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.
Tag Archives: landscape
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.
I cleaned the stairs again this morning. I clean them often, mainly as an excuse to be on them, to be in close contact with them. I love to be abroad on these stairs. I love their proportions, their cool still air. They have a calmness which easily transmits itself to me. I’d live on these stairs if I could. Lock all the doors to the rooms, except the bathroom and the kitchen. Sleep on the top landing, work on the next one down. There’d be plenty of space. And plenty of light coming in through the long windows. I could keep my stuff in a blanket box. I love blanket boxes. I wouldn’t own much–a couple of pairs of jeans, underwear. There would just be room for a mattress on one floor, a desk and chair on the other. The outdoor stuff I could hang in the hall, that wouldn’t change; shoes I’d line up in the hall, too. I’m not sure whether I’d allow myself to leave the house, but I suppose I would have to. It’s not a matter of dealing with claustrophobia–because how could you suffer claustrophobia in all that space and light?–so much as doing the shopping, or getting exercise. I suppose I could have stuff delivered. If I absolutely had to go out, I’d try to confine myself to the garden as much as possible; and on wet days stare out of the landing windows at the hollyhocks bending in the rain. Hollyhocks are ridiculously tall. Strictly speaking, the garden isn’t quite where the stairs end. They make another turn and continue down into the cellars.
Late May. Flat earth paths under vast cloudscapes, architectures of rain and sunshine. Blackened spires. GBR Railfrieght low-loaders in rows. Blossom in cream waves; rollers of blossom bursting against fences, rail lines, suburbs; sprays and shellbursts of blossom across fields and hillsides. Someone always gets on the train with a toddler that has learned to make a piercing noise. By Grantham the weather has picked up. The cathedral spire glows in the sun. I catch a fleeting glimpse of Retford. I went to college there for a bit. It was one of the many weird temporary conditions of my life at that time. Short disastrous engagements. Bleak, shallow brushes with life on the part of someone so unformed he couldn’t manage more than an oblique relationship with anything or anyone. I’m surprised I can always talk about them so blandly. I wouldn’t go back to those days if I was paid. They were a nightmare like a Robert Aickman story, but with a lot less happening and a lot less learned. I was barely present. Not to be present at 67 years old is somewhere between a nuisance and a disgrace. Not to be present at 20 years old was to be in danger: so few allowances were made for people who didn’t connect, who didn’t get it. Later, the train waits by an industrial estate outside Bradford, a grim-looking shed with a word I can’t read written high up at one end. Then straight into a tunnel. Half a viaduct, ending suddenly in the middle of the valley it used to cross; not broken, but carefully sealed off with a hundred-foot brick facing. Gritstone houses dot the hillsides, each separated by an exact distance from its neighbours, like people taking up seats in an empty railway carriage to ensure maximum personal space and isolation. Sign: KEEP OFF THE TRACK. Sign: ASTONISH. Sign: REVERSING TRAINS STOP HERE.
A car park in a strangely shaped corner of the village. The gritting bin looks like a plastic toy, the PAY HERE sign has been photoshopped ineptly on to a previous landscape; for a moment, in the end-of-afternoon winter light, the pay & display machine seems awkward, abandoned, not part of anything. Behind them, something’s reasserting itself. This curve in the road is older than any of the buildings that surround it. The past doesn’t so much force itself on the present as embarrass it.