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The walk of two seasons

The walk of two seasons

The walk of two seasons

That was a strange one. I was supposed to work all day today, but I woke just before dawn because of the cold. Winter, still.

But then noticed how clear and gradually cobalt blue the sky was. And so, by breakfast it was a case of “Dammit!”, laptop off, hiking shoes on, stuff thrown into overbag, and out the door.

This time I tried a few new paths heading straight south, but the second one did not exist; not for the first time, a large and monotonous housing estate, dwellings with tiny windows for new owners to hide away in, appeared where the map of a few years age marked only farmland. A detour, then heavy walking on muddy trails, and thenextremely heavy walking across what was, in summer, a cornfield; the effort made worse by the mini lakes left behind by horses and cyclists. Finally, a track on which I could scrape off the now several pounds of mud caked around my boots.

Zigzagged through a wood, along the side of a few more fields, then up a long lane I had not been before (new routes are always refreshing), passing expensive whitewashed farm buildings and driveways and picket fences, new England transplanted into old England. Then zigzagged around the side of the hill until reaching the double summit. Near the top, the remnants of recent snow and ice still clinging to the ground in places. Stopping a short while; inside my layers due to the mud-walk and hill walk; cold outside due to the wind; thighs hurting a bit, not used to the heavy mud walks.

At the summit, a plane was climbing from the south, probably out of Birmingham airport. Hence the picture. Followed by down the hill on the other side, a near-straight line through the woods, a short bit of road walking, more fields but still downhill most of the way, and back to base. Passing, in a few places, crocus and snowdrops starting to emerge from barren ground.

Spring, though not quite here yet, is on the way.

Rehabilitation, recovery, rebuilding

Rehabilitation, recovery, rebuilding

Rehabilitation, recovery, rebuilding

Under a blue summer English sky, I continue this non-linear quest of Fellowship proportions to get my health back to something that won’t trouble the emergency room of a country without socialist medical treatment. You can probably guess which one.

This week just finished, one minor health setback but one major thing finally ticked off the medical list. In addition, and finally without giving up yet again, I’ve managed to back-up everything digital I still possess from the last 15 years or so to various clouds. And, I’ve made significant, possibly breakthrough, progress on rescoping my work plans for the long term.

So, a good week, ending with my favorite rural walk to date in this part of England. After the obligatory few miles of road and meadow and country lane, five miles of this route became a meandering well-worn footpath, a narrow hinterland between fields of barley and corn and a twisty, shallow, slow-moving brook that oft disappeared into copses and spinneys and woods. The evening was hot and cloud cover increasingly elusive, so the shade of many trees was quietly thanked, and the temptation, at stumbling across a shaded pool, of stripping off and jumping in was only narrowly resisted.

The footpath eventually turned away from the brook and trundled over a small hill, a copse to the right, becoming a bridleway of pitted, horseshoe-shaped ruts in dried soil. The path opened onto a road; houses, a church, rural English civilization. I cooled down in a gentrified rural pub, lemonade and ice rushing through me, and watched the sun set over a Nottinghamshire, or possibly a Leicestershire, hill of maize.

As the dusk fragmented into night, I strode to the next village, a mile and half again north. One footpath, a half-guessed jump across a stream in the increasing gloom, and wading up a hill of stout and unyielding corn. Behind me, the July harvest full moon, tinged pink but full and wide and slightly paler, a little more translucent than the previous, rose slowly above the ridge to the South.

I reached the bus stop, calculated the walk (9.5 miles; not epic, but not insignificant), and watched the moon inch upwards as the sky moved through the last few shades of blue before black. Tomorrow it’s back to typing and doing digital administration for a few days. But these walks, under a big sky, away from the babble of people and the industry of life, help; it’s not just the body that needs to repair, decompress, revitalize, rebuild, but sometimes the mind as well.

An intermission of rural England

An intermission of rural England

Rural England is a small place. All of England to start with is smaller than most US states, and can fit into Scandinavia many times over. Take out the cities, take out the airports, the motorways and main roads, the growing suburbs and industrial sites, and you aren’t left with a huge amount of area. Set your mind to it and in a few days you could walk across its width; in a few weeks, its length.

But, what there is still greatly varied in tone, color, views, flora and fauna. And it is a country to be walked in, not driven through or flown over. Rabbits and pheasants burst from their secluded places as they hear you coming, and leap or flap away. Herons move slowly from tree to riverbank. In the gloom of dusk, foxes trot quickly, sharply, on their routes across fields. Meadows filled with a million buttercups invite crossing. And there are thousands upon thousands of those fields, rolling and curving over hills; and hedgerows, and woods and copses and spinneys.

Yes. The trees.

So many trees.

It’s a safe place; there is little that can or will kill you. And it’s a gentle place, in weather and inhabitant. Everyone, no exception, I’ve passed this last few weeks on country lanes has nodded, given some variation of passing greeting, or observation on the current or coming weather. The invisibility cloak you are seemingly given on entering the city is not worn here.

But also, this is a visibly historical place, as you are reminded over and over. The way the country lanes either ramble off in dead straight lines (Roman), or zig zag around fields (Enclosure act), or make no logical sense at all (just … English). The buildings, almhouses and stately homes and passing a cottage called “The New House” with a date of 1573 above the front door, and the remnants of medieval or older settlements. The many churches, stone and bell; the place names, and the dialects.

And the, thankfully enduring, traditions and customs. Stumble into a pub of several centuries, parched after rambling across fields and through woods and over brooks and streams; pat the owners dog on the head, buy a drink and some pork scratchings then notice Morris Dancers preparing to shake their bells and clash sticks outside. Or wander past a village fete, decide to check out just one stand, and a few minutes late you wonder why you’ve just bought three cakes made by a 90+ year old, but you are glad you have as it’s probably made her day and you’ve contributed to some village restoration project.

Rural England is a seductive place. It’s better if you have the money, and the time, to enjoy and explore it (then again, so is everywhere). But above all, it’s a quiet place where nature has, at least partially, reclaimed the sounds. Sure, there is often the distant hum of traffic, or a nearby tractor, or a plane going overhead (and … so many planes, in recent years). But there are farm animals, and birds, and church bells near and distant, the sounds of water, morris dancers and cricket matches, and psithurism (look it up, then go outside somewhere and listen to it).

Though I was born in this rural land, and spent the first 20 years here and kept coming back, and I’m here again, wandering the lanes and fields, this isn’t home. That thing means something different now, and it’s a long way, physically and literally, from here. But I’m finding that it’s deeply satisfying, for a short while anyway, to wander down lanes, through woods and across meadows, again.

All who you can’t leave behind

All who you can’t leave behind

It’s early February.

I wake up in a different place, these days. South Birmingham, as opposed to the tiny part of Balsall Heath that became a base for a gradually lengthening period of time, as months collapsed into seasons, gave way to years.

It’s quiet here. My room looks out onto the bowling alley shaped back garden attached to terraced houses such as these. From the wobbly window there are views of many other gardens; trees; no roads; houses of differing interest; sheds; the occasional distant sounds of gleeful rabbit enthusiasts; an upper working class suburbia that the English made, tinker with, and continue to cling to.

Abridged

This house itself is … unconventional. There are trapdoors, hidden cupboards, windows in peculiar places, and an unusually large bathroom that can only have been designed by a retired, sex-addicted pirate. It’s somewhat different, floating in a bathtub and surrounded by pebbles and candles and dimmed lighting, with eyes wandering across paintings of Naiads in various stages of undress and amorous desire. This is not Birmingham. Not staid suburban stereotypical Birmingham, or minimalist, cheap and functional Ikea-England, but something else. You suspect, or hope, that this bathroom has previously been enjoyed for salacious purposes involving many people at the same time, and if you found out it wasn’t, then you’d be disappointed.

That long and narrow garden invites exploration. It’s not eternally, horseback ridingly long, but just lengthy enough to get a small fragment of a sense of wilderness, albeit only three miles from the centre of England’s second city. Three cats patrol this hidden country; none live in the house. There are trees, a variety of trees, blossom starting to push outwards on one, but maddeningly no fruit trees. I stare with some envy, and more than a little disgust, at the splendid apple tree in the neighbour’s garden, where a full crop of hundreds of apples lies on the ground; unused, uncollected, uncherished, uneaten, rotting, a banquet for crows and squirrels but not for the ignorant people who shout and slam their way in and out of their house. I look back, to here, this place, follow the converging parallel lines to the end fence. A shed, a gate under an arch of ivy, a pathway, seats and benches, stepping places fashioned from tree stumps and placed in a pool of mud, a second garden with a second shed, a secluded area with signs of previous things created, things burnt, memories forged.

Gate

And things burnt inside the house. A fireplace that functions; metal, tile, grate, a clear chimney. Joy, and the recall and reminder of years and lives past, of peat fires in a Hebridean cottage for half of one decade, and coal fires in a rural Worcestershire cottage for two. A few memories amongst the many that this place, and the time it occupies, stirs. This fireplace has become my domain (perhaps a good thing, as the kitchen bemuses and baffles me); experimentation with wood and log and smokeless coal (hot, but aesthetically dull) and other inflammable materials. The flames and the colors and the glows and the embers to stare at, in late evenings, and remember some things and forget other things.

There are other aspects of this house and quirks within. The set-up for working is the best I’ve had since Hebridean years; an antique writing desk that perfectly suits the MacBook. There’s a downstairs toilet with a transparent glass door. The built-in bookcase occupies a corridor. Paintings of a paganistic and fantastical nature jostle with candlestick holders. So many different wooden surfaces, furniture, with grain and color and texture to distract and follow, and tactile hardwood floorboards that invite barefoot walking when the fire is lit. A quiet place, illuminated sometimes by just the light and crackle of fire flame and candle flame. And in the daytime, the sunlight. The way it creeps and peeps through the gaps between the wooden slats over my window. The red and the green and the blue beamed through the stained glass windows. The dust and soot and particles caught, embarrassed, when clouds scatter and that sunlight pours through the kitchen windows.

Fire

And this house is quiet because of the people within. My housemate, her wont to never stray too far from the jar of tea bags, is one of the loveliest people you could ever meet. She busies with her work while I frown at mine, interrupting myself occasionally to poke at an unburnt log or lump of glowing eco-coal while I listen for the inevitable sound of a kettle. She counters the aesthetic background of Boards of Canada by cheerfully humming Rolling Stones tracks from a different time, in a different room. This works, and this place works.

But in three weeks, I have had a grand total of zero visitors. That suits me fine, having quietly “unfollowed” 72 out of the 81 Birmingham residents I’d ended up connected to on “social media”, ignored all local social events, and stopped answering emails and messages from many of those people. Transition through shades of isolation. Though, having said that, it seems almost comically ridiculous and shallow, when looking into the flames of the fire that has warmed my (and your) species for millennia, to give gravitas to the oft-fleeting nature of “online connections”. Whatever the heck they are.

And while not a complete hermit – I’m back up to following 11 Brummies, albeit four (and soon five) of them related – the slightly-trimmed beard and the long, occasionally ponytailed and greying hair are perhaps appropriate for the demeanor of a person who both wants and needs this silent time to finish considering what else and who else to leave behind; and to sorting out his head, his possessions, his gradually repairing body and the next “stage of life”, whatever the heck that is, as best he can.

It’s early February, 2014. It’s spring time. This, for a short while, is a quiet place and it is my place.

Office

Hay-on-Wye: Beyond the long tail

Hay-on-Wye: Beyond the long tail

(Pictures from this trip are on Flickr, and there’s a Flickr group with pictures by other people)

I’m sitting in The Granary in Hay-on-Wye. It’s mid morning. Outside it’s a little damp but in here there’s a crackling log fire. Every table is taken. Everyone is either reading, writing, or murmuring quietly to whoever they are with. Hops hang from the uncovered joists of the ceiling.

At the next table an earnest man (pointy beard) is reading Sylvia Plaths “The Bell Jar”. On the other side – and by coincidence as I bought a copy yesterday – a 20-something lady with dreadlocks and a multicoloured sweater that looks hand-knitted is reading “The Catcher in the Rye”. The couple at the table beyond nod back; previously they’d commented on the “O The President” decal on Samantha, in a positive way. Someone I can’t place but know – think he is a BBC reporter – is eating scrambled eggs on toast at the corner table and throwing little bits to an appreciative spaniel.

Bookshop

I check Twitter. My pot of tea arrives and I respond to the waitress in Welsh, constantly surprised at remembering words unused in decades.

Hay-on-Wye has the extremely justified title of the “Town of Books”. It’s not a big place; you can walk across downtown (as American colleagues would say) in less than ten minutes. The streets are narrow, but the place isn’t choked with traffic; there’s nowhere to drive to within 20 miles of here, perhaps why.

Wall of books

The bookshops and the festival are why people visit Hay. This tiny town, straddling the border of England and Wales, claims to have “more books” (easily many million) “per square mile” (one?) then anywhere else. And it would be a brave town, even other book towns, which challenged this. I wonder; does this place have the largest concentration of non-digital knowledge in the world? Possibly.

The bookshops differ, from the small and specialist, to several buildings joined together with seemingly endless corridors of books. Shelving differs, from neat and orderly, to books taking up every conceivable space on walls and floor, in some places meaning you have to jump over piles of books to move onwards. In some places, the books are precariously placed. On day one, I pulled one off a high shelf. The shelf came down with it. And the shelves below. And the cabinet. It was raining books – unfortunately hardbacks. The irony of being killed by an avalanche of books (which some librarian colleagues would have found very funny) wasn’t lost on me.

Booth's

It’s apparently quiet at this time of year, but even so the bookshops were busy with browsers and purchasers. This isn’t a place where books come to die; it’s a place where books are given another opportunity of being refound and reowned. Hay-on-Wye is the global convergence point for used books; container loads from around the world go into the bookshops; purchasers (including me) wait patiently in line at the Post Office to send books back around the world.

Useful though amazon.com is, where it fails, Hay-on-Wye fills the gap. Obscure book? Book published in 1933 that Amazon says is “Unavailable”? That collection of Ladybird books that taught you, simply, about things and which you believed unswervingly in at age six? They’re probably sitting on a shelf in Hay-on-Wye. Somewhere. And here’s the thing – there’s no instant look-up online of where that book is on the shelf. You have to go hunt, and that is part of the fun. In some stores, the staff can help. In others they have a vague idea. In some you are on your own (literally, as some shops are unmanned with just an honesty box for payment).

The problem (is it a problem?) in my case is that, in the hunt for one book, I found and bought more than 30 others on the way. Which lead to several more trips to the post office for despatch, as a swathe of my American colleagues will discover next week.

And it’s not just the bookstores. There are books for sales in cabinets bolted onto walls, in gardens, on tables outside, under a marquee next to the converted cinema (converted, inevitably, into a bookstore), on cabinets in the grounds of the castle:

Cabinets of books

So that book you remembered about from your youth is here. If it isn’t, it isn’t likely to be anywhere else. J. R. Hartley wasted his time wandering around the local bookshops of his small town; he should have taken the bus across the Golden Valley to Hay-on-Wye and tracked it down here.

The Globe at Hay, a converted chapel, was a revelation and my base for several days. Entering takes you into the most relaxed cafe possible. Sofas, cushions to sit and lie down own, various tables. Free wifi and a formidable menu of excellent and well-priced food, tea and coffee. People tap away on laptops. More of them ask about the decal on Samantha.

Downstairs, the basement is used for classes, keep fit, and as a makeshift cinema where I rewatched “Mulholland Drive” one evening on a comfy sofa while drinking good tea in a proper cup. The Odeon this was not.

Comfy seating

The residents are noticeably affluent, in how they dress and shop. This is, to use the increasingly dodgy British classification, an upper middle class town. I suspect the newspaper demographic is about 80 percent Guardian, 15 percent Independent and 5 percent the rest. But whilst people who (tediously) revel in the “grittiness” of “working class” living will automatically assume that means snobbiness, it’s exactly the opposite. I don’t think I’ve visited a more relentlessly friendly, approachable and relaxed place in Britain.

It’s probably helped by the range of shops. As well as over 30 bookshops, there are many foodie shops, from delicatessans to cafes to restaurants to (several) grocers. Many of them selling high quality, organic, and varied, fruit and vegetables. And not at extortionate prices, so it’s not just for those affluent people. Hay-on-Wye isn’t near anywhere significant; Hereford is the local city, nearly an hour away by bus. It’s on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, a wild and empty place I distantly remember from childhood. The town is proof that, with effort and a positive attitude, a relatively ‘remote’ place can have a wide range of goods and services.

Indexing

It’s no surprise that the annual Hay Festival is a big success. Accommodation is booked up for (many) miles around; the B&B I stay in is booked for the festival week for the next two years. I went to an early festival and remember it being little more than a marquee in the town square. Now it’s a big thing, with speakers such as Bill Clinton proclaiming the festival as “The Woodstock of the mind”.

I wonder what other book towns are like? I visited one a decade ago in Mundal in Norway without realising it, but remember noticing lots of places selling second-hand books. I’m overdue for another visit to Norway and a stay in my favourite hotel there to date. And perhaps an exploration of other booktowns; there are 22 in Europe, ranging from Votikvere in Estonia to Valladolid in Spain. This could become a new hobby (glint in eye) if I can work out how to fund it.

But if you are serious about books and knowledge, you have to visit Hay-on-Wye at least once in your life. Go there. Buy a book for yourself. Buy one for someone else, and post it to them.

The American Dream

The American Dream

This particular adventure draws to a close; in a few minutes Pablo the limo driver (cheaper than a taxi) will return, hopefully with my luggage, and we’ll be off to LAX. The pictures on this page I took earlier today around the Getty Center. There are two American dreams. It’s ironic that I’m typing this while in Los Angeles, the magnet for people looking for the first one:

Dream 1. The shortcut to wealth. Be discovered, become a star; quickly build up a business empire and make millions. Protect your wealth through whatever means, be they economic or political.

Sycamore tree

Dream 2: Find someone special. Afford a house with a white picket fence. Raise a family. Grow old together, enjoy each others company. Stay healthy, stay out of debt. Read. Be optimistic. Live modestly.

I met plenty of people who were after dream 2. Some, like the couple at the last meal I had on an Amtrak train, had found it. Others were looking. Those two dreams; they partially but don’t totally fit the political scene. Many Republican voters would prefer dream 2; some Democrats have achieved dream 1.

Open plaza

What connects them both is opportunity and education. Learn how to find the opportunities. Give yourself the skills to take advantage of them. Whatever American dream you follow, unless you get extremely lucky or are born into money, you’ve got to go for the opportunities. And they’re there. If you want them and go for them. And you have a large slice of luck with things such as health. So Americans seem quietly determined; at least the ones I met. Perhaps this is a manifestation of their ancestry, with people determined to leave behind poverty and repression and make a better life. Maybe it’s a desire to get on in life. Connect with like-minded people. Move on, and build what is still a new country, make it better.

And maybe this is why the US has what I call The Hive. It’s an extremely intense network and community of self-driven digital library researchers and practitioners. They each make considerable use of Web 2.0 and other net technologies to what some may think are extreme degrees. They don’t *have* to do any of this; they just do. I met some of The Hive at #IL2008 and #GLLS2008; others online, through Twitter and Flickr and Facebook and email.

Roses

This doesn’t exist in Britain to the extent it does in the US, and I’m not sure it could. Work conditions, negatively, count against it. Americans would say “Just do it.”; Brits would say “Why on Earth are you doing it?” in that ever-cynical way I’ve gotten tired of over the last decade. Cynicism is not the same as intelligence, which is why Britain would never elect someone like Barack with a message of “Hope” and “Change”. By coincidence I had a late night twitter exchange with someone senior from the UK academic digital education scene, who made pretty much the same point about a lack of any substantial UK “Hive”. This needs investigating properly (RB: we need to talk).

What is America? It’s being in wonder at something without looking for fault or cynicism in it. It’s strangers saying hello. It’s trying at something. It’s having conversations that are never dull or predictable. It’s having an opinion. It’s making a cause, and voting, and elections, and not giving up when a hurricane washes away your house but going back and rebuilding it and making a home and starting again. It’s an utter diversity of landscapes, communities and people. It’s being awake, it’s realising what’s outside and what you want to do, and who you are. Smell is the strongest sense, and to me America smells of Amtrak diesel, pomegramates and lemons, strong coffee in a Memphis diner, badly made tea, gumbo, the dollar bill, hotel cookies, peanut butter at Graceland, Louisiana swampwater, Seattle breakfast fruit, rooftop swimming pools, bear poo, the sweat of a nervous taxi driver, the breakfast buffet at #glls2008, hot dogs on Santa Monica pier, fish feed at Monterey aquarium, Pike Place in Seattle, cheesecake, the Mississippi at sunset, deep Chicago pizza, the edginess of El Paso, hotel conference room carpets, the hair of someone hugging you who was a stranger yesterday and will be a friend for life today, a library in Montana, the tangiable excitement of a crowd counting down the seconds to their president-elect…

Walkway

But there’s only one colour for me and that colour is blue. Blue for the sky over the Getty Center in Los Angeles as I type this, of the sky over the Canadian rockies, of the Mississippi at dawn, of the sky over a Swedish-style house with a white picket fence I glimpsed in Minnesota and can’t forget, of the eyes of Brooke and Holly, of the winning party. “Soak it up – be inspired – let yourself be open – you don’t know what might come in.”

I did, and found America, and home.

Thank you.