quiet morning. Soft brown leaves betray no sound of footfall; tall trunks vanish into a thin mist, and echoing out of the mist, penetrating its silence, heedless of its stillness, comes that same harsh call. Defiant, commanding, omnipotent.

Such power in a sound.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

A Minor Epic 

Part One – Anticipation

In which, with accelerating drive countered by equivalent trepidation, we approach the goal and stand before it, hesitantly confident.

Grooved Arete:
One of the finest routes of its standard anywhere in Wales.
Paul Williams

The most inspiring and well-known route on Tryfan. The climbing is neat and always open. It steadily increases in difficulty until one is quite committed and high on the mountain.
Climbers Club Ogwen and Carneddau Guide
The rain began just as we approached the start of the climb. Not heavy rain, but a wetness steadily released from a dull grey sky to be taken up by the wind and spread liberally across the mountainside. There’s little shelter half way up a mountain, and the wind blew directly into the few likely looking alcoves amongst the buttresses and boulders. We found the best we could under a slight overhang, donned waterproofs, and waited.

Tryfan’s architect must have been a climber. The mountain’s east face – famous to the cognoscenti as the training ground, when under snow and ice, for many a Himalayan expedition - starts with a steep heather-covered slope rising out of the valley, above which rises a more precipitous rock wall: 800 feet of rough, sound rock, liberally supplied with gullies, corners, arêtes and the occasional ledge on which to rest.

Between these two, dividing the mountain’s upper and lower halves, runs the Heather Terrace – a broad rock-strewn ledge that gives climbers easy access to all the routes on the face. This was where we stood now. Tryfan is the most easterly peak in the Glyders range, standing a little apart from the rest, as befits its stature; even though we were only at half height, we were already higher than most of the surrounding landscape. The sudden scream of an RAF jet drew our eyes towards the valley; the sight of the plane flashing beneath us as the pilot practiced low-level manoeuvres emphasising our lofty position.

After a short while, the shower reduced to a light drizzle as the wind drove a mass of low cloud away out over the Ogwen valley, and the sky cleared a little, although the next shower-laden cloud was most likely not far away.

“So long as it doesn’t get any worse than this we should be okay”.

I may on occasion display masochistic tendencies, but I draw the line at rock climbing in pouring rain (although I did once climb through a hailstorm, which was interesting). Anything less than a downpour though might be tolerable; I was so determined to do this climb, that the pleasantness or otherwise of the conditions simply didn’t enter into the equation. The only reason to back off now would be if the conditions were so severe as to render it imprudent to proceed. I reached up, grasped the edge of a flake of rock with my fingertips, placed the toe of my shoe into a narrow crack and pulled up.

“It doesn’t feel too bad. The rock’s quite grippy even when it’s damp. Anyway, this is a ‘traditional’ route. That means it’s usually done in conditions like this.”

That sounded a fair justification for continuing; I almost believed it myself.

“Let’s get kitted up and make a final decision then. Might as well leave waterproofs on – my guess is that it’ll carry on with light showers like this throughout the day.”

Gearing up is one of the rituals of rock climbing. It probably looks slow and haphazard to an onlooker, but you don’t want to get this bit wrong – your life may depend on it. Besides, as well as physical preparation, it’s a time of mental preparation, getting psyched up for what lies ahead. First the harness; it ought to be simple enough, yet like as not it will transform itself into a tangle of webbing, so that putting it on proceeds through an intermediate stage where something somewhere is inverted, or twisted, or back-to-front – it’s not because they think climbers are dummies that manufacturers go the extent of stitching a tag labelled ‘L’ or ‘R’ into each leg loop. Then rock shoes. There’s something incongruous (or maybe it’s that masochistic streak again) about sitting half way up a mountain on a chilly, damp day, taking off boots or approach shoes and thick warm socks and squashing bare feet into thin, flimsy, toe-crunching rock shoes. By contrast with the heavy, clumpy boots normally worn for mountain walking this seems like setting out to the office wearing bedroom slippers. Next comes protection gear. Wires for the narrower cracks; hexes for the larger slots - chinking together with a sound like cowbells, reminiscent of an alpine pasture; cams – a wonderful life-saving invention for those desperate moments when nothing else will fit; quick-draws, krabs, belay plate, prussik loops, nut key; all racked in their customary places on the harness gear loops, turning the climber into a walking ironmongers – or should that be aluminium-alloy-mongers? Slings over a shoulder and helmet complete the preparations, and now that the body is properly equipped, mind is ready to exchange the world of the horizontal for that of the vertical.

The wait for the rain to stop had allowed my thoughts to drift away from the matter immediately at hand, and I noted, with some detachment, how a subtle change in my attitude to this climb had been taking place since the previous evening. For months, this had been a goal; a test piece, a way of proving myself. It’s not a technically difficult climb – the climbing itself is at hardly more than a beginner’s standard - but it’s committing, with over 600 feet of ascent approaching the vertical and no escape; the easiest way out is up, and if that should prove impassable, anything else could be trickier still; giving up half way is not an option. Should the weather turn foul or one of us be injured, things could turn nasty very quickly and it is this factor that lends the expedition an air of seriousness. This would be as much a test of all-round fitness for mountaineering – mental as much as physical - as it would be a straightforward exercise of rock climbing skills.

For months then, I’d dreamed of this as a goal, but always a distant one. Somewhere out there, somewhere in the future. Even yesterday, until the evening, I’d held back from making that firm decision to go for it; the ascent had remained as something we hoped to complete whilst we were here, something to build up to and attempt only when we were ready. We’d do some shorter climbs first, then if all went well we’d tackle The Big One. So it remained in the future; the near future, to be sure, but not quite yet. There was still a safe space of uncommitment separating the idea from the execution.

As we sat outside the tent that previous evening debating what to do the following day, I looked up at Tryfan, towering almost straight above us, its head lost in the clouds. In the crystal clarity of blue skies and bright sun (yes, they have both been known in north Wales, so rumour has it), and with the foreshortened perspective given by looking obliquely up the slope, the mountain can look quite benign, enticing even, and its summit ridge easily accessible.

But when its head vanishes into dark, threatening cloud and tongues of mist lick around its towers and gullies, it takes on a far more ominous air and the summit appears remote, another land, almost as if climbing that face and vanishing into the cloud would be like climbing Jack’s beanstalk, leading us into a strange land peopled by man-eating ogres.

“Of course, what I’ve really come to do is to climb Grooved Arete.”

“Well we’d better do that then.”

There it was; no messing. I was momentarily taken aback by having the decision thrust at me so directly as that. Suddenly it wasn’t something we might do in the future; it was offered to me right there and then. Moreover, I’d expected to have to do some persuading when it came to it; P. can be a reluctant climber, his preference is for mountain walks and scrambles, not adventures whose rewards are more about character-building than pleasure. The sudden disorientation, like pushing on a closed door thought to be stiff, only to find it swing easily open, threw me straight into the need for decision. Sometimes, another’s perceived reluctance serves as a convenient mask for our own.

For once, I seized the moment.

“Okay. We’ll pack rucksacks tonight ready for the climb and make a final decision in the morning when we’ve seen the weather.”

The last time I’d attempted this route, two years previously, I had no idea how long it was going to take and we hadn’t made an early enough start. It had been slow going, climbing as a group of three, and after only two pitches it became clear that, if we continued at that rate, it would be almost dark by the time we reached the top. The only sensible decision was to retreat whilst that was still possible – a story in itself, but one for another time – even so, it was well into the evening before we were off the mountain. This time round I was determined not to make the same mistake.

I was woken several times during the night by that tension which precedes events in whose outcome much is invested. It wasn’t fear of the climb itself that disturbed me, it was fear of failure, fear of disappointment, fear of not being good enough. In the darkness of the tent, those demons danced about my head, scattering their doubts across my dreams.

By 5.30 am the tent was becoming lighter, and thought became more coherent as the real world took form and substance, supplanting that night-time world of demons and doubts. I dozed fitfully and around 6.30 am sneaked a look outside – grey, but thankfully dry and not too windy. By the time I’d dressed, wandered over to the shower block for a wash, and spent long minutes gazing at the sky and at the mountain, it was clear that we were on. Final preparations were soberly made. One decision I was later to regret – to keep weight to an absolute minimum, I took only a small half-litre water bottle, choosing instead to carry water internally, as it were, by drinking as much as I could comfortably manage before setting out. It seems easier to carry it this way than on your back.

The initial way up the mountain is a straightforward slog up the side of the main Ogwen valley, until meeting the mouth of the higher hanging valley - Cwm Tryfan – that runs alongside the mountain and feeds at right-angles into the main valley. It was somewhere around here - physically half way between camp and the start of the climb, and also psychologically half way, having left the security of camp but not yet being committed to the climb proper – that searching questions surfaced unbidden in my mind. Was I really up to this? Had I the skill, the judgement to handle things if it all went wrong; had I the commitment to see it through? Or would we risk ending up a statistic on the annual report of the local mountain rescue team? The questions stood like a gatekeeper barring the path; only by considering them honestly and answering in the affirmative could we continue on our way.

Standing there at the foot of the climb, physically geared up and ready to go, I recognised the mental gearing up process that had also been taking place. My attitude had undergone a transition, step by step, though the months of hoping, yesterday’s decision and today’s preparation, culminating in our standing here, alone on a damp chilly Welsh mountainside, poised to set out – or up - and make a minor dream come true.

To be continued…

Wilderness mysticism 

Chris Clarke quotes a letter by Wallace Stegner dating from 1960, making the case for preservation of wilderness, for its own sake - something I wholeheartedly believe in. These extracts I hope give the flavour, but the real impact comes from reading the whole piece.
“What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself. Being an intangible and spiritual resource, it will seem mystical to the practical minded--but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer is likely to seem mystical to them.
“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it….
“We are a wild species, as Darwin pointed out. Nobody ever tamed or domesticated or scientifically bred us. But for at least three millennia we have been engaged in a cumulative and ambitious race to modify and gain control of our environment, and in the process we have come close to domesticating ourselves….
“Sherwood Anderson, in a letter to Waldo Frank in the 1920s, said it better than I can. "Is it not likely that when the country was new and men were often alone in the fields and the forest they got a sense of bigness outside themselves that has now in some way been lost.... Mystery whispered in the grass, played in the branches of trees overhead, was caught up and blown across the American line in clouds of dust at evening on the prairies.... I am old enough to remember tales that strengthen my belief in a deep semi-religious influence that was formerly at work among our people. The flavor of it hangs over the best work of Mark Twain.... I can remember old fellows in my home town speaking feelingly of an evening spent on the big empty plains. It had taken the shrillness out of them. They had learned the trick of quiet...."
“We could learn it too, even yet; even our children and grandchildren could learn it. But only if we save, for just such absolutely non-recreational, impractical, and mystical uses as this, all the wild that still remains to us.
“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

Thanks, Chris. It reminds me why I feel so uncomfortable here in the city, and why wilderness visits are so necessary.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The form of inspiration 

Whiskey River’s post from yesterday reminded me of this:
“How can one recount the undefined feelings one goes through when an instrumental composition without a definite subject is being written? It's a purely lyric process. It's the musical confession of a soul in which many things have welled up and which by its very nature is poured out in the form of sounds, similar to the way in which a lyric poet says what he has to say in verse. The difference is just that music has incomparably more powerful resources and a more subtle language at its disposal for expressing a thousand different nuances of inner feeling. Usually the "seed" of a future work suddenly appears, and quite unexpectedly. If the soil is fertile, i.e. if there is the disposition for work, this seed germanates with unbelievable strength and rapidity, peeps out above ground, pushes up a stem, then leaves and branches, and, finally, flowers. There is no other way I can define the creative process than by means of this analogy. The difficult part consists in ensuring that the germ does appear and find favourable conditions. All the rest happens of its own accord. There would be no point in my trying to express to you in words all the immeasurable bliss of the feeling that seizes me when the principal idea has manifested itself and begins to burgeon into definite shapes. Everything is forgotten, you become almost demented, everything within you trembles and pulsates, you can scarcely draft the sketches in time as one idea chases another. Sometimes during this magical process some jolt from outside will suddenly wake you from this trance. Somebody rings at the door, or a servant comes in, a clock strikes and reminds you that you have an appointment . . . Interruptions like this are hard, inexpressibly hard to bear. Sometimes the inspiration flies away for a while; you have to go and search for it, sometimes in vain. Very often the completely cold, rational, technical process has to be summoned to your aid. Perhaps this is why even in the greatest masters you can trace moments where there's a lack of organic cohesion, where a seam shows, parts of the whole are stuck together artificially. If the state of the artist's soul that is called "inspiration," and which I have just been attempting to describe to you, were to continue uninterrupted, it would be impossible to survive a single day. The strings would snap and the instrument would be smashed to smithereens! Just one thing is indispensable: that the principal idea and the general outline of all the separate parts should come not by means of "searching" but of their own accord, as a result of that supernatural, inscrutable, and inexplicable power that is called inspiration.”

Tchaikovsky, writing about the creative process in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck in 1878.

Translation of the complete letter here.

Friday, May 20, 2005


It was only a couple of weeks ago that I posted this photo, but it fits well with this week's PhotoFriday topic of Green, so here it is again, for the benefit (ha!) of any PhotoFriday visitors.


This blog seems to have contracted some strange degenerative disease. Wonder what the treatment is?

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Episode III 

Been there, done that...

Snatching a break 

I rather obliquely mentioned “the persecutor within” the other day. M. asked me what he looked like in my counseling session yesterday, and to my surprise, for once I had an answer: a dark figure, cloaked and hooded so I couldn’t see his face, holding a cattle prod with which he drives me ever forwards.

Do, do, do; be active for activity’s sake; produce, achieve, for without achievement you are worth less.

Lies or half-truths?

Prod… Back to work, you… prod…

Tuesday, May 17, 2005


I'm beginning to think that The Happy Tutor has a Google alert on the word "authentic".

I had to think twice about using it after last time, when I got a whipping from Candidia (wish I could find it to link to).

He has a point though:
"So many faces in real life remind me of death masks, authentic in every detail. Better to wear a Carnival mask, maybe, and impersonate our better selves than to wear the mask of civility until it grows into our flesh."
Too late, I fear. Could any surgeon wield a knife with such skill as to separate mask from flesh without leaving terrible scars?

But a Carnival mask - now, there's a thought. Word association brings to my grasshopper mind an old Bob Dylan song, Jokerman, but then these lines from the song wipe the smile off the Joker's face:
"...Shedding off one more layer of skin
Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within."
Persecutor within? Yeah, I have one of those. Sometimes I stay one step ahead, sometimes two, but I never outrun him. He always catches up.

Time perhaps to turn and face him?

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Circuits and bumps 

Way back when I started this blog, I had to decide whether to blog under my own name, or anonymously. I didn’t have to think too hard – I wanted to be honest, to be authentic, to tap into all of who I am; I didn’t want to hide behind some alter-ego, so right from the start I used my real name. It never occurred to me that, far from facilitating authenticity, in so doing I might inadvertently have established a structure that would cripple that desire for openness. I knew I might have to be circumspect, but I hadn’t realised how difficult it would be to blog when I found myself day-in, day-out occupying the territory I’d agreed with myself that I wouldn’t tread here.

Anyone who knows me well in real space knows that my family matters more to me than just about anything else, yet I hardly give them a mention here – I don’t feel that I have that right. And although I’ve hinted many times at work issues, I’ve kept it general and never mentioned specifics. Yet whilst these two facets of life remain uppermost in realspace, they also remain excluded from direct mention here, which means in effect that the blog represents only a part of me, and some of the most significant parts are hidden from view. And that of course means that I’m not fulfilling my initial wish for this blog, to practice honesty and authenticity.

The converse of this situation is also true. In family-space and work-space, although a handful people know about this blog’s existence, it’s not widely read. I don’t go so far as to keep it secret, but neither do I advertise it. If anyone asks, I usually evade the question with a remark like "You'll find it if you look" and change the subject. So again, part of me remains hidden.

It all seemed like a good strategy at the time, but I’m not so sure now. Over a year ago, I wrote about how I felt divided between two worlds and two ways of being – the writer, or more generally the creative observer, and the corporate cog – and how the tension between those two drove me to seek a resolution through counseling. Yet by blogging under my real name and therefore choosing to keep some aspects of my life hidden, I seem unwittingly to have entrenched the very problem I sought to solve. A year on, counseling has uncovered and in some ways resolved many things – some written about here, many more that could have been had I had the time and the will to do so. For example, I found that I’d learned way, way back that it wasn’t okay to be myself, wasn’t okay to express what I truly thought or felt; rather, it was safer to conform to expectation – and I’ve never fully un-learned that erroneous childhood lesson. Not by a very long way, and I doubt that I ever will.

But in spite of all the discoveries, I don’t seem any further forward with being able to achieve a happy marriage between these two divorced characters. Creator and cog remain as mutually exclusive as ever. Perhaps I’m trying to find a balance between two selves that can never exist in the same body – time and again over the last year it has struck me afresh, as if by a revelation, that the only forward is to get out of this job – yet here I am still. Stuck in this binary way of being, vacillating between roles, forever between worlds and at home in neither. Unable to commit; unable to see a clear path – or even a possible path – in either world, feeling the daily warfare between two opposing ways of being.

As I lay in bed the other night in that no-man’s-land between waking and sleeping, a series of images presented themselves; I seemed to see the next ten years played out in the only realistic way that could fit with the simple facts of economics – the way of the subservient cog in the corporate wheel. I tried desperately to dream up some other possible futures – or even seemingly impossible ones; anything that might offer an alternative – but fell asleep having drawn a complete blank. I woke the next morning with a feeling of impending doom, as though during the night I’d been judged, sentence had been passed and I’d been condemned.

That sounds horribly bleak, and it wasn’t the way I’d intended this piece to go. I guess it just reflects the way in which all roads lead back to this place I’m in. There’s something here that I’m not seeing yet; something I have to work through before I can move on.





(Yes, that IS bedroom carpet he's sitting on...
and in case you were worried, the tale does have a happy ending - in spite of being pounced upon, barged through a cat-flap and, er, frog-marched upstairs, froggy appeared unharmed and splashed back into the pond).

Sunday, May 08, 2005

An island of green 

Once upon a time, Southern Hertfordshire must have been a place of leafy lanes meandering through peaceful villages, each complete with village church (one), village pub (several), and each home to a truly rural community. Nowadays though, the villages that have managed to retain their charm have become dormitories for affluent city workers, the less-charming have sprawled and become dormitories for the less-affluent, and the green countryside is criss-crossed by grey concrete and black tarmac, carved up into isolated pockets, bounded on all sides by the omni-present evidence of our relentlessly growing need to transport ourselves in greater numbers, with greater speed, to more and more places, more and more often.

One such pocket of green lies not far from our house, just ten minutes walk away at the edge of town. Bounded on the south side by motorway, on east and west by the roads leading to our town, and on the north by the town itself, this is just a single irregularly shaped field, divorced from the rest of the farm by those same roads. When we had a dog, it was a favourite dog-walking field – safe to let her off the lead and run free – but I don’t think I’d been back up there since she died, a couple of years ago. No need to, really. However, for several weeks I’d been meaning to pop up here one evening with the camera. It’s slightly higher than the surrounding countryside; only by a few feet, but with its open westerly aspect, that’s enough to give good potential for sunset shots, especially since trees dot the horizon.

So that thought had sat in the back of my mind for a few weeks – ever since I got the new camera - and as yesterday evening wore on it suddenly dawned on me that the air was clear, the sky blue with just a scattering of clouds, and most miraculously of all, I had half an hour to spare.

I don’t know whether other countries have this feature, but rural England has a vast network of public rights of way: mostly footpaths, often crossing private land, but which the general public has a legal (and usually ancient) right to walk. Many of these cross farmland, and regrettably far too many farmers find this a nuisance and plough over the right of way, planting crops to impede access. The farmer here had done just that, so I took great pleasure in asserting my right of access and trampling down the crops that grew where the path should have been. Trouble was, I ended up with green-stained trousers for my pains – serves me right; I should have been looking at the sky, not worrying about the ground.

I was just too late really to catch the full warmth of the late evening sun on the treetops…

…but still in time to catch the sun before it set.

And just to show that the representation of rural idyll is all a matter of where the camera points, this was the view just a few yards away:

Thursday, May 05, 2005


Seen on the tube this morning, a slogan on a T-shirt being worn by a little girl, probably about 8 or 9 years old:
Angels Exist

She didn’t look all that angelic – quite down-to-earth and ordinary, really – but somehow that gave the words more strength, more validity.

It made quite a comforting, cheering start to the day.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Measures of success 

"The fact that many a man who goes his own way ends in ruin means nothing ... He must obey his own law, as if it were a dæmon whispering to him of new and wonderful paths ...

"He is at once set apart and isolated, as he has resolved to obey the law that commands him from within. "His own law!" everybody will cry. But he knows better: it is the law ... The only meaningful life is a life that strives for the individual realization - absolute and unconditional - of its own particular law ... To the extent that a man is untrue to the law of his being ... he has failed to realize his life's meaning."

- C.G. Jung, quoted by whiskey river.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


Priorities require that the first call on my attention continues to be elsewhere for a while.

In the meantime, may I present for your delectation the fruits of a few moments alone with the camera.

Little by little, I get to know its capabilities and its weaknesses - and my own, too.

Working with pictures feels a lot more therapeutic at the moment than working with words.