We just got back from the Isle of Skye…yes. You can sing the rest of the song if you like. We set off at 4.00am. My partner Flo drove 75% of the 430 miles. I could not be more grateful…and I’m still travel-dizzy. We’ve just unpacked everything. It’s astonishing that two small people can take so much stuff. About half of it is art materials (Flo does big landscapes, in situ), but I’ve no excuses. Why do I continue to pack absurd amounts of cookery stuff? No matter. I wasn’t going to write a post this week, but it rained, desperately and greyly, one day, and so I thought I’d write a sort of journal, and post that. So here it is
“A couple of weeks ago I ended a cobweb strand with this
I started off by making handmade books, just for the fun of it. Then I got a printer- a chap who prints things, that is. Then I won a competition. Then I won another. I’m a lucky boy. My first collection’s coming out in November. I may even post pictures of it. Or, like Jane Clarke, go to sleep with it under my pillow. You’ll never be a rock ‘n roll star. That’s not what it’s about. But whatever you do, just do it. You know you want to.
Before I kick off about how unbelievably happy I am that my first proper collection’s out next week, let me do two things. I’ve always liked Kim Moore’s ‘Sunday Poem’, obviously because of the array of poets she’s introduced me to over the last three years, but also because of the way she uses it as a journal….a review of the previous week, which invariably involves many miles of travel, many kilometres of running, many poetry readings, occasional rueful accounts of flu, and even more rueful tales of home improvement. She doesn’t need an elaborately conceived hook to hang the post on. She just tells you what she’s been doing, and then introduces her guest poet. I’m envious. So envious, in fact, that I’m going to do the same myself. The journal bit, that is.
The other thing is to tell you how happy I am about two new pamphlets, which came out in the last couple of weeks. I’ll do that first. One’s by my good mate and mentor, Keith Hutson..
Keith is one of those people who inspires me to constantly strive to write better. He works prodigiously hard at his poetry, maintaining a daily routine of voracious reading and hard drafting. His commitment shows itself in the regularity of successful submissions. A former Coronation Street and comedy writer, he has been widely published in journals including The North, The Rialto, Stand, Magma, Agenda, and Poetry Salzburg Review. He has also had several competition successes, and is a Poetry Business Yorkshire Prize winner. And now he has his first pamphlet. For the last couple of years, Keith has been minutely researching the world of the musical hall and variety artist…it stems from an early love of variety theatre, and meeting the likes of Dick Emery and Les Dawson. He goes back into the 19thC to recover the work of nearly forgotten, and sometimes frankly bizarre, performers, like one whose whole act consisted of miming the frying of fish and chips. And he celebrates them all (more than sixty of them) in beautifully crafted, witty, bittersweet sonnets. The pamphlet is Routines, and it’s published by Poetry Salzburg: [ October 2016. 40 pp £5.00 (+ 1.00 p&p)] . It’s going to be a winner, a bestseller. Get yours while stocks last.
The other pamphlet is by my Poetry Business chum, Maria Taylor. (Both Keith and Maria have been guest poets on the cobweb, and will be again). I loved Maria’s last collection, Melanchrini, which I reviewed in The North. You can find some of the poems from it in a post of October 18, 2015, and share my enthusiasm. Maria announced the arrival of the new pamphlet in her own blog, Commonplace . Here’s the link miskinataylor.blogspot.com/
This is what she said
‘After a few months of silence, it’s become absolutely necessary to update this blog as I have something to say. I am very happy to announce that I have a new pamphlet out with HappenStance and it’s called ‘Instructions for Making Me.‘ I wasn’t going to say anything official until I had the actual publication in my hands. Nell Nelson via Jane Commane at the Poetry Book Fair sped a few copies over in time for my first reading last night. Luckily the winged gods of Hermes did actually manage to deliver the rest of the pamphlets in time, which I found under a bush in my front garden…………………………………….
So there you go. (According to various readers), I am an exclamation mark. I am a glass of Rioja. I am Spring. This is ironic as a shop assistant t’other week said my choice of top was the ‘perfect colour for transitioning into autumn.’ You get different seasons catered for in this pamphlet. Why not have a look, please and thank you.’
So there you go. Two new pamphlets by two people who keep my batteries charged. Off you go, and buy them.
Meanwhile, I’m writing this in a cottage …or a chalet or a cabin; I’m not sure which would be correct…down by the shore in Ord on the Isle of Skye. A mile or so of rough moorland behind the cluster of cabins brings you to where you can look back over Loch Eishort, and beyond that, Loch Slapin, to the moorland along which runs the road to Elgol. There’s a stony track that goes up and over the saddle of An Mam, and you can look down at one of the most breathtaking views on Skye. There’s Bla Bheinn to your right and straight ahead the whole of the Black Cuillin Ridge. The cliffs across Eishort run out at the headland of Suishnish. Sometimes the dark cleft in the scarp is white with a furious waterfall. And basically I can see pretty well all of this from the window I’m sitting at, a couple of hundred feet down from where I took this photo a couple of days ago.
I should be happy as Larry, but I’m fighting the frustration of looking at places I want to walk, and just at the moment, and possibly for good, can’t. I can’t face the discomfort of coming down that steep and stony track from An Mam. I long ago gave up any notion of going all the way up Bla Bheinn. I’d love to be on the track that runs on the shoreline below the cliffs and along to Suishnish. There’s a fantastic 12 mile circular walk that takes you from the old marble quarries by Kil Chriosd, over the hill and down into Boreraig and then along the rocky, muddy shore and up a line in the cliff to Suishnish. Two Clearance villages, a ruined mining operation, a cranky road put down in the 30’s in an attempt to repopulate the crofts, another marble quarry, and huge huge views.
I need the serenity to put it all into perspective. The first time we came here, 30 years ago, I could make no sense of Skye. Too wet, too big, everything too far away. And we were timid. We made small forays along the shore, or went on short safe walks. Year on year we got bolder and began to learn how the land worked; not to mind the rocky boggy awkwardness of things. The firm that had built these cabins at Ord went out of business. We were offered, in the 1980s, first refusal on any of them. We could have bought the one I’m sitting in for £12000…fully furnished and fitted out. We could, if we’d had the money or second sight, or both. For a time they were unavailable to rent, and for years after, we shifted for our annual (sometimes bi-annual trips to Skye) to the next but one valley of Achnacloich.
We became friends with Effie and Norman who owned the bungalow we rented. It was Norman who told me ‘You can walk wherever you like over these hills..you can tell them Norman said so.’ There’s a huge difference between ‘can’ and ‘may’. Pretty well at the point where I was becoming happy to walk over these big moors on my own, and simply explore, my hips gave up the ghost. It was just too painful, and twenty-plus years after I was told to have them replaced, I did. It was like dying and going to heaven. Four months after my second hip replacement, I did the 12 mile circular walk through Boreraig and Suishnish, whizzed over the An Mam track, skipped to the Point of Sleat, and, the following year,belted up to Corrie Lagan out of Glen Brittle, invented a strenuous moorland circular and found two lochans I had no idea existed…… and, back home, floated up over Horse Head Moor above Buckden. Brilliant. Truly brilliant. Pain-free hill-walking. Inevitably I damaged both knees. Got them cleaned out. Had a revival.
And now it’s ankles. One in particular. Last year I thought maybe I’d broken something and wandered into A&E for an X-ray. Good news and bad news said the man. There’s nothing broken but you’ve got a condition that sounds worse than it is. What’s that? I asked. Catastrophic disintegration. And fair play to him. It sounds infinitely worse than it is. But essentially, there’s a lot of loose chippings floating around in there, and they do not like my walking on rough ground or down steep hills, of which there is an abundance on Skye. Which is where serenity kicks in, if you’re lucky, and I reckon I’m remarkably lucky. After all, I got to do all the stuff I thought I never would. And if I can’t do them now, well that’s the way it is. That’s what I tell myself.
Which brings us to sheep, and thus to desire paths. I don’t mean the tracks and paths that I earnestly desire to stride about on. It’s a term that’s turned up relatively recently in books about the poetry and semantics and psychology of landscape, and the shifting cultural assumptions about what landscapes signify. You’re entirely familiar with them…the paths made by folk in public places like housing estates, or around hospitals, or on grassy patches by shopping centres and car parks. The paths that ignore the paths the planners decreed, and opt for the most convenient route (usually the shortest distance). I think of them as diagonal paths because they cut corners. They’re made by the people who live there or regularly and routinely go there. They are paths that evidence local knowledge, familiarity. There’s an argument that ancient holloways are desire paths of a sort. I’m not convinced, but looking at the desire paths created by sheep (and deer) in wild moorlands and uplands, maybe the argument’s not so farfetched.
I have grown to be respectful of sheep. Norman Macpherson..who I mentioned earlier…was a shepherd all his life, from the time he left Skye at the age of 14 to work, first on the Lomond, and then on the Nevis ranges, before he came back to Skye to manage the Clan Donald estates, to meet and marry Effie, and to run his own flocks on the moors around Achnacloich. He did that till he died, as his father had done before him. Effie still maintains a couple of hundred sheep. Out of sentiment she says. It can’t be out of any hope of profit. If it’s not too dry, it’s too wet, and sheep are heir to a thousand natural shocks. As Ted Hughes was careful to record. And they can seem remarkably stupid around people. But Norman loved his sheep and talked about their intelligence. I’ve come to believe in it.
The walker’s guide books to Skye are apt to dismiss the Sleat Peninsula where we stay. ‘Nothing to interest the serious walker’ they’ll say, and move hurriedly on to the Red Cuillin.The first time I came I was inclined to agree. Miles and miles of apparently featureless drab, wet, brown moorland. Featureless till you start to wander about in it. For a start, it’s higher than you think, with scoured quartzite tops that gleam like snow in the sun. It’s gullied by small burns that are rapidly impassable in heavy and prolonged rain. There are odd transverse flat bottomed ‘hanging’ valleys. The underlying rock’s been heated , heaved, twisted, up ended, and where the softer strata’s been eroded, the valleys fill with peat and silt and reed and spaghnum, or they’re blocked at either end, so they fill with water. There are lochans in surprising places. There are sudden sharp scarp edges and surprisingly big drops. And always you can see the sea, the outer islands, Rhum floating on the horizon, the whole Cuillin range to the north. And, if you’re used, as I was, to places like Upper Wharfedale, you are quickly aware there are no footpaths, no fingerposts, no National Trust acorns, no tea shops, no gift shops, no car parks, and nobody but you, sheep, and, if you’re lucky, red deer.
As you learn to look, it all rapidly becomes not featureless at all. You rely on a rock outcrop to give you a rough line on where you’re going. You learn to avoid the bright green bits. And faced with a quarter of a mile of what looks like wet, boggy land that you can’t go round, you learn to see that sheep (and deer) being intelligent and helpful creatures, as well as creatures of habit, have made paths through the tussocky, reedy stuff. If the sun’s in your eyes, you can’t see them easily, but otherwise they’re clear, like the ones in the picture at the top of this post. I’ve learned to love sheep tracks, not only for showing me the way across flat wet stuff, but over becks and burns in deep cut gullies and ghylls. Look for the bruise in the bracken, or the shine of small stones, and sooner or later you’ll find that they’ll take you to the spot where it’s easiest to cross running water, and the way up the other side. And they’ll take you to sheltered spots, too. Stands of silver birch and rowan, with a bit of turf to sit on. Desire paths. That’s what sheep make.
And that’s what I’ve followed on my wonky ankle, on the days when it wasn’t pissing down. Not far, but far enough to take photographs of lovely places. I’ve not gone far, but far enough to acknowledge that I’m not going to get to the top of that quartz hill top in the far distance. It’s only about half a mile off, but what you can’t see till you get higher up is that there’s a great big gully between you and it. The sheep have wandered down and up the other side. You can see their paths. But the ankle says no. On the other hand, if I hadn’t come up here on Wednesday I wouldn’t have come across four red deer who watched me for a bit, and then went. They don’t run. They levitate and flow and vanish into the hillside. Magic.
Magic, too, to watch a pod of six dolphins playing with the bow wave of a fishing boat coming into Eishort. And also having Effie round for afternoon tea and cake (no cheese, thank you). We’ve not seen her for over three years, one way or another, and we caught up with news of her daughters who’ve moved back from the mainland to live in the same crofting valley, and build a new house, and….And I tell her that she’s in some new poems and that so is Norman. She doesn’t mind, she says. Gives that deprecating och.
So I’ve followed desire paths, and found the serenity. Which is nice. We’re off home tomorrow morning at some unearthly hour to to be home in time to pick up the cat. Then we’ll unpack, I’ll post this, look out of the window and wonder where the sea and the mountains went.
And next week is the start of a lot of poetry stuff. A book launch for Steve Nash up at Mytholmroyd on Monday….Helen Mort’s supporting. Yay.! Thursday we’ll be at The Red Shed in Wakefield, when the hugely talented Di Slaney will be guesting.And on Friday I’ll have in my hand a copy of my very first full collection.!!!!!!!!! The Poetry Business are having an evening for the winners of the Yorkshire Prize…individual poems picked out by Billy Collins from shortlisted entries in the Pamphlet Competition. And among them, I’m really chuffed to see friends like Charlotte Whetton and the amazing Mike di Placido. Plus I get to read with Stuart Pickford (Swimming with jellyfish). What a week….and more readings coming up. I’ll put them on Facebook.
Next week we’ll be back to normal. We’ll have a guest whose work I think is really exciting (as well as technically very very clever). In the meantime, you could be ordering the collection that I still have to hold in my hand. Much Possessed. You could pre-order it. Just follow the link. http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/shop/933/much-possessed
And if you don’t want to, that’s OK. Follow your desire paths. In the meantime, here’s a poem as a taster. See you next Sunday.
A flicker of white water on the burn
below the alders where the heron roosts
A flirt of dunnock in the short grass
that sets the sheep trotting
Rain dragging its skirts
across the skerries in the ebb
Right on the rim of the moor
three hinds , watching
A curl of bluegrey turf smoke
from the red-roofed croft
I keep it like this.
The heron just crumpling
into the alders,
like a broken kite
the deer watching
between the moor and the sky
small birds lifting from the field
like the hem of a skirt in a breeze
the lamentations of sheep
the bright red tin roof of a crofter’s house
Postscript: when I got home I opened an email that told me I’ve won 2nd Prize in the Canterbury International Poetry Comp. How good is that!!! I told you I was lucky.
2 thoughts on “Desire paths, sheep and serenity”
Fogggs, inless there is a second poetry collection called ‘Swimming with Jellyfish”, that is by my friend and former classmate the lovely Stuart Pickford’ not someone called Andy Humphreys as you attribute on your blog! I’m sure you will want to put that right. In the meantime, so sorry to hear about your ankles — difficult for a walker to endure theses limitations, as i well know. Hope to manage short treks in th Atlas mountains come May… love and xxxxs,
Stuart Pickford it is, Wendy. Dunno what happened there xxxxx