Black Country

Here is another brief extract from my book Westering that was published earlier this year by Saraband. This time it concerns my transit on foot through the territory of the Black Country that lies to the west of Birmingham. I have included a few black and white images to illustrate the text here. These are not in the book itself but might help give a flavour of what the area is like.

Extract from Chapter 15 – City of Metal

Here was the Black Country and now I was walking on sunshine: the sunshine that lay captured in carbon in the earth below. The sunshine trapped by swampy tropical forests of trees and ferns that, over tens of millions of years of compression, had transformed to a solid energy-rich fuel source; the black rock that set the Industrial Revolution in motion around two hundred years ago – a period of time that on the geological scale of things was little more than a blink of an eye.

Thanks to the thirty-foot-thick seam of coal beneath the ground, Oldbury was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. Four blast furnaces operated in its vicinity between the 1780s and 1860s but, as the fortunes of coal mining and steel-making declined in the region in the late 19th century, brick-making took over, exploiting the deposits of Etruria marl that were also found in abundance beneath the coal seam. The town’s underlying geology was generous to a fault: the clay was perfect for manufacturing Staffordshire blue brick, a hard-wearing, non-porous brick ideal for use in foundations, bridges, steps and tunnels – the essential hardware of Black Country business. Tar distilling, chemical manufacturing and boiler-making industries also took root in the district later on. The inevitable result was a besmirched landscape – a ‘black country’ – an environment littered with spoil heaps, abandoned quarries, cavernous marl pits and unbridled chemical pollution. In its heyday, the Black Country had been highly productive – a soot-blasted territory of glowing foundries and clanging metal – but now that energy has drained away.

Extract from Chapter 16 – Black over Bill’s Mother’s

At Brierley Hill I came across a new waterfront development complex that was named, somewhat unimaginatively, The Waterfront. It still did not seem quite finished and many of the individuals milling round the car park sported hard hats and high-visibility jackets: surveyors, property developers and the like – the storm troopers of real estate. Merry Hill, a little further along the canal, had a large hotel advertising FAIRYTALE WEDDINGS, a promotion reinforced by a giant love heart inscribed WILL YOU MARRY ME? On the opposite bank was Brewer’s Wharf, a Victorian pub complex that looked as if it had been there since the time that navvies had come over from Ireland to dig the canals. Its tall chimney bore the legend BANKS’S in bold white lettering. Banks’s, the Wolverhampton ale that quenched many a nail-maker’s thirst in these parts – it seemed a shame that the secretive Banksy could not be employed to make some sort of joint venture with his own art here: a Banksy Banks’s.

The vast Merry Hill shopping centre is probably the Black Country’s biggest draw for anyone with a car and a credit card. It has been in business long enough – since the 1980s – for the shopping complex to be as much a fixture on the mental map of those who live in the area as somewhere with deeper historic entitlement, such as Dudley Castle. More like a diurnal new town than a shopping complex, Merry Hill is defiantly self-absorbed – a world unto itself that has little to do with the canal that passes it by or the industrial heritage of the area. Its retail workers know nothing of lung-clogging coal dust or searing hot metal. Their world is one of special offers, stock-taking and refund protocol.

Further along the canal, Nine-Locks Bridge marks the beginning of Delph Locks, a flight of locks – originally nine but eight now – that cascades downhill to the lower country around Stourbridge, whose sprawl of rooftops could now be seen below.

At the bottom was a pub appropriately called The Tenth Lock. This was prime territory for murder ballads. The dark watery world of the locks was a fine setting for tales of drowning and lovers’ trysts gone badly wrong: a Victorian world of smoke and reeking factories, of hard lives; a polluted monochrome world, of choking industrial fogs that played tricks with the vision and mind.

Westering

My book Westering is published this week by the award-winning independent publisher Saraband. Beginning in Great Yarmouth and meandering to Aberystwyth, the book describes a coast-to-coast journey on foot traversing the Fens, East Midlands, Birmingham, the Black Country and central Wales.

Here is a brief extract from the first chapter. It should be noted that the accompanying photographs shown here are NOT included in the book.

Extract from Chapter 1: Red Herrings

From our high viewpoint it was clear that Yarmouth developed on a sand spit, a narrow finger of land squeezed between the North Sea and the River Yare that points accusingly southwards in the direction of Lowestoft. Modern housing and light industry have long filled in the space between the river and the sea, and an industrial estate now surrounds the base of the column, but when the monument was first erected in the second decade of the 19th century, to commemorate Nelson’s maritime victories, it stood alone on a fishing beach, isolated from the town to the north.

Looking south, we could see the mouth of the River Yare at Gorleston. Just beyond were the Suffolk border and a cluster of holiday villages before the sprawl of Yarmouth’s historic rival, Lowestoft, Britain’s most easterly town. Further south still was the prim resort of Southwold, which, like its neighbours Dunwich and Walberswick, was once a mighty port before silting and coastal erosion took their toll. To the east lay the taut curve of the North Sea – a wave-flecked, grey-green expanse that diminished to a hazy vanishing point. A cluster of wind turbines, their blades almost immobile on this calm late-summer day, stood someway offshore at Scroby Sands. Across the water, far beyond the horizon, unseen even from our elevated viewpoint, were the polders and dykes of the Netherlands, a country that once had close economic ties with this easternmost part of England.

Some impulse had me imagining a time before the rising sea levels that followed the last glacial period, a time when a land bridge still connected Britain to Europe. Doggerland, as the territory has become known, now lies beneath the waves but it was a land of plenty just a few thousand years ago, roamed by mammoths, bison and small bands of Mesolithic hunters.

A little way beyond the entrance to Wellington Pier stands the intricate Victorian wrought-iron framework of the Winter Gardens, the last remaining building of its type in the country. Impressive but now empty and neglected, the structure resembles a giant multi-storey conservatory in need of a paint job: a potential future Eden Project in waiting (this is still one council member’s dream), if only the necessary funding could be raised. Although it looks perfectly at home here on the North Sea coast, the building was a blow-in from the southwest. Originally constructed in Torquay, it stood in that resort for twenty-four years before being carefully dismantled and barged around the coast in 1903 to take up residence here alongside Yarmouth’s then brand-new Wellington Pier.

Across the road from the Winter Gardens, the Windmill Theatre has a facsimile set of sails attached to its façade in impersonation of the Moulin Rouge in Paris, although it is doubtful if the floor show here was ever quite as racy as its French equivalent. Back in the 1950s, this building – which started life as The Gem, the country’s first electric picture house – hosted George Formby summer residencies. The Norfolk coast and the nearby Broads had become a second home for Formby in his twilight years when, rather than old-fashioned variety, public taste was starting to demand a more exciting, rock n’ roll flavour for its entertainment. But the entertainer and his ukulele always had a loyal following here on the Norfolk coast, where tastes were more down to earth. It did not take much imagination to turn the clock back to Yarmouth’s heyday and picture a grinning, Brylcreemed Formby strolling along this very same seafront in pullover and baggy flannels as he dreamed up double-entendres in the briny air.

Much of the Yarmouth that would have been familiar to Formby is still evident: the beach, the town’s ‘Golden Mile’ of amusement arcades, the miniature golf courses and pleasure gardens, the fast food outlets that gift the seafront a pungent cocktail of chip fat and fried onions (with notes of biodegraded phytoplankton from the beach and horse shit from the pony-drawn landaus). Such attributes are not as popular as they once were, but the town’s latter-day decline is the familiar story of many English seaside resorts in the late 20th century. The beach is still as pristine as ever, but a number of the town’s once-flourishing entertainment palaces now lie empty and abandoned. The Empire was one such place, a former theatre that lacked both audience and, until recently, a full complement of letters above its art nouveau doorway, its former terracotta cladding stripped and once-proud colonial name reduced by weathering and gravity to read ‘EMPI’. Although touted by some as an ideal venue for a future art gallery, it still stands empty and unloved.

Blakean Spirit

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I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. 

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

William Blake London

Last week I paid a visit to London to go and see the Blake exhibition at Tate Britain. Every visit to London – not so frequent these days – seems to reveal yet more new building projects, more cranes on the skyline, more high blue fences. Multinational finance keen to invest in real estate seems intent on filling in any remaining gaps, such as they are, with new buildings – a new transistor soldered onto the crowded circuit board that is hi-rise central London. Each new piece of architectural bling serves as a totem to (someone else’s) capital. Meanwhile, the people on the street, who hurry between meetings, or stand hunched smoking and phone-swiping outside revolving glass doors, appear indifferent to the edifices that rise above them as if they were little more than fill-in detail on an architect’s plan.

The affect can be alienating. I cannot relate to any of this: my own navigation of the city depends on outdated mental maps and more familiar topography. Peering through the few remaining gaps in the crowded cityscape I am at least able to identify some landmarks by their distinctive form or superior height – the London Stadium fronted by Anish Kapoor’s helter-skelter Orbit sculpture, the Shard, the Gherkin, the pyramid-topped One Canada Square. But even these relatively familiar sights are less old friends than over-enthusiastic schoolboys with their hands up – ‘Me, Sir! Me, Sir!’

I have to face it: this is not my city. But whose is it? Who does it speak to?

Two hundred or so years ago, London spoke to William Blake but the city he lived in has now largely vanished. All that remains is location and shabbily dressed ghosts. In 1820 – exactly two hundred years ago – Blake moved with his wife Catherine to the last place they would live together, a house at Fountain Court off the Strand. It was here, approaching the end of his life, where he experienced his most profound visions, and where he was judged – the jury will always be out – to be either genius or madman. While living here he must have come close to bumping into fellow traveller (and ‘madman’) John Clare, who on one of his rare visits to the capital lodged nearby, although no such meeting has been recorded. The pair had much in common – Blake, an engraver, artist, poet; Clare, a labourer, fence-builder, poet. Both visionaries of sorts, both opposed to militarism and empire, both horrified by the desecration they saw coming in the guise of the Industrial Revolution.

Coming out of the exhibition, almost cross-eyed from hours of peering at intricate artwork and deciphering Lilliputian script in low light, my friend Nigel Roberts remarked that it was actually a good thing that nothing remained of any of Blake’s London homes – his legacy was one of pure spirit. All that marked his various residences was its former address (if the street still existed) and an optional blue plaque. Even the monument at Bunhill Fields (a place I had visited defiantly on the day they buried Margaret Thatcher, an anti-Blake figure if ever there was one) was merely a memorial stone not a grave marker. The common grave he was actually buried in went unmarked until August 2018, when a ledger stone was finally put in place with the legend: Here lies William Blake 1757—1827 Poet Artist Prophet.

What did remain, in addition to an enormous body of work and a roll-call of sacred locations, was Blake’s indelible imprint on the city. Like a sleeping giant, any future London, however changed or corrupted its topography, would invariably retain a Blakean spirit, a spirit that could be evoked on demand. Blake’s legacy does not depend on bricks and mortar. Here was a man who could see a world in a grain of sand, and angels in a tree at Peckham Rye.

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Over the Ofer

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Ofer: Old English word for border or edge

As I have mentioned here before, I have been working on a book project for some time. A book about a walk – a sort of pagan pilgrimage – made across England and Wales, from Great Yarmouth to Aberystwyth. A book that you might find filed under Travel/Memoir in all good bookshops… well, once I find a publisher that is. Anyway, the book is nearly complete and to give a taste I will not post text but instead a series of photographs taken during the last stretch of my journey across central Wales.

Converted into stark monochrome by the wonders of Photoshop, these might be considered to be embedded images that have been temporarily exiled from their place in the narrative. They depict scenes from the road (or track, or footpath) between the Welsh border (Kerry Pole) to the Irish Sea (Aberystwyth). I have also juxtaposed a few apposite quotes  but am working on the assumption that each picture paints a thousand words. So, here are 17,000 words on Wales. Or, if you prefer, 17 stories.

For more on the Ystwyth Valley you might also want to look here or here.

 

Kerry Ridgeway

You cannot live in the present.                                                                                                          At least not in Wales                                                                                                                             

R S Thomas Welsh Landscape

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Llanidloes to Llangurig

Where was it he was born, Ianto? Llanidloes, was it?                                                                  Nah, Llangurig.                                                                                                                                    Well that area anyway. Inland like. Farms and mountains, fuck all else. That’s all there is yer, just farms and mountains.

 Niall Griffiths Sheepshagger

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Llangurig – Powys to Ceredigion

Hush, not a word. When we’ve finished milking                                                                         And the stars go quiet, we’ll get out the car                                                                                  And go to Llangurig

R S Thomas Border Blues

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Ystwyth River

ystwyth (Welsh) adjective:  supple, flexible, pliable

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Aberystwyth

The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.                                                    

Isak Dinesen Seven Gothic Tales

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The Rule of Home

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As a few of you may know, I have been working on a much longer project, a book in fact, for quite some time. This work is centred on a walk made coast to coast across England and Wales, from Great Yarmouth in Norfolk to Aberystwyth on the Welsh coast. The idea was to follow a route that traced familiar haunts and places of personal significance, to join up the dots and connect the places along the way with a line made by walking – a pagan pilgrimage, if you like.

An edited fragment of my slog through the Fens appeared on the Burning House Press online journal when it was selected by guest editor C.C. O’Hanlon back in April.

This month’s guest editor, Rachael de Moravia, chose another piece of mine that will eventually find its home in the book in some form or other. This extract, entitled The Green, Green Grass of Ceredigion, comes from near the end of my journey as I approach Aberystwyth. It muses over ideas of home and the Welsh notion of hiraeth. It is also about roots and routes, and the desire paths of personal topography. You can read it here.

PS: I recommend spending some time perusing the Burning House Press website, which is themed monthly under the auspices of various guest editors. There is plenty to enjoy here, with a wide range of writers and artists venturing off into different and sometimes starkly contrasting spheres of the poetic.

Space is the Place – Shakespeare and Sun Ra

IMG_6581Still reeling from the solar onslaught of the Sun Ra Arkestra the previous night we travelled yesterday to Great Yarmouth to see The Tempest at the town’s Hippodrome Theatre. The Sun Ra Arkestra fronted by nonagenarian alto-sax maestro Marshall Allen had done what they always did: channel the Saturnian spirit of their erstwhile and now-deceased leader Sun Ra and perform their joyful big band space-jazz to an appreciative audience for nigh on two hours. As the song goes, Space IS the place, and the place in this instance had been Norwich’s Open, a venue fashioned from the  brick and mortar of late capitalism – originally a  Georgian building that had started life as  a wine merchants before its vaults were re-purposed for the storage of bullion by the Gurney family. Merging with Barclays Bank in 1896 and soon outgrowing its original premises, a new building was constructed in 1926 with a large hall, extensive vaults and what was reputed to be the longest banking counter in the country. Later in life it went on to become the regional headquarters of Barclays Bank but now the clink of wine bottles and kerching of cash registers were nothing more than silent ghosts that observed on the sidelines as the Arkestra’s music swirled unfettered to the ceiling in this neoclassical void. A quotidian space formerly dedicated to the exchange of capital now given over to brave sonic venturing seemed like the best of outcomes, and the Sun Ra Arkestra quickly made it their own, filling the cavernous space with a joyful stellar noise and a powerful, if playful, presence. IMG_6568The Tempest took place in another very singular space: the wonderful Hippodrome on Great Yarmouth’s seafront, the only surviving purpose-built circus venue in the country. Built in 1903 by the great circus showman George Gilbert the building once faced directly onto the seafront across a square but now huddles behind the garish pink bulk of the Flamingo amusement arcade, a gaudy slice of Las Vegas tat transported to the Norfolk coast. Slip into the narrow street behind though and the gorgeous facade of the Hippodrome can be seen in its full glory, with Art Deco lettering and charming panels around the door, its towers peeping above the pink nonsense of the Flamingo to peak at the beach and the North Sea beyond.  This  was, and still is, a grand and stylish place: a theatre of dreams, a venue fit for the likes of Houdini and Chaplin who both performed here in the Hippodrome’s heyday. IMG_6589If the exterior seems full of promise, the interior is even more beguiling: all dark velvet and chocolate brown, and a warm, well-used ambience that has left a rich patina on the fabric of the place. The seating is snug and steeply tiered; its darkly lit corridors lined with old posters and portraits of clowns and past performers, most notably Houdini (where better than Great Yarmouth to demonstrate the art of escapology?). There is even a poster of Houdini in the gents and, while a male toilet in Great Yarmouth is probably not normally the wisest place to take out a camera, my fellow micturators seemed to understand my photographic purpose. IMG_6602Theatre in the round; theatre in the wet: the Hippodrome might have been made for The Tempest; or, given a bit of temporal elasticity that could anticipate three hundred years into the future, The Tempest for the Hippodrome. The production, directed by William Galinsky, Artistic Director of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival, is a hugely inventive, almost psychedelic, affair that makes full use of the circus’s horizontal and vertical space and central water pool. For two hours we were mentally transported to Shakespeare’s island zone by means of brilliant storytelling, excellent acting and inspired direction, and, in keeping with this circus venue,  the acrobatic shenanigans of the Lost in Translation Circus. IMG_6591Shakespeare is reliably universal of course, but did I detect a whiff of Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker) in there? A hint too of Samuel Beckett?  Of course, we each bring our own cultural references to bear. Today, yesterday’s performance seems almost dreamlike – a short-lived transportation from reality in which both the drama and the unique properties of the venue itself had an equal part to play. As Prospero remarks:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

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At Covehithe

IMG_1981The day before the autumn equinox: the setting, the beach at Covehithe. We have gathered here at the north Suffolk coast to walk and talk. A literary walk to celebrate W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, no less, organised as part of the Waveney & Blyth Arts festival. The weather – hazy grey skies, mist, light drizzle – is suitably Sebaldian.

Proceedings begin at Covehithe’s St Andrew’s Church – itself a curiosity, a church within a church –the large medieval shell of the original church sheltering the tiny 17th-century thatched-roofed replacement that was built when the former became too expensive for villagers to maintain. The fine 15th-century tower abuts the later build, dwarfing almost mockingly its dinky proportions. Before taking a pew to hear an introduction by UEA lecturers Jo Catling and Barbara Marshall, who both knew and worked with W. G. ‘Max’ Sebald, some of us examine the font, recycled from the earlier church, which has stylised lions and hairy human-like figures that have had their heads chiselled off. Headless or not, these strange decapitated figures are recognisable as representations of the woodwose (wild man), a creature that belongs to the same fabulist stable as the Green Man, the crude anti-masonry no doubt the handiwork of William Dowsing’s men as it was these same arch-puritans who did for the stained glass windows that used to illuminate the original church.

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We drift down to the beach by way of Covehithe Broad – the direct road from Covehithe is closed and fenced-off these days thanks to the coastal erosion that constantly depletes this shoreline. The broad’s brackish water is alive with Canada geese that honk plaintively, their voices coming through the mist even before we can see them. The geese take off sporadically in small groups to circuit and survey the parish before returning to the watery comfort of the broad. At the shore, the tide is out and the beach is deserted but for the presence of a distant dog-walker and our own gaggle of muse-seeking Sebaldians. To the north, the curve of the coast at Benacre Ness near Kessingland can just about be discerned. Southwold lies to the south: a distinctive profile that stretches from sea to land – first pier, then low town roofs and blinking lighthouse before a water tower marks the point where the town ends and the Sandlings and marshes begin.

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We walk north along the beach in small amorphous groups exchanging thoughts on Sebald’s gloomy oeuvre. The cliffs of Covehithe feature in The Rings of Saturn, albeit briefly, which is of course why this was chosen as a suitable territory for the walk. It was here that the author stood on the cliffs and gazed out on the leaden-coloured water of what he describes as the German Ocean (a rather archaic term for the North Sea that went out of fashion at the end of the 19th century but chosen by Sebald for his own, anything but nationalistic, reasons). As he lowered his gaze to the beach below he inadvertently spied a couple making love and noted that “it seemed that the man’s feet twitched like those of one just hanged”. Overcome with panic at the sight of this “many-limbed, two-headed monster that had drifted in from far out at sea, the last of a prodigious species” he left to walk to Southwold.

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Thankfully, no such sexual shenanigans affronted us on Saturday. In fact, the only other living thing on the beach other than a desultory parliament of herring gulls was a lone figure scrutinising the foreshore for Paleolithic flint hand tools that we were assured sometimes turn up here. The walk’s turning point was probably somewhere in the shadow of Covehithe church, although we could not see its landmark tower from our position on the sand beneath the cliff. Having examined some of the evocative bleached tree stumps that decorate the beach here like Arts Council sculptures, looked at the ever-receding cliffs with their abandoned sand martin burrows and observed a solitary craft out to sea just as Sebald had done, we turned to face south. With Southwold’s low skyline now silhouetted on the brightening horizon we placed the North Sea/German Ocean to our left as we ruminated and slowly ambled our way back to Covehithe’s church within a church. In half a century or so, this may well be gone, a victim of the ferocious erosion that defines this coastline. Covehithe and its church will have vanished forever, living on only in memory and books – a place of legend.

Bunhill Fields

IMG_0156Three weeks ago I happened to be in London. As things turned out, on that very same day  the city was somewhat preoccupied with a very high-profile event at London’s most iconic church. Given the circumstances, I felt the need to escape the gravity of St Pauls and mark my all-too-rare visit in a more personal way. So on the morning of April 17 I headed to Bunhill Fields in the Borough of Islington. Here, at a quiet Nonconformist graveyard tucked away from the thrum of city traffic, are buried some of England’s less showy heroes.

IMG_0145Here you’ll find John Bunyan, radical preacher of Pilgrim’s Progress fame, whose stone form lies prone atop a hefty tomb. Nearby stands an obelisk that commemorates Daniel Defoe, a man who in addition to writing Robinson Crusoe was also a great traveller and author of an opinionated account of the  nation in the early years of the 18th century. Next to the Defoe obelisk, and far more humble, is a plain stone that marks the life of another great Londoner– William Blake. So unpretentious is this tomb marker that it does not even stand on the exact spot where Blake are buried – the actual grave is unmarked and the poet’s bones lie elsewhere nearby, although the exact spot is uncertain.

It was a cold grey day, and workmen were working industriously clearing the ground in another part of the graveyard. Otherwise, there were no other visitors to Blake’s – or anyone else’s – grave on that particular morning. Meanwhile, just a mile or so to the south, the traffic had been stopped and bells silenced – no ding-donging permitted on this day. Assorted armed forces lined the street in a gung-ho revival of Falklands fever as a sorry procession of politicians, prison novelists, low-rent celebrities, arms dealers, blubbing chancellors and sundry Spitting Image characters entered the cathedral to take their seats beneath the lofty Wren dome.

As history was rewritten for the umpteenth time in a matter of days, Blake’s bones lay sleeping unperturbed in Bunhill Fields – definitely not for turning. A bone fide Londoner who wrote of higher places, William Blake was a man whose words could reach out to everyman – to Londoners of every stripe certainly, but also to those in Scotland, County Durham, Liverpool…South Wales…South Yorkshire…

Do what you will, this world’s a fiction and is made up of contradiction

Orford Ness

Walking, whether rambling or hiking in the countryside, or the unplanned urban exploration of a would-be flâneur’s dérive – call it what you will – seems to be the hippest new literary genre. Often found cosily in tandem with what can only be described as ‘the new nature writing’, the genre undoubtedly has its stars. High in that firmament is Robert Macfarlane.

Almost everywhere you look in the literate media these days, Macfarlane’s name seems to crop up. As well it might, as his new book The Old Ways has instantly and deservedly become a best seller. Having already been lauded in features in the Guardian and suchlike, The Big Issue has this week also seized the opportunity to echo the zeitgeist and published a feature on Macfarlane taking a walk in the company of fellow writer and bipedalism enthusiast, the sardonic (and sesquipedalian) pavement-plodder Will Self.  The desired result: an interesting combination of styles and focii in which rural meets urban, wild nature confronts man-tamed landscape, and literary topography melds with psychogeography.  Given such a brief, it seems almost odd that the Psychogeographer General, Iain Sinclair, landscape ombudsman extraordinaire, wasn’t invited along for the stroll. There again, three is a crowd, and Sinclair was no doubt already busy enough with the Sisyphean task of hurling word-bombs of withering allusive prose at the perimeter fence of the Stratford 2012 Olympics site.

The Big Issue walk – delightfully, if almost predictably – took place along the crumbling Suffolk coast, the mysterious region between Bawdsey and Orford Ness, a coastline rich with legend and secret histories: a luminous landscape of shingle, rare birds and nuclear power stations where the mud itself murmurs of UFO sightings, secret weapons testing, silted estuaries, lost ports and sea-claimed monasteries – the most distinctly ‘Here be Dragons’ patch on the East Anglian map. Pleasingly, the Will and Rob walk also took in some of the territory I have described in my own humble walking guide to the Suffolk coast: Suffolk Coast and Heaths: Three Long-distance Walks in the AONB, available from all good book shops and even a few bad ones.

The Macfarlane-Self walk concluded at the lighthouse on Orford Ness, the mysterious island-like shingle spit that stretches south from Aldeburgh. Orford Ness is bypassed by the Suffolk Coast Path but it does feature in Slow Norfolk and Suffolk, another book of mine that hurrahs the Suffolk coastline. Here’s a brief extract:

If you are not at Orford Quay for sailing, your eyes will no doubt be drawn across the water to Orford Ness, which exudes an air of mystery typical of places associated with forbidden territory. From 1913 to the mid 1980s, the spit was firmly closed to the public, a top secret, no-go area dedicated to military testing and radar research. The links with its secret past are part of its appeal; otherwise, it’s undeniable that Orford Ness is quite a remarkable bit of geography.

Though hardly pretty, this long shingle spit is undoubtedly evocative. Signs warn about unexploded ordinance, and everywhere you’ll see tangles of tortured metal and wire netting among the teasels in the shingle. Overall, it’s a rather melancholy landscape and you might begin to wonder if Orford Ness should actually be ‘orfordness’, a state of mind, rather than the name of a wayward landform.

Seen from Orford Quay, Orford Ness has the appearance of being an island, and the ferry trip across the River Ore simply adds to this impression, but it’s not – it’s actually a long sand spit that begins just south of Aldeburgh and gradually widens as it follows the coast south. It is the largest shingle spit in England (nearly ten miles long) and it is only when you disembark at the jetty that you can really appreciate the scale of the place. The National Trust has a number of recommended way-marked routes to follow but the reality is that you won’t see much unless you are prepared to walk some distance. Concrete roads lead around the spit and you have to trudge along these some way before you get to see anything of much interest. Bicycles are not permitted.

 

And yes, that is the Orford lighthouse on the East of Elveden gravatar

Patience (After Sebald) – Walking The Rings of Saturn

About a year ago I wrote a post about an Aldeburgh Music weekend at Suffolk’s Snape Maltings that celebrated the life and works of the writer W G Sebald. A new film by Grant Gee, Patience (After Sebald), was also previewed on that occasion but it has taken a full year for it to have been finally been put out on general release in the UK. After such a long wait, ‘Patience’ might seem a wholly appropriate choice for a title but I finally got the chance to see the film last Sunday at a sell-out screening at Cinema City, Norwich.

The film is based on what is probably Sebald’s best known work, The Rings of Saturn, which  describes a long meditative walk in the Suffolk coastal region. In German translation the book is subtitled ‘Eine Englische Wollfahrt – an English pilgrimage’, but this is misleading as The Rings of Saturn is not really about pilgrimage at all, nor is it a work that concerns itself that much with landscape, although the shingle and wide skies of coastal Suffolk do make a cameo appearance.

Although genres such as travel, history and memoir are appropriate up to a point, The Rings of Saturn is a work that boldly defies categorisation and which cannot easily be placed into any single literary pigeonhole. Sebald’s Suffolk odyssey is really as much an internal journey through one man’s mind as anything else. Far from the normal notion of travelogue, The Rings of Saturn is more a psychogeographic exploration of one corner of East Anglia. Certainly, the physical geography here is spectral, a melancholic landscape of ghosts, personal reflection and dark cultural memory. The term ‘Proustian’ might be used to define Sebald’s style to some extent but a better word would be Sebaldian: W G Sebald is one of those rare writers, like Dickens, Kafka and Ballard, whose name can be confidentally used as an adjective thanks to a distinctive mournful style and typically digressive, fragmentary narrative.

Part of the Sebaldian trope is to include images – black and white photos and line drawings – as part of the narrative flow; images, sometimes unsettling, that are tangential to the geography of the walk yet central to the narrative’s solipsistic digressions. Many of the book’s already familiar images are replicated in Patience (After Sebald), serving as a backdrop for talking heads like Robert Macfarlane, Iain Sinclair and Andrew Motion who have been recruited among others to give their personal take on Sebald’s oevre. Other images on display in the film are immediately resonant to those who have read The Rings of Saturn even though they do not appear as photographs within the pages of the book itselfA brief glimpse of a naked couple lying on a beach clearly represents the lovers that Sebald stumbled upon at Covehithe and, panicking, described as ‘like some giant mollusc washed ashore… a many-limbed, two-headed monster’. A shot of a distressed-looking plate of food undoubtedly refers to the joyless pub meal taken by the author in Lowestoft, which contained a fish that had ‘doubtless lain entombed in the deep-freeze for years’ along with tartare sauce ‘turned grey by sooty breadcrumbs’. Apart from an occasional colour inset frame showing a walker’s boots on the tarmac (the film-maker himself perhaps?), the images used are monochrome throughout, as grey as Sebaldian tartare sauce.

Also permeating the film are grainy 8mm-like shots of some of the locations that Sebald passed through on his long walk – places that get scant mention in The Rings of Saturn but which clearly inform its telling; places familiar to anyone who knows the Suffolk coast reasonably well – Southwold’s Sailors’ Reading Room, Boulge church, Yoxford, the ruins of Dunwich and the formerly top secret research pagodas of Orford Ness. If anywhere could be described as an archetypal Sebaldian landscape it would surely be Orford Ness.

Patience (After Sebald) complements Sebald’s book admirably. It encourages those unfamilar with his work to read The Rings of Saturn for the first time, while those already smitten can find nourishment in the distinctly Sebaldian imagery of the film and the generous personal accounts of the man himself. To be nitpicking, there are a couple of small details that some Sebaldophiles might find slightly incongruous – Andrew Motion reading his poem about the merman of Orford, perhaps, and a scene near the end that involves a puff of smoke at the roadside where Sebald died in a car accident. The latter I found quite thrilling although some might consider it borderline tacky – I can say no more.

Sometimes writers can seem to influence the reader’s view of landscape to such an extent that it is hard to come to it with innocent eyes. Once The Rings of Saturn has been read and absorbed, coastal Suffolk – in the right conditions – can easily transform into a Sebaldian landscape for those passing through it. Yet, as Robert Macfarlane recounts in Gee’s film, it is imposible to replicate Sebald’s journey exactly. Macfarlane’s own well-intentioned attempt to retrace Sebald’s steps was thwarted by sunny, distinctly non-Sebaldian weather and by simply having too much fun swimming at Lowestoft.

Even with fine weather and a light heart, it seems impossible for anyone who has read The Rings of Saturn and walked the Suffolk coast to not have some sort of Sebaldian connection. Whether we like it or not, his prose and dark historic musings have encouraged us to see the coastal landscape in a thousand shades of (tartare) grey whatever our proclivities. But we cannot replicate Sebald – and why should we? Even following those exact same footsteps, we all do our own walk, make our own pilgrimage. The psychogeographical dimension of any walk through any landscape is as dependent on the mindset of the walker as it is on the territory itself.

On a personal note, the book’s geography resonates more than I might ever have imagined: the site of the old Norfolk and Norwich Hospital where Sebald opens the text (finding himself there with a back problem a year after the completion of his Suffolk walk) is located immediately across the road from where I live.