One of the many delights of walking are the little ironies one sees and sometimes photograph while on the hoof. Below are a few of my recent smiles that kept me buoyant while my tootsies were throbbing…
Author Archives: John Clark
2017 has been an exceptional year for foraging. We are now in the tail end of autumn and the mushroom season should be coming to an end. But where I pick my dinner, it seems they just keep on raising their curious heads, demanding to be plucked. We’ve been eating Parasols and Shaggy Parasols ( macrolepiota procera and macrolepiota rhacodes respectively) for a good three months now, and they’ve been more delicious than in previous years, possibly because this year the rain has fallen in this country at all the wrong times!
Quite rightly, the Brits are very cautious about foraging for mushrooms, entirely because the tradition and ability to identify the safe varieties has been lost. If you find a woodland that’s been cleared, it will probably be the Eastern Europeans who are enjoying the fruits of the harvest. Those I meet laden with produce are continually surprised at our refusal to trust anything not packaged in a plastic tray and clingfilm, and sold through a supermarket. Yet edible varieties aren’t that difficult to identify if you forage with an excellent handbook like the Collins Nature Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools. And there is a failsafe – when frying them, if the oil turns yellow, chuck ’em!
I have a preference for Parasols because they are scrummy fried with a few onions and garlic, but equally excellent in stews where they soak up flavours and are chewy, reminding me of the beef I ate before turning veggie. For somebody like myself who is colourblind, they are also so easy to identify. Remove the stalks, give them a good rinse (and you can squeeze them like a cloth to wring out the water) then chop. If you pick them before they open out, when they are shaped like a fat sausage, they can be stuffed and baked. Otherwise, go for the open ones that have brilliant white gills underneath. They’re at their freshest.
There are 1,001 books on walks and walking, but you don’t need to plough through very many before it becomes evident that there are less than a dozen classics authors reference or quote from time and again, when they have a mind to. Pump a ‘Ten Best…’ enquiry into your search engine and you’ll find a few lurking among the raft of recommended titles that, quite honestly, don’t deserve to sit on the same shelf, but I would like to occasionally draw attention to titles that never make the lists, despite being superb reads.
So imagine one day you set off on your favourite local walk only to find, half way round, your way is blocked. A bunch of foreign nationals are building a whole new village of ugly blockhouses and dumping the crap that generates into what used to be a lovely little valley rich in wildlife. Based on a proclamation made over 3,000 years ago recorded 2,000 years ago in a book that contains as much fantasy as fact, the aliens claim ownership of the land, regardless of the legal rights of the actual owners and your public rights of way, not to mention that they happen to be in your country illegally, according to the highest court on the planet.
As fast as a house is completed, people from their nation are moving in. Their sanitation system has yet to be sorted and raw sewage now flows into another dingly dell you cherished. With only half the village occupied, human waste is already overflowing into the first lovely little valley. In time you realise this is happening all around your town. You are being surrounded by foreign strongholds, your footpaths are disappearing, you can’t get out. Like lawyer-turned-author, Raja Shehadeh, you feel increasingly trapped and time has whittled your anger down to despair and now defeat. But you refuse to lie down and can still make your voice heard. You write Palestinian Walks.
Shehadeh takes us on seven sarhat (plural of sarha, literally meaning ‘aimless stroll’) outside his home of Ramallah and waxes lyrically on the beauty of the barren hills and verdant wadies, the old shepherds’ bothies (qasr) and shambling walls built from fossil-encrusted boulders – the landscape of the Bible that Western authors like Mark Twain and Thackeray found so boringly desolate. That in itself is telling, as are the lives of the people Shehadeh knows who have farmed the hills for generations. But overlaid is the sad and harrowing story of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, its seizure of Palestinian land and the despoiling of the highlands with concrete settlements, dead straight military roads, no-go areas and The Wall.
It is a fascinating, humbling read that induces anger and astonishment at the audacity of the international crime while making you deeply appreciative of your own freedom to walk and breathe in the British countryside. Shehadeh is a human rights lawyer who tried to fight Israel’s land grab using their own marshal laws in defence of his Arab clients. Time and again he lost in their courts, and he was always going to, but the loser Shehadeh most expresses fears for is his cherished Palestinian landscape.
Ironically, the Zionists who claim the land is theirs by divine right are turning the Holy Land into a social, political and environmental hellhole that stinks of shit. Meanwhile the international community sits on its hands or, in the case of America, throws billions of bucks at the fundamentalists’ cause.
* Palestinian Walks by Raja Shehadeh (pub: Profile Books)
I haven’t a religious bone in my body, but do believe in the power of the spirit. So when a friend of mine began her long and arduous battle against breast cancer, a Spirit Walk seemed the one thing I could do for her that her support group of family and friends maybe wouldn’t think of.
The idea was simple enough, to go to the site of her wellspring, to the hospital in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, where she was born, and walk home to Nottingham where she was now fighting the enemy within, scooping up and accumulating strength along the way to lay at her doorstep.
Aside from whether I was physically up to it, my only fear was being accused of an embarrassing case of Schadenfreude. I kept the plan anonymous and shared the idea with only a couple of people I knew could be trusted to stay shtum. The plan was to post her a letter from Hitchin as I set off, explaining my intent and purpose, emphasizing that, aside from being aware of the walk, I and it demanded nothing of her.
I plotted a route that weaved between conurbations and managed to stay on bridleways, foot and tow paths for 90% of the way. I slept rough and ate frugally but regularly, mostly munching my own version of trail mix and squeezy cheese on oatcakes. I didn’t expect to find any village shops and there was every chance the pubs marked on the map had mutated into bijou restaurants, open maybe four evenings a week.
The story of the Spirit Walk for Sue deserves telling, except this isn’t the place for something so deeply personal. I surprised myself by having no problem at all keeping her struggle in heart and mind, particularly when I too was gritting my teeth against stabbing pains in my shoulders and hips. I just ain’t as young as I used to be!
The fight to progress along many of the rights of way was to be expected in a country where ROW officers are now an endangered species, but the difficulty of sourcing water took me by surprise. Farms I identified as oases on days of flogging from one field to another were no more than equipment depots for the combines that had gobbled them up. On the up side, I equally didn’t expect to have so many thrilling close encounters with wildlife.
How many can boast being woken in the morning by a beautiful bushy-tailed fox nudging my bivvy bag, and I was convinced the female kite that seemed to trail me for eight miles was in fact Sue watching over me.
Basic stats: approx. 190k total, five days, shortest day 26k, longest day 51k.
Now and again it is good to dip a toe in the deep still waters of the academic world to see what they’re up to, particularly when the topic under consideration is graphic satire, a subject I get the impression is still quite new to the ivory tower’s canon of research. And this conference promised and delivered some fascinating brain fodder. If it’s still up, the full programme can be read here, and I was certainly absorbed by papers presented on the Scottish caricaturist, William Charles, on Harry Furniss, the powerhouse behind many of the stunning images in the 1880s Punch, and on the story behind the German satirical magazine, Simplicissimus, of the First World War (sorry, 19th Century!?). It is wonderful that intellectuals are doing this work but, dear me, there are problems with this whole field of study, if these presentations are anything to go by.
Don’t get me wrong, the rarely-seen images were fabulous to study (though poorly and briefly displayed, as if we weren’t actually meant to study them at all) and when it came to contextualising the cartoons, the brains trust were on the nose with their history. But the collective knowledge and understanding of the means of production, style and form, the commissioning process, the position (even life, in some cases) of the artists in that society, and their terminology fell so badly short. Nobody seemed too clear what a caricature was, such that cartoons were called caricatures, whether or not they contained a caricature. ‘Comic image’ was used for single panel cartoons and plates that had nothing to do with comics, and when I raised the point it was thought I was talking about comedians. Nobody seemed aware of comics from the period, let alone medieval comics, and there appeared a total lack of understanding that editorial cartoonists (“What’s an editorial cartoonist?”) working during times of war agree not rock the boat or take swipes at national politics for the duration. Suddenly Gillray’s social satires were being talked about as propaganda!
Accepting that the last thing these honourable and cosy (lots of back-slapping and quoting of each other) academics needed in the audience was a know-all cartoonist asking embarrassing questions, it is fair to say that some were actually delighted to have somebody from the trade challenging assumptions and sloppiness, and quietly told me so. Probably I was too loud, but this was a conference opened by ‘The V.C.’ (varsity speak in hallowed tones for Vice Chancellor) that attracted academics from Berlin, Krakow, Dublin, Belfast, Australia and distant cities in Britain. For an audience of around twenty, half of whom were presenting papers or organising the event, the money spent was outrageous.
What Nottingham Does Comics could have done with a tenth of their budget!
On it’s way to the printers is my latest comics effort, a short story triggered by an unexpected discovery while trying to get my head round what the hell was going on in Syria. Unlike my previous work, this is very much a drama-documentary, low on humour but high on the fog of war. It is being published by a new imprint of the large independent publishers Five Leaves, imaginatively called Five Leaves Graphic, and will be available from the end of next month (June), available through bookshops on 1st September. Price, just a fiver to y’all.
Five Leaves Graphic’s second publication will be a critical review of UK women comics creators, past and present, currently being completed by Selina Lock, the thrust behind the seminal Girly Comic. Price yet to be decided.