So that’s almost the first coherent geographical region completed in the reading the world project. I suppose the whole undertaking has indeed become more methodical since Covid started. Before that I obtained as much as possible by browsing the store in Dunfermline’s Kingsgate centre. In a way that was just delegating responsibility of course, but it did also help bring in the element of unplannedness that I settled on very early: this was never meant to be an exercise in working through canons, or pointedly not working through canons, or such like. I like to think something of that unpredictability has remained, even as now I find myself reliant on the limitless freedom to identify anything online.
I was working on my mini-commentary on Viajero when I scribbled a letter ‘y’ that was just like the handwriting of an esteemed colleague back in academia. It was a cold resemblance, entirely accidental, far off from when I would, more or less deliberately, model my identity in that way. Past like the books that are still parcelled up in cardboard boxes, crushed boxes, splitting boxes, bursting boxes, wherever there is room to spare; the shelf is filled instead with this broadening span.
Early in my postgraduate time I made a point of reading widely, whatever that means, in that existence where scholarship and life seemed an easy whole, but that ceased quietly at some point; and now here we are back there, almost. Yet the commentary was as much of the academic me – or the me I thought to be academic – as ever, obsessed with tracking down minutiae to actually understand a text.
There is a lot of richness in this undertaking, and pleasure. Like certain other lists . . . the means are more than the ends, a guide to finding one’s own path.
They’ve not necessarily been making it simple for us carless types. The trains on Sundays are struck out and the bus from Aviemore to the ski centre has been cut back, at weekends likewise to the point of non-existence. In some ways it is hardly surprising after the past year-and-a-bit. With so many prevented from holidaying abroad, why would anyone want to make it easier for them to experience their own country this summer.
But part of the attraction, I reminded myself, of being bound to public transport is how it forces one off the beaten track, into roundabout approaches, unnecessary measures and out-of-the-way parts. And so the mopping up of the northern top of Cairn Gorm at the end of May became a little more than it would really need to be for the more conventional.
The journey on Friday dragged. The body deposited at the Coire Cas carpark that afternoon was not fresh. The built paths were clunkier than usual, the Miadan a meltwater quagmire, and it was cold. After the months of containment the plain reality was hard to accept. But at some point rhythm took over and the light changed and I had the whole rim almost entirely to myself, flooded in brightness.
Night, just downslope of the weather station, was a fading, stars, a wispy dim, between fits of sleep. When the sun seemed high enough, I scurried down until there was warmth – proper heat then – for a second breakfast, and time to stop and revel in the scale of it all. Cnap Coire na Spreidhe was passed somewhere on the way, but it was merely part of a bigger whole; there is a degree of separation here that brings out the shape of these northern extremities and the ground into which they subside, and it is accentuated when the eye follows it all the way down to the Spey and realizes it has to be taken on foot.
I found a means down to the Ryvoan track. The return through the forest was, as the good decisions so often are, in equal measure sporting and aesthetic. I was second-guessing the clock because the phone had failed, but this way everything became complete, from the snowfields to the boulders and grit to the heather and the pines and water. Spots I had last passed on the first visits after the move came and went, registered as much as the years elapsed – and yet still when I panted onto the platform a minute too late, but not half as late as the train!, it could almost have been like old times. The same feeling of discovery made; only a little more rounded, perhaps.
Experiencing one’s own country, I pondered again as Saturday returned. Yes, there was the old disorientation when I emerged from the jungle near the Body of Water To Which We Must Not Refer In English, an element of selfish frustration even. Noises and scents. Banality. Yet busy as it was, nobody there, or on The Beach, was doing anything other than enjoying themselves, and outside the few kilometres between them I was alone for hours on end. There is still so much space out there, if one contrives to seek it out.
The lack of advocacy for access to the wild places has been one of the more miserable constants during the Covid crisis. I remember doing a double-take very early on when the Mountain Rescue appeared on Twitter to complain about people, as they put it, seeking loopholes to pursue their hobby, while admitting they more likely to come to grief in a DIY accident. The decision to reframe and shut down a legitimate discussion about proportionality with a patronizing, disciplining language seemed to set the tone for much that has followed.
Covid was always going to lend itself to the agenda of the GOML-types, campervan-haters, and their ilk. But the response from the outdoors community remains, just as it was when I saw that tweet a year ago, something I cannot quite get my head around. The efforts to stay in line are almost painful at times, as in this feature in TheGreat Outdoors (there’s a clue in the name!) that explains how the busy local park poses minimal risk but cannot bring itself to articuate the obvious conclusion about the middle of nowhere. The silence in certain quarters about the situation at the time of writing – where much of the Scottish population can get a haircut indoors but is breaking the law if they travel to walk up a hill on their own – is equally telling.
The rational arguments against keeping people away from the natural world are no secret, but those are clearly not the terms on which the decisions are being made. For the most part now, I just try to ignore the discourse that has taken shape. It is all so tiresome and predictable, right down to the lecturing about ‘behaving at our very best’ when we’re allowed to return – it is much easier to frame this, once again, in terms of discipline, as a problem that lies with the walkers, the climbers, the campers, the gangrels – than it is to reflect on whether we’d be facing a sudden ‘influx’ in the first place if they had not been kept away on dubious grounds for months on end.
In a way, this withdrawal is very typical of me. I’ve probably always been as a much a loner on the hill as in other parts of life. Even so, there was always a basic sense of being part of a community, one bound not just by love of these places but also – and this is why the trivialization as a ‘hobby’ irked so – by an awareness of the deep good they can do. That assumption no longer holds.
What has taken its place? Perhaps most of all a fresh closeness to the plain indifference of the hills. Each of the few times I was back last year, it was so palpable that the shenanigans matter not at all to the land. It has its forms, colours, lights, surfaces, textures, and they live on their own terms. The horrors of litter and inundation and all the rest plastered over the media weren’t there, at least not where I was, for sure; but the real point was that they – like the whole rest of the discourse of fear and abstinence – were not even a frame of reference in the first place. Instead, one had a form of simplicity.
When I talk of indifference, I do not mean the platitudes of ‘they’re timeless’ or ‘they don’t change’ or ‘they’ll always be there’ on which much of the response to the recent round of travel bans was based. Such tropes seemed particularly hollow in the middle of a hard winter in the age of global warming. Of course part of the joy is the illusion of permanence and with that the familiarity of return: the colours of plant life at one’s feet, or the feel of the air. But even then: the land is change in time, in the level of the watercourses, or rock shattering, or the glow after the deluge, in the progress of seasons, and on all the way up to the geological scale.
It will outlast whatever span I happen to have been granted, indeed; but that is a meaningless reassurance to anyone aware of the fragility of life for all manner of reasons that have nothing to do with Covid. The hills are indifferent to such worries and troubles, too, of course – but that is a different quality from the monolithic, uniform, soulless idea of permanence behind the passive-aggressive reminders that they will wait.
Probably for that reason, there is no paradox in withdrawing into a closer, personal bond with these raw, magnificent, indifferent places. I recall the mystery one evening in May of the year that we moved, when I happened to be following the slope into the Garbh Choire at dusk. All was an elemental, unsettling chill: rock, water, snow, disappearing watercourses. The bulk of landform was entirely disinterested in my presence and how I might try, hopelessly, to understand it – but through that impassiveness I came to know something.
There is really no choice as a point of orientation in life between such moments and – to take just one more of the ‘stay away’ arguments from recent months – the risk of burdening the NHS by twisting an ankle.
I suppose some will find this all very selfish. I might well have agreed twelve months ago. I might perhaps still agree if I had a car and friends, family, and leisure in my local area (or in some cases the same country). But I have a right to be well as a whole person, and the regulation of access to the outdoors happens to be one of the most obvious ways that has been curtailed for me … the hills are not everything, and my experience of them is as nothing compared to most people’s. In some ways, I feel I have no right even to write about it. But doing so might just be one way, now that I think, again, about returning, of taking these spaces again for what they are.
(a work in progress, conceived during the travel bans of the 2020/21 winter, and last updated in April 2021)
Academic Twitter grinding into action on a Sunday afternoon is rarely a good place. It is even less good when you are reminded of people who owe their positions to just a little more than a blank slate. It inevitably leads me to think of my last attempt to return to that world, from which I withdrew after having the unpleasant feeling that I was being interviewed for a role different from what I had applied for … not that I think I did terribly well anyway, even factoring out the distraction that such ‘surprises’ inevitably cause. And there will always be doubt.
I sometimes wonder whether the real harm caused by various goings-on before I exited was not so much the fact that I was not among the beneficiaries, but that it became harder and harder to be myself in processes where I might have had a chance. I have had some marvellously profitable correspondence relating to the bits of research I try to keep going, after all, the kind of dialogue that makes me think about what could have happened if things had aligned differently at some point …
One of the nice things about editing and translating is that it gets back to the nuts and bolts, the writing about ideas, in a way that can be very rewarding. I still have, or would have, a lot to say of my own; but whether I have the energy or desire for that, is an ongoing conundrum. And part of it is, as this Twitter experience helped to make clear to me, the distance that seems to have opened up from the discourses that are anything but an abstract undertaking of intellectual enquiry. What is developed and given attention, what gains traction, what contradictions are overlooked — particularly in the intersections between research and politics and professional cultures. It is a fact that ideas on their own are not what influence, or even necessarily contribute; it is not that I was not aware of this before, but without a place, however fragile or difficult, in the profession, I certainly cannot ignore it now.
499 times up and down the stairs, where the gaze merges with the carpet and the walls, and on occasion with the ceiling towards which eyeballs roll. At the travel restrictions that make no distinction about what one is actually doing, at the fact that without a car you cannot go anywhere at all, at the fact that leaving the house for exercise is acceptable but leisure or recreation is not, so that enjoying the natural world joins the crimes in Covid Britain …
None of this is new, but it still fills most of the stint. How can it not? The absence is obvious, even just physically in the uniformity of every step and how the body responds to it – in its way it’s the past year in microcosm. That those 499 times are analogous in vertical ascent to a certain place under the sky is merely a matter of arithmetic. Perhaps that is why, in the minutes not filled with anger, there also forms a more articulate sense of motivation.
I had long been attracted to the idea of running the hills, but it was obviously not a pastime that was viable in a place like Odense. So part of the reinvention of life after the move was being able to realize this. It is a work in progress and I am never going to be fast; but then that was never the attraction. It has become more about what being relatively fast enables. The body generates heat and nourishes itself differently, so there is less to take, less encumberment, more lightness. There is a change in how one reads landscape. The gaze is wider, fuller, as distances become crossable, and the ability to cover in a day some of the great transitions brings with it a better understanding of them. Together with that has come more harmony – hardly a surprise because stripping away a lot of the usual burdens and constraints is bound to lead to a closer relationship with one’s environment. The air and the water and the light, or the various elements of the ground at one’s feet, are bare as what they are; there is something of laying oneself bare, too, in setting off as just body and mind with a minimum of clutter around them. It may be a little akin to the satisfaction of moving on rock (on which it would be an arrogance of me to comment; but there are moments).
For the zealots this is all an irrelevant, selfish luxury – but it was a way of getting through a complete career change in mid-life, of coping with the aftermath of the toxic academia I left, and not least of retaining sanity after the day’s last appointment in a windowless consultation room. Sickness, even by proxy and through the awareness that all manner of horrid diseases might get you anyway even if you play by all the rules, is also about a heightened sense of life worth living. That is a far more tangible fear for me than the scaremongering obsession with shutting down a meaningful existence because of this one illness.
I have just finished untangling a knot in the secondary literature on the Erikskrönikan. This would not be terribly remarkable, were it not for the fact that I feel I understand for myself something that I last tried, and failed, to sort out in that office next to the molehills during the last Danish summer. Some time ago, in other words. What changed?
Time is part of it, of course, at least in this instance. It was idiotic to think I could get myself set up in a new field in the space of two years while meeting all the demands that came with the Marie Curie. But there is something else, and that is that I find myself reading work of this kind differently since leaving academia.
The practical aspects hardy need labouring. I have other pressures, like the day job, but when I do turn to the scholarship there is mental space that before was flooded with the professional context or the next contract. And there is no pressure from expectations more and less tangible. I read in a more holistic manner: not scavenging for whatever it takes to get a deliverable out on time or tick off a milestone on schedule, but so as genuinely to understand.
Engaging more deeply with the material I find myself also more distant from it. There is an awareness that none of it emerges from a vacuum. An anthology is defined not just by its theme but by the choices made about who to include in the network behind it, to give just one example, and the structures of power, authority, networks, patronage that – probably the more so in small fields – feed into them. Not that this wasn’t obvious when I was still ‘inside’. But the fact that I no longer have to play the game (or try – I never was cut out for it, at least as it has become) allows for a more dispassionate reckoning with that. I cite, use, criticize as needed; and I recall there may be more to rough edges, gratuitous arguments, and agreeable consenus, than meets the eye.
In effect, reading the scholarship, and the cycle from that to writing, has become an almost entirely textual activity again. What detracted and distracted from that is either gone, or kept at a conscious distance. It is possible to concentrate on what is known, and what is not known, and how that is expressed, or not expressed, and how one might express it. Having freedom to choose what I write about, and on what schedule, to go down dead ends and if need be to reformulate the question entirely, makes it easier to ignore the vacuous, to untangle what is vague, to read widely as an intellectual pursuit rather than an inefficient glitch in the production line.
So we are back to understanding again. In some ways it is akin to how I would read for teaching – probably no coincidence because that was a setting where one could, even if only for an hour, get back to what mattered. But it still feels entirely different. If it sounds cynical, it is not meant to be, merely an observation on how the change in context has affected this part of me. Besides, I have my own ‘agenda’ as much as anyone else when I do research and write about it; and I retain connections with academia that make both possible. And whatever I might end up writing on the Erikskrönikan will – in that sense – be no different.
2020 was a landmark insofar as it had me longer outside academia than any contract in it. I still miss what genuine opportunities for exchange there were, perhaps the more so because the kind of research I’ve ended up doing doesn’t fall fully within any of the fields in which I worked. I don’t mean that in the trite sense of interdisciplinarity, but more in the sense that if I were still, say, ‘just’ doing the old stuff in MHG Studies, there might, in the years accumulated, be more of a sense of grounding for what is quite a lonely pursuit.
I am also touched by the kindness that has appeared in various engagements with the institutionalized profession. Sometimes I even wonder how things might have been different. But given that my most recent foray back into job applications left me feeling physically unwell, I can’t really pretend to myself that there is any future there now.
The year was also a landmark insofar as my translation and editing business appears to have become a going concern, with a reasonably reliably cashflow and a client base that allows more of the kind of jobs I like best – the ones that involve translation at a decent rate, developmental editing, working together with authors, that kind of thing …
There is more to the past three years that has not been easy. Perhaps that is why I am so worn down by Covid. Worn down by the disciplining, the virtue, the masked profile pictures, the idea that everybody has a car and lives close to their friends and family, the obsession with preventing this one illness at whatever cost, the mantra of “staying safe” that is used to legitimize calculated choices by those in authority about what is and is not to be allowed. There is no whole person left, just an eating, working, sleeping waif.
The changed relationship with the hills, about which I have posted before, is but one reflection of this; it has been a withdrawing, a loss of faith in some common acceptance of what these places are and the good they do. In its way, it is a dispiriting repeat of the process that came to an end three years ago in a different context. And like that, I suspect it will be some time, if ever, before I readjust my conclusions.
‘We’re really sorry we can’t offer you the job, we just didn’t think you’ve enough experience teaching Latin. But you interacted so well with the students so don’t change that for your other applications!’
Or cheery words to that effect. I had reason to think back to that particular interview recently, largely because before shortlisting the panel had seen a CV from which it was obvious I had never taught Latin in my life.
And today I was reading one of my northern chronicles on a dim, blowy afternoon, in the run-up to a video talk ‘in’ Sweden next month, and I had reason to think back to other autumns similarly spent in various parts of northern Europe. That peaceful engagement with the texts and ideas appears to have left an equal mark, even if it is not a job. Or because.
Maps of the Highlands used to mean freedom. Now it’s fear. Can I go to this place that I want to go to precisely in order not to see anyone? Is it allowed? Is it advised? Is it legal? Will it be legal if I do it in a week’s time? I can smile grimly about the NO PARKING notices on official signs or unofficially shoved onto cars … but in return I get to worry about whether I’ll be reprimanded for twisting the rules and risking a second lockdown by returning on a train with one other person in the carriage.
The hills don’t care, of course. And at base nor do I, at least until ScotGov publishes evidence for why enjoying these places is so dangerous when not a single person is known to have been infected doing it. But it is frightening how effective the manipulation has been, how hard it has become to look at the tangles of contour lines and visualize the land in the old way, without the discourse of honeypots and littering and motorhome-hate and dumped tents and rules that has been wound into it.
But still I do. I had been hoping to take to the hill today, and very beautiful it would have been. But the rail replacement buses were out … so the plan is now to try Monday instead, for a different sort of experience, if the weather-watchers are right. Grey, damp clag in November – it has been a while, and that too I miss, the atmosphere of winter falling. It seems the more appropriate given that if I waited until Tuesday to live it, they might have announced I would be breaking the law.
The wardrums were already sounding by Friday evening on the social medias, so it was with a somewhat macabre fascination that I headed to the hill wondering once again whether I would encounter any of the chaos, devastation, and misbehavour apparently to be anticipated. Once again, I did not.
The roads were not jammed with motorhomes and caravans. None of them were parked inappropriately, and none of them were depositing waste before driving off.
Nobody was camping indiscriminately. There were no fires, and thus no fences shredded to make them, no discarded portable bbqs, no noisy booze-ups, and no truckloads of detritus dumped by the roadside.
There was no litter on the hill. What little I saw by the road did not look particularly recent, and as usual was far less than what I had seen that morning when I walked the half hour from the house to the station here in Fife (a mess that never seems to fill my timeline with uproar for some reason).
None of the parking spots I saw was overflowing beyond capacity. Here is the scene when I turned up around 2 in the afternoon (I was on foot, so no charges of not planning an appropriately early arrival please).
The horror of five cars and an unobstructed single-track road on a warm, dry, summer weekend after lockdown.
And the local couple I had a chat with were as genuinely friendly as one could wish for.
Once again, it felt as if I was tramping a parallel-universe version of the Highlands, completely at odds with the images doing the rounds at present. All I can think is that there are certain locations where there is a problem – one that absolutely needs sorting out – but that this is not necessarily representative. I also cannot help wondering whether this is not partly a result of the marketization of the landscape coming back to bite. Not just in the popularization of certain ‘honeypots’ per se, but in the thinking behind it: there is a circle that is not easily squared when you have people rightly being called out for post-lockdown damage to a few trees in Rothiemurchus … while the wreck on Cairn Gorm that has been painfully obvious for years remains so.
At any event, perspective matters, and I wish we could have a bit more of it. It might result in a more balanced discussion instead of the kind that has formed in the course of this crisis and by now has all but turned me off. Among other things, the hills to me are not a mere ‘hobby’ and sleeping out in them is an activity guided most of all by respect for the land rather than the virtue of being ‘considerate’. As it is, I find myself withdrawing from the disciplining and negativity into a quiet personal love for these places, and finding it just as much returned by them as it ever was. I suspect I am not the only one.