Change of scene

Last week saw a brief visit to Kirkby Lonsdale. It had all gone a bit old-school: we’d landed in a film set.


Here’s the ‘Market Square’ (usually a small car park)


A few of these were parked about.


You’d not know to look at it, but that entire archway’s a ‘prop’!


And prior to about 1960 no realistic street scene would be complete without laundry (there’s even a strategically-positioned washboard).




The dawn of ‘Time’

It’s a metal cock, standing on top of the world as if it owns the place.

Here is its story.


Strasbourg, Prague, Gdansk, Paris… and many cities throughout Europe are host to beautifully-designed, exquisitely-engineered astronomical clocks.

Being a mug for a well-turned piece of mechanical engineering, I have visited many of them. In the process I notived something of a coincidence.

All were built in the 6 decades or so following the year 1350.

Strasbourg started construction in 1360, with that mechanical metal cock. Prague was completed in 1404.

Why then, of all eras? After all, the technology involved was hardly new. Accurate astronomical measurements of the type reproduced here were being recorded in the 8th century Middle East, and incorporated into machinery with metal gears as far back as ancient Greece.

So why didn’t this take off for centuries, and why so suddenly? What were we all doing, in Europe, at the time?

The answer – to over-simplify but nevertheless – was, beginning to sell our labour. We, and all our time and work, had until then belonged to whoever owned the land we lived on, under the feudal system. But between the years 1347 and 1350 the Black Death carried off a third of the population. The remainder, traumatised and beginning to question their faith, still had to find a living. For the first time money, in the form of wages, began to make a regular appearance in ordinary people’s lives. Not just twice a year – rent and harvest – but all year round.

A way of life that would previously have been thought sinful had become enough of a necessity that the Church had to take notice. It became the arbiter of days.


This dial comes from a later version of the Strasbourg clock. It gives the saint for each date and, via the calculator in the inner circle, the day of the week.

Hours proved another challenge. Some conventions divided up the daylight into twelve parts, so that a summer hour lasted longer than a winter one. The astronomical clock in Prague displays those ‘unequal hours’ as well as regular ones. The newest Strasbourg  dial (1842) has regular hours, but includes pointers for sunrise and sunset.


You could buy or sell your hours, or hire-out anything else by the hour or day while the Church, hiding a mechanism it previously believed to be bordering on the satanic behind elaborate imagery of saints and apostles, acted as referee.

The Church, by measuring and displaying time, had enabled the beginning of modern capitalism.

To be fair, it was better than what had gone before.

One dimension

A woman on the train is reading a horoscope page from a magazine. Why? Why does the magazine even go to the trouble and expense of commissioning them? After all editor, reader and pretty much everyone else since about the year 1780 know that they’re nothing but woo.

What, in the end, is that woman paying for? And why a woman and not a man?

The idea of money – the culture of assigning any ‘good’ a value at some point along a simple number line – has its benefits for sure. It brings us goods and information that we may otherwise never enjoy.

But where we’re not looking, something stealthy is at play.

We place ever more in our lives on that number line – either on the positive side (good food, great music…) or the negative: things we’d pay to avoid. We place things on that line that don’t belong there because in our haste to move in a positive direction along it we forget what else there is. We lose, without knowing it, the ability to appreciate – even to describe – everything else.

We lose all the other dimensions.

Superstitions – those little rituals that we go through though we can’t explain why – are like some kind of attempt to hang on to the world of those other dimensions. We observe them – always reluctantly as they appear so lacking in reason – because doing so gives us some extra connection with a broader landscape than the alienating one which we must navigate in daily life: the one that’s always owned by someone else.

That black cat is looking out for you. That first star in the evening sky is offering you the chance to pause and ask: what do I really want in life? That solitary magpie is warning you: steel yourself against some coming misfortune…

To take part in this is to believe that our surroundings are talking to us: that in some way they even care about us and that we ‘belong’. The Astrologer is extending this beyond the day’s landscape and into the night sky. Isn’t this, literally, priceless? Like love, or loyalty, or plenty of other things we can’t measure and therefore can’t own, it’s not on that number line at all.

Of course this doesn’t stop anyone in commerce trying to convince us all to the contrary. Think of all the adverts which mention the words ‘love’ or ‘loyalty’!

And finally why a woman? Perhaps, on the minus side, she’s even less likely than a man to own, or have much say over, the landscape or the time through which she moves. But on the plus side there’s still, even today, a little less social pressure on her to compete in this ‘number-line’ game: to conform to just the one dimension.

Beyond the Dark Arches


It’s a walk out of Leeds, along the canal tow-path.

The word on the street is…


But there’s something lurking in the past.




A path runs to the garden of plants used for making dyestuffs.


My guess is most of the people who worked here wouldn’t remember it as this pleasant.

More like this:







Safety at Work: a tree planted as a memorial – and a reminder to keep what we have.


Better days.










The evanescent face

An invisible affliction haunts Verity, main character in ‘The Price of Time’.

Here, she bares all:

What if you had life-saving surgery as a kid and it worked, you think it’s all over: job done. You do well at school – heck, you go on to a career in scientific research. You like people: you’re always interested in what they have to say, yet you find socialising stressful and you’ve no idea why. You travel, you pick up foreign languages – including Chinese with its tones – yet you struggle to follow the thread of a film: always thinking wasn’t that the same bloke as the one who_?

You care about your surroundings and join a political party – the Greens – yet you feel unable to stand for office: you could make a brilliant interview for radio, TV or town hall but worry you’d look an idiot as their representative ‘on the street’. You wonder why.

People always seem to remember you, even if you can’t remember them. As a teenager you ponder the outlandish possibility that all bar you are telepathic but no-one’s had the heart to let on.

When you have children, someone asks you if looks run in your family and it dawns on you that you can’t begin to describe your Mum’s face – or your Dad’s, or even the husband you love. When the children go to school and you pick them up at 3:30 from a crowded playground you notice you have to wait for them to come to you before being able to tell who’s who.

And later, when their friends call round, it gets embarrassing: “Oh hello, er… come in!”

At international conferences you find your eyes flick to people’s name-badges: just to be sure.

Your former boss, whom you saw every day for years till last spring, happens to spot you working the allotment and you have a whole conversation before he says, quite casually, “You don’t know who I am, do you?”

You can’t lie.

You’re mortified.

And then, after nearly half a century of this, you find out that face-blindness – prosopagnosia – is a thing. There are people – about 0.5%, your comrades – who are no more able to remember a face than an ordinary individual is to remember what Middle C sounds like.

That doesn’t stop us seeing a face and noticing what it looks like – no more than failure of Perfect Pitch prevents the appreciation of music. It doesn’t stop us remembering a voice, a gait, a mannerism, a whole life-story: and that’s how we get by. Or we might try, during an introduction or a handshake, to ‘store’ a face using a list: ‘triangular; brown deep-set eyes; turned-up nose_’ but after 2 seconds it’s rude to stare.

Some folk inherit their face-blindness. For many it’s partial rather than complete and practice, especially when still young, can help.

In my case I was oxygen-starved for just one minute too long after that life-saving surgery and the tiny knot – it’s only a few hundred neurons of the brain – that deals with faces was lost.

Prosopagnosia doesn’t interfere with a person’s ability to read facial expressions.

Verity’s inability to do this – singling her out for her encounter in ‘The Price of Time‘ – has its roots in a second injury.