Evening

 

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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

 

 

 

Hyperreal kids’ TV

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Image © Matthew Herring, 2017

Watching a lot of kid’s TV with my children, it struck me how clearly some kid’s TV shows, particularly American ones, illustrate Baudrillard’s idea of the hyperreal. British ones tend, if anything, towards the surreal. This probably shouldn’t be surprising: America is the land of the hyperreal, according to Baudrillard. But it struck me nonetheless, and I wanted to explore it a bit, looking at an entirely unscientific sample of shows that my kids have been into. Baudrillard’s idea is basically that cultural representations tend to drift further and further away from an original reference in the ‘real’ world; so far, in fact, as to engender skepticism as to the existence of a ‘real’ (unmediated) world at all. It’s as if reality has been Xerox copied so many times that any resemblance to the original is lost. In the hyperreal, signifiers refer to nothing at all; the chain of reference back to the real is broken and signs float free.

Rookmaaker writes about how artists in the nineteenth century, from Goya to Delacroix and Gauguin, depicted ‘dream’ worlds which, far from being divorced from the real world, enabled aspects of the real world which might remain hidden to be heightened and explored. The ‘dream’ is anchored to reality and reflects (on) it. The clearest example of this is satire – a twisted and grotesque world satirises (that is, tells the truth about) the real one. The surreal could be seen as an instance of this: surreal images gain their power from the way in which the fantastical elements are set off by the real. Pure fantasy lacks the unsettling power of the surreal; the link back to the real is vital.

Kids’ TV shows are hyperreal when they hash certain conventionalised elements together pick ‘n’ mix-style and when they negate important elements of the real world, particularly time and place. These elements include: the trope of the superhero; technological gadgetry and enhancements of the body (a variant on the superhero trope); vehicles which can go anywhere; speed; villains; and the ‘gang’, or defined group of protagonists. The way they are used robs them of any meaning or power. A given set of elements exist; in any given case others could have been selected and the resulting texture would be the same. The elements are analogous to sweets in that they are things which children crave but little care how they are combined.

The origins of each of these elements lie ultimately in the real world and in secondary ‘dream’ versions of it. In superhero comics, the element of the individual endowed (somehow or other) with superhuman abilities is added to a more-or-less realistic world. The power of the superhero resides in how he/she answers various needs and anxieties in the real world. 

Wild Kratts, which my children are extremely fond of at the moment, is a case in point. The show has the laudable aim of teaching children about wildlife and my children are testimony that it does achieve this. Each episode begins with a live action section which introduces a particular locale and its wildlife. The central, animated, section takes place in a hyperreal version of this place. The hyperreality starts with the trope of every-episode-a-different-setting. Places are on hand and available. The internet is the model of reality here: everything a click away and accorded an equal status in the network. Travel and the actual scale of the world are negated, as are geopolitical or historical differences.

The vehicle is the guarantor of this equal availability of places and at the same time the negation of place – it is always the same wherever it goes and its passengers are equally untouched by the places they visit. In Wild Kratts, this metaphor is pushed: the vehicle is a flying tortoise-inspired mothership called the Tortuga. The Tortuga insulates the Kratt gang from the realities of travelling, even though, oddly, its cockpit with control yoke recalls the B17, B24 and B29 bombers with which American won the Second World War. Memphis Belle is a ghost here: why does Jimmy have to fly the thing manually? Doesn’t it have an autopilot?

The other ghost here is Scooby Doo. The character Jimmy is based on Shaggy; the Tortuga is the camper van. Scooby Doo is a dream world; the laws of the real world operate here to a much higher degree than in Wild Kratts (indeed, rational explanations and the denial of the supernatural are central to Scooby Doo). Wild Kratts sucks its reality from this second-hand source and the laws that govern it are correspondingly weaker. Could such a thing as the Tortuga really fly? Even Thunderbird 4, from Thunderbirds, another canonical source, has some concessions to aerodynamics and real-world technology. The assumption that the Tortuga could fly is parasitical on the assumption that Thunderbird 4 could.

The next hyperreal element is the technologically enhanced human. This is a common trope, which also appears in Paw Patrol and PJ Masks. It again draws its life from secondary dream worlds and lacks vigour for it. In Wild Kratts, the Kratt brothers (the animated versions of the real-life brothers) can transform themselves into roboticised animals by inserting a specially programmed disc into their ‘creature suits’ and by touching the type of animal they want to turn into. They can even change size. Transformation into and from animals and human-animal hybrids have rich antecedents in myth and culture. The idea of touching an animal in order to become it and deriving powers from animals are strong ideas. However, here they are as banal as sending a selfie via a smart phone. They hold no mythic power precisely because any linkage back to the real world is severed; they emerge from the primal soup of kids’ cartoons.

In Blaze and the Monster Machines, speed is the main hyperreal element. Its distant ancestor is the excitability of real children. In Blaze it is cranked to the max and rocket powered. The excited child is converted into a car: children’s literature and television have always featured anthropomorphic animals and machines, but the boundary between animal and machine has tended to be respected except for the necessary elements of anthropomorphisation. Thomas the Tank Engine ‘eats’ coal, but Blaze can eat food and use his wheels and flexible axles as arms and hands. He can play with ‘real’ human friends, a blend of pet, machine and human. (A British cartoon, Chuggington also blurs the distinction between animal and machine with trains which can flex their ‘bodies’). The worlds of both Blaze and Chuggington resemble plastic toys rather than any real world (but without the acknowledgement that they are toys, as in Noddy). No time here for the meticulously detailed (and slow) world of Thomas the Tank Engine.

By contrast, the British animations Sarah and Duck, The Adventures of Abney and Teal and Peppa Pig are basically surreal. The world of Sarah and Duck contains buses that go underwater; an array of animate objects including cakes, umbrellas and shallots; bizarre dream sequences and a legion of mad characters. Abney and Teal concerns the denizens of an island in the centre of a lake in an urban park, which include a human girl, a cat, an animate turnip, a furry seal-like creature who drinks tea and blows bubbles, and a set of wooden seed-shaped creatures called the Pock-Pocks. Both are classic dream worlds and rooted deeply in the real world. They also draw deeply on the traditions of nonsense and surrealism within children’s literature and television.

Sarah’s world is that of the suburban child, with all the attendant quirks, obsessions and anxieties of childhood, but blown out of proportion and accentuated. Sarah is fascinated by sea cows; she has a friend who always holds a plate like a comfort blanket. Sarah and her friends carry out strange rituals, the surreal counterpart to childish conceits such as not stepping on cracks in the pavement. Her world is punctuated by inexplicable celebrations and events organised for obscure reasons by unseen adults (e.g. International Bread Day and an exhibition about the colour pink). Sarah’s world is both banal and bizarre at the same time; it is recognisably, however, a British suburb – a satire of the insularity, kitschiness and incongruousness of suburbs.

Abney and Teal also draws its charm and interest from the contrast between unlikeliness of its protagonists and events and the scrupulously plausible (and banal) setting. It also has a satirical element: how come the outside world pays no attention whatsoever to the strange creatures living in plain sight in an urban park? Only Toby Dog, himself the craziest of them all, interacts with the islanders from across the water. (He plays the same theme tune on his accordion to mark every significant event on the island. This tune is characterised by the narrator as special to each occasion but it is always exactly the same – just as the down-and-out dog never moves from this spot beneath a tree, even when it snows). The satire is on a rushed and indifferent world, which overlooks the marginal, the down-and-out and the quirky.

Peppa Pig also has a satiric vision. Here it is the petty hypocrisies and absurdities of family life that are acutely observed and gently ribbed. In addition, there is, again, the insularity of suburban living (each family house sits on its own individual childishly drawn hill – each its own castle) and the inexplicability and vacuousness of mediated cultural experiences (“Welcome to Duckland, enjoy the ducks!”) Surreal elements include Miss Rabbit who is omnipresent as the bus driver, supermarket assistant, ice cream seller, hot air balloon pilot, rescue helicopter pilot and occupier of almost any other job imaginable. Miss Rabbit is the gatekeeper to a world of interchangeable experiences and products.

American cartoons can achieve this degree of attentiveness to lived reality, but in the ones I can think of satire is the main intent. I’m think of The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park. Are these really children’s programmes? (Especially the latter). Here, however, the hyperreality of American is one thing to satirise. I’m not sure how watertight my division of American versus British kid’s programmes is, but I have a hunch it’s not entirely wrong…

An almanack out of the attic

Whilst sorting out stuff in my attic recently, I came across an almanack I made for a project at Glasgow School of Art in 1996 or 1997. This thing is made of paper mounted on mounting board in a concertina-style book: 13 ‘pages’. It lives in a box made of mounting board. Box and almanack are decorated with orange acrylic paint (unmixed orange and a peach-coloured tint) and graphite. I’m far enough away from the person I was when I made it that I think I can start to unlock some of its meanings.

(Images © Matthew Herring)

My first year supposedly on the illustration course at Glasgow was frustrating. Neither of our two tutors were practicing illustrators – one was a packaging designer and the other I think had been a commercial artist (i.e. graphic designer) in the days before computers – and neither had any interest in teaching illustration. Most of the projects they set were either idiotic (“design a planet”) or basically graphic design briefs. Into this context came: “Make an almanack”. It had to use two colours only, as if it were to be printed using a two colour process. One of our tutors, remember, harked back to the days when artists made colour separations by hand. Peculiar thing to teach, on the brink of the digital/internet/multi-media age.

An almanack is usually heavy on type. For a computer-phobe who went to art school to learn to illustrate, almost nothing could be more calculated to turn me off a brief. Either: learn Adobe QuarkXpress (and how to use a computer in general), or do the whole thing by hand. This was in the days when computers lived in a special room guarded by a technician more unhelpful than any librarian; crashed if you breathed on them; and had to be fought over tooth and nail. In 1996/7 I was a frustrated fine artist pretending to myself I wanted to be an illustrator while being extra frustrated at not even being taught that. (The 40 year-old me wonders why I didn’t leave and go to a different art school).

To top it all, a suggestion: why not do something about Charles Rennie Mackintosh? Saint Mack of the Dollars. Into this plays the tension of Glasgow School of Art in those days and hopefully not still: be a Mackintosh theme park for tourists, or a working art school. The fine artists in the Mackintosh shared their space with tourists. For the illustrators and graphic designers in the leaky Foulis building over the road, since demolished, it was this: do something Mackintosh and it might get produced for the gift shop. Our tutors were in cahoots with the gift shop.

So. My almanack was an anti-Mackintosh, anti-graphic design, anti-commercial, anti-sense, anti-almanack. On one side of the concertina: a front cover and twelve images. On the other side, a jumble of calendars, mad handwriting and scribbled drawings. Nowhere does it say which year it is for and it is utterly unusable, as intended. I barely remember what my tutors said to it. I think they were more-or-less indifferent to it. If they realised it was a deliberate and frustrated attempt at a riposte to their project and whole approach to teaching, they didn’t care.

This is what is going on in it:

 

‘Images side’

 

Page 1: front cover

Has the following hand-drawn text in smudgy graphite on a pale-orange ellipse on an orange ground: “The This Almanack Was DesiGNED by Me for Me And is DeDICATD TO ME”. Orange was my colour of the apocalypse: the colour of a nuclear sunset. A pale ellipse surrounded by a ‘burnt’ black border on an orange ground was a nihilistic gesture: a vacuous “that’s all folks!” portal at the end of everything. A burnt out tunnel to nothing (not even Bugs Bunny).

Page 2

On top of a C.R. Mackintosh motif of four squares sits a sack with eye holes and ‘z’s coming from it, some backwards, as something is asleep in the sack. Behind it, a distraught girl I copied from the Beano says in a large speech bubble: “Charles Rennie Mackintosh ate my hamster!!”. This, in a puerile way, closed the door on it being sold in the school shop.

Page 3

A Bold washing powder box label copied in mirror image. My attack on packaging design? A landscape intrudes on the design, in the middle ground of which is a strange hand motif that will feature in many of the other motifs. What does the hand mean? Self pleasing? The manual process of making the almanack opposed to the coming onslaught of the computer? Drowning, not waving? I didn’t know at the time.

Page 4

An image copied from a Polish painting I knew: “Zdzisiek jumps of the Palace of Culture & Science every morning”. I was interested in the Polish Poster School and anti-communist Polish art from the 1980s. Did I see myself as having to engage in irony against an unsympathetic regime? The city in the background could be Glasgow.

Page 5

A fat man with no eyes and a fish for an arm. In his stomach: a knife, an Avro Anson aircraft, a bolt, a WC sign, a mouse, a star in a circle, a Polish flag, a can of Old English cider, and several hands. The knife: murder? The aircraft: I had started to rekindle my childhood interest in aeroplanes as a refuge from what I hated about my course. The cider: probably what I would have drunk. The rest:? I was probably the fat man with the fish hand ingesting all of these.

Page 6

A flying anvil with the insignia of the hand in a sky shot with orange clouds. It has a propellor and flimsy wings. The left-hand third of the page is a flat orange ground with a scalloped edge, pushing the anvil image almost off the page. A picture of absurdity flung back at my tutors? Being an artist as impossible as a flying anvil?

Page 7

In the top half: three hand motifs and an assortment of symbols: hearts, gunsight, stars in circles, knife and fork, ladies’ toilet sign. One of the hands has an eye and fork-arm, with which he menaces the other two. They also look like wild-west cacti. In the bottom half a Royal Canadian Air Force Grumman Avenger. Aircraft formed part of my personal surreal at this stage. Aircraft are extremely specific (to those in the know) and bring with them such specific associations that to juxtapose them is very pungent. Part of the poignancy of aircraft, particularly military ones, is their ephemerality: advances in technology make them quickly obsolete, and scrappage and destruction in war make them extinct as types. I discovered the work of Guy Johnson at this time.

Page 8

A sort of strange hand-tree-thing with part of a B17 bomber behind it. A Christmas tree and a cedar from the Lebanese flag.

Page 9

The British Rail logo in a mocking sort of cartouche and the words: “Happy Birthday BR 1st Jan 1948”. Three hand logos and birthday candles. My dad worked for BR. It was a cynical and I guess ironical thing to wish BR happy birthday (it wasn’t because I cared about BR, though I kind of did). Again it is a symbol with very specific resonances: personal, national, nostalgic. The BR logo had, by that time, become a sort of generic sign for a railway in the UK. BR was already dead. The BR sign is as ubiquitous and unremarked as a WC sign and, hence, intrinsically comic. BR would have been 48 or 49 – I discovered the offbeat anniversary at least a year before the first Google Doodle.

Page 10

An orange egg shape with a lion logo from something or other and the ‘CE marking’. A hand emerges from the egg, like a hermit crab. In the background, drawn in graphite: spheres and stars in circles.

Page 11

WG Grace with an orange beard with a childishly-drawn floral border which invades the picture-space, threatening WG’s eyes. WG Grace looks like Engels, who appears later. I was aware of Terry Gilliam’s use of WG Grace’s image a Monty Python animation. Big beards hiding stiff upper lips: the afterglow of the twentieth century’s dismemberment of the nineteenth, before the current century’s rediscovery of it as a comfort bolt-hole for hipsters.

Page 12

The Mcdonald’s logo with three arches and the words: “McSwindle”. A thumbs-down symbol. I worked in Mcdonald’s just before going to art school and didn’t like it. An obvious candidate for a bonfire of the symbols.

Page 13

Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin in profile on top of some walking hands and a leaf-litter of stars in circles. The commie leaders came from a  film still from a book on Polish art. I didn’t care that much about capitalism or communism; they were just grist for the same mill. I developed the star-in-the-circle further in other work. It is a symbol of optimism and power (and American imperialism – it is the US air force insignia), but I piled it up like discarded aircraft parts at the corner of a field in one drawing.

The ‘calendar side’

 

The other side of the almanack is all painted orange and most of the drawing is in graphite. The calendars are muddled and jumbled together on three only of the 13 pages, again like discarded things. There are some crudely drawn monsters, like those from the margins of a child’s schoolbook. There are more apocalypse-ellipse-voids and some black holes. There are some piled up circles (without stars). Various texts, some of them swiping at commercial entities: “Sweet nothings”; “Oblivion wellcomes [sic] Graham Kendrick [a Christian singer]”; “Pizza Hut says: Never go with stranglers”; “Metsa Serla [paper company] says: 1999 has been cancelled”; “Christmas has been cancelled”; “No Yom Kippur”. One page has: “17 Historic Wednesdays. 17 things invented on a Wednesday: 1 Snakes + ladders, 2 Snakes + ladders […] 17 Snakes + ladders”. Presiding over the whole are the words, in white in carefully traced Octopus typeface: “Everythin ends here” (around it, in white, in my handwriting: “The World ends”; “Party’s over folks!”; “All change!”. Octopus was my favourite way of kicking back at graphic design (now it’s Times New Roman).

I’m not really quite sure what to say in conclusion to all this! As a thorough negation of the brief it barely raised an eyebrow (I doubt I got a good mark, though). The frustration of youth. Funny that in a setting where one is taught ‘visual communication’ nobody thought to even attempt to discern what I was communicating. Including me. I don’t know really….

Oh, the box is titled: “aHistor y O th world”, and it does actually have the year – 1998 – crossed out (in letraset).

Lord of the Rings – Tolkien as nature writer

I’ve just finished re-reading Lord of the Rings and it struck me how much of a nature writer Tolkien was. As readers we are unceasingly immersed in the natural environment of Middle-earth and made to feel every subtle shift of climate; notice every change of vegetation and geology; sense every texture and smell (“reek” is a characteristic word). LoTR is a novel of quest, obviously, but it is also a novel of journeying, of walking and riding. I was reminded of writers like Richard Jefferies and Richard Mabey, tramping a favourite beat and noticing celandines and buds in Spring; waxwings in winter.

 

The first of the numerous journeys in LoTR sees the four hobbits, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin flee Frodo’s home in the Shire, pursued by Black Riders. At first they follow lanes that they know, but soon they have to decide between following the road and striking across country. They decide on the latter, and the wisdom of their choice is soon confirmed by the sighting of a Black Rider on the road they have just left. From this point on, however, their battle is with forces that are familiar with any naturalist, or walker, who choses to leave the beaten track. All of this is described with the naturalist’s precision and love of detail.

 

“Going on was not altogether easy. They had packs to carry, and the bushes and brambles were reluctant to let them through. They were cut off from the wind by the ridge behind, and the air was still and stuffy. When they forced their way at last into more open ground, they were hot and tired and very scratched, and they were also no longer certain of the direction in which they were going. The banks of the stream sank, as it reached the levels and became broader and shallower, wandering off towards the Marish and the River”.

 

A few lines further on: “they came again to a belt of trees: tall oaks, for the most part, with here and there an elm tree or an ash. The ground was fairly level, and there was little undergrowth; but the trees were too close for them to see far ahead. The leaves blew upwards in sudden gusts of wind, and spots of rain began to fall from an overcast sky”.

 

I’m tempted to quote a passage from Richard Jefferies’s Nature Near London (1883), which I think has the same feel for the subtly charged atmosphere of a wood. Jefferies has a similar sort of sensitivity to the small changes in the ‘feel’ of a place as one moves even a few paces through it. In the passage I’m about to quote, Jefferies has described the passage of a track from the vibrant buzzing life in the bright sunshine into a small wood. “The green lane as it enters the wood, becomes wilder and rougher at every step, widening, too, considerably”. A little further into the wood:

 

“There are woods, woods, woods; but no birds. Yonder a drive goes straight into the ashpoles, it is green above and green below, but a long watch will reveal nothing living. The dry mounds must be full of rabbits, there must be pheasants somewhere; but nothing visible. Once only a whistling sound in the air directs the glance upwards, it is a wood-pigeon flying at full speed. There are no bees, for there are no flowers. There are no butterflies. The black flies are not numerous, and rarely require a fanning from the ash spray carried to drive them off”.

 

In LOTR, the pregnant silence of the woods becomes threatening and oppressive.

 

Thus far in the story, the resistance offered by Middle-earth is of the same nature of that which would not have faced Tolkien and his tramping Inkling friends in deepest England, because the hobbits are still within the bounds of the Shire. Aside, of course, from pursuit by Black Riders, which are also foreign to the Shire. Once they leave the Shire, the natural environment itself begins to be warped and subtly malevolent in its own right. It takes on a hue of enchantment, which grows the further from the Shire the companions travel. In the Old Forest, the very grain of the forest constantly forces the hobbits down into the valley of the enchanted river Withywindle, which they have been trying to avoid.

 

“Then deep folds in the ground were discovered unexpectedly, like the ruts of great giant-wheels or wide moats and sunken roads long disused and choked with brambles. These lay usually right across their line of march, and could only be crossed by scrambling down and out again, which was troublesome and difficult with their ponies. Each time they clambered down they found the hollow filled with thick bushes and matted undergrowth, which somehow would not yield to the left, but only gave way when they turned to the right; and they had to go some distance along the bottom before they could find a way up the further bank. Each time they clambered out, the trees seemed deeper and darker; and always to the left and upwards it was most difficult to find a way, and they were forced to the right and downwards”.

 

Thus the companions are forced down into the enchanted valley, where they are lulled to sleep and trapped by the malevolent tree Old Man Willow. The description of a wood which seems to have a will of its own and to be willfully impeding your progress can be recognised by anyone who has tried to scramble through one, enchanted or otherwise!

 

Tolkien’s sensitivity to vegetation comes out constantly as the characters of LOTR travel through Middle-earth. There are numerous locations characterised by their vegetation. In this, LOTR is similar to Richard Jefferies’s post-apocalyptic novel After London. However, Tolkien, who is a far greater storyteller, allows the detail to help the story along and never to smother it, as it does in After London, and Tolkien’s story doesn’t peter out like a path in the woods, like the story of After London does. The latter book feels like a natural history essay with a story tacked on (it is at it’s best when describing the putrid ruins of London – a description worthy of Mordor).

 

The main action of LOTR, beginning with the hobbits’ departure from the Shire, takes place over a number of months, with the principal journey, that of the Fellowship of the Ring from Rivendell south towards Mordor and Gondor, spanning the winter. The seasons play a key role in the journey, alongside a dose of magic, in thwarting the Fellowship’s attempt to cross the mountain Caradhras and forcing them through the Mines of Moria instead. Sauron’s magic works in tandem with the season to create the snowstorm which defeats the mountain crossing, and the seasons also mirror the fate of the mission and, hence, of the world. A detail I noticed this reading is in the chapter entitled “The Palantir”. Sauron’s ally Saruman has just been defeated and there is a hope that the tide may turn. By this point, we are reminded, it is the start of Spring:

 

“Going westward a mile or so they came to a dale. It opened southward, leaning back into the slope of round Dol Baran, the last hill of the northern ranges, greenfooted, crowned with heather. The sides of the glen were shaggy with last year’s bracken, among which the tight-curled fronds of spring were just thrusting through the sweet-scented earth. Thornbushes grew thick upon the low banks, and under them they made their camp, two hours or so before the middle of the night. They lit a fire in a hollow, down among the roots of a spreading hawthorn, tall as a tree, writhen with age, but hale in every limb. Buds were swelling at each twig’s tip”.

 

The buds of a hawthorn tree are a small pivot on which the story begins to turn. Aside from its function in the story, I love the precision and care with which this passage is crafted. (The word ‘writhen’ is classic Tolkien).

 

Later on in the story, Merry is confronted with the immense mystery behind all things as he stands before the sheer faces of the mountains: “He loved mountains, or he loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. He longed to shut out the immensity in a quiet room by a fire”. The weight is, of course, the weight of events and responsibility – of destiny – as well as of stone. This, for me, is a little turning point, or telling moment, in the development of Merry the hobbit as a character. Merry and Pippin in the novel are more mature and less silly at the outset than their counterparts in Peter Jackson’s films of LOTR, but they still undergo a process of development by which their appreciation of weight and import is recalibrated from that of the Shire to that of the wider world, in which they must shoulder new responsibilities. (Pippin’s moment is when he realises the awfulness of his childish mistake in looking into the Palantir). The poignancy of the moment is brought out sharply by the contrasting image of the cosy Shire room. It is characteristic that this epiphany is brought about by the natural world.

 

There is obviously much more to be said about Tolkien’s use of landscape and natural features in LOTR, but I have just written about those that stood out to me in this reading of LOTR. (The transplanting of the sapling of the White Tree also struck me; and the fact that there were plants in Mordor. The twisted weeds of Mordor would sit well in Richard Mabey’s book of nature around London, The Unofficial Countryside (1973). Mabey’s city margins are less bucolic than those of Jefferies). The literature on LOTR and Tolkien is vast, and I haven’t read more than a tiny fraction of it, so I’m sure my thoughts are far from original, but I just wanted to share them as they are.

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.