The Stinky Bee Bush, an owl and the skull of Thomas Browne.

We have shrub in our garden – I think it’s a type of photinia – which, when it flowers, attracts bees like nothing I’ve ever known. The flowers are rather small and white-ish and give off an overpowering yeasty smell. Ioana finds the smell unpleasant and we call it the Stinky Bush (I quite like the smell). I was tempted to grub it out until we noticed how much the bees love it. You can stand underneath the dome of leaves and flowers (the bush is starting to take the form of a small tree) and imagine you are in the midst of a humming beehive. The sound is as powerful as the smell – you’d think that an entire hive was swarming. Tiny white petals speckle the path. It’s in flower at the moment and several times today as I’ve passed to and from my shed I’ve stopped under the Stinky Bush and enjoyed the sight, sound and smell. Most of the bees are honey bees, but I’ve also spotted several types of bumblebee: tree bumblebees, garden bumblebees and one buff tailed bumblebee. (We have a poster with different types of bee in our sunroom, and I’ve been trying to learn the different types).

***

There is a female blackbird in our garden which has become quite tame. I think it might be a youngster. Today, as I was doing some DIY work in our living room, the bird came in through the back door into the room. It pecked at the crumbs the kids had left and didn’t seem unduly fazed when I moved quite close to it. Later on, I spotted it further into the house, in the hall. I assumed that was as far as it went, but much later on Ioana found it trapped in our bedroom. It had pooed on our bedspread, on some of Ioana’s paperwork, on the floor, on the bedside table, on the windowsill and on the landing windowsill. The poo stained the paintwork berry black (or insect black). I cornered it on our bedroom windowsill and caught it. When you hold a bird in your hand you are surprised how strong, light and lean they are. They feel like they are made of nothing but bones and air.

***

A few weeks ago, I went for a walk quite late in the evening down the river Ouse at Poppleton, near York. I wanted to write a blog about it at the time, but never got around to it. I did take some notes, but they were merely a list of things I’d seen. So this is an exercise in trying to capture a memory that is on the point of fading. (I’ve been reading Norman N. Klein’s The History of Forgetting – which is about forgetting and Los Angeles – so the decay of memory is something that’s on my mind. Klein, in an appendix, talks about how the act of recalling a memory causes it to decay at a physiological level. A memory is altered each time it is recalled).

The colour of the walk was undoubtedly white. How to describe the texture of the neglected strips of field nearest the river? They had something of the rough exuberance of overgrown industrial wasteland; a rich mixture of tough plants. Communities of plants in rapid flux rather than a stable, static mixture like you get in a mature flower meadow. A certain plant species takes over one season and throttles everything else: a monoculture. Then just as suddenly it retreats or vanishes altogether, to be replaced by something else, leaving swathes of dry stalks or seed heads. The shifting realms of plant species hide (and reveal) the human activity of working the soil beneath – ploughing, planting, reaping, driving vehicles, digging out drainage channels and water supply pipes and the like.

There were whole massive swathes of dandelion clocks. Elsewhere there were thousands and thousands of groundsel clocks – tiny versions of dandelion clocks. The effect was surreal, somehow, like something from a twisted reimagining of a fairy story; something commonly seen but presented in an exaggerated, extravagant form. The may blossom (hawthorn) was out. May blossom seems to encrust the trees like plaster of Paris or coral; the heavy sprays of blossom resemble grasping calcified fingers. Fleshy closed fists of yet to flower hogweed were rising up among the cow parsley. White deadnettles were for some reason in abundance, especially along the top of the riverbank. Mealy white willow catkins polluted the air with fluff like asbestos fibres. Dried remains from last year: collapsed hollow stems of Himalayan balsam; reddish coloured tall stubble of something I couldn’t identify at the distance I saw it at; a crooked white stem of hogweed like the beckoning skeletal finger of an aye-aye.

And then a white barn owl appeared directly in front of me about six feet above the path. It spotted me with its round black eyes at the same instant I spotted it, and it wheeled away immediately, as if stung. I watched it cruising this way and that over the far side of the field for quite some time. Then it rested on a branch at the edge of a poplar copse a hundred yards or so ahead of me. I could see the tiny white shape of it clearly, until I approached too close for its comfort and it flew off. (A few months previously, I saw what was probably the same owl, or its partner, in the middle of this copse, where a small iron footbridge crosses a stream. The owl flew out from under the bridge as I crossed it).  When I had passed through the copse and out alongside a large field of light green barley, I saw the owl again. It was cruising again, over the barley, at some distance from me. It veered towards me and I thought it was going to fly right up to me, but, again, it suddenly spotted me and pulled itself to a mid-air halt and did an about-turn. I had taken it by surprise twice at about the same distance. I’d seen its small round human-like face fix on me twice.

On the way back to the start of the walk, I had a photo in my mind of the skull of Thomas Browne, the seventeenth century author of a set of diverse and eccentric books which have a following to this day among writers I admire. Browne’s skull was stolen when his grave was accidentally disturbed in the nineteenth century and not reburied until the 1920s. A photo was taken of it at some point, which is reproduced in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a book I’d just re-read (a book also about memory and forgetting). In this photo, the skull is viewed in profile, resting on three volumes of Browne’s work. The jaws are without teeth, giving it the look of an old man, and there is what looks like a twisted piece of wire holding the jaws slightly open, as if Browne is speaking. The skull has thoughtful cast to its brows.

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. 

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…

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After London

I have just finished reading Richard Jeffries’ novel After London (1885), and I thought I’d put down a few more or less unordered thoughts before I move on and forget about it. It is a book which interested me as one in which the destruction/ruination of London was emblematic (Elizabeth Bowen’s short story The Mysterious Kor is another such work). London in After London is largely an absence, though a very important one; the book’s subtitle Wild England, on the surface seems more apt to its content. The main title is worth taking seriously, however, as a summation of the book’s theme.

Plot spoiler: the following paragraph reveals the plot of After London – but the plot isn’t really terribly gripping anyway.

After London is an early apocalyptic novel, set in the future after an unspecified catastrophe has destroyed modern (i.e. nineteenth-century) civilization in Britain and caused massive depopulation. Colossal changes have taken place to the topography of England and a kind of civilization reminiscent of the early Middle Ages now exists round the shores of a large lake which occupies the central part of England. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the eldest son of a nobleman, Felix Aquila, and his quest to make something of himself in order to win the hand of his beloved, Aurora, who happens to be the daughter of the neighbouring nobleman. Fearing that there is no future for him in staying on his father’s estate (which is threatened with confiscation by creditors and/or enemies of his father), Felix first builds himself a canoe and then uses it to go on a journey. Initially, his plan is to enlist with the most powerful of the local kings, but, when this fails, he contents himself with carrying out a journey of exploration around the lake (as if this is at least something to bring back to show in his bid for Aurora). The journey culminates in the discovery (for him at least) of the ruins of old London, which has now become a stinking toxic marsh, fatal to anyone foolish enough to venture into it. Felix himself nearly succumbs to the noxious gasses emanating from the ground and only barely escapes, but not before he has picked up a large diamond and some gold coins, left lying on the ground next to the entirely dissolved corpses of a pair of treasure hunters. Latterly, Felix ends up in the company of a tribe of shepherds, who elect him as their leader on the strength of his skill with the bow and arrow and his learning (only nobles being literate). The novel ends abruptly, with Felix setting off to try to bring back Aurora to his new kingdom.

Richard Jeffries is really, as far as I am informed, at his best as a nature writer and here the plot is really an excuse to explore the imaginative possibility of a truly wild Britain. The first five chapters are devoted entirely to a geographical, topographical and natural historical account of Britain after the apocalypse, including a fascinating account of how the land changed from cultivation to wilderness, starting from year one after cultivation ceased. (The novel begins: “The old men say that their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible”). Later on, a lot of description is devoted to the landscapes through which Felix travels. We learn about the changes in the different kinds of tree along the route between Felix’s castle and that of Aurora; that the ground is always damp under ash trees; and all about the different habitats preferred by the various animals. These are by far the most enjoyable parts of the book, and Jeffries’ precise powers of observing the natural world are surely his greatest strength.

If the plot is a bit of a mcguffin, however, there are other themes at work that make the book interesting. Felix’s quest is one of finding a place in a society which excludes and radically disenfranchises all but a very few. The society Jeffries imagines is rapacious and chaotic: most people are slaves and even for their entirely despotic rulers death is only the throw of a dice away. It is a cross between Italian Renaissance city state politics at its worst and Lord of the Flies. Felix has to find a place within this topsy-turvy world in order to win Aurora. He has to prove his ability to provide her with stability and wealth in a world in which both are nearly impossible to attain to. His need is also personal and psychological, as he is intelligent but unconfident and irresolute. His approach to the king is spurned because the brilliance (or precociousness) of his ideas as a military inventor is interpreted as a joke (or a threat). Without a goal, his journey now takes on the character of a journey of exploration and self-exploration. The journey’s symbolic end point is dead London.

Dead London is granted probably the most haunting descriptions of the whole book. It is the recapitulation of that great theme of the city as moral and literal cess-pit; of the city as the place where moral degradation, overcrowding and physical decay go hand in hand. The ruins of London are toxic, emanating fatal gasses and explosions of flame, generations after the destruction of the city, because all of the filth and the dead bodies of millions of people have not yet completed their decay. The phosphorescent gas that nearly kills Felix is quite literally the result of the putrefaction of human beings. The chemicals released by decay are so powerful that even the standing remains of brickwork crumble into salt at the touch. From our perspective, it is tempting to read back into Jeffries’ eerily prophetic account of a land poisoned for generations our knowledge of nuclear fall out, but Jeffries is explicit that it is the decay of the dead and of the city’s filth which renders the land toxic. London is the black centre of England, and its twin pestilences are filth (read industrial and human pollution) and population (overcrowding, the teeming of human beings).

The England of Felix’s day is under-populated, but it still teems with vicious human life. Felix’s problem is that it is impossible (for more or less anyone) to find a stable place in it. This is why London is emblematic for the book, even while absent from most of it, and why it is the destination of Felix’s journey of self-realisation. London is the disease that still afflicts the society spawned out of its destruction. The underlying anxiety is of a city so crowded that one can find no place in it. This is the modern sense of the impossibility of belonging and the transience of any scrap of belonging that one appears to find. The only belonging Felix finds is with the relatively uncivilized shepherds, and even this is undermined by the absence of Aurora. The novel’s abrupt end cements in place this sense of the impossibility of belonging.

The only retreat is away from the centre and into nature. Felix’s father has found a kind of belonging this way (albeit a threatened one). Felix himself finds solace in nature and the narration of the novel finds its greatest delight in lingering over the detail and profusion of nature. In the end, though, even nature crowds the human being out: the uninhabited forests are so dense as to provide no haven, and we leave Felix hacking his way through hostile forest towards Aurora. Even the forests are London. The alienation of the human in After London is indeed profound: he is alienated from himself, his society and from the entire non-human world.

The book’s attitude to the city is also conflicted. It simultaneously represents the height from which humanity has fallen and its degradation. It is described as a very great city, full of many marvellous things which the savages of Felix’s day cannot even aspire to recreate. Yet it has become what it always in truth was: a filthy marsh. Here Felix nearly loses his life, yet also discovers things of great value (the diamond and gold coins) which have the potential to set him up in the world, if handled wisely. Again, the novel’s unresolved ending leaves these things as being of unclear value.

Aurora is an interesting character. She is portrayed as being as purposeful and resolute as Felix is the opposite of those things, but she has little actual role in the narrative, being much more a motive for Felix’s actions. She finds her solace and purpose in preserving and propagating the old faith of Christianity. Her love for Felix is as steadfast as her faith. Aurora is the true foil to her society (Felix is merely an unsuccessful but reflective player at the game that everyone else is engaged in), and to a society that Jeffries clearly hates and sees as in some ways continuous of the society of his own day. My personal feeling is that the book’s greatest failure is the failure to develop Aurora and her challenge to her world. She is merely an interesting line of development which is not taken up, and the book’s unsatisfying end, leaving the possibility of Aurora’s development as a character up in the air, makes it into a deeply pessimistic book.

Name dropping?

Reading through the catalogue to the British Art Show 7 (2011), I was struck by how many different books, films, plays, songs, TV shows etc are cited by the text, either as the artists’ inspiration, or just dropped in there by the authors. Here is a complete list of them. It’s a bewildering and interesting list. I might read/watch them all, so that then I will have read/watched enough.

London Fields, Martin Amis

In the days of the comet, HG Wells

An Arundel tomb, Philip Larkin

Larkin at sixty, ed. Anthony Thwaite

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

O lucky man! [film] Lindsay Anderson et al

Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton

Lanark, Alasdair Gray

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

History of the English Kings, William of Malmesbury

Cometography, vol. 1, G Kronk

The flowers of Tarbles: or, terror in literature, Jean Paulhan

Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville

Paradise lost, Milton

Star wars [film]

Incredible hulk

Monitor [TV series]

The island of Dr. Moreau, HG Wells

Island, Aldous Huxley

Writings of Kant

Korrektur, Thomas Bernhard

The unnamable, Samuel Beckett

Genesis

The German ideology, Marx/Engels

David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

Time Machine, HG Wells

The Simpsons [TV series]

Guignol’s band, Louis Ferdinand Celine

Films of Russ Meyer

Films of Hollis Frampton

Composer Cornelius Cardew

Composer Xenos ‘Fray Bentos’ Jones

Unnamed art book misattributing Elizabeth Foster to Gainsborough

A life in pictures, Alasdair Gray

Rising damp [sitcom]

Krypton factor [TV show]

We are the champions [TV show]

Happy days [play] Samuel Beckett

Glass architecture, Paul Scheerbart

Poet Irina Ratushinskaya

Writings of Wittgenstein

Films of Tarkovsky

‘Autobiography’ of Jack Sheppard, possibly ghost written by Daniel Defoe

Writings of Bertold Brecht

Bonnie and Clyde [film]

Boyz n the hood [film]

Lemon [film], Hollis Frampton

Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel, François Rabbelais

Monty Python’s Flying Circus [TV show]

Salò[film], Pier Paolo Pasolini

La Jetée [film], Chris Marker

Krapp’s last tape [play], Samuel Beckett

Teorema [film], Pier Paolo Pasolini

Let’s go dancing [song], Sparque, remixed by Larry Levan and François K

DJ Francis Grasso

Musician Arthur Russell

Cycles [film], Guy Sherwin

Memory bucket [film], Jeremy Deller

Films of Dziga Vertov

Films of Chris Marker

Films of Black Audio Film Collective

Films of Haroun Farocki

The Alien [unrealised film], Satyajit Ray

Bouvard and Pecuchet, Gustav Faubert

The nose, Nikolai Gogol

200 motels [film], Frank Zappa

Locus solus, Raymond Roussel

Motorman, David Ohle

Eastenders [TV show]

Marat/Sade [play], Peter Weiss

Armchair theatre [TV show]

Play for today [TV show]

Music of The Cure, Desmond Dekker, A-ha and Joy Division

Films of John Carpenter

Description of a whirlpool by Edgar Allen Poe

The third generation [film], Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

Music of Morrissey

Poetry of Philip Larkin

Writing of Alan Bennett

Newsweek

International Herald Tribune

John Cage

Thought of John Ruskin

Thought of Jacques Rancière

Sea Oak, George Saunders

René Descartes

La vida es sueño [play], Pedro Calderón de la Barca

The analytical language of John Wilkins, Jorge Luis Borges

Days [poem], Philip Larkin

Frosty moods

I listened today to a radio programme about the poet Robert Frost. He said that the best place to start when writing a poem was with a mood or feeling, the more vague the better. So his poem about a snowy winter’s night did not start from thinking about that relatively concrete situation, but from a mood. Isn’t this interesting? Something vague but emotional allows you to go in search and narrow down. It is just a starting point that takes you who knows where.

On the 13th of last month, our daughter Matilda was born. At this stage, most of her small number of waking hours are spent crying (for hunger and the discomfort of trapped wind mostly, I think). It brings home how this life really is a vale of tears.

Paint it red

Garage studio
One-car garage, with space to get wheelie bin through

I saw a little interview with Anthony Caro yesterday and it struck me for a couple of reasons. Jacques Maritain, the philosopher, said in one of his books that artists aren’t very good at talking about the process of intuition and inspiration in the creation of their art, compared to poets and other writers. This, I guess, is true, because the business of a writer is to put into words things which are difficult to put into words and this gives them their tools to dig beneath the surface of the experience. Artists’ reflections begin and end outside of the realm of words. In the interview with Anthony Caro, I liked the fact that the language he used to explain the process of the creation of his sculpture Early One Morning were all very down-to-earth and humble. He said that he wanted to make a sculpture that was ‘stretched out’ and ‘like a dance’, not like a ‘block’. That’s good. That’s fair enough. That’s as far as it goes. But why did he want to make a sculpture that was ‘stretched out’? Doesn’t matter. He also painted it red because it didn’t look very good green and his wife suggested painting it red. I find it takes a bit of confidence to admit that one’s reasons are sometimes very simple (maybe it took less in the 1960s – it seems to have been in many ways a much simpler era in art than now, or, at least, it seems that way to one born later, like me).

I’ve just been messing on looking at gallery websites and reading artists’ statements. None of them say things like ‘I wanted to make something stretched out’, or, ‘I painted it red because my wife told me to’. Why not? Why shouldn’t we admit that art is simple, in a way? I think it’s a sign of lack of confidence that the language of art (especially artists’ statements and gallery press releases) seems to have to hang on the coat tails of academia and adopt some of it’s tone (‘My work is an investigation into…’).

Artists’ intuition is something that interests me a lot (I have a confession: I just do things because they come into my head and seem right). That’s why I like Jacques Maritain’s writing on poetic intuition, because it allows there to be something going on below the surface (in the pre-conscious), which is hidden from you (why do certain things come into my head and not others and what makes them seem ‘right’?). The problem is that it is very difficult to know if what he says is really true, but at least it chimes with my own experience.

The other thing I liked about the interview was that he made the sculpture in a one-car garage. Wow, I work in a one-car garage! There’s hope yet! I like the colour red, too. Might paint something red.