There was an element of desperation in staring at the wall chart again, trying to find something – anything – that would make a feasible objective in the middle of the strikes. But there was this Graham – I suppose that is what they always will be for me – near Aberfeldy and Stagecoach had a £9 day ticket, so …
A slick, dark beginning with the commuters rattling into Edinburgh, a frosted bus shelter and sunrise coffee in Perth, more rattling and feet in motion just before 11. Late for mid-December, and it was still very cold, one of those cases where the effort has to be forced out for a bit.
But it turned into a full span of hours. Hoar frost and sun, phantom tracks in the forestry, heather to the knees, a wicked sunset, the warm scent of deer, a jog down through the night.
Deacclimatization was sudden. Smells – it is always the smells – of laundry, dinners, a wood fire, neatness; two kids sharing a fag. More hours of buses. Maybe it is no wonder somebody asked whether I was all right as I roamed Perth in search of the stop for the X56. It was slick and dark again by the time the circle was finally closed.
It’s a blessing to have these places so accessible, however fraught and relative that is in practice for those of us without a car. But it can also be disorienting, disconcerting somehow. How easy – and it is still easy compared to weeks or months of advance planning, multiple flights, and all that – to find bare life, the elemental need to keep moving or freeze. As if there were two worlds in one.
The fullness of experience accumulates in contrasts. The last time I visited the tarmac behind Kirriemuir, I was emerging from Glen Prosen. The roads were all that counted, so it was not going to matter that failing toner had blanked out the contours … in fact it made the discovery of summer visceral, all the way down to the last curving release from from the still-thin shading of the Mounth.
That is six months gone. The buses in May had necessitated the leaving of a gap, and it happened to be the right size for filling after several weeks off the hill a few days ago. There was no sweep of colours to make the hours now; the way out of town was bare and damp and that is how it stayed. The ups-and-downs on the roads were inconsequential for a fresh body. Even the bulldozed horror that followed was not worth getting worked up about.
Some drenching of the feet, an incipient chill, a brief production of the compass, and – this time – wandering back slowly for a later bus to draw it out a little. It had been silly to hope of getting above the inversion, I decided at some point in that time, as it grew dimmer.
It is curious how one builds up different connections with different parts of the country in the course of this game. I have no idea whether I’ll ever be back in Kirriemuir – but if I am, I know I would be able to find without a thought the way hard by the houses out towards the high ground.
Mount Blair, Badandun Hill, Mayar, Driesh51km/1810m(May)
Life goes as it will. One is blessed, and one is struck, and feels more closely a constancy ground into the bones in the course of a life …
I have been returning to earlier years since taking to the hill became more of a normality again. This has been rationalized by practicalities of transport and gaps in the lists, but there may also be a draw to the almost-familiar after the destabilization of the recent past.
Sought or not, it is simply found – across a sizeable portion of Scotland, it turns out, in laybys, certain stretches of road, the shape of land flexing itself. This accretion of memories was never noticed as it happened, and retains something of that innocence now: for all the intimacy, it will know nothing of the fact I would never have been jogging into Lochearnhead from the east back then, or waiting for anything other than a number 59 bus in Stirling.
I doubt also. We couldn’t not have been taken up Ben Venue when we were small … could we? Beinn Dearg in Glen Lyon … was that one summer? Did we continue to the last Top of Creag Leacach, whichever December that was – and with no more certainty than that it would have been twenty years ago or so, it was time to take out the rest of the sprawl, where it cleared and I surveyed the esoteric way taken to Driesh and Mayar a few months ago. Present again, and certainty.
None of this fusion of place and memory is unique to the Highlands, of course. I am sure it would feel similar if I were to wander around somewhere like Oxford – less physical, perhaps, for as the body recovers fitness, it picks up the continuity again in which all those uncertainties are grounded. And it would likely be a wandering through gaps, what-might-have-beens, whereas here is complete – even without, for now, the a.
Work had been full-on for some weeks so a certain effort was needed to make the mental space to return to the Highlands. The Glen Lyon Graham could be taken from Kinloch Rannoch; and Kinloch Rannoch can be reached by train and bus …
It was all very quiet. Still road by the water. The now-usual assortment of DO NOT signs, almost gratuitous on a weekday in March. Some traditional p*ssing around to find the right track into the woods and half a bag of Bombay Mix, and the distance of latent freshness emerged that has to be spring.
The outpouring to north and west seemed of a different order from the closer, jumbled skyline in the other direction. After all the change of the past years there is such a sense of sameness and apartness when I’m put this close to places wandered and worked through two, sometimes three decades ago during summer or Christmas holidays in Lochearnhead.
It being some time, neither the past nor present self could remember whether the Corbett next door had been visited back then. The rationale that it is all training brought a surprising openness away down Glen Lyon, as if the landscape was simplifying itself.
At the last, a moist, softening chill and a messed-up knee that couldn’t be jogged down through the woods, and consequently was battered up on the road instead to make up the lost time in a fraught dash for the last bus.
These are, at base, heathery humps, and, as the old book observes on the Corbett, ‘the approaches from the north are much longer’. But as a romp through the sun and clearest air, it was just a perfect here-and-now; it is as well to be reminded, consciously, that one of those changes was a lifestyle choice, after all.
So that’s another year gone. Almost four in business – longer than any contract I had in academia, and the one-man enterprise is happily growing. But the old world seems to be there still, waiting, before me in the texts on the desk every day. It is not always easy to refuse the offer: I cannot consult on a funding proposal without the thought processes from formulating my own ideas – and there I am imagining the case for projects that will never be. After all, the shelves in the office still carry the books I thought worth unpacking because ‘they might be used’.
And used they were, for a time, on some articles that seemed necessary to draw a line under things. That dynamic has changed – it is partly the practical fact of spending more time now earning a living, but there is also a groundlessness to it. I suspect that the real line was drawn when I pulled out after that last interview and abandoned some vague idea of potential, the notion that this state of affairs might be temporary. My world has become clearer since then: a town with rhythms and life of its own, a place we don’t have to abandon for another country in a few months’ time, a job that is defined in the first instance by its commercial viability for the rest of my life. Gulp.
In many ways, this is all very healthy and hardly a bad context in which to keep research going for its own sake. But there remains the question of to what end. It is the harder to answer because of the Marie Curie. With time has come a recognition that, if it didn’t at base change the way I think, it really did shift it into a frame quite different from the usual disciplinary-institutional structures. There is thus a sense in which there would have been no going back anyway; and the inevitable what-might-have-been comparisons with erstwhile peers who did, in one way or another, ‘make it’, seem to involve a different person as well as a different world.
I have ideas, I have pipe-dreams, ones that won’t happen and ones that might be made to happen. To what end? I keep returning to the word ‘community’. Perhaps it is time to start building a new one.
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.