Farmers are out with their contraptions cutting back the hedgerows. As I ride past the old Folly End farm shop the cacophony on the other side of the dense green barrier sounds like a multitude of angry hornets.
First commute by bicycle of the new term as I take advantage of no early morning meetings and benign September weather. Over in the west the early sun burnishes the sky above Killerton and I know that whilst my legs feel lethargic it will still be a disappointment not to able to continue on up the valley past the school entrance. Sure enough, when I do turn into the driveway and over the Welcome greeting newly painted on the tarmac, I find I’m already looking forward to riding home again.
In the last decade and a half the vast majority of my rides have ventured broadly westward, southward or northwards from home. I’m not entirely certain why East Devon was spurned during that time, but this year has certainly made up for that. Once more today I head out past Whimple towards Tipton St John, but instead of riding up through Metcombe I take the lane that leads to Lynch Head through Venn Ottery. As the road rises gently above the village I pass The Big House, commanding what must be breathtaking views out over the parish church and across the Otter Vale. In my head I am already writing a 1930s Murder Mystery set in its environs, thoughts that are cruelly interrupted when the road pitches up steeply towards the nature reserve at the peak of the ridge and my breath is captured by the gradients rather than the views.
After a week back in school I am desperate to get out for a ride to cleanse myself of the emotional detritus of work. With rates of infection for The Virus rising exponentially once more there seems too to be a desperation amongst the car driving populace. As I pass over the M5 I note that the southbound carriageway is as busy as I have seen it all summer, whilst the A30 westbound appears to have ground to a halt near Honiton. On the road past Fenny Bridges there is desperation amongst traffic passing me far too closely. I wave my hands with a Latin fervour too many times and feel enormous relief as I turn back onto smaller roads and lanes. For the hundredth time this week I find myself longing for a return to Lockdown.
Every time I have ridden through West Hill over the past twenty years or so I have been struck with what a prosperous conurbation it seems to be, the vast majority of houses being luxurious abodes which rarely seem to show signs of habitation as they slumber within lush gardens. You rarely see anyone in the streets and whenever I have stopped for a bottle of water at the solitary shop it is always either empty or being frequented by a child hopping out of a parents’ monstrous 4×4 (parked on the double yellows, naturally) to pick up something on their way to the stables. Today however I ride along Lower Broad Oak Lane for the first time and it feels like everything has been ratcheted up a couple of notches. Expansive established homes rest secure behind fences, gates and high grown hawthorn hedges, their presence merely glimpsed through cracks. A bay window here, a pillared portico there. Signs proclaiming ‘Private Road’ proliferate. At the entrance to one a sign suggests that down this way lies an opportunity for Glamping. Well of course.
And then, as if to reinforce the point that I Do Not Belong Here, the heavens open…
A Different City for a Different Life – The Human Hearts (from ‘Day Of The Tiles’ EP. Bandcamp)
As Many Candles As Possible – The Mountain Goats (from ‘Getting Into Knives’ LP. Bandcamp)
Pointless Killing – The Wolfhounds (from ‘Electric Music’ LP. Bandcamp)
Post-Modern Hereditary Dance Steps – June of 44 (from ‘Revisionist’ LP. Bandcamp)
The Chauffeur – TJO (from ‘Songs For Peacock’ LP. Bandcamp)
For Her – The Chicks (from ‘Gaslighter‘ LP)
Beautiful Horses – BLOODbath64 (from ‘Aestheticadelica’ LP. Bandcamp)
House Music All Night Long – JARV IS… (from ‘Beyond The Pale’ LP. Bandcamp)
Flood the Club – International Teachers Of Pop (from ‘Pop Gossip‘ LP)
Until Now, All Is Well (feat. Laetitia Sadier) – The Nix (7″ and digital single. Bandcamp)
See The World – Thibault (from ‘Or Not Thibault’ LP. Bandcamp)
A song in Spanish addressed to men who drive big cars – Short-Haired Domestic (digital single. Bandcamp)
A World Of Polka Dots – the boy least likely to (from ‘The Wrong End of a Rainbow’ LP. Bandcamp)
If I Told – Courtney Marie Andrews (from ‘Old Flowers’ LP. Bandcamp)
In The Cloudy Domain – Gary Daly (from ‘Gone From Here‘ LP)
Broken Loves – The Blue Nile (from ‘High’ LP reissue)
Time After Time – The Beloved (from ‘Happiness’ LP reissue. Bandcamp)
When All Is Said and Done – ABBA (YouTube)
Unknown – Even As We Speak (from ‘Adelphi’ LP. Bandcamp)
Please Don’t Fuck Up My World – Sparks (from ‘A Steady Drip Drip Drip‘ LP)
Marquee Moon – Luna (digital single. Bandcamp)
The One – The Lemon Twigs (from ‘Songs for the General Public’ LP. Bandcamp)
Home – El Goodo (from ‘Zombie’ LP. Bandcamp)
Dearest Eloise – Stray (from ‘Peephole In My Brain – The British Progressive Pop Sounds Of 1971‘ compilation)
Two Things At The One Time – The Wee Cherubs (from ‘The Merry Makers‘ LP)
Warwick – The Bats and associates (from ‘Foothills’ LP. Bandcamp)
Woke Up To The Light – Strand of Oaks (from ‘Heal’ LP. Bandcamp)
Thunder In The Afternoon – Bobbie Gentry (from ‘Saint Etienne Present Songs For The Fountain Coffee Room‘ compilation)
Ruby – The Jayhawks (from ‘XOXO’ LP. Bandcamp)
Hold on To Your Love – Lavinia Blackwall (from ‘Muggington Lane End’ LP. Bandcamp)
Never Too Far – Dana Gavanski (from ‘Wind Songs’ EP. Bandcamp)
September Remember – Sam Prekop (from ‘Comma’ LP. Bandcamp)
Spellbinder – trappist afterland (from ‘Songs of temporary displacement’ Bandcamp)
Garden – Peter Rogers (from ‘The Stubborn Light of Things’ LP. Bandcamp)
No Peace – Alula Down (from ‘Postcards from Godley Moor. Summer 2020’. Bandcamp)
Song of Self Doubt – Alex Rex (from ‘Andromeda’ LP. Bandcamp)
Sweet Greens And Blues – Shirley Collins (from ‘Heart’s Ease’ LP. Bandcamp)
In Solitude I Will Fade Away – Alison Cotton (from ‘Only Darkness Now’ tape. Bandcamp)
Park Song – The Pistachio Kid (from ‘Sweet Remedies‘ 10″ LP.
The Truth’s Out, Darling – Quigley (from ‘A Kind Of Loving’ EP. R.I.P. Roger Quigley)
Full playlist on Mixcloud
As I ride up to Paradise copse a rabbit darts out from the hedgerow and runs ahead of me for a few metres, white tail bobbing before it dodges back into safety. At the top of the climb I glance at my bike computer and notice that the short distance covered today has taken me over the total mileage for the entirety of last year (and the year before) and August is only just ending. It would seem that lockdown has had its benefits.
There is all kinds of Bank Holiday weekend fun in evidence up at Dunkeswell today. As well as the usual gliders being towed up into the sky, there is a field filled with horse boxes and small ponies trotting around like something out of a Norman Thelwell book of comic illustrations. Innumerable signs dotted along the lanes suggest this is the advertised Fun Ride. Meanwhile up above spots of bright colour whirl and swoop as parachutists cascade like petals in the wind.
Heading out of Tipton St John and up to Metcombe I spot the unmistakable form of a Heron standing next to the leat that runs the length of the lane. With a few apparently lazy wing beats it hauls itself into the air, its strangely prehistoric silhouette loping just above and ahead of me for several hundred metres before veering off, no doubt to raid some unprotected fish pond.
In my eighteen year old’s journal I once explained away the lack of entries during The Summer Months by reasoning that summer was the time for Doing Things whilst the rest of the year was for writing about them. This still feels like a reasonable excuse. Having said that, the specifics of Things Done in This Year Of The Virus, or indeed in that eighteen year old’s distant past, remain frustratingly hazy. Perhaps this is as it should be. Lazy Old Sun and/or Lockdown Memory Loss and all that. The long tail of The Virus.
One of the things I have not being doing much of is walking. Or even Walking with a capital W. I am not much of A Walker, although at times I look a little enviously at those who are. My old school friend Andrew, whom my eighteen year old journaling self would have perhaps met one last time at a brief party in a garden off of Troon’s South Beach before our paths once again criss-crossed some thirty years later at a school reunion, has certainly been walking (as opposed to Walking) during these summer months and I have been enjoying many of the photographs of Croydon and South Norwood environs he has posted on Friendface. He has not yet managed to capture a car splashed with pale green paint, but I know he lives in hope.
Ameena Rojee was lucky enough to photograph a car splashed with green paint in Croydon, but I am sure (hope) she would suggest that luck had very little to do with it. Her ‘A Love Letter To Croydon’ photozine was published by the always interesting Another Place Press earlier this year and is filled with shots that put me in mind of William Eggleston and his years of photographing in and around his beloved Memphis. Rojee has a similar sensitivity to the delights and vagaries of colour, and too to the warmest tones of sunlight, even in winter shots of snow-dappled hedgerows. Best of all is a shot of a red brick gable wall of a block of flats, burning in the setting sunlight and cast across with the shadow of a tree, stretching its giant branches across the luxurious expanse of russet. It is simultaneously reasurringly earthbound and magically otherworldly.
Al Brydon also has a photozine in the same ‘Field Notes’ series by Another Place. His ‘None Places’ collects photographs of landscapes that are frequently shrouded in mists and shadows, “Lost in the spaces between the places where no one ever was.” The conceit here being, of course, that someone always ever was, is and will be in these places, for these are landscapes where the ghosts of intervention linger in wait of the photographer’s eye. Here a tree growing up from a rural hedgerow, sculpted by the passing of laden tractor trailers; there a cleft in a rock face or a vaguely discernible pathway between trees. The photographer as walker, observer, recorder and illusionist.
Lisa Woollett’s ‘Rag and Bone’ does not really contain walking, other than around beaches and riverbeds at low tide in search of the detritus of ages. Mudlarking around. It is, however, very much in the spirit of so much contemporary non-fiction in that it engages the personal (in this case family history) in order to tell the story of something bigger (a cultural/geopolitical history of rubbish and consumption). This balancing act is a deceptively difficult one to pull off, and if Woollett occasionally dips the scales a fraction too far into the personal (okay, this may be Just Me, but honestly, I have not the slightest interest in any musings on parenthood) she always quickly resets it with more interesting asides about the histories of Victorian London and the Kent estuary. And whilst it could be tempting to cast a withering eye at what one might think of as an easy cash-in on contemporary infatuations with Climate Crisis and the nightmare visions of Plastic Pollution, Woollett is smart enough (and/or old enough) to recognise that these concerns are not uniquely 21st Century (like me she remembers similar Environmental Concerns of The Younger Generations in previous, 20th Century decades). She also quietly notes that whilst we ought, as individuals, to make personal choices about our own plastic usage, it will only be change on a global scale by corporations and governments that will have any meaningful impact. And in the meantime, we can always console ourselves by finding some kind of blighted beauty in the fragments our addiction to consumption continues to leave behind.
I am fairly certain that Jini Reddy would balk at being described as A Walker with a capital W, not least because she makes a deal about it in her excellent ‘Wanderland’. Having read this back in May (and therefore at the start of those Summer Months of Doing Things and/or the in midst of The Lost Lockdown Weeks) it has taken on something of the patina of a print left out in the sun, faded to ghostly burnt out fragments with a structure that lingers with suggestions which may or may not reflect reality. I recall (rightly or wrongly) that Reddy spends much of her time in the book (and in her ‘wanders’, or vice-vera) reflecting on her Otherness. It is heartening to hear her openly admit that whilst she is desperate to discover the sense of a mystical Otherness that, ahem, Other Walkers and nature writers so frequently tell us that they experience, she can never quite escape a limiting self-awareness. Instead it is another Otherness (AnOtherness?) that defines her: a reality of being A Woman Of Colour within the Cultural Landscape of Walking. There is an honest bravery in Reddy’s admittance of self-awareness that is at odds with much of what, in other contemporary nature/Walking writing often comes across as an unintentional yet nevertheless assumed middle class, white (and often male) privilege. It helps make ‘Wanderland’ a thoroughly engaging read, one in which I found myself laughing with innumerable ‘yes!’es as she finds herself both seduced by and rejected by the appeal of the Magic in (and of) Nature.
In contrast, ‘Anywhere’ is anything but honest. Ostensibly the writings of Leeds University PHD student Cecile Oak and making repeated reference to a guidebook written by one A.J. Salmon, this is in fact entirely penned by Dr Phil Smith. Now I have vague memories of what may have been some of the first wanderings of Smith some twenty or more years ago as part of the Wrights and Sites group and their first sketches for an Exeter mis-guide. This seemed at the time to be somewhat entertaining, tapping into the spirit of situationism (and who amongst us was not enamoured by the situationists in our twenties/early thirties?) and the emerging psychogeographical writings of Ian Sinclair. It all seemed rather a clever wheeze.
It’s evident that Smith has spent those intervening two decades fully committing himself to these areas of study and performance, certainly carving out an Important Niche in the, ahem, landscape of “walking, site-specificity, mythogeographies and counter-tourism”, and yet despite (or because of) hiding behind the persona of a young(er) woman, the prevailing feeling in ‘Anywhere’ is that of a curmudgeonly old man (yes, I wholly recognise the irony of that) taking a dig at Johnny Come Lately’s.
So the book reads like the frustrated ramblings of someone who feels their favourite cult band has been discovered by A New Generation who have both failed to recognise the Scratchy Early Singles and simultaneously (and/or consequently) Selling Out to become Popular and Famous with their own tenth rate reproductions. It’s like listening to someone desperate to impress us with their intelligence yet, with an awarenesses of how unfortunate such a desperation can be, attempting to subdue it behind a miserable cloak of self-deprecating humour. It’s the anxious pestering of the (falsely apologetic) academic, intent on making everything a performance where overpowering complexity all but obscures anything of interest and value with impenetrable layers of (imagined) meaning.
‘Anywhere’ is subtitled ‘A mythogeography of South Devon and how to walk it’ but could easily have been ‘I was A Walker before you was A Walker’ (thereby presenting book-store détourning miscreants with a perfect opportunity to hilariously substitute n’s for l’s. Oak (or is it Smith? Or Salmon? Or perhaps ‘Crabman’, who also crops up in the pages) would surely get the joke, though whether they would raise a smile is, reasonably enough, another matter).
If that feels universally critical of Oak (or Salmon, or ‘Crabman’, or Smith) then I should temper that with admitting that there IS something interesting (and potentially delightful) lurking at the core of ‘Anywhere’. There are many, many intriguing histories laid out and some of them may even be true, but I’m damned if I can be bothered wading through all the self-indulgent ‘cleverness’ to get to the treasure. Naturally, this probably says far more about me than it does about Smith (or Oak, or Salmon, or ‘Crabman’) and marks me down as someone who (sigh) wants things to be Too Easy and does not fully understand (deep sigh) the layered complexity of the world around me. All of which may well be true, but can’t we just go for a walk without making a song and dance about it? Can’t we just go for a walk without turning it into something that starts with a capital W?