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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Scotland Trip: Wooler

Under the promise of breaking clouds and a scarlet sky, the ribbon of road unfurls before us over the moors as we head north. This is the swooping, romantic driving of car adverts, and just as one imagines a road trip to Scotland should begin. Leaving Newcastle behind, we pass first through Ponteland, a smart town comprised of hairdressing salons and large houses secluded behind iron gates; it is the favoured estate of Newcastle footballers. Twenty miles further north as we wind past Rothbury, we catch a glimpse of another grand home, again proclaiming the wealth of its owner, though this is perch alone on a steep, forested hill; it is Cragside, pet project of the engineer and entrepreneur Lord Armstrong.

Photograph of some petrol pumps
Petrol pumps, Wooler

Admittedly, this winding, scenic route is not one we chose; the direct, Roman-routed A1 has been closed by an accident, and we have been forced to divert. As it moves northwards from London, the A1 funnels, moving from motorway, to dual carriageway, to single carriageway once it gets north of Newcastle; then, as it nears Edinburgh, it moves from single to dual carriageway, before merging into the multi-lane ring road. Fat around these two cities, its slimness as it passes through Northumberland and the Scottish borders testifies to how rural these areas are. Nevertheless, the widening of the A1, prevented by successive Conservative and Labour governments, is a sore political issue in the north east, but also a serious one, because of the number of accidents it causes. There may not be a mass of commuter traffic jams in Northumberland, but there are trucks, tractors and caravans - and people desperate to overtake them when inappropriate.

By nightfall, and a little later than planned, we arrive at Wooler. We find Wooler Youth Hostel is a quirky building. With grab rails screwed to the walls, and constructed on one level, it seems formerly to have been an old people's home, but is now inhabited by athletic, weather-beaten, middle-aged men doing the various walking trails. Cartoonish paintings on the walls testify to past conquests of the Chevy Chase (a 20 mile route over Cheviot and Hedgehope) and Cuthbert's Way (from Montrose to Lindisfarne).

We roam along Wooler high street looking for somewhere to eat. The one Italian restaurant boasts of its special: grilled chicken breasts and chips. The town's eating is cosmopolitan only in name. Thus we eat that evening in one of the local pubs, a little run down and not displaying the most innovative cuisine either: pies, steaks, scampi. But unlike Italian chips, this is honest food, and we are not complaining. Pie is just what is called for on the first Friday of an outdoor holiday, and mine is excellent, topped with thick and gooey pastry and with hand-cut chips cooked in dripping. My arteries cry for a long walk tomorrow.

As we eat, we are reminded that we are in border country when a local woman berates a Scottish tourist, albeit good-naturedly. "Look at all the swords on a map round here, aye," she says in a Northumberland accent, which is slightly less sing-song than inner city Geordie. "We won them all, all of 'em." The Scot, naturally, mentions Wallace. "Oh, you mean Mel Gibson," the woman replies, at which point the Scot returns to his table, resigned to the stereotype. It is all light-hearted banter, but it is strange how deep-rooted geography and history can be. Unlike Yorkshire and Lancashire, there is no history of cricket to bring out this ancient northern rivalry, which instead lies buried in the broken stones of Hadrian's Wall, to resurrect itself briefly in dusty bars.

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This page was published on July 2011 | Keywords: Wooler, Northumberland, Scotland, travel journal

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