Pennine Way – Day 1

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1 – The Pennine Way is 268 miles long, running from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland. On Friday I set out to walk the first 52 miles with Dave, my brother-in-law.

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2 – The Pennine Way was Britain’s first national trail, originally suggested in 1935 by the journalist Tom Stephenson. An American wrote into his newspaper column asking if Britain had anything like the Appalachian trail. Stephenson said there wasn’t, but suggested a possible route, and worked to make this official. The path was formally opened in April 1965, thirty years later. The success of the Pennine Way has led to other trails being opened around the country.

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3 – Despite managing to live out of a single bag for months when travelling, I made a huge mess of packing for this trip. I sorted my things in Derbyshire, at Dave & Liz’s house, and realised I’d forgotten to pack appropriate trousers. Walking the Pennine Way in suit trousers seemed a poor idea, requiring a late-night drive to Tesco’s to buy better attire.

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4 – The route begins at Edale, close to Castleton, the start of the Limestone Trail (which I walked in April). After walking the South Downs, North Downs and Limestone Ways recently, I’d grown complacent. Fortunately I read the Rambling Man guide a few days before and realised I needed to prepare a little better than usual. The maps I bought came in very useful.

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5 – We stopped at a cafe to buy hot drinks in Edale before setting out. We considered food – I fancied a breakfast roll. Dave wanted a sandwich from the lunch menu. They would sell us the latter to take away, but only on condition we didn’t eat it on the premises – they were still on the breakfast menu. There were just two other people in the restaurant. I wondered what disaster or misfortune had led to such a strict policy.

(The sandwiches we brought were tasty though, probably the best packed lunch we had on the trail. The bread was unlike any I’d had before, the surface of the roll tearing like paper)

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6 – It’s quickly apparent that the Pennine Way is not fucking around. After a gentle rise to warm up, the path reaches Jacob’s Ladder, a long stone stairway. At the top of this we were among the clouds, with little visibility. The path across Kinder Downfall ran beside a long drop. And the descent to the Snake Inn turn-off was hard work, with steep slippy rocks. The Pennine Way is a health-and-safety nightmare. It compensates for this with some of the most incredible views I have ever seen.

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7 – Apparently Wainwright hated this path, with its bogs and difficult navigation. With the addition of paving stones, the route across the bogs on the first day has become much easier. These provide both navigation and a trustworthy walking surface. Apparently some people have complained that they make the route too easy. Personally, I was very glad of them.

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8 – Day 1 included some interesting places. We passed through Kinder Scout, site of the 1932 mass trespass. Although it was a little way off the path, we passed near to the crashed bomber on Bleaklow that I visited a couple of years back. We also passed through the narrow twisting route of “Devil’s Dike” (sic). All the high points were wreathed in mist, sometimes with very little visibility.

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9 – The pace of the Pennine Way is defined by the availability of accomodation. There are long periods without any buildings or shelter. Indeed, we could go hours without seeing anyone.  The first stage is 16 miles to reach the Crowden Valley, where we’d booked into Crowden’s only B&B (other options were a short car journey from the trail). For £3 the B&B owner drove us to the Peels Arms where we had a surprisingly good meal

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10 – By the time we reached Clough Edge, the weather had turned sunny, and we had a beautiful descent to Crowden. Dave was adopted by a tame lamb, which followed us through the fence. Eventually he had to walk to the wall and climb over, leaving the lamb on the other side, jumping and bleating.

The first day was a hard walk, but I already knew I was going to love this trail.

A book about Chalk

Paul Cornell’s recent novel Chalk is about abuse and folklore and the magic of pop-music. It’s the sort of book that burrows deep into my obsessions (one of its reference points is the Long Man of Wilmington). There’s a lot I can say about this book, and the conversations I’d have in person are very different to what I’d write in a blog post. It’s a book of complicated thoughts and feels.

I heard of the book through an interview with John Scalzi. It proved as shocking as Cornell warned – the incident at the start of the book, which triggers what follows, is very hard to read.

The book contains powerful chains of symbols – chalk outlines, downlands, pre-Roman Britain. There are the tarot suits scattered throughout the story – are the snooker cues wands, the knife a sword? Chalk turns up in different forms, not least on the snooker clues.

Cornell described the book as being about narrative, and the character of Angie has her own form of magic, very different to the narrator’s. The idea of pop music as magic seem familiar from Kieron Gillen’s Phonogram universe, but Cornell’s take on the idea is fresh. It’s a magic of lyrics, where the record at number one tells you what is coming in the future. Bananarama becomes a sort of triple goddess of young one, serious one and leader, but “They’re missing someone. There should really be a secret fourth member, or one we only hear about later”. Reference books listing British pop charts provide birth charts.

One thing I particularly liked was the headmaster’s announcement “[School] is a microcosm of the world. We prepare you for your place in it. History has set out a path for you. We lead you along it” – the school here is a world where the narratives compete. The distortions to this world are grounded while having the scale of cosmic horror, again reminiscent of Pratchett – there is a danger of something breaking through.

I’ve spoken mostly about the mythic aspects of the book. There’s also some very good, very raw writing about the effects of bullying and abuse, about the way in which these things persist in the world. The ending is the right one, true to the book, but it’s far from the one I wanted. But that’s the sort of discussion that works better in person than in books.

Louise said there was chalk in every room now.

The Limestone Way

I spent last weekend walking the Limestone Way. I had a spare couple of days before some work in Derbyshire, so wanted to find a nearby trail. 45 miles was a little longer than was sensible for two days – but I thought I’d do it anyway.

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It was a very different trail to the ones I’m used to, with the ground quite difficult in the first stages. Dad only made a short distance, and it was a good thing I was wearing new walking boots. The weather was also ropy for the first stage but by the afternoon was pretty sunny.

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One thing I’ve noticed is how long trails changes as they cross administrative boundaries. The first part of the Limestone Way was fairly well signposted, although there were a few games of hunt-the-stile. After crossing the River Dove I entered Staffordshire where the signage went to shit. They didn’t even bother marking the trail, just used regular footpath markers. At the end, the route fizzled out even worse than the Downs Link, with no indication it was done. It was almost as if Staffordshire was ashamed of the Way or had a vendetta against walkers. If I’d researched better, I’d have seen the Rambling Man’s account of this issue.

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The stunning scenery made up for all the hassles, my favourite moment being the River Dove valley. Just so much space and green! I’m due to do the start of the Pennine Way next month and I’m very excited about that now.

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This stile was stood on its own in the middle of a field. I have no idea why, but it looked… dangerous. I went around it.

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The first day was about 25 miles, with a couple of miles added on for misdirection. I found the bench shown below just when I needed it most. I stopped, lay down, read for a bit and ate a cookie. I was very grateful for Hilary, in whose name the bench was donated.

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I’m not a big fan of squeeze stiles, which seem to be designed for people with tiny, tiny legs.

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The River Dove valley below. The sort of view that deserves a round of applause.

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This is the trail end. Nothing to mark it, just a post with a single direction marked on it, rather than the two one normally finds on a trail.

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A long weekend

My original plan for this weekend was to attend the Super Weird Happening in Liverpool. But when organising that was proving too complicated I started looking for other things to do. Which led to me spending this weekend walking the Limestone Way.

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The path is 46 miles and the brochure suggests it can be walked in four to five days. As I only had a weekend I decided to walk it in two. The walk was a mix of stunning scenery and appalling signposting. It also would have been better done over three or more days,

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So, I walked 110,000 steps this weekend, and broke the 50 mile barrier thanks to appalling signposting. It was a stupid thing to try, but I learned a lot of lessons – after all, pushing things past their limits shows where they might break. The remaining walks for this year will be much easier.

Facebook and postcards

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I’m not a Facebook-hater. I know its interests aren’t perfectly aligned with mine; but as long as I don’t give it too much time, it’s fine. And I love that it’s kept some friendships going, long after distance or time might have had them dying away.

But Facebook will never be as great as the real world. It’s the same as how downloading an e-book isn’t the same as an Amazon order dropping through your letterbox. A postcard is always more fun than a tweet, whatever new updates Twitter roll out.

I love the postal system. I still like to write letters (and am massively overdue for my next one to Louise Halvardsson). One of the main texts for my (abandoned) PhD was Jacques Derrida’s Post Card. My pretend publishing company is called Postal Press. I await silent Tristero’s Empire. There’s something magic about the mail.

While I love the way Facebook keeps people in touch, it’s a rather passive communication – like a stream of round-robin letters. You can follow someone without really engaging with them. There are even a few people on my friends list that I can’t remember where I know them from. So I thought I would try sending postcards to as many people on my friends list as I can.

(I currently have 573 people on that friends list. This may take some time. And a lot of stamps.)

It will be good to get in touch with old friends. I suspect this will also be an interesting experiment. There’s something transgressive about blurring the online/offline boundaries. I imagine there are people who are happy to be friends on Facebook and don’t want to share their postal address. And, like all experiments, there is the possibility of something unexpected. (But, don’t worry, I’m not planning anything too real, like the woman who tried to visit all her Factbook friends).

Well, I’d best get started. Who wants a postcard?

First Impressions of Virtual Reality

I recently had my first chance to experience virtual reality. I’d played around with Google Cardboard, but the Oculus Touch headset was a whole world away from that. And, as impressive as the visual aspects were (and they were very impressive) the thing that amazed me most was how well the controllers worked, how easily I could interact with virtual objects.

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The first surprise about the two handheld controls was how they were present in both the real and virtual worlds. It’s strange being blindfolded from reality by the headset, but the controls are still visible, their position tracked by the cameras, even when you’re not holding them. Once you pick them up, sensors guess the location of your hands, then render them in the virtual world. I looked down to see my hands replaced with robotic ones. It was an incredible illusion.

The Toybox Demo was amazing. A virtual robot hands you objects which you can grip. The feedback from the sensors when you grasp things is crude, but it works. You feel as if you have a real presence and agency in the imaginary world.

I played the game Robo Recall and was blown away. I was immersed in combat with the robots, nervous about them getting behind me. The techniques for ‘walking’ around the game world were effective, meaning I had a sensation of exploring without having to move in reality (and therefore walk into the table).

There are two downsides to virtual reality. The first is the nausea – not as bad as I’d expected, but I suspect I’d suffer if I played for much longer than half an hour. The other is the cost – about £700 for the kit, and on top of that the cost of a powerful PC. Hopefully the price will fall quickly.

As a child of the 90s, I’ve spent decades being told that virtual reality was the future. I never had a chance to try out those early, cheesy demonstrations, but saw intense VRs represented in comics, books and TVs. The Oculus felt like all those promises were coming true. And, in a nice touch, the makers seem to have adopted  a lot of the signifiers of fictional VR in the Oculus (Japanese architecture, welcoming by female voices, use of infinite white landscapes etc) and that made it seem somehow familiar.

I can’t wait to get a longer chance to play on one of these. And I really want to try out some horror games.

The turning of Brighton’s seasons

Via scribe, I recently read an article on kigo in the modern world. Kigo are the seasonal words and phrases used in Japanese Haiku. As the form has spread across the world, there is a debate over how these concepts translate and whether they are essential to haiku. Many  kigo are local; for its entry on kigo, Wikipedia lists a selection of Southern Californian seasonal images.

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Last night I went for a walk along Brighton seafront. The i360 was dark, as if ashamed of its recent breakdowns. Crueller people, including the BBC, have labelled it ‘faulty tower’. The tide was out, meaning it was possible to walk along the sand. We could have walked among the West Pier ruins, had they not been demolished to make way for the i360.

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Further along the seafront the carousel had been erected ready for the summer season.

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I don’t know exactly when it went up this year – it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve been down this end of the seafront.A few years ago, I performed a piece called Two Towns, about how Brighton was two places, one in summer, another in winter. Brighton can be a depressing place in the cold, but it’s glorious on a sunny day. The return of the Carousel means the year has turned (see also: 2010, 2016).

Last weekend, it was bright enough that I got my first sunburn while I was out hiking. The town is filling up with visitors and the clocks have gone forward, giving everyone a couple of hours between work finishing and dark. While there are people out swimming every day of the year here, it will be soon time for the summer swimmers to join them. It’s good to be in Brighton right now.

The importance of blogging

I’ve recently been doing a blogging challenge with some friends, trying to write a post a day. I’m doing pretty well so far, managing a continuous stream of posts since the 19th. Some days it’s easier than others.

I like blogging. I try to produce complete thoughts, more developed than they would be on FB or twitter. Unless you’re doing a link blog, you can’t just chuck out a URL but need to give it some context. Writing daily is working well for me, and I’m looking at drafting my book by writing lots and lots of smaller posts.

My first blog started in October 2007. The initial post was throat-clearing:

I figured that it was about time that I put some stuff on my web-pages. I’ve put up pages before and then not touched them for months so I decided to use Blogger. This way I can add updates without having to use an FTP client. There is no guarantee that I will find anything interesting to say, but we shall see. Wednesday, October 03, 2001

I still have the files on my hard drive, and one day I’ll add them to this site. I’ve added content from some of the other blogging platforms I’ve used. A lot of the images have disappeared over time, but the text is there. And I like looking back on those memories, or being able to call up the little mini-essays I’ve written.

I’d love to see a revival in blogging. Facebook tends to produce less considered, less complete thoughts. And, while Facebook does a good job of distributing updates, it’s not as neutral as a blog. It shows you the things it thinks you’ll be interested in, the things that keep you interacting with their site. That isn’t quite the same thing as what is actually interesting. It also cuts out a lot of content. Some people seem to get screened-outcompletely by the algorithm. Facebook hides too much. It picks which posts it thinks should be distributed.

We need to see the boring posts. It’s good to know what other things someone is into, even if we find ourselves skipping them. It’s the same problem with online news – when you buy a physical newspaper, you get the articles you want and a load of other ones. You can see the space taken up by things you don’t care about, work out how important your passions are. As news becomes filtered and sorted, we lost that comparison with the boring things.

Blogging isn’t perfect. It’s not obvious to most people how to follow them, and it seems less convenient than Facebook. The Indie Web is promising, but it’s still difficult to use – it’s missing its Blogger moment, where it becomes easy for most people to get it working. And a guide on ‘how to follow blogs’ deserves a whole post of its own.

The best thing about blogs is that they produce a collection of thoughts, that they do some additional work with the links and ideas we encounter online. Quoting Warren Ellis for the second day in a row: “If we’re not doing something with the information we’re taking in, then we’re just pigs at the media trough.

Commuter Update

Work continues on the commuter folklore book. The text so far is strange and fascinating; the publishing side is proving interesting too. There is so much to plan – layouts, covers, proof-reading and so on. Asking about a proof-reader led to a flood of offers – some of whom included typos in their emails. It looks as if I have someone to work with, and I just need to finish the text.

Currently I am doing lots of research and filling my head with lots of ideas:

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The (factual, real world) history of commuting has turned out to be absorbing. Commuting predates both the railways and the coaches – there used to be ‘walking commuters’ who came to London from outlying villages. The word commuter itself dates turns out to be American and dates back to the 1840s.

Most interesting is the way the train commuter has gone from aspirational figure to derided as dull.  Early commuters were taking advantage of new technology to live outside the grimness of cities. By the twentieth century they were mocked in comedies like Monty Python and Reginald Perrin.

As I research, I’m starting to write the new pieces. Some are emerging from notes made in the years since the original project. Others have been triggered by the books I’ve been reading. Many years ago, on the Bad Signal mailing list, Warren Ellis wrote about where his ideas come from:

I flood my poor ageing head with information. Any information. Lots of it. And I let it all slosh around in the back of my brain, in the part normal people use for remembering bills, thinking about sex and making appointments to wash the dishes. Eventually, you get a critical mass of information. Datum 1 plugs into Datum 3 which connects to Datum 3 and Data 4 and 5 stick to it and you’ve got a chain reaction.

I’ve overloaded my mind with the details and background of commuting, along with the history of British railways. It’s now combining with all the oddness that usually sits in my head: Sussex ghosts, ley lines, modern hauntings, what the Internet really is. And it’s time to put it together. I can’t wait to see what comes out.

A new Brighton bookshop

Last week, I wrote about the sad demise of the PS Brighton bookshop. There was also some good Brighton bookshop news recently, with a new place opening in the open market, run by John Shire.

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John has been running The Smallest Bookshop in Brighton for some time, with tiny batches of books available at different locations around the town. The new venue doesn’t really qualify as small, as there are lots of books available. Some really good ones too – the shop sells a number of books that I love. On my first quick visit I replaced a book I previously owned that had been surrendered before my last house move.

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(I think that is why Brighton has so many good second hand books available – most people don’t have room to keep many, and have to discard books they would otherwise keep)

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John is also owner of Invocations Press, which has published a number of excellent books. Among them is Bookends, John’s “Partial History of the Brighton Book Trade”. It records many much-loved and much-missed shops, and includes a bibliopolyography listing all known Brighton bookshops. It is also a very amusing book, with some brilliant asides – my favourite being the claim that “all books about Brighton are legally obliged to mention [Aleister] Crowley

4/3/17 – Over on Facebook, John wrote: “Worth mentioning too that it would have been impossible without the help of Mark at Ububooks in the Open Market who shares the majority of the Unit as well. So, a greater range of books than you could shake a stick at. Which you are welcome to do. As long as it’s not muddy and bits don’t fall off it. And you buy something after you’ve had your unusual fun.