Back to the Downs; and a problem with circular walks

I spent the entirety of April within 5000 steps of my home. Most days, my walk was done by 8am, and I would be indoors until the next day. Every month, Google sends me a summary of my travels, a small gift in return for not caring about my privacy. Last’s month’s summary of my travels was stark:

With the easing of lockdown on May 10th, I had the option of walking futher – unlimited exercise, as long as I stayed two meters from anyone not in my household. I set out on early Sunday morning with an ill-formed plan to walk on the Downs, possibly visiting Balsdean, Ditchling Beacon and the Chattri. It was my first proper walk in weeks. The town felt eerie, even if it was probably not much quieter than it would be before 7am on a normal Sunday.

The advertising boards were mostly empty, apart from an advert offering cherry-picker cranes for hire (£400 per day, £300 per half day). Which seemed a strange thing to be selling – or maybe someone in the ad sales team was making the most of hard times.

And among the street art, a picture I recognised, someone who had been a friend long ago, although his name escapes me now:

The problem with hiking from my house is how far I need to travel before I reach the countryside. It was 50 minutes to reach the Marina and the undercliff. About halfway along, someone coming the other way called my name. It was Romi, an old hiking buddy who I’d not seen since January. It was good to see someone from the Old World.

Finally, I reached Rottingdean and was soon on the Downs. Despite being unprepared for the brutal sun, I was filled with joy. The birds were singing so very loud, and the air was clear, meaning I could see a long way to the East past Firle. Nearer by, the the cliffs beyond Newhaven looked like notches.

Normally, I would head through Balsdean, but the path to the hilltop alongside the valley was too attractive to ignore; and less steep than it looked:

My muscles were weaker than they had been, and my back was grumbling. My feet ached more than they should have done.

From here it was a short distance to the South Downs Way, which I joined at the top of the Yellow Brick Road. I followed the route West, reversing my steps from just before lockdown. With the start of Summer, the hills below the A27 were even more beautiful than they had been in March.

And then I reached the signpost at Housedean farm, on the other side of the main road. It told me that Ditchling Beacon was another 5 miles, with home some distance beyond that. I had walked about 8-9 miles already and was tired. I’d not bought enough food with me to want to do another 8 miles or so.

The other problem with those 8 miles was that the last 2-3 miles of it would be a slog through the streets of Brighton. I love wandering around the town, but not so much when I am already overtired. And this is the problem with circular walks that end at my house: the last part is boring. And it involves streets that are uncomfortably crowded under social distancing, where nobody is sure how to navigate the narrow space of pavements.

One of the best things in the world is ending a day’s walk with a stay in a pub. Even a bad pub is pretty good at those sorts of times – beer and a bed is all you need. I reckon that walking to the Tan Hill Inn, then hanging out in the lounge was one of the best days of my life. That’s the way walks should end.

Or at an Airbnb, like with Romi and Katharine, calling up for a curry from the nearest Indian restaurant, and drinking red wine as we have the same conversations that we’ve been enjoying for years.

Maybe I need to give more thought to the ending of my walks when they end at my house. To have the rest of the day cleared, to enjoy the tiredness. To have rituals and rest to welcome me back.

Or maybe, after weeks in lockdown I’ve had enough of walking solo. I don’t know.

My last two walks have been poorly planned, tiring and frustrating. I am going to plan this weekend’s one better, and make sure the ending is as good as the high points.

A Letter from the Other Side of the World

Last night, I found a letter that I wrote to myself six months ago, intended to be read in May.

It was Rosy Carrick’s show Passionate Machine that got me thinking about the power of writing to my future self. In November, I was on the verge of a big life change, and wanted a reminder to myself about why I was making this change. I didn’t want to forget my plans for the future.

I’m fascinated by how that the postal system feels like time travel. The writer and the recipient are always separated, and every letter is read in the future. And that delay of the postal system represents an opening out of chance, because so much can change between the time the letter is sent and when it arrives. We might write “I hope this letter finds you well…“, but there is no guarantee that the receipient will ever get the message.

My favourite writing by Jacques Derrida looks at how the delays postal system are representative of an inherent delay in all communication. I cannot really write a letter to myself because those two selves are different, having experiences they do not share: a letter from my past selve becomes a letter to my future self. The future might be more different than I expected

Part of me wants to leave this envelope unopened. It’s an artefact from a place that’s gone, the letter a relic from the old world, where making plans still made sense. The letter feels more hopeful if it’s left unread for a while.

The Panchakroshi Temple

In her book on Banaras, Diana Eck talks about the ‘transposition of place’ in Hinduism, and how “to some extent, all of India’s great tirthas are duplicated and multiplied elsewhere in India“. Banaras, as Kashi, contains echoes of all these other tirthas (holy places).

The idea of condensing a whole into a part is seen in the Panchakroshi Road, which encircles Kashi. There are 108 shrines on this road, and pilgrims perform a 5-day tour of them. I’ve read that this pilgrimage is as holy as visiting the four sacred sites at the far-flung corners of India. Eck writes:

And, of course, it is fitting that if one cannot make the long trip around the Panchakroshi Road, there is a single temple in the heart of the city – the Panchakroshi Temple – which one can visit. By circumambulating the sanctum of this temple, with 108 wall reliefs of the stations of the sacred way, one honours the whole of Kashi, and, in turn, the whole world.

I love the way in which these three different routes – around India, around Kashi and around the temple sanctum – are considered as identical. I read somewhere about how a short walk around the Panchakroshi Temple can be as holy as the pilgrimage around all India.

When I was last in Varanasi, I went to find the Panchakroshi Temple. There were no clear directions, so I did my best to find the place using Google Maps and GPS in the narrow alleyways. Finally, we found the doorway to the temple and walked up the steps. I felt a little like an intruder in a domestic space, as lines of drying laundry hung from the inner sanctum. I had little knowledge or understanding of the tiny representations of the temples, but asked if I could take photographs. I was told this was not possible. I walked around the temple, thanked the people, and headed for the river.

I don’t know how long I will be back in Varanasi – they say the greatest misfortune is to leave Kashi once one has been there – but some day I hope to walk the full length of the Panchakroshi Road.

New Zine: The South Downs Way

The copies of my new zine, The South Downs Way arrived today:

This booklet of short stories is part of a larger project about the South Downs Way. The zine contains 17 microfictions, most written in the last few months, but some dating back further (one to when I was 17 years old).

I’m looking forward to seeing what people make of this, and will be starting to send out copies tonight. If you want one email me, or leave me a message in the comments (I won’t publish it!).

The reality of ley lines

The first thing to know about ley lines is that they don’t exist. This is also the least interesting thing about them.

The theory of ley lines came from Alfred Watkins, based on observing alignments between historical sites. Watkins claimed that these lines would have been used to navigate trade routes. Over time, this theory has been tied in with new age ideas of earth magic, coming to represent channels of energy and force.

Ley lines are a statistical curiousity. Given the density of significant sites (wells, churches, barrows, hilltops) in the UK, it would be stranger if it were not possible to draw lines between them. Ben Goldacre posted about an experiment that found alignments between the old Woolworths stores. Using some software written by Stephen Kay, I’ve found lines between pubs in Brighton. Aside from the obvious alignment of pubs along the seafront, there was a pub-line from the Western Front to the Swan in Falmer, joining several pubs in the valleys between. Obviously, no-one had tried to align Brighton’s drinking dens, so what does this mean?

A few years back, I followed the ley line near the long man of Wilmington (a figure that Watkins thought might have been a surveyor of ley lines). I’m not sure how useful this line would be to navigate with, compared to the ridgelines and rivers in the area. I remain skeptical about most of the theories about leys.

I love the Austin Osman Spare quote about magic, that we should treat the entities we encounter “as if real”, not “as real”. These ideas were taken further by the practitioners of chaos magic, who decided that it was irrelevant if the entities and powers they interacted with were real. They found intercessions to superheroes or Mr Men could be as powerful as dealing with gods or demons.

It doesn’t matter if ley lines are real, because people find a power in these ideas. Some of them seriously believe that ley-lines channel energy in the earth. I’m generally suspicious of people using the word energy when they mean atmosphere – as someone who studied for a physics degress, if someone talks about energy then I want to see evidence of heat. I do wish, though, this sort of ‘energy’ was something I could experience and appreciate.

But I love ley-lines for telling stories about landscape. They tether churches to wells and ancient stones, asking us to make connections. I love the claims that these are lines of earth energy, used to guide alien space ships in prehistoric times. More than once at parties, people have told me that Brighton is special because two ley-lines cross here, although no-one has ever told me which ley-lines they are. Even the local council refers to ley lines in the St Anne’s Well Gardens information board – although they don’t know anything more about this line, only that it passes through the well. Ley-lines may not have the structure and authenticity of similar concepts like songlines, but given a few hundred years, they might.

The Walker

It’s just over a year now since I joined a pilgrimage to CERN where we immantenised the eschaton. I’ve not written a lot about this caper, mainly because I’m still thinking it through, even now – but you can get a good flavour of the events by reading the accounts from Ben Graham and the Moneyburner.

Part of what made the pilgrimage such an intense experience were the preparations we made in advance. We set up a radio station, planned magic rituals, and had a complete tarot deck printed. In the deck was a card for each of the pilgrims involved, and everyone came up with a card design and a pilgrim name.

I’ve long been around people with nested secret identities. I have friends with pen-names and stage-names; burlesque stars, rappers and hackers. It seemed like everyone had an alias – I know one person with nested identities four layers deep. I felt like the only person I knew with just one name.

In preparing for the pilgrimage, I had to take on a new identity for the first time. I needed an attribute that represented who I was. I picked The Walker: For the hiking, for how I would break bounds at school for night-hikes, for how I use walking to solve problems. I found an image of the Pennine Way, resting with my feet pointed towards an unfolding path through the Cheviots. And, for a touch of mysticism, I added a Feynman diagram, the one showing how an election and a positron are the same thing, but travelling different directions in time. My physics days are a long time ago, but I still love aspects of that.

The pilgrimage offered an opportunity to set aside my old identity. For a few days, I would be The Walker. I could forsake my old name, and be someone else. Possibly, I took this too far when someone asked me my name and I replied “The Walker”; they asked for my first, real name. I didn’t mean to be sarcastic when I said “The” – that was who I was then.

The pilgrimage was an incredible experience, which set my life onto a new path. When I came home, I put the identity of the Walker away, like Bilbo putting his Mithril coat in the wardrobe. It’s come out on a few occasions, but not often.

But maybe there is an opportunity here – who might The Walker be in my ‘normal’ life?

How I Fell in Love with Microfiction

One of the greatest horror stories ever written is Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s A Woman Alone with her Soul. The story in its entirety is 26 words:

A woman is sitting alone in a house. She knows she is alone in the whole world: every other living thing is dead. The doorbell rings.

The power of this story comes from being so short. We could expand it, maybe name the main character – we could even give them a backstory. But those twenty-six words are enough to raise questions – and I think the questions are more interesting than the answers would be. There is a space for us to imagine: what has happened to the world? how does the woman know she is the last one left? what has destroyed “every other living thing”, and how come she is sitting alone in her house? What is going on here?

I encountered Splatterpunk before I heard the Sex Pistols, before I had any idea what punk meant. It’s a strange genre, desperate to shock, to transgress as much as possible. In the 1990 anthology there is one story by Richard Christian Matheson, called Red. It’s so short that it’s almost dwarfed by the introduction.
(Something I miss from short story anthologies is those long, indulgent intros, because they made the writers seem much larger than life). Red outshines every other story in the collection in little more than a page. The horror of the scene builds and is released. There are gaps in this story too, the same ones the characters ask: how can this be allowed?

But the tiny horror stories I love most are the microfictions in Harlan Ellison’s A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet. It’s a collection of twenty-six short horror stories, some of which were written as a stunt in a book shop window. A couple of them were quoted in Stephen King’s book Danse Macabre. They were short, strange pieces, and probably stand as my introduction to flash.

I’ve read long novels that have vanished from my mind within hours. But Red and A Woman Alone with her Soul have stuck with me for years. And I think much of their strength comes from their brevity.

First Steps in Walking Magic

I would love to find a book on magic and walking, but I don’t think anyone has written one yet. There’s ample material for it, and not just in the more occult fringes of psychogeography. Some of the things that might go in such a book:

  • My favourite example is Werner Herzog who kept someone alive by crossing Germany in Winter to visit them. He talks about this in his book Of Walking in Ice, which I wrote about last year.
  • Pilgrimage is obviously important, and a huge topic, deserving a whole set of posts of its own.
  • The second time I met Cat Vincent was at the Spirits of Place event, where he was giving a talk Where the Buddleia Grows: “as an urban magician, I’ve understood that you can’t truly grasp the magic and mythology of a place without walking it”. Cat has spoken recently about the importance of ‘knowing your patch’, which has resonance for me with the idea of beating the bounds.
  • There are links between magic and landscape, connecting to earth magic. There are also links to ways of mapping and telling landscape, such as ley lines and songlines.
  • Travelling particular patterns in cities occurs in psychogeography, with obvious examples being the letters walked in Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory or the pattern of the Hawksmoor churches in Alan Moore’s From Hell.
  • During his time in London, the magic-obsessed writer William Burroughs carried out a campaign to drive the Moka Café Bar into closure. He combined patrols of the area near the cafe with the use of sound magic.
  • William Seabrook tells a story about Crowley performing magic with gait (a tale I first encountered in Warren Ellis’s Hellblazer run). Crowley followed a man, synchronising his footsteps with theirs. Seabrook writes: “A.C., in taking a step forward, let both knees buckle suddenly under him, so that he dropped, caught himself on his haunches, and was immediately erect again, strolling. The man in front of us fell as if his legs had been shot out from under him.
  • Walking can be used for cursing, such as writing the name of the victim on the soles of the feet.
  • One of the most powerful aspects of walking magic is The Moving of Stones (with cairns being one obvious aspect of this).

There is a magic to walking, to travelling, and a good walk is a spell.