shining plain

There are no true histories.

A cold and brittle night. The sky lays heavy, glowering with snow. I grasp the tiny photograph at the corner and, despite the skin-pinching freeze, try to make the street lights illuminate it. I always wake up at 3am on this day.

I don’t need actually to see the picture. I know every minute grain of it by heart. I know that the two people are sitting on a bench by the sea; I know that there is a pier and a playhouse, out of focus, on their left; that the North Sea behind them is as calm as a mill pond; that they’re leaning against each other, shoulder to shoulder, in a rare moment of declared affection. I know these things because I’ve studied the picture in detail for years, but also because I took it. It had been chilly, that afternoon on the coast, despite the sunshine on their faces and the gleam from the sea. Looking out toward the rocky headland. What else had happened that day? I don’t remember. Were there other pictures?

In my head I’m assembling a family album of connections and influences. I need to get better at this. I need to connect and re-connect.

Distanced, in time and physically, it feels an almost impossible task. Our embellishments and retellings get in the way. But I shall have a go while I’m sat here in the dark. There are no true histories, but I’ll try and pull this one from the mist.

Years after he died, his brother – younger, less reserved – sat with me at a family wedding and we had a beer together. He had always loved my Dad, although they had fallen out often. Dad was bigger, taller, a success in the army, a boy soldier when he left home and a man when he came back eight years later. My Uncle always struggled with that, I think. He told me a story, that after some dreadful diabetic collapse, Dad had carried him, carried him mind, across town to the local hospital. Just picked him up and off he went. It was a literal association, but he said that he couldn’t listen to the Hollies singing He Ain’t Heavy without tearing up. He passed that on to me, and when I hear that plaintive refrain at the start of the song, it has to be switched off.

I don’t know if that really happened, yet it stirs into the mythos. My Uncle was always a little brash and carefree with his tales. It’s why I’ve always liked him. But I’m happy to add it to the mix nevertheless. It brings my Dad to mind, and that’s the point.

Out in the garden, the snow is settling. I think I may be the only person in the world awake.

Dad had suffered from heart troubles when we were very little, and had retired early.

Dedicated to us boys he’d then decided he’d ferry us all around the country, to Uni, to job interviews, wherever and whatever we needed. Always on time, our watches synced 5 minutes fast just in case. When, as a Sixth Former, I had been badly beaten up and left unconscious and broken by the side of the road, he’d saved my secret shame about being too scared to take the same route home, and invented driving lessons for me. In the whole of his day, it seemed that he could only manage them just as school turned out so that I didn’t have to walk home. I was painfully, quietly, grateful. It had ripped a hole in him when the Police pulled up at the house that evening, it was his considered response.

Thirty years ago I was woken at this time by the ‘phone ringing downstairs and the landing light going on. So alien, but immediately, emptyingly awful. There had been years with nothing; no worries, no murmurs, but now, with just me and Mum at home, and my brothers away, he had had to go in after feeling unwell. In the years since his previous difficulties our little local hospital had been forced to shut its major facilities and this time he was ten miles away. We were wanted. He’d asked for us.

Before, it would have taken us moments. If I’d ever asked how long a mile was, it was “to the hospital, almost to the yard”. In the time it took us to respond, to cross the Universe of new space between us, he died.

There is a little flush of dirty grey light beneath the clouds. A cat crosses the garden. I tap on the window and he looks at me. I wonder how much I’ve added and preened, airbrushed and retouched in all the stories I’ve ever told. The answer, I guess, as with all of us, is some. The human condition. We cannot help ourselves.

Dad’s truisms were simple. He was unapologetically supportive, calm, assured, organised. My Nan said he’d done all his shouting in the Army and he’d finished with it. Quiet, settled, steady. The snow absorbs the growing clamour of the day. It’s time to get on with it.

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a subway token and a dollar tucked inside my shoe

This isn’t a Best Of 2012 type list. Although, admittedly, the books shown here are all recent purchases for me, there are no marks awarded, or even an order in which to place things. No, in lieu of my usual silly ramblings, this is a wander through works I’ve read, that’s all. I think it stems from having had to sit in through a week or so of gloom, of rain-lashing prohibition and dull frustration, and because the New Year means a desultory return to work. Coupled with the fact I need to acknowledge that I’ve been moved not only by certain sights and atmospheres I’ve stumbled upon myself this year, certain turns in the lane, shifts in the air or fortuitous moments as an observer, but also by the accounts of others better suited to expressing their joy, wonder and enthusiasm.

Robert Macfarlane: The Old Ways

Subtitled A Journey on Foot (although I would have cheered a cheeky There And Back Again) this is Macfarlane’s third volume in his very loose trilogy on, as he says, ‘landscape and the human heart’.  In it, he walks the ancient routes of England and Scotland, and also much further abroad, into Palestine and the Himalyas, traveling paths and roads that have been walked for generations, millennia even. Thrown into his rucksack are a whole troupe of writers, Laurie Lee, W.H. Hudson, Robert Frost, and so on, and most notably Edward Thomas, who is referenced often. Thomas is the one who treads closest behind Macfarlane on these journeys, but it is the artist Eric Ravilious by whom I felt most beguiled. I have a couple of Ravilious woodcuts; dainty, precise, perhaps even bucolic scenes of rural life, one a farmyard the other a church with a spire, and I think they are the loveliest things I own. The fact that he was so drawn to the South Downs and the Ridgeway, the place that rekindled my own long-dormant interest in walking, intrigues me even more. Macfarlane writes touchingly about his life and his obsessions with light, his social detachment and his employment as a war artist that led to a posting in the Arctic Circle, something he had dreamed of as a boy, but which ultimately led to his death.

The Old Ways has a bewitching introduction, called simply Track, where Macfarlane, distracted in his Cambridge office one Winter afternoon, finds the light fading and the snow beginning, and he heads out to walk home. It is a dreamy, unreal couple of pages. He summons up that flat, deadened feeling of walking through a fresh snowfall after dark (“A slew of stars, the moon flooding everything with silver”) and as he leaves the town and heads down a path, a path I know, his guides are a fox and then a deer. There is the fairytale to it, an otherness. It is a wonderful start, go to a bookshop – go on, go now, this can wait – and find a copy and read it. It won’t take long, but afterward I’ll wager you may just buy the thing for yourself.

Roger Deakin: Wildwood

Roger Deakin died in 2006 a short time after submitting the final draft of Wildwood. It is a quest, he says in his introduction, “for the residual magic of trees and wood that still touches most of us not far beneath the surface of our daily lives.” To illustrate this, he takes a different aspect of our human relationship with wood and riffs upon it, often to wonderfully poetic effect. “To enter a wood is to pass into a different world,” he says with gentle, guiding wisdom. At one point early on he simply sits in his study and reels off the items he can see that have originated from trees. And he sees the tree in everything. He sleeps out under the canopy often, magically at one point spending a restless, cacophonous night beneath a rookery. There are trips abroad, visits to his great friend Ronald Blythe, a drizzle soaked journey to Holme on the north Norfolk coast. Even on the beach, especially on the beach, there is wood to find, notably the extraordinary Seahenge, a bizarre 4000 year old wooden monument revealed by the strange tidal zones of the area in 1998. He sees it as a pilgrimage.

As the book ends, Deakin, who has been working with his hands throughout, and who champions the artisans who mould and who are moulded by their materials, turns ever more closely to the wood as an element integral to life. He talks about pollarding, coppicing, laying new hedges, workshopping. Not as some remote lifestyle-gawping Sunday supplement exercise, but as an actual tactile activity. He has already looked back, with regret, as one of the generation “that grew up with elm,” and now, in the last pages he extolls the ash (“I live beneath the protective boughs of a sheltering ash” “a guardian of the house, arching up over the roof in a kind of embrace”). He talks of its year, the changes it goes through, it’s flamboyance and resilience. Of course, the ironies inherent in this due to dieback are painfully apparent, and it is suddenly very touching, this last chapter. He builds an ash bower and  the last statement is his sure and certain expectation that this will continue long after he has gone. It’s a quiet, studious, lived piece of work, and deserves to be read in the same thoughtful manner.

Melissa Harrison: Clay

Clay is Melissa Harrison’s debut novel. In some quarters it was described as being an urban pastoral, which is an odd description, but fairly adept, because this is a tale about city life and the hidden elements of nature that impinge upon it. The story is at first rather slight. A handful of characters who – to steal an image from Deakin, possibly – dovetail loosely, who live in and around an inner city park. It is a forgotten little spot but gradually the systems that have existed there, the seasonal variations, the birds and animals and natural fabric of this modest little corner, begin to affect and also witness changes in the cast. Harrison is lyrical, careful with the introduction of natural rhythms. Broader canvases, an eye on the shifting world as the year runs its course, are funneled down to this particular spot, and paint the backdrop for the delicate domestic dramas played out within this particular acre.

Gradually things shift, and tilt, and slide. Minor alterations in these peoples’ ecosystems develop into major themes. Some of these are internal, invisible. My favourite moment is a car pulled over onto a motorway hard shoulder, and a woman, a seemingly pragmatic and serious character, stepping out and walking into the normally rushed-past landscape. As the trees close in behind her you sense, you hope, that this may be an epiphany. It’s beautifully captured, and later moments, filled with stark truths are similarly layered across the landscape with care, like fat white snowflakes transforming the scene steadily and inexorably.

The element that chimes, that still echoes, is that moment of personal dislocation and separation, the exquisite wonder that maybe you are the only one that feels or sees something in a particular way. There are moments here where that is palapable. And they’re very special indeed.

Simon Armitage: Walking Home

When the poet Simon Armitage decides to announce that he was walking the Pennine Way, not only the unorthodox North-South way (as it would deliver him almost to his doorstep), but that he’d be paying his way solely from the readings he’d do en route, and with the help of strangers and friends he’d meet on the way, it seems a daunting task. As he takes the train up to the Scottish Borders and meets people he barely knows his anxieties begin to weigh him down almost as much as the absurdly heavy suitcase, the ‘Tombstone’, he’s decided to bring along with him.  So far, so Tony Hawks, but Armitage is cannier than all that. There’s heart and candour and a deep, keen interest involved here. Armitage isn’t really a passer-through. He’s a native of the North and expert interlocutor. He knows his birds, his landscapes and he knows people.

He’s honest enough, also, to confess when he’s not at all into the task and when it is all a genuine trudge, but the payoff with all this honesty is that when things do move him, or he clicks with a fellow walker or drinker, the account simply flies off the page. Funny, self-deprecating and once in a while moody and taciturn, there are several moments that catch you by surprise and a wrong-footing ending that most people would fudge or revise. Beneath the jokes at his own expense and the getting lost and the pints, though, there’s something deeper throughout, an urge to embrace the itinerant, to see if all’s not really been swallowed up in selfishness and suspicion. Ultimately, Armitage walks up a very tough hill indeed, and the view is all his own.