Orkney Odyssey 3: Time Tells

Feeling the need to return.

City Jackdaw

There is a romanticism and a melancholy to the islands.

An echo of times past. A hint of meaning that lies just beyond the wind. Meaning whose origin is adorned by labels: Norse, Pictish, Neolithic. A procession of markers that will outlive us all.

I wonder if living here day after day, year after year, causes you to be blasé about it all? Do the markers become invisible, blending in with the rest of the storm-shaped landscape?

I remember seeing a documentary a few years back about people living in the Scottish Highlands. Among all that natural beauty and dramatic vistas, the young ones were bored to death. They said that visitors would tell them how lucky they were to be living there. They would reply that there was never anything to do. They would amuse themselves by sending travelling tourists in the opposite direction of the landmarks that they…

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A Town Not Called Malice

Sometimes I feel a longing for the coast. Or perhaps somewhere more rural, away from the built up concrete confines of my city. This occasionally intensifies into a desire to move to such a place permanently. These are idealistic episodes and don’t normally last too long, for roots are important to me.

But even when traveling through less scenic routes I get curious about other places. It is easy to get superficial, inadequate views of the towns that we pass through, and in our ideals wonder if they could hold an appeal.

Recently I was on a train heading to Manchester from Leeds. Passing through the train stations the landscape began to open out. There was space between the fixed points of these two urban sprawls. The sky, for once blue, lifted the spirits, and there were jackdaws—always jackdaws, scattered upon the fields.  These birds have become something of a personal totem to me, and these familiar friends accompanied me along the way.

We rolled into Hebden Bridge.  This place always looks charming, though I have yet to explore it. There was only a handful of people waiting to board the train here. They looked like walkers ( hikers, I mean, not zombies). They got on board and we moved on.

The next station on our linear amble was the market town of Todmorden. I have wondered about this place also. From my limited views it looks like a nice place to live, but as I said earlier, superficial views are inadequate to get a true feel for a place.

Then, from my window I saw this sign, set back upon a hill:

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The letters stood there like a miniature version of the famous Hollywood sign. I didn’t know why it was there, but it felt refreshing to be greeted by a (literal) sign of positivity. I searched on Google and found a news reference to it. It seems that some of the town residents were erecting these signs to counter the news that hate crimes throughout the country were on the rise. What a great idea, providing a bit of balance by nailing their colours to their provincial masts.

What noble endeavours, what admirable gestures. Who wouldn’t want to settle in a town that salts its perimeters with the grains of compassion?

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Last Night Walk

You can’t help but walk around craning your neck as you look high. It’s the unusual juxtaposition of these monoliths of light framed against the night sky. They draw your vision skyward, dwarfed by our own creations.

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With a view to remembering, I had set off on my final night’s walk, crossing the bridge behind my hotel, at dusk.

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I took the same route as last time, but this day being a Sunday meant the atmosphere was more subdued, the army of office workers gone, leaving behind a vacuum for nature and a wandering Manc to fill.

I had this familiar, definite trail in mind, but, as often happens, it was birds that led me astray.

As darkness fell, I heard gulls somewhere overhead. Studying the night sky, I could make out their aerial skirmishes beneath the towering cranes.

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I began to walk towards the direction the birds had flown in, now aware that I could hear the carcophonous shrieking of many others somewhere up ahead. And so they led me from my safe and ordered plan.

They took me to a point called Limehouse Lock, a part of Canary Wharf I hadn’t been to before. I stood there, against iron railings, peering out to locate the gliding forms.

There were hundreds of gulls-skimming above the dark waters of the Thames. Some low, just above the surface, some higher, all moving as one great flock.

Don’t gulls sleep at night, even in a city that doesn’t sleep?

At night it is always dark water. I could remember looking out over the Saltsjön one evening in Stockholm, regarding the depths there as black water. Expansive and ominous, deep and threatening, I thought of Lindqvist’s book Harbour. In that novel, the writer made an evil entity out of the whole body of water, no doubt influenced by the death of his own father who was lost at sea.

I could imagine it, this great mass, untameable and omnipresent, claiming all who are foolish enough to try to master it.

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I stayed for a while. Away from the bright lights of the city, here was the greater thrill: being led to somewhere different, somewhere new, by these feathered guides. Watching them move uninhibited en masse over the masking shadows of the Thames.

London Calling

I am off to London in the morning for three nights, arriving back on Monday evening.

For those of you who are familiar with the whole ‘journey’ theme of my book Heading North, the last time I was in our capital city I wrote three poems for possible inclusion in the book. I was going to publish two that didn’t make the final cut here in this post-but at this late hour I can’t find them!

One was still in early draft form, entitled London Lines, and the other was a completed poem that I didn’t think quite up to scratch (tellingly the title now escapes me).

So, until I do locate them, I will include here the only one of the three that made my collection. It was written in the very same hotel, in Canary Wharf, that I’m staying in this weekend. Maybe inspiration still lingers the corridors, eh? Perhaps my muse is still joyriding the elevators.

We shall see. In the meanwhile, have a great weekend people.

See you next week.

Canary Wharf, Morning

Sunrise over angled skies.
Reflected light on
glass and steel.

Still water shine 
and strengthening hum
of time-fixated 
suited drones,

speed induced and web infused.
See the parade 
of passive martyrs.

One day, maybe, 
just one day,
sit and watch the world go by.


©Andrew James Murray

Fire Me To The Far Horizon

A friend took this photograph last week while walking around Stiges, in Spain.

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I’ve recently been reading Rimbaud, and on seeing this image these lines immediately came to mind:

O the ashen face, the course thatch, the crystal arms! The cannon I collapse upon, through a topple of trees and soft air.

I should imagine my friend was far from ashen faced when he returned from Spain. All that sun, all that blue, stretching away to the far horizon.

Jealous? Well, maybe I was, for a day or two.

But, as Rimbaud put it: I is someone else.

(Final) Welsh Odyssey #5

We were in the car and everything was subdued: it was late afternoon and the kids were both asleep in the back, exhausted from their play on the beach, my wife sandwiched between them both. Gathering clouds were threatening to bring some welcome rain.

My friend, Derek, was driving, weaving along the country lanes, passing the time trying to identify the various victims of roadkill splayed along our route.

Then my eyes lit up at a sudden sign: Ancient Burial Site.

Derek started following the directions in a tacit understanding: some of you older Jackdaw followers may recall that the Neolithic is my thing. (Not because you hail from the Neolithic yourselves, of course, but because I posted about it a few times in my early blogging days.) It is the period when we began to become us, ceasing to wander and instead put down roots. Transforming the landscape and, though so much is unknown, leaving just enough tantalising clues to feed the imagination.

The structures of this period have always drawn me, wherever I find myself, and so we arrived at the site that is known as Pentre Ifan.

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“Do you want to come and see it? We could take it in turns?” I asked the Mrs who still had the heads and the spread limbs of the children across her.

“No, I’ll stay here in the car.”

“It’s stood for five thousand years, and you don’t want to take a two minute walk to see it?!”

“You see it for me.”

Derek interjected: “I’ll take some photos for you and the kids to see.”

“And I’ll give you the feel of the place,” I added.

And so we abandoned them in that country lane, passed through a wooden gate, and came upon they type of ancient structure that is known as a dolmen.

Though the landscape may be different to what it was back then, the fact that there wasn’t another soul or building in sight, added to an absence of sound, (aside from a crow calling), added to the sense of timelessness about the place.

The caw of a crow is not sweet birdsong, but is dark and ominous and deathly, (carrion crow after all), but that may just be the perspective and penchant of the poet.

There was an information board that gave a diagram of how it would have looked back then. It was built around 3,500 BC.  Who would have been buried here? Who (and there would have been several) was important enough to warrant such a memorial?

Whenever I look across the fields and ruins that dot the British landscape, I often wonder about the great stories that have become lost to us. Stories that tell of the exploits of people from all periods of our history, undertaken before records began. Legendary figures; famous battles; Gods; Celtic warriors – the Arthurs of the time.

But this monument was built long before the Celtic era.

Approaching it it looked an obvious health and safety risk, but the stones had been secured. And besides, these things had obviously been made to last.

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The top stone was shaped like a flint knife. That seemed more appropriate than a hovering spacecraft, which also crossed my mind.

Derek left me to spend a few minutes there, alone, to soak up the atmosphere. I’m like that-a human sponge of the vibe of a place. And then I left, the crow still calling its lyrical lament.

The ancestors: unknown and unfathomable, littering this island of mine with some extraordinary wonders.

I have since read that local lore says that fairies are sometimes sighted there, described as ‘little children in clothes like soldiers’ clothes and with red caps.’ I wished I had known that then, I would have regaled the kids with such tales. That’s the kind of thing to engage them.

But I didn’t know, and when I got back to the car they slept on, that damn Justin Bierber playing on the radio.

Give me the crow any day.