Letters from Lancaster 2

Letter 2: Projects

1.  Take a photo each day at 6am and 6pm GMT of the same river view from my window. A twice-daily juxtaposition of the solar and the lunar, both clocks and calendars. See what – Ideas? Actions? – comes from this.

2. Photograph each of Lancaster’s five cinemas. All now closed, photograph what is there now. Perhaps with a figure standing outside in typical cinema pose – with handbag in front of her, looking down the street, waiting for someone to arrive: will he come?; will he pay for her ticket?; will he steer her towards the back row? Or a lonely-looking man, self-erasing, waiting patiently in the queue. Or a child looking up at the six stills from the film each side of the cinema entrance, hoping he can escape into what he sees as the real world that exists somewhere, that is depicted in the film. (The film is real; ‘reality’ doesn’t make sense.) Films were only shown for one week, and then were gone forever. When there was an ‘A’ category film (“children must be accompanied by an adult”), we’d wait outside and ask single men, ‘will you take us in, Mister?’ ‘Aye, as long as you pay for yourselves and don’t sit near me.’

3. Photograph the eleven Lancaster and Skerton Cooperative Society shops. All now closed. The society was founded in 1860, a depressed time in Lancaster, before its late-century expansion with new industries. The Co-op thrived, built fine shops in the new residential areas of terraced houses, respectful of their solid working-class customers, with a carved beehive over the door to symbolise the strength of working together. They were still busy in my childhood. My mother, a working-class Tory, would never shop there, or allow us in them. T. D. Smith, a local grocer entrepreneur, who despised them, aimed at class-aspiration, often opened shops close to co-op branches. Hoteling’s Principle: in a competitive economy, businesses cluster together to maximise their market; in a cooperative economy, they are spread evenly, to minimise the customers’ travel. There is a story, perhaps a play (think Harold Brighouse, Walter Greenwood, J B Priestley …), in T.D. Smith versus the Co-op. Both foundered in the 1960s.

4. Describe an urban walk which, when traced on a street map of the town, spells ‘Lancaster’. Is it possible?

5. Cycle along the length of the Lancaster Canal, from Preston to Kendal, photographing every bridge. The canal is 57 miles long, there are around 200 bridges. Do the ride in one day – Midsummer? –  it will be a tough day, as the tow-path is often rough and uneven. There are no locks on the first 43 miles, the canal following the 72 feet contour along the western edge of the Pennines. The canal is a sinuous lake, 43 miles long, twenty feet wide, lying like a snake along the contour line. The bridges, one pattern, one size, do not change.

6. Walk the length of the River Lune, from source to mouth, 54 miles, photographing every bridge. The river, beginning as a barely-perceptible spring that bubbles, overflows, trickles, erodes a channel, draws other streams into it, captures them, creates its own fan-shaped catchment area, until it is big enough to be given a name, is all action. Its energy derives from gravity, the 800 feet fall from source to mouth, and from falling rain and snow. The canal exists in stasis, all the energy that made it expended in the few years of its construction 200 years ago. The river is kinetic, expressing and embodying energy. The river gets bigger, downstream. At what point is it the same ‘size’ (ie in cross-section containing the same amount of water) as the canal? And of course the bridges get bigger, become more distinctive. If not necessarily more distinguished. Do over several days: drive to the end point of each day’s walk, cycle to the start point, walk the section, drive to pick up the bike.

7. Photograph 24 clocks in Lancaster, one at each hour of the 24. Remembering how many public clocks there used to be, how I would run to school, my progress – lateness! – marked by accusing clock faces. Remembering the factory sirens to get the workers to work, the clocking-in clocks – five minutes late and you’d be ‘quartered’, ie have 15 minutes’ pay docked. I was after the time of ‘knockers-up’, by my childhood everyone had a cheap, noisy, tin alarm-clock. And a loud-ticking living-room clock, that on Sundays stretched the boredom to screaming point. I’ve hated ticking clocks ever since.

None of these ideas is original, referencing, eg, Paul Auster, Richard Long, Ed Ruscha, Christian Marclay. The intention is three-fold: to apply a practice from elsewhere to Lancaster; as an exercise in actually doing something, in going from intention to action, idea to practice; as a connection from ‘now’ to ‘then’. See what, if anything, develops from each Project. Can they be described as Art Works? If someone chooses to treat them as such. I should, at some point, find out if there is someone who will. Until then, they are Art Works in potentia.

Letters from Lancaster 1

Letter 1

I thought I would have written my first letter long ago. Instead I’ve been living as if in a nutrient-rich medium, steeping in it, moving around in it, soaking it in. Experiencing, remembering. Fifty-six years since I lived here. The place has changed, I have changed. And even my ‘fixed’ memories of then are subject to inaccurate remembering, and treacherous re-membering.

Yet still I want to map ‘now’ onto ‘then’, as if that is a place if not to end, then to begin.

Except, no, begin now. The river. I live by the river. The river is ever present, a few yards away, beyond a narrow patch of grass. It is a wide river. To the left is the bridge. To the right, the river sweeps in a wide curve round to The Customs House, The Quay, the tall stone warehouses, the source of Lancaster’s first wealth, the slave trade. And it is a big river. Because it is tidal, estuarine. A big tide range. In six hours and a few minutes the sea at the mouth of the river rises thirty feet. Five feet an hour. No wonder the cockle-pickers in the Bay got caught, stage coaches crossing the Sands were sometimes overwhelmed. A big river. It rises and falls less here, three miles from the sea. But still, having let down my plumb line, spinning slowly, from quayside to touch the oozy mud of low tide and measured its length, I find it is twenty feet from low water to the quayside that the highest tides overtop.

At night, when I wake between dreams, the first thing I do is go to the window and look out at the river. My one certainty. The bridge lights are shimmering fragments on its surface. Sometimes the river is low, running out in rippling ribbons fast between shining mudbanks and muddied stones. Sometimes it is around midpoint, surging tidally in. Once I caught it, full to the brim, placid as a pond, in the silence of deepest night, at the moment of its arrival at its highest point, a moment of suspension, like the catch in a breath, before, moon bidden, it began its long letting go, down to its low, the null point, the moment before the return. Immense forces. Huge masses of water moving. Being moved. Tides. The river is the Lune. Moon in French.

When I lived on Shaftesbury’s green hilltop, where often the skies were clear, the moon was visual. I would track its nightly progress across the sky, its fattening from spring-steel curve to silver shield disc, as each night it moved further from the sun, growing from thin cradle of the old moon each night brighter, fuller, until, its perfect self, it faced the sun in equipoise, face to face across the chasm of the sky. Here, in cloudy Lancaster, ‘the wettest city in England’, I hardly ever see the moon. Not enough, anyway, to register any pattern in its changes. It is in the river that I register it, in the effect of its power.

Shaftesbury Fringe Festival

GMcardI’ll be introducing In Search of France’s Green Meridian, my new book, at Shaftesbury Arts Centre on Saturday 30 June, 3pm for 3:15pm.
See http://www.shaftesburyfringe.co.uk.

The interview I gave is at https://soundcloud.com/user-856659193/keith-walton-shaftesbury-fringe-podcast.

Here’s my publicity blurb:


In Search of France’s Green Meridian:
A serpentine cycle ride from Dunkirk to the Pyrenees

In 2000 the Paris Meridian was designated la Méridienne verte. Millennium markers were put up along it, 10,000 trees (that’s one every 100m) were to be planted, cycling and walking trails made. 

Intrigued to find out how this ‘green spine’, this new knitting-together of France marked by trees now fifteen years grown had developed, I cycled it, from Dunkirk to the Pyrenees.

I visited cathedral cities and battlefields, the broad fields and villages and soft-flowing rivers of la France profonde, barren uplands, to the burning South, and returned at last to the smallholding where, forty years ago, I tried to live a rural dream … exploring the birth of the Gothic, the many Centres of France, the sources of Le Grandes Meaulnes, the Albigensian crusade, and much more, on a 1350-mile road trip through the richness and variety of this ever-fascinating country. 

Please join me as I talk about some places, incidents and reflections on my journey. You’ll be able to choose what I talk about, and there’ll be plenty of opportunity for questions and discussion.

Shaftesbury Arts Centre, Saturday 30 June, 3:15 to 4:15pm.  Free.

My book of the trip will be available at the special Fringe Festival price of £5.


‘Tears in the Fence’ Flash Fiction Competition

I was very please to be awarded Second Prize for my entry A Bonfire of Vanities. A bonfire of the vanities in fifteenth-century Italy was a ceremonial burning of objects condemned by religious authorities as occasions of (i.e. encouragements to) sin. The best known was that organised by Savonarola in Florence in 1497, in which books and works of art were publicly burned by their chastened owners.

A Bonfire of Vanities

The notes of music emerging from the chimney, blown away like the cries of gulls, brought the watchers. For years they had watched the cottage of the man who carved notes from the chopping of wood, the passing of clouds, the bursting forth of spring flowers, the flowing of water. Carved them, and set them up on plinths, hung them in trees, for all to walk among, to run their hands over the shapely crotchets and quavers, peer through the staves and signatures. He carved them in materials that had sometimes the grain of wood, sometimes the taste of metal, sometimes were as silky as smoke. And never heard. No sound in the wood except the sounds of the wood. The notes were presences that intervened but offered no commentary. The watchers wondered if he heard the notes as he collected, carved, made. Always the sound from the cottage of making, never the sound of notes.

And then one day the notes began to disappear from the wood. He was seen carrying them under his arm like strangely-shaped ladders, dragging them heavy as loaded sledges, enclosing them in his hands with the deftness of a magician’s touch, as he took them into the cottage and closed the door.

And then from the cottage a terrific commotion, of chopping and splitting and rending. No sound except the chopping and splitting and rending. Those brave enough to approach and look through the small window panes saw him wrestling with the notes, in contorted agony, in hysteria-edged laughter and joy, in focussed deliberate action, breaking up the notes and throwing them piece by piece onto the mounting pyre.

And then the notes of music emerging from the chimney, blown away like the cries of gulls.

And then the cottage silent. And the wood bereft. And never the same again.


My other two entries were


I hadn’t seen Rosanne for years. Our affair had been brief, before she was married, but we’d kept in touch through her brother. Since my divorce she’d written more often, been more interested. Less in me, I realised, than in my situation, living alone, living my own life.

She showed me round the house. It was tastefully furnished, with a careful mix of the enduring old and the classically modern, an Eames chair next to a Tudor blanket box for example, each room finished, complete. Time standing still. Even the ticking of the long-case clock marked time. The boy’s playroom was formidably equipped and immaculately neat and tidy, uninhabited, silent. Mark was doing very well in his career, she emphasised. With not a little help, she implied, from herself.

Then she got out the photograph albums. Every photograph was dated and annotated. Monochrome gravestones and Kodacolor paving slabs from then to now. I was there, at their first party, pissed and glassy-eyed, looking at once naïve and corrupt, a fallen angel. And I’d thought I’d been one helluva guy, then. I can still feel the flashbulb exploding in my face.

Among the moments pinned down and named by Rosanne were the photographs Mark had taken in California, on his sabbatical, on his own. He showed them to me as Rosanne made tea. They lived and breathed. They rested on the page like butterflies. When he turned the page I felt them slipping away, living their own lives. Yet when the page was turned back, there they were, in place, glowing. He displayed a double spread that he was especially pleased with, proudly. The photographs were still. And then they were stirring, slipping free of the corner mounts, and fluttering up. The sun came out, a window opened, and the air flooding in was balmy and soft. The photographs rose up and fluttered around Mark’s head, dancing and shimmering. He sat, helpless and amazed, speechless.

‘Oh Mark, how wonderful!’ Rosanne exclaimed, approaching silently from the kitchen. She stood behind his chair. Then she moved her hand in a mesmeric circle and the fluttering photographs came to her hand. Very carefully she led them back to to the album, watched over them as they settled back into their places on the page, secured themselves under the corner mounts. Then she closed the album.

’Tea?’ she said, brightly.


The Writer

He wrote about the sky in celeste, the sea in aquamarine and cobalt, trees in different shades of green with half words in brown. The sun was yellow, tinting red at sunset, passions were purple, girls pink with letters in citron and turquoise. On his desk was the full range of coloured pens and, head down, his hand reached unerringly for the right one as he wrote. Objects, moods, nuances, all had their colours and colour combinations. Every aspect of his writing was colour-coded. And each page he wrote, letter by coloured letter, made, like a pointillist painting, a picture. After a printer’s plate had been made of a page, the page was framed and given a title by his gallery, whimsical, fanciful, metaphysical, mystical, depending on how his gallerist judged it could be best placed in the market. There seemed little obvious – indeed unobvious – relationship between picture and title. ‘Enigmatic’, said the discerning. They sold for thousands.

He live in a house built like a galleon, and his bed was an enormous nest. He had a lawn in his office, and sat cupped in a hand-shaped chair, at a desk that was a toughened-glass LED screen displaying the google earth image centred on his house. Smoke came out of his chimney in musical notes.

His books were best-sellers, and each publication date was an event. People crowded around the displays. How wonderful they looked, piled up, copy upon copy. How seductive, to riffle through the display copies. Such excitement to buy and carry home a copy, shrink-wrapped and snug in its custom-made and printed carrier bag. How thrilling to exchange knowing smiles with others carrying identical bags as they travelled home. Such expectation as one settled into a favourite chair, with an appropriate drink – a new one for each book. To take it out of the bag, split open the wrapping, turn the pages admiringly, hold a double page at arms’ length eyes half closed, perhaps with a slight squint, and ponder – what is it? – the image. But one never got far, reading. His books demanded, dictated, confused, didn’t allow the reader to do enough. Soon the reader would put it down and, at a loss, turn on the television. They were books you left around for visitors to pick up, books you bought as presents. He became very rich.

‘Tears in the Fence’ Flash Fiction Competition

My three entries in the Tears in the Fence Flash Fiction competition were all shortlisted – but, no prizes this time. Here they are.

Strange Creatures

There is a particular creature men fish for. Its unique quality is that it has no constant form. When caught and brought to the surface it may be one of a million startlingly different shapes, no two identical, but all having a resemblance, such that you know they are the same sort. It’s very strange.

The creature lives at great depths, in total darkness, and it seems that, at that depth, in the dark, its shape is ever changing. But the moment it is touched by anything external, be it hook, light or even the subtle vibration of microwave detection, it fixes in that shape. It is a most tantalising creature.

Some fish for it constantly, hoping that each one they catch, when they see its newly-fixed form, will be the one they have always been looking for. Others fish in order to build collections, in as great a variety as possible, or in certain shapes. Another group, rather more subtle, let down their lines and, when the creature’s hooked, try to divine its form, releasing it when they’ve checked; many and bizarre are the shapes these fishermen visualise. And there are those, heroic, foolish or mad, who plunge into the depths, the directionless blackness, to embrace these creatures directly. No one knows what they experience, as none ever returns.

If you have any sense, you will ignore these creatures.

But if you must go fishing for them, do this. Instead of bait, sensing devices, cameras, let down, on a long line, your imagination. Lie back, on a boat pitching in the storm’s ferocity, or undulating gently on a sea of soft glass, above you clouds moving slowly, stars shining, a typhoon spinning, with the line tied to your big toe, Huckleberry Finn fashion, and let your imagination explore. Be still. Move fast as light. Be passive as plankton. Follow, with senses sharp, every nuanced subtlety of your imagination’s exploring. Take all the time in the world.

When you haul in your line, empty, of course, you will have no notion at all of the creatures’ shapes. But you will know all that’s important to know about these singular denizens of the deep.

And then, most serious piece of advice: do restrain yourself from telling others what you know. You won’t be understood. If you must tell, be very, very careful what you say, and to whom.

Newton’s Cradle

As soon as it was spotted, all the earth’s astronomers turned their attention to it. They quickly established that it was heading towards the earth unerringly, and that collision was inevitable. Further studies showed that it was identical in size and composition to the earth. By the time it could be distinguished with the naked eye it was clear that it was in every way – configuration of continents, location of cities, pattern of clouds – exactly like the earth. When it was the size of the moon in the sky it had become the most important thing in the world.

It was very beautiful, earth light. It was a new light, almost as bright as the sun, but without heat, and clear. You could stare full at it without being blinded. When it shone at night, night was banished. But people did not resent it. They walked placidly. Or slept in its healing light. Lunatics became lucid, in a new way. Mad dogs played rapturously with children. As the earth became larger in the sky, there was a great sense of exhilaration. Seeing the earth and feeling it, people knew at last what it was, the earth. They no longer felt orphaned. They no longer missed the god, whose absence had so disturbed them, with the earth in the sky.

But collision was inevitable. The moment had been calculated to the second. Now the earth filled the sky, blocked out the heavens. Now there was only earth, growing ever larger. The woman and man, at first hand in hand, then apart but close, stared up as the moment approached, saw clouds and mountains, fields and sheep, stream and wood. And figures, themselves, standing apart but close, by a stream near a wood.

At the moment of impact each saw herself exactly. Not as in a mirror. Or as others see her. But exactly herself seeing herself. Another, but herself. She said, ‘do you see?’ He said, ‘yes.’ At the moment of impact there was fusion, clarity, insight, truth.

And then a wrenching separation. For the other earth, from rushing towards theirs with such velocity, was now still in space. And their earth was moving away from it at the speed the other had arrived. Day by day they watched themselves recede, become smaller, the darkness of space grow around them, engulfing the world. Each shivered in a new aloneness.

The Third Moon

The third moon was the one that fascinated Regine and her friends.

The smallest of the moons, it had no commercial value. For it had neither the mineral resources of the second moon, nor the recreational possibilities – its low gravity and spongy vegetation making it a natural playground – of the first.

The quality that the third moon had was that it was weightless. Or, to be more accurate in the conditions of space, it had no mass. It was real, physical, composed of matter, and yet it had no more weight than a reflection of itself. It had, therefore, no gravity. It was neither drawn to the planet and the other moons by gravity, nor did it draw them to it. It hadn’t the gravity of a butterfly.

How was it there? What held it there? Why was it there? It was there. That was the beauty of its mystery.

It had a second strange quality: if any material was taken from it, that material rapidly acquired a mass appropriate to its composition. And any object that landed on the moon rapidly became weightless. The scientific implications were enormous.

But Regine and her friends were not concerned with scientific implications. They simply observed and contemplated the mystery of the body that hung in space, a form without mass, a presence that took no part in the physical relationships of the universe, which sometimes reflected, and sometimes glowed, which some called ‘the moon that is a window’ and some called ‘the moon that is a poem’.

Regine called it by no name. She observed and contemplated and waited, for the word to come that was the name of the third moon. And from that word, she knew, would come a new vocabulary. And from that vocabulary, a new language. And from that language, a new life.

La Méridienne verte

In 2000, to mark the Millennium, the French government designated the Paris Meridian, la Méridienne verte, the Green Meridian. It was celebrated on Bastille Day with one long party, from Dunkirk to the Spanish border, and a ‘Grand Inauguration’ in the centre of France. Markers were put up in each of the 337 communes it passed through. 10,000 trees were to be planted, one every 100m, oaks in the North, pines in the Centre, olives in the South.

In 2015, to mark my 70th birthday, and 50 years since I first cycled in France, I cycled the length of the Green Meridian. I wanted to see how France’s millennial ‘green spine’ had developed in fifteen years. And to travel through the length of the country, from the Flemish-speaking North Sea coast to the Catalan-speaking high Pyrenees, through langue d’oïl, and langue d’oc, a dozen cultures, a dozen cuisines.

You can read my account of my 1400 mile ride at


The Divided Wood

My new novella, The Divided Wood, is now out. It’s available free from http://www.brimstonepress.co.uk.

“The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

A ruined splendour, a white wasteland … what has happened in the great wood?When his overbearing magnate father dies, Geoffrey believes that he has inherited everything and can at last come into his own. But the old man’s will contains a shock: he has left the estate’s ancient wood, Geoffrey’s secret place, to be “divided equally” between his son and Rolf, a mysterious stranger.

Geoffrey and Rolf meet, divide the wood, and build a fence between them. Each seeks in his half of the wood to realise his deepest dreams: Geoffrey creates at first a realm of solitude, then of culture, finally of spirituality; while Rolf begins from primitive simplicity, evolving his realm into successive expressions of his personality. Different worlds.
But, although separate, their individual paths lead them ineluctably to their interlocked destinies in the ancient wood.

In this tale, told with style and erudition, we share in the making of new worlds, while registering the deep undercurrents of generational and sibling rivalry.

The Night Sky

To save money the council now switches off the street lights in our street in the early hours. The result is magical. We have the night sky back. The stars, from being fogged and distant, are now distinct, glittering and close. The sky is once more a starlit canopy. At this season Orion is perfectly framed by the buildings, a huge presence, with studded belt and sword. This morning, for one morning only, he held, in his raised left hand, the full moon, a ball of light, a shining snowball. Ice glittered on the roofs in the moonlight.

Publishing Dionysos’ Island

The piles of books – my book! – the friends, neighbours, family and fellow-writers, my reading listened to carefully, questions and answers, congratulations, copies bought and signed, the mingling, with glasses of wine, of the diversity of people I know. The book launch. It feels like the end of the endeavour, when of course it’s just the beginning. But it is the end of the process of turning my manuscript into my book. So, before getting on with the real job of getting Dionysos’ Island out there, I’ll tell that story.

The manuscript’s finished. (Manuscript means of course ‘hand-written’, which I like, even if I did type it in Appleworks on my ancient ibook.) Now to turn it into a book.

First, move the Appleworks file onto my mac mini. Then open the file in Pages. (You can open Word files in Pages, too.) Pages is Apple’s very sophisticated word processing application, and costs a mere £13.99 from the App Store. I set the whole book in Pages: page size, chapters and sections, left and right pages, page numbering, margins, line spacing, even kerning (adjusting the space between characters to improve the look, called, not unreasonably ‘character spacing’ in Pages) etc, etc, and this was what, converted to a pdf, went to the printers. And it looks great, totally professional. It can also easily be used for e-books. So – three cheers for Pages.
(A couple of warning notes, however. First, I was involved in setting both my previous books, First Cut and Diggers and Dreamers, and without some experience, it can be a steep learning curve. Second – proof reading. We all know the limits of spell checkers, and the Pages Proofreader is also limited and bizarrely politically-correct. I proofread by going through the ms several times, but ideally get someone competent to proof-read for you.)

I did, however, outsource the cover – I know my limits. An excellent graphic designer lives in the same town, and she is really good at converting the ragbag of images and sketches I take to her into a great cover that’s all marked up ready for the printer. Thank you, Linda and Joss (he’s the techie). Cost: £250.

Who to publish? That’s easy. Having decided to publish my first book several years ago, and gone through the usual dispiriting and time-consuming process of approaching agents and publishers, I decided to self-publish, and set up, with a fellow-writer (Sebastian Hayes – check him out on sebastianhayes.co.uk – he’s pretty much the cleverest person I know), Brimstone Press (brimstonepress.co.uk). To quote: ‘Brimstone Press enables writers to self-publish and market their books within an environment of shared expertise and experience.’ End of plug. Dionysos’ Island will be our thirty-third title.

Printing. My previous books were printed by Antony Rowe, who were the early leaders in short-run and print-on-demand digital printing. However the new kids on the block are imprintdigital. Several Brimstone authors have used them. Their website has an easy-to-use price calculator, and they are straightforward, fast (one day for a proof copy, under a week to print), and excellent quality. They’re a small outfit, run from a barn in the Devon countryside, nimble, and their price easily undercut Antony Rowe’s. However I did have a problem with them printing the wrong cover finish, which although it was eventually resolved, made me hope they don’t sacrifice care for speed. But, an excellent print job.

So, the books are here. Now to get selling!