‘I was reared / In the great city…’
Coleridge, ‘Frost at Midnight’
In 1998 I’d abandoned a part time and self-funded English Literature degree at Leeds University because I’d run out of cash. I was working in telesales for Sky TV, living in Kirkstall with P, a close friend who’d been fighting schizophrenia and losing ground. An intelligent man, he suspected that the side effects to his medication were in some ways more undesirable than the condition itself. He was experimenting with not taking the pills and his daily behaviour was getting simultaneously more brilliant and more worrying. We had been walking in the grounds of Kirkstall Abbey. P had been talking about sexual selection – the subject of his PHD – and then he had broken down. ‘We’re all just barking dogs’, he was telling me, and I was struggling to offer an angle that might ground or release him. My morale was at its lowest, and then a day or two later I got a phone call from Robert Woof, Director of the Wordsworth Trust. He’d been thinking about setting up a modest residency at Dove Cottage and would I be interested.
‘Of youthful Poets, who among these hills
Will be my second self when I am gone…’
I’d met Robert at a Centenary Conference marking the publication of the Lyrical Ballads. The idea was to celebrate that landmark of Wordsworth and Coleridge as well as reflect on where poetry was now, and what it might owe to the Romantics. I was part of a small writers’ collective at that time. We’d had an anthology published with some money from Yorkshire Arts. Steve Dearden – then a Literature Officer at Yorkshire Arts – had alerted us to some bursaries that could pay for places for us at the conference, and we were lucky enough to get the money. We ended up lodging in a holiday cottage owned by some local magnate that Robert had wangled for selected conference attendees who might be strapped for cash. After meeting Robert at the conference he offered us a reading the following summer. Out of that reading, and subsequent correspondence, Robert got the idea of offering me the residence. When interrogated, I was never very good at justifying the opportunity. It had just happened to me.
‘…Within the bounds of this huge Concave; here
Should be my home, this Valley be my world…’
Wordsworth, ‘Home at Grasmere’
I arrived in Grasmere in the New Year of 1999. After checking in I was shown to an 18th Century Cottage in Town End, just off the coffin path that connects Rhydale and Grasmere. I remember going into the front room and being struck that the carpet was speckled by dozens of tiny black dots, in a peacock-fan spray around the fireplace. There must have been a hailstorm, and as the hail passed down the chimney it picked up soot. As the ice melted onto the carpet, it left the soot behind as a signature. This seemed entirely appropriate for a place built around such a strong sense of history. The only other thing in the room was a bucket of coal with a welcome note attached. I had brought no furniture and there was none in the house. Only a king-size bed upstairs. For the first few days the only room I inhabited was that bedroom, before a sofa and chair and assorted bits and pieces were found for me from various donors. I liked the idea that everything in the house was cobbled together from people in the immediate community. It generated a strange sense of hospitality even before I got to know anyone.
‘…O Lakes, Lakes!
O Sentiment upon the rocks!’
Geoffrey Hill, ‘Elegiac Stanzas’
It was raining on the day I arrived. I think it may have rained through the whole first month. The world I entered felt like it had been under water for the whole winter. The moss that cushioned the walls on either side of the coffin path was luminous green like some exotic seaweed. The coal dust in the leaky coal shed was a greasy paste. On my first night I walked into the centre of Grasmere to find a call box. There was one on the edge of a car park on the approach to the village. The car park was flooded and the call box was surrounded by water. I waded into it and stood watching the rain pound down around me as the cold soaked into my feet. I looked up at the dark bulk of Loughrigg and Silver How. The rain was more intense and more violent than any I could remember. It even seemed to be beating down the smoke that rose out of the chimneys of Town End.
‘…it is hard to explain how he could have
climbed to that height in the dark and wet night
without falling to his death…’
Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther
It was midwinter. I had been to see the Jacqueline du Pré biopic, Hilary and Jackie, with Sean and Jane Borodale at Zeffirelli’s in Ambleside. When the movie was over we took off in Sean’s Land Rover for a late night drive. After twisting down A-roads, up and down inclines, skirting lakes and surprising many stray sheep in the headlights, we ended up climbing a steep road that might have been at the end of the Elterwater Valley. I’m not sure because, as a passenger, I just went with it, excited by not knowing or not being in control of where I was. When we got to somewhere near the top we stopped and paused for a second or two to take in the scale of the landscape dropping away beneath us. Steam from our breath filled the Land Rover. I opened the door and jumped down onto the road and instantly fell flat on my back. The road surface was a rhino-hide sheet of black ice. We looked at each other in amazement at how we had made it up that road. Then panic set in about how we were going to get down again.
‘The Mind is its own place…’
John Milton, Paradise Lost
P had come up to visit me for a weekend whilst on his way to visit his new girlfriend in Liverpool. He had again been experimenting with not taking his medication, probably out of a fear that it would make him impotent. He came in the summer of my first year in Grasmere. He was lucky. He landed smack in the middle of one of those breathtaking stretches of summer weather that can persuade you that Cumbria really is heaven on earth. We went out walking, choosing to climb up past White Moss Tarn and up and across to Heron Pike. We paused halfway up to eat some lunch and look out across Grasmere towards the green of the landscape beyond – the sky a vacuum swept and immaculate blue. P’s psychosis was taking hold and he was gradually persuading himself that he had in fact died and this was the afterlife. He struggled with this feeling for the rest of the weekend. He told me he was having real trouble not walking out into passing cars or stepping off ledges as he had all but convinced himself that it would do him no harm as he was already dead. My role was to make and maintain an argument to convince him otherwise. This consisted mainly of pointing out details that could not possibly be found in nirvana. Pepsi cans by the edge of the tarn. The never-ending coach parties. The low-flying fighter jets scalping the trig points.
‘…beauty is nothing / but the beginning of terror…’
Rilke, The First Elegy, Duino Elegies
It was the middle of the Wordsworth Winter School during my final winter. I had been getting uptight about this business of being a Poet in Residence. This would typically kick in during the schools and conferences in the presence of the various academics and validated connoisseurs. How was I to negotiate the value system of that world and play the role of poet in public? I had acute status anxiety. I’d asked a friend to get me something to smoke that would relax me in the evenings. He did. I wasn’t a self-sufficient user of any form of recreational drug, but late one afternoon I rolled myself a spliff and put some vegetables in the oven.
I’m guessing the skunk I was given was probably very strong and spiked with something else, most likely speed. The sense of euphoria that first came upon me just kept pushing up the ante until suddenly it was my heart turning into a bullet train. I tried to calm myself by lying on the cold stone floor and breathing deeply but it had no effect. I couldn’t believe my heart was going to be able to stand up to this punishment. Quite by coincidence another friend called round to say goodbye before he went away for the weekend and he was able to explain what I was experiencing. I was having a whitey. He didn’t seem too worried – just said I should lie down and it would pass. I did and it didn’t. Normal social interaction had become almost impossible to me. I couldn’t form sentences.
‘..men’s intellectual errors consist
chiefly in denying…’
Coleridge, Anima Poetae
I learned a lot about myself during the hours that followed. I was entirely possessed by fear. I was afraid of the dark, of strong light, of stillness, of anything that moved, of company, of being alone, of every change or lack or change in my body rhythm. And all this despite knowing there was nothing tangible to be afraid of. For a very long time the only thing that seemed to remotely stabilise me was to walk backwards and forwards along the snow-covered road by the woods and lake. 100 yards one way, then 100 yards the other. I did this for what must have been hours. I’d persuaded myself that I had to keep moving. If I stopped, the contrast between the speed of my heart and the inactivity of the rest of my body felt too extreme. Also, cold was better than warmth somehow. Surely, it would slow my heart down. Something primal had woken up and it wasn’t going to go back in its kennel. All my senses had sprung awake. I imagine this is what happens to animals in times of extreme danger. During those hours, the starch-white of the snow on the roads and fields represented a kind of total oblivion and so did the dark in the woods. It was only by constantly changing my focus from one to the other that I managed to stop myself from feeling overwhelmed. De Quincey writes of how ‘space swelled and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity’ under the influence of opium. When I looked out over the snowy fields I had the same feeling. But when I looked into the dark of the woods, I had an equally powerful feeling of claustrophobia, as I did when I considered returning to Town End or my cottage. Internal and external were equally terrifying and normal rational thought was little defence. It reminded me of something P had told me about psychosis: ‘when I’m mad I know in my rational mind that what I’m thinking is madness but still, my rational mind has no power over those thoughts.’ I’d experienced what that meant, at least.
This piece reworks a memoir that first appeared in Staple magazine (Spring 2006). Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book.
An account of the Rivelin Poetry Walk, Sheffield, Saturday 1st March 2014
As soon as I moved to Sheffield I needed somewhere to walk my dog, and not having a car it had to be nearby. So when someone I met in the street, on my third day in town, told me there was a river, I was keen to try it. I followed directions down to where the Rivelin passes behind the fire station just before joining the Loxley at Malin Bridge, and found, to my surprise, a corridor of stunning countryside a short walk from my home.
I’ve been dog walking here for fifteen years, and poetry has emerged, most of it from the mile and a half stretch of river between the ‘S bend’ – where the Rivelin tunnels under Rivelin Valley Road – and Rivelin Post Office, which isn’t a post office anymore, but marks the upstream end of the publicly accessible Rivelin Valley. For the poetry walk to happen on this section of river, and be reachable by public transport, it was necessary to begin at Crosspool shops. So it’s from there, soon after 1pm on a bright early spring afternoon, that just over twenty of us, including dogs and children, set off to cross Manchester Road, and walk among houses for ten minutes, till we’re at the countryside’s edge: a spot just off Hagg Lane with a panoramic view of Stannington on the next hillside, though the valley we’re heading for is obscured by trees. Horses in a small fenced field come over, but all we offer is words.
Brian Lewis of Longbarrow Press introduces The Footing, which is the book we’re publicising this afternoon. He also talks of the poetry walk practise that Longbarrow has established in Sheffield over the past six years. These events, he says, ‘enable the poem to move into the world, and the world to move into the poem.’ I then make my own brief introduction, explaining that the walk is called Contra Flow after one of the poems, but particularly for the story-told-backwards nature of its journey: we’ll be walking against the river’s flow so as to apprehend it more fully, meet it head on, take greater notice of it as a current, a force, an entity, than if we were to walk with its direction. Before we begin the descent into the valley I read a short poem.
Most of us take a sedate and surprisingly long meander round and down, some use a near vertical path, impossible without the opportune jutting-out of occasional rocks to form staggered steps. We convene in a riding school’s field, in sight of an old Water Board marker – a stone with initials carved on it – stuck up in the grass. Electric fencing prevents us approaching, but conservationist Graeme Hodgson points out the direction of another similar stone that some of us can just about see, and explains that they show the route of an old disused underground conduit that runs from the water treatment works all the way to Crookes Valley Park. The park was the site of reservoirs built in the eighteenth century to meet Sheffield’s water needs, but the town grew rapidly, due in part to the tremendous success of local industry, and by the mid nineteenth century was facing a major public health crisis. This led to the Water Board’s keenness to gain some control over the flow of water into the city. Meanwhile, millworks on the Rivelin were in decline due to their comparative remoteness, so in the 1850s the Water Board bought every mill-powered factory on this river, though industry continued for decades after.
We proceed down through the riding school, our progress noted by one horse in particular. After we cross Hagg Lane (again), the river’s long sigh becomes louder and more urgent, and even on such a crisp spring day, there is a tangible rise in humidity. We follow the mud track down to meet the Rivelin itself, cross it and gather by the distinctive round lake at the Hind Wheel factory site.
From my earliest dog walks here, I wondered about the iron and brickwork remnants. Then, as I gradually learned more of the industrial history they represent, I realised that by way of the exceptionally fast flow of local rivers, this landscape was responsible for Sheffield being what I already knew it to be: the steel capital of the world. The worked part of the Rivelin had twenty mills along it: the furthest out being Uppermost Wheel, a little beyond Manchester Road, while Grogram Wheel was the last before the Rivelin flows into the Loxley at Malin Bridge. All of these are still in evidence today.
The Hind Wheel is the oldest mill site on the Rivelin, recorded in use from 1581. The dam is where water was stored to feed, at various times, one or two wheels of ten or eleven foot diameter. They were installed at the place we’ve arrived at, between the weir and the dam, and they powered up to eight or ten cutlery grinding troughs, situated where scrubland now is on the other side of the footpath.
For a time, while gathering this information and trying to map it in my mind onto how the river is now, I couldn’t help but picture the industry as an almost rustic endeavour. I found it hard to grasp that the grinding wheels and troughs were housed in buildings; that all down the river there were huge factory sheds where workers stood or sat at gritstone grinding wheels to sharpen cutlery and tools. It would be loud, the air specked with metal and grit, sparks flying up and all the debris falling into the river. It was a proper industrial environment, like Attercliffe in East Sheffield – noisy, dirty, dangerous, full of noxious substances, the likelihood of grinding wheels exploding, and whatever other industrial accidents. There’d be bosses and workers all cutting corners, horses and ponies carrying goods, materials, etc.
So far, this thread of the Rivelin’s story hasn’t quite made it onto the finished page for me, though it is on its way, and features in a sequence I’ve written about the Loxley flood.
In the meantime, human use still litters the river: these days it’s leisure litter. Graeme (who’s also my partner) regularly brings home bagfuls of dumped bottles, cans, food wrappers, etc. Then there are fishermen, many of whom take their dangerous debris away; others don’t. One afternoon, I was at home when Graeme phoned to tell me he’d found a moorhen in distress right here on the grass by the water, and he was bringing her home to try to rescue.
Because they hide in plain sight, are safe when visible in trees and on water, birds provide some of the most dynamic entertainment and intrigue at the river. Moorhens, coots and mallard ducks, also: heron, kingfisher, jay, crow, various tits and finches, dipper, wagtail, robin and sparrow are regularly seen, other species occasionally too.
We walk around the dam and on a little further, till we divert a few paces into the scrub so as to be heard above the river’s gush. We stop by an ancient wall greened and softened by moss. This is the outer casing of Plonk Wheel dam which held water to power up to four or five grinding troughs in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Built in 1737, originally as a sawmill, this was one of the earliest works on the Rivelin to be decommissioned. It’s been unused since perhaps as far back as 1814, so is the part of the industrial river that nature’s had longest to claim back.
The river’s story falls into two chronologies: one being this human exploitation over the last five hundred years (longer on some other Sheffield rivers), during which time the harness it endured puts it in the realm of post-traumatic landscape. The other time scale is the long and deep natural history of the valley, encompassing life cycles on micro and macro levels: the layering of life and death that makes the ground we walk on, and the ancient shifts, flows and drops by which the river is here. More recently, I’ve helped a little with the resistance to Himalayan Balsam, and so realised how it could all look without those human interventions. And how much depends on the knitting of detail. The next poem focuses on a small natural event.
On from the Plonk Wheel, we follow the old stone path by a part of the river that seems quite eerie to me. It’s a straight fast section where the water is almost level with the land, so not seemingly remote; it nips along briskly in its own groove muttering as if it has a secret. On quiet days, there’s something about how the current meets weir-remains on the riverbed that produces a sound like people talking and laughing on afternoon radio just too low, or detuned, to quite catch what they’re saying.
As we pass Swallow Wheel dam, we look over the water to where the land slopes up toward the road, and anticipate the setting for the next poem. Himalayan Balsam is a problem throughout the Rivelin Valley, and several years ago this whole area was riddled with it. Though the task’s never over, Graeme has been instrumental in reversing its current colonisation attempts along a considerable stretch of the river, with many areas now yielding a new diversity of native vegetation.
Around the Swallow Wheel weir there are whirls and eddies, where sticks, leaves and bits of twig have gathered around a river-swept tree stump, shaped like a massive human heart, lodged in the shallows. Graeme describes how this mass of marauding timber was washed downriver in heavy rains a few years ago, how it rested for many months on the crest of Frank Wheel weir, upriver from here, then arrived at this spot sometime last autumn. Since then it’s formed a makeshift dam beside the path, and upgraded the trickle that always found a way round the far side, to a decent waterway, now the main flow. Back when the river drove the work, it would’ve been someone’s job to check and clear the channels, now it’s down to the Rivelin Valley Conservation Group who do a lot for the coherence of river and footpath.
We stop just before the impressive Wolf Wheel dam, at a place where the path opens out, and the river corners into an inviting beach with a huge section of felled tree laid out as a bench. There’s a long-established steep cobbled path leading down here from the road, which meets a bridge to where other footpaths cross the farmland beyond the river. We call this ‘electric bridge’ as it has cable attached underneath, presumably taking power to the fields.
Before the stone steps taking the footpath up to the dam is a patch of boggy ruin where the Wolf Wheel factory buildings were; in its day making work for up to seventeen razor and table knife grinders. Not long ago, this area was deeply colonised by Himalayan Balsam, and though it’s slimy and craggy to work there, Graeme has persevered and we don’t now expect to see more than a couple of stragglers this year.
Himalayan Balsam has much in common with that other invasive species Japanese Knotweed: both owe success to their quick-growing nature, and this shows in their shared bamboo-like stem structure. I recently read someone’s childhood story, from 1960s Bristol, where Japanese Knotweed was rampant on local wasteland. It seems that its exotic-looking stems led the group of children playing there to favour jungle warfare type games.
Perhaps it was for the same reasons that a similar thing occurred to me when I came out to help Graeme balsam-bash last year. On the steep bank that separates Wolf Wheel dam from the goyt, it was hot and tropically close, but up on the slope behind the Swallow Wheel dam, Graeme had been at work for several evenings, and had cut himself a grid of access paths through plants that were eight to ten foot tall. A little cooler here, but these carved-out straight lines seemed to describe human living space, gave the terrain a recently abandoned primitive urban atmosphere, and conjured stories of war atrocities in Vietnam, Malaysia and Burma.
Wolf Wheel dam is the biggest on the Rivelin, and some records say the factory here was active for nearly two hundred years, until 1918. Two houses visible from the path (when trees behind the dam are bare) on Rivelin Valley Road were built to live in by the Windle family who worked this mill in the first half of the nineteenth century.
After the narrow path beside the dam, we follow the river to Frank Wheel, and gather by where its buildings were. Walking upriver means we approach each mill site by its building end; this is because the power wheel was always attached to the downriver end of the dam that serves it. As those buildings all collapsed and disappeared long ago, we’re left in many cases with a leaky wall and boggy ground, which accounts for the moss furring at Plonk Wheel, and for the crisscross of rivulets through the Wolf Wheel ruin. And here, at Frank Wheel, it explains the swampy ground that used to pervade a wide area, and has now resolved into a shallow pond.
In 1864 Frank Wheel turned from the cutler grinding it had undertaken since 1737 to making paper. This was enabled by the availability of fresh water that travelled down from Third Coppice Wheel, the next wheel upriver, where paper was made from 1814 onwards. The change of business at Frank Wheel may have been precipitated by the wrecking of a Loxley paper mill in the 1864 flood, where raw paper was apparently strewn about the hillsides next morning.
Perhaps it’s the slimy wall and soft ground, or maybe it’s the dark near-horizontal trees, resembling massive skeletal insects, that overhang the dam up from the footpath, that give this place a melancholy atmosphere. As I’ve said, I found the Rivelin with my dog when I’d just moved to Sheffield, so I’ve known it longer than anyone I’ve met here, which is quite a friendship. That dog got old and died, of course, and a few weeks later I came to the river for the first time without her, trying to make sense of her absence.
On the brief walk from Frank Wheel to the next stopping place, we pass a huge lump of stone that squats at the river’s edge. It was one of the first natural things I noticed and looked out for here, and it gave me this poem.
To reach nearby woods we cross a tiny bridge, over where the goyt taking head-water to Frank Wheel dam starts. In 2007, when Sheffield got the floods, it was wild down here. All rain that hit any part of this valley had to reach this river. It poured down from the road, from the fields above it, down this hillside, and all the vegetation was lying down in the mud like it had been combed; anything loose was strewn about, making its way down to the lowest level. Around that time Graeme and I saw that the goyt was empty and wondered if we could do anything.
Water’s flow is of crucial importance to this day, as human needs everywhere compete with the desires of industry. The effects of public health measures taken by the Sheffield Water Board in the nineteenth century required augmenting as the twentieth century approached, and Graeme explains how these demands were met:
‘It was agreed that a water supply would be taken from the recently dammed Derwent river some five miles away. A tunnel was constructed, beginning in 1903, and taking six years to complete. This was enabled by the construction of several sighting towers across the moor, the remains of which can still be seen today. When the two sides finally met, they were only inches out of alignment. What’s more, the tunnel came in at £13,000 under budget. On the Rivelin side, a small gauge railway was constructed along Wyming Brook Drive to deliver materials from a supply dump on the A57. This was also one of the first civil engineering projects to use electricity as a power source.’
So, there’s plenty to suggest that this landscape has in turn been sculpted by the industry it gave rise to. But thinking now in a truly macro and ancient way, we can speculate as to how the river and valley were formed. From here we look across the river and up to farmland on the high ground beyond, then we turn and look up the other hillside to Rivelin Valley Road. We note that they share a level, and know that however long ago, up there was the ground: all this was filled in, underground.
Water makes its own bed which deepens as it flows through, eventually carving out whole valleys, but it needs a dip or crease if it’s to become a river. I’ve been out to near where the Rivelin begins and I can see that it arrives in several tiny streams, gathers itself and sets off to find its way here. There’s a notion that rivers which occur in this way follow the line of fallen trees, which collect water, then rot to form a channel. According to Alice Oswald, ‘dart’ is old Devonian for ‘oak’.
It’s amazing to see the land reclaim its own. We’re gathered by a tree that’s lain here for some time, and we can see how the tips of it have disappeared and are indistinguishable from the ground; eventually that will be the case for the whole trunk, maybe leaving a hump where the root ball was. We know this. But we don’t usually see the tree fall, like Graeme and I saw this one gradually succumb seven or eight years ago. We were walking along the path, perhaps just passing Boulder, when Graeme noticed its top twigs travelling through the scenery. He nudged me and pointed.
We get back on the path, and soon we’re where we can look across to see the last of Black Brook as it white-tumbles its rocky fall into the Rivelin. The tributary is named for the peat that used to be dug up round its source up at Lodge Moor, and its arrival here is responsible for Third Coppice Wheel being able to manufacture paper through nearly the whole of the 19th century.
For the clean water essential to such industry, they ran an aqueduct from the top of the waterfall over the river to factory buildings on this side. Somewhere on this steep bit of ground they had a paper mill, two drying houses, a rope shed, rolling house, store and stove, as well as domestic buildings for people and livestock. The Rivelin still turned the millwheel for power.
Protruding from the mud is the curved top of some kind of metal tank left behind by the papermakers. If it’s round, then it’ll be seven foot in diameter. Perhaps it was a boiler or water storage tank. Down by the river, the remaining brickwork gives a marvellous insight into the ingenuity of water redirection. And in the water you may witness an instance of the river flowing against itself: turbulence caused by riverbed disturbance, or by the torrent of Black Brook, or it could be the channelling remnants of its industrial past.
It’s fitting, then, to end this life-told-backwards walk with a poem about how the Rivelin gathers itself and sets off. Some years ago, we went to find the source of the Rivelin, and though I tried for a short while to convince myself otherwise, it was clear to me that I couldn’t write my poem from there, mainly because the terrain and atmosphere reminded me far too much of the opening pages of Alice Oswald’s Dart. On walks nearby at Fox Hagg, however, I’d seen unnamed tributaries of the Rivelin trickle and pour out of near-vertical craggy land. So instead I began the tale there.
I’m drawn to the idea that rivers, which now bring corridors of nature into city centres like Sheffield, were unwittingly responsible for delivering the industry that made them. Also by how these rivers begin fresh and free, but for many centuries were harnessed for work as they matured. Having a teenage son when we visited the source, and especially on seeing some of the meandering and messing about the Rivelin does before finding its groove, made comparison with the life of a young person – as yet not truly aware of how the yoke of work will channel his or her energy – seem pleasingly apt. But it’s not only in Sheffield that rivers brought us to town, and the macro comparison is far more compelling. Over the past several centuries humans have moved as a race from rural to city life; each decade we’ve removed ourselves further from nature’s jurisdiction, and it seems we may now risk losing our way on the earth, if we continue to turn away from nature’s guidance and nourishment.
The Rivelin tells all these stories.
In keeping with much other writing about Sheffield’s working rivers, I’ve used the word ‘dam’ to mean a confined body of water that now functions as a lake but used to store head-water for the power wheel.
Ball, Christine, Crossley, David, and Flavell, Neville. 2006. Water Power on the Sheffield Rivers (second edition). Sheffield: South Yorkshire Industrial History Society .
Rivelin Valley Conservation Group website. Click here to view and download the original map of the Rivelin Valley walk.
The Footing microsite. An anthology of specially commissioned poems on the theme of walking, with contributions from Angelina Ayers, James Caruth, Mark Goodwin, Rob Hindle, Andrew Hirst, Chris Jones and Fay Musselwhite (the latter’s Breach sequence includes the poems ‘Boulder’, ‘Contra Flow’, ‘Path Kill’ and ‘Impasse’). Click here to view further images of the Contra Flow river walk (taken by Emma Bolland).
The audio recordings of poems embedded in this post are also available to hear as a continuous sequence (click on the first track, ‘Eggs’, to begin the sequence of nine poems):
I am sitting in a pit in the back yard of my parents’ house. I am playing with a spade and a bucket and a few inches of sand. I am six years old. As I look up from the pit I see the house that my father has made. My father is a builder. I look down at the pit. It is not really a pit, the sides do not reach my ankles, the base is level with the concrete yard. When I push the spade down it buckles instantly. My father is a builder. He has filled the pit with builders’ sand. If I stand up the pit will disappear. I know this isn’t a beach. We are many miles inland. Yet I have built a shore from a memory of the shore. There is only room for me here.
We attain to dwelling, so it seems, only by means of building. The latter, building, has the former, dwelling, as its goal. Still, not every building is a dwelling. Bridges and hangars, stadiums and power stations are buildings but not dwellings; railway stations and highways, dams and market halls are built, but they are not dwelling places [...] These buildings house man. He inhabits them and yet does not dwell in them, when to dwell means merely that we take shelter in them.
Building Dwelling Thinking, Martin Heidegger
It seems that an uncoupling of ‘dwelling’ from ‘building’ has taken place, and that something intrinsic to ‘dwelling’ has been diminished or lost. Heidegger’s ontological engagement with ‘dwelling’ and ‘building’ (a recurring theme of his later work) and his consideration of the etymological root shared by the two words – the Old English and Old High German word buan means ‘to dwell’ and also ‘to build’ – leads him to argue for their reconciliation. Dwelling is not merely the end of building, according to Heidegger; it is the condition from which building proceeds, and can only proceed. We do not dwell because we have built, but we build and have built because we dwell. Yet building, in turn, makes dwelling possible; it produces the locations that shelter our lives and ‘gives form’ to dwelling. Heidegger concludes his essay with a detailed description of a farmhouse on the edge of the Black Forest, a farmhouse ‘built some two hundred years ago by the dwelling of peasants’. Its presence – which is to say its permanence – is achieved in ‘a distinctive letting-dwell’, the roof shielding its chambers against storms and snows, the chambers allowing for the ‘hallowed places’ of childbed and coffin.
It was in this farmhouse – a small, three-roomed cabin – that Heidegger wrote Building Dwelling Thinking in the summer of 1951. Adopted as his occasional residence in 1922, its rootedness and seclusion enabled and sustained the development of his thought for nearly fifty years. That Heidegger referred to it as ‘the hut’ is indicative of both its intimacy and its status as a refuge, its remoteness from the engineered and networked century signified by a lack of running water (and, for some years, electricity).
Perhaps all retreats are indebted to their respective ‘elsewheres’. A retreat, in the spiritual or recreational sense, implies a leave-taking, a journey, and an eventual return (to ‘normative’ social structures). Also implicit in the idea of the retreat is the promise of a simpler mode of being, enacted in a simple, stable site: a lodge, a cabin, a hut. For most of us, places of retreat are usually found closer to home, and are often located in the house or its grounds; the shed, the study, the prayer room. These sites – commonly, but not exclusively, designed and used by adult males – embed the idea and practice of the retreat within the house itself: microhabitats that enable a more intimate and ‘authentic’ being-in-the-world partly through (intentionally) limiting the physical parameters of that world. For many children, a place of retreat is often found elsewhere in the neighborhood, and is frequently defined by a supposed lack of visibility within (or authorization by) the ‘adult world’: secret spaces (marked out in woods, on waste ground and on common ground), sometimes only physically accessible to small children (via gaps in hedges and fences), open to exploration and risk. Unlike the adult ‘dens’, these sites are contingent and difficult to secure, and are liable to be disturbed or destroyed by weather, animals, adults, or other children.
Both the adult’s and the child’s ‘retreat’ offer a space (additional to and distinct from the ‘normative’ social space) in which we might experience an enlargement or development of our ideas of ‘being’. That this enlargement is enacted in a microhabitat is not the paradox that it might, at first, appear to be; for the experience of the microhabitat is always qualified by an awareness that the house and its resources, distantly (or not-so-distantly) underwriting the microhabitat, can be recalled without difficulty. Very few of us are reconciled to an existence in which the microhabitat is our only habitat. What of those of us who are?
In Building Dwelling Thinking, Heidegger surveys the structures that ‘are buildings, but not dwellings’: ‘bridges and hangars, stadiums and power stations’, to name but a few. How might we begin to speak of ‘dwellings’ that are not buildings?
In his collection Perduta Gente, the poet Peter Reading focuses on the fates of the ‘expendable’ homeless in late 1980s Britain, a people abandoned to makeshift and exigent shelters, paper-thin half-worlds on the edges of the built environment, cardboard cities beneath the concrete, glass and steel of central London. The book opens with a double vision of the Royal Festival Hall: the concert hall itself, in which we hear the last chords of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, and the hall’s undercroft, where some of the 50,000 homeless people estimated to be living in the area have settled, and which now offers up its own ‘last movement’.
Cardboard and newspaper are the materials from which many of these dwellings are improvised, in pointed contrast to the planned and built spaces above and around them. Newspapers also supply Reading with a number of the ‘found texts’ that appear throughout Perduta Gente, an unstable arrangement of letters, diary entries, scribbled notes, official documents and advertisements for luxury penthouses and derelict barns (the latter briefly occupied by one of the book’s protagonists). Within this patchwork of papers are fragments of ‘secret documents’ pertaining to radioactive leaks (the documents are apparently genuine, and were procured and reproduced illegally), seemingly passed to the author by a former nuclear physicist who, after being exposed to ‘a radio dose’, finds himself unemployable and living in a squat. The theme of nuclear contamination becomes more pronounced and more closely intertwined with the theme of homelessness through the book’s fragmentary collages. Writing in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster of 1987, Reading uses the example of an endangered microhabitat – the disquieting but all-too-commonplace predicament of the destitute – to illustrate the even greater imperilment of European habitats by environmental catastrophe.
Similarly, the continual shifts between the ‘macro’ and the ‘micro’ heighten our sense of individual lives – and habitats – under acute pressure. The mode is one of steady, unrelenting reduction of the circumstances in – and of the materials from – which these fragile microhabitats are salvaged. The ‘derries’ (derelict houses), squats, sties and barns are either demolished or redeveloped and resold, their unauthorized occupants evicted. The ‘lone hag gippo’ whom we encounter in a (progressively degraded) caravan at the start of the book ends her days in a cardboard box, ‘etiolated and crushed’. The homeless are forced into smaller and smaller spaces, the shrinking surplus of the built environment (as more space is seized by developers), and are obliged to furnish these spaces with the discards of the consumer environment. Refuges are assembled from refuse, only to be reclaimed as refuse, sometimes with the deceased occupants inside. The homeless fare no better on the coast: their flimsy shelters, ‘wedged in the clefts of the dunes’, are discovered by the wardens of a nature reserve. The Gente perduta return from their beachcombing to find ‘a yellow and black JCB / scrunch[ing] shacks into a skip.’
The Isle of Sheppey lies just off the north coast of Kent, some 46 miles east of London. It is a Saturday evening in July 2003 and I have been walking for 12 hours, tracing the course of Milton Creek near Sittingbourne to the point, a few miles north-east, where its silt and flow merges with that of the Swale, a thin, grey channel dividing Sheppey from the mainland, forded by a low vertical-lift bridge carrying road, rail and pedestrian traffic. On crossing the Swale, I sink between the island’s first lines of defence: a ridge of baked earth and a flooded ditch, the lines parting south of Queenborough, its marina flanked by spreading works, a river wall hardening into a sea wall that runs north to Sheerness port, concrete raised against the tidal Thames and the North Sea. As the land slumps east, so does the sea wall, until the cliffs of Warden assert their own protection; below the sea wall, the island’s remaining pill-boxes, tide-lapped, listing, losing ground.
I am somewhere between the towns of Minster and Warden and I have nowhere to rest, the light having less than an hour left in it. If I turn south I am likely to find myself on the road to Eastchurch, beyond which lie the island’s three prisons, rising just above the creeks, fleets and marshes that wind into a nature reserve, before falling back into the Swale. If I continue east along the coastal path it will be caravan parks, shrunken lets, empty but defended. I descend from the path to the shoreline, daylight silvering to moonlight, cliff-edges bulking to my right. After an hour or so, I notice an opening in the cliffs and start to push inland. As I approach it, the opening falls into cliff-shadow; I am unsure of my footing, and I turn back to the shore.
I turn back to the shore, taking two or three wrong turns in the dark, slowly piecing together the outline of a small structure built into the foot of the cliff. I walk towards it and see that it is a shelter, timbered roof, two sides panelled, two sides open to the coast. I step inside it, stooping slightly, and rest on the low, narrow bench that runs around the panelled sides. There is room for perhaps two adults, or four small children. There is no litter. The space is clean and well-constructed; there is not enough light to show me how old it is. As I settle into the shelter it seems to take possession of the coast. Perhaps it belongs to a family in one of the detached houses set back from the cliff. It has nothing of the town in it apart from a large white rubble bag folded under the bench. The rubble bag is empty but for a few specks of aggregate. I climb into it but it is the wrong shape and so I climb out again. I look down at the sand floor of the shelter. It is the sandpit left over from my childhood, rebuilt to fill someone else’s childhood, and no longer fitting the space I have made for it.
An earlier version of The Sandpit (‘Camping without Tents’) was among the papers presented at the Occursus symposium on Microhabitats at Bradley’s Cafe, Sheffield, Fri 28 March 2014 (click here for the full programme). The full text of Martin Heidegger’s Building Dwelling Thinking (tr. Alfred Hofstadter) appears here. A recording of the full text of Peter Reading’s Perduta Gente (made by Reading for the Lannan Foundation in 2002) is available as a free audio podcast here.
Heidegger, Martin. 1951. ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ (in Poetry, Language, Thought). Tr. Hofstadter, Alfred. 1971. New York: Harper Colophon.
Reading, Peter. 1989. Perduta Gente. London: Secker & Warburg.
In The Modern Poetic Sequence, M.L. Rosenthall and Sally M Gall identify the sequence as being the form most able to go ‘many-sidedly into who and where we are subjectively’. In their view, the sequence springs from the same pressures on sensibility that provoked poetic experiments with shorter forms – a response to possibilities of language opened up by the pressures of cultural and psychological crisis. ‘More successfully than individual short lyrics, however, [the sequence] fulfils the need for encompassment of disparate and powerfully opposed tonalities and energies…’
I’ve read this book as a way of developing my understanding of the possible structural dynamics of the poetic sequence. My sense of the text is that it has illuminated the great 20th Century modernist sequences more than it has those that follow – especially those falling under the wide umbrella of post-modernism. Published in 1983, it’s unable to address the oeuvre of a poet like Peter Reading – whose practice seems to absorb techniques learned from both traditions, whilst not fitting neatly into either. For me, Reading is a benchmark poet, offering a trinity of classical line, modernist juxtaposition and a post-modern flair for ventriloquism and pastiche. His intertextual sequences Last Poems and Chinoiserie are part of the inspiration for ‘Chinese Lanterns’ in my collection West North East. The other chief influence has been the Ezra Pound of ‘Cathay’, ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’, and the Chinese cantos. It strikes me that both Reading and Pound developed a finer range of tones through their versions of classical Chinese verse.
I view ‘Chinese Lanterns’ as a post-crisis sequence. Though it aims to encompass disparate and opposed tones and energies, it does so in a playful way. Nevertheless, I’ve taken great care arranging modulations of tone and voice. Similar principles to those applied in ‘Fugue’ (the first of West North East‘s three sections) were explored. A difficulty was that of mapping and visualisation. How could I hold all the tonal streams and nodes of such a large sequence in my head at once? One solution was the construction of various tables. I’d map a potential order using a table, and then construct a makeshift pamphlet that would help me assess the sequence as a reading experience.
The first and last poems of the sequence always seemed clear to me: ‘Li Po’s Note to Self’ introduces the main speaker and the concept of the sequence; ‘Marcel Theroux stops me…’ provides an exit and a form of Afterword. I felt convinced that the two walking poems, ‘Moving with Thought’ and ‘A Trance-Walk with Musõ Soseki’ (each a sequence within the larger sequence), should be situated fairly centrally. They combine the calm of trance with physical movement, and hence provide a stable hub or axis.
Through reading and re-reading mock-ups, it also occurred to me that some groupings worked well together, whilst others didn’t. The Hillsborough street poems feel more substantial when read consecutively, whilst the verse-letters offer tangents that need to be dispersed more equably throughout the sequence – mimicking, perhaps, the intermittent correspondence in an individual life.
Care was taken in managing the various disparities. None should be allowed to congeal and clot the flow. Scatty jumps and juxtapositions maintain variation. Displacement must be balanced with readjustment: readjustment challenged by new displacements. The sequence must fidget between drunken intoxication and clear-eyed sobriety; between Taoist and Confucian; between the local and the exotic.
Serious and pastiche reference to various other sages and poets (Tu Fu, Rumi, Socrates, Wallace Stevens, Issa and Musõ Soseki) develops the sequence’s intertextual dimension: its reference to other eras and cultures, hopefully layering and deepening the sequence’s imaginative and self-critical scope. Li Po is displaced in time, as well as space. The ordering has been constructed to reflect a strengthening of confidence in this mode, ‘Honeysuckle Blooming in the Wildwood Air’ and ‘Li Po’s Letter to Rumi’ being more demanding of the reader’s credulity than the observational poems that open the sequence. Having said all this, I still feel an impulse to throw the whole thing down the stairs and let chance surprise me into seeing new possibilities. Were the sequence a slide show, I’d programme subtle and random variations into each loop – something not afforded by the spine binding of a book.
Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book (and to order copies). Clegg discusses tone, idiom and displacement in ‘Chinese Lanterns’ in his recent interview with Elaine Aldred; click here to read the full interview. Audio recordings of Peter Reading’s collected works, including the sequences Last Poems and Chinoiserie, are now available to hear on the Lannan Foundation site: click here for the full index.
Listen to Matthew Clegg reading an extract from ‘Chinese Lanterns’ below:
The banal might be described in two distinct ways. Firstly, as the ordinary magnified to an extreme degree, the ordinary as an extra-mundanity. Secondly, banality might be described as the ordinary without adornment, a sneak preview of the passivity all objects possess at their core. I want to describe and discuss how photography often battles between this contra weight of the banal and the impact this has had on my own practices as a photographer.
In 2011 I began photographing a series of walls. I conceived of these initially as places where history had happened, walls with divots from crisis, event walls, trauma walls. However, as I began to invest more deeply into the series, these first thoughts about the photographs I had taken and their meaning began to lose weight. Somehow I just couldn’t get the pictures to mean in a faithful way. The more the photographs sought the site of their historical trauma, the more unstable (or, rather, unconvincing) they became. Perhaps, I thought during those early trysts, a ‘blue plaque’ system might be needed for each site, an extra-descriptive system to baluster this representational lack. Eventually it dawned on me that in order to represent the emotive condition of things now, it would be necessary to go back to their original source, I mean back beyond the point of trauma. Of course, we can’t do that.
It was only some time later, having virtually abandoned the series, that the problem became more acute. There was nothing to see, history had either been cleared up or pushed away somewhere much more clinical, into the plethora of museums or classrooms. As I began to take theory and practice as a simultaneous and contradictory will to photograph, I returned again to the images of walls with a renewed sense of purpose. Foucault describes this shift in thinking a little more succinctly: “It would be false to say, as the Maoist implied, that in moving to this practice, you were applying your theories.” No, I didn’t follow history into the museum (a different kind of banality) nor take its practices back into the world, but remained to photograph its lack, the traces of its loss. I knew this would cause other, separate problems. Perhaps the viewer would have to work harder to find meaning, that perhaps without ‘siting’ or signposting an event the photographs might simply be dull or – worse – meaningless. Either way, it had become impossible for me to search for ‘content’ in the subject through a perceived academic methodology. I wanted to stay where I was and photograph what I knew.
The resulting set of twelve images, photographed over one weekend, seemed to move closer to this ‘lack’. If photography is supposed to ‘mean’ by capturing the decisive moment, then these photographs seemed to do the opposite. I attached a generic title to the images – ‘Up Against a Brick Wall’ – to describe both the literal and the terminal extent of this morass. After publishing the photographs in a public forum, the lack of interest seemed only to confirm what I had suspected. Where these remained in a cultural backwater, unloved, other photographs I was publishing simultaneously seemed to gather support. This only added to my feeling that there is a prejudice against photography as a fully functioning representational tool, that history is rarely recognised through banality.
If every photograph has to ‘mean’, if that is the very essence of the photograph, then are these ‘unsited’ walls simply an anomaly, an exception to the rule? Was the lack of interest because they hadn’t enough meaning attached to them or that their meaning had not been fully realised? As I began to think a little more deeply I realised no, these photographs weren’t simply an aberration, an exercise in futility. Rather that throughout the history of photography itself, the struggle against representation and the manifestation of its loss has been continuously fought over.
An early precursor of this struggle might be Roger Fenton’s photograph of the Crimean war. The cannonballs almost blend into the rock and boulder landscape. Not so much a witness to the world, but a struggle against its banality. Or, shifting to the contemporary canon, a recent example might be Paul Graham’s Ceasefire, a series of photographs based around the troubles in Northern Ireland. What we see at first is a cloudscape, then, as the eye adjusts to meaning, at the bottom left of the photograph appears a different kind of cloud. We’re left to surmise from there. The point being that both Fenton and Graham disrupt the coda of representation; landscapes become marred, but almost imperceptibly, too much meaning versus too little.
Perhaps another way to describe banality in relationship to photography would be to see it as exposing the artifice of the new. What I mean by this is that photography often ‘means’ more after it has been culturally processed as meaning. For example, in Richard Prince’s Cowboy series, the images are re-photographed, re-posited to the point where the cowboy myth becomes simultaneously banal and (in)credible again as myth. William Eggleston is a master of refocusing the viewer on the already banal. He puts his camera into a showroom-clean oven to show use as useless. The banal as sublime and its counter-weight, the sublime as banal, seem here to go hand in hand. The first is easier to imagine, showing something in a new light, exposing it beyond the advertisers’ remit. But to show the sublime as banal? A much harder trick to pull off.
Karl Hurst‘s Flickr photosets can be viewed here. This essay first appeared on his blog in October 2012. Details of his publications with Longbarrow Press (as Andrew Hirst) are available here. His sequence ‘Three Night Walks’ appears in the walking-themed anthology The Footing (Longbarrow Press).
From the corner you could go anywhere, Leveson Street,
Warren Street, under the arches of Norfolk Bridge, over the river…
This is a place in Attercliffe, Sheffield – an intersection, where the narrator of one of my poems in The Footing, and the historical subjects he is tracking, raise their eyes to the possibilities of the urban horizon. It’s a point on a map; it is also a moment: a place reached, a pause in which the narrator’s present (which was mine, sometime in 2010) collides with the present of a gang of men, in the spring of 1925, walking away from a crime – a fatal attack on an Attercliffe man, for which two of them, a few weeks later, were to hang.
The title of my sequence is ‘Flights and Traverses’, chosen because I wanted to indicate how the poems describe movement away from a point (the ‘flight’) and also the phenomenon of that movement (the ‘traverse’ or crossing). But the sequence also has a subheading: 5 Itineraries; and it had an earlier, working title: ‘A Cartography’. Both suggest the original motive: I wanted to follow footsteps – but I was also interested in the imaginative possibilities of mapping and the itinerary.
‘Itinerary’ has its roots in the Latin for ‘travelling’ and is usually understood to mean either a plan or a record of a journey: it can therefore refer to an experience anticipated or recollected. There is also something of the professional: it traditionally refers to a day’s travel especially for the purpose of judging, or preaching, or lecturing. In many senses, it is a ‘setting out’.
When we consider the word ‘itinerant’, however, the intention is less about professing, more about exchange. We think of salesmen or peddlers: tinkers: wanderers: tramps. A story or song from the road for a fag or a sup. There is something, perhaps, about a bargain or a contract. This is implicit in the flights and traverses I’ve chosen to map out. A man pays his way out of his homeland at the toll house on Grindleford Bridge:
Where are you going?
Far as I can.
When will you get there?
Where have you come from?
Over the moor.
Will you return?
He accepts the deal; and intrigued, taken in, I follow. Here is a story: a narrative: a passage from something known to something unknown.
I have a memory of childhood: a halt on a moorland track, my dad ‘getting the map out’, taking bearings, making judgements. We are at the moment between getting lost and finding a way forward – between the original itinerary and a new route, made at that moment and not until then. I find this moment entirely creative, and settling, and inspiring. We might be on a track thousands of years deep, but in passing along it, we are itinerant: we are at a point between the journey recorded and the journey anticipated. And when we stop and take bearings and judge our surroundings, we acknowledge this. I now stop with my family and ‘get the map out’.
There’s a milepost on the old turnpike road over Houndkirk Moor. What you can’t see, obviously, is the other side – which, due to the weather, is a pitted surface, entirely illegible.
On the north face just runes and weather.
My ancestor Richard Marsden, traversing the Moor and at this point, in sight neither of the valley he grew up in, or of the town to which he was headed, is at this point itinerant. He must make a new map.
On midsummer’s day in 1842, an Attercliffe woman walked out of her house, set herself behind the coffin of her son and started the slow walk through Sheffield to the General Cemetery. The cortege passed 50 thousand people, come to observe the procession of the Chartist Samuel Holberry, broken by hard labour in Northallerton Gaol and dead at 27.
When I set out on this journey, the maps I consulted were relics: the Blitz of 1940 and the go-getting 1960s had done for the medieval town. Had I found a record of the route taken – most likely along Norfolk Street, Union Street and South Street, then up Cemetery Road – I would have felt compelled to follow it: The Crucible, Café Rouge, The drills and hoardings on The Moor. Fortunately, I found only the barest details: a connection between two points, and an understanding that the route must have crossed the river at Lady’s Bridge, where there had been a travellers’ chapel,
a plate by the chancel where you’d drop a coin for safe journey,
the water light through the glass
pattering the walls
I had the opportunity, then, to make my own path: to drift: to become itinerant. I could go off-grid, turn corners into quiet, slower route-ways, peer through smashed windows.
They turn into Eyre Lane,
its workshops full of shades.
These were his neighbours;
they have stilled their wheels
and files for him.
I could stop and notice things growing – now in the middle of the city, then at its edge, the sounds of its industry still proximate to the rush of the Porter Brook:
In an alley near South Lane
someone has planted flowers
in drums and pails:
poppies, daisies, nasturtiums;
sweet peas, pink and lilac
against the black brick.
Over the Brook – now, over the Ring Road – I should have climbed the hill to the old gate on Cemetery Road, with its worm and leaf mould all ruin and renewal. But, honouring Holberry, I wanted to make a way to the grander entrance on Cemetery Avenue: to cross the Porter Brook once more, formally this time, paying my dues of passage into the underworld, from where I could look back, take stock:
Now they can see where they came,
the line of people all the way back
to the town. Still they come.
There are other ways of map-making. In 1932, my great-uncle Harold died in the South Yorkshire Asylum – later called the Middlewood Hospital, and now a housing development which, with its tidiness and discreet cameras, aspires to gated status.
I never knew I had a great-uncle Harold. He spent most of his life in institutions – his learning difficulties presumably too much for the wider world to handle – and died in this one aged 27.
This was the first journey I took – a short, harrowing walk from his parents’ house off Hillsborough Corner up to Middlewood. It is the most personal section of ‘Flights and Traverses’: not only because of Harold, but because I recognise these terraced streets:
Now there is the click of a back door,
the chitter of a budgerigar.
Then you are hurrying from one of these houses,
hair brushed, tangled feet booted,
your undone laces tripping behind you.
There is something inevitable, too, about the journey which, though in terms of its topography is a gentle climb, is emotionally and psychologically a descent. I follow Harold towards his end, beyond the tram terminus; and I walk back – and down – through a bit of my own past:
This was once my territory, that hill with the GR
post box at the bottom, school at the top,
the park where I rushed along one day, my mind,
gleeful and vicious, running after me. Middlewood,
childhood cant, that thing in all our cellars,
I shouldn’t have dared. I pay out my breaths
like twine, each step shortening.
I expected ghosts at the Asylum, in the bottle-green shade of the Cemetery, by the milepost on Houndkirk Moor. I got glimpses: stilled vices through workshop windows, arches upturned on the skin of the river, the ghost of myself in the glass of Saville House. Walking through an urban landscape, particularly, enables you to accrue perspective: there is a traversing of time as well as space. You lose yourself, take note, adjust your bearings, set out again. Cutting away from current thoroughfares, you pass into other ways, older, narrower, quieter. You uncover or discover gennels, doorways, rat runs: even when you are tracing itineraries which are irrevocable, you are making new paths, unfurling the twine of a narrative by which to mark your way back.
Where I finish in ‘Flights and Traverses’ is a picture of chaos:
Stained glass exploding into Campo Lane,
corn from a slashed sack.
The map shows where, in December 1940, the bombs fell, which was everywhere, just about; but even this catastrophe can be narrated. The bombers came from a point in space, departed for another; the bombs fell thinly on the leafy places, thickly on the old centre; they fell crashing into the silence of the school
but spared the church,
its praying faithful, its sinners.
When I get off the bus on the Hathersage Road, it is a winter afternoon, the sun near to setting. The shires range southwards, hills, woods, fields. North, across the boundary stream, the road begins its descent into Sheffield. My long shadow stretching out in front of me,
I start down.
Rob Hindle’s Flights and Traverses appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. ‘Cartography, Flights and Traverses’ is the text (and accompanying images) of a presentation by Hindle that opened the launch of The Footing at The Shakespeare, Sheffield, 25 November 2013. Click here to visit Rob Hindle’s website.
In 31 Songs, Nick Hornby talks about listening to a song over and again, the need to solve it, to listen until it’s given up its mysteries. And then what? It gets old, worn out? This doesn’t seem to worry Paul McCartney, who still turns up every Queen’s birthday to close the proceedings with an extended “Hey Jude”. If you’re going to say you like The Beatles, and I do, you should maybe talk about “Revolution Number 9” more than “A Hard Day’s Night”, if you want to seem culturally engaged, rather than out for easy (and so, meaningless?) monophonic gratification. For certain, some songs give up their mysteries less readily than others, and “Revolution Number 9” remains unresolved for me. But “A Hard Day’s Night” – that perfect polished nugget of pure pop in two-and-a-half minutes – retains some mystery, doesn’t it? The opening chord, its twangy dissonance, has generated decades of debate, from 12-string conspiracy theories to mathematical analysis. It’s one of the most recognizable sounds in pop history, and although I’ve heard other songs open similarly, I don’t remember what they’re called or who they’re by (Pixies aside). They’re only memorable for not being “A Hard Day’s Night”.
“Glory be to God for dappled things” has always struck me as one of the most memorable opening lines around. I think it’s to do with the pomp and glee of “Glory be to God”, against the earthiness of “dappled things”. It’s almost funny, isn’t it? Except Gerard Manley Hopkins’s line doesn’t make me laugh; it makes me happy. I’d say the line loudly, whenever I was out running on Rivelin Valley Road and starting to feel my legs getting tired. It perked me right up. Or when I’m worrying about life, the universe and everything, it works then, too. Mindfulness is all the rage these days, and as with anything en trend, has had a whole money-making industry grow up around it. But mindfulness is free, and this seems as good an approach as any. It takes my mind out of myself and throws it at the dappled stuff in front of me. Sometimes there are skies of couple-colour. There’s rarely a brinded cow, however.
That contrast within the opening line embodies the whole idea of “dappled”. It sets the poem up as an example of its subject, and is an ode to the nature of beauty, as much as to God. These two themes are inseparable for Hopkins, but praising God gives me the willies, in case the lapsed Catholic in me bursts into hymn. You can insert whatever does it for you, if God isn’t your thing, and still get the thrill of it. Beauty is for everyone, and Hopkins is pretty good on the topic. In his On the Origin of Beauty: A Platonic Dialogue, an Oxford professor talks about a sycamore leaf; that the beauty of it isn’t in the symmetry of its shape (so when you fold it lengthways, one side answers the other), or the asymmetry of the diametrically opposed leaves (big leaves diametrically opposite small leaves), but in the relation of one aspect to the other. I had some trouble picturing this, and, to my shame, had to Google “sycamore leaf”. But the next day, I went for a run round Endcliffe Park, and guess what I noticed all over the path, not to mention “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls”.
Those compounds of his are special, like he wants you to experience everything about a thing all at once. The compounds and the rhymes woven through the poem create this tight, coherent whole in ten and a bit lines – or two-and-a-half minutes in pop terms. Perhaps its own coherence and memorability, its relative accessibility, undermines itself. Perhaps there’s more mystery to solve in “Wreck of the Deutschland”? But “Pied Beauty” still retains mystery for me. Reading it now, I notice that I’ve never thought about “fathers-forth”, but I’ve an image of God shimmying to the front of stage (looking like Ted Neeley from Jesus Christ Superstar), as he presents all of creation with a ta-da!
And then those brackets in the eighth line: “Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)”. I’m generally suspicious of brackets in a poem; they seem to lack conviction by their own parenthetic nature. For a long time, I wanted to ignore the aside, like when you go to a reading and the poet interrupts themselves to qualify the bit they just read with a shrug or anecdote. Maybe it jars because the “I” is barely present elsewhere – but I’m starting to think that’s the point. Self-effacement is in keeping with Hopkins’s Jesuit doctrine, but I think he’s so fired up about his subject, he’s (accidentally?) bubbled over onto the page. I might love him for this, and even though I’ve been ignoring him, in effect, that human intervention is probably why I keep going back to the poem. It stops it being just a psalm to God or nature, and makes it about the man, how he negotiates his relationship with them, which is such an abiding experience: how can it get old?
Angelina Ayers’ sequence The Strait appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. You can read ‘Pied Beauty’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins here. Ayers discusses Sylvia Plath’s ‘Morning Song’ in ’31 Songs’ (an earlier post in this series). Click here to access Angelina Ayers’ website.