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A few weeks ago Ana, my wise and witty electric friend (we ‘met’ serendipitously on a FutureLearn digital education course some years ago) from Oregon, USA emailed me a segment of music from 2012 by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt to the words of Robbie Burns’ ‘My heart’s in the Highlands’. The exchange was stimulated by us both missing the soulful joys of travel, and seeing places and people, both new and familiar. It is a haunting piece with a dolefully mantra-like quality to the singing; indeed, it is inspired by Pärt’s love of Gregorian chanting. It is not something I would deliberately seek out to cheer my lockdown waking hours but Ana had been sufficiently compelled to poke it in my direction from eight time zones away.

So, under the quixotic rules of improbable possibilities imagine my sort of surprise when I heard it repeated this weekend in mid-May, mid-lockdown, on BBC Radio 4. The occasion was ‘Desert Island Discs’ and the guest presenter was Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. I could listen to Simon’s West Yorkshire voice for hours as a feast of nostalgic longing for northerner-ness (a type of dour Tír na nÓg for Yorkshire folk to share mythic tales of the old country whilst bathing in the fountain of youth and eating mushy peas; that sort of thing). By the by and much to my surprise his final music selection was ‘My heart’s in the Highlands’ in the exact 2012 Estonian version that Ana had emailed to me. 

Now here’s the thing. The woman who designed the lettering for my second book ‘Apples, Berkshire, Cider’, is Pip Hall. She was commissioned to heroically carve some of Simon’s nature poetry into rock faces and boulders in the Yorkshire Pennines. She thus co-created the Stanza Trail, a 47 mile walking route linking the carved stones to Ilkley and Simon’s hometown of Marsden. They published a book called ‘Stanza Stones’ and she invited me to the launch back in 2013. At the book signing after the speeches and readings, I jokingly asked Simon to dedicate my copy to my wife with our old family adage of “it’s grim up north”. He wrote with a flourish - “it’s not grim up north”. That’s how he is.

Re-reading the book this weekend I noted how Pip the letterer described presenting her typological style suggestions to Simon.

“My first designs for the Stanza Stones letters were plain, bold sans serifs, well-spaced with minimal variations of stroke width, aiming at restraint and stillness. Nonetheless they got the thumbs-down from Simon, who seemed concerned that they might suggest something was lacking in the poetry. ‘Too curly’ was his verdict”

I, however, remembered with delight how Pip’s curly-wurly swiggly lettering had so impressed me on viewing the first draft of ‘Apples, Berkshire, Cider’ on illustrator Pete Hay’s kitchen table. It was unlike anything I could have imaginatively conceived from a standing start. I still love that book for its uneasy but creative triumvirate-directed mutual quirkiness.

Improbable as it might be in this context, but spurred by lockdown to clear out a small portion of the shed, I came across a long forgotten collection of 40 year old samples of heavy mineral grains. These were the last hurrah of my foray into post-graduate geology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. The samples of sandstone collected in the field were gently hand ground to release the grains from the cementing matrix and this sand was then ‘floated’ on a liquid mercurous compound. It might seem odd to float rock but anything will float if the liquid it lies on has a higher specific gravity (see Epsom salts and human beings). The heavier crystal components of the sand slowly slipped, after a vigorous stir, through the semi-opaque liquid to the bottom of the burette leaving the lighter quartz, feldspar and mica floating atop. These heavy minerals included gemstone zircons, tourmalines, rare topaz, rarer gold but mainly pink garnets. Each grain to be tested was washed and placed on a slide for Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) and chemical analysis. 

The improbable link to the Stanza Stones is that, 30 years apart, both beds of rock chosen by Pip for her lettering and me for my analysis were the 300 million year old  Carboniferous (Namurian) age millstone grit. The exact same strata. These deltaic current-bedded fossilised memories of dramatic climate change, erratic but cyclical rise and fall of sea levels and consequently colossal fluvial erosion give clues to their provenance. My project was to determine their source. Which turned out to be the granite intrusions of Dumfries and Galloway the stumps of which still exist in Scottish Lowland hills like Criffel and Curlywee. These are also the hills of Burns Country the everyday dominant western skyline backdrop to eighteenth century life in Dumfries, Ecclefechan, Gatehouse of Fleet and Annan. The stomping grounds of Robbie Burns’ poetry and song-forming.

And so to our third poet, William Blake. The man who saw the world in a grain of sand. I felt a strong arenaceous pull towards Blake when I looked at my micrographs. The SEM photographs were stunning and with a capability of x30000 resolution there really were valleys, river systems and undulating highlands etched like broccoli in the crystalline faces of each and every grain. Despite the scientific endeavour they held me spellbound in glorious wonder. I had indeed been eyewitness to the imagination of poets.


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