A while back, I wrote about how my writing has developed through reading Chuck Palahniuk’s discussions of technique. An even bigger change over the last year has been to focus on publication, in whatever form that takes.
Anxiety over sharing my work has long been a problem. It wasn’t the simple ‘fear of success’ that some people talk about, rather a ridiculous fear of negative effects from publication. At the same time, I’ve been driven to write stories since I could first write a sentence, and these two drives have been in conflict. Sometimes I’ve thought I should quit writing stories and focus more on other parts of my life – but quitting didn’t work for me either, so I needed to find another way through.
Since moving to Yorkshire, I’ve put more effort into sending work out. A lot of my old work was written with little thought of an audience. It was fun, and some of that work was great, but you lose rigour if you don’t define yourself against any external standards. I wrote some good stories that I have no idea what to do with. An example of this is a story I wrote called Richey Edwards vs Godzilla, a mash-up of indie music and kaijus. It’s a great piece of writing, but almost wilfully obscure.
Change is a strange thing – it can take years but feel sudden. I’ve been toying with ways to put my work in public for a while. Part of this was attending a 2018 Arvon course with Tania Hershman and Nuala O’Connor, which provoked me into one flurry of submissions. The South Downs Way zine project has been an interesting way to explore publication, and putting recent volumes onto etsy has worked well. In 2022, I have become more consistent with submissions (41 so far this year) and it feels like a significant change.
It’s not as if I am now writing things only so they can be published. I have a huge number of ideas and it is more about working on the ones I feel I can find a home for.
Recently I thought about writing a folk horror piece about offices. It was interesting, in that it took the elements of folk horror and transposed them to a corporate setting. But, at the same time, it was mostly a cover version of The Wicker Man. If I’d worked on this, it would have been competent, but I couldn’t imagine being enthusiastic about submitting it. Long stories take a lot of time, and need to be worth spending so much energy on. In the end, I stripped out the elements of the piece I liked, and it will emerge as a smaller, stranger piece than it would otherwise. I’ve spent too long writing solely for myself, and I need to make up for lost time.
September felt like a transitional month. I was still settling in the house, and slowly moving things into the right places. There’s a lot to do, and I was grateful to my sister and her husband for coming by to strip down the ivy and creepers. The old flat in Halifax had to be cleaned and handed back. I also wound up my job with Mindera, which I finished on the last day of the month.
Along with all this, I went out hiking for a week on Coast-to-Coast with my brother-in-law. Katharine came to visit and, inspired by a guardian article, we took a hike in Bradford, which turned out to be a little underwhelming. I did get to see an original Lowry painting, though. I think we had a copy in the house when I was small, and the original turned out to be much larger than I expected. I did local sections of the Pennine Way with James Spratt, including my first wild swim in Gaddings Dam reservoir. Vicky brought her greyhound Libby to visit and I discovered that greyhounds are weird creatures, nothing like other dogs. I was surprised to learn that they chatter their teeth to express joy.
With the long hike included, I walked 536,907 steps in September, with a maximum of 46,870 on the second day’s walking on the Coast to Coast. This means a daily average of 17,896, which is the highest for some time. My weight continues to float gently downwards, although only by a pound and a half, despite a sometimes poor diet.
My writing has been a little slower this month, with only six submissions, and one new story finished but not sent out (James Joyce’s Ulysses as a Cursed Object). For the first time, I had all of my current stories submitted at the same time (11 in total). I withdrew a couple of stories from submission (Wreckage and The Leech Catchers) as I didn’t feel they were as instantly appealing as my other pieces, but they might emerge somewhere eventually. The month ended with a flurry of rejections, bringing my stats for the year so far to 41 submitted, 7 accepted, 29 rejected. I’m more excited about writing than ever, and looking forward to playing with some ideas before I start the new job. Three stories were published:
I’ve been reading some great books this month, although in a disordered way, switching between them. Of the books I finished, three were non-fiction books about music – it’s as if reading about music has replaced getting into new bands. Curious about how the Beatles went on to make Abbey Road after the finality of Let It be, I read Ken McNab’s And in the End. There is a lot in the book about business dealings, shareholdings and corporate takeovers, but I guess that is a reflection of where the Beatles had found themselves. Nicholas Soulsby’s Dark Slivers focussed on Nirvana’s Incesticide, and produced a surprising number of fresh insights and revelations about Kurt Cobain. The book-length Nick Cave interview Faith, Hope and Carnage discussed Cave’s creative process and spirituality, as well as being a provocative engagement with grief.
Grief was also a substantial theme of Ru Callender’s memoir What Remains?. I’d expected this to be good, but I was surprised by how good. I discussed this a little on Twitter, but plan to write more soon. Storyland by Amy Jeffs managed to be more engaging than most books of myths, and contained many I’d not read before. I was inspired to read No Country for Old Men by the movie, and loved the grit of the language. Olivia Laing’s Everybody was another triumph – less cohesive than The Lonely City maybe, but it brought together people including William Reich, de Sade, Malcolm X and Nina Simone. There was also an amazing section on Ana Mendieta, an artist I couldn’t believe I’d missed out on. I also read a novel about music, David Keenan’s This is Memorial Device, which I think I need to revisit, as I don’t think I gave it as much attention as it deserved. It seems a book that would be better suited to physical form than on a Kindle. Finally, Sally Jenkinson’s new pamphlet Pantomime Horse, Russian Doll, Egg was released (for sale here), and it was a powerful and moving work. September’s reading might have been disordered, but I read some amazing books.
I didn’t manage much TV, although I finished watching Better Call Saul with Kate Shields. It was a great show, but I’m not sure what story it wanted to tell. And maybe telling its story alongside the events of Breaking Bad harmed it in the end. I saw several movies. Everything Everywhere All At Once was delightful, and as good as everyone promised. Kes was an interesting period piece. I watched The Return (2005) with James Spratt and it was somewhat disappointing. Withnail and I was quotable but the alcoholism just felt sad. I also made two trips to the cinema. The Forgiven was great, and I enjoyed watching a drama with no CGI, spaceships or superheroes. Nope was more my usual fare and was excellently constructed, although it didn’t grab me as tightly as I would have liked.
It’s been weird having such a long time between accepting the new job and finishing the old one. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into some new challenges. In the meantime, I’ve updated my programming blog with some missing content that was only on linked in. I also reviewed Dave Farley’s Modern Software Engineering book, which was excellent. I’ve got a couple of weeks off between the two jobs and I’m hoping to play with a few tech things in that time.
It’s been another battering month for the UK politically. Liz Truss came into power then a few days later the queen died. This meant that politics was out on hold despite the ongoing crisis. I was away for the mourning period, although this meant I caught a few TV screens where the BBC news seemed to be doing nothing more than interviewing people in the queue. When politics returned, Truss failed to solve the energy crisis for many people then unleashed the worst budget of my lifetime. Along with the nuclear posturing over Ukraine, this continues to be an anxious time.
I only took a single photograph on the final day of our 2022 Coast-to-Coast hike. This was of a gap in a hedge that seemed ridiculously small. The landscape on this section was less epic than what we’d become used to. Wainwright himself was not a fan of this stretch, apparently describing the town of Danby Whisk as a low point in more than just elevation.
Getting on and off hiking trails can be a problem, as the best ones are in the middle of nowhere. Dave had had a van dropped off for us in Richmond, which meant having to return to the town at the end of the day. We decided to get a taxi to Oak Tree Hill and walk back from there. It also meant we got to bump into most of the people we’d encountered on the previous few days travelling, who were continuing in the traditional direction.
Finding a taxi to take us into the middle of nowhere that early in the morning proved tricky, and I was glad we weren’t trying to persuade someone to collect us from the wilds. The day’s walk, about 10-12 miles, was a slightly underwhelming ending to this leg of the walk. Pleasant but not spectacular. It’s a comfortable stroll through farmland, with a few small villages breaking it up, but very little to take the attention. In a way, it’s good to be tossing it away as a half-section.
The route brought us back to Richmond, ready to finish our hiking for that year. It was a shame to come off the trail, but walking six days rather than our usual four had been a great experience. Next year, only a few nights remain to finish the Coast to Coast.
The walk from Reeth to Richmond was another short day at just over ten miles. It’s sometimes difficult to figure out where to stop on hiking trails. Most people stop in both Reeth and Richmond, since the journey from Keld to Richmond would otherwise be an imposing 21.5 miles – not impossible, but a lot if the weather is against you. Going direct from Kirkby-Stephen to Reeth seems like a bad idea, as Keld provides a good chance to regroup from crossing the peat bogs near the Nine Standards. This means it’s hard to avoid a run of short days.
This was a day of relatively few photographs, although the landscape was charming. Given that the trail was leaving the Pennines, things had started to flatten out a little. We took a long lunch on a bench in Marske then finished the walk into Richmond, arriving early in the afternoon.
Richmond is a pretty town, and we took the chance to explore, although an expired English Heritage card meant we skipped see the castle. We stayed at the Black Lion pub, which had the best vegan food I’d enjoyed on this section of the trail. We also found a coin tree.
Sometimes, when you’re walking a trail, you have a day that starts out as incredible then deteriorates to slogging along a tedious track. The walk from Keld to Reeth was an example of this. The first few hours were some of the best hiking I’ve done, with great views and curious ruins. Then we spent a few hours following a relatively boring track into town.
This was another day with a choice of routes. We took the high route, though the old lead-mining ruins. We heard from other hikers that the lower route along the Swaledale Valley was also pretty spectacular.
The route took us past into a series of valleys filled with the traces of lead-mining. It was obviously a grim and remote job, being some way from the nearest towns.
We stopped for lunch in the Blakethwaite ruins, by the side of the river. It was a fine place to linger for a break, since the day’s distance was only 11 miles.
The tone of the walk changed after we climbed out of this valley. We found ourself in an area where quarrying had stripped off the top soil. It was desolate, and one group of hikers we met had filmed videos of themselves pretending to be astronauts on the moon.
From there, it was a long slog along the track. Grouse hunters were out in force, despite the period of national mourning. There’s a long tension between walking and grouse-hunting, which reached a high-point at the Kinder trespass. Grouse-hunting seems an odd ‘sport’, with people paid to drive the animals towards the shooters, and others paid to reload the guns. Seeing the landscape taken over for such a vile activity is disappointing, and added to my frustration with the rather boring track.
We eventually made it to Reeth, which is one of the most beautiful villages I’ve seen. The central green is on a gentle slope with some amazing views, and the local ice-cream shop had an impressive vegan vanilla flavour. The town seems to have been hit by hard times, however, with a number of businesses for sale or even closed, despite there still being a few weeks to run of the season.
The 13-mile journey from Kirkby Stephen to Keld was an exciting one. It took us from the town up to the Nine Standards, a line of tall cairns; from there we crossed a boggy area before descending to Ravenseat Farm, and onward to Keld.
The guidebook made the marshy section sound imposing, describing it as looking like “a scene from the Somme, circa 1916”. It went on to talk about people getting swallowed by the murk, and someone who broke a wrist when their walking pole was taken by the bogs. It didn’t sound all that much fun. There is a choice of three routes on this section, dividing the path up by the time of year, and it was hard to get a grasp of which one was best.
But, before setting off, we visited the church in Kirkby Stephen, where there was an excellent 8th-century carving of Loki (disappointingly labelled as a devil by the superstitious peasants who ran that church). Kirkby Stephen also apparently has a flock of parrots but we didn’t see them.
The climb up to the Nine Standards was fairly easy, and the views from the top were epic. I’d seen them from a distance on the Pennine Way a few years ago, and it was good to be standing there.
The bogs were just tricky enough to be fun, forcing Dave and I to look for crossing points and occasionally leap over the mud. We mostly got through OK, although I managed to go in up to my shin. I could see how these might be tricky, and we met one person who’d had to quit the C2C the year before after pulling a muscle escaping the muck.
From there we descended to a river that was followed to Ravenseat Farm. Not watching TV meant I missed the excitement of being at the Yorkshire Shepherdess‘s farm, although a selection of books and jigsaw puzzles were available at the drinks van. Sadly, vegan cream teas were not on offer.
The day’s stage was relatively short, finishing at the Keld Lodge, where people were sat outside. Everyone who passed was encouraged to join for a drink and we all swapped stories about crossing the bogs. Dave and I stayed at Greenlands B&B, a little way out of town, where we were well looked after. The views from the patio across the valley were absolutely stunning, and the food was excellent.
One way I evaluate a day’s hiking is by seeing how many photos I took. Stage 6 of the Coast-to-Coast produced relatively few. According to the book, the hike was 20.5 miles, although I think that was a slight over-estimate. Despite the distance, the book described this as a ‘recovery day’, given the flatness and soft ground. Dave was convinced it was going to rain, but I insisted it wouldn’t. Fortunately I was correct.
The route included a number of historical sites – a couple of stone circles, and ‘Robin Hood’s Grave’, all of which we managed to miss. Otherwise, it was a fairly standard countryside hike – better than a day indoors, but suffering in comparison to the stunning views the day before.
Personally, I struggled with the day. I was wearing the wrong socks and had still not adjusted my new rucksack correctly. The walking was a slog and it was probably a good thing we didn’t have any hills. It was only the last mile or two when I finally felt comfortable.
At various points along the path we saw signs asking people not to pee along the route. And I can understand the sentiment here – nobody wants to be confronted by other people using the great outdoors as a toilet. But, at the same time, I’m not sure what the alternative is here. The route is a 7-10 hour hike with no facilities. Any adequate hydration is going to mean people need to stop at some point. I’m really not sure what the signs are meant to achieve.
I was relieved to arrive at Kirkby Stephen, and in time to buy some bath salts at the chemist. I spent an hour soaking in the bath, reading No Country For Old Men, and trying to soothe my aches. We ate in the local curry house. I was excited to see a Scotch Bonnet curry on the menu, and a little disappointed that they seemed to have used Encona sauce rather than fresh chillis.
After a year’s break, my brother-in-law Dave and I continued our walk on the Coast-to-Coast trail earlier this month. We’d finished last year’s leg in Patterdale, which meant starting again with a massive hill.
The walk from Patterdale to Shap was 15 miles or so, and the last section of the walk based in the Lake District. The walk to Angle Tarn was worth the effort, with some stunning scenery. I was definitely fitter than the year before, but I compensated for that by poor packing, carrying too much in a badly-adjusted brand-new rucksack.
Kidsty Pike was the high point of the day, with a wonderful panoramic view.
From there we made a steep descent to Haweswater Reservoir. It was striking how close the reservoir was to running dry. The guidebook cautioned us that the waterside path was not gentle, rather it would have us “panting like a hippo on a treadmill”. We did see a red squirrel in the woods though.
After that, some pleasant woodland walking followed until we reached the ruins of Shap Abbey. The village was only a short way beyond that, and it was good to be able to take off the rucksack and rest.
At the start of August I finally moved into my new house in Hebden Bridge. Even now, four weeks later, I’m still overjoyed to be waking up here. It’s been a particularly idyllic time to arrive with the good weather, and I’ve reminded myself not to get too used to Hebden Bridge being dry. The move itself was shoddy, with no attempt to prepare bedding, or keep things tidy enough that I could find my chargers. I’ve now moved all the boxes to one room and am working to make each of the rooms cosy. It’s going to take some time, but I’m looking forward to it.
The day before I moved in, Tom messaged to say “Now you can start getting stressed about maintenance”. And yes, I am discovering that an old house will require a fair bit of work. To start with, I have a whole host of trailing plants that need to be brought under control. I’ve bought a ladder and garden tools and am slowly dealing with the creepers. I’m enjoying the prospect of this new workload. Reading Four Thousand Weeks last month made it clear that there is never enough time, and we just have to choose how to spend it.
The other exciting news is that I have accepted an offer for a new job, starting in October. The interviews for the new job took place either side of the move, which in retrospect was crazy. I’ve loved working at Mindera, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a new type of company. In the end, it comes down to geography – as much as I love remote working, I want to move to a one-day-a-week hybrid model. I went to Leeds for the company barbecue and met some of my new colleagues and am incredibly excited about working with them.
Despite the move, I’ve been getting on with regular things. Kit had been booked to come visit weeks ago, in what turned out to be a couple of days after the move, but it was good to have him help me settle. I went to an excellent talk on Coin Trees with Wil, one of the Cerne2CERN pilgrims. I also attended a one-day Arvon workshop at Hebden Town Hall with Amy Liptrot and Will Self. Amy was particularly inspiring, filling me with ideas about place writing. On Bank Holiday Monday, I had a visit from another pilgrim, Dan, and his sheepdog Molly. Other than that I’ve been trying to discover all the little paths in the woodland behind my house.
Walking continues to be little more than a maintenance dose, with a total of 339,822 steps for August. An average of 10,962 and the highest 20,734 when I was moving house – more activity than distance that day. My weight has continued to float downwards, but slightly more slowly than last month, with another 2.2 pounds disappearing without effort. As the house purchase became stressful last month, I started drinking coffee again. Even just having one or two coffees a day was affecting my concentration and sleep patterns, so I needed to stop. I lost a Saturday to caffeine withdrawal, which felt like an awful hangover. Hopefully I won’t need to do that again.
I wrote two new stories in August (Little Piggies and The Leech Catchers) and sent six submissions, with my stats for the year standing at 35 submitted, 6 accepted, 21 rejected. That means I had 9 rejections in August, which I feel pretty OK about. Three stories are due to be published in September.
I’m picking up the pace of the pace of the submissions now, which is good. Submissions are hard work and involve a spreadsheet, but Chuck Palahniuk recently wrote about how you need to love all parts of the writing process. I sometimes feel anxious about running out of places to send stories – there are markets closing all the time. But Dave Farley’s Modern Software Engineering has been a good reassurance about the importance of making small bets and learning from those. The more I submit, the more clearly I can see which elements of my writing are working for other people. For example, I’m focussing more on characters than concepts, which is producing better stories.
Out of the books I’ve read this month, the highlights were Hannah Gadsby’s Ten Steps to Nannette, which provides an interesting glimpse into how her austistic mind works. Chuck Wendig’s The Book of Accidents was an interesting novel that felt very much influenced by Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and one I wished had been a little less cosmic. Dave Farley’s Modern Software Engineering was a good guide to the state of the art in the discipline. Sally Coulthard’s A Short History of the World According to Sheep was very much in the quirk-non-fiction genre kicked off by Longitude, covering a broad swathe of history including some interesting details about Halifax’s history.
Despite how much was going on in August, I managed to watch a fair amount of TV. Netflix’s Trainwreck: Woodstock 99 was a good documentary, although showing the footage of sexual assaults seemed unnecessary and violating. I tried The Sandman but gave up after a few minutes – I love the comics, but the adaptation felt twee and overly faithful. I’m glad other people are enjoying it so much. Westworld season 4 managed brief moments of genius but was, overall, tired and confused. I’ve also been catching up with Better Call Saul. I’m not sure why I’d stopped, particularly in the middle of a pandemic with so little else going on. Kate had been hyping it, and I’ve been enjoying watching remotely with her. Just a few episodes to go!
When Kit came up we watched Nicholas Cage metafiction The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent which was both fun and about twenty minutes too long. I also went on my first trip to the Picturehouse in Hebden Bridge to see Alex Garland’s Men. While I have quibbles with the movie, it was a great one to see in the cinema, with some amazing visuals.
Politically, Britain continues to feel like it’s in decline, with nothing good coming down the road. The energy price increases are shocking, given that they make it impossible for so many people to make ends meet. It seems incredible that a government would put a large proportion of the country in a position where rent, food and energy have risen to the point they simply cannot afford them. And that’s to say nothing of the costs to business, schools, and nurseries, which threaten a horrifying economic contagion. It’s terrifying, particularly given the lack of engagement by the Conservative party, who are distracted by their leadership campaign. I’m expecting Truss to take action once she is in power, but even so, putting people into a position like this is unacceptable. Nobody should be made anxious about how to heat their homes. The job of a government is to look after its people.
A coin tree is one that has had coins hammered into it. It usually happens with fallen trees, and while the tradition can be documented back to Victorian times, it seems to have taken off in the 21st century. Dr Houlbrook ascribes this to change in forestry practises since 2000, when fallen trees were moved off paths but otherwise left to rot in place.
The first coin tree I encountered was one in Malham, while walking the Pennine Way:
I also encountered something similar in Kathamandu, where a large block of wood has had nails hammered into it. This is said to ward off toothache, and the site is detailed in Atlas Obscura. It was interesting to hear that the earliest British coin trees were also used as a means of dealing with toothache.
Dr Houlbrook’s research has explored various forms of what she describes as “unofficial embellishments to landscapes”, particularly where this has become problematic, or is likely to. The earliest example she discussed with relation to coin trees was a site on Isle Maree, which began as a rag tree, before people took to nailing the rags to the trunk, before directly hammering in coins.
I attended the session with Will, one of the CERN pilgrims, so we were obviously considering coin trees in relation to money burning. At one point, the use of coins in wishing fountains and coin trees was described as ‘sacrifice’. There was also a mention of how coin trees produce sacred zones in secular areas – “turning a space into a place”. This can be seen in how queues develop at coin trees, with people taking their turn and approaching the act with a certain severance. We also learned about coin-folding to cure disease, which sounds like an interesting approach to currency destruction.
One of the most interesting aspects of traditions like coin trees is how people explain it. Dr Houlbrook interviewed a number of people who had placed coins in trees and many could not clearly explain what the tradition was and why they had done it – participation went before explanation. Dr Houbrook went on to talk about how she had begun considering folklore as improvised in response to children’s questions rather than the model of it being taught by the old to the young. It’s fascinating to see the growth in coin trees, and how the retrospective explanations of these things generate references to traditions that do not truly exist.
Earlier this year, Dr Houlbrook released a book ‘Ritual Litter’ Redressed which I’ve ordered from Amazon to learn more about this subject.