…that I sat at the breakfast table, preparing to go catch the bus to go to work, my first post-qualification job as a Solicitor and the news came on the radio.
Thirty-six years. I still remember the shock we all felt, how time came to a momentary halt. It had been like this three years earlier, when the news broke about Elvis, but I didn’t care about him. He was ours, for all that he was thousands of miles away in New York. He was one of them, one of the only four to know what it was like, and the secret hope that, one day, if you were really, really hopeful, they’d play together again, died on the streets of New York with the last remnants of the Sixties.
December is suddenly getting to be as busy as January for fatalities. John Glenn, the last of the Mercury Seven, the first American astronaut to orbit this Earth, has passed away, another lost to cancer. He was 95 years old, twenty-four years a Democratic Senator and, at the age of 77, became the oldest person to travel into space. He saw things we shall never see, things that, if we were to be exposed to them, might remind us that this Earth is one place, and the only one we’ve got.
Farewell, John Glenn. Now you know what lies beyond the longest orbit.
(I am currently confined to the flat with stomach gripes and a persistent diarrhoea that has me shambling towards the loo far more often than I like. Unable to work, I am busying myself with bits of digital housekeeping, which has led me to a short piece I wrote a couple of months ago but never got round to posting.)
From where I sit at work, on the fifth floor, I have a view of a small section of the Pennines as they border the eastern flank of Greater Manchester. As views go, it’s not inspiring, not when compared to the vast majority of the skylines in the Lake District, which does have its dull patches but only a few. It keeps me in touch with the hills.
A long time ago, when I needed to undertake two years of Articles of Clerkship to qualify as a Solicitor, I found myself visiting the City of Cambridge, for an interview with the City Council. I was not successful and it was a long, long day of traveling, three hours on the train each way: Manchester to Birmingham to Ely to Cambridge, Cambridge to Leicester to Sheffield to Manchester.
Though I’ve more recently had enough acquaintance with Cambridge to come to like it and feel comfortable there, my first response was a combination of awe and disquiet at how flat the landscape was. That was emphasised by the downwards journey: waiting for my connecting train at Ely, and traveling across the edge of the fens on my final leg impressed upon me how wide the horizon was, and that there was no horizon, not as I understood it, from our holidays in the Lakes, from the bus into Stockport and the line of hills bordering it when the bus crossed the edge and started to descend into the Mersey Basin.
I was glad not to get that job: I couldn’t imagine how I could cope without the sight of hills.
I have the terminal by the window today which means that, despite the double-glazing, I have the faint sensation of cold on my right hand side. The past few days of spectacular blue-sky clarity have greyed over, and I’m once again drifting elsewhere.
Monday was the anniversary of the first of the storms that devastated Glenridding. The damage the Lakes suffered that day, and in the weeks that followed, is by no means resolved: I understand that of over 550 bridges damaged or swept away by the floods, no more than about 150 have been repaired.
I missed my annual November trip, to places like Ambleside and Grasmere. My outing in sunny May never went further than Penrith, and whilst the fells surrounding Ullswater looked good in the spring sun, it wasn’t the fells that were damaged.
More and more, I find myself dipping into my recollections of walks, good walks, long walks, walks I’ve not yet gone into on these blogs. One such, an extended circuit of Newlands, landed me in a fair amount of potential trouble before the day was over.
I used to organise my weeks away on the progression from a leg-stretching short walk on the Sunday afternoon of arrival building up to a big walk on the Thursday, involving either one of the Lake District’s major files or at least something that went on for miles with multiple summits I’d never previously collected.
A circuit of Newlands, starting with Maiden Moor, going round to Hindscarth, with a permissible diversion to Robinson and back, was perfect to wrap up this week. I planned to start and finish in the Newlands Valley, parking near to Little Town, at the foot of the Catbells approach to Hause Gate.
Though there was a shortish, pathless alternative route to the ridge, it was a nice day and I was happy to follow the orthodox route, steep though it was, to the ridge. Fellwalking isn’t about the shortest route, especially not at the begining of the day, and it was sunny.
I reached the ridge after some decent exercise, and automatically looked in the Catbells direction. It was tempting to pay a visit, not having claimed Catbells before now, but sensibly I decided to save it until later. Indeed, I ended up saving it far later than I ever intended, since I was determined to take my lady to its summit and wouldn’t spoil the moment of discovery.
Once on the Western Wall of Borrowdale, which is steep and difficult to access, the way is easy and gentle, with no gradients to be concerned about. Maiden Moor’s top was a tilted field whose highest point was another of those that can’t be identified without sophisticated measurng equipment that didn’t exist that far back. I strolled along its upper edge, not hugging the edge, in order to lay a realistic claim to hitting the top, then dropped slowly down to the col that bridged the gap to High Spy.
That section of the ridge was surprisingly narrow for two such broad-based fells, but High Spy, as well as being higher, was alsp a bit more orthodox in shape, with a defined summit.
This was still more of a prelude to the highlights of the walk, which were going to be the triumvirate of Dale Head, Robinson and Hindscarth, three fells of similar height and design, throwing long ridges into Newlands. Borrowdale’s Western Wall was an approach, leading up to the business part of the day.
From High Spy there was a roundabout descent on pathless grass, curving to the west to come down to Dale Head Tarn, the only tarn in the whole of the North Western Fells, and that right in its lowest corner.
Across the outflow lay the direct ascent to Dale Head, famously tedious and looking from here as if its reputation wasn’t built on exaggeration. I had no intention of tackling that caorner, not when an easier route was available, but that easier route proved to be a very odd experience in itself.
A faint track lead away from the head of the Tarn across grasslands. I say track, but there was little more than flattened grass to indicate that people ventured this way, and within a few moments I was out of site of the tarn and feeling as if I had passed into another world.
The route led through a shallow valley, barely describable as a valley. The way was silent, and the ‘path’ progressed a series of short levels, broad swathes of grass defined only by shallow growth of grass. The path twisted and turned gently, in stretches of fifteen to twenty yards. But for the evidence of this route underfoot, barely discernible except when you had your boots on it, I might have been the first person ever to come this way. I had the sense that if I were to have an accident here – which would have been very difficult to contrive – I would never be found.
For a fellwalker as enthusiastic as I was, I did have a few incipient fears: an inclination towards vertigo, a touch of clautrophobia. I had not previously demonstrated any susceptibility to agoraphobia, but on this one occasion, I felt awfully exposed. My pace increased, subconsciously, to get me out of here as soon as possible.
Eventually, the fence posts marking the route from Honister Pass to Dale Head summit, and a few people ascending that way, came into view ahead. I made directly for it and turned uphill on a famously easy ascent, to the summit.
Dale Head dominates its immediate scene, and the head of Honister. It has a brilliant, massive cairn, directly above the full-length view of the Newlands valley, its only flaw being that it is right above that vista, with very limited traversing room round the cairn to get an uninterrupted photo. Given my incipient vertigo, I didn’t even think of trying. But it was a great view.
After a break for lunch, I resumed the trail. Dale Head, Hindscarth and Robinson lie in parallel, in that order east to west, but Hindscarth’s top lies off the ridge, projected further towards Newlands. The ridge, which narrowed quite sharply at one point, coinciding with a burst of rather fierce wind, crossways of course, that had me stepping carefully, dips and rises to the back of Hindscarth, and then curves away further west, to swing round to Robinson.
I’d planned to use Hindscarth, and the ridge over the remakable Scope End for the descent, so for now it was on again, dipping to the low point on the ridge and then climbing a rather flat, broad-based and somewhat tiring ridge to the summit of Robinson. It was hotter than before, the walking was not inspiring, and by the time I reached Robinson, I was suffering the beginning of a headache and starting to regret including it in the round.
There was nothing to do from here but to turn back, cover trodden ground and regain the back of the Hindscarth ridge. A direct descent to Newlands would mean omitting a summit that would then end up isolated, not to mention leaving me with a lot of road-walking in Newlands to get back to the car. Nor was the ridge descending from Robinson anything like as an appealing walk.
So I trudged on. My head started getting worse but, more than that, I was starting to move very sluggishly. Looking across the curve at the head of Littledale (?), there was the possibility of contouring across, avoiding the climb to the midpoint of the ridge, but taking into account how heavy-limbed I was getting, and the absence of any track, it didn’t seem worth the minimal gain it would make.
So I plugged on, joined Hindscarth’s ridge, made its cairn and sank down thankfully. But in doing so, I had used the last of my energy. It was four o’clock, and though there were still hours of sunlight ahead, the air had changed. Evening was slowly making its presence felt and I was alone. Conspicuously, everybody else on the fells – and there had been plenty about all day – had suddenly vanished.
I contemplated resting. I could afford a half hour or so, a bit of sleep, refresh myself a little. But there was nowhere to lie, to shelter but the stones of the summit and, to be truthful, I was only too conscious of the risk in falling seriously asleep, hours of it, and waking in twilight or darkness. So there was nothing for it but to move on.
Like the traverse of Glaramara under my sweatshirt turban, I have very little recollection of the descent, which is a terrible shame because, even in my exhausted state, I could tell this was a cracker to walk. But I just couldn’t take in my surroundings, not when at every point I was focused on my boots and where they were being placed. Scope End came and went, and the descent grew steep once more, sliding towards Newlands.
Eventually, I got to ground level, and trudged wearily back to the car. It was blazing hot, having been in the sun all day and accumulated such a concentrated dose of heat that, when I opened my cool box to extract a drink, the carton of milk had turned through about 540 degrees, and the tub of margarine was a sloppy brown liquid that nobody in their right mind would dream of imbibing. Back to Keswick, having poured away and wiped up everything I possibly could.
I never got round to repeating the main part of that walk, and enabling myself to properly experience the Scope End ridge. The Dale Head group were collected, and whilst I was still collecting _Wainwrights_, there were no walks that could be extended to reincorporate any of those summits.
Once I’d reached the end of that particular road, and was free to just wander where I would, circumstances, as I’ve previously said, combined to limit my prospective walking years to only a handful. I walked the Western Wall once, basing myself at Grange, following the mining track that ran under the walls of Castle Crag and turned up to the heights, returning over High Spy, Maiden Moor and Catbells (which I’d finally got my ladyfriend up), and back via Hause Gate to Grange.
But despite the straits I found myself in, it was still a brilliant day and a great walk, and a good thing to remember on a slow, grey December day in Stockport.
For reasons too tedious to detail, I’ve been thinking about Lies today. This is pertinent in our so-called post-truth, or post-fact world, where the truth or the fact of something is discarded in favour of a prejudicial viewpoint.
Some friends and I are facing the promulgation of lies about us and certain actions, and I am reminded of how such lies come into being and grow to become the accepted form of being. As Hollywood had it, in the classic western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, ‘when the truth becomes legend, print the legend!’.
There is a classic historical example. Ask people to talk about l’Empereur Napoleon Bonaparte and, if they even know who you’re talking about, over 90% will, at some point, come out with the famous words, “Not tonight, Josephine”, which everybody knows Boney said, the night before Waterloo, in response to a sexual proposition from his wife, l’Empress Josephine. Everybody knows that, except that it’s a blatant lie.
How can we be sure? Little, subtle details like, how he divorced her in 1810 and, rather more definitive, that she died in 1814, the year before the aforementioned battle. So, it’s a lie, right? When the truth becomes legend, print the legend!
Rather closer to the present day, I have seen a lie of this nature develop from its beginnings to unquestioned, much-repeated truth, whilst remaining a lie throughout.
In 1977, Manchester United won the FA Cup under manager Tommy Docherty. To the considerable surprise of the footballing world, Docherty was sacked a couple of weeks later, obviously not on footballing grounds.
What had happened was that Docherty was carrying on an affair with the wife of one of his subordinates. This was an unpleasant situation which attracted rather more moral opprobrium than it would forty years later, and if that were all, Docherty would probably have rode it out.
But Docherty had abused his position as manager to alter his subordinate’s duties, moving him from club physio to scout, and sending him on a succession of long scouting trips that involved overnight stays, thus clearing the way for Docherty to go round to this employee’s home and screw the man’s wife in his own bed. I hope that the majority of you would agree that that’s pretty shitty behaviour, and that Docherty richly deserved to lose his job, irrespective of the success he had brought, and might continue to bring the club.
However, that is not how Docherty’s sacking is remembered. Assiduously, determinedly, relentlessly, from that day forward, Docherty has claimed that he was sacked for ‘falling in love’. And it’s true that as soon as the divorce went through, he and the woman married and remained together thereafter.
But Docherty’s claims, always made in wistful tones, have from the beginning been intended to obscure the turth. They paint Docherty as the victim, ruined by the heartlessness of ruthless owners not prepared to accept the effect of a simple human emotion.
It should also be pointed out that Docherty is an admitted liar. After suing two former United players for defamation, Docherty made such an awful job of his testimony in Court that he ended up admitting in the witness box that he was lying, on Oath. Notwithstanding that, he has continued to lie about the case ever since, blaming the two players for causing this by suing him, when it was he who sued them.
But Docherty is and always has been a good talker, friend to the press. Over and over he would regretfully muse about being sacked for ‘falling in love’, until that ‘fact’ has come to be as much a part of his story as ‘Not tonight Josephine’ is for Bonaparte. Docherty was the victim. And over the years, the number of challenges to this obscuring lie, the number of times the true facts about his scumbag actions have been asserted has died away. A couple of generations have come along who know only the Doc’s air of puzzled regret. Only those of us who were around at the time remember the true story.
Because that’s the thing about lies. The liar is free to spread them, over and over, spinning the story away from his faults and shifting the responsibility onto those who, unjustifiably, brought him down. It’s what he wants, and he can expend infinite energy in pursuing it.
What’s needed is the truth, to be brought up at every term, to counter the lie. But that requires either a very neutral attachment to explicit fact, or it takes the same kind of dedication as the liar possesses, to continually bring up the negative, to run the risk of being seen as obsessive, vindictive, screwy, the bad guy.
In the end, the lie wins. The legend forms itself into the truth and people print it that way. Docherty got away with it. I’ve watched that slowly coalesce over the last forty years, the perfect example of the technique, and I’ve seen how it’s next to impossible to counter it.
We’re on a hiding to nothing, my friends and I. We just have to accept that it’s not worth opposing, and to decide to ourselves that, as this issue is pretty local, the opinions being formed on lies and misrepresentations are just not worth taking into consideration.
And the bad guys win, just as they have down all of history. And it sucks.