Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Feline groovy

I haven't written about this before, but I love cats. I don't have any myself, but wherever I go I am drawn to our bewhiskered dumb chums, and will never consider a moment wasted that is spent communing with my feline friends. I am well aware that cats and the interweb are a well-worn trope, but as we approach Christmas, I feel no (or, at the very least, little) shame in contributing to the global quotient of cat-based blog posts.

I met this particularly smiley cat in Borrowdale in the Lake District in March this year. I first spotted her as she was lurking up a bank, watching with suspicion passers by like me, as we walked along a lane from a campsite to a farm, where the showers were. On spotting her, I blinked my greeting - the traditional way of introducing oneself to cats - and she leapt onto the road to greet me. She was small and friendly, but unquestioningly an independent countryside cat.

Having showered and changed into clean dry clothes (a simple but unbeatable luxury after a cold wet night) I wandered back past her again, on my way back to the tent. She was happy to be stroked, and for a few minutes we passed the time of day in this pleasant way; me tickling her about the ears, and she purring warmly.

After a bit, she decided that there were interesting smells to be investigated beside a nearby stream, and together we checked them out, she occasionally returning to be stroked. Eventually, I decided to leave her to her stalking, and returned to the waterlogged campsite. Later that day, I asked the farmer what the cat's name was. She thought for a minute, and then said, "Oh, she doesn't really have one. She's just Cat."

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Wild night at the Red Onion

The bus from Whitehorse rolled into Skagway late afternoon. It was knocking on the end of September, and the small city's streets which, I presumed, would over the summer months be thronged with tourists disembarking from the cruise liners docked at the quays, were largely deserted. I did not mind this, and rather relished the opportunity to walk the wooden sidewalks unjostled.

Skagway became the place it is thanks to the gold rush, where it was a vital stopping post for prospectors, en route to the gold fields in the Yukon. I had read Pierre Berton's lively history of the gold rush ("Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush", which I would recommend to anybody), and already had a vivid image of the place back in its lawless gold rush days, over a hundred years before.

The modern Skagway was an odd combination of clean parodies of its own history and general tourist tat, and it was with some surprise when, after quite a bit of searching, I finally found Jeff "Soapy" Smith's Parlor (a grand name for an abandoned wooden shed) on Second Avenue. "Soapy" Smith acquired his nickname by being the master of a particular confidence trick - you sell cakes of soap, wrapped in paper, and demonstrate to the punters that you have wrapped dollar bills - sometimes up to a hundred dollars' worth - under the paper of some of the bars. You then sell perfectly normal soap for a dollar a piece, with the punters hoping to get one with the money. Except that the one with the money is never available to the ordinary punters, only to confederates, who demonstrate their "successes", to urge others to buy in.

In the early, lawless, days of Skagway, "Soapy" Smith realised that there were easier ways of making money from the gold rush than by the hard work of mining for gold, and set to work mining the prospectors, instead. To this end, Jeff. Smith's Parlor offered, for a premium, to send messages back to the loved ones left behind. The only problem with this being that "Soapy" Smith's Parlor did not have a connection to the telegraph lines - at the time, there wasn't one, this far north. Before he reached is inevitably bloody end in the summer of 1898, gunned down on Juneau Wharf, "Soapy" Smith was in charge of his own militia. When I visited it, his Parlor was boarded up, in an overgrown yard behind a wire fence, a somewhat sorry memorial to a dastardly, yet undeniably colourful individual.

That evening, having found some food in one of the few restaurants that was still open, I wandered back towards the quay, where the ship that was to take me back south down the Inside Passage was waiting, and sat in the bar of the Red Onion Saloon. As it boasted, albeit in a slightly coy way, it had been a brothel, back in the city's "glory" days, but it had obviously become the contemporary city's local.

Over a beer or two, I watched the summer workers, who would also be joining the ship heading south, as they celebrated their last night in town. It felt like the end of term, as kids who had made friends whilst they worked the summer season said their goodbyes to one another. They partied with a slightly sad air; former strangers who had been thrown together for a time, had fun, maybe even fallen in love, but who knew that they might never see each other again.

In the gent's, somebody had written a short poem of Emily Dickinson on one of the walls. Later, from the bow of the ship, as I watched the city's lights fading off into the night, it seemed to me to match perfectly the wistful mood of the evening:

So set its sun in thee,
What day is dark to me—
What distance far,
So I the ships may see
That touch how seldomly
Thy shore?

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The Lions of West 12th Street

There are numerous famous lions in New York City. There are the glorious and proud carved animals who pose nobly outside the New York Public Library, for example, and any number of others, from across a wide expanse of world history, in the Met and the city's other museums. Walking along West 12th Street, one morning, on my way to the subway, however, I came across a particular pair of lions that struck me as slightly unusual.

I say "lions", but what I really mean, of course, is "a lion and a lioness", because rather than identical, matching statues of two male lions, which is what you usually see dotted about the place, the lions outside this particular brownstone were a male and female couple, one on either side of the steps; a large male, with a full mane, and a smaller and sleeker female. The lion sits, with his tongue protruding slightly, as if cheekily rasping the neighbourhood, whilst his mate has her mouth clothed, her head up, alert.

I don't believe I have ever seen a pair - a genuine couple, indeed - of lions, like this, so I took a picture, and then wandered on my way. Later, I looked for an explanation online, assuming that so distinctive a pair of guardians would have attracted the attention of other commentators, or possibly have a famous story attached to them that would be recorded somewhere. Perhaps I have been looking in the wrong place, or perhaps I have ascribed unwarranted rarity to perfectly mundane ornaments, but I have yet to find any explanation of the West 12th Street Lions.

In the absence of an obvious explanation, therefore, I have imagined a vivid scene set at some point in the 19th-century, where a delightful and mildly eccentric married couple decide to commission statues representing themselves to adorn their new property. A marriage of true equals, where each partner respected the other, there would naturally have been no suggestion of two identical male lions framing their doorway. Instead, and to reflect the husband and wife within, the West 12th Street Lions were born, to the possible bemusement and outrage of their more hidebound neighbours.

If anybody reading this knows anything about them, or indeed the real story, please let me know in the comments, below.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Aroumd and about

The sound of four grown men being assailed with buckets of water in a vaulted hammam reminded me of the noises made by crowds attending fireworks displays, in my childhood. As we lined up against the wall, we were pelted with water of varying temperatures, each of which drew from us different noises, ranging from comfort to pain: warm water ("oooh"), hot ("aaah") and occasionally very cold ("eeeee"). After a while, these sounds, which echoed around the tiled rooms, began to make us all laugh in a slightly delirious way, to the undoubted bewilderment of the hammam's attendant and his assistant.

The day before, we had descended from the refuge just below Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains, the highest peak in North Africa, and we were sorely in need of hygiene. It was in the depths of February, the mountain was encrusted in snow and ice, and the temperature inside the refuge where we had spent a few nights was, but for one room with a stove, extremely cold. One morning, I had braved the dribbling pipe in the basement room that was pleased to call itself a "shower", but as I squatted in the shower tray, desperately hoping for the barest hint of warmth, I had started to doubt whether I would ever get properly warm again.

The summit of Toubkal had been reached a few days before that, and not without with a great deal of effort. Altitude, combined with occasionally knee-deep snow, meant that our ascent had been far from speedy. At the top, we looked out across the Atlas Mountains, under a crips blue sky; the covering of snow making it extremely hard to judge scale.

"Are we the slowest group you've lead up here?" somebody asked, jokingly, but our guide's polite smile and silence in reply spoke volumes.

Back down the valley, we had walked across to Amound, a small village clustered on top of an ancient mountain land-slip, on the promise of a traditional massage and steam room. The village resembled a scattered collection of cardboard boxes, and appeared extremely basic. Inside the hammam, however, all was warm and clean. Afterwards, we marched back across the valley to our auberge, skin tingling with freshness.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Corte between a rock and a hard place

The commune of Corte on Corsica comes, if you are walking the GR20 North to South, as something of a blessed relief. The GR20 is widely-known as one of the toughest long-distance walking trails in Europe and, if truth be told, I had not prepared adequately for it and was enduring rather than enjoying the experience. The GR20 runs from Calenzana in the north of Corsica, to Conca towards the south east coast, is around 112 miles long, and is relentlessly tough and, at times, miserably strenuous. Well, maybe that's not quite fair, but you certainly have to be in the mood for it, and it became increasingly clear to me, after several days of trudging over mountainous passes and sleeping in accommodation that was little more than sheds, that I simply was not.

By the time we reached Corte, a beautiful little outpost of civilisation somewhere towards the middle of the island of Corsica, I had long-since realised that I was much more in the mood for spending leisurely afternoons in glorious French cafés, restaurants and bars, possibly with a gentle wander along to a pool or the sea, for a soothing swim. In fact, after several days of hard walking, and frequently extremely uncomfortable sleeping (when such a thing was even possible, in the company of extravagantly-snoring walking companions), the idea of a swim proved tantalising to the point of torture.

The GR20 is frequently beautiful, and n another occasion, I can imagine dedicating myself to the task of exploring it with great delight. On this occasion, however, I missed my girlfriend and, bar some very good friends with whom I had come on the trip, and some other like-minded walkers, was accompanied by slightly too-eager fellow-hikers, who were getting on my nerves. For me, a good walk is something that takes as long as it takes. You enjoy the views, you take your time and, provided you're not still walking late into the night, you arrive at your destination eventually, with a pleasing sense of a day well spent.

Other walkers, and I am not claiming that they are necessarily wrong (although, obviously, they are), see a long-distance walk as a challenge to be be attacked with something of a joyless vigour. They have to be at the front of a group, ideally disappearing off far into the distance, as if they were in a race, leaving others (usually including me) watching them almost running off, somewhat bemusedly. Some people enjoy racing, I recognise, but I fail to see the challenge or enjoyment in behaving like that, when nobody else is taking part in the race. Despite that, they go haring off, as if reaching the end point before the others, usually without having noticed much, if anything, of their surroundings on the way, is in some way an achievement worthy of praise.

These people drained my enthusiasm, such as it was. I wasn't in a race, I just wanted to get from A to B, with as much enjoyment as possible in between. In Corte, I found some of the things for which I had been longing - good wine, good cheese, omelette et frites... I am a simple soul, at heart. After a couple of nights in Corte, in a pleasant hotel, with a comfortable bed, we resumed our walk south, but I had been teased by thoughts of what might have been, and my heart really wasn't in it.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Good morning, alpaca

The daily commute can, at times, be a joyless duty. Following the same road, day in, day out, until - like Willy Loman - you get so ground down by the routine that you can almost forget which day it is. Which is why, one morning on my usual commute, I was elated to see that an otherwise unremarkable field beside my road was suddenly occupied by a couple of dozen alpacas. This, as you may readily be able to imagine, brightened my morning immeasurably.

They weren't doing anything remarkable, you understand. They were not, for example, performing miraculous feats of acrobatics, singly or in unison, nor were they lined up along the fence, harmonising their ululations to melodic effect. They were just standing there, occasionally nibbling grass, or peering around, bemusedly. The reason I was so pleased, was that they seemed so completely satisfied with their little existences, and almost pleased just to be alpacas, that it felt churlish not to share in their quietly joyful world-view.

Months - years - went by. Sometimes they were there, and I feel no shame in admitting to calling out "Morning, alpacas!" as I drove by. Sometimes, they were not there, in which case my felt a sense of regret at having missed them. And then, a few weeks ago, they returned to the field, after a prolonged absence, and I realised that it would be remiss of me not to introduce myself.

After one morning's false start, when they were away from the field by the road, I saw them. Giddly with expectation, I turned my car around and pulled into a little dirt track beside them. Before I had got out of the car, most of them had wandered over to inspect me and, by the time I presented myself before them at the fence, most of them were there ready to greet me. They were as delightful as I had hoped, and as diverse a bunch of characters as one could imagine.

One white alpaca appeared cautious and skeptical, whereas another brown animal appeared to have decided that, in me, it had found a long-lost friend. I spent perhaps five or ten minutes watching them as they watched me. Some of the more skittish held their long ears back, until they realised that I was no threat, and then held their ears aloft, and pranced about as if to reassure me that they knew I was all right, really. Others craned their necks over the fence to say hello, and one or two let me stroke their delightful furry faces.

I left them, with a wave of gratitude, and continued on my way. I felt pleased and deeply satisfied to have met them, and relieved that our encounter had been of such a cordial nature. I like to imagine that they might have been pleased that, after all this time, I had taken a moment to say hello.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Puffin away

The small island of Skomer lies of the south west coast of Wales, and is accessed via a small fishing trawler, refitted to hold a few hardy souls. The journey is not a long one, but when the sea swells, it can feel like a reasonably arduous endeavour. As the little boat, which has been bobbing quite wildly in the water, rounds a particular headland, it wrestles wth an evil-looking swirl of water, and sways alarmingly from one side to the other. The extent of the tipping is so wide that, at one point, I genuinely wondered whether it would right itself, or if this is how shipwrecks feel, when they begin.

All being well, however, in a little under half an hour, you arrive at the foot of a set of steps cut into the cliff on Skomer. At the top of them, the warden greets you, and sketches out the island's points of interest and, before you know it, you are wandering among the last of the bluebells, seeking out the puffins. The puffins are what makes Skomer famous, and a Mecca for bird-lovers.

The island is not large, but as one starts to explore it, it feels like the chances of seeing a puffin, other than as an ambiguous black dot, bobbing away in the sea some distance away, might not be great. As is often the way with such sights, you start by doing your best to appreciate the initial somewhat unsatisfactory views. "Well, well," you think, slightly disappointedly, as you squint at some kind of seabird, no bigger than a pin-prick away in the sea, "Now I can say I've seen a puffin."

Then, you round a corner, and walk down a path between the burrows, and you see one of these enigmatic creatures, less than half a metre away. When this happens, you forget the rough sea crossing (and the inevitable replay of it that awaits you to get back to the mainland) and the vague sightings of earlier. They are such familiar birds, that being in such close proximity to them - and there are several of them close by, pottering around, sometimes posing for photos - slightly takes you by surprise. It's almost like coming face to face with a famous film star or musician, except these birds seem to have no objection to having their picture taken.

The puffins of Skomer are, and no other word quite seems to do them justice, charming. Up on the cliffs, where their burrows are, they stomp around, quite oblivious to the snap-happy visitors, like a group of sad-faced clowns going about their daily lives. Every now and then, one of the puffins that has been flying around the little bay comes in for a somewhat awkward landing. As they appear to crash land - every time - it is hard to resist anthropomorphising them, and imagining them thinking "Oh, no! Oh, no!" as they skitter to an inelegant stop among the clover, before they right themselves with dignity and stomp off, as if nothing had happened.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Doctor will see you now

Over a year ago, a strange place by Paddington Station in London closed its doors to the public for the last time. Within the red-brick walls of a former Royal Mail sorting office had been the world of Temple Studios, part of The Drowned Man, a massive immersive theatre production by Punchdrunk, in association with the National Theatre. Over four floors of this building were intricately detailed sets, through which a cast, pursued by audience members wearing white masks, danced, ran and fought. I loved it.

For some audience members, the experience became an obsession and, whilst I went a few times, it never became completely overwhelming for me. The modern dance, whilst impressive in its way, was not particularly interesting for me. No, for me, it was the chance to wander around what felt like genuine films sets; to, as the recurring line from the lay ran, live within a dream.

On my first visit, I had watched occasional audience members be singled out by performers, and be taken into private rooms for what became known, within the audience members social network, as "one to ones". On subsequent visits, I had experienced some of my own - with the greengrocer, the strange owner of the toyshop, the seamstress, but on the final occasion I visited, I hoped to have a one to one with the doctor, whom I had also seen early on my first trip.

That final night, with two or three other audience members, I had watched the doctor make a Rorschach test in his office, dripping ink into a folded piece of paper, unfolding it and considering the resulting pattern. Again, with others I followed him outside, and then watched as he took another white masked audience member into the private consultation room. Pah! I thought, and wandered off to see something else in the labyrinthine set.

Later, I wandered back through the doctor's main examination room, and saw the doctor again. This time, I must have been in the right place at the right time. He sauntered out of his office and I happened to be in front of him outside the consultation room. He fished in his pocket for his keys, and with hooded lids looked up at me.

"All right," he said, almost grudgingly. "I'll see you now. Come in."

He opened the door into the consulting room and we went inside. He locked the door behind us, took off the mask I was wearing and gestured for me to sit on the consulting table.

"How have you been?" he asked. "Have you been having any more of those bad feelings we talked about? No dark thoughts?"

"No," I said, trying to keep in character. He nodded and looked me up and down, as if assessing how I was doing.

"I'm going to show you some pictures," he said, reaching for a box on the side, "and I want you to tell me what you see. Ok?"

"Sure," I replied.

He nodded some more and held out one Rorschach picture for me to examine. "What do you see?"

I thought for a bit, and then said, "A skull." He mulled this over and then put the picture away, bringing out another.

"How about this one?"

Part of me wanted to say something silly, but there was something profoundly hypnotic about the situation, so I looked at it again. He asked again, "What do you see?"

"A hanged man." I said, despite myself. He reflected on this for a moment, and looked at me. "'A hanged man', huh?"

"Yeah," I replied.

He thought for a bit longer, and tilted his head form side to side, as if judging the weight of what I had said. Then he looked at me, still thoughtful. "Hang-dang," he half sang, slightly mocking. "Hang-dang... ding-dang."

He was staring at me quite intently, and I was strongly conscious of a desire to smile or laugh, in spite of the strangeness of the moment; the same sort of crazy impulse that makes people laugh at funerals - it's the worst possible thing one could do, which is why it becomes almost the only thing one wants to do.

He put the pictures away and sat next to me on the consulting table. He looked at me, keeping eye contact, then he looked away.

"Nobody likes you," he said, half matter of factly, half aggressively. "People avoid you." Then he nodded, as if that part of the consultation was over, and told me to face the wall, on which was an eye chart. He told me to read it, and I did, line my line.

Half way through, he clamped one hand over my eyes, and the other around the back of my head. All the time, music was swelling around us, and he talked directly into my ear, as he massaged my head.

"You like people," he said. "People like you. You are friendly. You are tidy. When you see a piece of paper on the floor you pick it up."

Then the music reached a crescendo, and it was over. He put my mask back on and led me towards the door, pausing slightly. I looked down where we were standing, and saw a piece of paper on the floor. I bent down to pick it up, I pocketed it, without looking at it, and left the consulting room, as he opened the door.

When I had crossed the boardroom beyond his corridor, I un-crumpled the paper, and written on it were the words, "You're making good progress."

Sunday, 25 October 2015

A massage in a bottle

Some massages, it has been well said, are akin being stroked in a dark room. Perhaps some people like such a gentle experience; I do not. In contrast, the massage I had yesterday was much more like to being beaten up in a dark room, albeit to the accompaniment of generic ambient music and distant forest birdsong. The background sounds aside, this was much more the thing, although I did find myself wincing, holding my breath, and properly bracing myself, as my otherwise charming and softly spoken masseuse dug the sharpest point of her elbow deeper into the tangibly tense tangle of stressy knots in the muscles around my scapulae.

"Soft to medium," she had said, when running through the pre-massage checks, and I have to confess that my heart had sunk, as I anticipated another low-powered kneading. Nevertheless, after a stressful week, just about any massage is better than no massage, and I surrendered myself to her ministrations. After the usual anointment with oils and brief feet rub, I breathed in deeply and resolved, in any event, to enjoy the peaceful darkness. And then it began, with a vigour that drove just about all other thoughts from my mind save for the question of whether I would survive this encounter, or if I should ask for her to go slightly more gently.

As I surrendered to the experience, with the possibly naive, but certainly trusting thought that she presumably knew what she was doing, I recalled a previous massage which approached this level of intensity. It had been a few months back, in NoLita in New York. Having pounded the streets for several days, my back and neck had started sending out distress calls and, as I sat in a bar on Lafayette, doing something about the pain became a pressing concern.

The barman suggested a Chinese massage parlour next door and, beggars not being choosers, I stepped down into the subterranean world, hopeful of repair. Unlike any massage parlours I had visited before, this was one large darkened room, divided up by perhaps five feet high panels into six or eight booths. In each booth was a bed and, as I did as I was directed and walked down to the end booth, I realised that each one was occupied by a patron, at least one of whom was snoring.

In my booth, which I shared with drums of cooking oil, presumably for the Chinese restaurant above, I was told to get undressed. A little wary, I removed my shirt and, when barked at by my masseuse for my foolish error, my jeans also. Lying on the bed, reading the labels on the cooking oil canisters, to one side, I wondered what was to come, when I became aware that not alone. I was barked at again, in what I presumed was an enquiry as to what I wanted. I wasn't entirely sure what she had asked me, but I made rough gestures towards my neck, and the treatment began.

It is said that we cannot accurately recall our pain, when looking back, and this is, perhaps, an extremely good thing. What I do recall is that I emerged, blinking, from the basement room into the sunshine, conscious of having been pummelled mercilessly, but nevertheless feeling brighter and more awake. So yesterday, as my London masseuse piled down onto my back and asked "Is that OK?" I winced again, before painfully breathing out a laboured and not entirely truthful, "Fine. Thanks," hopeful that the outcome might be equally rewarding.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Neighbours in need

We walked from the road, following the little girl along indistinct dusty paths through the brush, to her home, in a remote sun-parched area of rural Kenya. Her mother sat within a small enclosure, its boundaries marked by a low hedge of thorns, with the girl's three brothers. Nearby, a goat nuzzled at the family's dishes and plates, stacked in a roughly woven basket. When she saw her family, the little girl ran ahead of us, and I watched as she shared the cereal bar I had given her with her eldest brother.

Her mother sat demurely, as her daughter ran up, and it took me a moment to realise that this was partly because of her disabled feet, which faced in the wrong directions. I felt awkward to have turned up, like this, and could sense her embarrassment, as she readjusted her brown skirt about her ankles, to better hide her feet.

In the glare of the sun, the family's home seemed painfully modest and fragile. A thatched mud hut, through whose walls the wooden framework showed, here and there; a tangle of fabric the only door. As the leader of our group sat with the mother, and played with her children, Mrs Tom, a local community leader, invited me to enter the house. I had come along to help record the work of the charity that was supporting this family, and the school that the little girl attended, but I still felt that I was intruding on these people's lives. The mother gently encouraged me to go in, and I followed Mrs Tom through the doorway, into the dark room.

It was just one room, perhaps a third the size of my far from grand living room at home, and it was thick with a fug of smoke from the fire that burned in one corner. Above the gently smoking embers hung a small cooking pot containing stewing beans. To one side of the tiny cramped space stood the parents' bed, a makeshift curtain of clothes the only dividing wall between their space and the other large bed, where their four children slept. As my eyes adjusted to the murk and darkness - there were no windows - I began to make out the objects that were stuck into the eaves of the wall; old porridge stirrers, arrows, a kettle, a machete.

We had been in the community for about a week, and had seen the mothers walking their children to school, but this was the first time I had got so close to a family, and their normal lives. For all the expectations that I might have had of culture shock, visiting this remote, rural and desperately poor community, the thing that had struck me the most was how fundamentally alike we were. It should not have been a surprise; that these people were perfectly normal people, with whom I had a great deal in common, but we are conditioned, sometimes despite ourselves, to think of people as very alien because they live in a different place, or in a different way.

As I took in the tiny space inside this family's home, however, I could feel something welling inside me; in clumsy terms, I suppose it was a sense of injustice at the fact that these people were living in such basic conditions, in genuine hardship. Combined with this was a terrible sense of impotence at the scale of their poverty and at the odds that were so cruelly stacked against them. Back outside, I did my best to engage positively with the children, but I was aware of my own quietness, as I struggled to assimilate the experience. Finally, we handed out toys for the children, said our goodbyes and walked back along the sandy track towards the road. As we did so, it took me by surprise to realise that I was crying, despite myself.

There is so much to be done, in this world, that it can feel like an impossible task to achieve anything. Things can be done to bring positive change, however. We just have to allow for the fact that a small change for the better is infinitely better than no change at all. Whilst, individually, we can only do so much, when we combine our forces, our good intentions, and our resources, the effect can be greater and more beneficial than we can sometimes imagine.


Winter walking

The Lake District in winter is a very different beast from the Lakes in the summer. It's not just a question of the weather, although in the winter the Lakes are, naturally, colder and, honesty compels me to admit, frequently wetter. One of the most significant differences between the two seasons, however, is in the nature of the transitory population.

In the winter, for example, the towns of the Lake District are more sparsely populated, but the people who are there are, by and large, walkers, climbers and cyclists. This contrasts with the peak tourist season over the summer, when the towns can feel overrun with what Bertie Wooster might describe as, "trippers"; people who are there for the views, certainly, but possibly more so for the cafés and gift shops that also proliferate.

For the walkers, however, that hardy band for whom winter brings with it the promise of snow-covered fell tops on which to wander, the season can make the Lakes feel like your own private playground. After the sometimes overly well-trodden paths of the warmer parts of the year, with the shortening of days comes the knowledge that we are likely to meet fewer people, when out on the hills. As misanthropic as that might sound, it can also be immensely liberating.

These are the people for whom the prospect of a day spent wading through snow and ice is worth the occasionally considerable effort of getting there, however short the day might actually be. We relish the fresh air, the sometimes breathtakingly crisp light, and the opportunity to see familiar vistas redecorated with a canopy of white.

There is something endlessly rewarding about feeling the crunch of snow beneath boots, the catch of cold air in the throat, and the knowledge that at the end of the day there is likely to be a roaring file, hearty food and good beer. This is the season when the smell of fresh air on one’s clothes, as you stumble into a warm pub after a full day on the hills, is as pungent and rich as perfume.

Monday, 12 October 2015

The passing of summer

As the northern hemisphere spins on into autumn and then winter, it can be strangely hard to recall the sensations of the past seasons. For example, it always amazes me, in the full heat of the summer, to be walking along pavements that, six months before, might have been buried deep under seemingly indestructible snow and ice. I know it happened, and yet it feels ludicrously improbable.

Similarly, as we dig out our warm sweaters and overcoats, and draw the curtains against the encroaching dark of earlier and earlier nights, it can be difficult the remember just a few short weeks ago. Back when the summer enveloped us, when shorts and a t-shirt were all you could bear to wear, and the evenings seemed to last for hours. Yet soon it will be the chill of an icy wind that nips the ears, rather than the burn of the scorching sun, and we will pull warm woollen hats down tight against the freezing air.

When I was a child, the end of the summer, and the inevitable return to the cold drudgery of school, always felt like a betrayal; as if, rather than simply having had an enjoyable time that could now be put away and left, I had been teased with a tempting yet unattainable happy place of sun and laughter, which was then cruelly taken away from me.

Those joyful summer days of childhood are still there, though, in some indefinable way, stuck in my memory with the people – parents, grandparents and aunts – who are no longer around. The taste of the sea water, and the rough embrace of a beach towel, and the ruffle of hair being dried sort of against my will; even the wince of biting on a crisp that had got dusted with sand, these sensations live on still.

Sometimes, it’s a photograph that brings the memories, or sometimes that odd salty tang of the sea, mingled with the wet smell of seaweed, and then those summer holidays of years gone by rematerialise. The splash of the tide and the friendly rasp of the sand on toes, the waving pinching arms of a freshly captured crab, and the slowly sinking sun that, for just a moment, looked like it would never completely set.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Arrive arrive-o

I know that it's a cliché, but the thing about clichés (which, in itself, is a cliché) is that they become clichés by virtue of being true. However hackneyed it may be, it is hard to deny that there is something endlessly heart-warming about people-watching in airport arrivals halls.

The thing about airport arrivals is that peoples' emotions are to the fore. Partly it must be about reuniting people who have been separated, often by great physical distances. We can hear and see people on the other side of the planet, nowadays, but that doesn’t beat the touch of somebody we hold dear.

Another factor is that, deep down, most of us fear flying, however much we may know that it is statistically safe. The inherent problem with it, as an often-essential means of transport, is that it is such an obviously unnatural experience, over which you have absolutely no control. The discovery that either we, or our friends, family and loved ones have landed safely must release some pent up anxiety, which often, it seems to me, comes out in expressions of love.

Standing at the arrivals hall recently, I watched countless couples and families reuniting, and there wasn't a single grouping that didn't move me. My favourite was possibly the Spanish grandmother who was reunited with her grandson of about 18 months old. When she saw him, on emerging from the gate, her face lit up and she rushed over to the barrier where his father was holding him aloft. On reaching him, her face bright with love, she kissed her grandson again and again and again, changing from cheek to cheek, her eyes increasingly watery from tears of joy.

Yukon, if you want to

The woman sitting next to me on the plane flying into Whitehorse tells me she knows the mother of the person I’ll be staying with. The chances of this seem wildly remote, until she tells me that she thinks the population of Whitehorse is around 20,000. The plane itself is relatively small, and the interior reminds me of a seaplane I had seen not that long before in an aeronautical museum. It’s a disconcerting first impression, given that, unlike a plane in a museum, my life is rather depending on this one working properly.

As we near our destination, the pilot announces that it’s 4 degrees Celsius outside. The woman next to me says that she heard it snowed last week, and the mountaintops weren’t covered in white – as they are now – when she left two weeks ago. From the air, Whitehorse looks like a grubby collection of ramshackle sheds, nestled against a grey cliff, on top of which sits the airport. We circle the city before coming in to land, and I can see that, further out, it is indeed ringed by snow-topped mountains.

Even stepping out of the plane and onto the telescopic walkway, the air is noticeably colder. The small band of fellow passengers and I walk through the tiny airport to collect our bags. As I realise that, for some reason, it reminds me of a Swiss railway station, in the blink of an eye, the rest of the passengers retrieve their luggage, meet loved-ones and disappear out of the door. I wander outside too, to look for a taxi, and all of a sudden can see my breath. It’s very cold; to me, at any rate. To residents who experience the place during the winter, when it gets down to minus forty, this might just be slightly cool.

Also waiting for a taxi are an English couple, now resident in Phoenix, Arizona. She’s very friendly and chatty, but he’s a bit cooler, and not just in a physical sense. It seems that their visit here is his idea, but she does not appear to be wholly convinced by the plan, and is not reticent about this. I suspect she may have made this clear to him a few times, which might explain his defensiveness.

Eventually, just as I am running out of readily-accessible warm clothes to put on, a taxi arrives and the couple get in. The taxi driver offers me a free ride with the English couple to their hotel, and from there to the B&B where I’m staying. Although the English guy’s expression makes it clear that this is the last thing he would like, my only alternative is to stomp about in the cold outside the airport, tying to keep warm until the taxi can return, so I eagerly accept the offer and jump into the front passenger seat.

Even waiting overlooking the airport car park, it’s clear to me that Whitehorse has a charm of its own. My first reaction that it’s bleakly beautiful, although it also looks like one of those places where, no matter what people may do, it’s Nature that calls the shots.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Don't look down

All being well, you reach the edge of the crater at the top of Kilimanjaro just as dawn starts to break. Far far to the east, a speck of light appears, grows and turns into a sliver of sun, which gradually divides the sky and the Earth. For six hours or so, starting from around midnight, you have been walking steadily, unceasingly, in the cold and dark. Around you, all you have been able to see is the pools of light cast by your and your companions’ head torches, as you trudge up the scree slopes of the mountainside.

The last night of ascending Kilimanjaro is an intensely surreal experience, like being trapped inside a dream. Without visible landmarks, it is like walking endlessly in the dark, along the same stretch of dusty path. The cold is colder than you can remember ever experiencing before; a dry chill that nips at your exposed skin, and tries to seep through your clothes. Water bottles freeze and toes feel as if they are doing likewise. The final climb – the last ascent after days of walking – is long, slow, relentless.

Most of us had been here before, four years previously, but had not made it to the top. A combination of a quicker route than this one (and thus less acclimatisation to the altitude), an oversleeping guide (which led to a panicked late departure from camp), and a stop-start-stop-start ascent did for the group, and only one of us had reached even the crater rim. The sense of unfinished business had burned in us all ever since, and now we had the chance to finish what had been left incomplete.

Kilimanjaro is not the most dangerous mountain in the world, nor are most of its routes especially adventurous or arduous ascents, but it is still a tough climb for most normal people. As we reached the lip of the crater, three of our group had already had to pull out, owing to illness, and another one of our team only just made it, a chest infection becoming increasingly evident in the final stages of the climb.

The rest of us were there, though. We had made it. As I looked out across the cloud-covered landscape, with the delightfully warming sun rising and spreading its light, I was overwhelmed. What had, for several years, felt like a tantalising impossibility, had now become a reality. With teary eyes, which I was too tired to wipe, I watched the world spread out beneath us, with the curve of the Earth marking the horizon.

“Go for the top?” somebody said.

“Yes. Definitely.”

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Where’s William?

“William?” scowled the security guard.
“Yes,” I replied, with a bright and cheerful enthusiasm which, in hindsight, may have been a bit of a mistake. “Can you tell me where to find William?”
He viewed me suspiciously, as if trying to weigh up, from my eagerness, whether I was an idiot or a troublemaker. I had naïvely assumed that everybody in the museum would know William and his whereabouts. As the security guard looked me over warily, it belatedly dawned on me that, however obvious it might be to me who William was, this crucial piece of intelligence might just have escaped the security guard.
“The hippo,” I explained, in what I had hoped would be a helpful way, but which I soon realised only made matters worse. In response, the security guard’s expression abruptly shifted gear again, from suspicion to low-level alarm, and I started to wonder as to the advisability of going on with our conversation. However good my intentions, it looked like continuing the discussion might only have the effect of antagonising him further.
“Hippo?” he repeated, testing the word sceptically, much as one might sip cautiously at a drink offered by a stranger of whose bona fides one has reason to doubt.
“Yes! William’s a statue of a hippo,” I elaborated. He blinked at me, the dim and distant light of vague recognition slowly coming to his worried eye.
“What era?” he asked, suddenly.
“Uh,” I thought. “Egyptian?”
He thought for a bit. Finally, he nodded and pointed back to The Great Hall and to anther entrance at the far side.
“North Wing,” he said. “Try there.”
Relieved to be able to stop being such an obvious source of annoyance and frustration for him, I thanked him and made my way through the thronging visitors in The Great Hall. Showing my ticket again, I passed further security guards, who were busily engaged in frowning at people with backpacks, and into the gallery of Egyptian art.
In a museum as grand and expansive as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, narrowing one’s field of enquiry to a single wing, particularly if one is looking for a small ceramic hippopotamus, is not quite as helpful as you might imagine. It does help to be in the right section of the building, of course, but as I wandered past mummies, statues of Anubis and, to some surprise, The Temple of Dendur (complete with Napoleonic graffiti), I started to lose heart in the enterprise. It was only a small hippo, after all, but I had wanted to see it.
Finally, as I started to make my way back towards the entrance, having all but given up hope, I saw him. He was standing in an unostentatious glass cabinet, at one side of an otherwise unremarkable room, for all the world just minding his own business and watching the visitors go by.
William (or “Figure of a Hippopotamus” as he is referred to, with commendable understatement, in the Met catalogue) is barely more than 11 cm tall and is glazed in a vivid aquamarine and patterned with lotus flowers. He is from Egypt and is nearly four thousand years old. For most of the last hundred years, having been gifted by Edward S. Harkness in 1917, he has been at the Met in New York.
For an object of such antiquity, William has an endearingly sprightly charm. He stands, looking out of his glass case with a curiously benign expression of bemused indulgence, as if he had spent the last century casually watching the comings and goings of visitors to his new home. Maybe it is his broad snout that appeals, or possibly his pleasingly stumpy feet, which make him look like a puppy standing to attention, but whatever it is, he appears to be a hippo that is pleased to meet you.
As the unofficial mascot of the Met, I had assumed that William would have a display case all to himself, and be the centre of attention, but I was the only one at that moment who was looking at him.
“Hello, William,” I said.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

A plaque on both your houses

In these frantic times, it's good to take a minute now and then to remember some of our sadly lesser-known, yet nevertheless important, figures from history.

In my regular wanderings, I am frequently surprised by how little attention the average pedestrian (far less the average driver or gyrocopter pilot) pays to the plaques and memorials that dot or, if you prefer, pepper our streets. Sometimes these panels record interesting, successful or famous people; sometimes the locations of discoveries or events of great historical importance.

If only we looked up a little more, it sometimes seems to me, our lives could be enriched and enlivened by the thought of those who came before us (even if those thoughts should probably not, in all good conscience, always be considered to be entirely historically accurate).

This week, it's time to celebrate Dr James Yearsley, founder of the Metropolitan Ear Institute in London in 1838. Dr Yearsley is rightly recognised with this green plaque at 32 Sackville Street, Piccadilly, London, the site of his former clinic.

Without Dr Yearsley's tireless work and years of painstaking research, the chances are we still wouldn't have ears today or, as they were originally known in honour of their inventor, "Yearsleys". Queen Victoria who, for all any of us know, may have been a regular visitor to the clinic, is reported in Court circles to have been seen "grinning from Yearsley to Yearsley" after a successful appointment with the good doctor.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Subway Song

It’s that strange time between rush hour and midmorning, where it feels like the city has taken a moment to catch its breath, and you can take your time. The subway car is pleasingly uncrowded, and I watch the street numbers rise steadily as I make my way north from the West Village.

At one stop, the car doors open and two buskers enter, one of whom is carrying an electric piano, which hangs from a duct tape strap around his neck. I’ve seen plenty of buskers with guitars and banjos before, but this is the first time I’ve seen anybody manhandling a decent-sized keyboard on public transport, and I’m impressed.

I’m already on their side before the pianist begins to play and, on his own, delicately sings “I’ll Be There” by The Jackson 5. His companion hovers nearby, leaning against the pole and holding a gold foil party bag. This is a little incongruous, and makes them look as if they’ve just come from somebody’s birthday; like they've decided to bring the good vibes from a party along with them as they wend their way home.

Then the guy with the bag joins in the singing, with spot-on harmonies, and I feel a tingle all the way down my neck. It’s such a beautiful thing, this well-sung song, and I’m half-sorry and half-glad that there aren’t more than half a dozen other passengers with me in the car to share the experience.

Still singing, the buskers start to sway down the car, and I drop a couple of dollars into the gold party bag - partly in thanks and partly as encouragement – and receive a warm and friendly fist-bump from the singer in return. My stop approaches, and I stand, instinctively swaying along to the music, humming along to the harmonies, and tapping my feet.

Often with buskers, however much you may enjoy their music, you don’t want to engage too much with the performer. This morning, thanks to these singers and their happy music, there is a fabulously warm feeling in the subway car, and I see several other riders also give generously and then exchange glances and satisfied nods with their fellow passengers.

For a strange moment, we disparate strangers are united by the music, and smile at each other, swaying to the rocking of the train and the harmonies of the singers. At my stop, and with a nod of thanks back to the performers, which they return, I leave the car with a warm glow that I subsequently carry with me for quite some time, happily humming “I’ll be there…” as I jump up the steps into the morning sunlight.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

La prima colazione

“Porridge!” exclaimed the waitress, looking from the man who had ordered it, across the table to his companion, open mouthed. She looked as if this was the strangest breakfast order she had ever encountered, and wanted the man and the man’s friend to share in her sense of startled yet excited bewilderment.

“Porridge!” she repeated. “Excellent.” and she scuttled off, doubtless to relay the strange events of that morning to her colleagues behind the bar.

It is a little difficult, when sitting in a restaurant at breakfast time, but only requiring a coffee, to avoid the overeager solicitations of the waiting staff. An entirely accidental moment of eye contact with one of them, and you run the risk of being approached – yet again – for your non-existent order.

At the bar, a genuinely Italian-looking lady in the uniform of a chef (rather than that of a waiter or waitress) stands by the Gaggia coffee machine, both hands over her mouth, as if witnessing some appalling tragedy. Perhaps, I wonder, she has just remembered having done, or failed to do, something of staggering significance in the kitchen. Whatever it is, it seems to justify my decision not to engage with the frequently-proposed breakfast eating.

A Scottish gentleman to my left, as he decries the banking industry, gesticulates wildly towards his partner in what I decide is a profoundly Italian manner. I start to wonder if maybe I’m reading too much Italianness into the goings on in this quasi-Italian restaurant, this morning, or perhaps there’s a general Italianate atmosphere that is creeping inexorably into the staff and clientele.

Another waiter arrives beside my table to enquire what I would like to order for breakfast. I seem to detect an air of disappointment when I decline the kind offer and ask for my bill.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Walking with Wodehouse

There are walking purists, for such people, I regret to say, do exist, who profess themselves to be shocked and offended by the very idea of people walking whilst listening to earphones. For them, the sound of feet tramping through the hills and vales of the landscape, or possibly the far off cry of a mouflon or the howl of a timber wolf who has stubbed its toe on a passing rock, are the only permissible audio accompaniment to a walk.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that some people do listen to music whilst walking, and I have occasionally seen unduly stern walkers visibly reprove such musically accompanied hikers, either with a rolled eye or a disapproving shake of the head. Anything more demonstrative than that would, naturally, be unthinkable, but doubtless those admonishers went on their way satisfied with the knowledge that their points had been made.

To those people, the way that I sometimes walk, when out on the hills of Lakeland, or around the coast, is probably similarly bordering on the unforgivable, but I make no apology. On such an expedition, I am frequently to be found listening to audiobooks of P.G. Wodehouse stories, either read by Martin Jarvis, or in the form of full-cast Radio 4 plays.

I do recognise the point at the heart of these walking critics’ objections; for many of them, walking is meditative, purifying pastime, where one sets oneself apart from the normal world and its noises. For them, background music or narration has no part to play in their sacred plod across the ancient landscape. I’m not a monster, and I can see what they are getting at.

Indeed, I often do just that – walking for hours without a sound but the birdsong, the scuff (or squelch) of my boots, the swish of wind or wave, and the occasional ominous rumble of thunder and patter of rain. This is a beautiful way to spend a day, and only rarely have I ended such a walk feeling less happy and refreshed (if physically exhausted) than I had when I started it.

However, on a longer walk – eight or more hours, for example - there is sometimes something extremely pleasant about having a story read to you, as your body trudges on, steadily eating up the miles. The downsides to listening to music and audiobooks whilst walking in the wilderness are not numerous, but are several.

Firstly, you can find yourself surprised, as I have been on a number of occasions, when other walkers come up behind you, without you having picked up on the normal warning signs of another’s approach; the clomp-clomp-clomp of boot on path, for example, or even the heavy breathing of someone who has laboured heavily up a steep incline. This moment of shock can be especially embarrassing if, for example, when one has been stuffing one’s face with lunch in an unsightly manner, chuckling at a gag or neatly-turned phrase, or have been gazing over the landscape with a vacant expression, all of which are embarrassingly likely.

Alternatively, albeit an experience that has not yet happened to me, but only then through dumb luck and my preference for narrative over music, whilst walking, is the risk that one might be singing along heartily to a piece of music being piped directly into your head, only discover that, contrary to your firmly-held belief, you are not actually alone.

For me, as I have recently tended to walk whilst listening to Wodehouse stories, another unlikely downside is the strange sensation of being in two places – two eras even – at the same time. Whilst I take in my surroundings, visually, I have occasionally had an odd but vivid feeling of also walking through the landscapes of Wodehouse’s world; the passages and messuages of Blandings Castle, for example, or the foppish elegance of Bertie Wooster’s Mayfair and the grand houses in Worcestershire, all suffused with an idyllic 1920s rose tint.

And then I wake with a start to realise that a lost walker behind me is asking if I know the way to Harter Fell or Threefooted Brandreth, for example, and I find myself frantically scrabbling the earphones from my head and trying to remember where – and when – I am.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

What's up, doc?

There comes a moment in long-haul travel, particularly if you are over six feet tall and it has been impossible for you to sleep on the plane, where it is dangerously easy to forget not only where you are, but also how long you have been travelling.

About halfway through a rickety bus journey from Nairobi to the remote village of Kajuki, along dusty, rutted, and red mud roads, I realised that there also comes a point where you begin to question where you left your sanity. Either that or you wonder if perhaps, against all the odds – crushed kneecaps, for example - you actually succeeded in falling asleep on the plane and have yet to wake up.

For me, that moment arose when, glancing through the grimy bus window, I watched – or thought I watched – as two human-sized rabbits fought each other in front of a skeletal hotel building. Doing a double take – how could I not? – I realised that my sleep-deprived brain was not playing tricks on me and that I had indeed watched this unlikely scene being played out.

Whether to advertise the hotel or just – you know – “because”, possibly on a whim, two grown men dressed from head to foot in furry rabbit costumes, upholstered model heads and all, were trading what I hoped were pretend blows by the side of the road. They appeared to be having fun, because even so completely disguised it was possible to see that they were laughing, as they parried slow hits and struggled to keep their heads from falling off.

The unlikeliness of such a situation took me some time to process, as the bus juddered and rolled its slow way along the road, swerving precariously to avoid donkey-pulled carts and straggling rows of goats, minded by lone children. Had the manager or owner of the hotel conceived this as some unusual marketing scheme? The irregularity of traffic on this road rather argued against it, unless the seemingly foolish optimism that had led to the construction of the hotel itself also extended to their skills at promotion. An alternative theory, that both men had, independently, come to the decision that morning to dress up as Bugs Bunnies, seemed equally improbable, but then I was new to the country, and had not slept properly for around forty hours.

Looking around at my fellow passengers, I was blearily surprised that nobody else seemed to have considered the sight remotely remarkable. Settling back into my seat, I resolved not to be thrown by this, and leaned my head against the pleasantly vibrating window, to watch the passing banana plantations give way to rice fields, until I drifted off to sleep.

Friday, 28 August 2015

The horse that rocked (or didn't)

Gather round, dear friends, as I tell you a tale; a tale of ominous surprises on dark nights, of unexplained sights and horrifying surmises, and one that I fear may chill you to your very core. I make no apology for the frightful details that I will, here, relate, or the effect that this story may have on you, should you dare to read on, but know this - what you learn here can never be unlearned. You have been warned.

From time to time there are things - ordinary, everyday things - that when seen at a particular time, or in a particular way, assume an atmosphere entirely at odds with their usual demeanour. So it was, brave reader, when walking past this playground in South London, late one night, that I was brought up short by the sight of what I an only describe as this eerie playground horse.

Maybe it was the lighting that attracted my attention, or maybe it was the sinister ghostly creaking of the riderless horse on its spring in the dead of night, nudged by restless spirits or the bitter wind to canter through the night in a sort of back and forth motion. All right, if I'm totally honest (and despite my occasional inclination towards the melodramatic, I can rarely bring myself to be anything else) it wasn't moving, there was no wind, and there was no creaking, but I don't want that to detract from the atmosphere or whatever the Hell the point was that I think I might have been trying to make.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Sinister ghostly creaking. Right.

Perchance, it occurred to me, as the biting cold shrieked through the tree branches, whipped at my face and gnawed at my fingers (although, to be truthful it was a mild July evening and actually surprisingly pleasant) the thing that really sent a shiver down my spine was the fact that the otherwise apparently innocent playground was shut and chained behind heavy iron bars, its fibreglass inmates harshly floodlit and restrained. Wherefore, such stern and barbaric precautions? And who was being protected from whom?

Some might say that  this was done for  perfectly understandable crime prevention reasons, but maybe, it occurred to me, as I shied away from the gates as if from the very gates of Hell, they merited their fate, these mute and malevolent steeds of doom. Maybe their incarceration was entirely deserved and, but for the steadfast locked gate, oh faithful defender, they would have pulled me and any other innocent traveller down, down to their very destruction?

Who can say, dear reader? Not I. I will, however, say this: Bit spooky, isn't it?

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

In which a manifesto, of sorts, coalesces.

Looking at the world today, with its many and varied problems, the obvious thought occurs to the sentient person: why isn't there more ill-informed blogging occupying virtual space on the world-wide wide interweb?

Well, rest easy, hypothetical reader, for herewith is further rambling and ranting of a vague and poorly-defined nature, the enthusiasm for both writing and reading of which will inevitably fade as time goes by. Maybe, together, we will find a way through the miasma of modern life, to reach the broad, sunlit uplands, or alternatively perhaps we will reach an amicable agreement to just let it go and trouble each other no more. 

So, I hear nobody cry, what's all this about then? What do you want from us and why don't you just leave us alone to eat our cheesy snacks and bread products in peace? I wish I could, dear hearts. Or, at least (and at most), I have apparently decided on this course for now, and suggest that we just get on with it and see what transpires.

Being a being of dazzling originality (or at least of insufficient curiosity to check whether anything I bang on about on here has been done to death elsewhere) things that may crop up on here could include such diverse subjects as mountains, walking, walking on mountains, "stuff that I see around and about", and generally anything that flits through my waking brain that, even if for just a moment, makes me think "oh, well now there's a thing."

Join me. Or don't. It's a busy old world and we all have things to be getting on with, but if you have nothing better to do, or not much on, let's give it a go.