March 2023

Scout in front of the library in Hillsborough Park. Sheffield. (with ball)

I’m writing this at Easter, on the Saturday. I’ve left the living room door open, something we never do, but I guess I’m feeling relaxed. Scout has taken up residence on the settee, Monty and Olly are on chairs. It’s a beautiful spring morning, blue skies, a slight chill with a promise of a warming sun later in the day. The house quiet.

I’m glad winter is over. For me it hasn’t been a memorable one, not enough snow and way, way too much rain. I think at one point it rained solid for seven days, although that could be just my mind adding some drama. Snow did come, me and Scout managed to get down to Hillsborough Park and have a play finding the ball in the snow. He just loves that game, loves ploughing through deep snow with his nose smelling for his toy. It was nice to get out and take a break from writing. It gives the words a little space to start sorting themselves out, so when I go back to them, they are telling the right story, in the right order.

Monty ‘enjoying’ a warm shower after a muddy walk (Not happy. Not happy at all)

The rest of the time the rain turned the paths to mud, the dogs bringing it home with them and having to be showered off. It isn’t Monty’s favourite thing, but at least he gets a warm water shower.

Alison watched closely by Scout, Olly and Monty, during a lunch break

We did manage to get out for some walking on dry days. Six or eight miles is good for us, nice and easy going, chatting, looking. There’s me huffing and puffing up the slightest hill, Alison hobbling at the end of her walk with sore joints, Monty taking the slow, slow pace with his dodgy ticker. Olly stays by mum, looking after her. Scout zooms around investigating what the landscape has on offer, collecting countless sticks to drop at our feet in anticipation, all the dogs listening for the rustle of treat bags.

Slow walking has given us more time, not an issue when you won’t be walking twenty miles, it’s relaxing. Time to stand a stare, sit and chat, watch a hawk, let the mind wander. Somewhere we lost the need to cover ground, to get to the top of the hill, the views being just as interesting below. And time moves us on delivering back to the start, with a wonder at times where the time had gone

I have been reading a lot about distractions lately. Social media seems to have captured a great deal of our time. Screen time can add a whole eight-hour day to the twenty-four we have available. And it’s easy, because we don’t have to think about it or anything else, we just lock into the dopamine hit of expectation that someone ‘Likes’. Bringing my focus back to the moment at hand is a good thing, during conversation, reading, that kind of activity. But even focus can be too much. Sometimes it’s good to let the mind wander, just freewheel through whatever pops up, and quite often an answer will appear to a question I never knew I had, a new way of looking will become clear, a resolution of discontent achieved. Walking in quiet places is good for me, lets me straighten things in my mind, see other people from a new perspective. Like breaking off from writing to go play ball in the snow with Scout.

I’m getting quite deep into wellbeing these days. It’s part of my change in lifestyle and direction. I am all for living and being happy and content and making the same for those close to me. It’s early days and I can still get things very wrong, a sudden disgruntlement with the wrong words being said, a thought path in my mind taking me to a dark place. I pop a pill now for happiness and see a counsellor for living contentedly. I don’t mind admitting that, but there was a time when I would have been terrified people would know, that they would make fun of me, taunt me, look upon me as weak. It’s a sense of how far we have come as a society in how we view mental health issues, what I prefer to call Wellbeing, that today it can be talked about without condemnation.

I read Heavy Light, by Horatio Clare. Apart from identifying with all the places he talks about, living in Hebden Bridge as he does, he has bravely put his wellbeing down on paper. It’s a hard, difficult read, painful at many points, but the ending is full of hope and light. Horatio talks about wellbeing as a line on which we are travelling, sometimes we are at the good end, sometimes the bad. It sits with the Buddhist concept of impermanence, that all things change, nothing stays the same. I like that concept. And I like that wellbeing means treating the whole person, and those around them.

Getting out into the countryside is good for me, I can decompress from the things that have built up, relax the muscle that is my brain so it can become stronger, more flexible. I can look at a view I have seen many times and still see something new, still construct a new story about my time there. I also add in my writing, personal journals, diaries, notes on little things that have happened in the day, seeing someone pick up litter, reminding me I need to get a new litter-picker.

Culture has a calming effect. Music, be it Nick Cave, Sibelius, Blues is something I have re-found. It’s filled some hole that I hadn’t realised was there, so caught up in living have I been this last few decades. Going to galleries, whether that is painting, sculpture, photography is another pastime I had long forgotten. I sat and looked at Don McCullin’s work this month, the black and white images taking me back to those glossy Sunday supplements I used to be so thrilled at getting. It’s the same with Turner’s work, the more I look, the longer I allow myself to be absorbed by it, the more I see, and the more I become settled with me.

Scout aged ten weeks old

March 1st was Scouts birthday, actually it’s the 29th of February, but there isn’t one this year. He was seven years old. The photo of him is our first minutes together, he was ten weeks old, spending the first weeks of his life with his mum on a bed of soft straw on a farm in the Lake District. He has a few half siblings in Mountain Rescue, they all come from excellent stock. People often think he’s a cross with his tricolour markings, but this is the original colour of the first Border Collie, ‘Old Hemp’ his line stretching all the way to Scout. Scout was originally bound for Swiss Mountain Rescue but thought the peat bogs of the Peak District was much more fun. He has retired now, because I have, but can still make a find. The last, a climber stuck in a squeeze on Stanage Edge. Now we walk, sit, play ball, have fun, hold long conversations about nothing in particular, and enjoy being together. He is part of the book I am working on.

The Long Read

Six AM. Scout not letting me get out to the Nine Edges Race without him

At home, Scout is restless. Outdoors with me, an open moor, or an old woodland, the crags, the water, are the places he is settled. In the house he spends his day in melancholic observation, constantly monitoring the to and fro of the household, his attention forever on my exits and entrances.

He positions himself strategically around the home establishing observation posts on landings and hallways so that human movement between rooms and floors becomes a series of negotiated check points. Each time I relocate requires the establishment of a new post, his body slumping down a wall on to the wooden floor with a thud, the air flashing with the sound of smacking lips, sharp snorts punctuating the once calm atmosphere. When he is satisfied I am staying, he allows his body to slide to a prone position, chin resting on paws, everything orientated to me for a perfect line of sight, the whole digging-in culminating in a long audible sigh. Dotted around the house are smudges of grey wall where all else is a bright clean white, and beneath the smear, a floor buffed to a high sheen. If I manage to obtain privacy behind a closed door he will block the threshold of the house, ‘No one leaves this house but through me’ is the clear message. Stay in one place and his eyes will track my movements, the whites rising and falling like the moon as I move through space. If he settles in my study while I am working he will slip into a light chainsaw snooze, the sound gradually slipping into the words I write. It stops instantly the moment I move.

His inner clock aids him in announcing mealtimes and daily constitutions with unerring accuracy. He takes advantage of his free movement around the house to initiate scheduled daily events that he surreptitiously edges forward a few minutes each day. Breakfast time is his favourite, my morning beginning at least five minutes earlier each day until I reset his clock by locking the bedroom door for a Sunday lie in.

His morning routine begins with a cold wet nose tunnelled under blankets to make contact with my warm dry skin, the shock delivering me into the world to be greeted by two large black holes that snort loudly as he collects bedtime scents. Above the nose, two eyes stare fixedly on mine. There is no alternative action available to me if I want peace. Once I am out of bed he charges down two floors to the kitchen, the sound of a bucket full of nuts and bolts cascading down wooden stairs, ricocheting around the house and out in to the still sleeping street, his two brothers, small Bedlington’s much older than he, frantically following, the neighbour shooting foul glares through the house wall.

When I reach the kitchen, I find him fending off incursions towards the food cupboard from the other two, lips curled, teeth bared, nose scrunching up in mounting agitation, a growl rumbling to the surface from deep inside, his eyes incessantly flicking from the food to the dogs who constantly probe the exclusion zone for any weakness.

As I begin to pour food into their bowls Scout switches to drool mode, great strands of super gooey super slick saliva stream from the sides of his mouth to pool across the floor like an incoming tide. Stepping on one of these gelatinous slicks can stretch a person’s legs in different directions decanting dinner plates of food across the floor, the dogs scrambling like fighter pilots to reach the manna.

The dogs eat in concentrated silence. The food consumed, each one checks the food cupboard and each other’s bowl for leftovers, the steel dishes skittering across the floor as tongues pick up the last speck of dust. Only when the cupboard door is closed, and the bowls removed does the sound of scraping metal cease and the tension dissipates.

As the day’s shadows lengthen, Scout can be found outside the living room door like an alcoholic waiting for opening time. Once inside he claims the settee, laying full length, head towards the door, to give an uninterrupted view of the ground floor and kitchen cupboards. In time the eyes close and a pink tongue sticks out from the tip of his mouth, a soft burr drifting out into the twilight.

Each day ends with a carrot, the dogs scrabbling upstairs to noisily devour in their night-time eerie. Scout chooses an old armchair bathed in moonlight through a garden window, while we potter about and brush our teeth and bid them all good night. A final sigh signifies the end of the day as Scout metaphorically tucks us both in and settles down with one ear on our sleeping forms.

Alison’s cooking is always the highlight of the day

Alison continues to present magnificent meals. Following a health check, a Mediterranean diet seems to be in order. I like the lightness and spiciness of the food,  layers and depths of flavour. This was Yotam Ottolenghi’s Hawaij onion and chickpea soup with cheese and coriander toast. Really beautiful, a hint of chilli, different textures, the best thing I had all month.

We continue to strip down our life to the things that are essential, the things that give us pleasure, the things that bring happiness and contentment. We are preparing for a substantial change in the house, moving a few rooms about to make life easier, giving it a full decoration. And we keep looking for experiences to add to our days. A meal at the South Street Kitchen at the Park Hill complex in Sheffield was lovely. We booked a week in Barcelona for autumn, at least I think I booked it, it’s all online check -in now. Life is slow and good, we read, listen to music, kiss, dance and let ourselves be free.

John Profumo. Along with Earnest Shackleton, Eddie Edwards, and Jimmy Carter, heroes.

Somewhere in the month on social media someone suggested posting four heroes online. This rather grainy figure is John Profumo, former Secretary of State for War in Macmillan’s Conservative government in the early 60s. He had an affair, with a 19-year-old Christine Keeler, who at the time was also seeing a Russian naval attaché. He denied it to parliament and was subsequently found to be lying. He resigned and shortly after so did Macmillan, eventually the scandal helped bring down the tory government, the public not enamoured by the sleaze that was published in the press back in the day. Labour came into power in sixty-four.

Profumo was a fool, not the first, and not the last. But he took responsibility for his actions and subsequent lies. After leaving in disgrace, having trod all over the establishment as things came out about the affair, he withdrew from public life and went to work as a volunteer at Toynbee Hall in London, a charitable trust dealing with the causes and impacts of poverty in the east end of London. His first job was as the toilet cleaner. He stayed there until his death in 2006 ending his time as president, having fulfilled almost all other roles in his time. He remained married to his wife, who died in the late 90s.

He never spoke about what happened, never questioned some of the things that were said, never complained at his treatment.

I have always admired him for the way he chose to live after such a publicly humiliating fall from grace. Sometimes, heroes are not the ones who do great things, not the ones who are hailed by others. Sometimes, heroes can be the ones with faults, the ones who stumble, the ones who never seek to blame others, and accept their own part in life, the ones who show a life can still be lived well.

Books read in March 2023

This month I have read Faith, Hope and Carnage (Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan), Heavy Light (Horatio Clare), My House of Sky (Hetty Saunders), Moby Dick (Herman Melville), On the Road (Jack Kerouac), Black Car Burning (Helen Mort), Index Cards (Moyra Davey), The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (Mishima)

I am trying to work my way through the canon of literary classics from around the world. I have had Moby Dick for some time and kept it at arm’s length, worried that I might find it boring, or too dense. I need not have worried. This is a superb book. It helps that there are copious notations at the back placing the text in historical settings with some surprises, The King of France living in Tottenham!!

I found the structure fascinating, how Melville ran threads through the narrative, the building up of scenes, the power of the language he uses to describe the chasing and harpooning of the whales. It is a great book, deservedly so.

I read Helen Mort’s Black Car Burning without knowing anything about the plot or structure. I found it a great read, done in two sittings, the narrative moves along well. What made it even better was that Mort references places I am familiar with, even people I know, although they are beneath a veil of anonymity. I now have to begin a BCB Trail, working my way around the Peak District and the hidden corners of Sheffield. I live in Hillsborough and can hear the Saturday football crowds. Hillsborough and the terrible events that happened there also form part of the story, the pain that still lingers for many, from that day, and many days after.

It is a story well told, with delicacy and honesty. I enjoyed it enormously.

I am new to Nick Cave. I like his music, and his writing. I thought I would find out more. After reading Nina Simone’s Gum by Warren Ellis, Cave’s long-time collaborator I picked up Faith, Hope and Carnage. It is a conversation with Sean O’Hagan, a to and fro over many months. It follows the death of Cave’s son and explores Cave’s own background, his beliefs, his dealing with loss, his marriage, and ultimately his faith. I’m not a Christian but that didn’t stop me identifying, feeling, understanding what Cave receives from his faith. He is a man who has chosen his own path, sometimes a precarious one, but one that has brought him to where he is now, and he does not hide away from that. He has become, for me, a sentinel tree guiding the way.

7 responses to “March 2023”

  1. I love your writing Paul, it’s really meditative. Your take on life is fascinating and I love to hear about what you and Alison get up to.
    I’m looking up that recipe!


  2. Paul, a long time no chat, so it was good to read your monthly happenings.
    First, a belated happy birthday Scout.
    I’ve been giving the shenanigans of Twitter a wide berth for now; its new owner has messed things up. But I’m not deleting my acc, it might change one day, for the better, though I do miss, you, Scout and all the good people I interacted with.
    I’m pleased it isn’t just me who shares the same opinion about Profumo, definitely not a hero, more a zero and we’ll leave it there.
    Mental wellbeing is quite strong in my mind, and something I’ve noticed in many animals, wild and domesticated. Getting out with my camera is my reset button, but things have taken a bit of a turn southwards.
    I think I can endorse your seven days of rain, even though I’m considerably further south. I do keep weather records and in January, down here, near to Birmingham, we had ten days of continuous rain!
    I too miss the snow, and ten years ago, March 2013 (it was actually Easter Weekend), I was walking around Moscar, and the snow was shoulder height in places, with a lovely long (but dangerous) cornice along Highshaw Clough.
    I hope all goes smoothly with the decorating and associated changes within the home, and I look forward to your next Monthly Happenings.
    All the best, Mike, aka Peak Rambler


    • Mike, lovely to hear from you and thanks for the kind comments. Twitter is a bit of a mess at the moment, I, like you, hope it sorts itself out. As I reply it’s freezing cold and lashing down with rain, again. A third the way through the year. I have to admit I’m tired of it now. Keep going buddy, it’s all we can do.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re welcome.
        BTW, previously I relied on you posting to Twitter your latest writings, this was picked up from a repost by Dale, however, I should get an emailed notification on future postings.
        I’ll not be far away, I’ll almost certainly be back on Twitter, once I’ve something to share.
        Catch you soon.


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