In the credits of your life, scrolling slow as you breathe your last, who would appear there, writ in your misty mind? Star billing would be reserved for the stars, those you loved the most, those that loved you back, thick and thin and all that, that gave life its weight and value and meaning.
Next would come to the friends — and enemies — each important in their own way, who drew tears down our cheeks, the quick and the slow, those that broke you out or broke you up, who lifted your chin to look up at the stars or forced your eyes to the ground. We owe as much to hate as to love, but what grip would there be in a slowing heart to hold on to the weight of anger when love weighs less than nothing at all. I hope in that moment you could see every single person you shared the stage with as playing a supporting part.
But now who would go next, who else would belong on these rolling credits, who would sit and wait for their name to appear, or would surprised to see their name rising there?
Bill Gordon is on my list, a man some of you will know you know, and some of you know without even knowing it. Bill is a character within the story of my life, only a minor part, but one I feel has been there for so long he is more than the sum.
The first time I met Bill may be a meeting that never ever took place at all, some make-believe, me a kid, him a young man, sometime in the 80’s. In this head story, Bill is in charge of North Lees campsite, set below Stanage, a bolt of angled green through a forested hillside, with a square toilet block, the kind where daddy long legs hang in webs, where the light goes off if you sit too long. This silent fold within a hill would not be ideal on paper for camping, but which in reality is perfect flat ground be dammed. In my fake memory, I’m there with my dad and my brother and sister, the first time I ever climbed on Grit. Bill is there too, in wellies and green and corduroy, taking the morning dew money for the night before as sausages sizzle. There is something about that place, the campsite, like the valley from Z for Zachariah, the last place on earth free from the toxic beyond.
Have you ever been somewhere where you never wanted to leave, where you felt you belonged, where your heart did not feel vice gripped, where you felt you could lay looking up at the clouds forever?
On the last morning there I walked up the hill, through the damp ferns, and scrambled up to the top of Stanage and told myself this was just such a place.
And so it came true, as things do when you try to make them so, me and Bill crossing paths a few more times in between, hitching to the North Less one time, bivvying under some palettes another, getting the train but forgetting my rope. By now Bill had taken on his role and I knew who he was, he was Bill, North Lees Bill.
And so I ended up working near Bill, seeing him all the time, him never aware what he meant or represented, to me and many, a link between where they are and where they want to be, his little campsite a place people dreamed to be (there are no midges and rain clouds in dreams).
I found Bill was not just the guardian of sloping pitches, but in charge of many others things, the hills and woods and crags his to protect. I would see him in his van, patrolling, always on the lookout for newborn fire pits or grungy campers, sheep in peril or things to be done. Bill was not country folk, foot on the fence, but like Charles Bronson, olive green, dirty fingernails, relentless, never a punk getting far within his patch. In my mind, I thought he had supernatural powers, and deep down everyone was scared of Bill, a man who got respect without demand. When you saw him you checked yourself, slowed down for the crossing sheep, watched your footsteps for ants, lowered your voices for the nesting birds.
He would come in the shop sometimes where I worked and although I’m sure he had more than one set of clothes he always dressed in the costume of Bill Gordon, each item itself hard to make out now, cords and wool — maybe — Barbour jacket or Gortex, wellies or boots, I don’t remember, but only an overall impression of well worn green, with Bills head on top, a wild beard and hair, the kind you could pull twigs from, or the shell of a broken birds egg. And that face, that knowing face, with its rough lined Bronte-esque charm, a face that had seen and understood it all, that could lift a stone and show you the world that lived beneath, who knew the hidden places, could take you to the hedgehog’s graveyard.
One thing Bill hated was campfires. I once heard a story, which is now legend, and so might not be true at all. One night Bill was called away to deal with a dead sheep, killed by a speeding car, and seeing him leave some campers used his absence to build a large fire. Up the flames leapt, the sparks rising and mingling with the stars, other campers joining in, the beer and wine flowing, that hedonistic worship of the flames while Moses is up his mountain. But then, from out of the darkness the figure of Bill appeared, ten times his normal size in the flickering shadows, the yellow flames dancing in his eyes, lighting up his craggy features, his inhuman bulk made larger by bloody sheeps corpse on his shoulders. Frozen in terror at seeing the master back they watched in horror as Bill lifted up and threw the dead animal through the dancing crowd to land on the fire. In a second and like woodland magic, the conflagration winked out in a grey stinking cloud of singed wool, the party too. “No fires” shouted Bill, then stamped back into the returning darkness. As far as I know, there has never been a fire since.
After I moved away from the Peak I always looked forward to going back, taking my kids to the same place, where nothing ever changed, a rare thing where even the young are made to feel outdated. Each time Bill and his wife Flo were there, never getting older, still taking in the cash, but now we had small history, he seemed to know me, remembered me I like remembered me. When I came to pay he now offered me a brew and we’d talk about the site, the stories of ring ouzels and strange visiting life forms, of Peak politics and how to make people understand the value of something they feel is theirs by right.
And then the other day, having just seen Bill, staying in his site, my sleeping bag slipping out of the front of the tent as it always did, someone told me Bill was retiring. “He can’t, he’s Bill Gordon!” I protested, felt cheated Bill had not told me he was going, that without Bill, and Flo, time would run on. How could he be so selfish as to retire?
And ever since this news I’ve thought about Bill, I thought about where someone like that could ever go, about the loss to North Lees, to us, to future campers, both new and old, who will find someone else standing there when they woke.
But if you must go Bill I’d like you to know this.
There are thousands, no, millions of people who owe you a debt of gratitude for what you have done over a lifetime, not for us, but for the land we all love. You kept it safe, held back times advance, stayed the radiation and slowed that speed at which we loved it to death, smothered it with kisses. You often helped us see it was not our own, but shared, big and small, in the past, the now and the future. We’re human, we’re apes, selfish, we play the short game of today, a free doss in the boulders, a skipped parking fee, it’s what we are, cheap. But you were always there Bill, real or imagined, to make us behave a little better than we would. You slowed us down.
Final word. I don’t know if you will leave after so long with a gold watch, but for what it’s worth, I think I can speak for many in saying you are so entwined with this place, with those grey tankish plantation rocks, dwarf walls and buttresses up high, the grouse flapping moors and orphaned trees and mystery stones, that you have become one and the same, the landscape, it is you and you are it — Bill Gordon man of the earth, forever indivisible from this small paradise.