Frost. Smoke and mist trapped under temperature inversions in every steep little valley. Sudden dazzling light. A surreal tractor rally in nowhere. Later, Gothic winter ivy and near collisions in the lanes around Prolley Moor. With dusk the local drinkers get their welly down in the 4×4, hunched behind main beams. The satnav undergoes identity breakdown &, trapped in an obsolete idea of itself, will only plod east whatever we ask it to do. “It’s already taken us here. Look! ‘Dangerous Hill’ again!” I hate the satnav anyway, it has usurped my last raison d’etre. What’s life, if you can’t even hunch over the 1:25000 with a single-LED torch in your mouth, pretending to navigate. On the other hand if I’d pretended to navigate sooner we might not be here now. “Dead horse! Dead horse!” “Dangerous Hill! Dangerous Hill!” There’s nought but bones. With a satnav you never know where you are.
Category Archives: lost & found
Woods at the beginning of winter. Cold air. The residue of sunset visible between trees. Lights on in the power station, early night in the medieval quarries. Time in arcs like that, invisible layers of time along the side of the hill, time lacing the branches together, in among the leafmould like a hard frost. Three grey lurchers! Running down the muddy hill! Holly. Your own breath. The sense that you still function. The sense of an ending and of someone keeping pace with you not far off.
Not long ago the river, suffering some fluid equivalent of a seizure or convulsion, swept down from the banks of the parks and golf courses upstream, carrying away the little garden-centre fences, the artfully planted clumps of bamboo and exotic grass, leaving instead a detritus of broken branches, blanched and ancient looking, tangled together with plastic carrier bags, broken toys and bits of garden architecture from the houses upstream. The flood washed away a pebble path here, a nice little gazebo there, so that suburbia, which previously had run all the way down to the petrol coloured water, now ended ten feet further inland, having ceded itself to a mud flat.
Danny MacAskill is essentially an entertainer. That’s how he earns his living. The combination of technicality, discipline & sheer joy of living he displays in this video leaves most popular fiction–100% a form of entertainment–looking sludgy & banal, even in its own terms. Why doesn’t popular fiction encourage writers as entertainingly skilful as this? Because we do not value the skillset itself, only the story it mediates. We long ago separated the skillset out and donated it to literary fiction. Danny MacAskill doesn’t tell a story. He just is. Indeed, by the look of it, he just is the skillset. As a result I cry every time I watch him perform, because the performance is so much more intense than anything I’ve ever made.
Very like Stoke Newington Cemetery, but with more of everything that matters. More unchecked undergrowth. More pathways, at stranger angles to one another. More cracked mausoleums and rusty padlocks. More black magic graffiti. A more dilapidated chapel. And, on the Brockley Footpath side, many, many more empty solvent cans piled in the little dells. A superior afternoon stroll on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Music drifts past, slows down for the junction, moves off along the street. Otherwise it’s quiet. C has gone to London to work. I’m in the vast invisible Russian Doll of geography. The space inside the house. The space inside the street around the house. The space inside the town around the street. The space inside the land around the town. Inside this vast structure I have relief from density. I can feel all the distinct spaces around me: the space in the loft, the space in the cellar; the space on the first floor landing, which is different not just in shape but in silence and resonance, to the space on the third floor landing. There’s such a difference in the way the air occupies these volumes! I sit on the stairs and read. I’ve got so much silence. I can’t articulate–I can’t get over to you–how much of a relief that is after 27 years in the city.
Hollyhocks, poppies, chamomile. All sorts of desperate lilies and iris. Those complex drooping rose and purple flowers that symbolised passion on the cover of an HE Bates novel in 1974, whose name I can never remember. A light you can’t tell from heat, contained somehow by the humidity, trapped in the air, gold even under cloud. The dogs bark next door. They bark up and down the street. Heat in the bricks, heat in every movement. You sit on the cellar steps. You wonder if the world will end, or just take some simple, beautiful, really amazing direction. You’re forced to admit it’s always been doing both, and that any minute now you’ll get up and go to the post office.
Sodden heaps of earth in a field. Crows beating southwards against a blustery wind. Mist blowing across the hilltop copses, threadbare pine trees on exposed slopes. A mass of chamomile and tiny orange poppies in the brown grass. She felt like gathering a whole armful of poppies, sweeping them up, wet and hairy-stemmed, petals already beginning to fall. Her arms would be covered with wet petals. She thought of orange petals floating on a dark green stream in some preRaphaelite painting, and shivered with pleasure. She remembered driving to one of those small towns, with names like Ilminster or Ilchester. Rain blowing in all directions through a haze of sunshine and exhaust smoke.
For today’s Guardian books podcast I read a little bit of The Course of the Heart, mined out of this section from Chapter One–
For twenty years he had lived in the same single room above the Atlantis Bookshop. He was reluctant to take me there, I could see, though it was only next door and I had been there before. At first he tried to pretend it would be difficult to get in.
“The shop’s closed,” he said. “We’d have to use the other door.”
Then he admitted:
“I can’t go back there for an hour or two. I did something last night that means it may not be safe.”
“You know the sort of thing I mean,” he said.
I couldn’t get him to explain further. The cuts on his wrists made me remember how panicky Pam and Lucas had been when I last spoke to them. All at once I was determined to see inside the room.
“We could always talk in the Museum,” I suggested.
Researching in the manuscript collection one afternoon a year before, he had turned a page of Jean de Wavrin’s Chroniques d’Angleterre–that oblique history no complete version of which is known–and come upon a miniature depicting in strange, unreal greens and blues the coronation procession of Richard Coeur de Lion.
Part of it had moved; which part, he would never say.
“Why, if it’s a coronation,” he had written almost plaintively to me at the time, “are these four men carrying a coffin ? And who is walking there under the awning–with the bishops yet not a bishop ?”
After that he had avoided the building as much as possible, though he could always see its tall iron railings at the end of the street. He had begun, he told me, to doubt the authenticity of some of the items in the medieval collection. In fact he was frightened of them.
“It would be quieter there,” I insisted.
He sat hunched over the Church Times, staring into the street with his hands clamped violently together in front of him. I could see him thinking.
“That fucking pile of shit!” he said eventually.
He got to his feet.
“Come on then. It’s probably cleared out by now anyway.”
Rain dripped from the blue-and-gold front of the Atlantis. There was a faded notice, CLOSED FOR COMPLETE REFURBISHMENT. The window display had been taken down, but for the look of things they had left a few books on a shelf. I could make out, through the plate glass, W B Yeats’ The Trembling of the Veil–with its lyrical plea for intuited ritual “Hodos Chameliontos” –leaning up against Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. When I drew Yaxley’s attention to this accidental nexus, he only stared at me contemptuously.
Inside, the shop smelled of cut timber, new plaster, paint, but this gave way on the stairs to an odour of cooking. Yaxley fumbled with his key. His bedsitter, which was quite large and on the top floor, had uncurtained sash windows on opposing walls. Nevertheless it didn’t seem well lit. From one window you could see the sodden facades of Museum Street, bright green deposits on the ledges, stucco scrolls and garlands grey with pigeon dung; out of the other, part of the blackened clock tower of St George’s Bloomsbury, a reproduction of the tomb of Mausoleus lowering up against the racing clouds.
“I once heard that clock strike twenty one,” said Yaxley.
“I can believe that,” I said, though I didn’t. “Do you think I could have some tea ?”
He was silent for a minute. Then he laughed.
“I’m not going to help them,” he said. “You know that. I wouldn’t be allowed to. What you do in the Pleroma is irretrievable.”
He fished two cups out of a plastic washing-up bowl and put tea bags in them.
“Don’t tell me you’re frightened too!” he said. “I expected more from you.”
I shook my head. I wasn’t sure whether I was afraid or not. I’m not sure today. The tea, when it came, had a distinctly greasy aftertaste, as if somehow he had fried it. I made myself drink it while Yaxley watched me cynically.
“You ought to sit down,” he said. “You’re worn out.”
When I refused, he shrugged and went on as if we were still at the Tivoli:
“Nobody tricked them, or tried to pretend it would be easy. If you get anything out of an experiment like that, it’s by keeping your head and taking your chance. If you try to move cautiously, you may never be allowed to move at all.”
He looked thoughtful.
“I’ve seen what happens to people who lose their nerve.”
“I’m sure,” I said.
“They were hardly recognisable, some of them.”
I put the teacup down.
“I don’t want to know,” I said.
“I bet you don’t.”
He smiled to himself.
“Oh, they were still alive,” he said softly, “if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“You talked us into this,” I reminded him.
“You talked yourselves into it.”
Most of the light from Museum Street was absorbed as soon as it entered the room, by the dull green wallpaper and sticky-looking yellow veneer of the furniture. The rest leaked eventually into the litter on the floor, pages of crumpled and partly burned typescript, hair clippings, broken chalks which had been used the night before to draw something on the flaking lino: among this stuff, it died. Though I knew Yaxley was playing some sort of game with me, I couldn’t see what it was. I couldn’t make the effort, so in the end he had to make it for me. He waited until I got ready to leave.
“You’ll get sick of all this mess one day,” I said from the door of the bedsit.
He grinned and nodded and advised me:
“Have you ever seen Joan of Arc get down to pray in the ticket office at St Pancras ? And then a small boy comes in leading something that looks like a goat, and it gets on her there and then and fucks her in a ray of sunlight ?
“Come back when you know what you want. Get rid of Lucas Medlar, he’s an amateur. Bring the girl if you must.”
–It isn’t the best reading I ever did. But the interview that follows has its points.
In the early 80s I stayed for a few weeks with some friends who lived in Ealing. The girlfriend of one of them was a fan of Robert Plant. She had dreams in which, returning to the flat after work, she discovered Robert Plant there, doing the ironing in his shorts; she also went flying and tobogganing with Robert Plant. In another dream she visited the house of a wealthy friend only to find her sister already there, trying to chain a muddy bicycle to a street lamp in the middle of the lounge. “You can’t leave your bike here!” She didn’t seem to like finding me in the kitchen, especially in the mornings, and later complained that I had been using her milk. Despite this, we exchanged letters for a while after I went back to Yorkshire. In one letter she quoted Proust quoting Wilde’s, “Before the Lake poets there were no fogs on the Thames.” I read this as “no frogs on the Thames”, which seemed even cleverer, if a bit of an overstatement. “Somebody I can’t remember,” I wrote in return, “described Proust as sitting in his own lukewarm bathwater occasionally tasting a handful of it.” She thought that unkind. “Sometimes he’s very good,” she said, then admitted, “but sometimes he reads like a middlingly successful 1970s fantasy writer trying to imitate Colette.” The only other thing I remember about that flat was the cheap plastic veneer lifting from the edges of the kitchen surfaces, which in some places made the drawers difficult to open and close.