‘Is there light in Gorias?’ – reflections on metaphor and truth


‘Metaphor: a figure of speech by which a thing is spoken of as being that which it only resembles, as when a ferocious person is called a tiger‘

Chambers Dictionary

Saddling metaphor with a definition like that (which is typical, even down to the threadbare example) is akin to giving it a criminal record – wherever it goes, it will never be trusted: what this definition says is that metaphor is essentially dishonest, at best an exaggeration, at worst a downright lie.

The crucial fault of this definition is that it prejudges the issue: the writer has already decided that a ferocious person is not and cannot be a tiger – he wants to insist on a world where tigers and people are separate and distinct, where that distinction between one thing and another is crucial, a matter of logic: A = A; B = B; therefore A does not and cannot ever equal B.

What metaphor points to is a world where tigers and people can overlap and merge, a world where resemblance and connection is more important than distinction and separation, where A and B can be the same. In other words – and this is a point of fundamental importance – metaphor indicates that logic does not furnish a complete or adequate description of the world.

(This might be likened to people who live in a city and have no understanding of country ways, or people who mistake their own land and culture for the entire world and think that ‘we don’t do that’ means ‘that isn’t done.’)

2006ah4175_tipus_tigerWhat is needed is a new definition, one that is not intrinsically hostile – I would suggest

‘Metaphor: a linguistic device which invites us to consider one thing in terms of another, to clarify or deepen our understanding; one of the key instruments of thought.’
(and for ‘simile’ I would simply say ‘a variety of metaphor’ because there is no importance in the difference between them)

What this definition makes clear is that metaphor is not only an honest enterprise, but an aid and a benefit to thought, something that improves our understanding; but it does more than that – by a slight shift in perspective, this definition does away with a world of mischief.

It prevents the grave error of supposing that the terms ‘symbolic’ and ‘metaphorical’ are opposed to ‘literal’, to their detriment – in other words, that only what is literal is true, and anything else is not – it is mere symbol, just metaphor. My definition does away with the fear that by describing something as ‘metaphorical’ or ‘symbolic’ we are denying that it is true – as such, it should be of great service to theologians.

There is such a thing as literal truth, but like logic, it deals with only one aspect of the world, and quite a small part of it. To have literal truth you must first have letters. By that, I mean that you must have the notion of language existing independently of speech. Speech is particular: the words spoken are mine, yours, someone’s. It is only when we make the great leap of giving speech permanent form through letters that the notion of language as something independent of individual speakers arises, and from that, the concept of literal truth.

Literal truth is not a property of the world, but of words – and strictly speaking, of written words, though in any literate society the spoken language is informed and mediated by its written form. Thus a written account, or a spoken account that can be transcribed (consider why we use court reporters to transcribe all that is said in a court of law) can be literally true, if there is a correspondence between what it says and what happened. If there is a disparity between the account and the event, then the account is judged to be false or untrue.

It should be clear from this that only a limited range of things can be true in this way – descriptions of events that set out to give an accurate account of what happened, such as we might find from a witness in a courtroom, or a reporter at the scene, or a description of an experiment in chemistry. (Other accounts – such as the report of a football match – may consist of a mixture of material, only some of which can be literally true – the score, the time of the goals, the names of the scorers, the teams – while the rest is judgement and opinion. One man’s gripping contest might be another man’s dour tussle; the fact that one team enjoyed seventy percent possession does not contradict the assertion that the other team dominated the game and played the better football – the fact about percentage possession may be literally true, but that the other team dominated the game is a matter of judgement)

Where such descriptions are untrue, some might be false while others might be inaccurate or mistaken – falsehood implies deliberate intent on the part of the reporter, who knows the true state of affairs but chooses to give an inaccurate account for some reason; on the other hand, a careless, inobservant or inexperienced reporter might simply be inaccurate – he failed to see all that was happening, or misinterpreted it; there was no intention to deceive.

‘Facts are chiels that winna ding an downa be disputit’ as Burns wrote; but the point I want to make here is that the realm of the factual is only a small part of our experience – opinion, thought and feeling cover a great deal more, and in that realm ‘truth’ has a different meaning that should not be confused with the correspondence between words and facts that is the definition of ‘literal truth’. There we speak of things ‘ringing true’ and apprehend truth as a quality found in a painting, a story, a piece of music, a poem; and having found it, we do not persuade others of its truth by argument, we simply point and ask ‘do you get it?’.

Verification is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go very far: there is no process for verifying the truth of King Lear or a Beethoven quartet. These are things that are understood in a different way; ‘truth’ means something else here. That is what makes disputes between science and religion so arid and pointless.

(in writing that, and casting about for a suitable analogy, I was reminded of Alan Garner’s story ‘Elidor’ which supplies the title to this piece – in it, the sacred objects that the children bring back with them – cauldron, sacred stone and spear – assume the mundane appearance of a broken teacup, a bit of rock and an iron railing. Concepts of great importance in one realm lose their significance when transported to the other)

Carefree car-free circular


Today being a beautiful clear frosty November day I decided that a bike run was called for. In view of my recent unsatisfactory run on the Dream Roadster, I thought a change of bike was in order, so I decanted several from their hiding-place under the stairs (it’s remarkable just how many bicycles you can fit into a confined space – there are another half-dozen in there besides these, and a few frames to boot)


I decided to take the 1934 Royal Sunbeam, but first I wanted to change the saddle.


Its current saddle is a hybrid, using an old B66 cover (with my favourite keyhole slots and oval Brooks side-stamp) perched on a set of triple-wrought springs I’ve had for ages. Unfortunately, the cover (an eBay purchase) had suffered a makeshift repair, leaving it with a loose and awkward rivet at the rear (nearest the camera); it has also nearly reached the limits of its tension and begun to sag, so for all its handsome appearance, it is not the most comfortable ride.

Removing the old saddle revealed an interesting feature of the Sunbeam,  a closed-end seatpost. When were these introduced, I wonder? Presumably there is some notion of protecting the inside of the seat-tube.


I decided to fit the mystery saddle, which has now been identified with some degree of certainty as a Lepper – originally a German firm, as I now know, so that finding a similar saddle on a pre-War Goricke bicycle (also a German make) was not so remarkable. Many thanks to Rona Dijkhuis of the Slow Bicycle Movement and Maarten Bokslag, Chairman of De Oude Fiets (whom I contacted at Rona’s suggestion) for their help in my quest to identify it, detailed here.


I opted for a rather forward position for the new saddle, purely as an experiment – my older Sunbeam, a very comfortable bike to ride, has a ‘gallows’ type seat post which brings the seat a little further forward and more over the pedals, so I thought I might replicate that. In view of the new saddle and the experimental seat position, I reckoned a leisurely run was called for, with nothing too strenuous, so I decided to head into town and pick up the lade-side path. It was only when I paused for my first picture that I realised I had left my camera sitting on the garden seat at home (I had been distracted by fettling a loose rear mudguard).

I had ridden some way before I remembered that I had a camera anyway, in my phone. I was glad of it when I came to the point where the ladeside path has to cross the railway, because I was able to record this simple but effective aid to cyclists, an iron rail running up the side of the steps:


it mounts up one side


and down the other


and does the job it was intended for admirably (though you need a firm restraining hand or even a touch of brake on the descent). I missed this turning the last time I was out this way, so it was a pleasure to find a lengthy new stretch of the ladeside path. Though it is generally well-maintained with a tarmac surface, there is a pleasingly rougher section a bit further on:

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However, after following this part, I lost my way again – I had hoped to pick up the N77 national cycle route at Almondbank, though this involves an unsatisfactory crossing of a motorway bypass; but the route I followed petered out among houses and an industrial estate (if you consult the map, you can see where I went wrong, round about Edradour Terrace) and I ended up going back towards town and joining the N77 route via North Muirton. Heading along the banks of the Tay, my eye was caught by a large dark bird perched out in mid-stream. From its distinctive beak and greenish-black sheen, I took it to be a cormorant, possibly one I had seen before on the South Inch pond some time ago and recorded in this rather poor picture:


Unfortunately, the camera phone is not very good for this kind of thing – the bird can be seen here in the left middle ground, looking a bit like the celebrated ‘surgeon’s picture’ of the Loch Ness Monster:


while here it makes rather a nice impressionist blur:


This stretch of the Tay looks well at this time of year:



Some way further on I posed the bike with some street furniture with the bridge in the background

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then headed off along the broad Tay St pavement and on to the South Inch, crossing by the fine diagonal avenue:

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and so home, after a largely car-free  seven-and-a-half mile circuit of Perth (see route here). All in all, a much more satisfactory and uplifting trip than the previous one, detailed here. How much was that due to me, how much to the choice of bike and route, how much to the absence of wind? it is hard to say; anyway, it was much better.


And the new saddle? Already a firm favourite.

‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind!’


‘Walking for exercise? Pah!’

My father had a way saying ‘Pah!’ that was peculiarly dismissive. He liked a good walk, so it seemed an odd thing for him to say,  but I think it was his very love of walking that made him say it. To walk ‘for exercise’ carries an overtone of duress, as if the person would sooner not be walking at all, but feels obliged to;  it is as if all possibility of enjoyment has been removed beforehand – ‘I only do this for the exercise, you know.’ It was the grudging attitude that my father contemned.

A recent excursion on the Dream Roadster  prompted that memory of my father:  it was a ride I did not enjoy, I think in part because it was undertaken grudgingly, out of a sense of duty. In an endeavour to bring some order to my chaotic existence I had resolved to adopt some regular habits, chiefly in relation to my writing. Among them was the resolution that I would make at least one cycle excursion per week and write it up here. By Thursday I still had not done it, and since the day seemed fair enough for the time of year, I forced myself out.


Cycling is often, for me, a deliberate antidote to the melancholic lethargy to which I am prone, so it is not unusual to have to chide myself into it: ‘you’ll feel better for having done it; you know you’ll enjoy it once you’re out there.’  It generally works, but not always (and I was interested to find Lovely Bicycle blogging on much the same point, here – could it be the time of year?). The day was bright enough, with flaring Autumn colours


and I went by the usual secret paths


I rode up over the hill and down into Strathearn, pausing to admire the Earn on either side of the eponymous bridge:  SAM_0008 SAM_0011

but for all the beauty of the scenery the calmness of soul I was seeking (perhaps too determinedly) refused to manifest itself. Instead, I found myself annoyed with my bicycle: the saddle was not high enough, the handlebars were too low; it just didn’t seem right. Then there was the road: it was altogether too straight


in both directions


yet it was not easy cycling: for all the seemingly straight and level ground, I found I could not deploy my lordly hundred-and-fifty inch top gear and toiled along in the middle ranges.  Only gradually did it dawn on me that I was battling an invisible adversary: there was a steady headwind.

I am not a much of a man for getting wet – though there is a certain pleasure in defying the elements if you are dressed for it – but given the choice between wind and rain I think I would choose the latter. Rain is honest; wind is insidious. You know it more by its effects, as in this case, where a level ride seemed like toiling up a steady gradient. It is dispiriting; you are conscious of making less headway than you should, yet the cause is not apparent – it is not the wind you feel, so much as a resistance.

And having set out in what was not the best frame of mind, this soured my mood still further. Why was I doing this? Where was I going?

The answer to the second question was ‘nowhere in particular’ : I had resolved to investigate the road in the direction of Longforgan and Forteviot, partly as a scouting mission for some future attempt on the Ochil glens, though I did not think I would attempt the first opportunity for that, over the Path of Condie, which is steep and twisting.

SAM_0020 SAM_0021

(While I was taking the picture (badly – I know) the white pick-up truck came past, stopped, then reversed to where I was. The driver peered out and laughed, saying he had mistaken me for someone else – ‘I thought I knew the only cyclist who would stop to take the picture of a road sign’. I assured him that every cyclist has the urge to take pictures of roadsigns. I wonder if that is true? I remember when we were young my brother and I mocked our father’s penchant for taking pictures of roadsigns on our Irish holidays; yet now it seems perfectly sensible: few views are so distinctive in themselves as to be instantly recognisable; there is nothing quite so local and particular as a roadsign)

I toyed with the notion of making a circuit by turning North across the railway line and joining the Aberdalgie-Craigend road that featured in my earlier excursions here  and here, but eventually I resolved that enough was enough: I would simply turn back. When the road swung round at the junction with the Invermay road,


I decided that the splendid view of the distant hills that opened up was reward enough for any outing.


Heading back with the wind behind me I was able at last to use my mighty top gear, and went bowling along at a swift pace while pedalling in a leisurely manner. An ample pavement allows traffic-free cycling from Bridge of Earn to the Craigton interchange, with magnificent Autumn colours

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And the Tay from the top of the Edinburgh road is one of the pleasantest approaches to Perth


though in this case I was not quick enough to catch what had caught my eye, the unusual sight of a boat in mid-river – by the look of it, probably a semi-inflatable of the kind the fire service use.

So home at last, after a trip that seems pleasanter in remembrance than it was in reality, though that perhaps is because it is overlaid with the memory of one I have done since – just before writing this, in fact – which was altogether more satisfactory and uplifting.


And later in the evening there was a splendid moonrise, pictured at the top.

The route for this journey is here.

City of Desolation, Chapter 21: Across the Abyss

Jake’s attempt to cross the nightmare bridge began badly and soon got worse. So steep was the initial descent that the only way to do it was to clamber down ladder-fashion,using the wooden slats as rungs. Unfortunately, the slats were too wide to grip easily with his hands, while the gaps between them were too narrow to admit his feet beyond the slightest edge of the tip of his toe: every change of position was an agonising fumble for a toe-hold while his fingers clung desperately to the rough wood.

He had not gone far when he missed his footing altogether, hung for a moment with his full weight supported by the extremes of his fingers, then went rasping and slithering downwards at great speed, his whole body pummelled by the undulating slats, his chin abraded and his fingers lacerated by the friction of his fall. As he slid backwards down the narrow track an even greater fear came on him, that any attempt to stop himself by catching at the ropes on one side or the other would skew him sideways and sling him off the bridge altogether to leave him hanging over the void.

When at length the easing of the slope slowed him and he was able to bring himself to a stop, he looked up and saw that he had come a long way: the ledge where the bridge began was high above him and seemed very far away. He lay for a long time face down, clinging to the walkway, unable to slacken his grip in the paralysis of fear.

When finally he moved again it was by crawling backwards, as he did not dare turn round or attempt to stand lest he should slip in doing so and fall through the space at the side of the bridge: he could not bring himself to abandon the reassuring solidity of the slats.

After an age of miserably slow progress, he forced himself to kneel, then pulled
himself upright and at last, with infinite slowness – his knuckles white with gripping the side ropes – he manoeuvred himself round to face the way he was going.

The sight made his head reel and his stomach heave: he had come scarcely a quarter of the way across. In front of him, the bridge swooped down to its lowest point, then rose up, up, up with a steepness almost vertical to the huge dark rampart ahead. All about him yawned the abyss: he dared not look down.

He stood a long time,completely daunted, unable to put one foot in front of the other.

In the end, it was the rain that came to his rescue: it began as a chill drizzle, but soon developed into a battering downpour that drenched him to the skin and cut off any view beyond a couple of feet with a hissing curtain of wet. Cocooned in drenching misery, he shuffled onwards, fearing to raise his feet from the slippery slats.

Soon he was chilled to the bone and could think of nothing beyond the mechanical action of moving his arms and legs: he could not tell if he was even making progress; for all he knew he might be stationary, his hands and feet slipping constantly in an illusion of forward motion.

The wet cold must have numbed his imagination too, and with it his fear, because
when he came to a point in the bridge where the slats were missing and the void gaped a footstep in front of him, all that occurred to him was that now he must either turn back, or work his way along the side, his feet on the lower rope, his hands on the upper.

Since there was no question of going back, it was a simple matter of logic that
he must make his way along the slippery swaying rope, and he set out to do so in the same dogged manner that had driven him on through the rain. Some way in he found that a length of the footrope was missing, so he swung his legs up over the handrope and inched his way along it, hanging upside-down over the abyss.

There was a tricky moment extricating himself at the other end where the slats resumed – the bridge began to sway alarmingly as he shifted his weight, and for a time all he could do was hang on until the oscillations ceased.

He was by now on the upward slope, and the greatest challenge lay ahead, where the final ascent of the bridge grew steeper and steeper, so that at some point he would have to make the decision to scale it like a ladder. Before he could block it out, the memory came back to him of what had happened on the descent, and he had an excruciating vision of himself slipping back perpetually when he reached a certain point, until he became too tired to continue, and finally let himself slip headlong into the emptiness below.

He wondered if perhaps he ought to rest, but the fear of turning over in his sleep and rolling off into the void so terrified him that he decided to press

When he reached the critical point, he took off his shoes and hung them around his neck, reasoning that his bare toes would make more of the minimal holds available. Whether because of that, or perhaps because the slats were more widely spaced, he found he made better progress on this side – he had also evolved the technique of gripping the ends of the slats with his hands, which gave a surer purchase – but the fear of slipping was always on him, and it grew as the steepness of the slope increased.

Now he had to revert to curling his fingers over the top of the slats again, and his whole world, his entire existence, was reduced to the repetition of the same
sequence of tiny movements: right hand, left hand; right foot, left foot; right hand, left hand –

Then his right foot missed its toehold and flung him off balance so that his right hand slipped too and for the space of a heartbeat he hung one handed, his toes scrabbling to regain their hold, and then he saw that he could not support his weight in that position and for a full second before it happened he knew he must fall.

In that second a voice in his head told him plainly and calmly that his only hope was to abandon the slats altogether and try to catch the ropes that joined the bridge deck to the hand-ropes, which were like the rungs of a rope ladder, but too far apart to use for one; he saw that he must twist to one side or the other as he fell in order to grab at them –

and then he did fall, and his foot encountered a side rope almost at once and slipped off it again, so that he came down painfully straddling it, but with one hand gripping the hand-rope, so that he was able to hang on, though he could not prevent himself from swinging far out into space: the shoes round his neck unwound and he saw them falling, falling, falling until they were the merest speck – and for a space it was as if some part of him had fallen with the shoes, and was falling still, looking up at the bridge and the boy who clung there.

For a long time he sat astride the rope, cursing and weeping by turns, too terrified to move; then he fell silent, and saw that he had a choice: he could let go now, and follow his shoes down into the darkness below (were they still falling? What would it be like to fall so far, for so long?) or he could resume his climb, and keep going until he reached the top or his strength gave out.

All right, I’ll do that, he said, as if there was someone else there who had actually offered him these choices and was waiting for his reply. He imagined this person’s being pleased at his decision, and proceeded to explain to him how he was going to manage it – I’ll get a hold with my left hand, here, then move my left foot here – then I can pull myself up until my right foot is on the rope, and I can put my right hand up there –

It was simple, really: all he had to do was keep on repeating the same movements, concentrating all the time, and he must surely get somewhere in the end.

And in the end, he did: at last there was no more bridge to reach for, but instead a hard, sharp lip of rock, onto which he pulled himself gratefully and with a final effort dragged himself away from the edge before collapsing into an exhausted slumber.

When the rain woke him, he had no notion of how long he had been asleep – it might have been days, or only minutes – at any rate, it had been long enough for him to recover sufficient strength to stand up and propel himself along the broad stone roadway in the lashing rain.

As he went, the feeling of solid ground beneath his bare feet sustained him: whatever might lie ahead, he told himself, it could scarcely be any worse than he had already gone through on the bridge. He wondered, looking down at his toes, if his shoes were still falling.

He had followed the roadway through the vast arched tunnels that pierced the
buttresses twice already and could see the third looming up ahead when he was forced to a halt: the road in front of him was riven by a huge fissure hundreds of yards across; from far below he could hear the roar of water, and thought he could just make out, a lighter patch on the darkness, a cloud of vapour spray.

The wall on his right hand side was pierced at intervals by doorways, and to the first of these he now retraced his steps. He passed through a short tunnel, its roof just a little way above his head, its walls in easy touching distance; it ended in a flight of steps leading downward.

Don’t go down, Ulysses had said, but Jake could see no alternative. He went
cautiously down the steps and soon emerged onto a flat stone pavement. His first
thought was that although he had come indoors, as he imagined, it was still raining; his next was that the depth of darkness was less here – a sort of murky brown twilight prevailed, and he felt sure that if he gave his eyes time to adjust, he would be able to see his surroundings.

He stood and waited in the drizzling rain.

As his vision cleared, he saw that the rain was very localised, and indeed seemed to be falling only where he was: he took a few steps to the side, and found himself in the dry. Looking up, he saw that the shower of drops seemed to issue from a leak somewhere high above.

He was standing on a long stone pavement reminiscent of a railway platform, but beside it, where the railway should have been, there was a canal of dark water, bounded on the other side by a low parapet: there was empty space beyond. In the brownish murk – it was like being inside an old sepia photograph – he could just make out that he was on the edge of a great ravine or gulf on the other side of which was another vast stepped rampart like the one outside; but here, the space
between was not empty, but criss-crossed by a fantastic network of stone bridges
supported by impossibly tall arches. These were at every level: looking up, he could make out at least four layers above him; looking down, he saw that the bridges were in fact aqueducts, carrying canals across the gulf – there were perhaps half-a-dozen layers or more visible below.

To one side of the platform, he saw that the steps he had descended continued in a downward spiral; the other side ended some way off in a blank wall. Looking at the dark waters of the canal, he wondered what manner of craft travelled on them, and for what purpose.

As he watched, his eye was caught by something on the surface, and he saw that it was a raft of debris, a kind of mat of twigs and rubbish. What struck him
was that it was moving, very slowly but quite definitely, to the left.

He knew enough about canals to realise that was unusual: they were supposed to be level, without any current. Was it possible that in this incredible place the canals were tilted very slightly, in one direction or the other, to create a current that boats could move along?

As he was wrestling with the stupendous feat of engineering that would be necessary to create such a system, as if to confirm his surmise, a dim light appeared to his right and he saw that it was on the bow of a barge, the head of a long train of them, that was slowly gliding towards him.

Avoid the canals, Ulysses had said. Don’t go down.

It seemed now that he could only avoid the canal by taking the spiral stair, which certainly went down a lot more rapidly than the canal; and the canal at least went to the left. He crossed the platform and clambered on board the slow moving train of barges, settling himself in the bow, behind the light.

He must have fallen asleep again: when he woke, he was in darkness, though up ahead a weak horseshoe of light hung like an arch for the barge to pass through, only it never seemed to draw any closer. Had they stopped moving altogether? He reached up his hand and it brushed rough stone: he must be in a tunnel. The light ahead was thrown by the bowlamp; it served only to deepen the darkness around it, and gave no gauge of whether they were moving or stationary.

He reached up again, letting his hand trail against the roof, and in time became convinced that they were still moving, though very slowly.

So we will get there eventually, he told himself: I am in a long dark tunnel, but it must end sometime, and I will come out into the light. He visualised the end of the tunnel up ahead: a pinpoint of light that would slowly grow until it assumed the shape of an arch, gradually becoming larger as it drew nearer: even when it was still very far off, he would be able to see it, and would know that the tunnel must end eventually.

So there is always hope, he told himself, and settled back to wait.

As he sat crosslegged, eyes gazing into the darkness, he must have passed into some sort of trance-like state: he seemed to have become detached from his body, so that he now heard his own breathing as if it was a little to one side of him. The sensation was odd, and rather disturbing; it made him catch his breath to think of it – and when he did, the breathing beside him carried on.

There was someone sitting beside him in the dark.

Fear like paralysing cold washed over his scalp, then encased his neck and chest: he found it difficult to breathe. Who or what was beside him? He feared to reach out his hand, dreading what it might encounter – what if it was something scaly, or worse, covered in hair? He shuddered. Then a voice spoke, close to his ear.

– I don’t think this tunnel comes to an end, do you?

It was a slightly hoarse, insinuating voice – not pleasant, but the fact that whatever it was could talk filled Jake with relief. This lessening of his fear made him bold enough to answer

– Every tunnel has an end.

– Not this one: it goes down and down into the dark.

Something in the tone of the voice, and also the situation, stirred a memory of long, long ago: he had just started school and was sitting on a wall at playtime when another boy came and sat beside him and began talking, in the same sort of pretend-friendly way, about all sorts of bloodcurdling things.

He’s trying to frighten me,thought Jake, and the scale of his fear reduced still further: he knew how to play this game.

– How do you know? he asked.

– I live here

– So do I, ventured Jake.

The response was a low laugh.

– You do now.

– You wouldn’t know if a tunnel had no end, because you’d never reach it to
find out – you’d just keep on travelling.

– What do you think we’re doing now? asked the voice.

Jake began to feel slightly unnerved.

– The only way it could have no end is if it’s circular, he said firmly, and even then it must have an end because it had a beginning.

– What makes you think that?

– I remember going into it, back there.

Despite the dark, he gestured behind him.

– You’ve been asleep.

Jake did not quite know what to make of this sudden change of direction.

– So?

– So all that about going into the tunnel could have been a dream.

– It wasn’t!

– If you think about it, that’s just what you would dream about if you were
caught in an endless tunnel.

– I didn’t dream it! he shouted.

Jake could hear the note of desperation in his own voice. The insidious thought crept into his mind that the voice might be right – how did he know how long he had been here in the dark? How could he be sure that everything he thought he remembered was not just a dream he had just wakened up from? Perhaps he had done this before –

perhaps this was all he did – travelled in the dark, slept for a time and dreamed, woke and travelled on.

– How do you know you didn’t dream it? asked the voice.

He tried to be calm. He’s just winding you up, he told himself, like your brother used to do coming home from church when he would say he had the doorkey even though you knew you had it in your pocket, but he managed to sound so certain that you got angrier and angrier and always ended up pulling it out of your pocket to show him, and then you felt a fool because he’d made you do it, just by his tone of voice –

this recollection cheered him. I didn’t dream that, he thought: part of him could still feel the intense frustration of all those years ago, though he could laugh at it now. He did laugh, aloud. Two can play at that game, he thought.

– But the tunnel has an end now, he asserted boldly. I just made it have one: I

can do that, with my mind. I just think of a thing and there it is.

– Where is it then?

Was it just his fancy, or did the voice seem a little less sure of itself?

– Just up ahead.

– I don’t see it.

– Wait and see, he said, as smugly as he could.

And it is there, he told himself: every tunnel has an end, like a little pinpoint of light that slowly gets bigger. Instead of straining his eyes into the dark, he closed them, and concentrated on the pinpoint of light in his mind’s eye. It gets bigger and bigger, he told himself, until you begin to be able to make out its shape, like an inverted shield hung there in front of you –

a slight, disgruntled sound from his invisible companion made him open his eyes again. There ahead, just as he had imagined it, was the shield of light. Soon the interior of the tunnel had lightened enough to allow him to make out the brickwork overhead, and at last the train of barges emerged into the open again.

He turned and saw that his companion was a boy who, by his size, was younger than he was; but his face had a wizened, aged look, and for a moment Jake wondered if he was a boy at all and not some kind of midget. He was swathed in rags, and his skin was filthy.

– I was just joking about the tunnel, he said.

– I know, said Jake.

– Are you going to the city?

– Yes.

– It’s lucky you’ve got me with you then – this is where you want to get off, just up here.

The barge was gliding in alongside another platform, with stairs leading down from it, though none, as far as Jake could make out, leading up.

– Well, hop off then, if you’re for the city, said his wizened companion. That
stair on the left is the quickest way.

His voice was friendly, even warm. Jake considered. Avoid the canals and don’t go down. He shook his head.

– I don’t think so, he said.

– You’d better jump now, or you’ll miss it, said the other.

– Nah.

– I’m telling you, this is the stop for the city! his tone was harsher now.

– Changed my mind, said Jake. Don’t think I’ll go to the city after all.

His companion lapsed into a sulk.

– That’s what you think, he said after a time. I was just joking you – the city’s still up ahead: the canal stops there. You can’t go any further.

– I know, said Jake, with infuriating sweetness.

They entered another short tunnel from which they emerged into a vast space like a railway terminus: overhead there was a huge vaulted roof of steel and glass, while on the ground canals like flooded railway lines ended in long channels between platforms. Everywhere there was a great bustle of unloading and movement, and Jake was in no doubt that this must be his objective: only the proximity of a great city could generate this kind of activity.

– Over there, said his companion, emerging from his sulk. Go left!

Jake saw that the canal branched up ahead, like a letter Y; further on, each branch also forked, so that the approach was like a river delta.

– left, left! yelled his companion.

– How? shouted Jake.

– The tiller!

He pointed back: Jake saw that there was indeed a long tiller arm that came almost the length of the barge. He jumped up on the canopy had put it hard over.

– No, no! The other way – push it right to go left!

– Sorry! said Jake, wrenching it back in embarrassment.

The bow caught in the jaws of the left hand channel; the barge bounced from one wall to the other, then slid in. His companion made a contemptuous noise.

– Where’d you learn to steer?

Jake, on his mettle, was determined to do better next time.

– What way now? he asked.

– Just keep going left. The terminal we want is on the far side.

He made a better job of it this time, though he still scraped along one side. He

concentrated furiously at the next branch, and made a clean entry. He grinned in

triumph at his companion, who grinned back.

– This is it coming up, he shouted. I’ll go astern to unhitch – you steer the barge into the caisson.

– The what?

– The caisson, shouted the other, darting nimbly along to the other end of the
barge. That big iron thing at the end of the line!

Looking ahead, Jake saw that the canal divided once more, into two branches of
unequal length: the left-hand one was shorter, and seemed to terminate in a big iron tub that was open at one end; the right-hand one ran past this, ending in a solid gate.

– Which one is it? Jake yelled back.

– Left! Left! came the shouted reply.

Jake steered left, and felt the barge move forward with a sudden lurch: looking back,he saw that his companion had detached the train and tied it to a bollard, so that he was now moving alone into the waiting dock. He took particular care in steering a centre course and was pleased to enter without touching either side; however, there was no way of stopping the forward motion, and he had to be content to run into the far end of the caisson, which he did with a resounding boom.

At almost the same moment, he was aware of a whirring noise behind him, and looking round he saw an iron gate descend to block off the entrance: he was now floating in what was effectively a giant bathtub. He looked round for his companion and saw him come running up, grinning and waving. Jake gestured to him to come aboard, but instead he turned aside to a huge lever – taller than he was – on which he swung with all his might.

There was a rumble of machinery; the tub jolted, slopping the water so that the
barge dunted the side. For a moment, Jake could not work out what was happening,
then the motion became unmistakable: the entire caisson, barge and all, was rolling sideways down a steep ramp.

– What’s this? he yelled to the figure who stood beside the lever, a grin splitting his face.

– It’s called an incline plane, he shouted back, gleefully. It takes you down!

– Down where?

But the caisson was descending at such speed that the boy was lost to view over the top of the ramp; Jake clung to the side of the barge in terror. He thought he heard a distant shout of ‘just joking you!’ from above as he plunged away.

He had been descending for some time, without slackening speed, when he became
aware of a noise coming up to meet him – a mechanical rumble, overlaid with voices shrieking. All at once another caisson swung up from the darkness below and shot past him on a parallel track, the barge it was carrying laden with figures like the wizened boy, hooting and jabbering and pointing scornfully at Jake. As their caisson climbed away from him, they leaned over the side and waved to him in mocking farewell.

He shot downwards into the dark.

The Dark Secret of Pottiehill


All right, I can see you’re not convinced: how can a place called Pottiehill have a dark secret? Yet it does; I have seen it. I have pictures (though some of them are a little odd – an unfamiliar camera).

But first, the curious case of Benjamin Button. (you see what I am doing here? Suspense! The craft of fiction)

Some time ago I pondered the need for an improved gear set-up on my Dream Roadster. In a flurry of energy I actually obtained the necessary 14T cog,

– which is a good deal smaller than the 18T it replaces –

I fitted it (with the usual pantomime of levering off spring clips with screwdrivers and wondering where they will fly to – but at least I had the good sense to wear eye protection)


and set out, only to find, to my chagrin, that somewhere in the few hundred yards I had travelled from the house I had lost the changer button on one side of my Schlumpf Mountain Drive.


I retraced my steps several times, back and forth, but to no avail; so there was nothing for it but to ring Ben Cooper at Kinetics – a splendid shop in Glasgow where I got the Mountain Drive originally, many years ago now – to see if he could supply a replacement. He could, but of course that meant a further delay.


The button comes with its own delicate Allen key, used to secure the tiny grub screw in the centre against the end of the changing rod, where it acts (as far as I can see) rather like a lock-nut.


Though I tightened it vigorously as advised, I am still nervous of losing it again – I wonder if a set of natty leather gaiters (perhaps in matching red) designed to fit the top end of the crank would bring peace of mind? Something to ponder, perhaps even make, in the long winter nights.

In the meantime I obtained another replacement, for my Lucas Mileometer (or Odometer, if you will) which disappeared in the course of my last major excursion – the same one that convinced me my gear set-up needed changing.

But to our tale: it being a fine class of Autumn day for the first of November – All Saints’ Day – I resolved to make an excursion. Not only did I rig the mileometer, I also transferred my ferociusly powerful Smart BL201 headlights (powered by a rechargeable lead-acid battery) from the 1923 Royal Sunbeam. Here we see them blazing futilely against the light of day, ‘crying like a fire in the sun’ as Bob Dylan might say:


Why the lights? Well, if you are off delving into dark secrets, it is wise to have some; I also took a torch, being unsure that I would be able to take my bicycle where I was going. You may notice that I have repositioned my trusty Lidl handlebar bag behind the bars to accommodate the lights, but this proved impractical, as my knees hit against it, so after a short distance on the road I transferred it to the saddlebag position.

I set off over the hill by the Edinburgh Road and down into Strathearn. There had been a heavy shower of rain while I was working on the bike, but the weather was clearing steadily, with sunlight on the distant hills.




In Bridge of Earn I paused to take some pictures, first of a signpost, then of a curious agricultural implement on display near by.





Then off I went along the Wicks o’ Baiglie Road, which once upon a time was the smart route to take if you were driving to Edinburgh and there was a lot of slow-moving traffic ahead:  you knew you would never pass it in the tortuous passage of Glenfarg, but if you belted over the Wicks o’ Baiglie you might well beat it to the other side. These days are gone now, since the M90 motorway now bypasses Glenfarg altogether. But how was my new gear set-up, I hear you cry, plaintively. Very good, I am happy to say, though I did lose my chain very early on ascending the Edinburgh Road; the Mountain Drive in low gear under stress seems susceptible to any variation in chainline. Happily there was no repetition, and I found that I was glad of even my lowest gear ascending the Wicks o’ Baiglie Road, seen here looking back – a long steady mercilessly straight climb:


Earlier, on the flat, I had tried out my Lord-of-Creation one-hundred-and-fifty-inch top gear and found it every bit as delightful as I hoped:  you bowl along at tremendous speed, yet pedalling in a slow and stately manner.  However, I was a little wary of the quantities of wet leaves – a notoriously tricky surface.  At another point there was a constant crepitation as I cycled through beech-mast:  the sounds of Autumn.

The first sign of my destination was the remains of what had been a railway over-bridge looming ahead:


On the other side of it I found a gate which was locked, so I lifted the bike over but was content to duck myself through a large gap in the wire fence, as befitted my years and diminished athleticism.

And there I was, on what was once the North British Railway line from Mawcarse Junction to Bridge of Earn via Glenfarg.  A distant tree caught the sun and blazed out bright gold, which I took to be a happy augury;  there was also a rainbow, and a splendid buzzard which flew up from right to left, which the Romans would doubtless have deemed auspicious.


The line was closed in January 1970, having evaded the Beeching axe, probably because of the proposed route of the M90, mentioned above. It must have been a pleasant one to travel, fairly high up one side of a broad valley at this point, with fine views across to the confluence of Strathearn and Strathtay.


I cycled on through pleasant Autumn woodland, past a great stack of felled timber


And then up ahead, there it was, the dark secret of Pottiehill:


This is the northernmost of two tunnels, each about 500 metres in length, which took the line from Glen Farg across into Strathearn.

I like tunnels. My first serious experience of them was not on the railway (though I have been through many, I am sure, but in a train it is just a darkness) but on the more ancient transport route of the English canals, where there are some splendid and very lengthy tunnels. Transiting a tunnel in a narrowboat is an eerie experience: you are surrounded by dark, with only a narrow horsehoe of light some sixty feet ahead, thrown out by the small bow light, which is not so much for illumination as to let others know you are coming.  The first few times I did it I suffered the consistent hallucination that I was actually in a much vaster space, and not the narrow confines of a tunnel just wide enough to let two boats pass one another and just high enough to give them clear passage.  (My canal tunnel experiences found their way into my writing – in my third published book, City of Desolation, my young hero Jake finds himself on a Dantesque journey through Hell, which has evolved somewhat since Dante’s day, having acquired (among other things) an underground canal system – see here)

The Pottiehill tunnel is a fine feat of engineering and the interior for the most part is dry and entirely sound; the ground is a little uneven, but is not difficult to cycle, though I was glad of my powerful lights, as the tunnel has a considerable bend so that you cannot see the far end and the near one at the same time.

I had heard tales that these tunnels had been used to store old steam locomotives as a precaution against nuclear war (the reasoning being that a steam engine would be easier to fuel than a diesel in the disruption that followed) but I think that is just wishful thinking on the part of old steam men and romantic civil servants.  In this case it would not be terribly practical, since the line has been taken up, and as far as I know, the tunnels (unlike some others) have never actually been closed off.

I emerged from the North tunnel onto a pleasant stretch of overgrown trackbed running between autumn woods, but it was very muddy underwheel and for some distance was in fact the bed of a stream;  but this is the kind of thing that imperial roadsters take in their stride.  I would not attempt it on a narrow-tyred mount.  After some distance I came on a conundrum: the main path rose steeply to the right, with a more overgrown fork descending to the left.

I dismounted and tried the upward path, but had not gone far before reason told me it was much too steep for any railway line. So I turned back, left the bike, and made my way ahead on foot.


The path was not cyclable: it was criss-crossed with fallen trees, and in places was very boggy.




But I persevered and was rewarded with a sight of the North portal of the South tunnel, though it did not look exactly like this:


I went through with the aid of my torch, and again found the surface dry and sound.


There is the rusted shell of a car at the Southern end; I was expecting it, as it is mentioned on various websites; but I still wondered how it got there.



A little way beyond the tunnel, a fine viaduct crosses Glenfarg, and down the side you can glimpse (a good way below) the river Farg and the road running beside it.


I crossed the viaduct and went as far as the gate that bars it; the line runs on invitingly,


while looking back you have a fine view of the South Portal across the viaduct



but for me it was time to turn back. At the South Portal, I came on a strange fellow hanging around:


The South tunnel is straight enough to see both ends from the middle, though you need to stand to one side, so it clearly has a bend in it. I went back through without using the torch, just for the fun of it. It is surprising, once your eyes get used to the dark, just how much you can see, and one thing you notice is how any surface that faces the tunnel mouth behind you catches the light. In honour of my brother Brendan, who instituted a tradition of tunnel-singing on the canals, I tested the acoustic with a verse of the Tantum Ergo. Fortunately there was no-one else to hear.


Emerged on the other side and reunited with my bike (I had chained it to a tree – doubtless an unnecessary precaution, but peace of mind is a great thing)


I made my way back through mud, stream and tunnel,



pausing to snap a harrow sheltering in the North portal, like the remains of some giant insect or alien creature



I think that my attempts to take pictures in the tunnel must have confused the automatic settings, because the shots I took after I emerged had an odd sort of old-fashioned-postcard quality to them,  like this  vista of Strathearn meeting Strathtay.




I saw that there was an alternative route off to the left and hoping to avoid the gate I took it, only to find I had miscalculated somewhat – to my surprise, instead of rejoining the road a little further up the hill than I left it, I found myself swinging right and passing under a substantial bridge that I had not realised was there;  yet I must in fact have crossed it. The reason for it was clearly the stream that I was now cycling alongside, with the road I wanted  on the farther side. However, I was not too perturbed, reasoning that a well-made track must lead somewhere, and it was heading in the right general direction.  A little way on I came on some substantial but derelict farm buildings, which had the haunting quality all such buildings have, enhanced in the picture by the weird colour setting, which nonetheless captures the atmosphere surprisingly well

Carrying on for some way I emerged at last onto a side road; a sign at the point where the track debouched informed me that it was a private road with no vehicular access, so had I come on it at that end, I probably would not have gone up.  As a matter of fact, the way I went is more direct and easier, apart from negotiating the gate, but this was a very pleasant return route.

The light was failing rapidly, not so much from the onset of night as the weather, but as I had neglected to rig a rear light with my headlights, not thinking I would be out so late, I made one more stop for pictures then headed home.

All in all, a most satisfactory excursion and a sovereign specific for driving away melancholy. The route can be seen here.