Njál’s Saga and Bleak House

Untitled painting (Icelandic landscape), by Matthew Herring, 2006. © Matthew Herring 2006

Untitled painting (Icelandic landscape), by Matthew Herring, 2006. © Matthew Herring 2006

When I went on holiday recently I took two books with me to read, which I didn’t expect to see many connections between – but I did. They were Njál’s Saga (an old favourite of mine) and Bleak House by Charles Dickens. They have a few things in common: complex, sprawling plots; a bewildering number of characters; and a concern with the fitness of legal processes to deliver justice. The thing which struck me though was simply that both centre around a gross and self-perpetuating evil which blights multiple generations, and which is only either stopped or counteracted by acts of grace. 

WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS (if you care about things like that)!

Njál’s Saga concerns a series of linked blood feuds in 10th/11th century Iceland which rumble on for sixty years or so, taking the lives of an increasing number of people with each iteration. Each killing demands its recompense. The ‘good’ characters (notably the peacemaker Njáll) try to make sure that recompense is exacted legally in the form of financial settlement. However, rasher temperaments and the pressure of honour have a way of forcing matters back towards violent means. The law, for all its sophistication and the effort put into its machinations, is ultimately powerless to stop the violence.  

The central incident of the saga is the attack by a hundred or so men, led by the chieftain Flosi, on Njáll and his family. The targets of the attack are Njáll’s violent sons. However, the cowardly action of the attackers – burning Njáll’s house down rather than fighting the sons directly – takes the lives not only of the sons but of the elderly Njáll and his entire family. Only Njáll’s son-in-law Kári escapes the burning. This act shortly afterwards leads to a large pitched battle at the Althing (national assembly), after an attempted legal action breaks down in a mess of technicalities. The battle is stopped with difficulty. In an attempt to prevent further violence, one of the peacemakers, Hallr of Siða, declares that he will not seek recompense for his son, who died in the battle. This act by an otherwise minor character is the seed which ultimately comes to fruition in the ending of the feud.  

The saga’s final section concerns the one-man campaign of vengeance by Kári, the burning survivor, on the burners. Kári refuses to be party to the peace treaty which ends the Althing battle and instead begins pursuing the burners across Iceland and as far afield as Wales and Orkney. As Kári slaughters the burners, Flosi, impressed by the example of Hallr of Siða, does nothing to avenge them. Eventually, Kári exhausts his grief and fury and makes peace with Flosi. And so ends the feuding.

In Bleak House, set in England at an undefined time in the nineteenth century, it is the court case Jarndyce and Jarndyce that is the great evil. A set of contradictory wills leads to years of pointless legal wrangling by self-interested lawyers. Dickens’s novel is a satire on the notoriously slow and unjust Court of Chancery (abolished in the 1870s). The case exerts a terrible pull on those concerned with it, grinding them down amid raised and broken hopes. It corrupts whatever and whoever it touches. Generations of descendants of the original Jarndyce are destroyed by the case – one blows his brains out in despair; another dies a nervous wreck leaving a baby son. Only one descendant is able to break the family curse (as he calls it), by acts of self-giving. 

John Jarndyce, suitor in the case and owner of Bleak House, acts as a father to his two orphaned young cousins and a third young person, the novel’s central character, Esther Summerson. He reverses the doubly ironic name of his house by making Bleak House a place of refuge and love. He is acting, in a mercenary sense, against his own interests, because his two cousins’ interests are opposed to his in the court case. But John Jarndyce consistently puts the interests of others before his own. He ends the book a little like John the Baptist, saying (in effect) ‘I must decrease’. Although John Jarndyce is unable to stop Jarndyce and Jarndyce and fails to save all those he attempts to save from it, he succeeds in creating a counter narrative of grace as a foil to the ravages of the case. His ‘Bleak House’ ethos perpetuates itself down to a second generation. There is even a second literal Bleak House to contain this ethos. Good, as in Njál’s Saga, leads to good, just as surely as evil to evil. 

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London memory walk

Brompton Cemetery, © M. Herring, 2018

Brompton Cemetery, © M. Herring, 2018

Once over, if I visited London I would try to cram in as many art exhibitions as I could. Now, what interests me more is London itself, and going to exhibitions is an excuse to walk places. It’s as if London is something that can be (needs to be) exorcised by walking it. I was in London in February to deliver a painting of mine to a show at Studio 1.1, Shoreditch, and I wanted to see the Rose Wylie show at the Serpentine Gallery as well. The Serpentine is close to the Royal College of Art, where I studied between 1999 and 2001. ‘My London’ – the London where I spent most of my daily life during those years – starts there and extents westwards. I’ve seldom visited it since, so I decided to use seeing the Wylie show as an excuse for a walk into loaded territory. I almost conceived of it as a ritual, or an exorcism of memory. There is something deeply uncanny about parts of one’s past which are lost in the folds of memory, and about the places associated with them. Places and memories become joined to one another in such a way that leaving a place means leaving memories behind with it. Staying away from the place preserves the memories, like leaving a cupboard full of junk untouched for a long time. Conversely, if you stay in a place you constantly scrub out memories – like a cupboard you use often and keep tidy. So unvisited places are freighted and somewhat dangerous. 

For some reason, I’d been reminded that I used to walk past Brompton Cemetery sometimes on my way from my flat in Fulham to the RCA. Only once, I think, did I enter it. I remembered a strange place with gravestones arranged like an amphitheatre, like something out of a dream. I remembered also the bridge over the underground railway on Lillie Road/Old Brompton Road as being one of those borders where the temperature of London changes. It is often said that London is a collection of villages, but I think that at a more profoundly phenomenological level it consists of numerous zones each with its own emotional content; its own sort of static emotional energy. I like to call this the ‘temperature’ of an area. London is more like a multiverse than a series of villages: each temperature zone is its own self-existent, hermetic bubble. This is separate from the attachment of memories to places, which is an individual matter. West Brompton tube station, which perches liminally between the hump of the bridge and the cemetery, is the gatehouse of the Brompton temperature bubble. 

So, I resolved to walk from King’s Cross to the Serpentine and then follow one of my old routes from the RCA to Fulham, then walk back from Fulham to South Kensington down Lillie Road/Old Brompton Road, checking out the cemetery on the way. I used to have an almost obsessively large number of routes, and combinations of routes, which I would take between Fulham and the RCA, each with its own particular feel and associations. Going from Fulham to the RCA cuts obliquely across the grain of London; I also lived for a time in Hammersmith, but that sits on the same grain line as the college, so it presented only one sensible route, up Hammersmith Road/Kensington High Street. The Fulham-RCA axis proliferated possible routes across approximately the same distance, so that it became a hobby to find new ones and to mix and match bits of the route into new combinations. A walk takes you through different temperature zones and can unfold like a musical composition. I had also wanted for a long time to visit Bunhill Fields, the Nonconformist burial ground where Bunyan, Blake and Defoe are buried. This is close to Shoreditch, where I needed to deliver my painting, so somehow, I wanted to weave this into my walk. I’m not into the mystical side of psychogeography, but here is a rough triangle with cemeteries near two of its angles. 

King’s Cross to the Serpentine 

The sun was low and bright, making it hard to see. I improvised a course across the grain of Bloomsbury – Judd Street, Leigh Street, Marchmont Street, Tavistock Place, Byng Place, Gower Street. The sun dissolved the city into an illusion, easy to disbelieve in. Part of the ritual was to buy a notebook from Rymans, and I knew from the internet that there was one on Tottenham Court Road and one on Gower Street. I gambled that the one on Gower Street was southwards from the point halfway along where I joined it. I gambled amiss – there was no Rymans and I committed myself to cutting Tottenham Court Road out of my route – but I was lured instead into the Oxfam Bookshop where I weighed myself down with three books: Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster, by Karen Lee Street, Letters from London, by Julian Barnes, and Common Ground, by Rob Cowen. Two London books and a Yorkshire one. Walking London can be like playing a game with the city. Sometimes the city wins the throw; sometimes the city gives you the unexpected win. I continued my route straight up Oxford Street and through Hyde Park to the Serpentine Gallery. 

The pieces in the Rose Wylie show which impressed me the most were the ones which drew on her memories of the London Blitz during the Second World War. Park Dogs and Air Raid has what I took to be a simplified aerial view of the city behind the childishly drawn German aircraft, with the blue river and the texture of the city suggested by horizontal blue strokes. Looking again at an image of it, I’m not sure if that’s what’s intended: the blue ‘rivers’ seem to be coming from the aircraft, like exhaust fumes or smoke. Having grown up making accurate and detailed drawings of German warplanes, I could never have depicted them in such a way, with backwards Nazi swastikas on the wings and not bearing the slightest resemblance to any actual type of plane. (German aircraft never had swastikas on the wings, though Finnish ones did). In the lower half of the painting is an image of Kensington Gardens, with the Serpentine Gallery, Round Pond and some dogs and ducks. In a video interview about the exhibition, Wylie says that she painted Kensington Gardens, both in response to the exhibition invitation and because she had childhood wartime memories of the park. I liked this looping back of memory and place. 

Rosemount (Coloured) seems to be a more complex work: a map of Farnborough Park, just outside London, overlain with the silhouette of a large house where Wylie once lived, in the process of being bombed. Bombs fall and a large red V1 flying bomb is spied by a disembodied eye. The colours of the work – mauves and washed out greens and blues – suggest the era of the Second World War. The activity of mapping is identical to that of remembering: here the words which Wylie commonly scrawls across her paintings delve back into the past. Both paintings have the perspective of a child’s memory of living through the Blitz: seeing a flying bomb; seeing bomb damaged buildings; seeing stray dogs in the park (their owners killed by bombs?) The lumpen aircraft are exactly right for unseen raiders. The other works in the show, which featured female film stars and footballers, engaged me less and seemed shallower. (Queen with Pansies (Dots) is the one other work that I enjoyed). 

Kensington to Fulham 

After leaving the park, I scuttled down Jay Mews, the lane that runs through the middle of the RCA. Absurdly, I was afraid of meeting someone I knew. It was probably a decade since I had visited the college last and it looked exactly the same. I snubbed the college by rushing past; it was like a sepulchre locked up with memories, but I couldn’t go inside and I could hardly stand there staring at it. It was good to reacquaint myself with the layout of streets at the bottom of the Mews – doing that restored part of my mental geography and put the passageway I remembered which runs alongside the church back in its right alignment. I exited the Mews down Bremner Road. 

The area of Kensington I now threaded my way through has a ‘cold’ temperature on my scale. It’s a fantasy realm of white stucco and foreign embassies; plane trees and wealth. It isn’t a place that offers the soul any sort of resting place; not even your eyes feel like they are allowed to linger on its pristine surfaces. You wonder who (if anyone) actually lives in these stolid excrescences of spotless guano. None of the people who you see walking the streets can possibly inhabit them: they are all mere workers of one kind or another. I imagine the inhabitants must pass like barely visible ghosts straight from shiny cars through immaculate doors. I used to wonder if they would be interested in buying my art, but mostly what you see through windows is acres of white or magnolia paint and large potted palms, not art. I wouldn’t even be surprised to find that many of the houses are empty, mere assets. I did notice that some of the numbers on the pillars of the houses on Queens Gate Terrace, which are all in an identical typeface, were painted less neatly than others, and this pleased me. The badly painted ones at least spoke of a human hand. A group of two or three (I forget how many) Chinese men in casual dress and with cigarettes between their fingers strolled towards me and began gesticulating at one of the houses. They looked incongruous enough to actually live here. 

Crossing Gloucester Road, I found a Rymans and fulfilled that part of the ritual which demanded that I buy a black A6 notebook (thank you London). Diving down Kynance Place as down a rabbit hole, I found myself in even more bizarre surroundings. Wealth seems to suck all of the possibilities out of a place, as if not even a scrap of neglected brickwork must be left to the casual stroller. Kynance Mews, which runs parallel to Kynance Place, and which I did not even dare to walk down, has an overbearing stone arch at each end, like a massive mouth ready to bite down on the unauthorised pedestrian. There is something cruel about the very architecture. Go down Kynance Place (or, if you dare, Mews) and you are in the land of twisted fairytale. There are more stone portals leading into forbidden courtyards and an overly luxuriant growth of styles from Arts and Crafts and Regency to Second Empire, much of it stuccoed like a sickly cake encrusted with white icing. Odd corners and angles, which elsewhere would make the place characterful are here too scrubbed and painted to enjoy. Barley twist chimneys recall the eggs atop the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres. The neighbourhood simultaneously treats you as dirt too lowly to notice and makes you feel observed. It’s hard to believe that I used to regularly walk down these streets; what it did to my mental health I dread to think. 

I followed the line of Cornwall and Lexham Gardens into Logan Place. When I used to take this route, the wall enclosing the house where Freddie Mercury died used to be covered with graffiti dedicated to him; now that too was scrubbed clean (and there was a large perspex sheet bolted over the door into the garden). Emerging from these heady streets into the brutal daylight of West Cromwell Road is like a bucket of cold water in the face. West Cromwell Road is a major traffic route through West London, dirty, noisy and wide. Heading over the bridge over the railway into West Kensington, I followed a complicated route to Lillie Road, where my flat was. I wondered, how does one address the complexity of the city. I wondered also why these streets always seemed to be a poor substitute for the tenement streets of the West End of Glasgow for the pleasure of walking. I still can’t put my finger on it.  

The turning point of my walk was the Fulham Cross Cafe on Munster Road, where I had a cooked breakfast sitting aloof from a lively community of elderly gentlemen. Heading back down Lillie Road (my old flat still the same), I came at last to the boundary bridge and Brompton Cemetery. The road leading up to the hump of the bridge rises as unexpectedly as the bus which carries the protagonist in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce from the grey town up to heaven. Behind is indeed a sort of ‘grey town’: a disparate area of tower blocks, Victorian terraces, low-roofed pubs, playgrounds and hotels, which, like Lewis’s town, seems to tend to pull away from itself. The passage of Lillie Road into Old Brompton road is marked by a sort of linguistic sputtering out of the name ‘Lillie’ (which is robustly anchored in the centre of Lillie Road by the massive bulk of the Sir John Lillie Primary School). On the approach to the bridge there is the Hotel Lily (the sign says HOTE_ LILY) and the Lillie Langtry pub (formerly named after the other Lillie); across the bridge on the Brompton side is the Li Li massage parlour. 

Brompton Cemetery 

The cemetery. Through the arched gateway yet another world is reached, though one which is penetrated constantly by the living (as by ghosts in reverse). A wide avenue leads straight to the amphitheatre I remembered. In reality, it is a sort of circus created by stone arcades, surrounding and surrounded by countless graves. The vertical tiers of graves I expected to see were a creation of my memory – though flat, the cemetery is no less dramatic and unreal. The first thing about the place which is shocking – as shocking as the white bones of a skeleton – is the sheer number of graves: a petrified forest of stone stumps lined up like souls on resurrection day. The cemetery is a rupture in the life of the city; scar tissue in living flesh. The memorials are of all sorts: crosses, angels, urns, broken columns, obelisks, mausolea, simple gravestones. The phrase ‘strange fruit’ came into my mind. Workmen were busy repairing some of the larger memorials and many were fenced off. I peered in through an opening above the heavily rusted iron door of an Egyptian style mausoleum. The space extended downwards a long way but eventually ended with a bare floor and a stone bench. The variety of graves was engrossing: one had red and white glazed tiles; another had a severe art nouveau bas relief angel; another had copper art nouveau lettering which had flooded the stone with green oxides; there were a couple of Orthodox crosses with Cyrillic text; there was a grave with stone canoe atop. 

Constantly, the life of the city dodged through all this death with the hardiness of the citizens of a bomb-blasted city who have become accustomed to seeing so much dereliction. Cyclists, joggers, dog walkers, commuters all clearly pass through as a matter of course. The energetic workmen gave the whole place the air of one vast restoration project (as featured on TV in an episode of Restoration Cemetery). I imagined a glossy, upbeat brochure describing how many newly carved stones would be inserted into previously crumbling monuments; how our heritage was being kept alive. A shrivelled lady in a mobility scooter trundled up and down the main avenue, as if merely enjoying the sun (which she probably was). I tried to catch the eye of an Asian or Hispanic lady with heavy foundation makeup who was sat on a bench, but I couldn’t. She looked deep enough in thought, but probably not of death or the dead. Above it all, heavy A380 and 747 airliners mooed on their way down to Heathrow at close intervals. 

And then I realised that the entire place was one babbling mass. The different shapes and sizes of stones, as jostling and individual as the living. Different languages and scripts. “In sacred and devoted memory of…” “Who fell asleep July 9th 1956 aged 84 years”. “Resurgam”. “Family grave of John and Eliza Todd”. “The sepulchre of Charles Cave”. “1866”. “1917”. All asserting facts and identities. Even the brambles which enclosed some of the less well tended graves like railings resembled mad rambling script many times overwritten. 

Quitting the cemetery, I continued down Old Brompton Road and stopped in a swish pub to gather my notes and thoughts together over an expensive but refreshing Coca Cola. After the disparateness and openness of Lillie Road, Old Brompton Road has an enclosed and enclosing feel. A young woman gushed in an American accent to another young woman who was sat working at the next table, about some graphic design project of the latter’s, and she then repaired to another table to make a phone call in French. I could imagine either of them living nearby. Even though Brompton is an upmarket area of London, it doesn’t have the eviscerated, enervated feel of parts of Kensington. It might just be that the predominant material is warm brick, rather than stucco (though there’s plenty of the latter as well). There is also something about the proportions of certain streets – the height of their buildings in relation to their width – that makes them feel enclosing (this is common with Glasgow tenement streets). Old Brompton Road unfolds through a series of doglegs. The space of the street gives onto the enclosed spaces of the thousands of rooms – thousands of lives – hidden behind permeable facades, just as the railings of the cemetery give onto the thousands of voids in the cemetery. 

I wonder if you can define West London areas by the colour of Mercedes. In some places, white seems to predominate; in others silver, or black, or a kind of gunmetal grey. Never do colours predominate. They are the spirit guides of the grey city. 

Bunhill 

Reaching South Kensington I was forced to take the tube. The walk was disintegrating and I didn’t have time enough to walk to the East. My visit to Bunhill Fields cemetery was likewise rushed. It was getting dark and commuters streamed through the main artery of the cemetery, like corpuscles under pressure. The lights were on in the surrounding office buildings and the green mosses and lichens on the tombstones glowed with the sickliness of strip lighting. I saw Bunyan, Blake and Defoe, or at least their monuments: Bunyan’s is a sarcophagus with a carving of the writer reclining on top of it; Defoe’s an obelisk and Blake’s the simplest of all, an upright slab. They are arranged on an axis crossing the main one of the cemetery. Most of the stones here are simpler than those at Brompton (older). I photographed a squirrel who perched obligingly still on one of the stones. My visit was somewhat like the birth recorded in T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi: “It was (you may say) satisfactory”. 

I wondered what I gained from this memory-symbolic walk. Memory is something that resists and flees as well as something you can call upon. Walking is both inimical to and encouraging of memory. Inimical, because the physical exertion involved and the obstinacy of the present both intrude. Walking a memory also erodes it, like playing an acetate disk. I did remember things and manage to reconnect with the geography, if nothing else. However, I felt more of a stranger, both from my own past and from the place. I was happy to go back to wife and home and children rather than an empty student flat.  

 

Grey squirrel in Bunhill Fields cemetery. © M Herring, 2016

Grey squirrel in Bunhill Fields cemetery. © M Herring, 2016

 

 

Monoprinting in the cold

© Matthew Herring 2018. Prints on floor in studio

© Matthew Herring 2018.

Today I finished working on a monoprinted text piece. It’s the third I’ve completed out of a series of them. It was freezing in my studio – the ‘Beast from the East’ brought snow and storm Emma contributed wind – and I had a job to get the ink fluid enough! I put it on the heater until it steamed and probably nearly caught fire. 

The liquid city

View of the Thames, drawn from Patrick Keiller's film London, 2005

View of the Thames, drawn from Patrick Keiller’s film London, 2005. © Matthew Herring 2005

The river Thames at Bankside is one of my old haunts from back when I lived in London. I was there again recently with my family, visiting Tate Modern. Ioana took the kids back to our friends’ home once they’d had their fill of rolling down the slope in the turbine hall on the huge stripy carpet installed by an artist collective SUPERFLEX (far more fun than the giant swings). I stayed on for a bit, drawn by the place rather than the art. The view from the South Bank has always seemed to me like a vision, as if nothing is quite solid or real: the elements of London exist in deep affinity with one another by the river, pervaded by a veiled whiteness of Portland stone, concrete, river, and sky. When I went up the Shard, a few years ago, it struck me how much the buildings around St Paul’s Cathedral resemble the limestone pavements in the Yorkshire Dales: the same pale, flat, rectilinear slabs separated by deep fissures. I remember once trying to sketch from somewhere near Bankside and finding the luminous greyness oppressive. It was impossible to capture in crayons, the grey light pressed on my retinas, like a kind of concrete and Portland snow blindness. Light can emanate from concrete as from an overcast sky.

London is a city of skyscapes. And of sound: I can still hear the clanking of cranes and the rush of traffic; the buzz coming across the river from that sketching trip years ago. London from the South Bank manages to be both crushingly heavy and as weightlessly evanescent as pumice. I realised I was trying to draw the structure of London – the forms of its architecture – but London has no structure and oscillates like a mirage. It’s like trying to draw a feeling. Sometimes I feel London draws its oppressive weight from the concentration of power and wealth – power and wealth that exclude you and grind on with no need of you. Looking across the river towards the towers and slab office blocks of the City you are acutely aware of a terrible gravity. I ended up overworking my drawing with a white crayon, always an admission of defeat.

Years later, I left the Tate hoping to sit somewhere and reconnect to that memory. Instead of a slab sky of white, it was one of those windy-sunny days where the clouds look as if they have been wrenched and torn apart by some frenzied being. It was Sunday and the crowds were out in force along the South Bank, scudding and milling along like clouds. Tate Modern is the nexus, the centre of gravity, of the current popularity of modern art; the tower of Tate Modern is like the pinnacle of rock beneath the Gulf of Coryvreckan which causes the whirlpool – in this case of people restlessly circulating. I made my way westwards as far as it would take for the crowds to thin out a bit. I had half a mind to walk to South Kensington, another old haunt. The crowds thinned out after Westminster Bridge (where I noticed the new concrete barriers like cutwaters put there to stop repeats of the terrorist vehicle attack) and I sat on one of the benches with weird cast iron swans’ heads, opposite the Houses of Parliament.

The river is both a hiatus in London and its liquid essence. I imagined the river being constructed as a massive civil engineering project, a vast trench dug through the heart of the city without yet any water in it. The river is a fault line between the two halves of London, like the city is a stone that has cracked in half. I had been looking at Mark Bradford’s huge collage Los Moscos in the Tate, with its grid-like structure recalling Bradford’s home city of Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a city defined more by the grid than by the Los Angeles River, but London’s structure hangs on the river, like a wasp’s nest on a branch.

I imagine the river having the same relationship to London as God has to his creation in process theology. London as the river’s emanation. In process theology God and the world are fellow travellers in time: both exist within and are transcended by its flow. Becoming trumps being. London and the river are also locked in a similar flow and a similar becoming. The river is the liquid city: liquid Portland stone and liquid concrete. Liquid possibilities. The suspended silt which gives the river the appearance of dirty milk is the dust of the city. The city, for its part, is the river’s precipitate, a crystalline deposit crusting its banks. The river begets the city from its – the city’s – own substance. A god locked in time is a lesser god, however. 

The river is thick with thought, with the city’s crowded mind. As I sit staring at it, the river is flowing backwards: the tide is coming in and pushing the flow back upriver. (When I lived in Hammersmith I once saw the same dead dog floating up the Thames and then later on back down again on the ebb tide). Unlike the flow of time, the flow of the river is reciprocal; uncertain. Its ebb and flow are the heave of the crowd and its silt the hiss of its thoughts. I wrote down some of the things that the river’s surface reminded me of: mercury, graphite, liquid brass, milk, urine, paper pulp, the cortex of a brain. Everything and nothing.

Walking on a little, I looked at the apartment blocks being thrown up by developers along the riverbank. The concrete lift shafts stood starkly like insane overgrown pillboxes inside the steel skeletons of the unfinished flats; stains on the concrete showed where water had once flowed in rivulets from each section as it was cast. Water soaks through concrete. Beneath the Blavatnik Building at the Tate is an area which originally housed storage tanks connected with the power station. It is a massively constructed space made of rough concrete. High up one of the walls water seeps through, like one of London’s lost rivers trying to escape its confinement. Water is the true state of concrete and rock. The river is the key to London, seeping as it does into the Tate basement.

Across the river from the unfinished flats, impure light reflected off the glass and steel of Millbank Tower, home of (at various times) both the Conservative and Labour parties, the UN and the World Bank. London is a city of reflections. I crossed Vauxhall Bridge. Sometimes the river gives you a smile: a flash of indigo on the ruffled surface. Usually, it is the colour of melancholy, or of one of the silver mercedes that course through the arteries of the city like undissolved drugs. The river disposes of things. It erases and cleanses; is both forgetfulness and memory. London is a state of mind that you can read by walking. I ended my walk at Pimlico tube and headed back to rejoin my family.

The following day, I reflected on my walk and reread my notes in a cafe in Hampstead. Hampstead types talked intensely to each other, over generous portions of cake, of business or dilemmas or other people’s follies. Over the road, I could see a building with a crooked sash window and a pink bacterial water seep down its cream painted masonry. Everywhere in London – even in rich Hampstead – there are buildings with cracks, some of them huge. Everything is shifting and provisional; threatening to slump into the oozy substrate. I looked at the people around me in the cafe and thought that it was the same for them (and me); that they were worn, stressed and cracked like the buildings, without foundations. Next to the building with the crooked sash was a yard entirely festooned with Russian vine and overshadowed by a sycamore tree. A strange, extravagant green recess in the city. Two men manhandled a steel I-beam off the roof of a van, which was also loaded with umpteen sheets of plywood and PIR foam.

Later on, Ioana and the kids and I went in the cafe in Waterstones on Hampstead High Street. There the scene was different. Hampstead High Street is unreal, so astronomically wealthy and fussed over that it seems to levitate; if the hill didn’t support it at the altitude it does, it would float there anyway. Egalitarian Waterstones is there like the embassy of a foreign land. At the next table in the cafe sat a group of several children and women. The women were very obviously nannies. They talked in the way that employees do behind their employers’ backs. The children – the infinitely precious progeny of the wealthy – messed around, spilling their drinks over books unpaid for and dropping lumps of pastry on the floor. The nannies apologised to us for the disruption – they were nannies, they explained, and these were the children they looked after. As if that would excuse the scene or as if, indeed, we wouldn’t have guessed the fact. Ioana – a nanny – smiled and said it was OK. I couldn’t help being smug that our children were our own and better behaved. We oscillated in between two strata of society: those of the nannies and their rich and badly behaved children. Outside, it started to get dark.

Faxi’s stream: a short walk at the crux of England

Humber estuary from near Faxfleet

Photo: © M Herring 2017

Faxfleet

 

2nd November, Faxfleet, at the confluence of the Ouse and the Trent; the start of the Humber. A marsh harrier patrolled the reed bed, up and down, while a Lynx helicopter passed over, heading towards Lincolnshire. The harrier wheeled overhead and went inland, towards a farmhouse. Stonechats flitted in the reeds. After the helicopter, silence but for the tinnitus of distant traffic and the peeping of unseen waders. Silence is a sense of space rather than the absolute absence of sound; sounds either form the boundaries of the space, or cut into it, like the helicopter did.

I made the trip to Faxfleet to celebrate the first day of a new work pattern which will give me more time to dedicate to my practice as an artist, and to connect up with the past. The last time I had a regular day a week built into my working pattern to dedicate to art was a little over two years ago, and, on my last ‘art day’, I took a similar trip to Airmyn, also on the Ouse. (I wrote about this trip here). That trip was partly an act of faith that I was going to get that time back again, and this trip I guess was an attempt to heal the rift. I’ve made several trips to places on the lower reaches of the Ouse and the Humber, drawn by a fascination with estuaries and forlorn places.

I wanted to see the place where the Ouse and the Trent meet. It seems to me to be one of the hidden cruxes of England. The Trent drains a huge chunk of the Midlands, as it slews its ‘U’-shaped course. The Ouse drains both the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. They meet quietly and unobtrusively, without any fanfare, surrounded by reedbeds and mudflats. It looks from Google Maps like you can stand right on the cusp between the two rivers, at Blacktoft sands, but you can’t. I went there a year or two back, to the RSPB nature reserve. You may not depart from the path: you can’t even see the rivers for the reeds. (I did have a great time, however, spotting all the rare birds the other bird watchers pointed out: ruffs, bearded reedlings, spotted redshanks, marsh harrier).

Faxfleet is barely a hamlet – more a scattering of farms – situated on the north bank of the Ouse/Humber, opposite Blacktoft sands. Away from the river, it’s a land of flat arable fields, reclaimed from marsh. There was once a Knights Templars’ community there, so it must have been drained pretty early on. There’s something that’s hard to grasp about the landscape. It’s overlooked to the north and south by the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Wolds, which give it the uncanny feel of being a no-man’s land between two opposing forces. Two mirrored opposites. The hills rise suddenly and unaccountably from the flat. They’re not that high, but they do odd things to the space; as if, by being raised up, the things atop them are also brought closer. You have the feeling that, if you squinted, you could see in through the windows of houses in Alkborough, on the Lincolnshire Wolds. There is the same sense of acoustic space as I’ve noticed at Spurn Point and Sunk Island: sounds seem to carry further over the water, or just over the flat ground. Clanks and bangs of distant activity pierce the silence at intervals.

Dark, compact woods sit between the fields, like thoughts you can’t quite get hold of. Residues of thought. Robert McFarlane talks about how landscape provides us with metaphors for living. If the landscape is an extended metaphor for our own being, then depicting it is self portraiture. I have the fantasy that the flat landscapes of lowland England are a vast thought process, a brooding consciousness. Thoughts are distinct things, like the woods and other features which occupy and cross the land surface. You can return to a thought like you can return to a wood. You might find it changed or attrited, but it will be there in some form. In that sense, thoughts are more like things than flow (we often talk about consciousness as a stream, meaning flow, but I think it is more like a stream in the landscape, a more or less permanent, albeit shifting and changing, feature). Thoughts build up archaeological layers.

Place names do, too. I like the fact that Alkborough and Faxfleet have both retained a kind of awkward primal ‘spikiness’ – of the ‘k’ and the ‘x’ – as if they have resisted erosion into forms that are kinder on the palate. They have an Old Norse strangeness. (In fact, Alkborough is Old English, meaning ‘Al(u)ca’s hill’; Faxfleet is of uncertain meaning, but is also Old English, perhaps with an Old Norse personal name, Faxi. Faxi’s Stream, perhaps). Aluca and Faxi and their streams and hills have left their residue.

 

Get lost signs

 

A ‘get lost’ sign that stops you going too far along the riverbank east from Faxfleet:

Associated British Ports

Notice is hereby given that there is no right of way on this embankment or any other part of the estate. Trespassers will be prosecuted.

By order ABP

 

And another:

Strictly no access.

Humber Wildfowl Refuge Committee

 

There’s another on the gates of the Weighton Lock:

PRIVATE PROPERTY

NO ADMITTANCE EXCEPT ON BUSINESS

And next to it:

Horse riders please

keep to Bridle Path

Take your pick. On the bridge over the lock there’s a stone carved inscription, partly eroded:

Mr Grady Engineer Mr [?] Surveyor

Mr Smith Carpenter Mr [?] Mason

Anno Domino 1775

Repaired 1826 by Joseph Whitehead

 

Blacktoft

 

Past the Weighton Lock (where the Market Weighton Canal ends), the landscape opens out as you face across to the southernmost escarpment of the Yorkshire Wolds and towards Brough. Hunched crows sit in trees. The Humber Bridge is like a drawing, executed with extreme efficiency and elegance of line. A short distance later, you are halted by the pale blue ABP sign quoted above. For my part, I turned back, quailing at the threat of prosecution, and walked back the other way, past Faxfleet to Blacktoft.

The spiky, straight leaves on the rushes all point east, away from the prevailing wind. A small patch of borage darkens the counsel of a tilled field. Flowers of yarrow are too white on the embankment side. Farm houses are half lost in trees. I think of the Templars’ preceptory and try to avoid the move of associating it with the uncanny of the place.

And on the water side, the mirrored silver of the exposed mud, riven with serpentine rills like blood vessels at regular intervals. The mud has the iky shininess of membranes in the body, or of a cerebral cortex. Its thoughts cannot but be inscrutable. Tiny wading birds pitter-patter across it like flies. The light reflected from the surface leaves an after-image on my retina.

Once I’ve turned the Faxfleet corner, near where I parked the car (by a sign saying ‘Private road’), I’m on the Ouse and the river immediately starts to feel familiar. The Lincolnshire Wolds, looming over yonder, look like a foreign country, and the Trent, which I can barely see, is a foreign river to me. The Ouse is a businesslike Yorkshire river. A thug of a river? No, she’s a lady! From the outset she’s recognisably the river that passes through Goole and Selby. A definite river, after the equivocal and dissimulating estuary.

I stopped at the Hope and Anchor, Blacktoft, for a cup of tea. Hope and Anchor has a faintly religious sound, like it should be seaman’s mission, not a pub, and it does look a bit like a mission hut. I sat at one of the picnic benches outside, close to the river, drinking in the quiet. The sense of space is aural as much as visual. The Konik ponies over the river in the RSPB reserve are galloping in circles. The muffled crump of their hooves travels across the water and occasionally their heads briefly appear over the reeds. A robin regards me coolly from a post: do I exist only because observed by it? Aircraft pass obtrusively: a fighter jet and a couple of light aircraft. Small pieces of debris, no bigger than otters’ heads drift silently and sadly down to the sea, like they’re in disgrace. Even smaller ducks defy the current – the ones I can identify are widgeons. Everything is distant, at arm’s length: aircraft, traffic, rivers, hills. The hum of things unseen. The silence hollows out a space through which sounds pass. The water looks as deep as it is opaque. Hot chocolate water.

Leaving the pub, I notice a sign:

The management accepts no liability for any injury sustained while using the play area on these premises.

There is but a single swing frame, with no swings hanging from it.

 

A path through the reeds

 

Heading back towards Faxfleet, I meet a woman with two young children, the first people I have met while walking the embankment. They have with them a dog which barks at me. The woman says, she has never heard it bark before. It’s a baby and it has never barked before it met me. I’m taking photographs of the hawthorn bushes (thick with haws) and the yellow weeping willows.

About opposite where I left the car, I spot a well trodden path going down from the embankment and into the reeds. (Next to where I parked the car is a gate with a sign saying there’s no right of way: the space between the gate and the embankment, where there clearly is a right of way, is about four metres). The path is well trodden and well mudded. It snakes like one of the rills on the mudflats. I’m pleased to be among the reeds, which are taller than I am. The path forks and I briefly consider going back – afraid of losing my way in a labyrinth of treacherous muddy paths bounded by reeds; of sinking unseen into the grey mire. Massive washed up tree trunks are half buried beneath the reeds. The usual industrial estuary rubbish: industrial-sized plastic tubs formerly full of stuff you can’t buy in supermarkets; telegraph poles. And, eventually, the rivers.

The path leads right to the view I was looking for and unable to find from the embankment. It has obviously been made and maintained by birders, itching for a proper viewpoint over across the mudflats. Directly opposite is the mouth of the Trent and the pointed headland I’d wanted to stand on (it is mostly mud bounded by two boulder walls; not really land at all). To my right the Ouse and to my left the Humber. It was exhilarating to stand somewhere not officially sanctioned, where a wrong footstep might lead to a sticky end. A huge flock of waders swoops over the waters like Job’s storm; as far as I can tell they are mostly lapwings, with shelducks on the outside. There are small groups of shelducks on the mud. The flock is silent. Yellow light gleams on the rivers’ mucus membrane and echoes the ragged patches of sun snarling through the blue clouds. It’s only 2:40 in the afternoon, but feels like the gloaming. Uncanny spots of light shine brightly on a patch of mud not far away from me: broken glass, or just pools of water? Fairies?

Just as I was thinking that I hadn’t seen a single boat on the rivers, a converted barge came inching down the Trent at a snail’s pace. A guy is stood in the bow staring intently forward. I watched a TV documentary once about the Trent in which the presenter extolled the dangers of the confluence of Trent and Ouse. The water may be metres or centimetres deep and look much the same. The boat crept gingerly round the headland, did a standing turn and motored off at increased speed up the Ouse. Pleased with the end of my day, I also headed back up the Ouse to home.

Photo: © M Herring 2017

 

Walking and theodicy: Robin Hood’s Bay to Scarborough

Painting by Matthew Herring of the cliffs at Scarborough

Red cliffs, 2004, Matthew Herring, oil on board. © M Herring 2004

I have a favourite walk between Scarborough and Robin Hood’s bay, on the Yorkshire coast. It’s about fourteen miles, mostly along the cliffs. It’s a good walk for thinking, because you don’t have to worry about losing the way and it’s not so varied that it drags your thoughts constantly into different registers. It’s more or less of one substance from beginning to end. What variety there is tends to fit into a rhythm: high, undulating cliffs separated by deep ‘wykes’, or valleys. You have to walk down into them and then up again.

The cliffs, especially near Scarborough, are boulder clay. Their whole substance is heavy, unstable and fluid. If it has rained, then you labour through deep sticky mud and try not to slide down the cliff. You have a sense of the land slumping into the sea. Change is rapid: the land might have slipped away to leave a knife-edge of clay standing. Next time you visit, it will have gone. The mud is red.

Somehow, I think, the mud is like thought. Thoughts can trip along freely, but, if you are mulling something over, they can be heavy and viscous, like you are trying to shape clay in your mind. Or, the act of walking through the mud can be like thinking. The mud resists, sticks and causes you to slip. You make progress, but it presents always the same face; it is the same. It’s a distance to cover, but it’s more like wrestling. Reaching the destination is the end of the bout. And the mud remains: what form you have managed to impress onto it is just waiting for the next rain or heavy sea to change again. It’s always there the same.

I did the walk recently. When I reached Robin Hood’s Bay by bus to start the walk, it was raining steadily (pax the forecast). By the time I reached Boggle Hole there was a thunderstorm directly overhead, so I sheltered in the Youth Hostel cafe. I had no mind to be the tallest object on the top of a cliff in a thunderstorm. The thunder passed, but it rained torrentially after I set off again. By the time I was up on the cliffs again it had eased. There was clear sky above the horizon out to sea, but a smudge along the horizon meant another squall rolling in. You could see the mechanics of how they manoeuvred about: one out to sea and coming in; the thunderstorm now away off inland to the north-west; another slab of raincloud wheeling round over the high clifftop at Ravenscar ahead of me, to the south. They don’t come across in straight ranks, but jostle and wheel around each other, like giant cogs. You think you’re going to get soaked; then you don’t; then you think the next one’s going to miss you; then it catches you head on.

So it went. So much rain fell so quickly that the path was ankle deep in water and I gave up trying to step round it. The water roared as it escaped downhill in waterfalls hidden behind blackthorn and giant horsetails. It was the same colour as the wastewater from a washing machine, soapy and greasy. The rain filled my bum-bag up like a toilet cistern and the water trickled out all in one spot and soaked my backside. When the rainstorm I’d seen out to sea arrived, it was impossible to look into. Out to sea, you could see it as a blur. When it closed in, it enveloped you and it hurt your eyes to try to look into it, like staring into a grey angry sun. It made me aware of inhabiting myself like a set of Chinese boxes: me, my thought, my body, my coat, the squall, the world.

I’ve been reading the book of Job. I can see why God appears to Job in a storm. A storm somehow envelops you; cuts you off; locks you inside yourself, but also locks itself inside with you. It’s all around you, but you can’t look at it. It forces you to look at yourself. It is simultaneously everything, something and nothing. It can roar and whisper at the same time. It’s a bit like being hit by a juggernaut which turns to mist the moment it hits; like a falling dream.

I thought about Job as I walked along. I can’t get my head around what’s going on in it. It seems so full of paradoxes. God appears in the storm at the end of the discussion between Job and his friends, in response to Job’s request for an audience with God, but he doesn’t inject any new information into the discussion at all. Instead, he reiterates the one thing Job and his friends already agree on: that mortals can no more hold God to account than explain the natural world. The God who orders the cosmos is beyond human accountability. God says to Job: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?”, but then later says that Job was right. However, lack of knowledge was a major aspect of Job’s problem in the first place: he didn’t understand why he had to suffer. Similarly, God says that Job’s friends are wrong about him, but a lot of what they say is correct. The friends tell Job that if he pleads with God and confesses his sin, God will restore him. In the end, Job does this and God does restore him. The narrator says that Job didn’t sin by “charging God with wrongdoing”. In the dialogue that follows, Job does exactly that: “Though I cry, ‘I’ve been wronged!’ I get no response”. A further problem resides in the pretext for Job’s affliction, namely the Accuser’s implication at the beginning of the book that God’s judgement of Job as a righteous man is faulty and that Job will curse God if pushed to it. Job has to vindicate God by his response to his suffering.

You can push it this way and that way, and it slips through your fingers. Things fail to connect and slip by each other. The sin Job appears to commit by his tirades against God isn’t sin that disqualifies him from vindicating God’s judgement of him as righteous (in contrast to the conventional piety of Job’s friends, who are required to present a sin offering to God at the end). God says that Job both lacks knowledge and is right, but without specifying the content of the missing or present knowledge; presumably they are different. Or does Job say what is right without knowing it’s right? God’s self revelation to Job as an almost amoral orchestrator of a tumultuous, chaotic nature (symbolised by the monsters Leviathan and Behemoth) slides past God’s initial accusation that Job lacks knowledge and seems to corroborate what Job has said about him all along. (Or is the accusation of lacking knowledge directed to the friends? Or does God have a twinkle in his eye? A genuine invitation to speech?) Job’s impiety wins him a slap down from God which is nevertheless the encounter with God he has longed for – a slap down which is anyway very ambiguously a slap down. The violent mood swings of the grieving Job somehow set off the whole push and pull that threatens the logical cohesion of the whole book.

I thought about all of this whilst being battered by rainstorms. By the time I reached Ravenscar the rain had stopped, but it was misty on the cliff top. The water was still ankle deep. Gradually it cleared and got out sunny. My bum dried (not my shoes).  At Hayburn Wyke, the water in Hayburn Beck was impressive and terrifying. In the last half of my walk I thought about a painting I’m working on, without resolving its problems.

Evening

 

DSC_0242

Image © Matthew Herring, 2017

I’ve sought solace sitting in the garden as it gets dark. One evening at half past nine it was perfectly quiet; as nearly so as it could possibly be here on the edge of town. Half a mile distant, traffic on the A1237 had thinned out so much that instead of an unvarying tinnitus hiss you could hear individual vehicles pass, but spaced so as to allow quiet to seep into the gaps. I think it was a weekday evening. Another day, a Sunday, it was noisy at ten – the traffic was still frenetic.

The first thing that happens is that the gulls go home. Half a mile past the A1237 is the tip, where the gulls – herring, lesser black-back and black headed – spend their working days scavenging and squabbling. My uncle once had a job chasing them away from where the tip workers were working, in order to fulfill some workplace safety legislation. He chased them away with a stick every half hour, on the half hour. It was like chasing the sea off the seashore: the birds simply wheeled around like so much white froth and settled again immediately. Legislation fulfilled, my uncle sat in his van for another half hour. Crazy law.

The gulls start flying eastwards about an hour or so after I come home from work. It’s like watching another commute. Or like watching ghosts of bombers returning, out of formation and damaged, from a raid, the different types mixed up together as they limp home. The sky is filled with them. Sometimes, you see one with a piece of plastic trailing from its leg, or a long streamer of string. Or one mid moult and missing feathers – or missing them from some fracas or other. Sometimes, you see them circling upwards on a thermal to gain height. Even their calls seem subdued, more like radio-chatter.

Then the sky starts to turn pale, as if the gulls have melted into it. The swifts drift about high up like specks trapped in some viscous medium and swirling about in its invisible eddies. Their thin, sharp cries presage the ultrasonic chitter of the bats. Things sink in on themselves and draw their colours in. It gets cooler. Blackbirds start their chit – chit – chit bedtime calls. A robin perches in the gloom on the edge of the fence beneath the rowan tree and surveys me cautiously, caustically, or indifferently, or whatever. A tiny black eye is lost in the static fuzz at the edge of the human eye’s ability to form an clear image as the light drops off. The darkness soaks up from the earth through the plants: the buddleia, hawthorn, blackthorn, clematis, rowan, plumb, tamarisk, photinia and rosa rugosa.

The grass starts to feel cold and damp to bare feet; frogs start to come out of the pond and lose themselves in the long grass. Their work-shift consists presumably of finding and eating slugs and insects in the pitch darkness. The vegetation radiates damp and cool in the inverse manner to how warm brickwork radiates heat. The evening is the via negativa of the day. Heat and colour pass into coolness and… not dark but a kind of absence of colour that is not darkness but transitional to it. But a kind of life emanates from this in-betweenness. Black silhouettes of moths and other insects etch themselves into your corneas, passing like alpha particles in a cloud chamber. Presaging the bats, and like smaller versions of them.

One evening, evening sunlight illuminated the space over a neighbour’s garden, in front of a group of large pines and leylandii and a slightly smaller holly tree. Insects danced in the golden light.

The insects carve erratic, mad trajectories. They’re like thoughts failing to catch onto anything; random firings of neurons. A colourless radio static fizzes in the bushes, the exact visual counterpart of ‘noise’ in digital images caused by insufficient light, or the grain pattern in photographs taken using high-speed film. The evening knows that its own spirit lies beyond words, beyond even thoughts. The day thinks it knows, but the evening knows that it doesn’t know shit. The colour of the sky is not white, or blue, or purple, or yellow, but is beyond colour. The moths are all sizes.

In late June 10 o’clock is about when it gets dark. The sky itself finally darkens so that stars appear. Stars here are like stunted patches of galinsoga or mayweed which have been allowed to poke up in isolated patches on the compacted and polluted earth at the edge of a once brand new light industrial estate. Like you should be glad to see them, but it would be neater if the sodium haze obliterated all of them. Let the lights along the bypass do for stars, accusatory gods that stars are. They look like bits of plastic. At 10 o’clock it gets too dark to read my book and I have to get the guinea pigs in, and the washing, if there is any. 

If the guinea pig run is in the part of the garden past the end of my studio, where there is a quince tree and some tansy that won’t grow up straight, I might stand and look over towards the north to see if I can see any bats. It has pleased me inordinately to know that there are bats, even if I hardly ever bother to look for them, or often don’t see them even if I do. I think they might live in the clump of bigger trees I already mentioned. In any case, if I look north it seems, if anything will, to summon them into being. Looking northwards over the gardens, you can see a patch of sky near the horizon which often retains the gaudy sunset colours (like those seen of some of Edward Hopper’s paintings). (It’s a shock to see those colours, like the kids have smeared paint on the wall). The bats patrol up and down along the gardens, including over my garden and to the south, but their touchstone seems to be the trees. Once, when I hadn’t seen them for a long time and thought they’d gone, I thought of doing a text painting to lament them, but they reappeared. I might do the painting anyway. I have no idea which type of bat they are. Bats are mysterious. A bat night – a night when I have the luck or patience to see them – is a blessed night. There are bats in Goya’s print ‘The dream of reason produces monsters’ and they beset the dreamer, but I find bats comforting. If they are dreams, or inhabit them, they are soft and silent dreams, not fearful ones. Bats ‘speak’ at a pitch above hearing; they speak an elevated language.

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Image © Matthew Herring, 2017