Ben Nevis from the path to the CIC Hut alongside the Allt a’ Mhuilinn
I mentioned in my previous post that I’m slowly working my way towards an analysis of a neo-peasant future. Well, the operative word there is ‘slowly’ and here’s one of the slow bits. It comes in the form of the report I promised on my recent spirit quest, and also by way of a breather before I shoulder the onerous burden of the neo-peasant analysis. But I’ve also got to say that I’m reeling in the wake of Jo Cox’s murder. Various people are cautioning not to make political capital out of her death, which is probably wise. So let me make some symbolic capital out of it instead, in the context of a murderer allegedly yelling “Britain first” and “Keep Britain independent” as he killed her. Doubtless he was a disturbed man operating alone, but nobody ever really operates ‘alone’. The anti-EU referendum campaign has been a thoroughly poisonous exercise in small-minded nativism, and Cox’s murder looks to me like a kind of apotheosis of it. A left populist case could have been made for quitting the EU, but it wasn’t. For me, Cox’s murder symbolises the whirlwind we’ll reap from indiscriminate support for populisms of any kind as a way of shaking up the present political inertia. I will not lend my support to a politics of localism and self-determination without tolerance, egalitarianism and internationalism at its core. The primary task is to build such a movement, not hope to piggyback it onto squalid nativism. Britain isn’t ‘first’, and nor is anywhere else.
Anyway, reporting on my spirit quest seems a bit self-indulgent in the light of Cox’s death, but there we have it – writing a blog is nothing if not self-indulgent, as I further discuss below. I’m not even sure that what follows here (written a couple of weeks ago, before the murder) is wholly relevant to this blog’s own limited themes. I think it probably is. Anyway, it’s good to stretch the wings once in a while. We’ll be back on the farm soon enough. So here goes.
My friend Paul shamelessly revealed here not so long ago that I recently turned 50, an event that prompted more soul-wracked reflection on my part than I’d anticipated. Fortunately, having given up my academic career and most of my pretensions to professional respectability in my 30s, I got the bulk of my midlife crisis out of the way early and I’m now an only mildly disillusioned farmer rather than the kind of time-bomb of utter rage that young scholars learn to avoid as an academic rite of passage when they chance upon certain senior colleagues around the photocopier.
Even so, I’ve been turning over thoughts of death in my mind of late – and not exclusively my own. Throughout human history, the individual’s birth and death have generally been thought of as mere waymarks on a longer journey of the soul rather than the definitive start and endpoints they’ve become in the post-Christian west. It occurs to me that this has been a profoundly unsettling psycho-cultural change that goes less remarked than perhaps it should. I think it manifests in some odd conceptions that we often fail to notice: the idea that although we ourselves pass to dust, the civilisation of which we form a part progresses ever onwards towards godlike immortality, or the notion that as individuals we must be authors of a unique, important life that other people need to witness. I’ve never subscribed to the former conviction, but the latter…well, perhaps that’s why I took to writing this blog and am now repackaging my holiday notes under the grandiloquent title of a ‘spirit quest’.
Paul has a nice metaphor for our thoughts and ideas being like the spoor of an animal pursuing its course through the landscape. When others intersect with it, they might stop and sniff at it, and maybe follow it for a while as a part of their own journey. Or else they might just plough on through, only stopping long enough to piss on the trail they found. I’ve been truly gratified at the number of people who’ve taken the trouble to respond positively to my online spoor, I’ve learned a lot from them, and I feel bad that I sometimes haven’t found the time to respond adequately. Then again, my journey was bookended by a commenter opining on my deadened spirit and by another one criticising my empty criticality. So I hereby renew my ever ill-kempt resolve to try to spend my time among the sniffers, and not among the pissers. If I’m lucky, these notes might find a sniffer or two.
My journey is taking me first to the Scottish Highlands, on which I recently wrote. So I drive northward, mountain-bound, in a borrowed car. M4, M5, M6, M74. The spirit-traveller of old would measure their journey in the lengths of their own prostrate body, but today’s pilgrim works to tighter deadlines. The farm is at several crossroads in its own narrative – a good time to leave it and reflect, but there are others taking up the slack of my absence and I need to be back in a week. For a long time I rationed my fossil-fuel assisted travelling out of concern for the climate, but since Copenhagen I’ve become more slovenly. If everybody denied themselves journeys such as this, emissions would plummet. If I avoid it personally, it makes no difference. The eternal dilemma in the society of the crowd. On this trip, I choose to reject the duality of the environmentalist as either hypocrite or saint.
In any case, I can report with total certainty that not everyone is denying themselves journeys such as this. From Worcester to Manchester, it’s a stop-start dance in three lanes of laboured traffic. At 0mph I have plenty of time to reflect on the sticker adorning the 4×4 in front – “One life. Live it.” That post-Christian conceit again. Why do you only ever see it on 4x4s? Because driving off-road seems livelier than the constraints of the tarmac? How closely shuttered the horizon!
The traffic thins towards Carlisle. I stop for food at Tebay, the organic service station. Like most once-good consumerist ideas, it seems to be slowly regressing towards the mean. I peel off onto the A702, Edinburgh-bound. I like the fact that the main southern route to Scotland’s capital is a winding single carriageway. In Edinburgh, I spend the night sleeping on the floor of my son Oliver’s student digs. Oliver is coming to the Highlands with me. His room is cluttered with mountaineering equipment, some of it inherited from me. He’s slowly replacing it with more up-to-date kit, a fact I try not to ponder too metaphorically.
The next day we drive to the far northwest and climb Ben Hope, the mountain described by Robert Macfarlane in his celebrated book The Wild Places. I find Macfarlane’s writing engaging and irritating by turns – too self-absorbed in places, too overblown, too politically ill-attuned. His version of Ben Hope is pitiless and frightening. For us today it’s a gentle amble in the sun, T shirts on the summit with some pretty views. But then the clouds roll in, the warmth vanishes instantly and I remember that it was a winter night Macfarlane spent up here. Context is all. Perhaps I only find him irritating because he writes a lot like me, only better, and to vastly more acclaim.
South of Cape Wrath, the landscape is post-glacial, the ice age palpably recent. The land is still rising here in rebound from its glacial load. Macfarlane is right, this is just about the wildest landscape you can find in Britain. In one sense, it’s not so wild. You’re never more than about 30 miles from a road, and once on a road you’re probably never more than another 30 miles from a cappuccino or whatever damn thing you want. But imagine dwelling in this land, making your living from it. Few could, and those that once did are long departed. Highland or lowland, trade may be a saviour, but it’s also a destroyer. The sheep eat the people, as they once said in these parts. But now the sheep are mostly gone too. Not many people are returning, apart from wayfarers like me.
The clouds that rolled in yesterday have now set for the week. Oliver and I climb Arkle, stepping through the portal of a huge split boulder into pine forest and then the mountain’s rocky wastes. Blasted by an arctic wind, the only animal we see on the mountain is a small spider, scion of an ancient lineage.
We drive south again, through Assynt. I love this landscape of ancient inselbergs, and I’m intrigued by the recent crofter buyout of the Assynt estate. This country has some of the most unequal landownership in the world, but the winds of change are blowing in the new Scotland. I’d like to stay here a while and chase that story, but my visit is driven more by introspection and the desire to find some kind of redemption in the hills. I’d wanted a physical challenge, and I’d chosen An Teallach, thrilling to the reverential tones in the hillwalking guidebooks about adrenaline-fuelled scrambling on the Corag Bhuidhe pinnacles towering precipitously over Toll an Lochain. Packing nervously for the hike the night before I persuade Oliver to bring a rope.
“You read too many of those hillwalking books,” he says. “You’re a climber, not a hillwalker. You’ve led extreme grade rock.”
“Ah well, that was then. This is now.”
“Just stop reading those hillwalking books.”
But in the morning the clouds are low and the rain is hammering against my tent. I decide that the spirits of this quest have determined that my goal of traversing An Teallach will go unrewarded. I decide that I’m OK with that, like Peter Matthiesen in his book The Snow Leopard, searching for a spirit creature that he never glimpses. Oliver isn’t so sure. We drive to Torridon, the weather improving all the time, and with the sun now shining I’m no longer sure myself. Too late. Oliver goes fishing while I sit in a café reading George Monbiot’s new book, which I’ve been tasked to review. I also have with me James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life. The two make for argumentative bedfellows.
The next day dawns dull and wet again, but I’m not going to make the same mistake twice so we slog up to the ridge of Liathach – an objective that my hillwalking guide says is only marginally less terrifying than An Teallach. The views from the ridge are said to be magnificent, but ours rarely extend more than a few yards. We see no one else on the mountain all day. We’re pricked by a steely rain, outriding gusting northerlies. Tracing the ridge, we soon reach the Am Fasarinen Pinnacles – “a hard, exposed scramble that sets the pulse racing” the guidebook says. But it goes pretty easily. The only part where I stop to think is the descent of a small slab where there’s nothing much to hold onto. In a playground it would probably be none too taxing to the average eight year old, but with wet rock, numb hands, a fierce wind and a potentially fatal fall in the event of a slip it’s a somewhat different prospect. Looking down into the clouds boiling up from the corrie below I think for a second that I see my old friend Nick sitting on a dark bed of mist, trident in hand, beckoning me mischievously over. I turn to face the rock and lower myself gingerly, like an old man inching his way down a swimming pool ladder. There are no anthems in my head, and I’m cold, but it feels good to be here and good to have negotiated the pinnacles, as if indeed a pulse of deeper life-spirit flickers in me after all. Oliver scampers down the slab in four easy strides, facing out, and jumps onto the narrow bounding path.
“Guess you’re right,” I say, “That wasn’t so bad. Maybe I shouldn’t read those hillwalking guides so much.”
“Innit,” says Oliver, hefting his rucksack before he turns to kick up the edge of a sugary snowfield, the last remnant of winter, heading towards the final summit of Mullach an Rathain.
This is an era of diminished expectations. I do not think my children’s generation will find greater wealth or happiness than mine. I do not think that our culture is inexorably improving. But I find pleasure in the fact that my son is already a better mountaineer than I was.
In the valley, we backtrack along the road to our car. In places, there are deer-fenced exclosures, funded by EU money, to help with woodland regeneration. Outside them there’s little but heather. Inside, strong young saplings of birch and Scots pine. By God, that deer fencing looks a pricey business, though. And inside one of the exclosures we come across a doe, paler than usual, regarding us with infinite attention. I’m not inclined to take sides today in the ‘balance of nature’ debate, but I’m pleased to see her and take an illicit pleasure in the fact that she’s outwitted the fence. Perhaps she’s my spirit animal for this journey. The pine and birch grow strong around her.
On the final day in the Highlands we climb Slioch, again in cloud and rain. But as we follow the east ridge round to the summit of Sgurr an Tuill Bhain the sun burns through. A rainbow arcs northwards across the uninhabited lochans and moors of the Fisherfield Forest, pointing in the far distance to the sawtooth ridge of An Teallach itself, glinting in the sunlight. I don’t know whether to treat this sight as an emblem of my failure or of my success. Probably both, or neither. In any case, it’s beautiful. Rainbow, mountain, old tracks of ice. The spirit feels strong inside as we descend.
Oliver needs to get back to Edinburgh for a field ecology course. And I’m feeling the need to get back to the farm for some field ecology of my own. But I have a couple more things on my itinerary. First, a long drive south along England’s eastern coasts – a part of the country I’ve scarcely visited – and through the rich farmlands of Lincolnshire and the fens. There’s a beauty to the moors and beaches, but it’s unwillingly surrendered to the passing motorist whisked between appropriate stopovers. I try to find a campsite around Lincoln. There are ones marked on my map, but I don’t find them on the ground. Instead, incongruously, shuttered up in open farm country I find a couple of sex shops, and I begin to wonder if ‘campsite’ is some kind of east country euphemism. These late-night roads are unfriendly places, making a peon of the casual motorist: no stopping, no camping, layby closed. I’ve never stayed in a cheap service station hotel before. Who would? I assume there are always vacancies in such places. But from Lincoln, through Margaret Thatcher’s hometown of Grantham, and on to Peterborough, there’s no room at the inn. Just as I decide that the spirits of this journey are telling me to go home I find a room for the night.
The next morning, I start with coffee in the service station. Such non-places seem the very anathema of what I stand for, but I can’t help somehow liking them. A historical display near the burger bar shows how archaeologists found a bronze-age farm on this site, as the service station was built. Coachloads of football supporters arrive in raucous good humour. It’s easy for me to play the silent prophet and scorn their frivolity. Their team won, who cares? But I enjoy their enjoyment. Sometimes, there’s too little space for playfulness.
The fens are a place of industrial wind turbines, cereals and vegetables, undocumented workers, anti-EU sloganeering, and a cold shallow sea nibbling for purchase at the country’s edges. I drive along roads that speak of the fens’ drainage and Dutch connections: Forty Foot Bank, Sluice Road, Sixteen Foot Bank, Vermuden’s Drain. A family story holds that our ancestors were Dutch fen-drainers, hence the distinctly non-Anglo ‘j’ in the surname Smaje. The truth is more prosaic – and more interesting, speaking to the anxieties of history. The landscape is regimented here, its wildernesses confined to canal edges. Cow parsley and feral rape, kestrels. Occasionally the edge thickens to encompass a smallholding with geese and pigs. But mostly I see wheat, barley, rape, like all the arable fields of England. I reach the Breckland, where there are sand and trees, another destination of my journey, but I’m impatient now and there’s also a motorway leading westwards past self-proclaimed ‘historic market towns’ where suburban jumbles of ugly utility buildings reluctantly cede a few old town-centre streets. In Hemel Hempstead the inevitable happens and the ugly jumble on each side stretches to meet in the middle. Ah well, at least there are people playing cricket here. And perhaps in centuries to come those ugly buildings will be memorialised in turn. Hemel Hempstead: historic dormitory-commercial satellite? Somehow I can’t quite see it.
Just one more place to stop. Is this wise? The village where I grew up, and haven’t visited for nearly thirty years. My parents worked in London, and drew circles around it until they found the nearest place where they could afford a family home. I have no connections here now. The place today is even more self-memorialising than my own old memories of it. The Victorian building where Mrs Maunder once put me through my paces is now neatly museum-ized by a signpost: ‘The Old Schoolhouse’. And, talking of museums, the high street is emblazoned with the jaunty hues of the Roald Dahl museum, where once he was just an old bloke in the village who was known for writing books. No couple just out of college with two young kids could afford a place here now.
I climb the hill to the Anglican church where we used to walk up from the school for services, two abreast, girl and boy. A plaque on the wall lists every parish priest here from the thirteenth century. There have only been three since 1939, and I remember the first two from my school assemblies. The present incumbent started well after my time, and is the first female name on that list of ages. Perhaps I do believe in progress.
Another two hours and I’m home. The oaks we planted ten years ago now tower over me, their leaves a good three weeks ahead of the ones I’ve just seen in the Highlands. Spring has fully taken hold since I left. The first leafy crops of the season are ready to harvest. The lambs, so wraithlike just a few weeks ago, are now fully adhered to life. Soon it’ll be hay-making time. Or silage-making, anyway. More progress? I don’t know – I’ve returned with no more answers, no more spirit perhaps, than when I left. And no real home in the world but the one I’ve made, which is here.
Photo credit: By No machine-readable author provided. Blisco assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1219635