The beast inside..

IMG_20180302_142202058It seems the Beast has given us the chance to see something familiar anew.

I spent yesterday looking for falling icicle risk. There was  a sign about it outside the bike shop, with some cordoning off tape like something had ACTUALLY HAPPENED.


I was hanging around for a bit whilst someone came to talk to me about panniers. Everyone looked up nervously , and there were (I checked) some actual fang-like icicles, distant, three storeys above us.


I wandered the streets that afternoon looking up. At the surprising height of the tenements, and the intricacies of the roof architecture, until a couple of hours later the ice risk had dissolved.


I like Walter Benjamin s phrase about ‘profane illuminations’, largely because I dont think I can really ever define what it means.

IMG_20180304_144152917But clearly sometimes they happen.




IMG_20171126_150304741 I find myself in The Spen Valley , as in ‘Batley and Spen’. Like a lot of other people , I learnt last year was the name of a parliamentary constituency. I learnt it through the murder of its young Labour MP by a Neo-Nazi outside her constituency surgery just before the Brexit referendum. The ’cause’ for this appeared to be her liberal, pro-European views.

That and the alarming triumphalism and the ensuing spate of racist attacks that followed the referendum created a feeling of despair in me that I can still touch (like a grief). I decided I should  go and see where it happened. I thought I might make some kind of psychogeographic tribute, but I also wondered if I might just be rubbernecking.

There is CCTV footage on the internet of the perp. leaving the scene -eerily good enough for me to instantly recognise the street – and  I  suddenly found myself  parking outside that library , rails festooned with Tour de Yorkshire bikes. I expected to find … something, but what I found was a bewildering gap.

There was no recognition of what had happened there ( or at least no overt visible recognition).  I felt instantly uncomfortable in my quest and diverted (looked away).

Lunchtime. Lots of people going about their business. Toddlers and pensioners using the library, but a sense of ‘I Spy Stranger’, which felt clear and familiar.  I decided not to take any pictures, and to anonymise the town.


I remembered that the killer was a local, but also that some of these locals would also be victims of the trauma that had interrupted their business, and might reasonably be wary of another unfocussed middle aged man stalking around the town centre.

There were visibly other things that people wanted visitors to associate with  – Joseph Priestley, the Brontes, the Luddites  were all old safe history.

Brexit divides have become unspeakable too – I stayed with friends that night who map carefully where their extended family have gone on this, and what they might comfortably (not) say in front of them.

One of the things that is hard to speak openly, is that the death of Jo Cox was the result of that fucking campaign. I can’t prove that of course. Or that the unstable loner might have received the encouragement to buy a sawn off shotgun in the same mysterious way he was able to shout the slogans used by a far right group who are currently infiltrating the British Army and organising terrorist activity in the North of England. But some circumstantial evidence is very strong.


Something sickened in me when I heard the unfolding newscasts . I knew well before the confirmation what had happened . I also knew that a sane society would then have stopped the referendum in its tracks, but that would not happen. By finding out what that place was like I was hoping to travel backwards to a turning point – not to where a crime might not have happened  ( although I also wish that), but to one where a belief about the legitimacy of opposing views was accepted, and to the confirmation that this was no longer the case.

I come from another place  beginning with B. where a woman was murdered going about her daily business which had something to do with migration. While the murder happened amongst migrant agricultural workers and the response of the local community appeared benevolent, there is no doubt in my mind it was an accident waiting to happen, and that it stemmed in part from a willingness to overlook what desperate lives were going on around us.

And of course, no longer living there, I only have to think about that occasionally. The concern for those who still live there , as in B. , is to forget about it in a way which feels ethical and get on with their lives. They are less likely to want to be reminded that B2 is the place where the body-on-the-bus killing took place ( indeed if you google ‘murder, b2’  you will now find a reference to a detective fantasy on the local steam railway).


I wander around B1 for a little while , trying to decide whether to see it as a crime scene or someone’s home town. An old folks home, a library , some take aways , a car park, an inexplicable one way system. You are unlikely to uproot if something horrible happens there to someone you may not even have heard of.  And the view point I have of B1 as a place of horror is also the one that will have been brought to town by the national press parachuting in in the days that follow.. If what happened here changed your view of your safety , or of the reliability of the people round you, you  wont casually  be making that public. Similarly if you see your hometown classed as a place of unstable rednecks any lingering reactionary sympathies are unlikely to dissolve.

If my view of the incitement of the press and little England xenophobia running through the Brexit campaign is accurate this accident waiting to happen could have happened  in a lot of anonymous town centres.

I wonder if I was ghoulish to want to see it. I don’t imagine its a tourism that is welcome , although it is well known along the routes of serial killers and celebrity deaths.

And while the widower and friends of Jo Cox wish us to continue to make the case for tolerance and connection  the real legacy of what happened is to make me and others want to recoil and mask our differences.


Moladh to Donnchadh Ban

 Gentle reader, please bear with me.. I ve always avoided introductions, preferring to let people introduce themselves as they see fit, but I feel I might be doing a bit of trespassing here which will leave some big footprints across parts of the kaleyard.

So I would like to tell you about my acquaintance with the shade of a dead poet, before you read the fruit of that haunting.

(And I am afraid there are also some footnotes..)

Donnchadh Ban Mac an t-Saoir..aka Duncan Ban McIntyre was an 18th Gaelic poet who spent his early life as a ghillie(stalker),  and crofter in the area  where the Dochart, Awe and Lyon converge – where we now meet the wild bare hills of the Highlands  for the first time on the long road to the Deep North.

His life and art  have as their background of  the massive transformation of Gaelic society – from a feudal landscape via the unsuccessful Jacobite rebellions (Donnchadh  fought at the Battle of  Falkirk – although like many other Highlanders he was part of the Hanoverian force) , to the major transformations in land use and tenure  brought about by the subsequent Highland clearances .

His writing moves from the traditional praise of the martial qualities of the clan leaders, through a playful focus on everyday life to ambitious literary pieces, such as the Moladh Beinn Dobhrain, in which using the format of a traditional bagpipe piece he praises (nostalgically) the qualities of the mountain, deer and hunt he had once taken part in .

Donnachd  spent the latter part of his life in Edinburgh , where he was part of the City Guard. Apparently unable to read or write and with  only basic English he still appeared to have followed the trends in contemporary poetry, but writing in a language which was regarded by contempt in Scottish society, he did not receive much recognition, until around fifty years after his death where memorials were raised to him in Greyfriars Churchyard in Edinburgh near where he lived and died, and then, later, when a national campaign deposited a blocky neo-classical receptacle on a hill above Dalmally . 

He seems to have been following me around for a while now – via citation by James Hunter as an interpreter of  specifically Celtic attitudes to nature, around Glen Lyon where he ghillied and I wandered last summer , on a rainy day run when I found his Dalmally monument ,  via the discovery of his memorial  at Greyfriars when I was looking for James Hutton, and then to a book launch of Literature of the Gaelic Landscape by James Murray, who I discovered had been crisscrossing the same umbilical landscape which interested me in the summer.  His mapping of the places and routes found in Donnchadh’s poems, as what he describes as ‘songlines’, gave me an idea to apply the mythogeography techniques described in my other favourite book of the summer, Desire Lines by Roy Bayfield(1) .And  now see where that got me.

So,  all praise to you, Donnchadh Ban –  I have felt you as a useful peripheral presence through my wanderings , and so I wonder what help you could offer me if I try to give you proper attention?

Ive decided to walk towards you with an intention to follow the deer who travel  through Moladh Ben Dhobrain , in their traverse through the corries and slopes to drink in the Allt na h-Annaid , and at the same time honour the echo I have in my mind of Time ,the deer, in the wood of Hallaig, which haunts me as you may have haunted Sorley.

Calgary Stag

Calgary Stag, willow sculpture by Trevor Leat

I cant go to Beinn Dorain yet.  I am also in exile, but I will start at your memorial in the town where we both ended up and do my dance , the drift around places.. maybe one day I ll get back there , but as we both know, I ll find it changed.


At your memorial I decided I would follow the deer. Undecided if I was looking for some shamanistic transformation , or the narrator’s view of the fabled band journeying round the summer high pastures around  Ais an t-Sidhean, where you lived. In my own tradition I drifted out and in.


detail from work by Lizzie Fairey(5)

I was  also briefly with the deer. I was not a stalker. I took a shovel ( dug ditches) , was a beater ( I made it easy for the gentry to shoot birds) and was rewarded with an extra month’s wage as a pony loon ( horse drawer). The keepers did the stalking (also for the gentry) . It was a life of few words , most of them verbs and nouns. The words were sometimes Doric (often imperatives) and sometimes placenames  eroded out of your Gaelic ( Fafernie, Monawee, Benty Roads, Potty Leadnar )

The head keeper said he had left the Glen twice – once to fight the War, and once to visit Brechin which he didnt like much. This was the only thing we had in common.

It was of course a Tale , but a useful one. It said They lived in the best possible worlds. They were thrawn , insular people , deeply dependent on patronage and tradition ,and hideously underpaid.

Mostly they killed vermin enthusiastically and reflexively(2). Vermin are actually much harder to shoot than fat semi-tame grouse and deer, as they have learnt to run away fast.

Stalking, though, brings in the Nobs to experience the post-orgasmic glow of killing something bigger than them. After a success ( a kill) the deer is gralloched by the ghillie (which you can now learn how to do on Youtube)- its guts cut out where it falls and feed to the waiting terriers. Any newbie is then ‘blooded’ – their face smeared with the entrails .. an interesting odour of blood, fermented grass clippings and methane. As temporary pony loon I was included alongside a delirious merchant banker whose day on the hill did not involve a ten mile  return walk leading a frightened horse carrying a  bleeding , dead deer on its back. I was told that tradition did not allow me to wash the gunk off until the Nob had returned to the lodge.

I became a vegetarian soon afterwards – which is both true, and a Tale.

So  Donchadh we know that there are good Tales around the hunt , and I m sure  those who wanted to remember them were willing to reward a man with a good turn of phrase who could commemorate their successes.

‘ Shot a deer, shot a deer, He’s the chief of Clan Breadalbane and he’s gone and shot a deer!'(3)

(not one of yours, that)



Your monument is a -crumbling Donnchadh, the acid attack of the city, the noble stag  dissolving from Monarch of the Glen into Rudolph, the sporting bag  into a half-remembered  label on a tin of Baxters Soup ( ooh, Royal Game, by appointment).  I doubt you d care much – by all accounts you never wanted to be here anyway.


Deer traverse around contours and like the wind on their face to tell them whats to come. They move to the rhythm of feeding, shelter and security.

IMG_20171119_145942020 It was clear to join them I must climb away from the disclaiming voices of memorialists to mythical  wizards onto the back wall of the Greyfriars corrie, and keep watch from there, seeking morcels amongst the graves.


We are overshadowed by great cliffs and there is some sweet grass to be found. In the highest corrie  (Coire Raineach) there is some respite from the din – stimuli are more discrete and manageable.. the cries of the tours guides battling each other blend into the cries of ravens echoing back off the cliffs.

Here is the Covenanter’s Prison, atrocity site and sometime Goth Central, now fortified against trespass.

Religious wars are part of your world and mine – you were a reluctant combatant in one, and I pay my taxes (equally reluctantly) so others can fight them.  Yours left you in a world in which you were no longer at home, except as a fabulist of what had been lost. What you witnessed grew up  the imperialist mission to harmonise the world, which  now keeps those  righteous fires burning.

You moved out of the Highlands an economic migrant and ended up here in the old Reek  where, now, I am, back with the deer, crossing the Bealach (pass), swept with gales of tourists streaming over the ridge -to pay homage at the statue of a dog.

The deer make a long traverse down George Fourth Bridge – the  Prince Regent to you …later to open one of the first tartan giftshops on the Royal Mile, and  to begin the rehabilitation of the domesticated highlander ( a little late for you though).

We look for forage – at first this is petrified or insubstantial,

IMG_20171119_150634982IMG_20171119_150751663 but later we find delicacies like rashes among the heather along the smooth corrie (Coire Reidh).

IMG_20171119_150807917IMG_20171119_150826983IMG_20171119_150910521In the Moladh you notice the deer’s particular appetites with a detail that tests your translators vocabulary, and their dedication to  botanical exactness (not great so far).

Which  would all have been relevant knowledge for the stalkers of Breadalbane -which pasture will draw the herd on particular patterns of water,wind and light. These vital patterns once had more differentiation – my stalkers were frustrated by the lack of some subtle terms , and by our inexact translation of more. Your poem, then, is also a historic guide to the hill and its patterns.  It would have begun as a song of sharing these , as local direction as much as celebration , and was still being passed from hand to hand back there when the Scottish Studies guys came crashing in through the jungle with their recording devices.

It reached your New World here as a gift to a group of second class exiles whose native tongue was  becoming increasingly a party piece , and reaches me now as an echo of a sense of place and connection – in a world which is belatedly trying to find those again

In this new world were poets – collected and feted. Not so dissimilar from you – Thomson, Clare, Burns- faux naif figures who could sing for their supper, telling nostalgic tales of kith and kin.  You recognised that tune well enough. No need for the writing to do that.


The piles of manuscripts copied from you and your kind lie in two huge piled libraries towering over the deer as they take the ridge. I  have chucked an occasional  fanzine article onto the pile.

When you were here you joined the City Guard, the ‘black banditti’,  mocked by Fergusson – who has a  psychiatric unit named after him now, where I chased escaping lunatics through the corridors for a while, trying to return them to the straight and narrow. I read the City Guard by  your time was mostly Highland exiles – a relatively rapid rehabilitation of a more martial and doff capping group than the ingenious urban poor, and another chip off the imperialist production line(7). You were proud of your gun(8), and I imagine you got a uniform and enough to eat, and somewhere where clumsy English was ‘no problem’. The security industry , we call it now.  You may have stood by as anti-Catholic mobs burned down the Gaelic Kirk  – not a cultural misunderstanding it would have been wise to correct at the time.

We descend to where the Dog meadow  (Connlonn), which is predictably convenient as a  toilet for urban pets, who now outweigh our native fauna, and whose  expenditure outstrips the GDP of many small countries. At home I have gerbils.  They would look much like vermin to you, and would become so should they make it out of their prison.  But we miss that connection to the living world outside. You had that fascination of an animal watcher , but no need to distinguish it from the vital processes of living and dying.


I am looking for The Source, my free translation of the Burn of the Mother Church(Allt na h-Annaid) where the herd’s journey ends  with a drink. It is below Meall Teanail (the gathering hill)- where I see some saplings on the horizon (Creag Sheillach – willow rock). We are in Hunter Square aptly enough.

IMG_20171127_141223348 The deer stoop to drink in a large stone basin , finding instead a beer can and an empty packet of Swedish meatballs.  The benches around are full of sad exiles , and their obverses topped with knobbly statues of redcurrant bushes. More petrified fruit , murmur the deer.


It feels the right place . And I notice I have now collected some urban mud on my soles to scatter on the floor of Pret a Manger (the pretentious sandwich) in a small ritual.



Time the deer, fleeting.

Donnchadh, glimpsed, detoured, retaggled, mythologised ur Bard,

Jacobitten; underclass, illiterated erse-in-gobragh migrant ,

fighting gun for hire.

Sometime sychophant and player of loyalties,

Sharp literary stalker of fashion and craft.


Further, formalist experimenter,

prolix celebrant,

memorialiser and mnemonicist.

Buried beneath ground he didnt take to –

resurrected in blocky redemptor form

in alien granite

hanging in the clouds above Dalmally ,

where he is known at the Post Office(4).


What is it that I want from you?   During my journey I found a quote

Line is not really important because it records what you have seen but because of what it will lead you to see (5)

And I saw…

What we are really exiled from is our past. The hills , the deer, the energy, the possibilities.  The loss.        The compromises.


The sheep with their phones

Have no eyes for the horizons

The herd moving up and across

The slope to the far side

The moment infilled around us as spectacle


You can never go back. Its not just the landscape that’s changed.


Now, around your corpse are resting the disposessed and the lost. Harried by foreign wars, unhomed by the factor, betrayed by benefactor and fortune. They make precarious friendships in one tongue or another – and warily note my strange purpose among the flocks.

Donchadh weaves patterns for the knowing to nod along to, and those achingly fade, the names rewritten, misspelt and ultimately deprived of meaning. The sense of  particularity atomised -dispelled to the general twinkly Celtic  nature of Bardism.


We should know your  places again like I know this Cowgate – where the racists murdered the Somali exile, where  exploring we sank down to on occasion – out too late and seeking a deeper level of indulgence. Greyfriars, where I d eat my sandwich and stare into warmly lit windows. The Courts where  Stevie got sent to jail..The Deacon where, unco fu,  I watched the tanks roll onto the Royal Mile and thought ‘Here They Come for Us’. Cockburn St , where we waited for trains and felt things, and finally to the Tron(6) on Hunter Square, and the Bells where the mass , the moment, you and me, were one and the same, in the immersing throng, tangled, swirling in Celtic knots, in what was past and what was yet to come.

But I bet you hated Auld Lang Syne and that opportunist Sassenach Burns.. I imagine you thinking’ Could have been a Contender’  – if not for that awkward immigrant thing..


(1) Desire Paths applies various techniques of mythogeography to Roy’s journeys. One of which is described as ‘Finding'(Ch 6.) and involves transposing a preplanned route onto another landscape – in this case the route identified as a songline by  John Murray following the deer  in the Siubhal section of the Moladh,  rescaled from the 1:25,000 OS Map 377 – Loch Etive and Glenorchy, and superimposed on the streets of Central Edinburgh,  leading away from Donnachdh’s memorial  in Greyfriars churchyard and using bearings , topography, behavioural ecology and JM’s translations of Gaelic placenames as a guide.

(2)Their successors still do . The area I worked in leads the  national league table for disappearances of raptors. The estate I worked for recently cut down a tree containing one of the first (protected) sea eagle nests in Eastern Scotland. They claimed not to have noticed the eight foot diameter structure,  but there have been  boasts about it in the local bars.

(3) to the tune of ‘Wem-bill-ee, wem-bill-ee,  We’re the Famous [Insert team name here if it scans] and we’re going to Wem-bill-ee’.    It’s a football chant. I dont actually know what the tune was before that.

(4) Ashamed, I rocked up in Dalmally without direction , and fairly unexpectantly asked for the memorial to a poet at the post office. ‘Ah, Donnchadh Ban? He’s down the road past the station and then up the hill for about another mile. You can’t miss it’  Which was true. Its not a subtle monument.

(5) which is from John Berger, quoted in the catalogue of  A Fine Line which was showing at the City Art Centre  just off the deer’s grazing route through town on the day I visited.  I found the detail from Lizzie Farey’s willow piece  there too.

(6) The Tron Kirk on the Royal Mile was where Edinburgh met at midnight on Hogmanay, before the current festivities began . People got drunk, rolled around a bit , and then went home again. Those were the days.

(7) The info on Donnchadh’s presumed life in Edinburgh is distilled from ‘Urban Highlanders’ by Charles Withers

(8) One of Donnchadh’s early hits was The Song to My Gun (NicCoiseam). Yes, his gun had a name. The past truly is another country..

A Walk to the Pans.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAAt Morrison’s Haven grassy triangle paths between red clover and trefoil. Stringy elastic rye grass rebounds from my tread, ringlets and blues flit – a good facsimile of COASTAL GRASSLAND (neatly cut and pasted from the AA Book of the Countryside) sedimenting over the industrial past.


Medick,vetch, burnet moth, reed bunting, lintie, whitethroat cacophonous from perches amongst dog rose, bramble , synchronous fecundity , eye candy for rambler.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAOn the shore the protrusions are man-made, netted embankments, grey sand mixed with industrial flotsam , smouldering driftwood arson practice for the young Pans Team, while protruding from the banks an archaeological hoard signifying serfdom and short brutish lives.


A blue painted shore crab, a nosegay for you..


Moving towards the town, murals.. Leger rip-offs fluff up the dignity of labour.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAJohn Muir makes camp on the rocks outside the Goth as groups of gouching teens are want to do at weekends, while his mule averts its eyes.


(In the Pans now no-one averts their eyes and you are always watched. In the celebrated hive of industry people don’t have enough to keep them busy)


The low wagon road along the shore, this is some industrial archaeology . I’ m too lazy , you can find out about it if you need to, or make it up .. Progress perilous in more than an onshore breeze, the bottom Pans floods still the separation from the brine is scanty.


In the distance where the corpse of Cockenzie PS is being picked clean, naked engineering glints coyly.


War Memorial square- pensive kiltie on stick , appears to shit sandstone from beneath his kilt , an appropriate response to the murderous western front.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA Weathering from the onshore wind blast and his greening kit bag offer a parallel to the fading of war memories . Man there are a lot of names here – four Andersons, three Cunningham, three Darlings, four Edmonds on the list.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAThe square, decorated with decayed bunting and fresh Greggs’ bags, was clearly someone’s vision.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA Densely benched, Mine craftily intricate in its passages and levels, it is a centre point where no-one ever sits, the sight-lines being too truncated to see who is coming round the next corner. In this way the square makes an honest epitaph for many sorts of vision.

Its time to head back from whence I came.


Interpretation boards proliferate in East Lothian, where the subtle rebranding of Visitor Attractions in succeeding aeons of corporate speak will soon become a topic area for post-industrial archaeology.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA On one fading relic of idyllised seashore life has ,amongst the foggy silhouettes of eider ducks, neatly pre-faded , the legend THE LIVING SHIT.


Back on the coast road on the bend opposite the industrial heritage centre two teenagers in baseball caps are wandering up and down under full length blue sandwich boards proclaiming ONLY £6.99, as they stare fixedly blankly into the oncoming traffic.


Prestongrange Industrial Heritage Museum

Everybody’s Smashing things UP*

The Luddites. In Huddersfield they broke things, assassinated capitalists , kept stum and disappeared back into the night. And about them there is now silence. In Heckmondike (or whatever it is called now) they had a meeting in a pub, decided to attack a factory, put the word out around the county, assembled at a distant meeting point, marched by night up hill and down dale to the factory, where the reinforcements hadn’t appeared, and attacked. The mill is stuffed with soldiers. There was a battle. So there is somewhere  and something to commemorate – there is a Trail now, and a plaque just outside the soft play on the edge of an  industrial estate to heroic failure (again).


This clock overlooks the site of Rowson’s Mill. One of the things that capitalism was about was creating time discipline. Id say more but I am in a rush to get this finished.

It was a quest to find it, swinging around perilously in my  infernal machine through the stampede of traffic in search of Liversedge and Rowson’s Mill, in search of a place which seems to have many names and none.

The plaque says they lost. Wounds were incurred.  Then,  a hat was dropped in the river , which gave a clue to the bizzies , and arrests, deaths and executions followed.


In the film version, led by bestubbled,thick biceped artisans the Luddites march down here

Then there was the book launch.I  realized as I was following the trail that  I was always ahead, anticipating. The mise en scene in my head. The torches, the stubble , the frock coats, the Emmerdale  accents. I suspect  this is from Shirley by Charlotte Bronte, who was local and had her own take on the characters.  but definitely romantic – in a doomed, moor -ish way.


In the film version, the victorious Luddites do not stop here to buy a takeaway

I m taking pictures in a post-industrial estate in the rain. I noticed a sign on a gap site LUDDITE INDUSTRIAL ESTATE which I wanted to photograph  for a pitch for a future sit com. I get distracted by the River Spen, which would be the only protagonist remaining from the Luddite story ( the mill having long disappeared under a string of development opportunities).IMG_20170911_111719355

I am trying to find an appropriate portrait shot, when I am hailed by a friendly local. She wants to bemoan the loss of wildlife and greenspace behind the hoardings and bulldozers of the LIE (Ok thats not actually their acronym.).IMG_20170911_111906434

Its on a flood plain and there are loads of empty units in Hathersedge anyway. (this I can vouch for having driven around most of them on the trail to the Luddite statue)


This is a heroic representation of an angry desperate man wielding what  I imagine is a frame over his head, in a pose not unlike Liberty vaulting the barricades, but watched by a despondent looking urchin.  This is the twist for the Spen Valley Civic Society – get the kiddies on your side. The interpretative panel contains lots of stuff about the hardships of Victorian life which would make it feel OK for your dad to go out and trash the local workshop.


The SVCS have an angle . Their park is basically a roadside triangle between a main road along the hogsback and a well used rat run down an abandoned high street. Like everywhere else  I went in Spen Valley there is a constant stream of traffic and sense of amorphousness as all the ribbons link up. The SVCS are protesting against the submergence of their place by re-signing  LIVERSEDGE -rebranded,as Luddite heritage site -right opposite the old town hall, which has been converted into anonymous flats.


I go to take a picture of the inn where the Luddites met. For a secret organisation they seem to have got out a lot.

One of the things I was finally able to do once released from learning the Latin names of beetles at Uni was to read The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson, which looked like it would be the best book ever. I have kept my copy and it still does the job.  It contains the Luddites, and much other English history besides, but it contains it in such a way that it feels like a weapon of sorts in an argument I expected to have.  On the cover is a etching of a man in Victorian working clothes  smoking a clay pipe and wearing an enigmatic expression.   The illustration is to show his costume, but also just about shows an early steam train, as a sign of contemporaneousness.


Thompson is making a case for how Marxists should do history,  that it is relevant that they should do history, how Marxists can be Marxists , and how history might have been. This is contained in a (relatively) famous sentence in the preface..

I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obselete’ handloom weaver, the ‘utopian’artisan and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.. they lived through these times of acute social disturbance and we did not.  Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience.. (p13)

The Luddites for Thompson, were conducting a protean industrial dispute by various means through trial and error. This dispute about working conditions roamed into ownership of the means of production, terrorism against democratic means, class consciousness against local loyalties and was conducted through a culture which only occasionally leaves traces in literate form (although these are perhaps more powerful as a result).

I was at yor hoose last neet, and meyd mysel very comfortable. Ye hey nee family, and yor just won man on the colliery, I see ye hev a  greet lot of rooms, and big cellars, and plenty wine and beer in them, which I got ma share on. Noo I naw some at the colliery that has three or fower lads and lesses, and live in won room not half as gude as yor cellar. I ont pretend to naw very much, but I naw there shudn’t be that much difference. The only place we can gan to o the week ends is the yel hoose and hev a pint. I dinna pretend to be a profit, but I naw this, and lots o  me marrows na te, that wer not tret as we owt to be, and a great filosopher says, to get noledge is ta ken wer ignerent. But weve just begun to find that oot, and ye maisters and owners may luk oot, for yor not gan to get se much o yor own way, wer gan to hev some of wors now (p785, quoting a note left after a strike riot in the Durham coalfields in 1831)


Sometimes they were Luddites sometimes they weren’t. At their best they were shadows  – I think of the Trystero in The Crying of Lot 49 (which I revisited for a book group which also mysteriously disappeared at the time of my presentation, leaving me alone in a city centre bar wondering, like Oedipa Mass, if I had imagined the whole thing) . These phantoms could be limited and controlled when turned into concrete forms. Like an uprising, a narrative or a statue.

We all know someone who had thrown their mobile phone into the sea, or refused to watch TV (and that does actually include Iplayer) for a few years, and we generally admire them. More difficult examples exist – the person who stopped reading,  the scratcher of cars , teenage purveyors of litter, ‘one man’s freedom fighter..etc’ .  Thompson seems to be saying that this is an experimental tactic rather than a definitive statement, and if we follow him, what we should be pursuing, in a variety of ways  is for a greater control of the means of production.

Id like to imagine what might happen on the Luddite Industrial Park (as I will insist on calling it). One of the scenarios of course is that it may never be finished – the removal or sabotage of pieces of construction equipment hilariously recurring over a number of episodes like a running gag. In other versions the hardworking staff become aware of strange voices and poltergeist activity which turn out to be versions of themselves dressed up in Victorian costume.  Or there is a situation(ist) comedy where the staff realise the true nature of consumer society through a deep interpretative reconquest of the term luddism and decide to make things they actually want instead which turn out to be hugely successful and then recreate the problem all over again ( oh hang on that sounds a bit familiar).


To be a Luddite was a part time and secret occupation, and the more social and permanent your  ambition became the greater the risk of discovery (which probably meant death). Thompson makes the point that this happened incredibly rarely- that there was some kind of solidarity or consciousness amongst the outgroups of society ( he would unashamedly call it a class)  which had at least sympathy with it

In the Trystero/W.A.S.T.E network Pynchon could at least imagine a way in which this could still exist in 1960s America..

It was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery. Whatever else was being denied them out of hate, indifference to the power of their vote,loopholes, simple ignorance, this withdrawal was their own, unpublicized, private. Since they could not have withdrawn into a vacuum (could they?) there had to exist the separate silent, unsuspected world. (p94)

And now? I am drawn to the re to conclusions of  Slavov Zizek to his analysis of the events of 2011 ( Arab spring, anti-capitalism, London riots – seems a lifetime ago)

what Marx concieved of as Communism remained an idealized image of capitalism, capitalism without capitalism, that is , expanded self-reproduction without profit or exploitation. This is why we should return from Marx to Hegel, to Hegel’s “tragic” vision of the social process where no hidden teleology is guiding us, where every intervention is ajump into the unknown, where the result always thwarts our expectation. All we can be certain of is that the existing system cannot reproduce itself indefinitely; whatever will come after will not be “our future”. A new war in the Middle East or an economic chaos or an extraordinary environmental catastrophe can swiftly change the basic coordinates of our predicament. We should fully accept this openness, guding ourselves on nothing more than ambiguous signs from the future ( The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, pp134-5)


I have blogged already about the post-capitalist thinking of Paul Mason and Wolfgang Streek. I was in Yorkshire for a conference of psychogeographers, whose wanderings seemed very in touch with a situationist spirit of going off message. Phil Smith‘s address to Congress suggested

Through the political spasms of the last year, clumsy expressions of deep rhythms of change, a new kind of Spectacle is emerging from its old ‘integrated’ form into a new meshwork of ‘post-truths’. ..We need to detourn the spectacle.. We need to protect the hidden part of ourselves from the brightness of the spectacle

Phil talks pretty fast and my ability to make notes is not as good as it was. Yet it seems that like our Luddite ancestors the tactics and focus of resistance is provisional and varied . That we are in search of some sort of commonality and universality which still has a strong personal meaning.   And which is always quickly being pulled away again as it becomes processed to become part of the  Spectacle . There will not be one  way to answer this dilemna – there will be a search for the thing that Walter Benjamin suggests can flash up at a moment of danger to guide us (Theses on the Philosophy of History , 6) .


Watching out for the Luddites coming over the Hill, Liversedge, September 2017


  • you’d think really there would have been a punk band called The Luddites. I was actually convinced there had been and looked them up. I found a link to a vanity side project by Rick Astley .. ( Rick ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ Astley ! ).  Never have the thoughts of Guy Debord looked more prophetic..  Anyway in case you dont know (and  indeed care) the title quotes The Damned’s 1979 anthem ‘Smash it up’


Purple Hairstreak, Gait Barrows

‘Look for the oak tree with the butterflies dancing round the crown.’

Or a needle in a haystack.  How many oak trees ( or ash trees if its brown hairstreaks you’re after) are there in  a forest?


Managing a nature reserve for invertebrates is really  a type of gardening – selective pruning and lopping of native vegetation. It leaves herbaceous borders of knapweeds and ragworts, standard tress unexpectedly naked, walkways and trails to peer from, and somewhere in amongst that,  by consciously getting lost and learning to look again at insect level ( hover, bumble, damsel, dragon, beetle), something immersive and satisfying happens  to me again.


Limestone pavements are the main feature of Gait Barrows. The woods and marshes are there because it has been impossible to adapt it for intensive agricultural use.


Hairstreaks dance up from the upper branches of oaks ( purple) and ash (brown,preferentially), and do so with the sun on their backs (or really wings) in late summer when there is sap to lap off the leaves or apical buds.  They are drawn to a central tree in the midst of the small colony where they feed , meet and mate.

Towards my end of my own lolloping circumnavigation of the Barrows  I find one. We are both looking for something- either by gradually tuning in, through patience or just  by happenstance. It lollops from one leaf to another about every thirty minutes. This feels a long time to stand staring fixedly at an oak tree, but is almost sustainable as an act of anticipation. Its like it used to feel waiting for the Band to come on.


Its up there somewhere, honest..


I am delighted with a couple of quick silhouettes , a rustle and a surprisingly plosive sound as the creature disappears again in to a floret of leaves. I now have the thought of how something lives.


Then I meet the guys who are staking out  brown hairstreak. They’ve already been there for two and a half hours. This is a rarer butterfly, which they tell me  conspiratorially ,shouldn’t really be there (this is because Gait is a long way away from the other known colonies of brown hairstreaks, and dispersal  – like other hairstreak modus operandii – does not take them anywhere fast). They are armed with telephoto lenses and camoflague fatigues, but dimming senses. ( I  notice again how our urge to find things seems to grow in inverse ratio to our ability to do so). And of course I am delighted to become the sharp eyed tracker of the group (at least temporarily).

They draw a crowd ( 6 people at Gait Barrows is a crowd). After the sense of anticipation falls again their leader/guide strides over and hoofs an oak tree which trembles and two hairstreaks pop out of the top and wobble off  to cover.

I am a bit shocked , but am enjoying the group dynamics. Two ramblers they have tempted in by showing them the telephoto pin ups, have joined the chase and are perching on boulders to get better vantage points of the canopies.

I find one of the displaced hairstreaks silhouetted through the lower surface of than oak leaf. It is beautifully complete I think , and  from this perspective,verdantly green, but the others need to see its colours and take off for better vantage points – which scares it off again. I see the white line ( the’ hairstreak’) as it wobbles off into the foliage of an unkickable birch stool, and sanctuary.

Meanwhile the guide has remained remarkably patient training his optics on the spot in the foliage where the hairstreak first emerged, and sifting through the green. Eventually it returns as butterflies will do – although I remember he told me that the brown one he found yesterday took over four hours to do so.

One of the safari guys tells me his son-in-law moved up to Fife.

‘To  a place beginning with an R’


‘That’s it! He wasn’t the only one who went- but hes the only one that talks like you’


By now dark clouds have gathered (as they do) and I feel if I stay any longer I will have become part of the group, an object of easy scorn for the next fully-facultied young whippersnapper who may be passing. Despite the tantalising hope of a clear view through the scope, it is not a tough call.


I dont know that I definitely found a purple hairstreak, or five – I didn’t see any purple and only one streak which i might easily have imagined. And yet I have the sense of  getting what I wanted  -which is to know where and how they live. As one of the ramblers , who are also making their excuses, says ‘ I never thought of butterflies up trees’.


We do owe the the guys though .( You also  if you  enjoy  the amazing , and uncharacteristic pics they or others like them posted). Thus they have pride as their finders fees, and  I have  gained a sense of a purpose for  searching. For the rest of the week I scan the silhouettes of all the oaks I pass for  blurry speckles.

How many ash crowns would you examine before you quit hoping? How many cars did I smile at when I thumbed on the slip road at the services? How many conversations started? How many breaths taken? How many heartbeats?

Sometimes you are defined by when you feel you’ve had enough.


Ploughmans spikenard, growing in a grike. Gratuitous image, but I liked the sound of it.

Cosmic, mate

Why would anyone not want to explore the multiverse? Its an opportunity to go where no man has gone before . And it only costs a fiver..

I give the admission guy a twenty..

Do you want change ?

Well I could go round four times instead..

I ve passed the humorous retort test. There’s not much to do in Sanquhar but manning the car park in an open cast site can be a long day even so. They tell me I am  the fortieth visitor.

Thats quite a good day for us

Space is lonely , and as destination for a traditional brown sign daytrip it can feel fairly immense. It does look a bit like an abandoned quarry, which could be  a reasonable analogy for the universe, all rock and sharp sides.IMG_20170810_141016759


My most frequent fellow orbiter is a sprightly pensioner known as Poppa to his satellite grandweans, who he is failing to frighten with rumours of dragons and unicorns. I think The Alien might work better.

Hes good at quips.. ‘Might be nice when they finish it’, which feels like something one of Douglas Adams‘ characters might have said.

I m headed for the Omphalos at the Centre of the Universe – navels having become one of my things this summer. The Vogons appear to have fenced it off, but somehow I am gravitated into its vortex.IMG_20170810_143519690

This is the most sculptural part of the park, it most pompous and least successful. Thankfully it’s being inhabitated by a rabbit and a pair of wheatears, and already has the feel of an abandoned civic sculpture rusting on a roundabout in a new town.


What I like about Charles Jencks, from a distance at least , is that he appears to have no concerns about pretentiousness , scale or limitations on genre.At his best he is syncretic, at his worst pompous and simplistic. Maybe these have to come together.

I think you’d need to be a bit arrogant to design and build your own universe. At times I quite applaud this and am expanded- at others, much like Poppa, am having a good time practicing my sense of facetiousness.  I contemplate the view from the Omphalos down the column of megaliths marking a ley across the site and out into the distance . I follow the avenue and find it trained on the Portaloo in the car park – marked’ WC in Fields’.


The most interesting monument on the site breaks the line of megaliths leading away from the Omphalos. There’s a kind of amphitheatre, a couple of symmetric geometric pools and an inlaid …. sculpture containing a spiral of lots of red cup and ring marked pebbles> the explanatory text ( I assume by Jencks)



They contain red spirals and target forms, looking like ancient life, but actually they are self organising patterns. I call them Liesgang rocks , after the German chemist who discovered such patterns in 1896.Pulsating rhythms of iron oxide formed in a white desert, and then solidified. They are little globes of energy , micro-suns and stars, except in a white matrix, and tiny. They grew, in a few places in the Nith, through a reaction diffusion cycle, wave forms that pulsate again and again, 1-2-3-4 – supersaturation, nucleation, precipitation, depletion. The rhythm builds up and dances to exhaustion.


Poppa and his clan pass. He murmurs  ‘Bah  humbug’ , I think, at me poring over the commentary.  I smile but my connection to cosmic speculation has loosened. I feel a little exposed – but he hasn’t actually called me a swotty bastard ,and I have been able to retain that old Caledonian antiszygy which is our birthright.

Unfortunately the  next line  I read is

The non-living looks strangely alive , like a work of art, an agent of the sun itself . In the mosaic Madame Sun pulls Monsieur Earth in spirals , just as she spirals around our galaxy every 200 million years

Its like, all connected..


In fairness I don’t know of anyone who has been able to contemplate the vastness of the universe with out talking a pile of pseudometaphysical bollocks . Carl Sagan, Arthur C Clarke, Albert Einstein, Brian Cox, Leonard Nimoy, Stephen Hawking – all apparently smart dudes whose heads ultimately expanded infinitely into space.

But does that mean that we should not look at it/ or try to expand our horizons?


The Multiverse has a companion exhibition , Cosmic Collisions, at the modestly named (not!) Merz Gallery in  an old washhouse just off the High street in Sanquhar.

In the exhibition I read the following exemplar by Noam Libeskind, who has become a decipherer of cosmology

According to what astronomers have dubbed the Strong Copernical principle, we live in a universe which looks  the same in every direction one looks at, from every point in space and time.. It is only when one zooms in that features start to stick out..

His sister, Rachel, an artist , has tried to create something approximating to 4 dimensional  space to  represent what this might feel like .I dont like it much , but that’s not the point. Its the kind of hippy crap I can relate to.IMG_20170810_154557620

It seems to me the clever stuff is not to apply overarching metaphors to the universe but to see if the universe can teach us different ways to think about our world, and of course, ourselves.

From my visit to the Multiverse I learnt that my wondering needs to pass through a filter of plebean skepticisms before I can make use of it. There appears to be a small Maxwell’s daemon somewhere in there sorting out the destiny of these ideas.


One of Jencks’ big things is that Universes seem to be created from collisions and chaos, and that these things are therefore potentially creative . He is, of course, talking about art and ideas, at  least by implication (which may be why entropy doesn’t seem to form part of his thinking). Around the site  there are designs of universes emerging funnel-like (or phoenix-like if you prefer) from  preceding ones.


The guys in the Portacabin don’t have any souvenirs for sale, but they are glad to see me again. They ll make it to Edinburgh one day , to look at that gallery thing – but maybe they ll have better things to do ‘on thon Rose Street’.

They are selling very cheap ice creams. Unsurprisingly they haven’t any tubs left ( I guess they had less than forty in stock), but they do have ice lollies for 50p. I last had an ice lolly in the 1970s and it looked (and cost) kind of the same. Like a space rocket, and as I suck it new layers of brilliantly dyed cylindrical ice emerge from the funnel-shaped preceding layer. I wonder if God, or Charles Jencks , might have a sense of humour after all.