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Summer seems so long ago. The space between then and now has been crammed with deadlines and driving and too much dust.

Summer was etched out in white and blue, cold colours marking a trail up and down the UK, flinging out from Manchester and back again, elasticated, joyous, stretching to dip feet in oceans to the north and south.

First to Scotland, and the lakes held together by a mesh of Monros and ribboning rivers. Early swimming in icy Loch Lomond, the kind of cold that turns your limbs to treacle and makes your ears  ring-sing with misplaced ideas of invincibility. Time to get out. We went up mountains, and down, then moved, midge-bitten, further north. Washed through Glen Coe, left at Fort William and onto Arisaig and the small isles.

We jumped the Shearwater to Eigg, past the real thing, swift-sure and acrobatic. Past terns, gannets, seals and a magnificent minke. I still get lost in Manchester, there’s nowhere to hold on to, to orientate yourself from. Shadows are no use when brick walls are sky high. But on Eigg the clarity of compass points is an anchor, and you can pirouette on a point and still find your way home. We scrambled An Sgurr, slept above singing sands and saw so much colour. Glorious, saturated technicolor that was lost on the way home, our vision (as well as the windscreen) layered with a thin film of dust that muddies tones and minutely takes the edge off outlines.

Later, to Devon and Dorset for family and festivals. Mackerel-fishing, lido-swimming, cliff-exploring, crazy-golfing and crab-shacking – then wonderful friends and dodgy dancing in the rain at End of the Road.

I know we’re used to wet summers, but this one seemed damper than most. Even now in deep midwinter, when we’re due some ice-bright days, we get nothing but soft rain hissing gently on saturated ground. I read on the quietly lovely Plot 29 blog a while ago a description of winter creeping “up from the soil, calling the stuttering life back underground.” At the moment it’s like the rain is trying to do the same thing, from above and below, calling us off dry land to somewhere wetter.

First weekend of the football season. In a strange way I’ve missed it, the structure and the regularity. Still, there comes a saturation point, and with it a brilliant excuse to retreat to the kitchen and try out a million recipes from books received through work, things gleaned from random programs on the Good Food channel, food flavours and combinations that I’ve been meaning to try for ages, happy in the knowledge that there are plenty of hungry and willing half-time taste-testers.

Yesterday there was spinach and nutmeg soup from the guys at Cheshire Cooks, then briks from Alice Hart’s Friends at my Table (left! With homemade tortilla chips, salsa and guacamole). These were like boreks (which we’re addicted to, thanks to the Africa Oye Festival), wafer-thin crispy filo encasing cumin-spiced lamb and gooey spinach and feta, both mulched with slow-cooked, soft onion and potatoes, then baked. Also from her we tried anchovies wrapped in sage leaves, dipped in egg and flour and lightly fried. Salty, aromatic and intensely morish.

I’ve been really impressed with FAMT. Despite the cover, it steers away from twee and instead gives robust ideas and strong flavours for cooking for larger groups on different kinds of (special) occasions. I know it’s come in for criticism from some for the layout and lifestyle angle, but that’s the direction a lot of cookbooks are heading in – they”re about a chef, or a season, or a story as much as they are about the food. They’re changing, and I quite like that. Online recipe sites and food blogs are great tools and they, together with the fact that most recipes have now been printed in various guises multiple times, mean that printed cook books are having to find a new niche, raising their game in the process. 

Anyway, I digress. Today we broke out the Bury black pudding, small crispy discs served with boiled eggs, toast and a sort-of salad of grates apple and carrot with chopped parsley and rosemary, a good blob of creme fraiche and buttery toast. Tasty tasty.

A thing I did a wee while ago for Caught by the River’s Nature Book Reader is up now. The Reader is a brilliant little collection of literary recommendations – a reading list, a library shelf of books, an “Amazon Wishlist” as the intro says, about the natural world.

The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono (1953)

Some writings on nature seem to get lost in a wilderness of words, losing sight of the reality, brutality and downright humanity that links most people’s experience of nature with our perceived idea of what wilderness should be. The three books that I have chosen refuse to shy away from the relationship between people and places.

The idea behind the project was to ask people for their favourite pieces of writing on the subject (plus two other recommended reads) – the collection now spans old classics and new works, field guides and childhood favourites. Full entry here and you can see the full Nature Book Reader itself here.

You reach the back path by one of those curious not-quite styles that slow cyclists. Two railway sleeper-wide blocks of wood cradling a mini, muddy pond. An awkward width, just beyond usual stride. The path itself is more like a road, ghosting between the track that circles the lake, and the path along the high-built banks of the Mersey, but there are never any cars. A few bikes maybe, cutting along to the river, commuting downstream under the rowan and the elder.

It’s been wet. Of course it’s been wet, the news is full of grim British summer jokes, the sky a claustrophobic choking wool, wind-whipped and reticent.

It’s been wet, and the uneven path cups pockets of water. Wet islands on an equally damp tarmac.

It’s been wet, yet again the swifts turn to bats in the blink of a dimming. Again the unseen heron lifts and lumbers upstream, disapprovingly. The fishermen still stand, stoic and unexpectant.

The winner of all this dampness has been the slugs, squidgy mascots for a non-summer, enjoying their media limelight and blissfully oblivious to the hate (and bait) directed their way. The path to my front  door is an obstacle-course of these glutinous, gluttonous gastropods that spill over onto the grass, up the walls into pots and down the stems of every green thing I planted.

The back path by the river is worse though (or better?) There are scores and scores of them. Some long, black and pencil-thin, some mottled, almost elegant in their streamlining. Others squat and obese. Gastropod. From the Greek γαστήρ (gastr-, meaning stomach – the same stem as for gastronomy, gastroenterology, gastric) and πούς (pod-,  meaning foot). Stomach-foot. Hundreds of stomach-feet feel-feeding their way across every crack and crevice. Sometimes they gather around a dead comrade, accidentally heel- or tyre-flattened. Carrion. Gastropod gastronomy.  

Tonight though, among the wet and the pools and the thin slugs and the fat ones, there were frogs as well. Tiny ones, with tadpole-eager eyes, that could sit on half your fingernail. I’ve seen them near the lake before, but not on this path, and not this many. The more you looked, the more you saw, hundreds of dark shapes visible only in their movement, then landing, crouching in the shadow-pitted path. You had to watch where you walked as they hop-scotched right to left in numbers that rivalled the slugs, had to scrutinise each foot-space, tiptoe between their journey water-wards.

 

Growing up in Watford, I completely took London for granted – but now having lived in the north for so many years, it’s frustrating to see listing after listing of really good events in the capital that are no longer just a short journey away on the Met Line. About a month ago, I went whirlwind 24 hour round trip taking in just a couple of these events, as well as catching up with some awesome friends and meeting a 2 week-old beautiful baby called Tiger.

First there was the Caught by the River variety performance, run by the guys behind the website of the same name. A good combination of music (from Diagrams – check ’em out), poetry (Will Burns – check him out too), interviews and readings. Dead relaxed and a great celebration from a cross section of people involved with the site – lovely to be able to finally put some faces to names as well.

Next up was Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands, which on paper at least, sounds like one of the best exhibitions to happen at the British Library for a while.


The reviews had been ace, it promised  manuscripts, original drafts and recordings of readings – and the associated events looked like they would really explore the idea of writing inspired by place. I really really really wanted to love it, I really did. I want to say go! Go see! But I’m not sure that I can. It all seemed a bit underwhelming.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a privilege seeing some of the texts and manuscripts they had on display, like original artwork for Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar, Stephen Walter’s Map of Liverpool and William Blake’s notebook to name a few. So what was the issue?

Part of the problem was that I got really excited about the pin-a-tale on the literary landscape thing they’ve got going on on the website – it’s a great idea that links stories with actual places across Britain. The exhibition itself was curated very differently, led more by a chronological history of what happened to the landscape (and in turn, the literature) in general rather than associating specific texts with specific geography.

There were 6 main sections: Rural Dreams, Industrial & Cityscapes, Wild Places, London, Edges, and Waterlands (there is a full list of exhibits here). It led you from pastoral idylls through the encroachment of machinery on traditional farming methods to the industrial revolution, on to cities an attempt to reconnect with wilderness, with sections on London and water tagged on at the end.

I don’t know what I was expecting, a Britain-shaped exhibition with texts from each area grouped together? I think it would have been more interesting to compare different texts from different places together rather than comparing them to texts from the same era – the London section worked very well, but a lot of the rest turned it into a history lesson of British literature through the ages rather than a look at literary responses to specific British landscape. There’s nothing wrong with this – but I always preferred geography to history at school.

Maybe I’m being a tad unfair as many of the exhibits weren’t specifically associated with a single place and would have been hard to categorise geographically (it’s also here there I should probably mention I was pretty grumpy because the Beowulf manuscript is no longer on display).

Having said all of this though, the diverse way that different authors have responded to the earth under their feet and the buildings, people and machinery around them is remarkable – if you love looking at old books and new, and making connections between texts that you didn’t realise were there before, it’s definitely worth a visit.

I’ve been lucky enough to contribute a few pieces to the ever-excellent Caught by the River website recently. (Go check them out. Really.) Latest up is a review on Robert Macfarlane’s new book, The Old Ways.

Literature is full of people who walk, descriptions of the paths they take and the people they meet. There are religious paths, paths of learning, new solid paths and, of course, old paths, old ways scarred into landscape by feet and hooves, marked by stone, story and memory. It is these paths that Robert Macfarlane travels in this, the last in his loose trilogy of life and landscape, presenting an extraordinary journey that takes you from place to evocatively-named place. The Broomway. The Icknield Way. The sea roads to the Shiant Islands. And further afield to the pass to Minya Konka. The Ramallah Hills. The Guadarrama Range. It is part history, part poetry. It’s a memoir, a story. A diary, an academic meditation.

The full thing is here.

 

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