the m john harrison blog

Tag: outdoors


Now the dust has settled I can see that my 70th birthday books haul includes: A Philosophy of Walking, Frederic Gros; Henk Van Rensbergen’s superb Abandoned Places; The Illiterate, Agota Kristoff; The Slate Sea, poems & photographs, ed Paul Henry & Zed Nelson; Britain & Ireland’s Best Wild Places, Christopher Somerville; Dusk, Axel Hoedt; and The Near Death Thing by Rick Broadbent, interviews with Manx TT riders. To help me navigate this complex territory I have in addition a 1930s quarter-inch map of North Wales & Manchester. I’m going to start by running Gros & Broadbent concurrently.

we can deal with this

Tall old guy in running gear–not new, not old, perfectly neat but on the perfect edge of shabby–which says, “These clothes are thin but I’m thinner”–standing on the apron of the Ogwen Interpretation Centre looking out at the rain. We exchange the old guy look, which is often accompanied by a minute shrug & in this case means, “What the fuck is an Interpretation Centre, other than Euromoney turned into the lousiest architecture and emptiest content you’ve ever seen? What is an Interpretation Centre, other than an expensive drying-room in which these sodden D of E kids can cluster, drip and shout while they stuff down the hydrogenated fats?” Then he gives me a good-natured smile, as if to add, “We know all this and don’t begrudge it. We know all this about the weather in Idwal, dirty weather streaming down the slabs, slopping in your shoes, blackening the lake, one seagull in the saturated air, & yet we’re still here, still in Ogwen though Ogwen no longer quite represents an experience of itself we understand.” It isn’t a weak smile, it’s a frail unbreakable one, as strong and languid as his running style, a smile that’s learned such a lot, waiting all these years for the rain to stop.

Tuesday already has a waxy surface, as if they applied some very modern coating to it at about half past seven this morning. Look across the valley at Workhouse Copse, the wind and the late March sun are a kind of laminar flow around everything, a fixative made of air. It reminds me of some way of landscape painting but I can’t remember whose. I come back from a walk full of ideas but feeling rearranged in some way I can’t make use of. I’ve experienced that feeling a lot recently.

voices in the hills

Attempts to deliver outside as inside, to convert the landscape into a kind of built environment and our interactions with it into a confusion of messages and mission statements. Interest groups that deliver the outdoors to us are not the outdoors itself but by mediating the experience they turn it from an interaction with the outdoors into an interaction with them. Structural intrusions into the landscape market limiting messages about how it can be used. Loosely-associated entertainments draw a family demographic, playing into the hands of direct commercial exploitation. Landscape as backdrop, as ever. Signage & architecture intrude, multiply and move steadily towards the spectacular. 2050, the thing has become the picture of the thing, the plan for the thing: “Wind, stones, light trapped in the fast cold air along the hillside. Edwardian sunrise. We leave the bunkhouse hopeful, return tired from a day of voices in the hills, the hard winter crossing of the Interpretation Room of the Ogwen Visitor Centre.”

getting out of it

I started hillwalking in the early 1970s because as soon as I got near a hill I could relax. In fact I couldn’t relax any other way. I’m not overstating this. It was a feeling that might be lost later in the walking day for any number of reasons, but for me the venue itself–the upland outdoors–acted like a tranquiliser & an antidepressant. Later in the day–whatever had happened in the interrim: you might get soaked, you might get lost, you might get blisters, you might experience a little low-wattage sublime–tiredness took over & provided another kind of chemical cosh. This never worked for me in towns & cities, or in lowlands. The built environment offered an anxious trudge, a failed yet persistent attempt at leaving yourself–or more likely the venue–behind. Exurban lowlands I just found uninteresting–I’m not saying that’s true now, & I’d rather walk on agricultural land, which I hate with a passion because it’s so clearly owned, than not walk at all. It’s the sense of ownership/not ownership, in the end, that makes the difference to me. I know rationally that I’m not “free” on access land: but at least, for the moment, no one can stop me being there.

parsing the bedrooms of lily

Imagine this as a photograph found in the usual collapsing shoebox at the usual car boot sale, you know the score by now. The Dali family’s urge towards meaning is as mistaken as your own. Their attempt to force an arrangement on the world by composing themselves in it collides with your attempt to interpret their attempt: in the ensuing confusion, nothing can be understood. It would help just a little if you didn’t see it as a picture of the Dalis–or, especially, of Dali. Everything else in it would begin to matter. The boat, for instance, which you see as leaving rather than arriving, might suddenly become a lot more important.




the usual clownish re-enactment

Three nights of rain and the woods are sodden again, standing water where the seeps debouch on to the old railway line. Dogs mud to the armpits, tracks under an inch of limestone slime. Jogging uphill becomes this duckfoot struggle, then cautious slithering and windmill arms on the other side, the green lane a foetid downhill slot where it isn’t polished stone like ice. I thought we were past all that. I thought the year had got going. I feel betrayed. I feel heavy. I thought the problem from now on would be drought, and metatarsalgia from the hardpack. That’s what I was looking forward to. That was to be the nature of my complaint. I expected at least to dance along between the trees. Saturday in the Burbage valley we met a runner with two very small terriers like chopped and dropped poodles with pushed-in hairy faces. They were truncated. They looked like handbag dogs–in some lights they looked like mops–but by god they could keep up with him as he ran between the boulders. They were up for it in every way, boiling into and out of the loud tea-coloured streams, giving the impression that they were an entire pack of dogs. Size was not an issue with them. That’s what I’d like. Be thirty years younger, maybe six inches taller, power round the Burbage skyline every other day with a pack of nameless, grinning little dogs and a wide grin on my face too. Instead, I struggle in the muddy woods like a clownish re-enactment of The Road Not Taken.

get out for a walk

while you still can.

“National Parks are extensive tracts of country that are protected by law for future generations because of their natural beauty and for the opportunities they offer for open air recreation.” –YouGov
Stop the Tories using a false housing crisis to break the National Parks Act.


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