Today I finished working on a monoprinted text piece. It’s the third I’ve completed out of a series of them. It was freezing in my studio – the ‘Beast from the East’ brought snow and storm Emma contributed wind – and I had a job to get the ink fluid enough! I put it on the heater until it steamed and probably nearly caught fire.
The liquid city
The river Thames at Bankside is one of my old haunts from back when I lived in London. I was there again recently with my family, visiting Tate Modern. Ioana took the kids back to our friends’ home once they’d had their fill of rolling down the slope in the turbine hall on the huge stripy carpet installed by an artist collective SUPERFLEX (far more fun than the giant swings). I stayed on for a bit, drawn by the place rather than the art. The view from the South Bank has always seemed to me like a vision, as if nothing is quite solid or real: the elements of London exist in deep affinity with one another by the river, pervaded by a veiled whiteness of Portland stone, concrete, river, and sky. When I went up the Shard, a few years ago, it struck me how much the buildings around St Paul’s Cathedral resemble the limestone pavements in the Yorkshire Dales: the same pale, flat, rectilinear slabs separated by deep fissures. I remember once trying to sketch from somewhere near Bankside and finding the luminous greyness oppressive. It was impossible to capture in crayons, the grey light pressed on my retinas, like a kind of concrete and Portland snow blindness. Light can emanate from concrete as from an overcast sky.
London is a city of skyscapes. And of sound: I can still hear the clanking of cranes and the rush of traffic; the buzz coming across the river from that sketching trip years ago. London from the South Bank manages to be both crushingly heavy and as weightlessly evanescent as pumice. I realised I was trying to draw the structure of London – the forms of its architecture – but London has no structure and oscillates like a mirage. It’s like trying to draw a feeling. Sometimes I feel London draws its oppressive weight from the concentration of power and wealth – power and wealth that exclude you and grind on with no need of you. Looking across the river towards the towers and slab office blocks of the City you are acutely aware of a terrible gravity. I ended up overworking my drawing with a white crayon, always an admission of defeat.
Years later, I left the Tate hoping to sit somewhere and reconnect to that memory. Instead of a slab sky of white, it was one of those windy-sunny days where the clouds look as if they have been wrenched and torn apart by some frenzied being. It was Sunday and the crowds were out in force along the South Bank, scudding and milling along like clouds. Tate Modern is the nexus, the centre of gravity, of the current popularity of modern art; the tower of Tate Modern is like the pinnacle of rock beneath the Gulf of Coryvreckan which causes the whirlpool – in this case of people restlessly circulating. I made my way westwards as far as it would take for the crowds to thin out a bit. I had half a mind to walk to South Kensington, another old haunt. The crowds thinned out after Westminster Bridge (where I noticed the new concrete barriers like cutwaters put there to stop repeats of the terrorist vehicle attack) and I sat on one of the benches with weird cast iron swans’ heads, opposite the Houses of Parliament.
The river is both a hiatus in London and its liquid essence. I imagined the river being constructed as a massive civil engineering project, a vast trench dug through the heart of the city without yet any water in it. The river is a fault line between the two halves of London, like the city is a stone that has cracked in half. I had been looking at Mark Bradford’s huge collage Los Moscos in the Tate, with its grid-like structure recalling Bradford’s home city of Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a city defined more by the grid than by the Los Angeles River, but London’s structure hangs on the river, like a wasp’s nest on a branch.
I imagine the river having the same relationship to London as God has to his creation in process theology. London as the river’s emanation. In process theology God and the world are fellow travellers in time: both exist within and are transcended by its flow. Becoming trumps being. London and the river are also locked in a similar flow and a similar becoming. The river is the liquid city: liquid Portland stone and liquid concrete. Liquid possibilities. The suspended silt which gives the river the appearance of dirty milk is the dust of the city. The city, for its part, is the river’s precipitate, a crystalline deposit crusting its banks. The river begets the city from its – the city’s – own substance. A god locked in time is a lesser god, however.
The river is thick with thought, with the city’s crowded mind. As I sit staring at it, the river is flowing backwards: the tide is coming in and pushing the flow back upriver. (When I lived in Hammersmith I once saw the same dead dog floating up the Thames and then later on back down again on the ebb tide). Unlike the flow of time, the flow of the river is reciprocal; uncertain. Its ebb and flow are the heave of the crowd and its silt the hiss of its thoughts. I wrote down some of the things that the river’s surface reminded me of: mercury, graphite, liquid brass, milk, urine, paper pulp, the cortex of a brain. Everything and nothing.
Walking on a little, I looked at the apartment blocks being thrown up by developers along the riverbank. The concrete lift shafts stood starkly like insane overgrown pillboxes inside the steel skeletons of the unfinished flats; stains on the concrete showed where water had once flowed in rivulets from each section as it was cast. Water soaks through concrete. Beneath the Blavatnik Building at the Tate is an area which originally housed storage tanks connected with the power station. It is a massively constructed space made of rough concrete. High up one of the walls water seeps through, like one of London’s lost rivers trying to escape its confinement. Water is the true state of concrete and rock. The river is the key to London, seeping as it does into the Tate basement.
Across the river from the unfinished flats, impure light reflected off the glass and steel of Millbank Tower, home of (at various times) both the Conservative and Labour parties, the UN and the World Bank. London is a city of reflections. I crossed Vauxhall Bridge. Sometimes the river gives you a smile: a flash of indigo on the ruffled surface. Usually, it is the colour of melancholy, or of one of the silver mercedes that course through the arteries of the city like undissolved drugs. The river disposes of things. It erases and cleanses; is both forgetfulness and memory. London is a state of mind that you can read by walking. I ended my walk at Pimlico tube and headed back to rejoin my family.
The following day, I reflected on my walk and reread my notes in a cafe in Hampstead. Hampstead types talked intensely to each other, over generous portions of cake, of business or dilemmas or other people’s follies. Over the road, I could see a building with a crooked sash window and a pink bacterial water seep down its cream painted masonry. Everywhere in London – even in rich Hampstead – there are buildings with cracks, some of them huge. Everything is shifting and provisional; threatening to slump into the oozy substrate. I looked at the people around me in the cafe and thought that it was the same for them (and me); that they were worn, stressed and cracked like the buildings, without foundations. Next to the building with the crooked sash was a yard entirely festooned with Russian vine and overshadowed by a sycamore tree. A strange, extravagant green recess in the city. Two men manhandled a steel I-beam off the roof of a van, which was also loaded with umpteen sheets of plywood and PIR foam.
Later on, Ioana and the kids and I went in the cafe in Waterstones on Hampstead High Street. There the scene was different. Hampstead High Street is unreal, so astronomically wealthy and fussed over that it seems to levitate; if the hill didn’t support it at the altitude it does, it would float there anyway. Egalitarian Waterstones is there like the embassy of a foreign land. At the next table in the cafe sat a group of several children and women. The women were very obviously nannies. They talked in the way that employees do behind their employers’ backs. The children – the infinitely precious progeny of the wealthy – messed around, spilling their drinks over books unpaid for and dropping lumps of pastry on the floor. The nannies apologised to us for the disruption – they were nannies, they explained, and these were the children they looked after. As if that would excuse the scene or as if, indeed, we wouldn’t have guessed the fact. Ioana – a nanny – smiled and said it was OK. I couldn’t help being smug that our children were our own and better behaved. We oscillated in between two strata of society: those of the nannies and their rich and badly behaved children. Outside, it started to get dark.
Faxi’s stream: a short walk at the crux of England
2nd November, Faxfleet, at the confluence of the Ouse and the Trent; the start of the Humber. A marsh harrier patrolled the reed bed, up and down, while a Lynx helicopter passed over, heading towards Lincolnshire. The harrier wheeled overhead and went inland, towards a farmhouse. Stonechats flitted in the reeds. After the helicopter, silence but for the tinnitus of distant traffic and the peeping of unseen waders. Silence is a sense of space rather than the absolute absence of sound; sounds either form the boundaries of the space, or cut into it, like the helicopter did.
I made the trip to Faxfleet to celebrate the first day of a new work pattern which will give me more time to dedicate to my practice as an artist, and to connect up with the past. The last time I had a regular day a week built into my working pattern to dedicate to art was a little over two years ago, and, on my last ‘art day’, I took a similar trip to Airmyn, also on the Ouse. (I wrote about this trip here). That trip was partly an act of faith that I was going to get that time back again, and this trip I guess was an attempt to heal the rift. I’ve made several trips to places on the lower reaches of the Ouse and the Humber, drawn by a fascination with estuaries and forlorn places.
I wanted to see the place where the Ouse and the Trent meet. It seems to me to be one of the hidden cruxes of England. The Trent drains a huge chunk of the Midlands, as it slews its ‘U’-shaped course. The Ouse drains both the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. They meet quietly and unobtrusively, without any fanfare, surrounded by reedbeds and mudflats. It looks from Google Maps like you can stand right on the cusp between the two rivers, at Blacktoft sands, but you can’t. I went there a year or two back, to the RSPB nature reserve. You may not depart from the path: you can’t even see the rivers for the reeds. (I did have a great time, however, spotting all the rare birds the other bird watchers pointed out: ruffs, bearded reedlings, spotted redshanks, marsh harrier).
Faxfleet is barely a hamlet – more a scattering of farms – situated on the north bank of the Ouse/Humber, opposite Blacktoft sands. Away from the river, it’s a land of flat arable fields, reclaimed from marsh. There was once a Knights Templars’ community there, so it must have been drained pretty early on. There’s something that’s hard to grasp about the landscape. It’s overlooked to the north and south by the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Wolds, which give it the uncanny feel of being a no-man’s land between two opposing forces. Two mirrored opposites. The hills rise suddenly and unaccountably from the flat. They’re not that high, but they do odd things to the space; as if, by being raised up, the things atop them are also brought closer. You have the feeling that, if you squinted, you could see in through the windows of houses in Alkborough, on the Lincolnshire Wolds. There is the same sense of acoustic space as I’ve noticed at Spurn Point and Sunk Island: sounds seem to carry further over the water, or just over the flat ground. Clanks and bangs of distant activity pierce the silence at intervals.
Dark, compact woods sit between the fields, like thoughts you can’t quite get hold of. Residues of thought. Robert McFarlane talks about how landscape provides us with metaphors for living. If the landscape is an extended metaphor for our own being, then depicting it is self portraiture. I have the fantasy that the flat landscapes of lowland England are a vast thought process, a brooding consciousness. Thoughts are distinct things, like the woods and other features which occupy and cross the land surface. You can return to a thought like you can return to a wood. You might find it changed or attrited, but it will be there in some form. In that sense, thoughts are more like things than flow (we often talk about consciousness as a stream, meaning flow, but I think it is more like a stream in the landscape, a more or less permanent, albeit shifting and changing, feature). Thoughts build up archaeological layers.
Place names do, too. I like the fact that Alkborough and Faxfleet have both retained a kind of awkward primal ‘spikiness’ – of the ‘k’ and the ‘x’ – as if they have resisted erosion into forms that are kinder on the palate. They have an Old Norse strangeness. (In fact, Alkborough is Old English, meaning ‘Al(u)ca’s hill’; Faxfleet is of uncertain meaning, but is also Old English, perhaps with an Old Norse personal name, Faxi. Faxi’s Stream, perhaps). Aluca and Faxi and their streams and hills have left their residue.
Get lost signs
A ‘get lost’ sign that stops you going too far along the riverbank east from Faxfleet:
Associated British Ports
Notice is hereby given that there is no right of way on this embankment or any other part of the estate. Trespassers will be prosecuted.
By order ABP
Strictly no access.
Humber Wildfowl Refuge Committee
There’s another on the gates of the Weighton Lock:
NO ADMITTANCE EXCEPT ON BUSINESS
And next to it:
Horse riders please
keep to Bridle Path
Take your pick. On the bridge over the lock there’s a stone carved inscription, partly eroded:
Mr Grady Engineer Mr [?] Surveyor
Mr Smith Carpenter Mr [?] Mason
Anno Domino 1775
Repaired 1826 by Joseph Whitehead
Past the Weighton Lock (where the Market Weighton Canal ends), the landscape opens out as you face across to the southernmost escarpment of the Yorkshire Wolds and towards Brough. Hunched crows sit in trees. The Humber Bridge is like a drawing, executed with extreme efficiency and elegance of line. A short distance later, you are halted by the pale blue ABP sign quoted above. For my part, I turned back, quailing at the threat of prosecution, and walked back the other way, past Faxfleet to Blacktoft.
The spiky, straight leaves on the rushes all point east, away from the prevailing wind. A small patch of borage darkens the counsel of a tilled field. Flowers of yarrow are too white on the embankment side. Farm houses are half lost in trees. I think of the Templars’ preceptory and try to avoid the move of associating it with the uncanny of the place.
And on the water side, the mirrored silver of the exposed mud, riven with serpentine rills like blood vessels at regular intervals. The mud has the iky shininess of membranes in the body, or of a cerebral cortex. Its thoughts cannot but be inscrutable. Tiny wading birds pitter-patter across it like flies. The light reflected from the surface leaves an after-image on my retina.
Once I’ve turned the Faxfleet corner, near where I parked the car (by a sign saying ‘Private road’), I’m on the Ouse and the river immediately starts to feel familiar. The Lincolnshire Wolds, looming over yonder, look like a foreign country, and the Trent, which I can barely see, is a foreign river to me. The Ouse is a businesslike Yorkshire river. A thug of a river? No, she’s a lady! From the outset she’s recognisably the river that passes through Goole and Selby. A definite river, after the equivocal and dissimulating estuary.
I stopped at the Hope and Anchor, Blacktoft, for a cup of tea. Hope and Anchor has a faintly religious sound, like it should be seaman’s mission, not a pub, and it does look a bit like a mission hut. I sat at one of the picnic benches outside, close to the river, drinking in the quiet. The sense of space is aural as much as visual. The Konik ponies over the river in the RSPB reserve are galloping in circles. The muffled crump of their hooves travels across the water and occasionally their heads briefly appear over the reeds. A robin regards me coolly from a post: do I exist only because observed by it? Aircraft pass obtrusively: a fighter jet and a couple of light aircraft. Small pieces of debris, no bigger than otters’ heads drift silently and sadly down to the sea, like they’re in disgrace. Even smaller ducks defy the current – the ones I can identify are widgeons. Everything is distant, at arm’s length: aircraft, traffic, rivers, hills. The hum of things unseen. The silence hollows out a space through which sounds pass. The water looks as deep as it is opaque. Hot chocolate water.
Leaving the pub, I notice a sign:
The management accepts no liability for any injury sustained while using the play area on these premises.
There is but a single swing frame, with no swings hanging from it.
A path through the reeds
Heading back towards Faxfleet, I meet a woman with two young children, the first people I have met while walking the embankment. They have with them a dog which barks at me. The woman says, she has never heard it bark before. It’s a baby and it has never barked before it met me. I’m taking photographs of the hawthorn bushes (thick with haws) and the yellow weeping willows.
About opposite where I left the car, I spot a well trodden path going down from the embankment and into the reeds. (Next to where I parked the car is a gate with a sign saying there’s no right of way: the space between the gate and the embankment, where there clearly is a right of way, is about four metres). The path is well trodden and well mudded. It snakes like one of the rills on the mudflats. I’m pleased to be among the reeds, which are taller than I am. The path forks and I briefly consider going back – afraid of losing my way in a labyrinth of treacherous muddy paths bounded by reeds; of sinking unseen into the grey mire. Massive washed up tree trunks are half buried beneath the reeds. The usual industrial estuary rubbish: industrial-sized plastic tubs formerly full of stuff you can’t buy in supermarkets; telegraph poles. And, eventually, the rivers.
The path leads right to the view I was looking for and unable to find from the embankment. It has obviously been made and maintained by birders, itching for a proper viewpoint over across the mudflats. Directly opposite is the mouth of the Trent and the pointed headland I’d wanted to stand on (it is mostly mud bounded by two boulder walls; not really land at all). To my right the Ouse and to my left the Humber. It was exhilarating to stand somewhere not officially sanctioned, where a wrong footstep might lead to a sticky end. A huge flock of waders swoops over the waters like Job’s storm; as far as I can tell they are mostly lapwings, with shelducks on the outside. There are small groups of shelducks on the mud. The flock is silent. Yellow light gleams on the rivers’ mucus membrane and echoes the ragged patches of sun snarling through the blue clouds. It’s only 2:40 in the afternoon, but feels like the gloaming. Uncanny spots of light shine brightly on a patch of mud not far away from me: broken glass, or just pools of water? Fairies?
Just as I was thinking that I hadn’t seen a single boat on the rivers, a converted barge came inching down the Trent at a snail’s pace. A guy is stood in the bow staring intently forward. I watched a TV documentary once about the Trent in which the presenter extolled the dangers of the confluence of Trent and Ouse. The water may be metres or centimetres deep and look much the same. The boat crept gingerly round the headland, did a standing turn and motored off at increased speed up the Ouse. Pleased with the end of my day, I also headed back up the Ouse to home.
Walking and theodicy: Robin Hood’s Bay to Scarborough
I have a favourite walk between Scarborough and Robin Hood’s bay, on the Yorkshire coast. It’s about fourteen miles, mostly along the cliffs. It’s a good walk for thinking, because you don’t have to worry about losing the way and it’s not so varied that it drags your thoughts constantly into different registers. It’s more or less of one substance from beginning to end. What variety there is tends to fit into a rhythm: high, undulating cliffs separated by deep ‘wykes’, or valleys. You have to walk down into them and then up again.
The cliffs, especially near Scarborough, are boulder clay. Their whole substance is heavy, unstable and fluid. If it has rained, then you labour through deep sticky mud and try not to slide down the cliff. You have a sense of the land slumping into the sea. Change is rapid: the land might have slipped away to leave a knife-edge of clay standing. Next time you visit, it will have gone. The mud is red.
Somehow, I think, the mud is like thought. Thoughts can trip along freely, but, if you are mulling something over, they can be heavy and viscous, like you are trying to shape clay in your mind. Or, the act of walking through the mud can be like thinking. The mud resists, sticks and causes you to slip. You make progress, but it presents always the same face; it is the same. It’s a distance to cover, but it’s more like wrestling. Reaching the destination is the end of the bout. And the mud remains: what form you have managed to impress onto it is just waiting for the next rain or heavy sea to change again. It’s always there the same.
I did the walk recently. When I reached Robin Hood’s Bay by bus to start the walk, it was raining steadily (pax the forecast). By the time I reached Boggle Hole there was a thunderstorm directly overhead, so I sheltered in the Youth Hostel cafe. I had no mind to be the tallest object on the top of a cliff in a thunderstorm. The thunder passed, but it rained torrentially after I set off again. By the time I was up on the cliffs again it had eased. There was clear sky above the horizon out to sea, but a smudge along the horizon meant another squall rolling in. You could see the mechanics of how they manoeuvred about: one out to sea and coming in; the thunderstorm now away off inland to the north-west; another slab of raincloud wheeling round over the high clifftop at Ravenscar ahead of me, to the south. They don’t come across in straight ranks, but jostle and wheel around each other, like giant cogs. You think you’re going to get soaked; then you don’t; then you think the next one’s going to miss you; then it catches you head on.
So it went. So much rain fell so quickly that the path was ankle deep in water and I gave up trying to step round it. The water roared as it escaped downhill in waterfalls hidden behind blackthorn and giant horsetails. It was the same colour as the wastewater from a washing machine, soapy and greasy. The rain filled my bum-bag up like a toilet cistern and the water trickled out all in one spot and soaked my backside. When the rainstorm I’d seen out to sea arrived, it was impossible to look into. Out to sea, you could see it as a blur. When it closed in, it enveloped you and it hurt your eyes to try to look into it, like staring into a grey angry sun. It made me aware of inhabiting myself like a set of Chinese boxes: me, my thought, my body, my coat, the squall, the world.
I’ve been reading the book of Job. I can see why God appears to Job in a storm. A storm somehow envelops you; cuts you off; locks you inside yourself, but also locks itself inside with you. It’s all around you, but you can’t look at it. It forces you to look at yourself. It is simultaneously everything, something and nothing. It can roar and whisper at the same time. It’s a bit like being hit by a juggernaut which turns to mist the moment it hits; like a falling dream.
I thought about Job as I walked along. I can’t get my head around what’s going on in it. It seems so full of paradoxes. God appears in the storm at the end of the discussion between Job and his friends, in response to Job’s request for an audience with God, but he doesn’t inject any new information into the discussion at all. Instead, he reiterates the one thing Job and his friends already agree on: that mortals can no more hold God to account than explain the natural world. The God who orders the cosmos is beyond human accountability. God says to Job: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?”, but then later says that Job was right. However, lack of knowledge was a major aspect of Job’s problem in the first place: he didn’t understand why he had to suffer. Similarly, God says that Job’s friends are wrong about him, but a lot of what they say is correct. The friends tell Job that if he pleads with God and confesses his sin, God will restore him. In the end, Job does this and God does restore him. The narrator says that Job didn’t sin by “charging God with wrongdoing”. In the dialogue that follows, Job does exactly that: “Though I cry, ‘I’ve been wronged!’ I get no response”. A further problem resides in the pretext for Job’s affliction, namely the Accuser’s implication at the beginning of the book that God’s judgement of Job as a righteous man is faulty and that Job will curse God if pushed to it. Job has to vindicate God by his response to his suffering.
You can push it this way and that way, and it slips through your fingers. Things fail to connect and slip by each other. The sin Job appears to commit by his tirades against God isn’t sin that disqualifies him from vindicating God’s judgement of him as righteous (in contrast to the conventional piety of Job’s friends, who are required to present a sin offering to God at the end). God says that Job both lacks knowledge and is right, but without specifying the content of the missing or present knowledge; presumably they are different. Or does Job say what is right without knowing it’s right? God’s self revelation to Job as an almost amoral orchestrator of a tumultuous, chaotic nature (symbolised by the monsters Leviathan and Behemoth) slides past God’s initial accusation that Job lacks knowledge and seems to corroborate what Job has said about him all along. (Or is the accusation of lacking knowledge directed to the friends? Or does God have a twinkle in his eye? A genuine invitation to speech?) Job’s impiety wins him a slap down from God which is nevertheless the encounter with God he has longed for – a slap down which is anyway very ambiguously a slap down. The violent mood swings of the grieving Job somehow set off the whole push and pull that threatens the logical cohesion of the whole book.
I thought about all of this whilst being battered by rainstorms. By the time I reached Ravenscar the rain had stopped, but it was misty on the cliff top. The water was still ankle deep. Gradually it cleared and got out sunny. My bum dried (not my shoes). At Hayburn Wyke, the water in Hayburn Beck was impressive and terrifying. In the last half of my walk I thought about a painting I’m working on, without resolving its problems.
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.
Hyperreal kids’ TV
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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.