Unidentify me in woods, in rain

Come closer and see / See into the trees …

… It’s always the same / I’m running towards nothing

The Cure, A Forest (1980)

If the rain comes / They run and hide their heads …

The Beatles, Rain (1966)

For a long time, I’ve had a fascination with woods and forests and the sense of quiet and stasis they can offer. That moment of being alone in the trees, directionless; light and sound are different, muted, but at the same time amplified in subtle ways I’ve never been able to explain.

It’s both humbling and compelling to stand in the realm of these dwellers of the canopy. For these moments, we can become as nothing, unidentified in the midst of the grandeur.

Unidentify me.


Today, I wanted to get away from the city, from people and cars, from the unkindnesses of strangers. I braved the weather and went to walk for the first time in the woods in the lee of Dechmont Law. It rained.

It rained a lot.

The rain came in sheets and Dechmont Law was a spectre in the mist, the sky above it a wet-on-wet grouping of greys. I didn’t climb the hill, though; I had come here for the trees and whatever they contained, the seen and the unseen.


Winter is almost over but not the rain. It falls and falls in a seemingly infinite haze. There would have been more people here, probably, had it not been for the weather; I’m grateful, albeit soaked. My feet are tiny boats in the undulating waterway of the path.

The wood is waking, gradually, but the signs are there. A slow reveille sounds in the trickle of the burn. The black and white and indigo blur of a magpie c(r)ackles in the distance.


I can’t help but be drawn in by an avenue of trees like the one here. I find them so mesmeric and powerful. A similar scene features on the cover of my 2008 CD Supernaturalist, the sun breaking through the uprights.

That cover picture was taken a hundred or so miles north of Dechmont Woods, and here, today, there is no sun.

But other things choose to break through, signs and signifiers of a visitation of one sort or another.

Things decay but the woods, as a single unity, as an entity, do not decay. Fallen trunks are the separators between passages of time in the book of this moment.

And of course, within the woodland I feel an aura of the uncanny. That green, the colour of safety and permission (“go now, quickly, before the red returns”), the chlorophyll mantle that swathes the ground and the treebark: it creates for me a sense of unreality. Haunted by trees, by the spaces between them and by the vacuum they create. A kind of Stendhal Syndrome in response to the natural world. My mind swoons a little at nature’s painterly strokes on a never-drying canvas.


Go back more than four decades: it’s 9 November 1979, around the time perhaps that The Cure are recording their seminal song A Forest in a studio hundreds of miles from here. Robert Taylor, a forestry worker with the local Livingston Development Corporation, is walking his dog in the woods at Dechmont. These woods. He has an experience, an encounter with what he described as “a flying dome” constructed of “a dark metallic material with a rough texture like sandpaper” featuring an outer rim “set with small propellers”. According to Taylor, it was about 20 feet in diameter and there was an odour like burning car brakes. He maintained that two smaller spheres, something like sea mines with protrusions on their surface, grasped him and dragged him towards the main object. He had a period of unconsciousness and apparently came to 20 minutes later, by which point the objects were gone, and he walked home with minor injuries and his clothes torn, his truck having failed to start.

Bob Taylor died in 2007, but he maintained up to his death that he saw what he saw. No one seems to doubt that conviction. There are a number of theories as to what happened but no real conclusions. Because of his injuries, the matter was investigated by the police who, it’s reported, found unexplained indentations in the ground where the incident is said to have occurred. Many have speculated that what Taylor thought he experienced was the effect of a seizure brought on by temporal lobe epilepsy, which would explain the burning smell and the hallucinations, as well as the period of unconsciousness.

The area where the encounter apparently took place is marked with a metal plaque (above) and by this information board, installed by the local council.

At one entrance to the parkland sits another information board, alerting visitors to the “Dechmont UFO trail.”

Whatever the explanation for what happened, I can’t shake the feeling that the presence of these lurid information boards, with their declamatory Top Secret! trappings, only detract from the sense of alien wonderment I get from being here.

UFO or not, these are beautiful woods, woods to get lost in, to lose yourself in, to become unidentified amid the leaves and the greys (not the Greys) of the February or November rain.

Perhaps that’s what happened to Bob Taylor.

There’s no need for visitations when we can all experience these small incursions of the extraordinary amid the unwelcome clamour of the everyday.

Adam Scovell, ‘Nettles’ (Influx Press, 2022)

Set in his native Merseyside, Adam Scovell’s third novel, Nettles, is a story centred on childhood rituals and pacts with the landscape, whether real or imagined. These rituals, invoked at a turning point in a boy’s life, when he feels he has nowhere left to hide, are depicted all the more powerfully for being situated in the edgelands of a post-industrial landscape: the concrete underbelly of a motorway, scrubland with distant pylons, the roar of the rails and the roadway. At the heart of the book is a tale of a boy bullied mercilessly and what he ultimately does, or what he thinks he has done, to escape and restore some sort of bearable, natural order in his life.

As a result of its subject matter, the main narrative isn’t a comfortable read: descriptions of the claustrophobic and isolating nature of the bullying are dealt with realistically and in fairly unflinching terms. But Nettles is more a tale of sacrifice than any sort of brutal, coming-of-age novel, although the brutality is there. We don’t particularly sense the main character maturing and overcoming adversity during the narrative in the way these things normally play out; instead the reader is drawn back and forth 20 years between childhood and adulthood, connections are made in a deliberating fleeting way, and there are strange, and slightly jarring, interludes about a local climber which eventually resolve at the novel’s conclusion.

Both the narrator and his tormentor remain unnamed, although Scovell uses the curious literary device of capitalisation of Him and He for the boy’s antagonist. This reverential use of pronouns suggests that what exists beyond a sense of fear and hatred is some kind of god-like awe at the bully’s power and his consequent hold over the main character and others in the school.

There are many instances of sacrifice in the story, both large and small. The book suggests that children believe they make such sacrifices all the time and perhaps they do. The perennial question of cause and effect is left unresolved, but that doesn’t make the story’s conclusion any less haunting and uncertain.

Scovell is most convincing when he deals with the place setting of the story, its otherness and the protagonist’s unclear role in it all. Landscape, as it often turns out to be, is a very unreliable narrator here. I got the sense that the locations were written with such a deft touch because they are well known to the author or at least versions of them are. Indeed, much of the story seems drawn, in some cases perhaps worryingly so, from semi-autobiographical events in Scovell’s own life. The protagonist’s return to his childhood home after 20 years, passages of which are woven throughout the book, is punctuated with blurry Polaroids of meaningful places in both the then and the now. This may be a nod to the conceit used by Sebald in The Rings of Saturn and other works, and while the pictures are nice to see, I didn’t feel they were necessary to give more flavour to an already well-conjured landscape.

I enjoyed this novel and the resonance of its imagery, particularly that of the landscape in which the story unfolds. There is a finely-written ambiguity in the bearing of the modern-day protagonist, which leads the reader to question exactly what effect the childhood trauma has had on him and what really happened two decades earlier. Scovell’s work seems to get better and better and Nettles is probably his most satisfying work yet.


Nettles is published in April 2022 by Influx Press and is available to preorder now.

Does desolation have a waveform?

The deafening sounds of an empty house. 
Void of content, of contentment.
How dizzying the waveform of this roofless, rotting edifice.
How defining.

Mavisbank House stands, although only just, on a hill overlooking its former policies near the village of Polton in Midlothian. It yawns and pitches and crumbles imperceptibly as I approach. I gaze up at it from outside the high metal fence which is both perimeter and prison.

Encircled by trees, the area where the house sits has already conjured for me an aura of menace and desolation. Others have gone in and filmed “inside”, and you’ll find a number of rather uninspired and shaky camera examples of this on YouTube. There’s also some overhead footage from drones, and those videos more than anything else show the remarkable symmetry and splendour of this once great building.

But I didn’t want to go any further than the fence…

… and I wasn’t possessed of the necessary papers.


Designed by William Adam as a Palladian mansion with Baroque features, and constructed in the 1720s, Mavisbank remained a family home until it was utilised in the mid-nineteenth century as a lunatic asylum which remained its fate for more than 75 years. Neglected after the hospital closed and gutted by a fire in the 1970s, it’s in a very sorry state.

Today, it appears that the house has no legal owner, a somewhat uncommon and difficult proposition in Scots law. The Mavisbank Trust has made valiant efforts over the last two decades to find funding to restore the property and its policies, but so far there’s been no great windfall to help secure the future of the house and bring it back to something of its former glory (see the gallery of images on the Trust’s site here).

This might be an icehouse, but I didn’t venture inside. It was already cold enough.

Perhaps it was the greyness of the morning, perhaps that I was alone and hadn’t seen a soul since I left the village to walk here, but the overall feeling around the house was strange and unnerving. A murder of crows watched me from the trees, occasionally disturbed from their rest to patrol the buildings. These dark custodians didn’t lighten the mood any.

After an hour or so wandering round the house and grounds, I knew it was time to say a quiet farewell to Mavisbank.


And so, almost 300 years after it was built, how does it sound?

I pose the question: does the knowledge of the location of this recording affect the listener’s perception?

Imagine yourself motionless there, poised under grey skies, a hint of moisture in the surrounding air.
Imagine the feel of the grass under your feet, a sense of ill-defined scratchings from the undergrowth.
Imagine there is no other person close by. Probably.
Imagine that house of windowless eyes watching you, whichever way you turn.

Does desolation have a waveform? I believe it does.

A man, a plan, a canal

Hic sunt canales. Straight paths and slight bends, bridges over water, the hiss of the M8 motorway, stone waymarkers, decay on the fringes, a yellowhammer in winter branches. Forgive the dog Latin. This is the wave of translation.

An index of the ordinary, with too many entries to keep in my head till the return home. Yet I don’t stop walking to take out my notebook and write; I don’t record any voice memos to remind myself of what I’ve just seen: “Brian, remember not to forget to mention the eerie, abandoned landing area in front of the big house.”

KEEP OFF
LANDING
UNSAFE

…or…

“Brian, remember not to forget to record that feeling of intense vertigo on the Scott Russell Aqueduct.”

The A720, the infamous Edinburgh City Bypass, grumbles below.

…or…

“Brian, remember not to forget to find out who Scott Russell actually was.”

The photographs help (I took over a hundred shots), but looking back I’m on a different outing, or I was. The actual and the remembered rendered as a synthesised whole, not quite real but not entirely imagined. It’s always this way. After I stop walking, the walk continues, in my head and on the page.


25½ 6

or

even
those who
stumble
move forward


The bridges create a kind of rhythm, a pulse along the waterway. The ducks’ periodic dives beneath the waves are jazzy drum-fills. Union Canal blueskyblues.

And there’s always the giddy anticipation of a cyclist’s bell as you round the lip of each underbridge where the path is at its most narrow. Some say hello, others say thank you as I step aside, some don’t acknowledge I exist beyond ringing the bell. On the imagined walk, I erase them all.

As always, there are curiosities along the way, small surprises.

O, the travails of the graffiti artist, what suffering they bear with such noble grace.

Where there’s water, there’s rust, unsleeping.

And the colours. Those colours.

Even the numbers have a certain poetry, their significance unimportant. A countdown or a reckoning? It probably doesn’t matter at this point.

And I only walk so far before I have to retrace my steps, back along the same path I’ve already tramped. A palindrome with creased edges. This loop is linear, a flat circle. But I do at least learn later about John Scott Russell, the nineteenth century Scottish civil engineer and shipbuilder, and and his work on the solitary wave phenomenon.

This is Bridge 11, the unassuming spot where Scott Russell discovered the soliton wave in 1834.

I’ll leave you with his own words, the significance of which seems fitting for this walk that continued after I had finished it and the exact nature of which I “lost … in the windings of the channel.”

I was observing the motion of a boat which was rapidly drawn along a narrow channel by a pair of horses, when the boat suddenly stopped—not so the mass of water in the channel which it had put in motion; it accumulated round the prow of the vessel in a state of violent agitation, then suddenly leaving it behind, rolled forward with great velocity, assuming the form of a large solitary elevation, a rounded, smooth and well-defined heap of water, which continued its course along the channel apparently without change of form or diminution of speed. I followed it on horseback, and overtook it still rolling on at a rate of some eight or nine miles an hour, preserving its original figure some thirty feet long and a foot to a foot and a half in height. Its height gradually diminished, and after a chase of one or two miles I lost it in the windings of the channel. Such, in the month of August 1834, was my first chance interview with that singular and beautiful phenomenon which I have called the Wave of Translation.

Russell, J. Scott (1845). “Report on Waves”. Report of the fourteenth meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, York, September 1844 (PDF). London: John Murray. 311–390, Plates XLVII–LVII.

Happy new year

This morning, as the year turned, I too turned and returned to West Shore Road. It greeted me like an old friend, casting its sun on turbid waters.

Everywhere, small reminders of emptiness and calm. Long shadows proliferate.

The gasholder glared, an eye of silence in the haze.

Happy new year, everyone. I hope 2022 is a safe and creative year, full of kindness and quiet moments, for all of you out there.

Tiny Boats

A dead puffin on the path
to the shore, steep.
It’s a dry kind of moment
in this unreal autumn, not knowing
whether to mourn or be curious
about the colours.

The shingle, a shell’s span
of time: the brittle crunch
beneath my feet. One tiny boat,
handmade, handpainted,
LV426
run aground on a driftwood trunk,
another further on,
a steamboat, its painted funnel
an exclamation in black, in red,
faint shout across the sound
to a safer haven.

Edinburgh, October 2020
(Following a walk to the beach at Eagle Rock)

Continuing the drift

Some of you will know that for several years I’ve operated a separate project (“Edinburgh Drift”) which has encompassed a sort of semi-fictional, semi-dreamlike notion of walking and wondering. And trying to put all of that into words as best I can.

This project will continue but I’ve decided to incorporate everything here, under my own name. The website edindrift.me will exist until it doesn’t, but any new work on the project will appear on this website, not the original Edinburgh Drift site.

Quite a number of people follow the original site, so if you get to read this and would like to follow this one instead, I’d be very grateful. On the right hand side of this page, there’s a WordPress follow button (if you use the WordPress reader) or you can also follow the site by email. Thanks!