It gets you in the end. You think you’ll just file a few stray slides, those old fashioned plastic sandwiches, into their proper decade indexed dossier and before you know it you’ve dropped back into the past.
The past, the familiar tunnel of your own private ghost train. Here’s a Norfolk village at the end of the last century, you know, that one when all those folk got killed, a little after I had been invited by Peterborough Museum & Art Gallery to make an exhibition. The name – Journey to the surface of the earth – was suggested to me by the words of a friend who saw work being done in the winter. She pointed out that the oil stick sketches on the studio wall could be seen as images of gateways into the village. I’d done them swift and big size on soft transparent plastic. A pond and trees near the church and a long wooded hill to the fallen Methodist chapel.
“So you have decided to join us?”
I took a deep breath and had that feeling when you know you really have to say something. When there can be nothing in the back of your brain trailing on the ground. Where it all has to be gathered up for the punch.
“The countryside passes through major changes every two hundred years or so, the cultural component is lagging behind I want to give it a boost by the work I do next.” … or something like that.
“Gosh – that sounds like a mission statement”
That might have been a dinner party sound bite sandwiched between the Brancaster prawns and the apricots in brandy. We do ourselves rather well out here in the intimate folds of North West Norfolk where luxurious and out of the way vegetables – globe artichokes, cardoons – flourish in the hearty soil. I was there thanks to an old fashioned connection: the artist Matthew Meadows who is now a very niche and classy wallpaper maven.
I was trying to say that every so often in the countryside slow, long, deep stresses and strains pass a certain point and there are rapid and deep convulsions which surface politically. The tendency to suburbanisation is inevitable and in many ways desirable but has to deal with resistance, knotty corners, stay-behind forces after an invasion. There is a cultural element to the resistance which accepts the rural world as “untidy-able” which accepts both new and old style travellers and fox-hunters.
I deliberately stopped making anything and looked for work in civil engineering, working for the summer as a highways inspector, looking minutely at parts of Norfolk and turning towards the idea of earthworks. Monuments to an unknown future.
The analogy I give (though it could be itself a concrete project) is that in advance of sea level rise certain constructions, artificial islands, could be built more cheaply.
Then I came across a curious unfenced trench used to inter pig casualties. It struck home (pay-dirt is the phrase) but did not really come out until at a genteel residents meeting in Notting Hill I thought of dead pigs thrown down into a trench on a hilltop in Norfolk. What flashed the conjunction through my soul was hearing the meeting talk about something for the millennium. They trickled from sundial to bird bath to statue to… (this was when my inner categorical walls broke down and in flooded the deep pig trench) …safety surfaces for the children’s playground. A revolt against safety drove out the dead pigs and put into this London communal garden an abyss, dark, steep, uncushioned, with the very special dimension ratio that gives the true vertigo turn, a deep hole into which you might slip and which demanded if you were to see the bottom that you lean out over space.
I’d been paying rent three years, was a regular at the church, looking at the bowed backs. A small quarry twenty yards from the churchyard fills with water at unpredictable times. People throw stuff in the dustmen won’t take. A mass of vegetation surrounded by trees with glimpses of water. The congregation of the church also goes up and down unpredictably. Sitting there one Sunday morning my thoughts drifted off to those churches of Old Europe crammed with people about to be massacred, and to the socially generated threat outside.
Then I clicked on a tragedy in London – how one of two youths thrown into the Thames had (underwater and unconscious) seen his friend on the bank waving. In his unconscious state he dreamt he struggled to reach him, to help him, when in fact the friend had already drowned. By seeking to help he had saved himself.
Only the drowning are saved was the phrase that came to mind and with it the role of water in the mythology of martyrdom and the especial profanity of drowning. Our vicar wants to tidy up the quarry as he wants to tidy up the business of being human in all its sometimes squalor. I began to evolve an alternative structure for the quarry so that at least there should be another view of its resonances, its inner life. The central part would be an arm, or a hand, on a pivot arranged to rise out of the water when it got up so high.
Time in the countryside, the big house, the church, the seasons.
Michaelmas: In the glowing evening the tops of the low rolling clouds are struck with light and their bottoms grey-brush the hillside beside the dark firs. As the light falls I get out of my chair and follow the road. Along the drove-way pheasants clatter out of the trees, one farm worker’s car remains in the yard – the battleship boiler fertiliser tanks loom up as the drove-way becomes a track along the edge of a folded field.
A fox shoots from the hedge, dark and low its streak going into the beigy twilight of the stubble field and seen twice more as twin sparkles, eyes reflecting the last sun. The night closes in with a jump at the top of the hill in the wartime sown pit-prop patch and beyond where the mess of the hemp harvest lies black in lumps.
Hedgehogs hiss, scream at each other audible at twenty yards and from the roadside tree goes a bird I know know what. All the time there has been a swinging, moving searchlight on the opposite hill. Lamping.
The beam pokes through the hedge along the road, the rifle cracks out and a little scream comes. The searchlight truck drives across, dowses its lights and a figure picks up the morsel. It comes on again through the gap in the hedge and passes me on the road. Quick silhouettes of hairstyles recognised from church.
Easter: There is a sullen scattering of porn about a wide verge beneath Gainsborough beeches where people who work from cars take a break. By foot round this way to the shops, over time the images bleach out from the stark bronze and carmine and dusky chocolate through soft bleeding lilacs and tenuous creams to a kind of grey-blood smudge. Car tyres making an elephants stamp, squashing the torso into high pulped relief, like a plaster cast taken at the scene of a crime.
I am always cautious when these shreds of lunchtime lust are seen off the beaten track rising like bait from the grass. Booby traps, like banknotes always connected to some bomb. I hope for the sturdiness to march past these flagging virgins like the centurions may have who passed busty toga’d girls along this hedge line of the Icknield Way.
Lammas: Bright light, the slow rustle of hot leaves gently stirring. Dark shadow, young birds flopping in the heavy air.
A snake came to my pond to swim. I had come to the edge of the pond and was looking for fish through the veil of weed. There was a swift turbulence and a snapshot of some grey-white body part. I went to get a stick.
When I came back I put the stick in the water and fished about. The coils of grey-white turned around under the water. I took the stick out and sat down. It was an extraordinary irruption of life into the pond.
Of course you dig a hole and line it and fill it with water and life comes to it but this felt to be magnificent, a visitation. I saw the head above water, triangular, black, shiny with the flicker of tongue. There was yellow and black on its body. I watched the rippling paradoxical locomotion.
It nosed along the gravel margin. It must have been a metre long. Then it swam on the surface the length of the pond, its head a good hands-breadth above the surface and the wide whips of its body pushing it rapidly away from the end at which I sat.
I felt awed. I went into the house and consulted what I could. I think it was an adder, no matter, the importance was a sense of the privilege of witnessing the reptiles private rapture, driven by the heat to the open, to the water.
Pentecost: Two hundred yards away, from the drawing room window, a pair of barn owls beating this side of the church, swooping and dropping every few yards. They go into the scrubby trees at the corner of the field and I walk over. The near paddock has been crudely fenced in.
Two men were working some weeks ago and now I find they have strung two strands of barbed wire around the perimeter and the gate on the path to the church is shut. I roll under the wire and cover my coat with burrs, my eyes on the owls.
A wooden rail of the fence alongside the children’s playground has fallen. Whose work is it? I lose the owls.
Back by the round towered church of St Mary and along the hard frosty lane looking back over my shoulder to the sky? Waves of dark grey clouds rolling in low from the south west. Somewhere down there Mr Blair and Mr Howard are speaking today according to the radio.
Half an hour later, dipping my face into a large, elegant cup of tea I see the owls come out again to hunt.
All Saints: Set out after dark for the bonfire place. A cloudy-bright brownish patch before the moon tilted my way and shifted with me down the unlighted village lane, the air beginning to freeze. Strobe lights flickering of a plane overhead not very high going east – I could not quite tell whether four flashes or four groups of doubles. Down the slope of the hill and on out across the tangly dark and lumpy shadows of the middle distance an endless chain of headlights every hundred yards or so on the Gayton road.
From the top of the hill I watched the helpers with torches building the bonfire. I was one night early. I turned back keeping my eyes down to pick out the sandy trackway until I started to look up at the light of the weekenders cottage, A head moved in the dining room and focussed on me walking past outside. My vision zoomed to close up and I thought I recognised my landlord. My heart pumped at the acceleration of perception, the fitting together of a face whether it was him or not.
It blew the broken backed bonfire from my mind.
Advent: Pausing over the dishes at the sink on the morning of the day after the first frost I catch sight of a man, no, men, infiltrating into the fields. Increasing. Their uniform dark torn field clothes and caps. Late middle aged.
A giant wearing fishing breeches like rural punk bondage. More and more of them; you cannot watch one without others appearing from the hedges. It is exactly like it must be trying to stem a flood. In no time they could be everywhere as long as the supply of these craggy, rumpled middle aged men lasted.
They carry white or orange sticks. These unfurl as flags cut from plastic sacks. They have spread out to a regular distance and begin to wave the flags across their fronts clearing the ground away from my window to the right. They are beating for hares on the winter greens.
Going to the Post Office later I hear barking and bike up to the Great Field. A hundred people, with thirty or forty greyhounds come off the field to get lunch from their vans. I bike up behind a natty man trotting along with his springing white dog. His semi track suit semi breeches trousers in soft grey moleskin slither over his sunken skinny rear and his slim legs go down into green welly type clogs. A sinuous practical people off their bums and out in the open. The English.
“I might tie my dog on your bike for a run”
“Might be going a long way”
“Eed do it”.