Goods wagons full of freight speed through the main station, which is underground. This has an eerie effect, as if you saw a trainload of wood, stone & new cars rush past a London tube platform; as if for some reason freight were being moved in secret down the tunnels. These Autotelian trains are wide, boxy & plain. Most seem to be painted maroon. They look shabby, but they are much cleaner, quieter and smoother to ride in than ours. They have one huge glaring headlamp on as they come out of the tunnel; they have a yellow stripe down the side. Back on the surface they rush between suburbs, past houses of a hundred shapes, sizes & colours. Wet tin roofs gleam in the morning light. The suburban stations are built from the neatest, most uniformly coloured, most sharp-edged bricks I have ever seen–architect’s bricks, not builders’ bricks. Designer bricks. Out in the country at last the train runs through steep cuttings under piled white cumulus clouds. The horse chestnut candles are going out, dim and pink and dignified. May blossom is showing in the hedges: after a while you begin to smell it–or imagine you can smell it–inside the carriage. Lilac bushes bulge over the garden fences, drenched suddenly by unpredictable showers. Fifty or sixty miles later, stands of sparse mixed woodland colonise the sandy soil; grow dense & full of unfamiliar blue flowers like smoke; then thin to heath, where the lanes are narrow, the bridges made of dark red stone, soft in texture. Eventually the woodland becomes continuous. It’s full of curiosities–a strange black urn on a plinth, rising above the trees with no clue as to what it might be, no sign of a park or a great house to which it might belong. Then a shallow pool with enchanted, intricate shorelines in complex intimate curves, out of which protrude hundreds of blanched dead trees. The forest ends suddenly. Long granite spines break up the landscape. The line starts its long shallow run down across the farmland to the coast. The train’s heading into cloud, full-bodied and firm, but for a moment the sun still blesses us: it spills & foams off a weir, turns the ploughland luminous against a darkening sky. We smile out into it, eyes half shut, expressions at once pained & cheerful, difficult to interpret.
Tag Archives: fragments
The whole of the beach is artificial, white sand trucked in from somewhere else to complete the ruler-straight concrete strip with its fringe of mostly ghastly hotels, lowrise apartment clusters & restaurants. It receives a lot of traffic in the early & late summer but the rest of the year it’s like this, empty, exhausted-looking & scattered with objects you can’t quite understand. If you walk round the point at the south end, though, you find a different kind of beach altogether–rocky, terraced, without beach umbrellas or tourists. You have left a sullen, humid day, with a sort of hidden light coming through the cloud, for sunlight & abrasive air. A brisk inshore wind drives the sea up over the tide pools, the water is a murky detergent of grey and green, & a huge bank of black weed has formed on the tideline. A few hundred yards behind the beach lies the town crematorium, a curious truncated cylinder decorated on the outside with a huge mural like a 1920s woodcut: dead people silhouetted by the invisible sun & weird perspectives of the afterlife. One warning: when they offer you “Tiny Fishes” in the beach cafes, they are not. For me, whitebait are tiny fishes. These fishes are three inches long. On the whole, they eat like whitebait; but tiny is a misnomer. “Quite small” would be better.
Contents of an A&E cubicle, beginning at righthand wall (pale grey) at entrance, then moving left. Plastic bin, yellow, labelled CLINICAL WASTE ONLY, on a brushed-metal trolley. Wall now stands proud by 5 inches and changes to blue. On this panel can be found, in a row at around five feet up, from left to right, Purrell Hygienic Hand Rub; York extra-Mild Liquid Soap; York paper hand-towel dispenser. Below that: ADAMS HYDREX DISPENSER; sign reading “West Middlesex university hospital NHS WASH your hands. Control of infection.” Below that: Sign (circular, black) reading, “Don’t forget CLEAN YOUR HANDS BEFORE AND AFTER EVERY PATIENT CONTACT.” Sign reading: “SIX STEP HAND WASHING TECHNIQUE,” with photographs. Below that: white basin, elliptical, with faucets. Next left, on floor: a rectangular metal pedal bin, grey, labelled DOMESTIC WASTE ONLY. Above that, a Damicentre glove dispenser, offering small, medium and large disposable
This crossed out with a single strong diagonal line & “abandoned as boring” written underneath. Then, in a different-coloured ink:
It’s been five hours since I called 999.
Gulls, green weed, a cat in the sun among the trees: Fosse Quay, held in a crook of earth & wood. The tide is down. It’s October. The light is so bright on the mud you can’t look at it. The trees tumbling down the opposite bank of the inlet vanish into a corona of reflections where the stranded multihull boats rest like insects tired after some long intense flight to mate. Ten in the morning. It seems earlier (in July everything would look & feel like this at six or seven a.m.). Sun & shade seem like equal things. Both are a kind of illumination. Both fall ungrudgingly across the ground-ivy, the spider web, a blue loop of discarded hose, the withered hawthorn leaves of a dry summer. Both are a potential. As for you & me, we sit here–grounded, webbed, discarded, shrivelled up–& yet with life still ahead of us–& turn our faces up to whatever we might receive next, sunshine or shadow. A man is sawing wood in the next boatyard along. A toddler is laughing.
Dark green wainscot, poster red walls. A longhaired cat sleeps on the floor in front of the gas fire. Everything looks old but new. There are mint-looking tins of baked beans and black treacle stacked artfully on the shelves behind the counter. A whole fruit cake and pork pies under the glass. A postcard rack (clipper ships against a tinted sky), a chessboard with a game in process. Studiedly retro, yet believable. The tall middleclass girl behind the counter is addressed as “Lewis” by her boyfriend, a man in a black leather jacket & round wire-framed spectacles, who arrives at 7:00pm. The cat rearranges itself round his feet while he drinks a glass of rum. Then he & Lewis exit briefly for a smoke, banging the door behind them and leaving the rest of us–the cat, two customers & me–with the radio jazz, the warm air and faint smell of spirits. None of us looks out of place, although I wonder what I’m doing here waiting for someone I don’t know & probably never will. Lewis returns alone, cigarette half smoked, looking slightly less middleclass. We’re all middleclass now; we all aren’t. “I”ve got my love to keep me warm,” sings the radio. We’ve got Calor gas, which works quite well if the cat is anything to go by. Examining my reflection in the mirror behind the counter I decide that I look neither as old nor as unhealthy as I feel. What am I up to here ? Granted, my life fell apart earlier this year: but now I’ve been offered at least the appearance of stability. Why am I risking it like this ? Jazz & crockery, piano & cutlery. Old-fashioned sounds for a book I’ll never write.
The light has a warmer quality, which has brought out the biscuit colours of the gable ends along Grove Road. For days the street has been full of children on bicycles taking their proficiency test. Tucked into yellow safety wear & pink helmets, they cycle back & forth with attentive expressions & a careful lack of elan. Points are awarded for the proper use of the hand signal, but this morning I can’t seem to get worked up about that. Down towards the river the street trees are shocking green again, glowing & roaring as they suck in the sunlight to re-emit it at outlandish, artificial-looking wavelengths. You would not eat that colour if it came as a fast food, although it might win you over if they baked it on to the fat alloy tubes of a new bike. Or you might just be curious enough to Google for it with some heartbreaking search string like “high speed jets of matter”. Whatever it is, nature has no right to it except at the extreme end of things where stuff only just hangs together. & this is on a tree, in a street near you! It comes in a bad colour, but it’s life. There’s no life at all on my balcony, only induviae: pots of rotten brown sticks folded over & streaked with black; the strange, silvery, papery transparencies of the remains of flowers. I go out & think about pulling some of this stuff up, but end up staring into the street at the lines of cyclists. When they spot the kiddies in their yellow safety wear, even the white van drivers slow down. Curious, amiable, collapsed expressions come on their faces, as if they are trying to remember how to be human.
Dave TV is running old episodes of helicopter rescue programmes. I switch on straight into footage of the 2004 Boscastle flood. Machines from different services edge nervously round each other in the sky, trying not to run into one another, or into any wires or hills. Boscastle has aged suddenly, taking on the visual status of a ruin falling back into the coastline, a deserted mining village in a brown & white photograph. “It’s mayhem down there,” someone’s dispatcher remarks, looking at the floating cars banging off buildings and bridges on their way down to the sea. Then he adds thoughtfully, “You’ve still got those powerlines off to your left.” Normally, one of the helicopters would fly up to 5,000 feet and from there co-ordinate the operations of the others. But the continuing storm prevents that. So they land gingerly on the local football field and negotiate. There’s so much custom for them in Boscastle you get the feeling they’re embarrassed. In programmes like these there are always plenty of numbers. In 2004, for instance, 76 cars were swept through Boscastle and ended up in the sea. I’m not here for the statistics. I’m here for the helicopter porn. A red and white Coast Guard Sea King is fastened above the greyish-brown turbulence; only the water and the rotor blades are moving; the machine has a body-language of intense attentiveness, as if it is fishing. Adolescent holidaymakers are the more usual subjects of rescue. They become separated from their bodyboards, or fall off a cliff drunk or go too far on a rubber dinghy. “There’s no let up for Whiskey Bravo,” the voiceover tells us. The crew of Whiskey Bravo wouldn’t want one. They want to work. I deeply admire their calm concentration & their quiet, especially practical argot, the rhythms and stresses of which return language to something worthwhile (from what I know it as, anyway, something you can never trust even–indeed especially–when you made it yourself). “The downwash is right underneath us. Steady. In contact. Steady, steady. Just over the surf line, two feet on the main gear on the right.”
12 o’ clock the snow stops & a wren comes out to pick about among the pale green monbretia shoots & new snowdrops along the base of next door’s wall, nipping & bobbing, posing tail-up like the wren on the old farthing. What could you emboss on a farthing to indicate it was the smallest unit of currency, now the wren has lost its symbolic function ? For those younger people who’ve never seen a wren, it’s quite a small grey-furred mammal the elongated rear legs of which give it an energetic, hopping gait. It has a striking coloured breast often described as “pink” or “roseate”, but in fact much closer to violet. The male is slightly smaller than the female, more colourful & less active. Wrens are quite solitary, but breed with enthusiasm in suburban gardens in late March & early April, rearing ten to fifteen “kits” in a litter. Predators include the magpie, or “English Parrot”. In the historical times it was a Boxing Day custom to hunt wrens & crucify them on small sticks.
My writing desk is a long, solid structure made of two thuggy planks– stained, knocked about, but having in places of high wear (the mousing area, for instance) a buttery patina–supported on a timber frame. It runs under the window for nearly eight feet, but I tuck myself into one end of that as if embarrassed or overpowered by such an executive allocation of space. It was originally a photographer’s bench, I think; equally, you could rebuild an engine on it if anyone did that anymore. It’s not mine, it was here when I arrived in 1998, but it’s the most satisfying desk I’ve ever had. My ideal is to keep it bare of everything but the engine of the Mac. No pens, paper, books, nothing to remind me of what I do for a living except the screen, the writing space itself; above all, no clutter. But I do not fool myself that this aesthetic is actually available. Stuff is all over, all the things mentioned plus: wires, dust, iPods, earbuds, hard drives, CDs, souvenirs including Mexican Death TV, two elephants, brass lizard, wire lizard, big brass tray of beach pebbles pine cones shells etc, a Thai fish, glass pigs & an ash tray with horses on it nearly 40 years old. I have some good photographs of the bench, & I would put one up here but they also feature S’s daughters, who were doing some tidying up at the time, & I would rather get everyone’s permission first. This morning I’m sitting here on an Ikea swivel chair ten years old–called a Ronni or a Bobsu or a Cummi or something–with the cloth peeled away to reveal rotting foam. I am wearing a Rab double-pile jacket over a merino wool base-layer, & my red Buff in its beanie mode. It’s cold. An extra roof has appeared in the street, a snow-covered Luton van leaning up against a tree like a container abandoned in the corner of a field. No one can park sensibly in West London, home of double-parking for an hour in a street already lined on both sides with 4x4s, your driver-door open & engine running while you chat in the porch of a nice little workingman’s cottage, your honking voices penetrating all the way to Hammersmith & beyond causing shivers of rage & terror in the poor people who don’t know how to push for the things they want or even look after themselves properly.
It’s been trying to snow all day, an effort which intensified suddenly about three minutes ago. Bigger flakes fall thick & slow. It has the feel of a phase-change. Everything goes quieter. The air seems fractionally darker. Spaces gain depth. The houses over the road recede but become somehow more solid, more delineated. The light complicates & recomplicates itself, reflecting from the surfaces of every falling flake. Nothing will be the same after this. I won’t pretend not to be elated. It’s the most tranquil, the most mystical time; the most transient however long it lasts. Snow falling at the end of the short winter afternoon. A bird, its grey silhouette vague & busy, is making heavy weather of it fifty or sixty feet up, tail flared, wings fluttering, slow progress. I can’t know how that feels, but if this fall continues I’ll wait for dark, put my Innov8s on, pick up my head-torch & go running in the woods. By then, they’ll be woods, not just a few acres of dissected scrub in an upscale suburb. They’ll be endless. The best snow I ever saw from a window was at Ferihegy airport, Budapest, in February 1991. The best snow I was ever in fell during a long winter when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. I remember struggling four miles along unlit Warwickshire lanes under very bright stars, between fluted tongues, volutes and gargoyles of snow where the wind forced spindrift through the gaps in the hedges. Some of these structures had begun to shift like dunes, or elongate themselves across the verges and into the lane. I was elated, moment by moment, very aware of myself as being alive in this landscape. My toes and fingers were numb. My breath was in front of me.