Departing from platform 10

I had an hour and a half to kill before catching a train to Scotland, so I got myself a tea in the café which occupies the old signal box at the end of the footbridge on York station. I was just recovering from being unwell and had that unreal feeling, where you feel somehow a stage removed from what is actually happening around you: even my own words as I struggled to place the correct change in the hand of the assistant seemed not quite to be spoken by me, as if I was listening to myself speak from behind a door. This is often a fruitful state of mind, where you get odd insights. It was mid afternoon on the 29th November. A peculiar yellow winter sunlight permeated everything, turning the atmosphere solid. Solid time. Cold. Low winter afternoon sunlight makes everything seem of like substance; the normal divisions of material and surface are obliterated. Everything is alabaster. Everything is tarte au citron. People wander like ghosts, or seem trapped in amber on the knife edge of annihilation; the nanosecond before an errant planet slams into the earth, dissolving everything in an instant into a vast plume of dust which rises in slow motion up into space: atmosphere, water, rock, people, buildings all converted by unimaginable forces into pale grey dust. Even sounds seem clogged.

I settled myself by the window and peered through the grimy pane out at the railway track and the people blowing and scudding up and down the stairs and over the footbridge. My mind settled pleasantly into itself, the wizened rind of the day’s thoughts collapsing in on the mush of the now absent core. Other people hunched over lattés and anxiously chattered to stave off the clawing sunlight. Decades and decades worth of layers of paint on the window frames morphed into outlandish knobbles and cankers. I started to read the introduction to my paperback copy of Moby Dick and it was with some surprise that I found my mind managed to form itself around the ideas, themes and motifs that the introduction’s author drew out of Melville’s text and picked over. Moby Dick the unreal was co-substantive with the unreal afternoon; with the blubbery sunlight and pulp paper. The light was sweet spermaceti oil. In the benevolent fug I made a pact with myself to read de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

A goods train rumbled slowly through the station below me. An endless train of open trucks full of ballast. I imagined that the trucks were exhibits being passed before a jury. That they were prophecies of doom being thrust below the noses of the passengers waiting on the platform, whether they liked to hear or not. That they were not full of pale grey stone, but of bleached human bones: skulls, pelvises, ribs, femurs, tibias, scapulae, sternums jumbled up together, like the bones of Varus’s three legions piled in waves after the battle of Teutoburg. These are your bones; your future. Look how jumbled and dry they are. We are using them to construct the future. A red blinking light on the final wagon said “enough, enough, enough, enough, this is the end, it has come”. The freight train reminded me of the sparrow passing through the mead hall in Bede.

*******

Afterwards, on the train, the light continued to decay, this time breathing brick dust over the world. The world seemed ready to crumble. Acid grey pylons carried news of victory or defeat, their arms raised like Moses’s. The defeat of Varus. I remembered the warm waiting room where I spent a few minutes after leaving the café. Clouds brushed right across the sky by an idiot, or as a warning. Solid state world: information flow without mechanism. Queequeg: the world as a joint stock company at all meridians. It gets dark. Moby Dick is a novel about all things.

Most of the similes I could think of to describe the afternoon sunlight were of food or drink: lemon tart, pease pudding, white wine, cheese, Lucozade. The world as edible: what you eat/experience becomes you. In death and burial the world eats you; in life you eat the world. Eating as passing through: it is no coincidence that our mouths face forwards and our anuses face backwards. There are parallels between our movement forwards through time; our movement forwards through space; and our eating and shitting – the organic process that sustains all our forward movement. Movements forwards and movements backwards; the eating body forwards and the shit backwards. Art is like shitting. Martin Creed frequently says this. We shit that which we cannot assimilate, what is insoluble to us, what doesn’t nourish us. Art is made of that which we can’t absorb, which doesn’t pass simply into our lives; what is insoluble becomes a problem and art is a solution. Bones are that which is insoluble to the earth. Art and bones are what is left. Bones are used for decoration – what else can you do with them? Bury them, make lime or pigment from them or use them for decoration.

Now it’s dark, north of Darlington at 1625.

Weld: a dye plant which frequently grows up through the ballast by railway tracks and metal welding. Ahab welds his crew. Ahab is the crew of the Pequod’s “one lord and keel”. Moby Dick is a quest for light (whale oil used for light). I like the author of the introduction to Moby Dick’s remark that, “Beyond the books, men’s signs and inscriptions are to be found on all the surfaces of the world”. Ishmael and Queequeg both are covered with tattoos. Books everywhere: in the pulpit, in the bedroom, in the cabin, on the deck. “But when leviathan is the text, the case is altered”.

A man glimpsed through the glass of an office stairwell in Newcastle, as he carries a box down the stairs.

On the train going north to Scotland I always try to sit on the right hand side, so that I can see the sea north of Newcastle. But it’s dark. Can I tell when I’m by the sea? Will the darkness have a different quality? If I put my ear to the glass, will I hear the sound of the sea through the double glazing, over the hum of the train? Will I smell the sea? Feel the sea breeze in this heated sardine tin? When are we on the edge? No, I look for where the darkness is most and there are no twinkling lights, but it’s impossible. Whenever I think we must be passing the sea I suddenly see the tail lights of a car in the distance, or a shopping centre appears.

What do they mean, shopping centres and office buildings? What kind of world are we entering if these are its flags, its dark Satanic mills? If Ahab is the man of iron and cogs of the industrial age, who is the man in the bland electrostatic sweater carrying a box of documents down the stairs? Instead of the brutal the bland, the homogenous, the plastic. Houses on a hill by the Forth Bridge hover like bioluminescent sea creatures, transparent and empty. Light boxes.

The warm interior of the coach is like an overcoat. Coat-coach. Moby Dick has chapters about the counterpane, the nightgown and the blanket. The blanket is about the whale’s overcoat of blubber. The journey fizzles out as I concentrate my small remaining mental spark, with rising panic, on the task of getting off at the right stop, as the stations north of the Forth strike with increasing frequency like the very sleepers beneath the track. I have to cast off the warm overcoat of train, but I want to sleep in the haze and light, not brave the brisk dark Scottish night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top Shed Residency blog 7 (Friday): Orford Ness

Orford Ness © M Herring 2016

Orford Ness © M Herring 2016

Today was the last full day of my residency. I went to Orford Ness (I tried to go there earlier in my residency, but all the boat trips were full up). Orford Ness is a large shingle spit joined to the coast south of Aldeburgh in Suffolk and separated from the mainland for most of its length by the river Ore/Alde (it is rather like a bigger version of Blakeney Point, which I visited on Monday). Orford Ness is a mysterious place which was home, for eighty years, to a top secret military research establishment. Military activity ceased in the 1980s and it was sold to the National Trust in the 1990s. It was used by the military, among other things, for testing bomb aiming methods and is still littered with unexploded ordinance. The MOD have cleared paths for visitors to follow, and you stick to these, or risk getting blown up.

I first heard about Orford Ness several years ago through a BBC radio programme by Paul Evans and had wanted to visit ever since. Evans’s programme, with its blending of documentary and poetry, perfectly captures the strange atmosphere of Orford Ness. During my residency, I have been re-reading W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which also describes a visit to the Ness. Both Evans and Sebald experienced a sense of unease and disquiet visiting Orford Ness. Sebald describes visiting on a day that was, “dull and oppressive”, and feeling, “at the same time both utterly liberated and deeply despondent. I had not a single thought in my head”. Evans, if I remember rightly, spent the night on the Ness and was spooked by a hare. Sebald was also, “frightened almost to death” by one which had, “a curiously human expression on its face that was rigid with terror and strangely divided”. I saw a hare too, one which, in the distance, shifted from being a coypu to a mutjac deer to a dog before I guessed it was a hare and got my binoculars fixed on it to confirm the identification. It was too distant to see if it had a human-like face, but it still a disturbingly indeterminate presence. Even the way it moved across the shingle desert – forwards, stop, back, stop, forwards again – was oddly indeterminate. It vanished from time to time in the yellow grass and then seemed to reappear at a spot where it was previously, as if the pocket of time it inhabited had been cut up and spliced together in the wrong order.

To get to Orford Ness, you have to take a small boat the short distance from Orford. Walking down from Aldeburgh, where it joins the mainland, is forbidden, though there is no physical barrier to stop you, only a scary sign. The day I visited was hot and sunny. The part of the Ness closest to the land consists of marshland – I saw lots of little egrets and lapwings – crossed by a tarmac road. A stoat edged round me like I was a chugger it wanted to avoid (but with little more concern than this), as I ate my sandwich sat outside the information building. The road then crosses a tidal creek with mudflats either side, which divides the Ness lengthways. The seaward part of the Ness is a large flat shingle desert. I say flat, but it is actually gently ridged, a bit like land bearing traces of ridge-and-furrow farming. The whole site, especially the shingle part, is dotted with military structures. A large radar station bearing the codename Cobra Mist is to the north – the masts there now transmit the BBC World Service, but it was once the world’s most powerful radar station. A series of bunkers and some strange concrete structures nicknamed The Pagodas, which occupy the shingle to the south, used to house experiments connected to Britain’s early nuclear weapons programme. The visitor path takes in a structure known as the Bomb Ballistic Building, which resembles an airfield control tower, the lighthouse and the closest of the nuclear weapons bunkers.

Orford Ness, exposed and on the North Sea coast, is notorious for biting east winds and I bet that being there in the middle of winter on a grey stormy day is some lugubrious experience, with the wind moaning through the twisted steelwork of derelict buildings and banging sheets of corrugated iron. On a hot, sunny day, with the sky a lapis blue, it has a different atmosphere that is harder to define. Sitting outside the bunker, I tried to get to grips with what I felt about the place. I was prepared for it being eerie and desolate and all the other adjectives. I had a headache and felt a little like Sebald in struggling to marshal any particular thoughts. The lack of shade makes it a difficult place to spend much time on a hot day. The light and heat are radiated back by the shingle and start to tire your eyes (I had no sunglasses) and head. A heat haze made distant objects shimmer. However, the main feeling I got was of a kind of mineral stillness. Everything seemed made of the same stuff and fixed in eternity. Having to walk a pre-determined circuit (with other people all doing the same) increases the sense of fixity and oddness, like you are a bunch of marionettes walking round a prison exercise yard which is also, with the logic of a dream, a desert with strange toy-like buildings set at the corners of the circuit. It reminded me of the stiffness of certain Balthus paintings.

Dried teazel plants poke up from cracks in the tarmac in perfect imitation of iron fixtures rusted into shapes that obscure their original purpose. Tiny scarlet pimpernel flowers resemble flakes of dull red paint on the crazed road surface. Ragwort smells sharply of radish – if anything could survive a nuclear holocaust, I’d bet on it being ragwort. It seems to embody toxic waste-ground. Yellow horned poppy is just as weird as at Blakeney Point. “Do not touch any suspicious objects”, the sign says. Does that include yellow horned poppy? The greenest vegetation is within the roofless bunker, protected from the wind.

Everything tends to nothing. Sitting outside the bunker I tried to note down a few thoughts and came up with the phrase, “nothingness that hums with energy”. It’s not a bad ideal to aim for in art, I think to myself. There is an energy about Orford Ness, that isn’t immediately apparent, but which is somehow behind everything. The more nothing there is, the more it hums with energy. Looking out across the shingle into the heat haze, solid objects such as the lighthouse and Bomb Ballistic Building seem as if they could suddenly disappear (and reappear somewhere else – position being relative on a featureless surface). Everywhere what you notice are alignments: two concrete cubes on the shingle line up at right angles to the horizon; a rusted piece of metal roadway lines up with a distant shed, again at right angles to the horizon; the lighthouse and nautical marker (another tower) exchange charge like two electrodes. It as if nothing exists until it is in alignment with something else. As I point my camera about, I realise that what things are tending towards are the cross hairs of a gun sight or bomb aimer’s sight. Horizontals and verticals constantly lining up and moving apart, as if the land is taking aim.

On a sunny, calm day the energy is all potential, stored for when the storm winds rip across the plain.

I started to fear that my headache would get worse and I’d not be fit to drive back to Norfolk, so I headed back to the jetty, feeling like I was betraying myself a bit. I was back on the Orford side by two o’clock and glad of my flask of tea. I’d like to go back to Orford Ness and do some work there. It’s easy to feel like you know what you are going to somewhere like that to experience and then trot out the clichés, but harder to make sense of it in its own terms. Did I experience what I expected and what others experienced? I don’t know.

Top Shed residency blog 6 (Wednesday)

DSC_0102I spent the past two days at the Shed. Yesterday I mostly wrote. Today I started on two larger woodcuts, which I will finish off when I get home, and made some drawings in charcoal.

Top Shed residency blog 5 (Tuesday)

Today I went to Blakeney Point, on the north Norfolk coast. Blakeney point is a shingle spit several miles long extending into the sea, but parallel with the land. Between the point and the land is the river Glaven. The site includes salt marshes, sand dunes and sandy beaches, as well as the shingle. It is known as a breeding site for seals and terns. I walked up the spit from Cley beach, at the point where the spit breaks away from the land.

I end up wondering why places like this appeal so much. Places that are austere and stripped back. It’s like a kind of obsession, that probably says something about us. Part of the draw is the wildlife – grey and common seals frolicking a few metres off the shore; sandwich terns dive bombing for fish – but part of it is also a fascination with death, like the fascination we feel when we encounter a human skeleton in a museum. It is us, but at the same time radically not us. Bones are hard and cold, we are soft and warm. Bones speak of absence; of flesh and life. Hard landscapes are the same. They are natural, like us, and sustain life. On the other hand, you face something elemental that has nothing to do with human life. The forces that sifted and piled up millions of tons of shingle and that made a series of beautifully sculpted hollows and channels in the sand (caused by receding tide water) are not human forces. Shingle spits, like deserts, do not readily support human life. All comfort is stripped away in a place like this. What frightens us in small doses is enjoyable. To be stuck in a landscape like this which stretched away ad infinitum would be horrifying – would be death. Billions of stones, smooth and hard as carpal bones, all of them sculpted by inhuman forces, are horrifying. Luckily the car park is only a couple of miles trudge away.

It began to rain horizontally from the west as I made my way up the spit. It’s hard work walking on the shingle, so you have to walk right beside the surf, as close as you can without getting your feet wet, where there is some sand which is wet and firm enough to walk on. (There are also patches of really fine shingle, like potting grit. When this is wet it seems like you sink into it even more. So walking on the spit means a constant adjustment higher or lower up the slope in order to find the firmest ground and avoid incoming waves). Out to sea, two enormous wind farms are visible. Turbines stand in grid formation and turn in unison, like some sort of mad mass gymnastics exercise, such as those filmed by Leni Riefenstahl for the National Socialists in Germany. Sometimes the sun catches one farm but the other is in the cloud shadow, so you get a kind of strange dualism: white turbines versus grey ones. Behind them, rain showers trundle across the horizon like pieces of massive, unwieldy stage scenery. Curtains of rain like baleen. Before them the sky above the horizon is inky green; behind them everything is smudged into a grey oblivion.

When the rain shower was overhead I had the feeling of walking underneath a vast motorway flyover. A roaring sound, which turned out to be the wind in my raincoat hood, echoed like the hollow muffled noise of traffic you get under motorway bridges. A band of dark cloud arched above me and the shingle sank into the dead greyness of concrete. My shorts were soaked on the front, but more or less dry behind, like the way tree trunks get moss on one side only. The raindrops stung like small rods of ice. A family of four who were walking ahead of me turned back, presumably disturbed that their clothes were only wet on one side and desiring to get their backsides wet as well. Distance plays tricks with you in places like this. Once the family had gone, I kept thinking the thistles growing at the edge of the dunes were people. Looking back, it seemed I had walked no distance at all. (Later on in the day, I’m pretty sure I saw a middle aged lady in the nud, getting changed without bothering to wrap herself in a towel and relying on sheer distance to hide her. I was forced to pee likewise with no cover and hope that nobody could tell what I was doing because of the distance, so I can’t criticise. It is impossible to know what people far away can see: things seem either closer or further away than they really are).

At the end of the headland the shingle gives way to sand. Fewer people make it to the far end, so I was granted a brief period of that solitude you get on remote Hebridean beaches. Flocks of terns were engaged in a noisy feeding frenzy just beside a sand bar which extended from the beach. Sandwich terns in late summer lose the front part of their black caps, making them look like they are wearing some sort of weird tonsure, like they are all in some cult, or organised crime gang. I gave a baby seal a wide berth. I cut inland into the centre of the headland. A surreal hobbit landscape of grassy dunes and small wooden research huts. Purple carpets of sea rock-lavender. By now, the late afternoon sun was out, bathing everything in its uncanny light. Someone had collected dozens of washed up and abandoned shoes, of all kinds and in all states of decay, and arranged them on a couple of pallets in one of the dune hollows. A surprising number of them were in pairs. Even before I came across this sight, with its eerie resonances, I started to feel a sinister side to the place. Perhaps my failed attempt to reach Orford Ness, with its abandoned military installations, was influencing me. The flat bottomed hollows in the dunes would be excellent places to hide out, or hide something. The sandy, desert-like landscape reminded me of the Jordan valley just north of the Dead Sea. Perhaps the rough hardcore road leads to some secret military site. Better watch your step for mines.

Surreal places require surreal plants. You can’t get much more peculiar than yellow horned poppy, with its oversized finger-like seed pods. Various fleshy-leaved or prickly plants I don’t know how to identify. Sea holly is from another planet.

Walking back down the spit, I was able to take my shoes off and paddle, because the tide was further out and revealed more of the sand. I gradually descended back into the world of the living.

Top Shed residency blog 4 (Saturday)

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I have spent the past few days at Top Shed. I tired myself out with my trip to Suffolk, so it took me a couple of days to recover. I have made a number of woodcuts using MDF and a Dremel to cut them. Some of them reproduce my handwriting and texts from the cards I brought. Others reproduce sketches I took from train windows. I have hundreds of these and always struggled to do anything with them, but I discovered they transfer well to woodcut. Most of the woodcuts are of the very simplest kind, where the lines are carved out of the board and are left white in the print. I did one ‘proper’ print (with the lines in relief), but nearly choked on all the MDF dust.

Today I started on some photographs in the landscape, of me walking away from the camera. I just set up the camera and set the self-timer and walked away from the camera. I don’t know if they are an interesting idea. I see them as anti-selfies (in that it is my back I have photographed), and as a kind of refusal (walking away). Ideas of pilgrimage and ‘being in the world’ in a Heideggarean sense might come into it. I could see them working as a series with the right setting.

Top Shed residency blog 3 (Wednesday)

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I took a trip down into Suffolk today. I wanted to visit Aldeburgh, because of the Benjamin Britten connection – I expected it to be a bit poshified, because of the festival and all that, but I was quite taken aback at how poshified it was. It’s a bit like a cross between Chiswick and Portmeirion. I expect the inhabitants are being raised for meat in some bizarre sinister project based in Snape Maltings (what does go on in there, it’s far too big to be a concert hall?) I sat in a cafe with early renaissance paintings on the walls, opposite a guy with Benjamin Britten-style wavy hair and a highly refined manner (was he a clone of Benjamin Britten, or just a Radio 3 presenter?) and munched on Aldeburgh’s answer to a bacon sandwich (think: sculptural arrangement of something crispy and honeycombed and too thick to eat properly, with something that looked suspiciously like ordinary bacon). I bought a large book about Jeff Wall in a second-hand bookshop, the only shop apart from Co-op that didn’t look like it was flown in specially from some eye-wateringly expensive part of London. Or that wasn’t an art gallery. Wandering round the place, I tried not to see any more clones of Benjamin Britten. Then I went to Orford and failed to get on one of the boat trips to Orford Ness.

I headed to Staverton Park, a short distance from Orford. I read about this place in Oliver Rackham’s book Woodlands. It is an area of ancient woodland (previously wood pasture) with many large ancient pollarded oak trees, in various states of life and decomposition. For some unknown reason, hollies have grown up in rings around the oaks, not in the open spaces between them, but in their shade. In part of the wood, known as the Thicks, the hollies have taken over entirely, shading and killing many of the oaks. According to Rackham, they are some of the largest holly trees in the UK. Rackham records several of his students’ theories to explain the odd association of holly and oak, including that the hollies are actually older than the oaks and existed originally as shrubs which protected the oak seedlings from browsing, allowing them to grow to full size before being overtaken and killed by the hollies when a lull in browsing removed the check on the size of the hollies. Rackham estimates that it took a hundred years for the hollies to outgrow the oaks and a further hundred for the dead oaks to rot to their current state, so the browsing lull must date from the eighteenth century.

Whatever the reasons, it is certainly a strange place. The oaks resemble stout bottles, or barrels and are fantastically gnarled. Some of the dead ones are reduced to shells that are almost paper thin. The hollies, much thinner and with smooth silvery bark, cling to and writhe around the oaks in what seem like macabre couplings which are in part sexual, in part protective and in part predatory. Where the two types of wood touch, the hollies have formed large round tumorous growths, as if the trees’ own wood, appalled at the unnatural coupling being attempted, has recoiled and grown outwards. Alternatively, the growths resemble the mouth parts of gigantic caterpillars, or mantises, as if the hollies are devouring the oaks. From another point of view, the hollies resemble nurses encircling and protecting dying patients, propping up wizened and atrophied limbs with supple young strength. (I was reminded of scenes from Derek Jarman’s film of Britten’s War Requiem, with the old disabled soldier being wheeled about by a young nurse – I had War Requiem on loop in the car, which probably didn’t improve my state of mind). It’s a fascinating notion that the hollies might be older than the gnarly oaks, like they are some sort of ageless vampiric creatures. The smooth silver bark of the hollies resembles skin covering taught muscles. (Maybe Tilda Swinton was infecting my mind – without checking, I think she was the nurse in Derek Jarman’s film and starred in Orlando, which is about a character who outlives several generations of people without ageing). I took a lot of photos of the trees and made a few sketches in my sketchbook.

In the evening, I went to Thorpeness and walked along the shingle beach as far as the nuclear power station at Sizewell. It was a beautiful evening, the low sun catching the white foam of the breaking waves.

Top Shed residency blog 2 (Tuesday)

Mostly just settling in and exploring. The first thing I did was to lay out on the floor a set of cards I brought with me, and on which I wrote words and short phrases from my notebooks and which I’m playing with. I hope to use them as the basis of some of the text paintings I’m doing. Their origins are in notes taken from bus and train windows of landscape. Some of them are succinct haiku-like observations, but stupider than haiku – I kind of want them to be like clods of earth on your boots. They are just notes of ‘things’, the more banal and lumpen the better. Words as lumps of clay.