Millican Dalton: A Sublime Midlife Crisis
The relevance of a 20th century cave-dweller to environmental aesthetics.
Wednesday, 23 December 2020
At the mouth of the cave at Borrowdale, May 2020. Photograph: Lewis Eaton.
On a swelteringly hot day in the North Western Fells of The Lake District, the gaping mouth of a cave offered itself as a refuge and swallowed us mercifully into its cool damp interior. Caves are otherworldly places. This particular cave, set into the hillside of Castle Crag, allows you to peer out at the gently swaying trees and glimmering daylight of the outside world from a viewing point void of light and sound. The daytrip itself had been to seek refuge in The Lakes; an attempt at replacing the stagnancy of a locked-down city summer with a more welcome, less claustrophobic, kind of tranquillity. We spent a few minutes scrambling around on the siltstone, marvelling at the height of the cave walls and exchanging the obligatory comments about feeling small in big spaces. On leaving, I noticed a large, flat stone covered in scrawlings. At the centre in neat, deeply-etched letters read ‘Don’t Waste Words, Jump to Conclusions’ with dozens of smaller sections of writing surrounding this. Each gave names and dates, with many faded with age and dissolving back into the stone’s surface. It was from a frantic Googling during the car ride home that I came to find out we had happened across a sort-of pilgrimage place for hikers: the cave in which a man had lived out his summers for over forty consecutive years.
In 1904, at the age of thirty-six, Millican Dalton gave up his life as an insurance clerk in London in order to dedicate himself to The Great Outdoors. Having spent part of his childhood in Nenthead, the North Pennines, he found life and work in the capital stifling in comparison. From then on Dalton split his year, spending the summer months in the cave under Castle Crag and winters in a canvas hut in Buckinghamshire. Far from your conventional hermit, Dalton was an active and sociable member of the community. He organised camping excursions for the outdoors novice which included teaching hiking, rock climbing, rafting and how to forage for food. What I found extraordinary for the time was that these excursions didn’t exclude women, with one of Dalton’s advertisements for a mountaineering course stating his views bluntly: “Ladies are welcome to the camp. There is nothing new in ladies camping, the custom being at least 10,000 years old.” This rare indiscriminate approach led to Dalton forging a long-lasting friendship with geologist Mabel Barker, who over the years consistently recommended Dalton’s courses to women students and friends.
Dalton and Barker atop a needle, 1913. The Mable Barker Collection.
Laura Allsopp-Huddle | 23 November 2022
Naked Words to redress the book
Clicking typing- heavy sighs. Browsing scrolling silent cries
I wonder how far you've wandered, how many steps your watch could count
I wonder from the distance you've travelled, how many shelves you've ravaged, before the spines give out
Dog-eared torn- Do not write in pen
But how else would you remember how the damn thing ends.
Hidden lost between these realms
Discovered found outside themselves
There is something within these stacks and fragments of broken collective
Something about the institute, emblem, that seems seductive, suggestive
You’re here, you’ve earned your place! Do not let it go to waste.
Click type silent sighs- Browse scroll studious eyes
I wonder how far you’ve stumbled, how many ideas you’ve tossed away,
I wonder how much potential is wasted, how you contrive your mind to what the theories say
Neither the eyes, nor windows, are portals to your soul. The inked pages alone, will your truth, recall
It's a shame- you’ll never write those soulful thoughts onto a page for us all
You’ll just click and type- only open your mouth to let out a sigh
You’ll memorise and write about some dead guy
We’ll never know the genius that could have been
Because subconsciously you’re convinced your thoughts aren't worthy of being seen.
But perhaps that’s the curse- I’ve read enough to know- the age of rebirth happened far too long ago.
We study it so much that we now believe,
Everything worth writing about, painting, singing, inventing,
Whatever one may conceive-
Has already been written out, painted, sung and invented,
It is futile. The age of rebirth has long been suspended
Well, read this or no, I think it’s time that bloody curse ended.
Radical need not be the only valid time spender,
Shock factor need not be the only art agenda.
So lower that book for a minute- hiding your face, take a moment from your computer, step into the human race,
Tell me, are you reborn? Enlightened? Romantic? Perhaps a modernist?
Could you show me what's worth keeping, among all of this?
Be inspired, by all means. Be informed, yes!
But be fired up, by any means. If you do not know the answer, guess!
Life is too short to merely regurgitate names, and their theories,
Bored, weary, shouting into the webcam, can you hear me?
Trust- that dreaded word- that what you have to say matters, even if it feels eerily similar to something you’ve already heard.
What if- that dreaded phrase- your own idea was sparked, ignited, by something on that page.
Worthy of a rebirth, the renaissance of our own age.
Clicking typing heavy sighs. Browsing scrolling questioning lies
What if the link is broken? Typing, but words are often louder spoken!
I believe- now hear me out- we may yet conceive- a future of education that isn’t based on the degradation of the individualist idea
That curriculum, well it just could become, an open book, a circus, a screen, an international trip, a courage to the fear
A sigh of relief, is it getting hot in here?
The fire you ignited, this desire to create you’ve invited,
could fill up your word count much faster than the most recent theories you chase after.
Keyboards at long last still for the evening- overwhelmed, hard pressed, but able to breathe
You switch off your computer, prepared this empty darkened library to leave
A head full of histories, collective memories, original thought a comical fantasy
When you notice, one book that you’ve never seen
On a shelf many times you’re sure you’ve already ravaged
Something you haven't read? No! The audacity of a savage.
Yet upon reaching out lifting the weight of its leaves with one inquisitive hand
Peeling back it's covers you reveal something anyone well read could never understand
There’s something, other than finding a book you’ve never read, even more outrageous
There are, how do I say this? Hundreds and hundreds of empty pages!
You fall to a chair, flabbergasted Are you impressed by my vocabulary? That’s what my reading did for me
Wondering how the spectacle wearing intelligentsia forces of the librarians could have passed this.
Your fingers trace the leather back to front, passing it from one hand to the other, left to right.
All that empty space, wasted bark pressed to white
Waiting endlessly for some doctorate, theorist or philosopher to write
The room is silent as you lift the book again, when oh!
Into your lap drops from between the pages of the book, a battered well inked steel pen
Between an empty book, and a tool filled with blackened possibility,
There is a head, up there on the only pair of shoulders in this room, full of masterful, praised, canonised, seminal writers of the past.
Would you, could you, write something of your own at last?
Rock and a hard place, paper and a pen. When your discourses of potential are demanding decisions, what then?
When your essays, tweets and captions that call for action are all truly put to the test
Might you write something that disappears on a shelf, dusty, derivative, mimicry of all the rest?
Or can you carve out- change- write something on the empty page of your history
Create kindling that ignites a generation’s hearts?
It doesn’t have to be perfect, you just need to be willing to conceive, that it’s worth it to start.