A River Walk (Lewes to Peacehaven)

I’m not a huge fan of riverside hikes. I hate how a long stretch of walking beside a meandering river covers so little distance. Despite that, when some friends suggested a walk along the Ouse I decided to join them.

I took my first trip on a train since March. The train station was strange and oppressive, and also very quiet. We set out for the Ouse via the ruins of Lewes Priory.

We’d started out early, but the heat was already brutal. I kept slathering on the suncream and went through my drinks faster than planned (last night I ordered a couple more aluminium bottles ready for future hikes this summer). Waterbirds darted about and, on the opposite bank were a menacing line of cows, the young ones sheltering in their parent’s shadows.

The landscape south of Lewes is beautiful, with views of Firle Beacon, Mount Caburn and Lewes castle. And, while the river was taking long loops it didn’t feel too irritating. As Frankie pointed out, it meant our view of the scenery kept changing. The route was more interesting than the equivalent section of the South Downs Way, where you have the same ridge of the hill ahead of you for hours.

We did walk a tiny section of the South Downs way when we met it at the Southease swing-bridge. We walked from one side of the bridge to the other than back to continue our journey along the Ouse’s west bank.

On the east side of the river, we found a short trail of muddy hoof prints.

We couldn’t follow the banks of the Ouse the whole way, since private property forced us inland near Piddinghoe. Instead we had to follow a fast stretch of road with little pavement – but at least it gave us some shade.

The river was very low and, in the end, only one of us took a dip. I sat on a bench and enjoyed the view of Itford Hill.

For some miles, we’d seen thick smoke rising from Newhaven. At Piddinghoe we encountered a couple of walkers who’d left the town for the day to avoid this cloud. When the wind changed for a time we could see and smell the smoke, so we decided to change our plan of heading to Newhaven and strike out south-west for Peacehaven.

There was a path clearly marked on the OS map, so we took that for it. I learned a useful lesson: just because a path is clearly marked, it doesn’t make it easy to navigate. This one was thick with brambles, some of which drew blood from Frankie’s legs. The branches were also thick with fruit, which I guess is a fair exchange, and Frankie emerged with an armful of forage. The hedge beside us was also full of butterflies.

The difficult part of the route did not last too long, but it was definitely one of those neglected paths which seem to have been actively made unwelcoming. The footpath was actually blocked at one point by a low fence.

But we did have some great views on our way to Peacehaven’s Centenary Park, from where we headed to the the meridien marker before taking an Uber home. It was a good day out, and walks in company are generally much more fun that solitiary ones – I even learned about how PCR testing works. And I managed to add another 10 meters towards my re-walking of the South Downs Way.

Thinking about other problems with nature writing

After encountering a reference in a review, I ended up reading a lot about Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie. To my shame, I’d not read her books before, although I’ve since picked up Findings on the Kindle. What attracted to me about Jamie was her aggressive critique of nature writing, particularly how it relates to class and gender.

Considering such things is not just virtue signalling on my part; and any responses need to go beyond writers just acknowledging their privilege. I think there is a deeper question about how people from comfortable backgrounds justify their writing (in the same way that many writers from minorities might feel forced to as a matter of course).

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to my writing about the South Downs Way. It’s not simply about being ‘better’, which reinforces the idea of writing as a competition for scarce audiences. For me, it is about being aware of what makes my writing worth showing to anyone else. If I simply write from a position of privilege, I am merely a ventriloquist for society. Instead, I need to ask what I can say that nobody else can, and make sure I am doing that.

Jamie wrote in her 2008 LRB essay:

What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-​class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! … Here to boldly go, “discovering”, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words.

Jamie is not fond of nature writing, saying in one interview I can’t even say the words ‘nature writers’, I can’t get it out of my gob … “. In an New Statesman piece, Death of the naturalist: why is the “new nature writing” so tame?, Mark Cocker linked Jamie to another writer, Jim Perrin, who

argues that new nature writing is quintessentially an urban literature with a primarily metropolitan audience. [Perrin] suggests that for both author and reader, engagement with nature is an act of remembrance rather than a daily, lived experience. Given that most Britons now dwell in cities, one could argue that it is therefore a perfect literature for our times.

As Cocker continues, this literature often involves:

clothing a landscape in fine writing, both the writer’s own and that of other historical figures… John Crace’s mischievous “Digested Read” for the Guardian of Macfarlane’s latest book, Landmarks, defines “Macfarlish” as “the process of praising other authors to make your own book better by association”

In a 2019 Guardian interview, Jamie talked about how “has been colonised – by middle-class white men“, suggesting that “if you understand how that’s happened, you understand the whole godforsaken political state of this country.” The same type of people as usual have emerged at the top of a field that Jamie says was “barely there” 15 years ago. The same calm competence ends up running things again.

One of the assumptions this leads to is the idea of ‘the wild’. This means different things to different people, depending on how secure they feel, their sense of safety, and, yes, their financial background:

There’s nothing wild in this country: every square inch of it is ‘owned’, much has seen centuries of bitter dispute; the whole landscape is man-made, deforested, drained, burned for grouse moor, long cleared of its peasants or abandoned by them…

James also points out that our relationship to the wild has changed because

with our (almost) guaranteed food supplies, motor engines, vaccines and antibiotics, [we] have begun to make our peace with these wild places, and to seek recreation in land which was once out to kill us, where we can be reassured, in some way

These points raised by Jamie link in with the issues raised by Angus Carlyle when he was interviewed on Justin Hopper’s Uncanny Landscapes Podcast. Where does the authority and competence of these writers come from. Kathleen Jamie describes our interaction with this figure:

The danger of this writing style is that there will be an awful lot of ‘I’. If there is a lot of ‘I’ … then it won’t be the wild places we behold, but the author. We see him swimming, climbing, looking, feeling, hearing, responding, being sensitive, and because almost no one else speaks, this begins to feel like an appropriation, as if the land has been taken from us and offered back, in a different language and tone and attitude. Because it’s land we’re talking about, this leads to an unfortunate sense that we’re in the company, however engaging, of another ‘owner’, or if not an owner, certainly a single mediator.

There is an important question here about how I write about the world around me. How can I move beyond an assumption of universality? How do I move beyond simply explaining, particularly when that act of explaining often masks an act of appropriation? How do I introduce a space for doubt, for appreciating the beautiful spectrum of approaches other people will bring to a natural space? I think there is a space to talk about my experience of landscapes, but I guess the question is how to do that without assuming that my subjective experience is everything.

Lockdown Day 142 – Winter is… approaching

It’s a shock to realise that it is over 140 days since I took the option to work from home because of the pandemic. I knew I would be away for a while, but I honestly expected things to be mostly back to normal during the summer. The Government has now has given up making any promises about an end to the crisis, let alone talking about ‘normality in twelve weeks’.

I’m struggling with how to live in this new world. Lockdown was relatively easy, as it was temporary and straightforward. All that was asked of most of us was to stay home. Now, we need to decide how to approach the current situation. How do we balance the need for human contact with the dangers of Covid-19?

(A good friend of mine has been suffering from ‘long-tail Covid’ and it is horrific. There is evidence of serious long-term heart and lung issues even after ‘recovery’. The longer I can avoid catching Covid-19, the better – hopefully, until after science has worked out how to limit the disease’s non-lethal effects.).

I was very lucky with the initial lockdown. I have a quiet flat to myself, my parents are relatively safe, and my employer has promised to make no redundancies in 2020. There were difficult points: I personally found the empty shelves very threatening; and, at one point, computer problems threatened to leave me isolated. But those problems are tame compared to most other people.

Winter is on it’s way, with the threat of renewed transmission of the virus. My best friend is moving to Norwich this week, and while I’m very excited about this, I’m also aware that this could leave me isolated. I need to work out how to make connections in the pandemic world, while staying safe.

(Zoom really doesn’t work for me. I spend much of my day on calls for work. And zoom is not a replacement for real-world communication. When you end a zoom call, a flat to myself feels like the loneliest place in the world).

I’m starting to think ahead to Winter. I’m considering what do I need in order to make my house calming and comfortable. I need to invest in a good raincoat for wet-weather winter walks. I’m looking for new people to do my daily walks with. And if the worst comes to the worst, I guess there’s always Animal Crossing.

Hiking the South Downs Way 1: Belle Tout Lighthouse to Alfriston

After very little recent hiking (my last proper walk was June 20th), it was good to get out again. Even on the day itself, it was hard to leave the safety of my nest, but worth it once I was out. I’m hoping to walk the whole of the South Downs Way in August/September, so this 9 mile section was a good start.

Obviously, the Belle Tout lighthouse is not a traditional starting point for the South Downs Way. Katharine thought the trail started from Beachy Head, and I thought she wanted to keep the distance down. Either way, we will have to come back and do that missing three mile section. It’s an opportunity for me to walk the Jevington route, the alternative path for cyclists.

The weather was pretty much perfect for hiking – sunny but breezy, not too hot. My fitness wasn’t so good – I had to rest a few times when climbing the seven sisters. I’ve also developed a bad back during lockdown, and fell over when I slipped on one of the downhill sections.

But the white cliffs were stunning and we even had a flyby from a couple of spitfires, which performed acrobatics above Beachy Head.

At the end of the Seven Sisters was Cuckmere Haven. I recently read about how the valley was once filled with defences to resist the planned German invasion. From there we walked through Friston Forest through to Litlington, where Katharine spotted a turn I blithely missed. From there, we strolled the meadows leading to Alfriston, where we had lunch before heading home.

But, before leaving Alfriston, we popped into Much Ado Books. My first trip to an actual bookshop in months, but they made the whole thing friendly rather than weird. I ended up buying a couple of books, one on foraging, and one I couldn’t resist for the title, The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: And Other Excursions to Iceland’s Most Unusual Museums. I’ve been buying from that virtual bookshop recently, and I’d forgotten the joys of a proper bookshop.

The bookshop was giving out vintage postcards with all purchases, so I now have a lovely postcard of Budapest to send to someone. Also, usefully, there was a chart to help you see which authors are the same size as you.

After weeks without a proper hike, it was good to get out again. Katharine had been feeling the same frustrations as me about walking alone. We talked about old friends, future plans and our fears. The best conversations happen when hiking. Next up, we need to book in the Winchester leg.

Monthnotes: July 2020

July has been something of a nothing-month. I did no significant hikes, and had little energy or enthusiasm. The main thing that happened this month was a much-delayed trip to visit family. Other than that it’s daily walks and work.

My step count was 344,666, 10% lower than in June, despite July being a longer month. My lowest total was 10,211, barely above my target, my highest just 15,490. I used to hit my totals easily, running errands, commuting or visiting people. Now it’s a drag doing the bare minimum.

I watched 4 films, remarkably all of them in the same weekend. Rambo: Last Blood was both terrible and unpleasant; See You Yesterday was a good spin on time-travel films; Dolemite is My Name was fantastic. The biggest surprise was Everybody’s Everything, a documentary about L’il Peep, a soundcloud rapper who died at 21. This story was sad in some places and ridiculous in others. But it did a great job in telling the story of a scene and the people involved. I finished a handful of books, including Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, which was gripping and uplifting.

(Oh – one film I almost forgot, the Netflix documentary about Walter Mercado, Mucho Mucho Amore)

While I’ve enjoyed the quiet of lockdown, enough is enough. I really need to think of things to do so that August’s monthnotes are longer and more interesting.

The Uncanny Landscapes Podcast: Problems with Nature Writing

Justin Hopper, author of The Old Weird Albion, recently launched a podcast called Uncanny Landscapes. The first episode contained an interview with Angus Carlyle, a writer I’d not heard of before, but whose books I immediately hunted out.

The interview with Carlyle described something that has troubled me for a while. Carlyle was discussing the compilation of two of his books, Nightblooms and A Downland Index. Nightblooms contains poetry and photographs taken with a smartphone and torchlight while running on the downs. A Downland Index consists of a hundred pieces, each 100 words long.

Both books were initially written as entries on social media platforms – A Downland Index as “an obscure Tumblr”, and Nightblooms on Twitter and Instagram. While the use of these services in the book’s production is not foregrounded, Carlyle says that he was fascinated by the relationship between the timestamps used in these services, which put the uploaded item into an almost-legal framework, and the ambiguity of the thing being timestamped.

Carlyle used this to explore his feelings about nature writing. For Carlyle, such books depend on a “mantle of truth-telling“, but it is hard to know how authentic this is: “Did they really know at this time they described themselves knowing it?” There seems to be a “projection of a certain expertise… the nature writer is a virtuosic inhabitant of the familiar or unfamiliar. Even in the unfamiliar they rely on beautiful writing [or] a transparent reflection of their own emotions, reporting back their experience“. How do you seperate the lived experience from the writer’s later research?

The digital services used acted as witnesses to Carlyle’s immediate presence, exploring “how to use something as clean and digital and unnatural as the internet architecture around these clocks that are constantly logging activities like me uploading things… as a way of inserting some kind of doubt into the process of nature writing”.

It was an exciting discussion, and arrived while I was wrestling with a question around my own writing. I’d been asked to provide documentation of a favourite walk, but there seemed to be various traps around this. I did not want to fall into the role of a man wandering about noticing things then explaining them. Carlyle’s assertion of presense feels like an useful thing to consider.

I’m going to write more about Carlyle’s book soon, particularly A Downland Index. Indexes do not appear often enough in creative writing (one notable exception being JG Ballard’s story The Index.) Carylye begins his book with the index and it’s an interesting way to present a book. Why are there more entries for cars than chalk? How does this format affect my feelings about the coming book?

Justin’s podcast is beautifully produced, and his voice is perfect. The third volume arrived in my RSS reader, and I’m looking forward to listening to it this afternoon.

Lockdown Retreat Day 135: Escape from Brighton

Last weekend was my first overnight trip out of Brighton since lockdown (the last being my hike to Firle and back). I’d originally planned to see my family the weekend of Mother’s Day, but the growing crisis meant that we cancelled.

There’s a game I sometimes play when I’m walking about Brighton, which is to look for signs of the pandemic, seeing how long it is before I can spot something out of the ordinary (or something belonging to the new ordinary, whichever way you want to put it). It’s like the set-dressing for a dystopian future – masks, obviously, rainbows in the windows, adverts on buses for films released at the start of the year. Driving up the M1, approaching the junction to Leicester, the gantries announced that Leicester was ‘ESSENTIAL TRAVEL ONLY’.

When I arrived at my sister’s, things were not entirely normal. I didn’t enter any of the houses, staying in an Airbnb that she runs, and I didn’t touch anyone. I don’t know if we were being pious about the bio-security protocols, since the law would have allowed me to enter my parent’s house or my sister’s, but it seemed safer not to.

It was liberating to be in the countryside, and I fell asleep on a shady bench that first afternoon. It was also good to be around animals: the nervous moorhens, the chickens, a half-feral cat and the dogs. I slept so well at night that I wasn’t awake in time to see the hare or the deer. I felt revitalised by sunlight, flowing fresh water, trees and breezes.

Having said that, sunlight was in short supply. Saturday afternoon it began raining. In the evening, we ate curry under a marquee with water dripping down the sides. It felt and just like being at a festival.

Still the rain wasn’t bad for everyone. I’d driven my sunflower up, as I didn’t want it dying while I was away (this is normal behaviour, right?) I got to give Vicky the Sunflower a new home, repotting her in something larger. She also got to enjoy being outside, which meant experiencing rain for the first time.

One of the best bits of Lord of the Rings is Rivendell. After a various dangers and excitements, the story pauses when Frodo stops off on the Last Homely Home. It’s a strange part of the book, where everything seems to pause.

Frodo was now safe in the Last Homely House east of the Sea. That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, ‘a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep, or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.’ Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear and sadness.

Of course, the downside of a pandemic is that there is no real quest to it for most of us. As the meme joked, we could be heroes by staying indoors and doing nothing. Now I am back in Brighton, I need to think of more exciting things to do than sitting in my flat.

A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carre

A Legacy of Spies (published 2017) is both a prequel and sequel to Le Carre’s most celebrated novel, A Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963). Peter Guillam is retired in Brittany, when he is summoned to London to resolve “a matter in which you appear to have played a significant roles some years back“. Legal claims have emerged relating to the 1960s mission described in Le Carre’s earlier book.

Le Carre is at his best writing interrogations, and the scenes where Guillam faces British Government lawyers are great. I particularly liked the character of Tabitha, a service-appointed lawyer representing Guilliam. He cannot decide whether to trust her or not, and it demonstrates the Kafka-esque nature of trials where details are restricted to lawyers and defendants.

The problem is, in discussing an event set in the early sixties, Le Carre resorts to having Guillam read through old memos and transcripts. This mean the action felt very distant, and it was a little like being at work. The quality of the encounters between Guillam and the lawyers only make this technique feel more threadbare. Despite that, the writing is often brilliant, with some striking phrases, such as when Guillam muses, “Sometimes I wonder whether it is possible to be born secret, in the way people are born rich, or tall, or musical“.

Ultimately, Guillam has to decide what to do with secrets that have been kept for decades. Bunny, one of the government lawyers, refers disdainfully to “the British public’s insatiable interest in historic crime… Today’s blameless generation versus your guilty one“. The legacy of cynical and shameful acts needs to be reckoned with, and potentially punished long after the fact.

The structure of the book promises an encounter with spymaster George Smiley. We see him in the old transcripts first, “tubby, bespectacled, permanently worried“. There’s a lovely description of Smiley carrying out an interrogation: “a bit put out, a bit pained, as if life is one long discomfort for him and no one can make it tolerable except just possibly you“.

In the final section of the book, Guillam sets out to find Smiley. There is a brief rousing chorus of Smiley’s People before this final reckoning. Smiley seems younger than he should be and, indeed, his age has been retconned in a couple of earlier books. He has become one of those de-aging spies, like Nick Fury, his past rewritten to catch up with him. This final encounter is brief and perhaps inconclusive, as was the novel itself. Smiley cannot but be seen as a cipher of Le Carre himself, a mysterious presence in the background of all these books.

I think Le Carre is one of Britain’s most impressive living writers. This book feels very much a valedictory one, and last year’s Agent Running in the Field came as a surprise. The more recent book is probably the better one, since this book feels limited by being a legacy project but it mostly works well.

We do feel it’s an important job, as long as one cares about the end, and not too much about the means“.

Review: ‘Pink Floyd are Fogbound in Paris’ by Ben Graham

I read a version of Ben Graham’s new book ‘Pink Floyd are Fogbound in Paris’ in March, just as lockdown was starting. The book was written for the 50th Anniversary of the doomed ‘Yorkshire Folk, Blues and Jazz’ festival and is officially published next month. It’s turned out to be a sadly appropriate book for a summer without festivals.

Ben does a great job of telling the story, using his research without quite puncturing the legendary parts of the tale. “On the weekend of August 14-16, 1970, roughly 25,000 people gathered for the first Yorkshire Folk, Blues and Jazz Festival. It was also the last”.

There’s a lovely story arc, as the enthusiastic promoters do their best to put on a festival, find solutions to many problems but ultimately doomed by forces they can’t control. Ben paces the narrative well and provides some lovely asides.

I’ve been to some grim festivals. I’ve seen muddy years at Glastonbury, and was a day visitor to one of the flood years at Download. I also enjoyed the charmingly shambolic final Playgroup festival. But the problems faced by the Krumlin festival went beyond that: an isolated, exposed location, beset by vicious weather. It was a true festival hell.

The physical book is really good looking. I adore the cover, and there are some fantastic photos. I particularly liked the one of Christy Moore standing on the M62, which was being built at the time. This motorway lurks wonderfully in the background of the story, with Ben using quotes from a report on its construction to illustrate the severity of weather conditions at one point.

I re-read the book on an English summer’s day, sat in a garden marquee while it pissed down outside. Even though I didn’t know a lot of the bands, the tale is really one of man versus the elements. It’s well worth reading – and definitely essential for anyone who’s idly thought, “I reckon we should put on a festival”.

Lockdown Retreat Day 130: Looking towards a hard winter

One of the things that scared me most about lockdown was the lack of a clear exit strategy. A lot of the restrictions have now been lifted, but it feels like a stumbling sort of progress. At the same time, with so many venues closed, beaches and parks are packed, and there’s a relaxed summery mood. We are in the midst of a crisis, but that crisis feels remote. What scares me now is the possibility of a very hard winter coming, and one that we are poorly prepared for.

At the start of the crisis, I was pleased with the government’s handling of things, once they finally took things seriously. I might loathe some of the politicans themselves, but the messaging was clear and the leadership appeared confident. Things have collapsed since then. A succession of obvious errors have made things a lot worse than they needed to be.

An example of this is the rules around masks. It’s obvious that masks won’t make things worse, and the experience of some countries suggests that they may contribute significantly to reduced transmission. We had an announcement that masks should be worn in shops, saying they would be mandatory in ten days time. The reason given for this is that it gives people time to prepare – despite masks being made mandatory on public transport with much less warning. Like the decision to close pubs, the government is fumbling inevitable changes.

While most (sensible) people hope for a vaccine as a permanent solution to the pandemic, that is by no means guaranteed to be possible or timely. It’s vital that the country has effective and responsive test and trace systems to control things in the meantime.

Testing has been a fiasco Data collection has been “primitive”, with senior officials describing it as “not fit for purpose“. The government has suppressed data on the number of people tested, finally declining to publish this information at all going forward – which feels very similar to how the government suppressed graphs showing international comparisons once these became inconvenient.

Tracking is a mess – despite this being one of the most important ways out of the current crisis. The government promised a world-beating test-and-trace system, yet a huge number of people are not contacted in a timely manner. Rather than build on established local tracing expertise, the government opened this work out to private contractors. The overall responsibility for managing the tracing systems has gone to someone whose most notable previous achievement was presiding over the UK’s worst corporate data loss to date. The government also produced an expensive, failed mobile app, which didn’t work for the exact same reasons they were warned about by specialists within the industry.

There appears to have been very little oversight of procurement contracts: The Government spent a staggering £5.5bn on PPE contracts. Shockingly, three of the biggest beneficiaries were companies specialising in pest control, a confectionery wholesaler, and an opaque family fund owned through a tax haven.

In addition, there are significant disincentives for people to be tested. Care workers who test positive face the prospect of losing their wages. One care worker discussed the problem of trying to live on £99.85 statutory sick pay: “I can’t pay my rent with that… I’d have to choose between heating my flat or feeding my kids. Either I live in poverty or I kill my client.” That is on top of the potential negative responses in communities to people testing positive.

We’ve also learned that the country’s chief nurse was dropped from a daily briefing, apparently because she refused to follow the party line on the Dominic Cummings affair: “Aides to the prime minister briefed journalists at the time that she may not have made it to the briefing because she could have been stuck in traffic.

Lockdown was incredibly expensive. It should have bought us time to put world-class systems and policies in place to deal with the virus. Instead, it looks like the outsourced solutions have failed to deliver the outcomes we need.

In recent years, a bad winter flu season has stretched the NHS. It’s summer, and that season feels far off. I’m going swimming in the sea. My homebound life feels normal enough, and Small Batch has reopened. Things no longer feel so strange and threatening (it’s 30 days since I last wrote about my experience of the pandemic). But winter looms in the distance, and I hope it will pass smoothly. But I’m already starting to wonder how I might cope with restrictions and disasters in the short, cold days.