Cumbria Scenes – 31.3.12

Ennerdale from Green Gable

And this is the other picture: Ennerdale once more, seen now from its head and not its foot.
The scene is now from Green Gable, the smaller, grassier, perpetually overlooked of the two Gables, not well seen, except from east or west, and even then its neat, clean lines and its small, peaked summit, are still ignored in favour of its bulkier, rockier, more demanding brother.
Yet Green Gable’s uncluttered summit, and its subsidiary position, make it a superior viewpoint for Ennerdale, where it, more than Great Gable, occupies the head of the valley.
Again we seen Ennerdale’s great, almost straight length, and the plantations near the head of the valley in stark contrast to the paler green of the cleared sections. Further down the valley, craggy Pillar’s sharp shadows are not enough to conceal even greater battalions of trees, controlling much of the valley to the head of the Lake itself, glimpsed at a distance.
Pillar is even more dominant in this view than in yesterday’s scene. Here, it displays a little of its back, and the Mosedale mountains dependent upon it.
To the right of the picture, the green moorlands beyond Ennerdale’s moraine-bestrewed head occupy the foreground, before the irascible Haystacks, home to the recently-featured Innominate and Blackbeck Tarns. Beyond is High Crag, the third fell of the High Stile range, topped by High Stile itself: now Red Pike is invisible.
There is a glimpse of Starling Dodd, and, beyond it, the setting for yesterday’s picture, Great Borne, with the subsidiary ground of Bowness Point lying below it.
Though we’re now in the high hills of the background of yesterday’s scene, this view is easier to achieve than the first. From the top of Honister Pass, a steep but short ascent along the tracks of the old railway brings you onto those moorlands. A number of paths – the route to Great Gable and the infamous Moses’s Trod among them – will take you along the flank of the hills that build to Gable, and there is even no need to climb Green Gable to see into and along Ennerdale like this.
But it’s much more fun if you do.


Cumbria Scenes – 30.3.12

Ennerdale from Great Borne

Today’s scene is the first of a pair: a magnificent mountain scene, from an overlooked viewpoint, showing the distant and secretive valley of Ennerdale in glorious fashion.
I’ve already written about this lonely and moderately inaccessible valley, but it does hold a certain fascination for me. I’ve always been dependant upon a car to get me to the best places from which to start the most attractive and interesting ascents, and thus Ennerdale’s restrictions, and the long valley miles to reach even the start of a walk have kept it more of a mystery to me than almost every other major valley.
The view here is from the summit of Great Borne, which borders the northern shore of the Lake. It’s a striking looking little fell from lake level but lacks the height to back up its appearance, but an ascent by the out-of-favour Floutern Tarn Pass, and the scramble up Steel Brow, is a worthy half-day expedition, especially with such a view.
Ahead lies the rising ridge separating Ennerdale from Buttermere: in the foreground, Starling Dodd, and beyond, Red Pike and the swelling bulk of High Stile: two thirds of a range that presents its best face to the Buttermere Valley.
To the right of the picture, snow-capped, is Pillar, the monarch of Ennerdale, presenting a majestic aspect, even as it turns a noble southern flank to the more popular (and car-accessible) Wasdale. Beyond it, Kirk Fell, showing some of its hidden cliffs, and, touched briefly by cloud, Great Gable. Beside the latter, and always in its shadow, Green Gable.
The Lake is invisible in this shot, but the long, silent valley stretches out between the two ridges, carpeted in green by the Forestry Commission. That’s my abiding memory of Ennerdale valley: the shrouding trees. But if you want to escape the crowds…
Great Borne was my sole walking expedition out of Ennerdale. From here, I continued to Starling Dodd before retracing my steps a ways, and picking out a tiny fold in the ridge that developed into a steepening beck. By this way, I avoided repeating too much trodden ground and came out onto Floutern on the Mosedale side of the ridge, leaving me a short, and thankfully none-too-boggy, climb back to the summit, passing the sheltered Tarn itself.

Cumbria Scenes – 26.3.12

Blencathra, with its batwing sweep, its shattered yet symmetrical southern face, presenting across the wide Keswick-Penrith Gap, demands the eye, and once it has the eye, the attention is overwhelmed. Few who aspire to walk can look at its majestic aspect and resist the urge to ascend its heights.
In addition to its magnetic appeal, there is that beautiful ancient, sonorous name, yet, when I was young, it was close to forgotten: ignored, an afterthought in minuscule type appended to the name used by the Ordnance Survey, and the vast majority of the public; the utterly prosaic Saddleback.
The name comes from the eastern aspect of the fell, seen best in the early part of the approach from Penrith, and it tripped off the tongue, alliteratively, in company with the other half of the south-facing fells in that isolated region north of Keswick: Skiddaw and Saddleback.
Thanks, naturally, to Wainwright and his Guides, Saddleback is rarely heard. Walkers flood towards its summit every day, from all angles of the compass, but mostly from one of the many routes up that southern face.
Blencathra is a wide-angle lens fell, sweeping across the skyline between two mirror-image sweeping grassy outliers, Blease Fell and Scales Fell. Between, some gigantic hand has gouged four parallel channels down the face,hooking outwards to leave narrow gills near the base, separated by three steep buttresses: Gategill Fell, Hall’s Fell and Doddick Fell. Five fells, with five tops, the centre of which, Hallsfell Top, being the summit, four gullies, rough, steep and stony. No other fell has such a choice of ascents. Whilst Blease and Scales Fells are easy, grassy rambles, the inner seven routes are walks demanding strength, agility and stamina.
My favourite – and the most direct route to a summit in the Lakes – is by Halls Fell: a steeply contoured ascent for the valley bottom leading to a narrowing ridge, straight as an arrow, arriving on the top a yard from the cairn, and sufficiently stiff a walk that the massive view behind will come as a revelation because there will have been no dawdling and looking back on this climb.
The final ascent above Halls Fell itself is known as Narrow Edge: not so severe as Helvellyn’s Striding and Swirral Edges, nor Blencathra’s own Sharp Edge, about which I wrote shortly after the beginning of this series on CiFUnderground. But there is this stretch where, in order to progress, you must set your boots to this groove along the side of the ridge, whilst holding on to the crest for balance. Not too difficult, even with my stomach, but ladies and creatures under 5’5” may find it challenging.
The picture above is taken from the Castlerigg Stone Circle, above Keswick. It doesn’t show the southern face in its glory, but it does remind me of the climb described above: I descended via Blease Fell, prominent in this picture, headed towards Keswick, but turned off for the Circle on a whim. Stood in the middle of these ancient stones, staring up at Blencathra, where I had recently been, I was astounded to realise that I had been on the summit only one hour previous to that moment.

Cumbria Scenes – 22.3.12

The Langdale Pikes, especially seen across the blue of Windermere, are one of the classic sights of the Lake District, reproduced in its millions. This picture shows them from a different aspect, but it is not the Pikes that are the subject of this piece, but rather the site from where the photo is taken.
Rossett Gill is a name that, for decades, set the experienced walker shuddering. An inescapable part of the long, overland route from Great Langdale to Sty Head, crossing the lower part of the Esk Hause plateau, and giving access to Scafell Pike from the east, it was infamous less from its steepness than its deeply unpleasant stoniness and looseness underfoot.
Rossett Gill had the benefit of two carefully-constructed, beautifully graded zig-zags,spreading wide across the Bowfell flank of the Gill. But hordes of impatient, unsympathetic and stupid walkers lacked the calmness and intelligence to follow the gentler slopes of the contoured route, and charged headlong, up and down the fellside, crashing the route, scraping the grass and vegetation, racking the fellside with ugly, loose, straight scars that the uninformed imagined to be paths themselves. It looked horrendous, and it was horrendous to use.
Eventually, the National Trust stepped in, fenced off the fellside to allow it to recover, and laid its constructed paths along the old zig-zags, restoring sense and harmony to the route. On my last visit, only the topmost section was untreated: it was a grim reminder of hos things had been.
But there was yet more to Rossett Gill. Wainwright devoted a page to it in The Southern Fells, tracing the remnants of an even older way, a pony route easing gently around the Bowfell slopes in silence, charm and grassy solitude, before merging into the uppermost zig-zag. Originally a route for goods smuggled out of Ravenglass, when that was the premier port of north England, little remained, easier to see from the Langdale Pikes than underfoot.
One day I had a magnificent walk around the Langdale skyline: Crinkle Crags, Bowfell and Esk Pike too, descending to Esk Hause and returning towards Rossett Gill. I can’t remember if I had the possibility in mind,or if it was a spur of the moment but, tired through I was, at the furthest sweep of the zig-zag, I set out to trace the pony route.
Whilst the marching millions crunched on stone down the zig-zag path, and strode through Mickleden, I tracked my way across the silent fellside, to the tiny pool with it’s natural causeway, the hidden sheepfold, the intermittent little zigzags down a deepening green tongue, and finally, still in total solitude, down the further bank to the valley bottom, and a squelchy return to the Mickleden highway.
It was a joy at every step, far far better than the procession could ever have been.
Chris Jesty, Wainwright’s official heir, has now produced Revised Second Editions of the Pictorial Guides. To my surprise, given the hordes of walkers who followed Wainwright’s routes into the hills, many paths originally recorded have now vanished into the grass and the rock, unused and overlooked. I am glad I took my chance with the old pony route when I did, for there were far too few like me, prepared to seek out such corners. Jesty reports that in 2006, none of the path could be traced.
At least I walked it then, but it saddens me to hear that another of the paths of our ancestors has disappeared into the dust of the centuries.

Cerebus – Part 6

Even at its peak circulation, of approximately 25,000 copies per month, Cerebus was not a very commercial title. Given that that audience took in America, Canada and the UK, I was lucky to have three friends with whom I could discuss this story, over so many years. What did they think of Cerebus’s last years? Two stopped reading it, and I lost contact with the third.

But the one thing we all agreed upon from early in our reading was the horror of having Dave Sim walk in front of a bus before it was done. To read for years and years, and be denied an answer not due until the next century.

I alone survived to reach issue 300. From which perspective I can only say that if that bus had come along three issues into the last story, Latter Days, it’s timing could not have been bettered. Beyond issue 268 there is nothing in Cerebus that does not undermine and dismantle its greatness, that does not leave a mental bad taste if you re-read it (or as much as you can bear to read). Nor is it possible to read the book when it was good without a repressed shudder at the knowledge of the atrocity that would follow.

What destroyed Cerebus when it should have been capping off its achievements? Personally, I blame God. Not because I am an atheist, though I wouldn’t rule out Sim’s religious fervour as one of the factors in driving me to that conclusion. But God entered Dave Sim’s head, and God screwed it up, and God became a player in the final years of the story, and it fell apart like wet paper.

And it was not even a God that we would recognise, for Sim’s God, and Sim’s religion was, as his continuing notes after each episode made plain, was a special hybrid, of God, Allah and Jehovah, a stitch-and-sew (Sim rejects computers) of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Oh, and Canada is a Marxist country, which is self-evident for its failure to follow Bush Junior into Iraq.

Yet, despite the disturbances in earlier issues, there is initially hope that Sim has retained his skill. Two issues take a traumatised Cerebus into the north in search of death: two issues are enough for him to live in an equivalent of Canada, a perpetual loser, for thirty plus years, outliving everyone else we have known, before deciding that in order to get killed, he needs to return south and piss off the Cirinists.

Which he is about to do, until rescued by the Three Wise Fellows (not men), incarnated in Sim style by the Three Stooges. This ought to be good, thinks the reader, closing the last page of issue 268. But it is not, ever again.

The Three Wise Fellows kidnap Cerebus and confine him to the Sanctuary where, immovable for years, he is expected to say the True Word at the end of having Rick’s 13 Chapter Book of Cerebus read at him, over and again. Eventually, he comes up with a plan to kill all the Cirinists and is released. His plan is tactically inept, but the Cirinists are wiped out by Sim’s last steal from comics, a sweet, pointless and ultimately mean-minded portrayal of artist/writer Todd MacFarlane. By now, Cerebus is himself riddled by madness, having imagined himself as Rabbi, a cross between early Superman and Garth Innes’s renowned Preacher. Having stolen the movement back, and instituted a cull of women by men, who suddenly all think the way Sim does, Cerebus goes nuts to allow another couple of decades to go by.

Once he recovers, it gets worse. You may be attempting to wonder how, but what comes now is a hideous mess. Cerebus begins to analyse the Old Testament, reading into it the unrevealed truth of a creation divided between a male JHWH, or Jehovah, and a female JHWH, a creation of Jehovah that believes itself an equal of Jehovah, who Sim, with what now passes for subtle humour in this once hilarious and pointed series, names Yoohoo.

In parallel to the bible commentary, we get an equally prose-heavy history of Woody Allen’s career and life, focussed upon Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow, all of whom are buried under a weight of Rational Thought unparalleled since the caveman days.

And it goes on for month after month. After month. After month. After month. Flawed beyond belief, more tedious even that that, it represents the destruction of the intellect of the creator, a dismantling carried out in excruciating detail, with every leaden thought.

And though Sim, in his notes, protests that he is travelling in an ever-straighter line towards the long foreseen end, the only end, I look at how much this turgid dreck differs from his work before issue 200 – even the infamous misogyny issues – and as a reader of over twenty years standing, I simply cannot believe in these final thirty-odd issues as being Sim’s original intention.

There’s a twist, at the end, though hardly anyone cares by now. All those issues have been narrated by Cerebus and, when everyone has finally ceased to remember, Sim unveils the listener and it is Jaka. No, it’s not, she’s long dead, it’s a teenager identical to her, ready to submit to Cerebus, as long as he swears it’s not because she reminds him of Joanne…

As the story goes into its final year, into the long-drawn out final day of Cerebus’s existence, even Gerhard has had enough and can’t go on. Gerhard, who has worked at home for years, coming in only once a week, Gerhard who has his Rose and his sailboat, Gerhard, the only person under the sun who believes that his work is inadequate and can no longer stand the stomach pains he gets from the crap he thinks he draws: Gerhard can’t go on.

But Sim persuaded him to stay, rearranging his work to place the least possible burden on his buddy.

The Bible Study is over, but for two issues we still get Sim sounding off, drawing together a kind of creation document that he has the cheek to suggest is the actual Grand Unified Theory. And then there is nothing but an incredibly aged Aardvark, forgetful an flatulent.

The world has rolled on. Cerebus still reigns, but feminism has returned, in even more hideous and ludicrous form. After years of extrapolating where feminism MUST go, Sim has lost all restraint. It’s nearly over, he need longer restrain himself to the plausible, because, naturally, women are wholly implausible and completely unreasonable. In this vein, we limp to the last crucial moment, to when Cerebus is allowed to meet with his sun, Shep-Shep – or rather Sheshep.

Sheshep and his mother have defied nature and begun to crossbreed animals. Sheshep plans to rule in a hybrid form: he will be what, centuries later, we will see as the Sphinx of Egypt. With his last energies, Cerebus rises from his bed, with his sword, to kill his son… but the steps slip, he falls, and breaks his neck. But he still manages to get in one last good fart.

As he dies, he sees visions of those he has known, all hailing him, welcoming him, towards the Light. But the presence of Rick alerts him. The Light is a trap, it is not Vanaheim, it is eternal damnation… It is over.

And I’m sorry, after having invested so many years into the enthusiastic pursuit of Cerebus, I was glad to see it go. Given how regularly I reread it during the years I was collecting the series, it is telling that it was eight years after the series ended that I read it again, at long last. And equally telling that the Bible Study issues alone took more physical time to read than the other 290+ issues combined.

I still call Cerebus a great graphic. Just to complete a 300 issues series, 26 years of unbroken work, is a phenomenon beyond anything else in comics. And to have so much of it work at so high a level, of writing, of art, of thought. Even in the gradual decline, before the series fell off the edge of a cliff in its final three years, Sim still showed a mastery of what he was doing at a level higher than almost anyone else about.

But it cracked, and was shattered. And no-one could put humpty together again.


Cerebus – Part 5

So, what does a former Prime Minister and Pope do when he’s been conveyed to the frozen surface of Pluto by a voice in his head, telling him that his great and high destiny was forfeit before it even began and his life has been an utter waste? Why, he goes down the pub and gets pissed, of course.

The long aftermath begins with Guys, one of three stories, roughly equal in length, although the final part of Guys is actually dignified with its own name. For many issues it seems aimless and rambling, which is, of course, because it is aimless and rambling. Cerebus gets drunk, men mill about the bar, laughing, drinking, bullshitting, playing games. Some figures are taken from other independent series, as a form of approval, as a commentary, as an exemplar of the various aspects of masculinity that Sim is celebrating, but there is a strong core, based around Cerebus’s old mercenary buddy, Bear, who ground the Aardvark’s existence.

Because Sim’s openly espoused anti-feminist/misogynist theme hasn’t gone away, isn’t ever going to go away. He’s just showing it from a different angle: first men being men, then men talking about men. That they’re all comfortably confined into areas circumscribed by the Cirinists doesn’t matter: these are men in their element – among men. Where women feature they are in their own category, as spoilers who want men to stop doing what they want to do, as creatures who, laughably, expect themselves to be more important to men than, well, than whatever the man happens to feel like doing.

Sim emphasises this by introducing Ziggy, Bear’s old girlfriend. Bear is re-smitten: everybody else relocates south, leaving Cerebus alone. For a brief moment, the Aardvark asserts himself against his ‘keeper’, Mrs Thatcher, to take over as bartender. But being alone is dangerous, as Cerebus’s mind wars against itself. An idea is implanted, of returning to his home, Sand Hills Creek, but resisted by the wavering conviction that Bear will come to his senses and return.

Enter a divisive figure: Joanne. The ‘real’ Joanne, that is but, in almost every respect, identical to the ‘Joanne’ introduced into Cerebus’s head by Dave. Cerebus flip-flops between varying fears of an ultimate fate dictated either by his god, Tarim, or his creator, ‘Dave’, even as the new game plays out according to Sim’s rules. Yes, Joanne and Cerebus are soon shagging each other’s brains out (thankfully not graphically), comfortably agreeing that they’re not in love, and this isn’t a relationship.

But, and stop me if you’ve already guessed this one, whilst the Male Light rests contentedly on his agreement, the Female Void soon wants more, and more, of him. The explosion and breach is both inevitable and timely, coming days before Cerebus’s deadline to leave. But now another figure enters the bar: burly, bearded, middle-aged, and on the surface a self-confident masculine figure. It is Rick, Jaka’s former husband, and his phase of the story is elevated to become Rick’s Story.

For a mere twelve issues, this final phase is remarkably heavy and complex to read, both visually and in dialogue. Too heavy in many ways for the brevity of the story. And the first glimpsing of a new component of Sim’s story is disturbing.

Briefly: Rick is a licensed writer, who cynically puts approved words into the mouths of women who he considers too self-centred and stupid to say them at all. He’s also mad. Cerebus loathes him on sight. Rick relates a story of his courtship of Jaka that is a third hand sucker-punch from Viktor (Davis). Joanne takes up with a smitten Rick to try to punish Cerebus who, though he wants nothing more to do with her, begins a fight for Rick in which he spouts further extensions of Viktor’s ‘philosophy’. The bemused Rick secretly begins another book: The Book of Cerebus. It is a gospel.

In the monthly comic, Sim had abandoned the letters pages in favour of essays expanding on his views in various manners, essays that would grow increasingly extreme, and increasingly filled with references to himself as the evil misogynist: references that read as bitterness to the pariah status he was bringing upon himself, but which would be subsequently excused as subtle satires. What was beginning to show was that Sim had, personally, discovered religion.

Let’s leave that point. The Book of Cerebus is no mere joke, nor is the confused conclusion to Rick’s part of his story, as he leaves, setting a spell that may or may not exist, and may be Confinement or Expulsion. Worryingly, Sim doesn’t seem to know either, concentrating on his re-appearance as Dave, sat at the bar, smoking, drinking, telling Cerebus he’s got to move soon, it’s driving someone (Gerhard) crazy, the lack of change of backgrounds.

And the moment arrives, in fairy-tale fashion: Jaka enters the bar. Cerebus’s resistance, born of accepting Dave’s assertion that he and Jaka simply cannot work, dissolves in an instant. A glow, an almost palpable warmth, spreads through the pages. The Lovers are together, and for the first time not bound by restrictions. They are free to love, gloriously, insanely, in the face of all Reason.

And this is the sublime paradox: that Sim, the defender of Reason, the implacable opponent of Emotion, evokes with joyous fullness the joy of love, the overwhelming delight in existence and the other-who-is-no-other, lifting the series, for several issues, to a height it will never, ever touch again. The fairy-tale element is subliminally emphasised by the fact that Jaka is unchanged, physically, despite the considerable years added to Rick’s life, and no-one cares.

But there’s a final hurdle to cross. Now Bear returns, free of Ziggy, with friends in tow. The old life of the bar is available again: drinks and smokes and cards and stories and who gives a shit? It’s what Cerebus has waited for, and Jaka’s reaction confirms it is a direct choice. Though Sim would characterise it as a mistake, Cerebus has no difficulty rising above the gentle taunts of ‘Puss-puss’ to go with his girl. Back to Sand Hills Creek.

How that fares is the subject of the second aftermath story, Going Home. Put simply, it’s the story of how Cerebus got back to his old home, and of the slow disintegration of his relationship with Jaka – as if you hadn’t anticipated that. It’s a longer story than those words describe, because it’s a long story, but also because Sim takes full opportunity to treat at length two of the Twentieth Century’s Great American Writers.

This is off the menu to begin with, as Cerebus and Jaka head west on foot, basking in the continued glow of each other, sustaining that glow for a few issues. But already cracks are beginning to appear. Jaka’s enjoyment of the journey for itself, her insistence on fresh clothes every day, soon put the pair behind a schedule that only Cerebus, who knows the wild lands, is trying to keep. Already, Jaka’s female unreliability stands revealed. Inevitably, they turn back, head south, to make a river journey north, to make the crossing from another point, next summer.

Thus we come to our first literary excursion. Another passenger on the boat is F. Stop Kennedy, a middle-aged writer, a romantic, a social butterfly, who falls for a Jaka who loathes him but plays a complex social game all down the river. Kennedy, however, is Scott Fitzgerald, and in dialogue, expression and prose, Sim sets out to anatomise Fitzgerald and his work, as detailed in appendices in the back of the book.

Of course, the writer is seen against the background of the Cirinist – no, now Mothers – society that prevails, and is tinged by his treatment of, and by, Fitzgerald’s real wife Zelda, a women writer that Sim admits to having a tiny degree of respect for. But by the end of the voyage, his ‘seduction’ of Jaka, not as a lover but a potential patroness, has diverted her enough from Cerebus to allow the Mothers to gently remove him, without a scene.

But Jaka is as naïve as Cerebus, who suspects none of this, and when she realises she is condemning him to death, she recovers her balance, and insists on their progressing. That progression is by a winter safari led by Sim’s second literary object, Ham Ernestway (you should be able to work that one out for yourself).

All is not, however, well. This is Hemingway near the end of his life, closing in on suicide. And Sim, who had thought him the correct figure to utilise as an object of masculine worship for Cerebus, found that he disliked and disrespected Hemingway’s work immensely – though not as much as he did Papa’s fourth and final wife, Mary.

The bulk of the story is an excoriation of Mary Hemingway, leading to an unveiled accusation of murder for her part in facilitating Hemingway’s suicide, but the circumstances that lead up to this are far clearer in the increasingly hostile appendix than in the story borrowed for the page. At least the art remains good, though it is noticeable that Mary’s story rarely involves any backgrounds: though we don’t yet know this, Gerhard is beginning to find it difficult to keep on his task.

The suicide finally allows the focus of the story to return to Cerebus and Jaka and the completion of the journey home. It is extremely difficult, both physically and emotionally, and Cerebus begins to open up to Jaka as to how she will be expected to live in this god-fearing, masculine-oriented society. Remarkably, between her training in observing social codes and the promise that this will not apply in private, Jaka stays on course, as Cerebus begins to fantasise the big welcome home he will get, not just from his Mum and Dad, but a community proud of a favoured son who did so well.

But it is a disaster. Somehow, the Town does know Cerebus is back, and they close their doors against him. He is shunned, running frantically, with Jaka keeping close to him, until he reaches his parents’ empty home and the one neighbour who, briefly, confirms his fears. Cerebus’s parents are dead. His Dad died alone, unaccompanied by the son whose biggest duty was to be there for him. Delayed, no doubt, by his ‘harlot’. Cerebus is Shunned, to a final extent of cruelty that no-one will tell him where to find his parents’ graves.

And as Jaka tries to comfort him, Cerebus turns on her, rejecting her wholly in anger and hatred, throwing the entirety of the blame onto her, and howling in pain like some animal. As the Mothers take Jaka away, she crumples. She still loves him.

And the ending still misses everything that would make it dramatically convincing, would make it an inevitability that the reader, however much they might wish it otherwise, accept it as the climax to the drama. Because it doesn’t ring true. Because Jaka is not to blame as anything more than a contributory factor, to Cerebus’s greater crimes. Because Cerebus’s ‘crime’ is against a matter of personal honour that the reader knows nothing of, let alone Jaka: a matter of honour that, externally, Sim defends as sacred, but which within the story is only explicable to a reader so in tune with Sim’s mind that he can read not merely between the lines, but into the bark of the wood from which the paper would be made, to divine this point.

Though it may be possible, might even be a cruel irony that, in blaming Jaka, Cerebus is seeking to escape his own liability, to shuck off guilt, the worst of this ending is that the reader sees very clearly that it is not Cerebus who has dumped this load on Jaka, it is Sim.

The story collapses under the weight of the author. The reality of the story cracks. What, now, is left?

Cumbria Scenes – 17.3.12

Blackbeck Tarn

Blackbeck Tarn is Haystack’s other body of water, lying in its own bowl, among rocks, at the eastern end of the Ridge. Wainwright may have favoured Innominate, but this is my favourite tarn amongst all I have seen.
I’ve climbed Haystacks twice, the first when I was only 13, with my family. It was our third summit. I would go on to collect all 214, but this was to be my Dad’s last, before the onset of the cancer that first ruined, then took his life.
That he would have been proud of me for completing the Wainwrights is the only sure knowledge I have, but my own pride in tinged with regret for his lost chances. Wherever I walked, I saw sights and walked in places that he dreamed to of being.
We climbed Haystacks by the orthodox approach, from Buttermere via Scarth Gap Pass, and ventured beyond the cairn far enough to see Innominate Tarn. Blackbeck was far too far to travel when we were returning by the same route as our climb.
But we had a painting of the Tarn on our walls, one of four prints of Lakeland Tarns by Heaton Cooper. Stickle Tarn, Sprinkling Tarn and Goatswater were obvious enough, for their beauty, and familiarity, but if I ever asked why my parents had completed the set with Blackbeck Tarn, so far removed from our usual haunts, of no great fame, and, frankly, a bland and unmemorable scene, I don’t remember their answer.
I first saw the tarn in real life from a distance, seeing it from behind, as it were, from the various crossings of the lonely and indeterminate lands between Honister Pass and the heads of Ennerdale and Buttermere. A distant view.
My second ascent of Haystacks was the return leg of a first ascent of Fleetwith Pike, via it’s straight, steep, demanding western ridge, but for all the fun of that climb and the classic view from its summit, the greater fun was to be had on the straggly, scruffy route back.
At first there was nothing but a simple descent across the grassy back of Fleetwith, to the old ruined Drum House where the carts of slate would be winched up and down the steep fellside, but with the turn back towards Dubbs Bottom, and the Old Quarry, an air of fascination with an ever-changing scene took over the afternoon. It was all up and down, first left then right, into and out of the rocks, until that moment of descent onto Haystacks proper, and the stepping across a rocky portal that opened the sudden view of Blackbeck Tarn, silver under the sun and bright as a jewel, filling its grassy hollow.
A beautiful sight, and how I wished I could linger. I am not, and never have been, a camper, but I immediately thought of the joy of waking up in this place, in the dawn hours, as light came over the skies in this otherworldly spot.
But the walk remained to be completed, another weaving in and out of rock, the shores of Innominate Tarn, the summit rocks and the careful descent to Scarth Gap. As I made my way downhill, an episode of One Man and his Dog was being filmed below, the the fields above the lakehead, but I was too late to get myself into the background of any shots.

Great Walking Days: Scafell Pike from Borrowdale

Scafell Pike is the highest ground in England and, fittingly for the mountain that bears that title, there isn’t an easy approach from any point of the compass.

I’ve climbed the Pike four times: from Eskdale in the south, from Borrowdale in the north, from Wasdale in the west, and once in a fit of exuberance as an adjunct to an expedition to a different mountain. All three approaches offer a great day in the high lands, but of those ascents, the one I’d most recommend is the ascent from Seathwaite in Borrowdale.

That day started with the alarm clock at 6.00am in Manchester. I was on the road for 6.30am, passing the Cumbria Border an hour later – given that my earliest holidays in the Lakes began with all-day drives from Manchester, that statistic still blows my mind – and after turning off the M6 at Penrith and enjoying the splendid shape of Blencathra as I drove across Northern Lakeland, I was driving down Borrowdale and turning into the short Seathwaite valley just after 9.00am.

For a walk such as this on a sunny summer Saturday, early arrival is essential. Daylight hours are almost endless, but at Seathwaite in the morning, every minute you arrive after 9.00am will leave you two more cars lengths from the Farm. That may mean little to you now, but fourteen miles, 4,500 feet of ascent and seven plus hours later, it will be something you care deeply about, I promise.

There are two routes of ascent: via Grains Gill to Esk Hause, and Sty Head Pass to the Corridor Route. Of these two, Grains Gill is the royal road to the mountains, a steadily rising path along a narrowing valley, the monumental cliffs of Great End directly ahead and the heart lifting at every step. Yet, with a heavy heart, I would leave this for descent, and aim at first for the western flank of the massif.

Everybody goes through the farmyard: it’s like having a formal gateway through which to step into the Lands Beyond. The orthodox approach is to walk straight ahead, towards the waiting mountains, along the bank of the young Derwent, as far as Stockley Bridge. Across the Bridge, the route divides.


Stockley Bridge

It’s ok to take this approach. The lower slopes of Sty Head have been renewed, with one of the National Trust’s ‘crazy paving’ paths restoring the original, carefully graded zig-zags, and allowing the broken and torn ground trampled by unsympathetic and impatient walkers to recover. But a better choice is to turn right in the farmyard, through a square arch, across the fields to another bridge over the river, and to follow it’s further bank upstream. Enjoy the grassy pastures: there will be little of that during the rest of the day.

As you proceed, the path rises away from the river, before turning directly uphill towards a gate stood on a rock bluff. Through the gate you enter the ravine of Taylorgill Force, a curving ruin dominated by the Force itself (if the beck is Styhead Gill above and below the falls, why Taylorgill Force?). No path is immediately visible, but squirm under the branch of a tree growing out of the rock to find the route rising round the ravine and escaping above the Force via a narrow, tree-lined gill.


Taylorgill Force

When the path disappears underfoot, hop over the beck to gain the main Sty Head path. Great End, naturally, dominates the scene, and there is easy walking to the top of the Pass, through a flat-bottomed, gently sloping valley, gravelly underfoot in places, and along the shores of Sty Head Tarn to the walkers crossroads beside a blue stretcher box that is the official summit of the Pass. No need for haste on a sunny morning, far from the everyday world: a stroll is more than adequate.

Sty Head

The official summit of Sty Head isn’t it’s highest point. That comes a further thirty yards on, on the edge of the devastated downfall towards Wasdale Head. It’s a superb spot for that first sandwich of the day.

In fact, whether you’re hungry or not, a short break here is recommended, a kind of ceremonial preparation for the next stage, a cleansing of the mental palate. We continue by leaving the stretcher box to cross the wide depression, towards the ascending path that will lead to Esk Hause, but after the first rocky bluff, leave it to the right, descending across scree to where the path starts to rise, providing a high-level traverse of the western flank of the Scafell massif. Here begins the Corridor Route, and for the next hour we walk in majesty through the heart of fellwalkers’ dreams.


The Corridor Route

The Corridor Route (formerly the Guides Route) makes use of a series of shelves and narrow trods gently rising across a rough fellside. It’s a way for experienced walkers, demanding but not dangerous, open and private at one and the same time. Over your right shoulder, the immense fall of Great Gable is a constant companion, the Napes Ridges standing out of its profile. Ahead, the savage gash of Piers Ghyll, rising to meet the tongue of scree pouring down from Broadcrag Gill, marks the all too swift end. The walker who reaches this point without immediately wanting to go back to the beginning and do that all over again has no business in the fells. The Corridor Route is worth all the exertion of the day alone.

Ahead, the route rises onto the Scafell Pike side of Lingmell Col, but keep an eye right for a grassy trail through a tiny dell, drop down to meet it – grass underfoot! – and follow to the Col itself. A well-worn path springs into being fifty feet up the back of Lingmell: join it and ascend to the summit.

Though Lingmell is just an outlier of the massif, it offers a superb platform for viewing Gable, and the side valley of Mosedale. It now boasts a massive, untidy pyramid of a cairn, but, before the inexplicable wave of cairn-wreckers in the late 50s/early 60s, it was adorned by a ten foot pillar, slim and elegant. On my first visit here, in 1969, that pillar had been rebuilt, thicker about it’s middle than before (the story of my life), but that too was toppled long ago, by idiots and destroyers.

Lingmell is also an ideal platform to study the final push to the Pike. Wainwright regards this approach as dull and boring, but though it is execrably stony throughout, it is straightforward, and the walker with an eye on the summit can easily ascend it without breaking.

Strangely, though the summit of the Pike has always been heaving whenever I have visited, there is an odd zone of solitude around it. Beyond the gathering slopes is an area of flattened rock before the final, raised platform, which I have always crossed with no others in site. The effect is almost mystical.


The Summit

The Roof of England isn’t. Transistor radios (once upon a time), kites, picnics, expect the worst and you will not be disappointed, for the trippers gather here with no thought for anything but that they are at the highest point in the country. Expect a little difficulty reaching the cairn, if it means displacing some idle body from its distinction as the highest person in England.

On days like this, bear half right, descending the stony summit to the south cairn, and look out over the lonely lands of Upper Eskdale, and at the massive upthrusts of Scafell Crag, a short distance away across Mickledore. The prevailing winds blow from the south, and with your back to the cairn it takes little imagination to become alone.

Don’t neglect the rest of the view before retiring to the south cairn, which is wide and handsome in every direction except for Scafell’s prominence. My favourite aspect of it is that this is the only place in the Lakes where it is possible to look down on the noble Bowfell, and how, from this aspect, the mountain seems to half-twist away, embarrassed.

When the times comes to leave, bypass the summit on its right and join the path – scratchings on stone – north towards Broadcrag Col. The descent is steep and loose, so stop moving whenever you want to study Broad Crag. The path out of the col crosses a shoulder of Broad Crag – until the advent of GPS technology, considered the second of the three Pikes – little more than fifty feet from it’s summit, but when you reach this point you will find these to be fifty of the roughest feet in Lakeland.

There are no paths and never will be. The summit is carpeted with angled and edged boulders, lying in an unmerciful tangle. Experience, concentration, balance and the patience to put your feet in the right place are the difference between successfully reaching the cairn or suffering a sprained or broken angle.

There is a second steep descent and re-ascent, into and out off Illcrag Col. Ill Crag, now discovered to be the second highest of the three Pikes, lies a quarter mile east, requiring a long walk across its shoulder before a miniature version of the crown of Broad Crag, but the distance it lies from the main ridge, and the afternoon sun beginning to lower, makes it an unmissable point.

And return to the path and descend to Calf Cove, where the broad highway leaves the spine of the ridge to drop to Esk Hause. But we are not yet on the way home: from the col, bear left – on grass again! – up a gentle slope onto the broad top of Great End. There are two summit cairns: the rightmost and nearer is the highest point so make for the leftmost and further first, and marvel at the view down into Borrowdale, before returning along the rim of the crags (as near as you dare to the edge) to the summit, and back to join the highway to Esk Hause.

From this point the day becomes a long retreat, in golden satisfaction at the places you’ve been and the views you’ve seen, but this is no pallid departure. Esk Hause, the highest walkers’ pass in the Lakes, is a meeting place of routes. The cairn denotes the highest point, the true head of Eskdale,whilst the wallshelter below marks the summit on the route leading from Great Langdale to Sty Head.

Grains Gill

A new route, bearing hard left from the cairn, cuts a corner out beneath the cliffs of Great End, but, especially on a first visit, it’s better to descend to the shelter and turn towards Great Gable. Until the path runs beside a beck in a miniature ravine, and a branch follows it when it turns through a gap in the hills. Follow this and descend, in magnificent procession, alongside Grains Gill, through rock into a narrow, straight valley that barely opens out until you reach Stockley Bridge.

Even now, the mile to Seathwaite may be level, but it is not easy. It doesn’t let the side down on a glorious day.

There’s a tea shop in the farmyard, offering local buns and cakes, and home-made Mars Bars (this may not be a totally accurate statement), which will allow you to get the weight off your feet for a while. This may be very welcome if you failed to heed my advice about arriving before 9.00am. Think of it as you walk down the road to that distant spot at which you parked. But think more of the day you’ve just experienced.

Cerebus – Part 4

But more changed than the tempo of the story, much more than a simple slamming up through the gears. The Second Half began with ‘the other big one’, Mothers and Daughters, a fifty issue series that represented the culmination – or was it  perhaps transcription? – of fifteen years of Sim’s thinking, but when the time came for collections, it was no plain Part 1 and Part 2, but four books, each titled after the relevant ‘Book’ of the story: a more commercial, and expensive approach to reprinting,with the formerly plain spines now decorated with Sim and Gerhard’s names, and an intrusive Book number, denoting the volume’s place in the literature.

And Sim was launching himself on a crusade, or maybe just a proselytiser for self-publishing, gathering a coterie of artists and writers eager to take complete control of their creations, and perhaps with an eye to the fact that, as his own publisher, Sim was vastly better off than creators on comics whose circulation exceeded his by 1000%.

As for the story: well, Mothers and Daughters is perhaps the most difficult part of Cerebus to discuss without going into immense detail. It is intense, detailed, kaleidoscopic: it provides backgrounds, culminations and futures to an amazing range of characters from all parts of the story so far. It exists on material and metaphysical plains, treats with individuals and societies. It draws together strands previously unseen that have underpinned the story, and it draws a picture of the world far more comprehensive than the detail actually given.

It’s not going anywhere near too far to suggest that the first half of the story, Flight and Women, represents the peak of Sim’s achievement with Cerebus, a creator at the top of his game, in complete command.

But: that inescapable word.

Whilst Sim advances his saga in an astonishing number of directions, he is also laying the groundwork for ‘reality as he sees it’, the motivating force behind his creative work. The title –  Mothers and Daughters – is revelatory. What Sim is laying out is his response to the entire female sex, to the reshaping of the world since 1970, to the advent of feminism.

In Flight and Women this is done by showing the operation of a Matriarchal society, based upon Cirinism, a mother-oriented philosophy espoused and promoted by Cirin – who, in issue 100, we had been shown was, like Cerebus, an Aardvark. Challenging this, but equally feminist in its application, is the movement Kevillism, a single female (i.e. daughter) -oriented belief system, championed by that master Machiavel, Astoria.

Cirinism has taken control of Iest, Astoria is a prisoner in a dungeon, the female principle rules, and the Ascension – which failed with Cerebus at the end of Church and State – is once more anticipated, and this time a female Ascension, to meet the Goddess. But large forces are moving.

As the first half draws to its climax, a confrontation begins. Cirin occupies the Papal throne room and three figures approach. Cerebus arrives by flight, displaying another of his occasional, inexplicable powers. Astoria dismantles her own defences and walks, simple alone, into the heart of her enemy’s power. And the third is a tall figure in a black cloak concealing his entire body.

This is Suentus Po, leader of the Illusionists, a seemingly powerful force that, despite several mystical interventions by Po into Cerebus’s life, have never yet appeared and indeed, it may now be suggested, are both completely ineffectual but, aptly, an illusion in themselves.

And Po, we learn, is the Third Aardvark.

As the story moves into its third phase, there is a massive dislocation. Fully 15 of the 20 pages of issue 175 are devoted to a previously unknown character, Victor Reid: prose pages alternating with a single, small illustration in centre page. And only five pages to continue the meeting of the four figures, and these at the very back of the issue.

And this was to be the format of Reads. Victor Reid (Sim’s middle name is Victor and the surname is a simple phonetic pun) is a middle list purveyor of ‘Reads’, cheaply produced, cheaply engineered books, popular with the lower classes, Iest’s equivalent of comics. Using thinly disguised names for the Independent comics companies, Sim expounds a story of creativity and control for six months, whilst winding his story into the infamous epigram of Cyril Connolly: There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.

Meanwhile, in the varying number of pages at the back of the book, the four thin out their numbers. Po states his philosophy on avoidance of power, urging the others to accept it. To many people’s surprise, Astoria takes in his words, removing herself, permanently, from the game, but Cirin, in blind refusal to accept anything beyond her beliefs, and Cerebus, in perfect ignorance still of anything but the self-gratification of absolute power, remain.

Astoria drops a final, malicious bombshell as she departs, on Cerebus not less than the readers, after which the final six issues of the book becomes an intense, bloody fight to the death, interrupted by the destruction of the mountain of Iest and the Ascension, of Cirin and Cerebus.

Victor Reid’s story is done by the midpoint of the book, ending ominously as the page becomes a page being drawn, by a figure who will replace him in the prose section of the back half of the book.

This is Viktor Davis (Victor Dave Is), who stands for Sim himself. And Viktor Davis spends six issues demonstrating Sim’s power over his audience, both physical and metaphysical. At an early stage, he claims total control over the audience, who cannot stop reading, and proves it by announcing that, twelve years earlier, he had made the secret decision to end Cerebus after 200, not 300, issues, but not to announce it until issue 183.

I remember the visceral shock of that statement, the sudden realisation that a story I had been following for almost a dozen years already would no longer end in an unimaginable future a decade away, but in an easily foreseeable eighteen months time.

It was a lie, but it was a telling demonstration, and it was a step on the road to issue 186,the last part of Reads, and the moment that Dave Sim, in the guise of Viktor Davis, came out and said what he thought, what he believed, what he said about the world: that the world was at war between Emotion and Intellect, and that the sides were represented by the Male Light and the Female Void.

Technically, it was still stunning. But this was an open revelation as to what Cerebus was about, what Sim had to say, and my first thought, I who had been reading the series for 156 consecutive issues, whose average time between paying for an issue and starting to read it was under sixty seconds, was: do I now want to read issue 187?

Obviously I did, and all that remained, but if this remarkable story was, despite Sim’s denials, the open conclusions of a misogynist, why? In part I would defend myself by saying, as I did to the woman who married me when she challenged me over this issue, that you don’t read in a piece of art only what the creator has put in. But it’s true to admit that I was an addict, under Sim’s control, desperate to find out how it all turns out – what will we do, we had said for years, if Sim walks in front of a bus before issue 300?

But from this point on, I read with reservations, mentally according disbelief to Sim’s more outrageous elements and focussing on the other aspects of the storyline.

So the Male/Female Ascension continued into the final book, Minds. Not to the Moon, as with Cerebus’s Ascension, but beyond it: into and across the Solar System. At first the two Aardvarks argued, vehemently, over the God/Goddess principle, but when words failed and violence was about to resume, the remnant of the throne divided, taking Cerebus and Cirin on different paths. And a new player entered the scene, the ultimate player, a voice in Cerebus’s head. His creator. Dave.

Thus Cerebus became a metafiction. Large stories were unwound: Cerebus’s history, Cirin’s history, the framework of the bigger picture drawn around all the stories that had tangled in Mothers and Daughters. And we, and Cerebus, learned that a simple act, between issues 3 and 4, had cost him his destiny, and that because of this one thing, his life was a failure, and his whole story copnsisted of pointless, doomed attempts to somehow reflect the destiny he had thrown away.

And in that telling, the whole story was over. But not yet. Sim had prepared and planned for fifteen years for this moment, when he would speak directly to his creation, and had equally avoided planning or even thinking of the moment when he would reverse the roles: Your Turn. Now Cerebus was free to ask his creator anything.

And it was so obvious, and yet equally fatal, that the little grey bastard, having resolutely failed to learn anything from any of the lessons his creator had planted in his path, would think only of himself.

Cerebus’s story comes to an end at the furthest edge of the Solar System, amongst the frozen wastes of Pluto. But there are still 100 issues of the series to go. Cerebus’s life had climaxed, but it was not yet over. A creator can do anything for his creation. Would Cerebus yet learn? Anything?

Cumbria Scenes – 15.3.12

Innominate Tarn

Innominate Tarn (literally, Unnamed Tarn) lies open to the sun a short distance from the summit of Haystacks, on the Ennerdale side of the watershed. Lain amid rocks, with reedy shores and shingly bays, it is surrounded but not dominated by the high fells of Ennerdale: the massivity of Pillar, the unexpected roughness of Kirk Fell and, in the centre of this photo, the perfectly poised pair of Gables, Great and Green.
Haystacks has little fame. It’s the lowest fell in the rings around the heads of Ennerdale and Buttermere, but it holds up its head regardlessly, confident in its ruggedness, its sudden twists and turns, its views and its perfect Tarns. And it basks in having been the favourite fell of the late Alfred Wainwright, creator of the seven volume Pictorial Guides.
AW, as he preferred to be called, was an unusual man of old-fashioned opinions, intensely private, deeply conservative, yet immensely gifted. Born to a working class family, he studied accountancy, gaining a job with the local Council, in an era where ledgers were filled in by hand and were expected to be precise, legible and immaculate.
Already an enthusiastic walker, in 1930, with his cousin, AW paid his first visit to the Lake District, climbing Orrest Head from the railway station, and immediately falling in love with a world he had never known existed. Though it took him until 1941, finally a chance came to live in the Lakes, where, in 1948, he came Borough Treasurer for Kendal, a position he held until retirement.
Long before this, AW’s first marriage was effectively dead, and what time was free from official duties was devoted to projects. Inevitably, AW’s thoughts turned to the hills, and he began to prepare a private account of the places he had been. At first, this was a private project, a gift to his elder years, when the inability through age to climb would be alleviated by the encapsulation of the fells for his memories.
Friends who saw the project thought it far too good to be kept to himself and, encouraged by their enthusiasm, and unwilling to submit himself to a publisher’s unsympathetic eye, AW published the first of his Pictorial Guides himself, under the name of his friend Henry Marshall as publisher.
Slowly, by no more publicity than word of mouth, the Guides sold. With Book 6, the Westmorland Gazette took over as publishers, with no interference to contents. Even by 1966, when Book 7 appeared,the books were unavailable outside the Lakes. I remember my father’s disappointment on discovering that it would not be available until the week after we had our holiday in Cumberland.
But through these books, and dozens more, fame – unwanted and unwelcome – came AW’s way, though he refused to profit from the books, devoting the money to Animal Welfare. His audiences grew, walkers bought and devoured his books, the 214 summits he identified became known as ‘Wainwrights’, just as the mountains above 3,000′ in Scotland are known and bagged as Munros, after the man who first defined them.
However, Sir Hugh Munro did not produce seven books entirely by hand. There is not one letter of type nor one photograph in the Guides. Each page comes from AW’s pen, hand-written, diagrammed, mapped and drawn, same-size. Not only does he know what matters to the walker – facts, maps, ascents, features, safe descents, summits, views, ridge-routes – but he produced a work of art, in its clarity, its precision, and the simple legibility of every page.
The Pictorial Guides have no forebears nor, unless another such as AW comes along, will they have no successor.
Haystacks was AW’s personal favourite fell, and Innominate Tarn his favourite place. In 1991, after his death, in accordance with wishes expressed a quarter century before, his ashes were sprinkled along its shore, under the eyes of the mountains.
Those of us who love the fells, and whose love was fed and watered by constant study of his Guides, hold this scene as special, where the man who inspires us remains forever.