Two days ago there was nothing wrong with this gate.
I looked for large footprints but found none.
I thought I might describe every single step of this staircase, every crack, flaw and grain in the oak as if it were a landscape. But if I can’t describe what’s outside the window–the way the winter sunshine falls on houses half a mile away while the High Street lies in shadow–how can I attempt something that much more complex? Close up, as far as language is concerned, the stairs exist off the edge of resolution. I continue to be an observer who was never much good at observation, stuck with a means of communication which can’t carry enough information. No wonder there’s this constant retreat to metaphor. The attempt to push through into something else is always a failed attempt to be in the real.
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.
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.
Sunday lunchtime. We’re going against the flow, into Wales. Mystical light on hillsides. Caravans with ludicrous names. Dead foxes, cats. A brand new motorcycle rammed in among the ivy at the side of the road in a pool of its own fluids. It looks collapsed. Hard to see how it got there, given the angle of the bend. He passed us a couple of miles back, third in a fast but careful group. Now he’s standing fifty yards away from the wreck with his back to it. He looks ok, but none of his friends want to get too near him. He’s smoking hard and looking into the river fifty feet below. Furious with himself but glad at least he didn’t go over that side.
One of the books that came out of storage was Geoffrey Grigson’s idiosyncratic 1958 classic, The Englishman’s Flora. I bought it in a Paladin reprint in 1975 and thereafter used it less as a manual than as a source for Viriconium place names, groups of words which I would gleefully modify out of recognition within days. Grigson describes Campanula trachelium, Throatwort or the Nettle-leaved Bellflower, as “A tall plant secreting a yellow latex–the double signature of its value against a severe sore throat and tonsilitus, and in Germany, therefore, Halskraut.” That “double signature” is one of Grigson’s values to the user. Another is his obsessive collection of common names: C trachelium has only two, BLUE FOXGLOVE (in Shropshire) and COVENTRY BELLS. I remember Coventry Bells from my childhood in Warwickshire, but as a speech item rather than a plant, a pattern of words the faint resonance of which you might catch in later life from an HE Bates story. Gerard, Grigson notes, knew them from “the lowe woods and hedgerows of Kent about Canterburie” and didn’t think much of this name; he believed C trachelium should be called the Canterbury Bell, “a name which rose from the likeness of the flower bells to the St Thomas’s Bells, badges made of latten, bought by pilgrims to the Canterbury shrine of Thomas a Beckett.” Latten is any metal hammered into thin sheets, but usually some form of brass. Another word from my deep past, during which I gained an O level in metalwork. I was so cack-handed the teacher couldn’t believe I’d passed. “You must have done it on the theory,” he told me, scratching his head puzzledly in a corridor outside the workshops. It’s true that at thirteen years old I had been shunted into his classes from the woodwork course, on the grounds that it would take me longer to ruin a piece of metal than a piece of wood.