It is the beginning of September, and all of a sudden, at first light, the birds are back. They have been almost silent through the summer, and reticent too. This is not the dawn chorus jamboree of Springtime though, with the promise of nests to build and young to rear; at this time of year, birdsong is serious, end of summer talk. And this is still very much the end of summer, not Autumn proper. Most of the school holiday tourists have gone now, so there are fewer oversized cars parked obstructively in narrow lanes, but although there is still a feeling of a few more weeks of warm weather, change is coming. There are ducks rooting around the riverbank, but until today no sign of the Dippers, which seem to have been driven away when the river was made threadbare by the heatwave. We watched them raising young back in May, the adult birds racing off downstream to get food, while the young squabbled on tree roots, or practised diving among the big stones. I’d also quite like to know how June’s Goosander chicks have done; the original brood of eleven was down to just seven in July. Of course the leaves are still on the trees, and despite the drought of early summer, everything is green. But the river isn’t right until there is a white bib dipping, and a little black bird flashing past at high speed, just above the water.
I’ve been thinking, reading, and writing about whales for some time now. And as I make slow, stately, and somewhat distracted progress through my project on the whaler and scientist William Scoresby Jr., I’ve been thinking more about how whales appear to us now, and how they appeared 200 years ago. The obvious difference of course is that, apart from a few dishonourable exceptions, most countries–and most people–now think killing whales is a bad idea. But it is the idea of whales that interests me: how do we look at them, what do we see, and what do they mean to us?
Most whales are of course, very large, and it is this aspect of the whale that dominates our view of them. But there is more than a trace here of an old-fashioned Western view of otherness in which that which is not of us is necessarily mysterious and strange. The whale skeletons in places like the Natural History Museum in London certainly provide a spectacle, and their size, emphasised by their room-filling juxtaposition with the large gallery spaces used to display them, is akin to the marvellous size of a Saturn rocket, or some vast Gothic cathedral. But of course in their context none of these things is large or powerful at all. Saturn rockets may have helped transport a few men to the Moon, but they were sacrificed in so doing; the vastness of a cathedral may hint at the glory of heaven, but it is a weak effort in the face of a divine power that notionally created the universe.
And so it is with whales: in the museum, or more poignantly, stranded on a beach, their bulk is a spectacle, and a logistics problem. But out at sea, perhaps thousands of kilometres from land, they are, if not small, then to scale. The vastness of the whale skeleton, like the surprising girth of a fallen tree, is a puzzle: how can something so large and extraordinary exist alongside us? But here, in their family group, Sperm whales rest at the surface, as ordinary as birds on a lawn.
Back in 2009 I noted a collection of photographs by Chris Jordan showing dead albatross chicks filled with plastic. Back then it was quite shocking to see these birds killed by our waste. But that was nine years ago, and only now is the issue of plastic in the environment becoming a major public issue. Plastic has been around for just over 100 years, but it is only in the last 50 that it has become widely used. It’s worth making the point that of those 50 or so years we have known about the damage plastic is doing to our environment for at least a decade. And yet we throw away more plastic now than ever.
Anyway, Jordan has been working for the past few years on a feature-length film called Albatross, which has been funded by donations, and is available for free to watch via Vimeo, or download in various formats.
Here’s the trailer:
I don’t often get angry enough to write letters, but I wrote one today to the planners at the Lake District National Park Authority, registering my objection to a proposal to open an “Activity Hub” including eight zip wires, across Thirlmere, in the Lake District. If approved, would damage an important part of one of the most beautiful areas of England.
If you agree, I urge you to sign the petition here:
Please also write a letter to the planners. Information about how to do that is here:
You can send your letter in the form of an email to: email@example.com
The main part of my own objection letter is below.
My objection is principally that the application is in conflict with both the spirit of the National Park’s foundation, and the statutory purpose of the Lake District National Park Authority, which is to “conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife, and cultural heritage of the Lake District National Park”.
The Lake District National Park has many special qualities, but it is defined by the beauty of its landscape. Although visitors have a wide range of activities available to them in the National Park (including three excellent, low impact zip wire attractions) it is for the landscape that most of them visit: they climb the hills, swim, sail, and paddle the lakes, or just look at the view. These activities are available to almost everyone, and have a universal value. They offer spiritual renewal, and require a personal engagement with the landscape, its wildlife, and its history that are part of the reason for the Park’s existence. Almost all require some level of fitness and adventurousness, but have a manageable impact on the landscape itself.
By contrast, the proposed zip wires and their associated infrastructure will permanently degrade the appearance and tranquility of the Thirlmere valley for everyone, while offering a short thrill ride for a relatively small number of visitors. Riding a zip wire is an almost entirely passive activity, similar to riding a roller coaster at a theme park. It does nothing to enhance the unique and special qualities of the Lake District, but on the contrary reduces it to the level of an Alton Towers or Blackpool Pleasure Beach. It will bring with it traffic, noise, damage to habitats, and will do nothing to foster the idea that the landscape needs to be conserved, looked after, and improved. In this regard it is anathema to everything the National Parks stand for.
In 1935, JB Priestley, wrote “It is still too often assumed that any enterprising fellow after quick profits has a perfect right to destroy a loveliness that is the heritage of the whole community.” I hope that the LDNPA will reject this application, and demonstrate that we have made progress since then.
For all the differences in the way they lived, their experiences, expectations, even life expectancy, the people of the past had more in common with “moderns” like us, than perhaps we appreciate. As part of my research into William Scoresby Jr.’s whaling voyages, and in an attempt to reach a workable understanding of early nineteenth century life, I’ve been reading Thomas De Quincey’s Recollections of the Lakes and Lake Poets Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey, first published between 1834 and 1840., and first published together in 1862. I’ve been reading a battered, rebound copy of the 1862 edition, which I picked up for £1 a few months ago (we live in remarkable times). Anyway, De Quincey is an eccentric and opinionated writer, known for his racy style (for the time), and anecdotal digressions.
I first read Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), and On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827) as an undergraduate. De Quincey’s restlessness appealed to me then, but what I find fascinating now, in this later work, and in my middle age, is the way his sensibility grates against the modern world: how terrifying must the railways, and the growth of industrial towns, have been to a generation that grew up without them? In that respect, he reminds me of my own generation, with our pre-digital childhoods and hyper-connected adult lives. Here he is on the poet Wordsworth’s older brother, Richard:
… he had become a thriving solicitor, at one of the inns of court in London; and, if he died only moderately rich, and much below the experience of his acquaintance, in the final result of his laborious life, it was because he was moderate in his desires; and, in his later years, reverting to the pastoral region of his infancy and boyhood, chose rather to sit down by a hearth of his own amongst the Cumberland mountains, and wisely to woo the deities of domestic pleasures and health, than to chase after wealth in the feverish crowds of the capital.
I learnt to drive on the Great North Road, or rather its modern incarnation, the A1. My soon-to-be wife taught me. Her technique was to sit patiently while I crunched the four troublesome gears of her elderly Austin Metro, a tiny city car not intended for long distance travel. It was noisy, cramped, twitchy at speed, and lost power when it rained. It wasn’t much fun at the time, but I see now that we were lucky to be travelling in the 1990s: a journey along the Great North Road by mail coach from London to Edinburgh, took eight or nine days. Coaching inns made an arduous journey just about bearable.
Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Road—a sturdy paperback tough enough for the glovebox or door pocket–is published by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, and arranged linearly, as a journey, starting in London. The holloways and open roads of the past have long since given way to tarmac and motor traffic, and part of the appeal of this book—and the pubs it describes—is in the glimpses it offers of a slower-paced world now bypassed, and in many cases almost entirely erased. These twenty-first century pubs in all their variety–including those, like the Queen’s Head at Morpeth, Northumberland, that have closed down—carry in their long histories a collective memory, of old battles, famous visitors, and journeys taken, when to travel was to endure hardship barely imaginable today.
It is difficult now to visualise the road as it was—terrorised by highwaymen, all but unusable in winter—but some of it is still visible. Much of the old road between London and York, away from the modern A1, was based on the Roman road known as Ermine Street, laid down in dead straight miles made for marching soldiers. And many of the coaching inns along the way have also travelled to the future with us. There is the Bull and Last, on Highgate Road, so-called because it was once the last stop before London; and the George of Stamford, an inn with a six hundred year history that grew, Roger Protz tells us, to “it’s present pomp and glory” in the eighteenth century. Back then it handled 20 coaches, and their horses, each way, every day—the stables must have been enormous. Others have been less fortunate: The Golden Lion, at Ferrybridge, West Yorkshire, is the last remaining coaching inn in a village that once thrived as a crossing place on the River Aire. Now, completing its fall from grace, the only beer it serves is “John Smiths keg ale”. When I checked this last point for the purpose of this review, I discovered it currently serves Greene King IPA, which many people will not consider a great improvement.
Protz’s descriptions of the inns are vivid and opinionated. The sin of being a gastropub is absolved by a good range of cask ales, while the historic and preserved are celebrated generously. The ancient and splendid Angel and Royal at Grantham—perhaps the oldest coaching inn in Britain—gets a potted history going back to 1203, though the obvious enthusiasm and affection in the description includes what might be a slightly waspish mention of “Bertie’s Bistro,” named after King Edward VII. The Yorkshire town of Doncaster is not so easy to like. Protz says that its “importance as a Roman camp, and an Anglo-Saxon fortress, lie buried” under car parks and a shopping centre. Thankfully, marks are awarded for effort, and the Red Lion, a Wetherspoons pub dedicated to the St Leger horse race, and to Thomas Crapper, inventor of the ballcock valve system, sounds comfortable and unpretentious.
Historic Coaching Inns includes 46 featured pubs, charting a wavy course up the East Coast of Britain from London to Edinburgh, and taking in York (204 miles from London, 219 miles from Edinburgh), where every pub seems either to have a connection with highwayman Dick Turpin, a ghost, or a combination of the two. An old favourite of mine in York is the Olde Starre, off the Shambles. The collection of pubs in the book seems ready-made for people ticking things off lists, but there is plenty of background material too, on the history of the road, the people who used it, famous or otherwise, and topics such as how the Great North Road was built, the types of mail coach that used it, and the process of making Stilton cheese. Shorter sidebars offer places to visit during your stay at one of these historic inns.
I don’t recommend learning to drive on the A1. When I finally had a proper driving lesson in a modern car, after thousands of miles of practice, the instructor reminded me gently, as we joined a dual carriageway at an ear-bursting 70mph, that his car had five gears, and I should use them all. And that goes for pubs too. For its role in commerce, and the transmission of ideas between North and South, the Great North Road is just as important to British history as the great cathedrals. The coaching inns that punctuate it–the cared for, and the neglected–are as significant, in some cases, as any cloister. Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Road is not going to make the modern A1 a tourist destination, but if you ever find yourself driving on the Great North Road, and looking for somewhere interesting to rest, this book should be with you. You can buy it direct from CAMRA:
Historic Coaching Inns of the Great North Road: A Guide to Travelling the Legendary Highway, by Roger Protz. St. Albans, Hertfordshire: The Campaign for Real Ale, 2017.
Back in 2013, as part of my work in Continuing Education, I was involved in organising a marathon reading of Moby-Dick at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool. Although the organising was complicated (all those chapters to read at the right time over three days in two venues) it turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Melville’s challenging, troublesome book came alive in the voices of over 100 lovely volunteers. I’m quite familiar with Moby-Dick, but I heard a lightness and humour I hadn’t fully understood before.
Four years later and I’m at it again with another waterborne tale, Swallows and Amazons, in the Lake District. It won’t take three days this time (I calculate nine hours), but it will be outdoors, or at least in a small marquee, on the northern shore of Coniston Water near the boating centre. We begin at 9am on September 3rd, 2017, and we’ll read until around 6pm. There will be tea, and possibly cake. Many volunteers have already signed up, but it’s free to all, so if you want to get involved, let me know which chapter you want to read (or share reading) here: ifnotduffers.org/
The Jupiter Project is something I’ve been working on intermittently for quite a few years now with the poet Rebecca Goss; I take the pictures, she writes the words. This has never been a central project for either of us, but we are starting to gather a body of work now, and starting to think of where we might take it from here. With that in mind we’ve published our first 2017 post on the project website today. Click the image below to read the poem.
A quick note to say that I’m going to be talking about my Jupiter Project collaboration with poet Rebecca Goss at an Ideas Lab at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool on Wednesday 14 December 4pm – 7pm. It’s a free event, but booking is required (see below).
I will introduce The Jupiter Project and discuss the process of collaboration—what works for us and what doesn’t—and how it has changed the way I think about photography and writing; how they complement each other, but also their separate limitations and strengths. I’m going to be joined by Robert Sheppard, Professor of Poetry and Poetics at Edge Hill University, who will speak about the possibilities and potential of collaboration between photography and poetry.
To reserve your free place at Open Eye Gallery, call +44 (0)151 236 6768 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
My work on the whaler William Scoresby Jr. centres on his 1822 voyage to Greenland, a small, but significant episode in a very diverse and influential life. Scoresby gave up whaling after his voyage the following year–there were commercial as well as personal reasons in play–and became a clergyman. In the early 1840s he was Vicar of Bradford, and, besides bringing him into contact with the Brontë family at Haworth, his experiences there made him an outspoken social reformer. Scoresby was never less than opinionated, but his dismay at the way workers in the mills and factories of Britain’s industrial towns was enough for him to establish schools for poor children in Bradford, to give lectures on the conditions men and women endured in their employment, and in their lives. Following a visit to Massachusetts in 1844, where he investigated the conditions experienced by American factory workers (better than in Britain, he thought), Scoresby gave a series of lectures about his findings, and collected them into a book, American Factories and their Female Operatives, published the following year in Britain and the US.
When reading this we must bear in mind Scoresby’s paternalistic and moralistic view of the working poor–he was at least as interested in saving souls as saving lives–but there is real concern and forcefulness here:
“The consideration, let it be observed, of the long hours of labor, is one by no means belonging peculiarly to our factory system. The Reports of the Commissioners appointed by the government, ‘for inquiring into the employment of children and young persons in mines and collieries, trades and manufactures,’ have brought to light a most appalling amount of misery induced, as to this one essential element, by over-working. And from hence we find, taking the whole range of the investigations under this humane commission, that the oppression of the laborer is no local or peculiar incident, but an evil of huge magnitude, as a national sin. It is an evil which has grown up insidiously amongst us, the offspring of success in trade and of an excess of laboring population.”
William Scoresby Jr. _American Factories and their Female Operatives_ Boston: Ticknor and Co. 1845.