Photo: Cath Phillips
I’m not here much at the moment because I’m working, but stay around for news, reviews & announcements, one of which might be quite weird, details of gigs, etc. Meanwhile here’s a bit of the new novel–
They missed one another in the car park, and again at both lakes. For half an hour Victoria hiked about in the woodland. Every little hill or valley looked like an idea of itself developed from some barely-disguised digital framework. The paths, soft for the time of year, draped themselves along the contour from the Ionic temple to the Chinese bridge and thence to the Orangery.
There was no sign of Alice in any of these places. Neither was she to be found in the Jack Mytton Gallery, lost in thought among the silver toilet services, woodcuts of rolling winter plough and lively contemporary bronzes of hares with exaggerated ears; and when Victoria did track her down, it was to the centre of the rose garden, where she lounged at the edge of the rectangular pool with her shoes off, her feet wet and her legs stretched out in front of her, gazing with a broad dreamy smile on her face at a wall covered in blush pink centifolias into which some kind of exotic clematis had woven itself. Behind her, a diminishing perspective of standard roses blazed like lamps; while a man in a tweed coat bent down to pat a box hedge as if congratulating it. “This is solid!” he called to someone they couldn’t see. “This’ll have been here a few years!” From two gardens away, one of the Childe peacocks screamed in glee.
Alice shaded her eyes and blnked up at Victoria “It reminds me of being seven,” she said, “when the whole world looked like this.” She sat up and dipped her feet in the water, watched intently the glittering eddies that whirled off across the surface. “Don’t you remember when everything looked like this?”
Victoria shrugged. “People always think that.” She could see her own face in the pool, of course; and beneath that something overgrown.
“Tell me you haven’t been wading about in here,” she said.
There was some suggestion that they should go and eat a pub meal down by the river, but the afternoon had left her tired and a little anxious. So she dropped the waitress off in town and went home, where she had baked beans on toast and wrote an email to Short.
“You never saw so many roses in one place! As for Alice, she has her own aesthetic, Rosie the Riveter meets Jaqueline Kennedy and they talk about everything in the world but men. I quite like that. Of course, she’s a bit of a mystery.” Admitting this to herself made her think for a moment before going on: “My new discovery is, the whole family used to live next door! I haven’t a clue who any of them are, really. But they knew my mum–or so they say. And here I am, alone in a new town. So in those circumstances what is a woman to do?
“Anyway,” she finished, “In the end I didn’t buy anything. I couldn’t make up my mind.”
Then she pressed Delete and went to sleep.
You can always come with me now, of course; or find me on Twitter, @mjohnharrison.
Victoria opened the door to find the waitress’s father standing there. He was four inches shorter than her. He was whistling. His hair curled damply back over the collar of his Castrol jacket. He looked a lot livelier in the sunlight.
“I had a minute,” he said. “So I came.”
Victoria stared at him.
“It’s Chris,” he said. “Chris. Chris from last night.”
“Do you always answer your phone as if you’re someone else?”
“I’ll just step inside,” he said.
They stared at one another. It seemed like an impasse. In the end she let him in; he held up a plastic sports bag and said, “I’ve got everything I’ll need in here.”
“If I could explain what’s wanted?” Victoria said.
“A cup of tea would be nice since you’re putting the kettle on. Then while you’re making it I’ll have a look round.” He smiled and went off up the stairs as if he owned them, calling back:
“I’ve got everything I need in here. Don’t you worry.”
Victoria boiled the kettle in a rage. She heard him on the first landing and then on the loose floorboards near the bathroom loo. His bag of tools rattled. He hissed and whistled to himself. He was pathetic. He tapped at this and that. A second floor sash ground itself open, then shuddered down again. It all made Victoria feel as if she didn’t belong. “How’s that tea coming on?” he called. When he came down to have it, he sat and ate a biscuit too. He seemed to bring a smell into the kitchen. She couldn’t quite smell it, but she knew it was there.
“I like to sit down to a biscuit,” he said.
She pushed the packet toward him. “Help yourself.”
He smiled to himself, as if he had expected this. “I was born Chris,” he said, “but that lot over at Kinver know me as Ossie.”
He had a jauntiness you couldn’t explain; at the same time he wanted your sympathy. After you had watched him for a minute or two, you saw that he held himself oddly and walked with the suspicion of a limp; he was always wiping his eyes. “Poor health,” he said, with a kind of satisfaction. “A lifetime of it.” He’d had bowel cancer, which they fixed; they thought his cough was asbestosis. In addition his left wrist didn’t articulate, which he’d let himself in for in 1999 when he fell off the town Christmas tree. “I was setting up the lights,” he said. “They didn’t take the decorations down in time that year. We’ve all suffered as a result.” He could just about use a screwdriver. “There’s a lot of perished rubber in those lighting circuits,” he said, after he had eaten half a packet of chocolate digestives “It only needs a touch to flake off.” It would mean a rewire. She had expected as much. “MInd you,” he concluded, “there’s plenty of good new neoprene in there too.”
“You aren’t going to fall off a ladder while you’re here, are you?” Victoria said.
“It’s very Brexit up here,” she wrote later to Short. “Eight pubs in a mile and deep surrounding woods. I already think of it as my Broceliande, although the High Street seems to have been deforested as early as 1307.” She was sleeping on the sofa again, she told him. “But now I have candles and everything.” Inside one of the boxes she had found a brand new edition of The Water Babies. She amused herself copying out passages for him. Little Tom was naughty. He ran across the fells, by Hartover and Lewthwaite Crag, to the river; he arrived at the water on his own legs but he was desperate to be a fish. “Forty pages in, he’s already an evolutionary joke, the Victorian fantasia of metamorphosis and transition camouflaged by a morality. You see,” she finished, “you should read my emails. I bet your life’s less exciting than little Tom’s.” She knew she would never press Send: but writing was enough to give the effect of being in a conversation. It calmed her down. “I might be keeping my mother’s furniture,” she admitted. “I sold all mine.” This made her think of the house again and she looked around and shivered with delight.
Solstice in the provinces. It’s hot. There’s no government in the country at the moment. To get the air moving, I have an old black rucksack holding open the study door. Every time I glimpse it out of the corner of my eye I mistake it for a cat I used to have. It’s too big to be a cat, but I never owned a dog. Outside, a man has parked a low-loader so that it blocks the little roundabout at the top of the High Street and left it idling there while he makes some sort of decision more important than anyone else’s that morning. Every so often he returns and moves it ten or twelve yards back or forward, always keeping it on the curve of the roundabout, always blocking as many exits as possible. Then he sits in it with his thick hands on the steering wheel, looking straight ahead while the engine runs. Around him the year tips over into whatever’s coming next.
Lots of responses like James Lasdun’s to Michael Finkel’s book on Christopher Knight, Stranger in the Woods.
The interesting thing about Finkel’s revision of Knight is not that it attempts to romanticise a thief but that it accidentally questions the idea of wilderness survival as an available form of self-authentication.
The space he went to ground in was already impure: full of weekend retreats and–presumably–used for outdoor recreation. Any attempt to “survive” authentically there was doomed by that. Its usage as a space was already domesticated, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to steal from holiday homes.
The same was true of Christopher McCandless and of John Krakeur’s book about him: the space in which McCandless tried to authenticate himself was not considered by local users of wilderness to be particularly wild. He wasn’t, as far as they were concerned, all that deep in. That was the tenor of the local reaction to the tragedy. With a little of the workaday understanding the local users had, their complaint went, he could easily have survived.
The problem with that position is that it describes the wilderness as already partly domesticated. The level of skill required might be specialised, but it is perfectly available. And the more people take up the skills, the more normalised the process of survival becomes. That begins an inevitable domestication of the space which will, eventually, lead to it becoming a leisure resource, an extension of the suburb.
So when you blame McCandless for being naive and failing to learn anything about the problems he would face in the “wild”; or when you blame Knight for living off the land the way a Yosemite bear or suburban racoon might (that is, as “the land” now presents itself), you are really, if unintentionally, mourning an already vanished concept of wildness. Penetration of that pure space as an equally pure self-authenticatory act has become a game. It can no longer be romanticised. It is no longer the scene of the rite of passage–or at least not that particular rite of passage. Our irritation at Knight for “cheating” is a tacit admission of that.
…then, after a wonderful morning at the cenotaph we decided to go for a walk in the woods, which was rather spoiled by their being so muddy underfoot & our meeting a man not wearing a poppy. After Father had pointed out to him the disrespect inherent in this gesture, what did he do but harangue us for half an hour about some complicated political grudge he held? In the end, Father, indicating each of us in turn, gently asked him if he thought it right to bully innocent women and children in this way, & that seemed to be enough to calm him down; though he remained rough & humourless. Little Jenny, only eight years old, cleverly got his address from him, as a result of which, later, we were able to report him to the police.
Originally blogged November 9th 2015, as “the next war”. Last year, this still seemed to have elements of humour, now [shrugs].
HE Bates is good at people dying puzzled after a life lived without interrogation or protest and an old age that has reduced them to the human equivalent of a salmon after breeding, coming to pieces in the upstream pool. The absolute triumph of modernism was to make it clear that, while you have to accept the reality of death, you don’t have to accept anyone’s description of the “realities” of the life that precedes it. We should cling to that understanding as Theresa May moves us gently but firmly back to small town English life in Bates’s 1920s.