October 27, 2005

No particular place

I took last weekend in the country. I was tired, tired and jaded, tired and jaded and stressed. I was in serious need of a view of uncluttered sky, in need of a dark that was properly dark and a light unobstructed by bricks and concrete. I was in need of time that passes slowly and without measurement, in need of quiet, in need of the absence of people. In need of absenting myself from London, where the distance between people is a consequence of their proximity. So I took a train out of St Pancras, a train that began full, stuffed to overflowing with other escapees but emptying, gradually, as it got further from London and closer to its terminus in Derby.

One felt almost that the train itself should be whittled away as it went, shedding carriages, staff and buffet car along with its passengers, bit by bit, coach by coach, until it arrived in Derby looking like a local, branch line train: comprised of one or two carriages and perhaps a ticket inspector too. There were few enough passengers already when I slipped away at Loughborough and met up with one of my hosts. After a short drive, through roads emptier than any one might see in London, we were at their house in the Nottinghamshire countryside: still close enough to the real world to see the traffic go past on the A453, but, at the same time, far enough. Far enough to hear nothing, as if a pane of heavy glass stood between us and the traffic.

There was nothing in the world to disturb me, nothing, that is, outwith the contents of my mind, a mind which needed to be left undisturbed, left to settle, left to sift. I slept easily and set no alarm. When I woke up, late, or better put, in my own time, we went for a walk. We walked both mornings, going one way on the Saturday, the other on the following day. On the Sunday morning we went out, through a field, through the sheep that grazed there, to a weir below a railway bridge, just to watch the water go unhurried on its way. J, with whom I walked, had been stressed too: stressed, as it happens, rather more than I.

I was stressed enough, with this and that, with waking too early and travelling too long, with work and its stupidities. I was stressed enough - stressed enough to be forgetting things again. On the Thursday evening, making a risotto, having fried my onions and my aubergine and garlic, having prepared my stock and added it and seasoned it with pepper, salt and basil, I realised that I was trying to make a risotto without any rice. On the Friday morning - how it can accumulate, over the week - I was too distracted to pack my bag properly and came away without having remembered to bring any T-shirts (I had to borrow clothes from J to see me through the weekend).

I was, at least, at work: J, however, had been off work for a week and a half and was, even more than I, in need of being left alone by the world outside. We needed, both, to be outside the world for the while. We needed, both, to watch the river move with neither speed nor purpose. We needed, both, to look across the river and to see a field, to look across that field and to see another.

I saw the river, and the field, and the field beyond: and looking further, as I pointed out to J, even though the scenery was flat, flat as the basin of a river might expect to be, there was not a human habitation within sight. If we turned round we could see the manor house, a red-brick building that hid the village from our view, but in front of us there was not a single house, nothing signalling that there were people living there. Nothing but the river and its farmland, nothing distinct, nothing which would require individual name and title. There was a real feeling, one not diminished by the closeness of the railway, that we were, effectively, no real place at all. That we were experiencing the absence of place. "You know", said J, "we could be anywhere".

Not quite anywhere, of course, the landscape not being quite anonymous enough for that, though it was a landscape you would think of as being characteristic rather than particular. There was, for instance, the absence of hills, and the presence everywhere of that particular kid of green, the one that a hotter sun and a less common rain would never bring about. A green of muddy paths and munching cattle, a pleasant green, a moderate rather than a lush and fertile green. Not quite what Orwell meant by the sleekest landscape in the world:
the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage
but not so very far away.

Certainly it was England, and it could, indeed, I said to J, have easily been Kent. Not the suburban Kent which I live close to, but the Kent beyond, which one sees only by taking a train for a long way and then walking for a further while. Kent, but flatter than Kent, with a touch of the flatness that makes Fenland so strange. I took the train once, from Boston to Lincoln, and because there were no real landmarks, nothing to distinguish the place you had just left from the place that you were going to, there was an irrational nervousness, almost a degree of fear, that you were, in fact, going absolutely nowhere.

That was why I had come, why we had walked: to be nowhere for a while, to be nowhere for an unmeasured moment. We needed there to be nothing particular to think about, nothing to look at even, a landscape without special features.

But even so, I would not have minded a view of mountains. We miss them in London, almost as much as one misses the possibility of peace and quiet: we miss their permanence. It's something I thought about in Tromso, and again when I was, the following month, in South Wales: places where you cannot get away from mountains, where to look up is to have them in your view. They are individual, recognisable: they might be a landscape to which one might escape, but they are not one to which one escape to anywhere. They are themselves, their own particular, characteristic reality. They are inescapable. They insist upon themselves, upon their presence, upon their permanence.

And I think, that in their inescapability, in their permanence, they create some humility in the landscapes that they dominate. Whoever you are, these mountains are greater than you. Whatever you have done, these mountains will outlast you. Whatever you build, these mountains will look down upon you still. A cat insists on your humility: whatever you say, the cat pretends you are not there. The mountain insists on your humility: whatever you say, you cannot pretend the mountain is not there.

But London is on the plain, away from the mountains, in its own landscape, dominated by nothing except its own sense of itself. And it can be as sleek, where it is successful, where it is comfortable, where it is pleased with itself, as any city I can possibly imagine. There is an aspect of London, as aspect of some of the people in this city and some of the places that they make, which cannot imagine that there is anything better, anything more desirable, than sleek, successful London.

It is one of the things that sometimes, when I get out of London, I am trying to get away from: the enormous conceit of conceited London. And I want them to look, while they sit and talk to each other about the deals that they close and the people that they know, about the projects they are leading and the taxes that they do not want to pay. While they are discussing how important they are with one another, I want them to look up to the mountains and realise that they are not so very important. That the weight of the mountain, the weight of time and history that the mountain represents, will always crush them utterly, will always render them as meaningless as Ozymandias. To look with ego upon mountains is surely to have that thought. To compare yourself with them and to find yourself defeated.

I want them to have that thought. And when I am on my weekend escapes, looking at the gentle river and the greenness of the meadow, feeling myself apart from the world, away from it, I wish that when I came home I could see those mountains, that I could turn my eyes away from London and look at them instead, and be reassured that nothing, nothing that is less than mountains, is forever. That when time can be called "forever", it is not measured, pressured time. That what is not forever, what is less than mountains, really matters. That nothing really matters. That nothing really hurts.


At October 28, 2005 10:33 am, Anonymous CP said...

Nothing really hurts.

North Downs Way is not far from London and worth visiting.

Knee-Caps hurt after completing Surrey section in a few days however.

At October 29, 2005 4:37 am, Anonymous dr_graham_lister said...


Some excellent and thoughtful writing there. You are right about mountains. I recently visited Yosemite National Park; it was very humbling to consider the vast age of that landscape. The physical and explicit confrontation with geological time perhaps facilitates a reassessment our everyday concerns, puts them into perspective, (well it did for me). It is even worse/better at Yosemite through because there are trees up to 3000 years old! Definitely made me think about just how fleeting our time here actually is in the grand scheme of things. I have experienced similar feelings peering into the universe through a decent (research caliber) telescope.

How’s does that Monty Python song go?

‘Galaxy Song’

"Whenever life get you down, Mrs. Brown,
And things seem hard or tough.
And people are stupid, obnoxious or daft,
And you feel that you've had quite enu-hu-hu-huuuuff!
Just - re-member that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
and revolving at 900 miles an hour,
It's orbiting at 19 miles a second, so it's reckoned,
the sun that is the source of all our power.
The Sun and you and me, and all the stars that we can see,
are moving at a million miles a day,
In the outer spiral arm, at 40,000 miles an hour,
of the Galaxy we call the Milky Way.
Our Galaxy itself contains 100 billion stars,
it's 100,000 light-years side-to-side,
It bulges in the middle, 16,000 light-years thick,
but out by us it's just 3000 light-years wide.
We're 30,000 light-years from galactic central point,
we go round every 200 million years,
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
in this amazing and expanding universe.
The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding,
in all of the directions it can whizz,
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light you know,
twelve million miles a minute, and that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
how amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
because there's bugger all down here on Earth."


At October 29, 2005 12:03 pm, Blogger Mark K said...

I had an uncanny transportation experience just reading the word 'aubergine' in this post. I use this word frequently, but everyone around me calls it 'eggplant' and to hear (in my mind's ear) someone else call it by its dark and melifluous name really broke down the barriers for me.


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