Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Camping Trip


There are few things better than camping trips. The outdoor life seems to scratch an itch that is deep inside the soul. I grew up in Porthcawl and from a fairly young age I explored the dunes that fringe the sea both east and west of that town. The dunes on the eastern side have a more 'friendly' feel -- they are the 'non-haunted' dunes. This is where my first wild camping trips took place, sleeping under the stars without a tent and a fire and wine. Nice!

The last wild camping trip I did in these dunes was probably in 1983 or perhaps even earlier. Recently I went back with Adele, partly as a nostalgia trip for myself but also to show her the places where I used to roam. We have done two such trips in the past two weeks. Everything has been perfect. Sitting around an excellent fire with good wine and a view of the sea, with the moon rising over the hills and the stars twinkling above, is an incredible experience and one of my favourite pastimes.

The rather curious photo below shows the firelight through a bottle of red wine. Camping without wine and a fire always seems something of a minor disappointment. It amazes me how comfortable sleeping on the dunes can be. The combination of sea air and physical exercise surely play their part in giving a relaxing night. I certainly need to do more of this kind of thing. Physical tiredness is a pleasure compared with mental tiredness. Swimming in the sea is also a fine way of feeling invigorated. I wish I was a stronger swimmer than I am: I left it late before learning. My technique is very poor and I tend to waste a lot of energy by thrashing around inefficiently! Nonetheless I enjoy it tremendously.

Candleston Castle stands amid the sand dunes, almost as if it is lost. It's a small castle, more of a fortified manor than a true fortress. The inner staircase has collapsed, which makes climbing to the top tricky, but I was determined to succeed! Getting down wasn't easy and required a cool head. There is another castle nearby called Ogmore Castle that can be reached via a set of stepping stones.

The dunes on the western side of Porthcawl are quite different in character from those on the eastern side. They are more barren and forlorn and I always thought of them as the 'scary' dunes. The region is rife with ghost stories. There is a mysterious lake in the middle of the dune system. Many centuries ago a village stood here but the sand slowly buried it until it vanished. It's said that on stormy nights the bell of the old church can still be heard ringing somewhere under the lake. Apparently the sounds of ghostly hooves can be heard on the beach, and some travellers have reported a bloodcurdling scream that frightens all who hear it, even the bravest, filling them with panic in the same way that the old nature god Pan was said to do.

The most haunted part of these dunes is undoubtedly Sker House. It's an appropriate name ('Scare') for what is often claimed to be the most haunted house in Wales. The most famous ghost associated with Sker House is the 'Maid of Sker'. Her legend forms the basis of the novelist R.D. Blackmore's novel, also called The Maid of Sker. It's a sad story and her spirit is said to peer ocassionally from one of the windows of the upper room where she was imprisoned by her father for falling in love with a man he disapproved of. Another ghost, supposedly a monk, dwells in the basement. When I was young, the house was a ruin, but recently it has been renovated and painted yellow. I don't know what the ghosts think of that! Adele posed for me in front of the house and I was convinced that when I viewed the photo later I would see ghostly images in the background, but I haven't found any yet!

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Reading Patterns


I sometimes wish I had kept a record of all the books I have read in my lifetime. What would the total be? I can't even guess. Having said that, my reading pattern actually resembles a low frequency sine-wave. I started reading "adult" literature when I was 10 years old. My first proper novel was The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. Then I read The Time Machine, The Island of Dr Moreau and The First Men in the Moon. I adored the first three but I didn't understand the fourth, so I stopped reading "Literature".

Before discovering H.G. Wells I had mostly read comics (Whizzer & Chips, Marvel, 2000AD) or Dr Who novelisations (the first one I tackled was Doctor Who and the Cybermen by Gerry Davis). I also enjoyed various SF film "tie-ins" (Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Alien) but there was a surprise in store for me: the "tie-in" of the Rollerball film turned out to be a short story collection by a writer called William Harrison; I enjoyed the title story and found the other tales bewildering, disturbing and fascinating; they were among the first adult short stories I ever read.

When I was 14 I went back to "Literature". I read Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. I enjoyed it so much that I decided that "Literature" wasn't such a daunting thing at all; and the whole pantheon of Great Works throughout History was suddenly available to me. I immediately plunged into War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, followed by Homer's The Iliad and its "sequel" The Odyssey (I bought the third "sequel", The Aeneid by Virgil, but have still never read it). I had no idea that to claim to have read such works at that young age would later be considered "pretentious" by my future critics. So I persisted in reading Tolstoy, Kafka, Voltaire, Cervantes and many others.

In the following decade I surely read hundreds of books, but then I ran out of steam in my mid 20s. By the time I turned 30 I was barely reading any fiction. Indeed, I recall that during the whole of the year 1996 I read a total of one novel (The Assignment by Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt). My zest for reading didn't really return until 2001. It was a Dunsany novel (The Chronicles of Rodriguez) that re-opened the floodgates. Since then I have averaged a novel every two weeks. But clearly there's a pattern going on, a pattern with a period of 10 years. It seems to work like this: 10 years of frantic reading, followed by 10 years of barely reading anything, followed by another 10 years of frantic reading...

If it turns out that the wavelength of this sine-wave is constant (it might not be; I might have an "FM" personality) then I should now be coming to the end of my new frantic period. Next year should see my reading rate dropping off. I can but wait and see. In the meantime here are pictures of the three most recent books I've read... All three authors have been a big influence on me, especially Calvino, who is probably my favourite ever writer.

One thing about my reading patterns that I need to change is the way I tend to read more than one book at the same time. Simultaneously reading is fine if the books are radically different from each other, with their own distinctive rhythms. Unfortunately I seem to have got into a situation where I am currently reading 10 books with overlapping themes and concerns. This is proving to be a difficult management task: I need to reduce my reading to a sensible level. How I yearn for those more innocent days when I only read one book at a time! I have a plan to return my reading life to that condition -- I am only allowed to start reading one new book after I have finished two from the pile I'm currently tackling. This way the grand total should slowly go down. That's the idea anyway!