Two references on Shackleton

I’m adding these references to the blog because I can never find them when I want them; they relate to the horrific frozen journey’s taken by Ernest Shackleton. When researching my MA dissertation, I did a lot of research into Antarctic exploration. It comprised a single page in the final draft – which should have taught me a valuable lesson about researching without doing any writing during that process.

What stuck with me was a line in a diary written by one of Shackleton’s team. Stranded and bored in a tent, he noted that the men had engaged in “more trips around London this evening” (quoted in Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognito, p183). I love the idea of such imaginary journeys.

Shackleton’s team “never forgot what they had endured… Joyce said that when they got home they were frequently invited to festivities in London that went on to the early hours, and afterwards they would find destitute people on the embankment ‘and line [them] up at the coffee stalls’. When he was ninety, Dick Richards said that he hadn’t yet recovered.” (Terra Incognito p98).

Shackleton’s expedition is also referred to in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. To quote wikipedia’s article on the Third Man Factor, “Shackleton wrote, ‘during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.’ His admission resulted in other survivors of extreme hardship coming forward and sharing similar experiences.”

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
— But who is that on the other side of you?

I’ve just added Shackleton’s South to my Kindle. It’s a book I really should have read by now.

Footpaths and Freedom

A week or so back, the Guardian had another article about the ongoing campaign to save Britain’s historic footpaths. The government has set a 2026 deadline for these paths to be registered; after that, the rights-of-way will be lost. The Ramblers are stepping up their campaign to save these routes, with a new mapping site. Some of these routes, particularly urban alleyways, are taken for granted by locals but not recognised on official maps.

There have been some fantastic articles on the campaign, including ones in the Guardian, Ramble On: The Fight to Save Forgotten Footpaths, and New Yorker, The Search For England’s Forgotten Footpath.

In a 2017 interview with Guernica Magazine, Walking is a Democracy, Iain Sinclair spoke about how important walking is to freedom, and how walking is becoming constrained in cities:

Walking is increasingly a sort of final democracy. The weight of what’s being [politically] imposed is very much anti-walking, and has to do with control of space, creating public areas you can’t walk in—which are completely covered by surveillance, policing, private spaces, gated communities, and unexplained entities at the edge of things. So walking around becomes actually difficult. But the walking process is the oldest natural form of movement. It puts you literally in touch with the earth and the weather around you and allows you to get into conversation with people as you move, which seldom happens in the other ways we move.

I was recently reading up on an access dispute near Uckfield, where the landowner was outraged at the idea that walkers’ access rights were ‘the law of the land’:

Where does this law come from? Because these so-called public footpaths in inverted commas were for the serfs to walk from A to B. They weren’t for the public. The public have never walked anywhere – they’ve had horses and cars and things. You don’t think the lord of the manor walked along a footpath do you? Course not. They were just for the serfs. Remember that prior to 1700 and something, nobody had any rights here anyway, they were all slaves… Why do people have to trespass on not just my land, but any private land? And what kind of people go rambling? Perverts.

Which makes a direct connection between the rights-of-access and more profound freedoms. There may be more urgent battles over rights and freedom than the one over English footpaths, but this small debate quickly reaches towards fundamental questions.

Weather by Jenny Offill

I first learned about Jenny Offill’s novel Weather through an interesting entry on Justin’s weeknotes, which referred to Offill’s writing process, “covering poster boards with pasted fragments of her work in-progress“. This was followed by a stunning New York Times interview.

Weather is a short novel composed of fragments. The writing is incredibly careful,  and the meaning is incredibly dense. Each word carries a great weight – this is a book that should be read slowly. The plot, according to the NYT’s description, “does not build so much as flurry“. The main character Lizzie’s domestic life is played against the concerns and terrors of climate change; which is an underwhelming description of such a funny and exciting novel.

Amitav Ghosh has argued that we need to find new forms of literature capable of dealing with climate change, and Offill does a good job of evoking climate change as what Timothy Morton referred to as a ‘hyperobject.’ The danger of such novels is that they can do little more than depress the reader with the fate lying in store for the world (although Offill places a URL at the end of the text, Apparently, Offill’s first ideas for the novel were “as a survival manual for her daughter, cramming it with information about every possible catastrophe, with tear-out sheets on practical tips. Some of these remain” (NYT)

The big attraction of the book for me was the form. I love novels with notes and references at the back, novels which blur the lines between fiction and  non-fiction. I love texts made of fragments and bought the hardback because I wanted to engage with the physicality of the text, rather read it on my kindle where the layout is more mutable. As media loses heft in the world, text as a physical object becomes even more important and compelling (and the novel is aware of this through Lizzie’s interactions with websites, minecraft and podcasts).

Some more quotes from the New York Times Interview:

The fragment is an old form, perhaps even our native form — don’t we speak to ourselves in curt directives, experience memory as clusters of language? In Offill’s hands, however, the form becomes something new, not a way of communicating estrangement or the scroll of a social media feed but a method of distilling experience into its brightest, most blazing forms — atoms of intense feeling.

And another, on Offill’s process, and how important physical text is for her work:

The key to her proc­ess, she told me, is time — hence the agonizing slowness of the writing. Only by waiting and continuing to stare at and sift these fragments does it become clear which ought to remain. So many, she said, lose their “radiance”; they reveal themselves to be merely clever.

A rainy walk

I arranged to go out for a walk with a friend on Sunday, and said we should go, whatever the weather. I was a little surprised that she didn’t cancel, considering how bleak the conditions were:

As Billy Connolly is often quoted as saying, there is no such thing as bad weather, only a bad choice of outfit. This was a good opportunity to test my waterproofs. And they mostly did OK, but my boots and gloves both took on water – something to fix before this year’s longer hikes.

The route was a familiar one, which I blogged about back in May 2017, visiting the abandoned village of Balsdean. Despite having visited the valley a few times, I managed to get turned around, and the familiar ‘This Way’ signs helped me find my bearings:

(Edit 22/2) – I also had to rely on my friend Sophie to put us onto the right track. If we’d gone the way I suggested, we’d have ended up in Rottingdean.

There were not a lot of people about, unsurprisingly, but it was interesting seeing the Downs in very different weather to what I’m used to.

I didn’t take a lot of photos, for fear of my phone getting waterlogged.

The ruined farm buildings near Balsdean looked particularly menacing, the floor covered in damp sheep’s wool:

When I was running, I used to love running on wet days. It’s easy to go out when it’s sunny, but it takes determination to go out on unpleasant days. I was glad we went out. As we returned to Brighton, the skies were beginning to clear. We found our way to a pub and rested in the warm bar.

1917: Editing is the Enemy

A friend of mine recently described a play as “accomplished”. It wasn’t meant as a compliment as such, more that it was good, well-made and polished, just not amazing. That was pretty much how I felt about the war movie 1917. It’s an amazing technical achievement, but there is something missing. Despite that, I can’t stop thinking about it.

The big selling point about 1917 is that it’s made to look as if it has been filmed in a single shot. There are some incredibly clever moments, with the camera in close confines, or passing over water, which leave you wondering how it’s done. Sometimes that distracts you from the tension about whether the characters will survive. This is not a story about people, rather it is a drama about how long a shot can be maintained.

I’m not sure why it’s a single shot. Mendes has talked about wanting to produce a sense of immediacy, but for me it was disengaging. The ongoing tracking shot made the whole thing feel like a video game. That feeling of being in a video game wasn’t helped by the way that Schofield refilled his canteen with milk which he later used to feed a baby. It was like a puzzle from an 80s text adventure game.

The other issue with the film is how it handles its setting in World War 1. I’m sure there are great films to be made about WW1, but the idea that war is futile and tragic and horrific is not a revelation. More than that, the stunt of the continuous shot had little connection with that conflict. As Midlife Crisis Crossover pointed out, “In theory one could extract a Temple Run mobile game writ large from any given war.1917 was great entertainment, but with its WW1 setting, it masquerades as something much more profound.

I think that’s my greatest problem with this film. There’s only one response you’re allowed to have, and that is an awed respect for the sacrifice made by the young men in this war. We see foolish and scared officers, but there’s not critique of why this has happened.

1917 is a film that resists interpretation. Even the reference to William Blake in the names of the soldiers as Schofield and Blake seems to serve no purpose. But there is an obvious ‘reading’ of the film which has not turned up in many reviews – maybe because it is too obvious? Maybe a film that was not locked into the perspective of two individual soldiers could have had more to say about the world we live in.

Walking the Fitbit

Every day I have to walk my Fitbit 10,000 steps, almost 5 miles. It nags me when I put it on, buzzing and telling me to get moving. A long walk the day before does not matter. Every morning the counter goes back to zero.

It’s cheaper than a dog – a one-off payment, rather than needing to buy food for it every day. And no little plastic bags.

I need to remove the Fitbit for typing, since that gathers steps; as does applauding; and every gear change in my car. The problem with this is that I miss the activity prompt, telling me when I’ve spent too long at my desk.

The modern world is obsessed by counting and interruptions. Sometimes we’re interrupted by notifications about counting.

The research says this won’t help me get fit, that the benefit from 10,000 steps could be gained from shorter but brisker walks. But the main thing is getting me moving, eliminating those sluggish days where I don’t leave the house and barely move. I know it is good for me to keep moving.

It’s another example of consumerism – what’s wrong with the advice to go for a walk for an hour a day? Why does this need a new piece of electronics?

A dog would be better. But for a dog I need a larger place to live, and more green nearby. So for now, it has to be the Fitbit. A dog would be better, but this will have to do.

A visit to the Long Man of Wilmington

On Saturday afternoon I went out to the Long Man of Wilmington with Justin Hopper and Ben Graham. We were there for an event celebrating the upcoming premiere of the Nathan James’s On Windover Hill, a music piece about the Long Man. A large group took a walk around the hill figure, stopping occasionally for readings. There were also a couple of songs, including one about the Long Man by Maria Cunningham.

It was a fantastic afternoon. There’s something about walking that makes strangers more willing to talk than in lots of other social gatherings. Maybe it’s that you’re not forced to face each other; or it’s something about the rhythm of walking. Many of the people in the group were writers and artists, and I had some fascinating conversations.

Nathan also shared some facts about the Long Man. It’s apparently taller than the Statue of Liberty, and during the second world war it was painted green so that enemy pilots could not use it as a landmark.

The day itself was bright but windy. From the hilltop we could see pools of floodwater in the Cuckmere valley, shining gold in the sunlight.

We arrived early, which gave us time to explore the church of St Mary and St Peter, with its incredible yew tree, which some people say dates back to Roman times. A new set of supports have been added, but the yew is still standing.


Monthnotes – January 2020

I’m liking reading other people’s weeknotes, but my life doesn’t really have the tempo for that. I experimented with season notes for a while, but that involved too much preparation. So, let’s see how month-notes go.

January has been tricky. Christmas and New Year were a weird break to the rhythm of the new job. That, along with a bad back and sleeplessness, has made it hard to get into a rhythm.

But overall I’m continuing to enjoy my new role. I love working at a large company. The competent organisation and the number of people more than make up for the occasional and inevitable bureaucratic frustrations. I probably wouldn’t have liked this much before my 40s, but I am feeling suited to it now. I get to play with interesting systems and am learning lots of new tools. And I have a great team.

Coming off twitter has resulted in me consuming a large number of books. After being underwhelmed by my 2019 reading, I’ve been much more eager to abandon books I don’t like. I’m also been reading mostly fiction, after a few years of focussing on non-fiction. Initial highlights of 2020 are discovering NK Jemisin (thanks, Kate), Jennifer Egan and, somewhat belatedly, Benjamin Myers’ stunning novel Pig Iron.

I decided not to set any goals for 2020, but I have been trying to get my 10,000 steps in every day. My total for January was 379,133, which is an average of 12,230. My record was 23,924 when I went on the BEC hike. My lowest count was 10,103. I am going to ratchet up my goal for February to that number and see if I can push myself more.

I found myself lusting after idli, and persuaded my friend E. to cook some for me:

I watched 3½ films. 1917 was thrilling but somehow empty and deserves a post of its own. I enjoyed Midsomar far more: despite claiming not to be a horror director, Ari Aster’s first two films have been well within that genre. The other film I saw, I’m not copping to in public, and the half was the first two parts of 1965 film Kwaidan, which I saw at a night of films about hair:

Luke Wright’s new book The Remains of Logan Dankworth was published, and I read it the night it arrived. I can’t wait to see it performed live, and I’m eagerly waiting for a local date to be announced. It’s a great play, with some amazing lines.

Rosy was interviewed on the Cast Iron podcast. It’s fascinating hearing a friend talk about their life in a completely different context. I’m very excited about seeing her new play Musclebound in the Brighton Fringe.

I ended the month at the Blake exhibition. John Higgs was hosting a panel, after which I had an hour in the gallery. The show was breathtaking, and did a good job of communicating Blake to someone who hasn’t previously felt much affinity with his work. I arrived back in Brighton just before midnight and the start of February.

January is not a month for big things, but I’ve set a good start to the year. This month was work, sleep, read, walking and a little writing.

And I almost forgot – I published a little book, Cows Don’t Believe in Slaughterhouses. But I posted about that on Thursday.