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232 – The Flatlands of Dartmoor

This week I find myself on Dartmoor for the first time in my life. I lived in Exeter and Plymouth for a combined total of five years and never once roamed these moors. Instead preferring the coast path to this bleak barren two dimensional landscape rolling out in front of me.

I say two dimensional because as I was walking yesterday I was unsure at times as to whether I was walking up or down. There were no visible indicators, no trees, fences, crags, or ravines, to show any change in gradient. As though the landscape itself lacked the dimension of depth. It reminded me of Edwin Abbot’s 1883 novella Flatland in which there is no ‘up or ‘down’. Just forward and back, left and right.

Dartmoor is very British. Nothing too fancy. Just your basic mountain. No high peaks, deep ravines, precipitous cliffs, gushing rivers. A few stones or poles to show the way. None of that glamorous Dolomites or Picos de Europa stuff with all those clever pyramidal peaks and plunging gorges.

I doubt I’ll be asked to write the next Dartmoor tourist guide. But then again I wouldn’t want to. And if I did I’d probably supplement it with extracts from Flatland. Which would make no sense to anybody reading it because it’s got absolutely nothing to do with Dartmoor, or hills in general. A fictional work of social satire, mathematics, philosophy and theology written under the pseudonym, A Square.

As I walked yesterday I started trying to remember what the one dimensional world was called in the book. Lineland, I finally remembered, where the only dimension is forward and back. Where everything exists on a single line with men the lines and women the dots. Where if a human existed they would have to eat and defecate through the same hole. Having two holes would mean splitting in two as there is no left or right dimension. I can’t for the life of me remember where I read this or if I was taught it somewhere, but I remember a diagram of a human living in Lineland. Something like this:

linelanderI say human, I apologise, more monster, but my skills of drawing have never been that good. But I think you get the point. The food and waste must go in and out the same hole – in this case the mouth. If the creature above had an anus, it would split in two.

The idea behind Lineland was to show a strict hierarchical society. The King is The King and no matter what you do, you can never be the King because you cannot get round or jump over. Like this:

lineland2After a day’s walking, I found myself back in the village where I’m staying with my friend Richard. Back in the house with all four dimensions restored, I started conjuring up a Reality TV show in my head where the contestants have to wander across Dartmoor for 24 hours blindfolded. A social experiment to see who would keep wandering aimlessly across the moor risking injury and possibly death in the blind hope of finding shelter. And who would simply sit down where they were dropped off, knowing that all they had to do was to wait, endure a day and night of discomfort and hunger, and then get picked up. It then might be possible to extrapolate the results into some kind of social demographic hierarchy based on the Lineland idea above.

The whole thing would probably be highly unethical. But then again, it is TV, plus it might kill off a few people who think reality TV is the path to stardom. I should know. I once auditioned for Big Brother in 2001. The thinking was that I could play my guitar on national TV and be noticed. What was I thinking, I have no idea? One morning in April I caught the train up to Birmingham from Plymouth, participated in some moronic games for an hour, came back, heard nothing and life went on. It seems ridiculous now – absurd even – but that’s what you do when you’re young. Like living in the shadow of Dartmoor for five years and not visiting it once.

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231 – Cloud Camping in East Prawle

After finishing teaching on Sunday, me and Elizabeth finally headed down to East Prawle on the South Devon coast for a spot of cloud camping. An oblong fog filled field with an old builder’s portacabin as a toilet block and a hosepipe as a shower. Classy England! This is what I’ve been missing. Muddy fields, piss streaked toilets, rain, blind optimism, drunk teenagers, sausage and beans, high spirits, thick cloud.

The village of East Prawle has a shop and a very good pub called The Pig’s Nose. A pub that hasn’t been ruined by fruit machines, TV screens, oversized dining tables, faux Italian food, magazine racks, muted music and pine floors. It’s how all pubs once were, when the entertainment was provided by people not machines. Wednesday night was no exception when we witnessed some grinding blues and blistering rock ‘n’ roll provided by Frankie Connelly and Ben Gittins. A performance of such intensity and power that it sounded like they had a full backing band behind them. There wasn’t. Just two young guys with two guitars plugged into their music.

The other main draw of the week was being back on the 630 mile South West coast path that winds its way from Poole in Dorset, to Minehead in Somerset. I’ve never done the whole walk, only sections of it over the years, but I’ve always enjoyed being on this thin corridor of wilderness in-between the English Channel and the rolling Devon hills. Tramping along the narrow path that threads its way up and over the headlands that seem to multiply as you walk. Conquering one only to see another fifty appear ahead of you in the distance. It’s hard work walking up and down every day as though surveying the route of a giant roller-coaster. But once the work is done and you sit down and take in the scenery, it’s one of the best places in the UK. Take it from me.

Nearly ten years ago, I walked a section from St. Austell to Falmouth, sleeping in the heathers and ferns as I went. It wasn’t a particularly strenuous or long walk, but it had a big effect on me. It was the first time I’d walked and slept rough, bedding down where I fell as it were. Since then I’ve walked (or cycled) many times in this way.

There were only two other tents on the site this week and with no roads, except a lane down to the lighthouse, no internet and no phone signal, it was incredibly peaceful. Like watching a nature program in bed on a winter’s night with the sound turned down. In fact the only real sound I heard over the four days – apart from the band on Wednesday night – was French radio, which I managed to pick up after failing to find any English channels. It was then I had an idea. An opportunity for the local tourist office.

THE ONLY CAMPSITE IN THE UK WHERE YOU CAN PICK UP FRENCH RADIO BUT NOT RADIO TWO

I’m not sure who it would be aimed at. French people I suppose. Or people who hate Radio Two like me. Or British radio in general. Or Britain?

They used the estuaries at nearby Dartmouth and Kingsbridge for the D-Day landings and it made me wonder where I would end up if sailed directly to France from here (that is if I had a boat). The answer is – as you will have all correctly guessed no doubt – the village of Plougasnou in Brittany, which according to their website is famous for nothing. It doesn’t even have a pub.

I decided to stay put and now find myself back at the residential teaching college in non-reality Wiltshire that I mentioned in my two previous posts. Tonight after dinner, I’m taking my students to the pub in Lacock, which sounds French, but isn’t, where they filmed the Harry Potter films and countless costume dramas. I’ve never been to Lacock, or La Cock as my French student amusingly, albeit predictably, said this morning, so I’m keeping an open mind. I doubt they’ll have a pub as good as The Pig’s Nose. But if they do, never mind a boat, I’ll swim to Brittany. Backstroke.

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230 – The Continuing Non Reality of Wiltshire

This week I find myself in exactly the same spot I was last week. At the residential teaching college near Bath I mentioned in my last post. Me and Elizabeth were both packing up to go camping in South Devon for the week when the boss ran over to us file in hand begging us to stay. I say begging, I mean asking whether we wanted to spend the week in a tent on an overpriced campsite in the rain. Or a week earning cash with as many cooked breakfasts and barbecue dinners as we could eat. Mmm.

I’m all for rough camping, I’ve done it loads of times over the years, but I’m not paying 20 quid for the pleasure of sleeping in a muddy field, when I could sleep under a hedge for free. Or get a room in a Travel Lodge for £39. Needless to say we said yes to the teaching and another week of living in this non-reality of PG Wodehouse’s country house in Wiltshire.

I say non-reality for two reasons: Firstly, I’ve never been so long without ever having to prepare my own meals (all meals, coffee, beer, and wine is provided by starched white uniformed waiters). And secondly, being here bears no resemblance to 21st century England. No supermarkets, kebab shops, betting shops, louts, drunks, litter. And certainly no dogs.

I love it. Love it for the same reason people go on holiday. True, I have to work. But as the work is just an extension of the meal times – chatting to the students over paella and steak frites – I’m happy to be finally finding that elusive place where my work and my life are becoming entangled into one long meandering road. Instead of two straight roads heading in opposite directions cluttered on either side by frustration, anger and fear, both leading to dead ends and the inevitable nervous breakdown.

I’m not quite there yet, but this is as close as I’ve come for decades. For one, I’m not clock watching, or fearing my classes or students. And two, neither do I have to travel to work. It’s not the journey I’ve always hated about commuting. It’s having to deal with reality before I’ve even sat at my desk. Here in Wiltshire there is no reality. I walk ten metres from my room to a massive cooked breakfast and the day begins, finishing 12 hours later over a huge plate of barbecue spare ribs and a barrel of Argentinian Malbec.

The only problem is what on earth am I going to write about over the next few months? Except my increasing weight caused by my fierce appetite and a never ending platter of food and wine. Perhaps I’ll have to wander down to the local pub and create a scene. An episode of loutish behaviour not seen since my days in Nottingham. Pleading to the police as I am dragged away that I only did it for my art.

‘I needed something to write about officer. Honest.’

‘You said that last time, Blogley. We’re not in Nottingham now you know. Or Lyon, for that matter. Get into the van. You’re nicked.’

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229 – Treasure Hunt in the House of PG Wodehouse

This week I find myself teaching in a house where PG Wodehouse lived as a child. A sixteenth century country manor seven miles east of Bath deep in the Wiltshire countryside where the dense oaks that cover the surrounding hills create an almost unbreakable green canopy from here to the city. The only noises are the trains picking up speed as they leave Bath before disappearing into the abyss of the Box Hill tunnel and onward to London and the 21st century.

A few months ago I was cleaning swimming pools in Western France, now I’m working in a residential teaching college with four Russians, two Italians, two Germans, an Angolan, and a Japanese woman, in a manor house built before the English Civil War. Eating breakfast, lunch and dinner while talking about the Greek situation, the wines of Lombardy, the traffic of Milan, free diving in Sardinia, Siberian food, and the beers of Düsseldorf. How can I explain this?

I know a lot of people who do the same job year in year out no questions asked. I find this impossible. If I don’t have at least three jobs in a year, I consider myself a failure. It’s a good a situation to be in and one that has taken me a long time to perfect from the qualities I have. Which are: patience, resilience, and not giving a fuck.

On Tuesday I was asked by my boss if I would like to organise a treasure hunt for the students in the evening. As she stood in front of me waiting for my answer, my mind was conjuring up images of impeccably dressed Italians scrambling around in the mud searching for a chest full of gold coins, with me dressed as Long John Silver. It went quite well. My questions weren’t hard, but there were a few which were open to debate. One of them asked how many fish were in the pond. A pond half covered with algae and water lilies meaning that the precise number of fish on view varied depending on when you visited it. The correct answer was five and the group that got it right won the treasure. The treasure being a bottle of Prosecco that was shared around equally. Everybody was happy.

Yesterday we went to Bath on the hottest day of the year. Bath with its stone buildings that turned the city into a gigantic kiln. It wasn’t the heat that bothered us though. It was the people. In European cities when it’s hot, life goes on. Things function. Restaurants and bars serve food and drink without a fuss. People go about their business as if it was any other day of the year. Yesterday, Bath was a wretched place to be. Bad tempered, melodramatic, edgy. I heard some young woman complain in a newsagent that she could hardly walk in this weather. Really? Why not? Are you a polar bear or something? An Arctic mammal covered in a thick layer of fur and fat buying a copy of the The Sun newspaper and a massive packet of extra salty crisps. Are you trying to be ironic? Or are you just stupid.

Even my student from Siberia, where winter temperatures he told me regularly reach minus fifty and in summer there are mosquitoes the size of birds, took it in his stride. Admittedly short strides, but nonetheless, he didn’t seem too hot or bothered by the so called Hottest Day of the Year that every newspaper in this country ran on its front page. Today, surprise, SUR-FUCKING-PRISE, it’s raining, which I hope makes everybody happy.

As for me, I have a few days left here, then I sit and wait again for more work. There’s a lot of waiting in this game. But that’s fine by me as I don’t need much to keep me occupied. Especially when Elizabeth’s mother bought me the first three Knausgaard books to be getting on with. Watch out for a Knausgaard post soon.

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