It’s been years since I did any serious mountaineering. 20 years ago my friends and I would regularly head to the Scottish hills, ‘bagging’ as many summits as many as possible by running between peaks. We were young, strong and fit. Nothing would stop us: the steeper, the harder, the higher, the better.
I haven’t been out walking on the hills for a long time. I commute by bike, car, or train: wheels roll and usually hydrocarbons take the strain. Maybe that why I’ve forgotten to love the steep and rocky parts of my unexpected journey over the High Road. My mind’s got flabby: I’m to used to the easy path.
I’m reading a borrowed copy of Sara Maitland’s ‘A Book of Silence‘ and I’m coming to understand why this part of my High Road is getting tougher. In the book she describes a long break in an isolated cottage on Skye: how she hears songs and voices on the wind, how she meets a shepherd but can’t work out if he was real or imagined, and how she runs in a panic from a lonely glen when she senses rocks that stare at her. The book looks at her experiences and those of the solo sailors competing in the 1968 non-stop Golden Globe race: Robin Knox-Johnston, who eventually won, Bernard Moitessier, who abandoned the race on the final straight (and just headed for Tahiti) and Donald Crowhurst, who descended into a mental breakdown that took his life.
Neither me, or my surroundings are silent and I’m not alone, but her descriptions fascinate me because they help me understand why this part of my High Road is tough going. I’m busy running the house, raising the family, running Kelvin Quad, writing papers and lectures and studying. I have a freedom in my time and activities that few men at my age have….but sometimes I cannot work out what to do. Why do I find myself re-reading the online news, or facebook again? Or mentally ruminating on emails that have been sent to me, or – interestingly enough – not sent. Like Maitland in her remote bothy, I’m hearing voices on the breeze as it murmurs through an empty inbox.
Until the end of 2015, I was active, driven and connected. I would get several emails, calls and visits every day from people or projects needing my attention. I learned to survive, and perhaps even thrive, in that hyper-connected environment. I had lots of projects on the go, so I needed and nurtured lots of connections both inside and outside the University. The connections were work related: they were centred on common goals, oriented to technical details, and veneered with professional courtesy. Networks are a key feature of academic life: I even lectured on the subject!
But that’s all gone.
Few people look for me now. Those that are aren’t looking for technical advice or some chemical calculation, but for practical help or manual work. I used to be – at least to myself and anyone that googled me – Dr Steven Ford, Senior Research Fellow, BSc, PhD etc. Now my Uni web profile’s been deleted, my academic networks are dissolving and those ‘post nominal’ degree letters seem to be peeling off. I’m hypo-connected.
I’m becoming, just Steve.