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Archive for March 2009

tasting the dark onion

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south-newsham-72dpi

It was probably last Wednesday. I was driving down the Laverock listening to the Decembrists’ latest album The Hazards of Love.  It has an unstoppable momentum. This seems to have something to do with the keys and tonality, but the main factor is probably the lack of spaces between the tracks: the music never stops. The effect is irresistible continuity, and continuity in space and time have an extraordinary force, binding together things which might be meaningless and adrift in eternity if they stood on their own as discreet items.  The illusion of continuity conjures purpose out of chaos.

It was spring-like and suddenly there were shameless hosts of golden daffodils strewn along the verges. I was thinking that I needed to take control of my food intake and lose a few pounds for the summer. I stopped at Newsham Coop for some broccoli and tomatoes. There was the usual bunch of cars parked on the yellow lines just outside the door. I parked around the corner on the cobbles of the loading bays. My dad used to drive for the bakery for a while in the nineteen seventies, and in those days they used to load up the bakery delivery lorries there. When he was a kid he used to live in Store Terrace, just up the road a little way, next to the Post Office. In those days they used to load the various horse carts in these cobbled bays – the butchers’ carts, the bakers’ carts, the greengrocers’ cart, and so on – which they would take from street to street selling their produce. In the seventies I think only bakery and milk vans remained. My dad sometimes drove one of the electric bakery vans all the way to Cambois and back, over the new Kitty Brewster bridge. That was in the days when the pit at Cambois was still open, of course, and before they demolished the pits rows. There were still people there to sell stuff to in those days. It used to take the electric van about three quarters of an hour each way, but it didn’t matter much because most people in Cambois in those days didn’t have cars and were happy to buy their bread from the bakery van.

At the checkout I found myself behind Tania, baby Davina’s mother. I asked her what she was doing in these parts.

‘I’m staying with my new boyfriend,’ she said. ‘He’s called Darren. He lives in the Oval.’

‘Oh, so what happened with you and Joe?’ I asked.

‘I finished him,’ Tania said. ‘He was just such a loser.’

‘So what does Darren do?’

‘What does Darren do? Like a job, do you mean?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Darren hasn’t got a job. He’s got a car and that, though.’

‘Right. So how are you, any way? How’s the baby?’

‘I haven’t seen Davina for a week or two now. I’ve been helping Darren to paint the doors.  Anyway me and my dad aren’t really getting on at the minute, so it’s probably better if I don’t go over there.’

Davina had some Bachelor’s savoury rice, sausages, a large sliced white loaf , a big bag of Doritos and a couple of tins of beans in her basket. She also asked for a pack of Rizla’s, twenty Lambert and Butler and a four pack of Fosters.

‘Tell Michelle I’ll ring her, will you?’ she said, as she left.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Will do.’

I drove down Plessey Road listening to the Decembrists again, thinking about continuity, the importance of connections. What would places be without the roads and paths between them? What would our days be without the trails of memory and dreams that tie them together, without stories? The narratives we invent or find in our lives are like the branches of who we imagine we might be: without them each day would be like a leaf from a different tree.

Margaret was in the back garden, apparently gazing at the Citadel. De Kooning was sitting in the middle of the lawn cleaning his black face. I went out and picked him up. We looked over Hugo’s fence. There were daffodils in flower at the moose’s feet. I noticed the station clock had never been put back at the end of summer time last year.

‘Too late now,’ I said to De Kooning. ‘In a few days time it’ll be right again.’

When I went back inside I noticed a couple of packets of onion seeds on the bench near the kettle. Ailsa Craig and Bedfordshire Champion. March is the best month to sow onion seed in these parts. I realised Margaret must be thinking about growing her own onions and was outside looking for a place to plant them in the garden. Perhaps she was wondering if there was still enough light for them to thrive now that we lived in the shadow of Griff’s soulless castle. I’ve heard that onions can grow by starlight. I don’t know if it’s true, of course. It might be.

I decided to go for a walk before tea. I went down to the Mason’s Arms and along Coomassie Road, across Waterloo Road and through to Morrison’s car park. I made my way up Wright Street, through the cut past Sure Start and along the Sports Centre path to Newsham Road, from where I made my way back home.

When I got back I asked Margaret if she knew if there was a variety of onion that could grow by starlight.

‘No,’ she replied.

‘I think I’ll ring the Greek,’ I said. ‘He’ll know.’

The Greek seemed pleased to here from me. ‘It’s been a long time,’ he said. ‘Oddly enough I was saying to Mr Geller only the other night how I hadn’t heard from you for a while. So what can I do for you, my friend?  Don’t tell me your broken Napoleon is still ticking.’

‘No, it stopped, just as you said it would. No, everything seems quiet on the clock front at the minute. What I want to ask you about is onions.’

‘Ah, the holy vegetable, our mysterious layered companion. Go ahead, shoot. Tell me what you need to know.’

‘Is there a variety that will grow on starlight alone?’ I asked. ‘I seem to remember reading somewhere that there is.’

‘Ah,’ the Greek said. ‘The fabulous Dark Onion of Heraclitus! Yes, we’ve all heard about that one. But which of us has ever tasted it? I’ve searched all my life for it, my friend. But the more I search the less likely it seems that I will ever find it. I’m beginning to think the Dark Onion may be no more than a myth.’

‘No chance of picking up a packet of seeds at Peter Barrett’s then?’

‘No, none. Not at Heighley Gate either. I would suggest you stick with Ailsa Craig, my friend. The Bedfordshire Champion is another popular and reliable variety. But if by any chance you were to stumble across the fabulous dark one, I would be in your eternal debt if you could in some small way share your good fortune with me.’

I thanked the Greek for his advice. I cooked my broccoli and tomatoes with some wholewheat pasta and garlic. I sat in the conservatory as darkness fell. De Kooning came in and jumped up beside me.  I remarked to him that we needed to find out more about Heraclitus.

On Saturday it was cold; it rained that night. It was the night the clocks went forward. On Sunday it was clear and sunny. I drove up to Druridge. The tide was out and I walked up the beach. Far away to the north Cheviot and Hedgehope Hill were as white as angels. I drove back south and listened again to The Hazards of Love.

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the part of beauty that can’t be destroyed

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bath-terrace-lighthouse-blyth

As I was driving to work one day last week I was devising a questionnaire to help individuals to self-assess their attitude to the place where they want to be buried.  I decided upon one graded and scaled multi-answer question: “Which of these options do you consider better than having no grave at all?” 

  1. An unmarked grave
  2. A grave that has your epitaph but not your  name
  3. A grave that gives only your initial and surname
  4. A grave that gives only your name and date of death
  5. A grave that gives your name and age at death
  6. A grave that gives your name, dates of birth and death, and the names of your parents
  7. A grave that gives your name, profession, date and place of birth and death
  8. A grave that gives your name, profession and cause of death
  9. A grave on which someone has planted a mighty oak tree
  10. A grave that no-one ever visits
  11. A grave that isn’t kept clean
  12. A grave that gives your full name and title, profession, dates and places of birth and death, cause of death, names of parents, children, spouses and old lovers, and an epitaph
  13. A grave marked by a marble statue of an forlorn wingèd angel
  14. A grave marked by a weather-beaten stone skull
  15. A grave on which someone has urinated and left an empty lager can
  16. A grave watched over by solar lights
  17. A grave that no-one can ever find
  18. A grave which has someone else’s gravestone on it
  19. A grave beneath a boulder near the foot of Great Gable
  20. A grave that has fallen into the sea

When I went into the team room Pippa was telling Angie and Sally that The Death Kitty had again been won by someone at her daughter’s workplace, but that yet again the winner hadn’t been her daughter. The winner on this occasion was Malcolm, a finance officer. He was fortunate enough to have selected Hank Locklin as one of his candidates. Locklin had been the oldest surviving member of the Grand Ole Opry. He died on 8th March at the age of 91. One of his best known songs was Send Me the Pillow that You Dream On, which in lyrical terms contains little more than the famous line “Send me the pillow that you dream on so darling I can dream on it too”.

‘I’ve never heard of him,’ Angie said.

‘Me neither,’ Sally said. ‘Had no-one picked Wendy Richard?’

‘They mustn’t have, no,’ Pippa said. ‘I don’t even think anyone’s got Jade Goody.’

‘How do they find out who has died?’ Angie asked.

‘From the internet,’ Pippa said. ‘There are lots of sites out there, you know, such as whosedeadandwhosalive.com, celebritydeathbeeper.com and dead-celeb.com. You can subscribe to some of them and they’ll send you an email to let you know whenever a celebrity dies.’

‘Sounds interesting,’ Sally said. ‘I think I’ll have a look.’

‘What’s your daughter’s name, again, Pippa?’ I asked.

‘Candy.’

‘Oh yes, of course, Candy. So is she okay?’

‘Yes, she’s fine,’ Pippa said. ‘She’s actually on holiday this week in the Lakes with her boyfriend.’

‘That’s where I’ve just been,’ I said. ‘Bowness.’

‘Candy’s in Cockermouth. But we love Bowness,’ Pippa replied. ‘We used to take the kids there all the time when they were little.’

‘Yes, I like it too,’ I said, ‘even though it’s a bit touristy for me.’

‘So where were you staying? In a hotel?’

‘No, I rented a house up on Longtail Hill.’

‘Oh, Longtail Hill! Do you know the story about the young lass who was flattened by a steam roller there?’

‘Yeah, I’d heard about that,’ I said. ‘A red-head, wasn’t she?’

‘When the kids were little we used to always get the ferry over to Hawkshead. A woman on the ferry told us the story one day. It seems that Sharon – the beautiful red-headed woman who was eventually squashed? – used to get take the ferry every Sunday morning and secretly meet up with a young man called Ned Perfect. Together they used to take long walks together, hand in hand through Claife Woods and around Far Sawrey. The trouble was that Ned was already engaged to be married to Florence Nelson, and Florence Nelson wasn’t a woman to be trifled with. When Florence heard about Ned’s secret trysts with Sharon she decided to eliminate her rival in a way that would obliterate every last trace of her beauty. She decided to flatten her with a steam roller.’

‘The tale I’d heard was that Florence was irrationally jealous and that Ned had in fact done no more than accept a piece of orange from Sharon. I also thought Sharon always went to church on Sunday mornings.’

‘That might be what she told people,’ Pippa said. ‘But that’s not what the woman on the ferry told us. No, it seems that every Sunday morning Sharon met Ned on the far side of Windermere and that this went on for a long time. Florence eventually found out, of course, and discovered that every Sunday at about noon Ned gave Sharon a goodbye kiss at Claife Station and that Sharon then caught the quarter past twelve ferry alone, back to Bowness, and walked back up Longtail Hill to go home for her dinner. That’s why Florence hatched her plan to ambush Sharon with a steam roller as she was walking up the bank.’

‘Yes, I know about that bit,’ I said.  

‘And did you know that after the murder Ned Perfect would walk out on to Longtail Hill every morning and try to find a strand of Sharon’s red hair embedded in the tarmac, and that he’d prise the strand he found from the road and take it with him on the ferry over to Hawkshead. They say he put all the strands together in a silver box which is hidden among the roots of a tree near Claife Station. When the woman told us the story, she said Ned was still doing the crossing every single day. But that was a long time ago, of course. He’s probably dead now. And in any case we never saw him. The kids used to run around the woods shouting for him to come out, come out wherever he was. It was a little game we always played.’

‘For Ned Perfect, Sharon’s hair must have been the only part of her beauty that Florence could not destroy,’ I said. ‘The part she could never take away.’

‘Yes, you’re probably right,’ Pippa said.

‘You haven’t forgotten about our meeting this morning, have you?’ Angie said.

‘Who’s it about again?’ I said.

‘Mrs McElhatton? Fern? The lady who thinks her daughter’s been replaced by an imposter?’

‘Oh yeah, of course,’ I said. ‘Give me a bell when everyone arrives.’

So it seems likely that the old white haired man I walked back from Far Sawrey with, and who as it happens had left me at the foot of the little path up to Claife Station, the place where Ned always kissed Sharon goodbye, was none other than Ned Perfect himself. It’s amazing that love and loss can bend whole lives into such strange shapes. As I made my way upstairs to my office I also realised that Perfect though Ned might be, he is clearly a far from reliable narrator.  There’s obviously a lot more to this tale, and I was wondering if perhaps I could find out more on the internet. Surely there must be something somewhere about it. Perhaps I’ll find something on famoussteamrollermurderers.com.

As I was leaving the office that night Jack Verdi was pulling into the car park on his motorbike. It was as Owen described it, big, shiny and black. Jack was in black leathers and wore a black high-gloss helmet with a dark mirrored visor.  The word Spider was written across the side of his helmet in blood red lettering.

‘Hi, Jack,’ I said. ‘What’s your fettle?’

‘Good, man. Yeah, cool.’ He was trying to get the bike on to its stand. It was like watching a man made of pipe cleaners trying to bring a buffalo to heel. I couldn’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t have found a Vespa scooter more manageable. He took off his helmet and put it on the tank and began to undo the Velcro on his black gauntlets, each of which seemed to be about as big as a vulture’s wing.

‘Nice machine,’ I said. ‘Yes, I’d heard you’d got rid of the Skoda.’

‘You bet I did, man. That was an old man’s chariot. I might as well have been travelling in a hearse. This baby is more up my street, dude, if you know what I mean.’

‘Owen told me it was a Kawasaki.’

‘Nah, this is a Ducati, man. Classic Italian race machine. Owen wouldn’t know a real bike if it jumped up and bit him. Guess what I call this beauty?’ he said, stepping over it and pointing to some white lettering on tank.

‘Hilda?’ I said.

‘Hilda?’ Jack said, frowning. ‘Hilda?  Why Hilda, dude?’

I shrugged. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It was just a guess.’

Cruella, dude. I call this baby, Cruella.’ He chuckled and brushed his hand across the name to remove a slight smudge from the gleaming black tank. ‘I named her after our mutual friend.’ He laughed again.

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘And this Spider thing – the thing on your hat?’

‘The name on my helmet?  Spider? That’s the name they used to sometimes call me in the band, man. That’s the name I answer to now. That’s my real name, man.’

I nodded. ‘So what are you here for, Jack?’ I asked. ‘A meeting?’

‘Yeah, I’ve got a four thirty with Michelle about the Cassidy girls. We might have found a long term placement for them up over the Carter Bar near Hawick. Nice couple, run a little craft shop. He’s a woodturner, she’s a craft knitter, does handbags and scarves and mittens and stuff. If she likes the look of them I want to arrange to take Michelle up to meet them next week.’

‘Not on Cruella’s pillion, I hope,’ I said.

‘I will if she’s up for it,’ Jack joked.

‘She won’t be,’ I said. ‘You’ll be crossing the border in the Yaris.’

I made my way down towards the car park at the bottom of the street. I listened to Bonnie Prince Billy’s latest album as I drove home. It’s certainly a bit more upbeat and musically animated than some of his previous work, but not as much as the reviews I’d read had led me to expect. The faltering, slightly washed-out and vague quality of his voice doesn’t readily lend itself to joy. The Jayhawks, for example, have a kind of emotional buoyancy and confident musical momentum which its hard to imagine Mr Oldham ever achieving – which isn’t to say that what he does isn’t in it’s own way just as good and valuable as the Jayhawk’s stuff, of course.

I drove down the Laverock towards Newsham and noticed that leaves are beginning to appear on the some of the hawthorn hedges. It’s suddenly possibly to believe it’s spring. When I arrived home Margaret was at the gate talking to Geraldine. A couple of months or so ago, Griff decided to add an extension to Citadel, another mere twenty feet of shadow for those of who live beneath it. It was almost as if they wanted the world to see it as barely more than a whim, a casual afterthought, nothing worth getting in a lather about. The Citizens were understandably shocked. They consulted leading members of the ruling political group, who were absolutely clear that they had been against this project from the start. They recommended that the Citizens appear at the planning hearing and seek a deferment, which they duly did. They asked the committee to visit residents’ homes to see just what the real impact was upon their lives.

The Committee made their site visit. The Widow Middlemiss had prepared herself for their visit. The Committee visited the building site, walked among the machines – the cranes, the dumpers, the diggers, the piles of breeze blocks and tiers of scaffolding – and beneath the naked girders and half built walls, and the builders went about their work all around and above them. The council official then announced the Committee could not visit any resident’s house, not even the Widow’s. On health and safety grounds. The official didn’t elaborate on exactly what the risks might be, of course, but Geraldine was pretty sure she’d worked it out.

‘They were frightened that Ethel’s teapot might fall on them,’ she said.

The planning committee duly returned to Morpeth and have now made their decision. It was absolutely predictable that they would grant consent for the extension and they did so. A committee member commented that the extension would not make a significant additional impact on the appearance of the building or upon residents. This of course is in a sense true. But it’s like saying that if you’ve stolen from someone more or less everything they’ve got taking the remainder of their loose change isn’t really such a big crime.

‘Democracy is a farce,’ Geraldine said. ‘They just do what they want. The whole thing’s been a charade.’

‘You’re right,’ Margaret said. ‘We may as well not exist.’

Margaret agreed. I stood and listened and nodded my agreement. I was thinking that the trouble with the councillors is that they’re probably just as powerless as we are, but that that none of them has the courage to admit it. I gazed idly over into Hugo’s front garden, where I noticed an old silver oven and hob unit had arrived in recent days along with a few sheets of plasterboard wrapped in polythene. I also noticed that The Alligator had acquired a new black boot and a towbar. It was obviously roadworthy again. I tried to recall when the beating had ended. Had I heard it this year?  I wasn’t sure.

I went into the house and left Margaret and Geraldine plotting the revolution. I scooped up De Kooning and took him through to the kitchen. There was a pile of onions and carrots on the bench. I made myself a cappuccino and we went through to the conservatory. I stood with De Kooning in my arms and looked out at the giant walls which now constitute the whole of our horizon.

‘That’s it, then,’ I said. ‘The battle’s finally over. There’s no way out of here now. We’re entombed.’

De Kooning rubbed his head against my face and began to purr.

‘Hey, you don’t know any Hank Locklin songs, do you?’ I said to him. ‘Send Me the Pillow that You Dream On? Happy Journey? Geisha Girl?’

It was only half past five, but the sun had already disappeared behind The Wall. As I contemplated the implacable panorama that incarcerated us I began to wonder if Bonnie Prince Billy had ever sung Hank Locklin songs. I wondered how that would sound like. De Kooning was watching the blackbirds chasing each other around the garden. I began to wonder if there was anywhere in Northumberland where I could still buy myself a steam roller.

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the happiest man in the world

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near-sawrey-tower-bank-arms

I spent all last week in Bowness. I rented a very comfortable, secluded house in the woods near Longtail Hill. From a picture window in the living room I could see over the town to the head of the lake and the Fairfield Horseshoe and the other hills above Ambleside.

On Tuesday it rained. I drove down to the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, a gallery I’ve always liked since I visited it some years ago and first saw Paula Rego’s paintings there. The current exhibition is of the paintings of Robert Bevan and the Cumberland Market Group. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t familiar with Bevan’s work until last Tuesday. He was an excellent painter. His best stuff was done in the last twenty years or so of his life, in that magical age for painting that flowered with the Post Impressionists and bloomed with amazing vitality for fifty years or more. Bevan – who the catalogue describes as a Neo-Realist – was cut down in his prime in 1925 shortly before his sixtieth birthday.

The Cumberland Market Group have nothing to do with Cumberland, despite the exhibition being in Kendal. The catalogue suggests the exhibition was originally shown in Southampton, and the Cumberland Market in question is a square in London in an area to the east of Regent’s Park, just south of the basin of the Regent’s Canal. Bevan had a studio in the Square and did some enchanting paintings of it, one of which is on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. It catches the geometry of the place with an apparent exactness, but the pastelly colours are beautifully modulated – lavenders, pinks, blues, greys, and creams. Some of the other paintings of the area in the catalogue deploy darker tones and have a greater tonal contrast, but all seem architecturally remarkably true in their detail. His best known paintings it seems are those involving horses. He does a mean horse, that’s for sure, catching perfectly their muscular grace and skittish dignity. But again it’s his composition and use of colour that impressed me most, the exactness, the control, the limited palette, the strong dark blues and the orange-tans of the coats of the horse traders. Bevan’s a painter I can hardly believed I missed.

On Tuesday night it snowed a little. On Wednesday morning I decided I’d take it easy. I wandered down to catch the ferry across Windermere. Bowness was a Viking settlement a thousand years ago and there’s been a ferry here since at least that time. The ferry now carries cars as well as pedestrians and cyclists. It crosses the quiet lake slowly, fastidiously, as if undoing history, as if recalibrating time. I’ve read that as we get older time passes more quickly because our metabolism slows down. The ferry trip from Bowness to the Hawkshead side of the lake seems to somehow alter the metabolism of the world. As you step off you could imagine that days, months, even years might pass before you make it through the woods. Each step might take an hour. You’re in the kind of place where nothing might ever change, where eternity starts to make sense. I decided I’d follow the waymarked path to Beatrix Potter’s old house at Hill Top in Near Sawrey, a distance of only two or three miles.

As I made my way up the hill and through the lanes and woodland paths to Far Sawrey it began to snow again. There was little wind and straight up and down soft hail stones dropped quietly all around me. I put out my hand and caught a few. Although I saw almost no-one on my walk there, there were quite a few visitors at Hill Top. The snow had stopped and as I entered Beatrix’s house the sun came out. The rooms of the house are quite cramped and dark brown. The doorways are low and the windows are small, as is Beatrix’s four poster bed. No wonder she felt such an affinity for rodents and other small creatures, I thought. Of course, the truth is I don’t know that much about Beatrix Potter either, although I’ve seen the film with Renee Zellweger, of course, and I’ve got a Peter Rabbit teacup that someone once gave me.

While I was strolling back I caught up with a white-haired old man walking slowly ahead of me with a wooden staff. He asked me if I’d been to ‘the Potter house’. I said I had. He remarked that he could tell I wasn’t a local and asked if I was on holiday. He told me he lived near Lindeth. I told him the house I was staying in was in the woods not far from there, near Lindeth Howe Country House Hotel. The old man reminded me that Beatrix Potter’s family used to rent that house in the early years of the last century, another thing of which I happened to be ignorant. He told me Beatrix loved the house and bought it for her mother in 1915. It seems Beatrix wrote and illustrated a couple of her stories while she was staying at Lindeth Howe with her family a hundred years or so ago.

‘You know this place well,’ I said to the man.

‘It comes with living here for so long,’ he replied. ‘I’ve never been further north than Grasmere and only once been south of Kendal. I went to Morecambe in 1957 for my sister Janet’s wedding. But I always say you don’t need to go far to see the whole of human life. Cast your eyes around these hills. There’s nothing much that’s happened anywhere else in the world that hasn’t happened to the folks that live right here – or nothing much that matters, at any rate.’

‘Aye,’ I said. ‘You’re probably right. But for the rest of us those things don’t happen in a place as beautiful as this. You’re lucky to live here.’

‘Yes, I know that. And there’s not a man on earth who could tell me otherwise. I’m the happiest man in the world. No man could have had a better life than I’ve had, I’ll tell you that.’

As we came out of the woods going down the hill just past Bryers Fold, the old man pointed over the lake towards what I took to be a house on the hill above Storrs.

‘Do you know who lived there?’ he asked. I shook my head. My ignorance was about to exposed again, I thought.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Should I?’

‘No, you won’t,’ he said. ‘It was Florence Nelson.’

The name meant nothing to me.

‘Who was she?’ I asked. ‘A writer? A painter?’

‘No, nothing like that. Florence was a murderer. Everyone around here knows the story of Florence Nelson. It all happened nearly fifty years ago now. Florence was a beautiful but rather eccentric young woman. She had her eye on a man called Ned Perfect. One day she got it into her mind that another local lass, the buxom and very alluring red-head Sharon Sweet, also had her eye on Ned. Florence saw Sharon giving Ned an orange one day and she decided there and then that her rival would have to die.’

‘Love’s a messy business sometimes,’ I said.

‘But not usually as messy as it was going to be for Sharon,’ the old man said. ‘You see, Florence had at that instant also decided on the way Sharon was going to die. She was going to be flattened by a steam roller. There were a couple of snags, though.’

‘Florence didn’t own a steam roller?’

‘Yes, that. And she didn’t have a licence to drive one either.’

‘Oh.’

‘Yes, you see, Florence always regarded herself as a good law-abiding person, and she was not about to take a steam roller on a public road unless she was fully qualified to do so. For the next nine months she went to Lancaster every Saturday morning until she passed her test. She purchased herself a second-hand steam roller, a Wallis & Steevens Advance six tonner. She painted it bottle green and hid it deep in the Black Beck Wood. She waited for her opportunity. She knew that every Sunday Sharon walked from her home up near the golf course all the way down the hill, straight over the crossroads and down Longtail Hill on her way to the service at St Martin’s. There’s no footpath on this road. Florence watched Sharon for weeks. Everyone knew you could set your clock by Sharon and Florence soon discovered that every Sunday at exactly thirteen minutes to one Sharon came around the blind bend near the bottom of Longtail Hill and, head down, continued climbing towards the junction. On the following Sunday Florence drove her steam roller out of woods and made her way up to the crossroads at Ferry View. She waited there until fifteen seconds before thirteen minutes to one, at which moment she threw the throttle wide open and set off hurtling down the hill. An instant before the machine hit her Sharon looked up and saw Florence at the wheel. There was a fixed deadpan expression on Florence’s face. No glimpse of pity, no glimpse of glee.  No glimpse of any emotion but blind determination. Sharon was flattened beyond all recognition. Her remains were almost seven feet wide and over twelve feet long. She was identified by the silver crucifix she always wore and the wide arc of her lovely red hair embedded in the tarmac. Some say strands of Sharon’s hair can still be seen there, even after all these years.’

We crossed the road and followed the path through the woods and on towards Claife Station. It was a bright afternoon and the sun was glittering on the lake.

‘Florence was sentenced to incarceration for the rest of her days, of course,’ the old man continued. ‘She was sentenced six days before the day on which she would have married Ned Perfect. Throughout the trial Florence never once expressed the slightest remorse for what she did. She always blamed Sharon for her own fate. For Florence death was the price any woman would have had to pay if they even so much as dared to bat an eyelid at Ned. But the story doesn’t end there, of course. No, not by any means. Florence Nelson wasn’t finished yet.’

At that point the old man asked me to walk on as he needed to relieve himself and was becoming desperate. He said he’d catch me up in a minute or so at the ferry landing, which was only a hundred yards or so further on.

At the ferry landing I sat on the seat looking up Windermere past Belle Isle to the snow gleaming up high on Rydal Head. The ferry arrived about ten minutes later. The old man hadn’t made it on time. As the ferry slowly crossed the lake to Bowness I kept looking back for him. The white-haired man was nowhere to be seen.

On Thursday I drove to Coniston to go for a walk on the snowy fells. Before I did so I went to Brantwood, the house on the east shore of the lake which was Ruskin’s home for the last twenty five or so years of his life.  Owen Vardy had described it to me as ‘astonishing’, and he was right. The house is spacious and light and full of beautiful paintings and furnishings and books and objects from nature. There were a number of Pre-Raphaelite pieces, which I thought to myself were sure to have had Owen swooning on his visit. He loves that sort of sublimated metaphysical yearning. Brantwood sits on the hillside overlooking the lake and has fine views across to the Coniston Fells – Dow Crag, Swirl How, Wetherlam, the Old Man himself.  To live like this in a place like this could only ever be a privilege.

At the little bookshop I bought a couple of postcards and a little Penguin paperback from the Great Ideas series – ‘On Art and Life’ , which contains two essays by Ruskin, the first being ‘The Nature of Gothic’ which was first published in the second volume of ‘The Stones of Venice’ in 1853. The Ruskin quote on the cover of the paperback is “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both”. Few socialists could fail to admire Ruskin and to admit their debt to him. Even my dad’s got a soft spot for him.

I drove back down the tortuous undulating singletrack road into Coniston village. I parked at the Tourist Information Centre just opposite the internet café. On my way towards the fells I stopped off at Ruskin’s grave. He died in 1900 at the age of eighty one. Someone had placed two small bunches of fresh yellow daffodils beside his headstone. The whole graveyard was full of scattered purple crocuses and dense clumps of droopy snowdrops. I glanced up at the mining cottages. I headed for the the Old Man and the snow.

As I drove back into Blyth on Saturday for once the place looked drab and uninteresting to me. It looked messy and run down. For a brief moment it didn’t look to me at all like home.

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