The chalk-pit: a residual walk
‘The idea of accumulating everything, the idea of constituting a sort of general archive, the desire to contain all times, all ages, all forms, all tastes in one place, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself out of time and protected from its erosion, the project of this organising a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in a place that will not move – well, in fact, all of this belongs to our modernity.’
(The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault)
The girlfriend felt she was getting drunk at last. At the same time it crossed my mind that we really should be leaving the house party. It was funny: a few minutes before the argument started I had a feeling something was wrong. I looked warily round, and my gaze settled on a couple in the corner. I thought nothing of their arguing to begin with. As it grew louder the room became interested. I struggle to remember now what they were arguing about. It ended with a slap, that much I remember. The guy who squatted in the house down the Cowley Road, a friend of a friend, said and did nothing. Just shrugged and drank a pink drink. We had talked about his job as a gardener, cash in hand, for an hour or so, until we witnessed the slap. He had just cooked up in his bedroom. And was gutted when everyone dispersed soon after. Before the shooting up. I was stone cold sober. I did not want to feel like I had the weekend before on the illfated meeting with the writers. When all the fluids in my brain were soaked up by an ethanol dowsed sponge. The girlfriend was gin addled. With a miserable innevitability she would break down at some point during the night. It was only a matter of time. I lost her soon after we had left and subsequently got very little sleep. I found her again a few moments later, on the street where Edward had lived – strangely no plaque adorned the house. But the damage had already been done. We talked of nothing else, other than my momentary absence, until what felt like morning. I hated to hear her sobbing back then. I can remember her contorted face and the noise that came out of it as clear as day. It would not stop. She could not control it. The gin mist had taken hold. In the taxi or in her bedroom, it did not matter. She talked of nothing else, she sobbed, and I sat awake listening. Eventually, exhausted, she slumped to one side, slept, and snored. And I sat awake listening, as always, watching her with wonderment and intrigue. C is no more than an absent presence in my life now, as are those tears. A presence that I will miss terribly when it is gone altogether. I fear forgetting. The past clings on, just, and outs itself as a smell, a sound, a sight, still haunting my present. Memories are seemingly made of only this. As, I innevitably dwell in a point in time spent alone with her, nowhere else, when I think I can hear those sweet gin tears, through the endless drunken din. My memory is for the moment broken beyond repair or working perfectly. I cannot work out which.
In the morning nothing was said bar bye. I doubt she rembered any of the previous night. Now the gin cloud had been lifted. I kissed her soft pale cheek and left dead tired. Quietly closing the door of the old stone workers cottage. Before walking down the winding path and shutting the creaky iron gate. My thoughts drifted to the matter in hand once in the car. Despite extreme fatigue, driving soothed my aching body and I finally woke up properly. I had seen everything with my eyes only up until that point. Floating to the car, brushing past things, in my own little world. But from then on, my weak body began to engage. I noticed the gear-stick and steering wheel and sped up slightly. Enjoying the feeling of control I now had. The landscape scrolled across the windscreen from the centre slipping down the sides of the car. I sometimes followed it eagerly. Binding my body to the view, in a more sensational aesthetics. An original aesthetics. Colours ostensibly became more lurid and violent. Landscape appeared to be basking in a glow of eastmancolor. In which the few cars shooting towards me and away from me, began to stand out against the pastel back drop of grey, green, brown and black. I saw only stylised images shocking the senses, with odd shafts of flouresence. It had rained buckets all week, leaving a leaden grey sky, which I remember vividly. It was to be a signal of impending doom for the hike, or so I thought at the time. Roads were rivers and England was at a stand-still. But luckily I coasted down the a34 over flooded fields, behind my bright bonnet, under the advancing waves of heavy cloud. Water lapping at the edge of the road. Reservoir after reservoir, swimming pool after swimming pool, roofed by mountainous formations of yet more water. And separated by tree lined promenades that were orignially hedgerows. I thought of Literary Hitchhiking in the rain. Kicking up standing water in sync, routinely reciting Edward. Colin had given me the name of the person I was meeting this week. A man called Doug. Only a name, nothing else. We were to meet at Steep Church and walk together for a few hours across sodden ground. At least there was a pair of borrowed walking boots sat on the back seat. Their technology would save me from frozen feet around the corner. Within the hour, I was winding down Petersfield Road. Surface water had collected in the hidden dips near Bramdean. In which the car squirmed around at high speeds. Waves spurting out from under the tyres. The tarmac was dry otherwise. Paler than earlier in my journey. In the trees around Langrish the dampness seemed to seep through the windscreen. It hung in the air, as warming specks of water. Seen only against the slanting sunbeams. Out of the copse, there were no longer any drops. They had been falling from leaves luckily. In the open the railway station now loomed. Before it brought back too many memories of the week before. Waiting for… I had taken a sharp left and crossed the busy a3. Before turning right in to the little village of Steep. I remember still feeling incredibly weak and in need of a sleep. But there was no waiting around, no nap, as my hitch was leaning against a wall. With trepidation I recall trapsing over to the hatless man once parked. Not before rubbing the folded label on the inside of my tshirt, back and forth, with my finger and thumb, a few times. An uncontollable nervous tick, I have had since childhood. It was a strange feeling to know I was about to spend a few hours alone with a stranger in a strange land.
I did not know what to expect but I did not expect Doug. A talking walker, a staunch traditionalist, a conservationist, with a soft Scottish acent, which upon hearing, automatically encouraged a little backstory to appear in my mind. Doug was a coutryman who knew the Downs and the Weald like the back of his hand. Walking them routinely each weekend. Following in the footsteps of the wild shepherd herding his sheep across the chalk land. Down the same droveways, bridleways and footpaths. Ancient routes east-west. Enjoying the picturesque, with a good knowledge of the flaura and the fauna. And the therapeutic wandering still to be had on this relatively unpopulated ridge. In spite of the lack of grazing sheep. Absent from a Downs. Unfit for animals now. Unless fenced in on all sides. Only people can attempt to graze. Along the straight, impoverished, degraded, modern byway. Wasteland once, not now, with its original use lost. A romantic thought to have nowadays, to see thousands of smelly sheep dropped on to the sanitised downs, rewilding as they grazed happily away. Taking out the lines of tourists. But it pleased Doug nonetheless; a modern day Edward, unlike the majority of the Fellowship. The Scotsman could have provided the perfect antidote to the writers of the previous week. Who would have concentrated on the net of literary associations spread over the Downs and beyond. Whilst Doug would in contrast regale stories of the making of this landscape. From deep ecology to the anthropocene. Probably what Colin had in mind. Wanting to show me the two aspects of the Fellowship. The ones who joined because of the poetry and the ones who joined because of the walking in the land. And the crossbreeds. I remember fondly the first thing he said. I do not know anything about Edward really, you can probably teach me. I just bumped into a group of what looked like ramblers once, when walking the Hangers. I became a member of something called The Edward Thomas Fellowship, there and then. Those words rang true to an extent, as we walked to the chalk-pit – immortalised in verse by Edward but missed out of the introductory loop by Colin and Larry – talking of Star Wars, his youth, The ABC in Fulham, Alec Guinness, walking, The South Downs National Park, the countryside, and family. It is this variety of subjects, of which Doug spoke freely immediately, that the poetry perhaps stifles. I was allowed to walk and write as myself a little more because I thought of finding only one residual poem – the elusive Chalk-Pit: mopping up the leftover poetry. And it also helped that Doug told me about all aspects of his life. I knew of his passions within moments, as he described the first time he owned a camcorder. It was before anybody else had one. The rythmic plodding of our feet seemed to increase his ability to recall past events. And being in a landscape he held dear helped his recognition of all walking in all landscapes. He opened up to me, a perfect stranger, remembering his first films. Recording many apparently dull events. Events that he did not know were poigniant at the time. Footage of the Fellowship from days gone by. Faces of yesteryear now older or not here at all. The signing of a birthday card for Edward, more than twenty years ago. Myfanwy was present and other members of the family now gone. Hours of film documented and catalogued for prosterity. Now a part of the vast Fellowship archive. Doug became the unofficial documentary maker of the Fellowship. We therefore walked, documented, and archived for a few hours…
We were padding along the wrong route really. A way which contained none of the usual sighters. No poetic sites, houses, or memorials. Our minds wandering to a greater extent. Doug went right back to his childhood and Scotland. Border country around Edinburgh. Where hills rise and fall like they do in the Downs. Rolling smoothly and accessibly into the distance. And tangibly into his past. To the day when he first picked up a camera and filmed the Edinburgh Tattoo. The coils of film are still at home. Mnemonic reels now of the Scotland Doug left at 19 for London and a job as a civil servant. Not a particularly enjoyable one as it turned out. Poorly paid in comparison to others. Tedious hours spent on the same old tasks. And the commute was a pain. It was whilst walking to the tube station for work one day though, that Doug stumbled upon a sign. It hung outside the ABC cinema in Fulham and said, male attendant wanted. Being strapped for cash at the time the job seemed like a good option. Tentatively Doug walked into the cinema expecting a rejection because he could only work evenings and weekends. As it turned out though, the manager was looking for someone to work exactly those shifts. The busiest times. For £9 a week. £2 more a week than his normal wage at the time. Doug would leave work on the Strand every evening and get the tube to Fulham Broadway. He would then don his ABC uniform and attend until closing. The manager asked a lot in the end. Many things became a part of the duties of an attendant. Often tiredness would result in falling asleep still standing during the final showing. Sundays were the worst when they would show a horror film. This attracted all the local youths and yobbos. It was the worst part of the job, as the attendant was supposed to control them. I was a blob, or something, would come on at 4pm and they would stay well into the evening. Nobody had anything to do on a Sunday. No pubs were open and people had stopped going to church. The cinema was the only option. They would talk and throw things. After a few weeks though it seemed normal and was less of an issue. The youths were left alone to do as they please. And in return Doug was left alone and not beaten up. At 7pm, Laurence of Arabia or Bridge on the River Kwai, or something similar would come on and most of them would shuffle out. Some people would return the next night and the next night. Mesmerised by the grand old cinema. Or perhaps just to get out of the cold with nowhere else to go. It was the films, such as Laurence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai, showed in the late evenings, which fascinated a young Doug the most. The exotic scenery, so far removed from inner city London worked as a form of escapism. And as they were enlessly repeated he would constantly see new things in them, missed before. It was fitting then that in his middle age he would move to the same village as Alec Guinness. An actor he had always admired. We took a slight detour down to Steep Marsh. Where the actor moved in the 50s and had a house built. At the time he was not a particularly wealthy man. Most of his money came from Star Wars, playing Obi-Wan Kenobe in 1977. Doug recalled seeing his name in the 1991 census, describing it as a nice feeling. And used to see Alec in a pub we frequented on the way to the chalk-pit. It was a scriuffier pub in his day, unchanged since the days of Edward. Who would himself have drank in there on occassion. The Harrow Inn. A beautiful 17th Century pub set in the middle of the Hangars. A white veranda, winded around by vines, props up the frontage. And inside there is a smoking room and a variety of ales in barrels. I sat outside the front with Doug on a traditional bench and had a swift half. The lane was quiet. So much so that it felt like a tarmac garden. There were no toilets inside the small saloon bar. They were on the opposite side of the lane. This was not a problem. If anything there was something very endearing about the old outdoor bogs. Enclosing the dozen benches where we sat amongst crumbling old brick structures. Greengage, apple, mulberry, and fir trees enclosed us further. And spotted amongst the trees were delphiniums, poppies, everlasting-sweet peas, roses and dhalias. While in a shady corner campanula, phlox, and allium grew. It felt like a chocolate box country cottage garden. The sort you see on a greetings card. Alec liked to sit out in front with a beer we were told by the attentive landlord. He continued. Implying Alec was the kind of man who did not really like to be bothered. Yes, it was the solitude of Steep Marsh that meant he never moved away, so said Doug in reply. I’ve always admired Alec Guinness in a sense, was his next utterance. The landlord left. Doug continued. And whilst in the house he built there he wrote a few books. Diaries that were published in the 80s and 90s reminiscing about his film career working with Laurence Olivier, David Lehman, and Peter O’Toole, and back further to his time in the navy. There are points in the diaries were he would write of driving into Petersfield in the rain or wandering over the Hangers in the sun. He enjoyed walking around Steep and was witnessed doing so, but he never walked with the Fellowship. One would see whilst walking, Alec occassionally sat in the garden of his unpretentious house. The last time Doug saw Alec, he was pottering around weeding. He was all stooped over and had a head of white hair. Not long after Doug saw him in his garden, Alec died. We left the pub immediately after this statement and walked down the lane to the house were Alec lived. Doug would see his wife walking the dog along this way often. Until she passed away too. Only a few months after the death of her husband.
Doug could not remember exactly how to get to the chalk-pit. We were about half way there. It was somehwere on the other side of Wheatham Hill, which was itself beyond a gathering of bedraggled trees. Bent-double by the wind. They had been planted in two straight lines and lead us up the hill. Doug knew this much. But had become confused about its location in the landscape. Only a blank path to the site existed in his memory. Alec Guinness had lead us astray. The only option was to return to Steep and reaquaint ourselves with the Hangers. From the church Doug would know the way. There was no need to go as far as the church though as it happened. Doug remembered the route once the shoulder was again visible in the distance. We nipped across a couple of recently harvested soggy wheat or barley fields. Where a lack of colour was evident amongst the short sharp stems. That crunched and squeeked loudly when crushed beneath my soles. No rough poppy, corn marigold, or corn chammomile. As had been noted by Edward in these parts mingling amongst the arable crop. Only the familiar pale green the field had been sown with. The pretty wild flowers had been killed off, weeded out, fertlised, without local protest. Behind the now empty field stood the shilhouette of the shoulder shaped scarp on the skyline. Covered in trees. Magnificent beeches. In the late 1950s, Doug told me of a proposal to cut down the beeches that populated the hanger. As a result of this threat to the picuresque, the Petersfield Society bought the trees, and the County Council bought the land from Stoner to Wheatham. Many of the most beautiful beeches were saved. Especially those on the skyline. Other trees were discarded and new ones planted. Ensuring the status of the Shoulder of Mutton, as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The crunching mass of pollen directly beneath it gave on to the Hangers Way, which ends at a park in Petersfield. And begins at Alton Railway Station, 21 miles north. It is less walked than the 100 mile South Downs Way, which follows the droveways along the chalk escarpment running across the country. But is beautiful nonetheless. Doug walked over to the only cascading waterfall around, more impressive than before, and up in to some standard marshland. Following the arrows on little plastic discs through Ashford Chase. And led me further up in to dense beech hangers. The richest woodland on English chalk. The Ashford Hangers. The steeply wooded slopes previously seen from the field below. If we had continued along the way we would have reached Selbourne. Along chalk paths shone new everyday by flowing water from the summit. The place once home to naturalist observer-wanderer and founding father of the ecology movement, Gilbert White. Where he poetically described his day-to-day experiences of nature. And sent letters of his observations to two zoologists of the time. The letters were published in 1789 as The Natural History and Antiques of Selbourne. In which due to the incessant walking around his house he described previously undiscovered creatures. It reads as an inspired and detailed study of his local landscape. An example of the Enlightenment ideal. A deceptively simple account of wildlife through the seasons, which changed how we look at the natural world. Doug veered sharply to the right and off the way. Down one of the many paths that criss-cross the Hangers. Trampled daily by Edward. Another observer-wanderer of the Downs. Walking across the landscape in a way which is lost to a large extent today. Look in to the past, rediscover it, and along the way, our respect for the land. We went looking for Edward again.
A narrow chalk path, aslant. The one Doug had veered on to. Turned out to be an easy way up to the memorial stone. Ascending, not directly over the crest, like in the past. Via the sparkling shards of willow pattern plate. But up a shallow slope hung above a patch of pine on the side of the hanger. Amongst the dense beech copse. A short cut, always facing out to sea, the railway, the South Downs Way, the a3. Doug regained his intimate geography of this place. Climbing at pace a natural staircase of chalk, cut into, jutting from, the scarp face. A slippage of faults in that soft, white, porous, sedimentary rock. Erosion of the cliffs over Petersfield. Selfsame strata, dive down to the sea at Dover. I was though wandering the south rather than the north downland. They were separated by the Weald. Never did we go over the other side towards the north band of calcium carbonate, stretching from Farnham to the meeting of the English Channel and the North Sea. Or even the flattened, eventually hollowed, middle. Beyond the green lane and the manor farm. The soft Weald. A caldera of sorts now, it was once the centre of a chalk land arching over from Beachy Head to Dover. Removed of its chalk cover over 60 million years. Dug away through the toil of water and wind to make a huge dry valley. Leaving the north facing escarpment of the South Downs along the southern edge of the Weald, with the south facing escarpment of the North Downs as its counterpart left on the other edge. Landing at the top of the chalk stair case allowed us to see far across the smooth plateau of clays and sands. 60 miles of downs in an instant, a sweep of the head from right to left. Reading the landscape before ourselves like a book. Witnessing from our chalky vantage point, the deep time, the rock formations and rivers, we had previously discussed. Now with the monumental additions of the road, the railway, the chain of pylons, the town, the country estate, the farm, the arable field, the way, the hedgerow, and Neolithic remains, jostling for our attention amongst the former sheep rearing soil; intertwinings between and across vibrant spatialities, gatherings of emergent processes, cultural fluctuations, and flows of action, going on incessantly. Loves, laughs, fears, exploitations. No gaps in a jampacked scene, a material aether, from my body through Doug, and on to the horizon. A mêlée of stuff, people, bumping, swimming, grinding, glistening, floating, breaking and withdrawing in an ambiotic fluid of yet more stuff. Just as if gazing from the roof of an old skyscraper down to the architypal busy avenue beneath. And beyond the extent of our vision on the periphery of this southern most chalk seam, an uninterupted ribbon of seaside towns. Culminating in the chalk stacks at the haunting Beachy Head. Eye now racing from the rising tide to a suicide on the River Ouse. The tormented Woolf hearing voices. Fills pockets full of stones and drowns herself. A statue marks the spot of death. Another pilgrimage site for a brisk mourning walk. Ended by throwing yourself into the river in a maccarbe homage, to a prominent member of the Bloomsbury set. And not to forget, Algernon Charles Swinburne, On the South Coast, past those smooth-swelling unending downs, walking the line. Ignoring those grey seaside towns, where everyday is no doubt like Sunday. According to Doug, life was hard for many in the downland, just as it was in urban areas. Cottages were often no more than cold damp hovels. Disease was rife. Work was hard. It was a pitiable existence for all but the wealthy land owner. Over time, these hills were largely deserted in favour of the city suburbs. Come, come, nuclear bomb… Blat my body, burn away at the flesh.
We had forgotten about the danger that can be inflicted by our gazing. The problem of being obsessed with documenting, like a regular peeping tom. Innadvertantly asserting your dominance over everything you see. Taming the wilderness, experiencing the sublime, like Byron and Turner. I remember struggling for a while, to make sense of what it was we had seen. Too much information had penetrated our eyeballs and fizzed in our minds. Too much time. Layers and layers of the stuff. I was worried we had begun to brashly overlook landscape, privileging too much the odd observation I had and the borrowed knowledge of Doug. The Downs have been extensively overwritten in great detail, for centuries previous. Leaving bookmarks, emerging from everywhere, some about human perception, some about intermingling non-humans. I made a mental note and adressed it to my collection of selves. Remember, remember the plurality of place. Many albions, many Downs, many wordsmiths. Must rely on small stories and perception where possible. Dazed and confused we fell back on to what we knew. The hill on which, for the entire journey, we had been standing. The Shoulder of Mutton. A vertiginous escarpment, dedicated to Edward, as of the 1930s. When stone masons went through 36 chisels, mounting the plaque on the hard sarsen rock face. Marking as they chipped away, the end of, at least on the surface, on the map, the aristocratic way. This was now the hill of Edward and the people who mourned his loss. No longer an extensive garden for the lord of the manor. Lord Horder. Doug descended further towards the solid wooden memorial bench. Whereupon he ate a little triangle sandwich filled with somesort of paste. Continuing to look out as many have before him, the bench dead, Edward, and all, over the sand and clay flats. A form of motion was necessary. I ran back up the steep chalk slope to recombobulate. But only managed to keep up the pace first set for a few strides. Turning the run into a jog and eventually a swift walk with a strange gait. I was taking on three rungs of a ladder in one go up the visible root system, that held the hill in place. Lead foot scraping over the slippery bark on occasion forcing my head down and forward in a bowing motion. Before recovering balance by bringing the other foot quickly upwards to inhabit a similar level. Crows scattered, hearing the comotion. A fence and a sign facing inland halted my movements. I circled the fence and could now see the information imposed. Ashford Hangers tattoed in large bold lettering on to a brown rectangle. Beyond which out of the corner of my eye flashed the horizon. It drew me out from behind the plywood board. And I stared into a distance, framed by the beech and pine previously scrabled through. Floating forward slightly without thought over little stones with eyes always dead ahead. Again caught up in the enchantment of the picturesque. Entranced, I stopped to take a photograph I remember. Middle distance returned soon after which. Edward and Doug, stone and bench, sat looking over this tract together. It is not for me to make sense of this messy landscape. I let the markers of time wash over me once more and bothered not of putting everything in its right place. Discombubulated myself and again embraced fractured disconnected impressions of the Downs, met along the way. Doug had finished his pack lunch and was motoring up to the stone against which I was lent. Concentrating on his footing as he walked, bent over compensating for the incline. A training method, undertaken now and then, in preparation for arduous walks with Waingwright and Wordsworth, up to tarns. Gasping but somehow still striding he read the inscription half covered by my body. And then I rose up, and knew that I was tired, and continued my journey. I love that. It is what I always think. The words cajoled me into action like the words of a sports teacher on a cold winters day. I left Edward behind and followed Doug. Hot on his heels we made good progress. And were soon in thick woodland.
For what I thought was a suitable amount of time. We talked of the psychological need in many to traverse these wooded hills. And thought of myriad previous excursions from home, to the therapeutic countryside, and back again. Sauntering down a narrow, dark, damp, poker straight path, often taken by Edward. Before I felt comfortable enough to ask a question about the proposed South Downs National Park. A subject which has divided the Fellowship. I did not know what reaction I would get from someone who regularly walks these hills. But I needed to garner local opinion, capture their stories. Doug began. People are very protective around here. My heart sank. I had stoked the fire and could not remove the red hot poker from my grasp. He continued but in a lower volume. They don’t want it to become a national park. They say once this place opens up it won’t be ours any more. The national campaign to get Steep within the boundaries of the park was not welcomed. Neither was getting the inquiry reopened. The quality of land round here did not merit national park status according to an inspector. Locals were happy about that. The Friends of Steep and Hampshire County Council coppice the area around the memorial stone adequately. I like to see hills and they are just right for me. Not like the Lake District. The days of me walking around there are numbered. Obviously, this can’t compare in a way. Kent is a garden. The whole of England is just one big garden. When you think about it. The Petersfield Society are campaigning to get Steep included in the South Downs National Park. They got famous people from London involved. And made changes to include Petersfield but he’s not going to decide until January. The funny thing is, is most of the people in Steep say they don’t want a national park. Changing things is not really necessary. We’ll go up this way and you can see the chalk pit. They are worried if they open it up you will get groups of walkers. They are worried that if they don’t get it, it won’t be an area of outstanding natural beauty and won’t be protected. The area will change if they do get national park status.
Since my walk with Doug the boundary line has been redrawn, placing the Ashford Hangers at the centre of a new national park. The line extends far further north and west than first imagined. Encompassing the whole of the South Downs. Beginning at Winchester and the base of the a34, stretching as far as the sea and the Beachy Head stacks. In April 2011 all planning on the inside of the redrawn line will be the responsibility of the South Downs National Park Authority. The new park will be left to natures winding hands to a greater extent, with the council ousted from power, forced to coppice less. A process of passive rewilding will begin, and a state of wilderness encouraged. Preventing large scale farming projects, far removed from the plough. Organic only now, forgetting the livelihoods of hard working farmers, feeding the masses. Place changed for the priveleged few, if what Doug said on that souless straight path, comes true. All due to the new status bestowed upon it. Aesthetic alterations, changes to planning regulations, the influx of yet more rich London folk, and the force feeding of information to school kids on trips, are a given it seems. Along with the worrying clamour, to find some form of national identity in the rolling hills of the south. And to reassert them in the public collective consciousness. Redefining a row of quaint places, cricket and warm beer, as part of a typically English landscape. A landscape of the good old days, clung to, as a point of serene stillness. An unspoilt pre-christian, non-industrial, unenclosed eden. A rural idyll safe from the demands of everyday life, distinct from the city, part of an eternal, unchanging, secure England. A period of back romanticising is already underway. Reconfiguring a supposedly twee landscape into a vehicle for a contemporary revolution in thought. Arguing there is still something enduringly important about these hills. Something more than a mere tea towel culture, according to art historian Sir Roy Strong. As more than any other hills they represent English landscape, even England itself. They are cast as the classic image of rolling countryside, forever gone back to, deeply ingrained in the national psyche. This is England. This is what our national identity is informed by. If so, I am not sure I belong here, in England.
An advertisement for the South Downs National Park would roughly read: Walk the smooth hills as a middle class city-dweller and you are transmogrified into a peasant working the land. The new national park is easily accessible from Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, and the Home Counties, and only a short drive in the Range Rover from the gateway to the countryside: the south-west suburbs of the capital, the start of the a3. In no time, at such a proximity, you will be amongst rows of ramblers sporting waxed or quilted Barber coats and tweed flat caps. All attempting a reconnect, flashing privileged gazes. Getting down to the root of what it means to be English. Tapping into a national identity largely scraped away. Encouraged by a newly imposed imaginary. Leaving picturesque England safe under tile and thatch. Images enveloping actuality, whilst walkers hold the landscape in their hands like Gilpin. With no foreigners or working class there to spoil the photograph. They will be wandering the city or jogging at the gym. Mundane walking practices. Only the well educated, are able to get back to nature fully and feel at one with their own bit of merry England. Or second home as it is also known. Others just get some fresh air. As it has been for ages since. Well since Constable haywaining, and Wordsworth smoking. Come and see the vista, breathe in heartily, sop it up, and feel better. You will be fine, it is practically imposible to get lost, as it is not a wilderness in the slightest. There are no shepherds traversing the country along droveways. No open access even. No hoodies or suicide bombers. And all the damp hovels of the nineteenth century are now charming period cottages. You can win one today. A dream home. The power of rebranding… All normality is lost in a quagmire of preservationist, visual, neo-romantic tosh; manipulating the politics intertwined with the landscape. Edward, a Londoner’s poet, would not approve, yet is implicated, along with Aubrey, White, Cobbett, Hazlitt, Jefferies, Hardy, and Belloc. All reclaimed by the national park brigade to add credos to their creation. For better for worse.
After what seemed like an eternity walking a line. We reached the chalk-pit, climbed above and bent around it, on the anti whistle stop tour, Doug devised hours before. We stumbled across it in actuality; the accidental ampitheatre. The path, once a road, luckily lead us to the lovely simple conversational poem. And it starts without warning, the talk of Edward transcending these hills. I remember a reverie I slipped into, in which I took the chalk by horse and cart to the steam train and beyond to the big industrial cities of the north. Crossing the park boundary every day, either empty or fully laden, back and forth the same way. Until it was mined no more just prior to the onset of the Boer War. It hurt losing such a job, which moments earlier I did not know I had. Silly reverie really, but looking down into the pit I wanted it to reopen dearly. Mining the chalk from the ground and the pit itself seemed to resonate with something deep inside me. Its closure left nothingness, a hole where something important to the local community once was. Only trees in a place which once rang loud with labour. Doug seemed to feel the same, silently staring away. It was not the poem though that got us on to Edward, rather something Doug had been thinking of for a while. Judging by the clear and concise way he spoke, whilst facing toward the lifeless pit. The lack of men toiling busily below acted as a motivation to mention it then. What has haunted these hills ever since. The war in which Edward fought and died beside relatives of Doug. Doug told me when he walks these folds, for fleeting moments here and there, he is reminded of those victims of war, dear to him. This is not his motivation for walking. Although it is important for him to remember the dead when he does go out on the Hangers. For Doug then, the war poetry Edward wrote was more poigniant at this point on our hike, and is perhaps always when wandering this landscape. This was despite the poetic site before us, which we had walked all day to reach, the tops of aspens at eye level, glaring away. Identity is ingrained in a landscape not when a new imaginary is imposed but through years of criss-crossing it. This is exactly what Doug has done. Intertwining his psyche with the creases of these hills that reside far from his natal home. To impose is to forget, to remove, to resrict, this individual memory making. The poetry of Edward and others written about these hills can in part provide too much for the wanderer, particularly when imposed, whereas the poetry he wrote at war does not. It challenges, opens-up, haunts, leaves the landscape to itself, further. We talked of war standing by the carved out mass of mud and chalk. Mud, Doug, Myself, and man made hole in stillness without another soul present.
Not being a literary man, Doug enjoys poetry for what it is. He does not attempt to deconstruct it in any way and is simply stirred by the poetry Edward wrote before enlisting. For they are lovely accounts of the hills he loves, which echo over and over once home. Resonating with his own experiences of walking. Acting as little chambers, or impressions of his own life. The poetry Edward wrote about war is different. It is distant, far removed, and not in any way for Doug, like a site, such as the chalk-pit. Where words encouraging attachment are clamped to the earth, seeping from it, coiling around you, adding to the tone of a place. War poetry has exactly the opposite affect for someone, who does not know the horrors of war first hand. As they were never a part of a landscape as cold, bleak, numb, or desolate as that. Never present within it, to intertwine with the coils of place. Neither were the soldiers in many ways. Dead already. With only images, smells, sounds emblazoned in the memory afterwards. It is in this distancing though, as somebody with no experience of war, where Doug attempts to feel most empathy with the soldier. It is suffering that he is glad not to be subjected to but feels he has to try to know something about. A forced understanding if you like, through walking, in order to honour the dead. Simulateously distancing himself from the hero but trying to ascertain what it must have been like to be a cog in the industrial slaughter. What it must have been like to be a young man, swept up in a tide of jingoistic tosh, patriotic slogans, and propaganda. Like the war will be over by christmas. Or fight to save the language of Keats and Shakespeare amongst gritty saxon men. Leaving out the fact that the life expectancy of a soldier on the front line was measured in days. Doug, a military buff, knew that in 1917, the year Edward died, one and a half million soldiers were engaged in trench warfare. It was military deadlock, according to Doug. With four hundred miles of trenches, immovable caterpillars, inscribed across France and Belgium. Full of mud penetrating everything. Sleeping bag. Pyjamas. Socks. Men trudging through communication trenches of sucking clay, five feet deep. Their feet literaly rotting away, going black and toes dropping off, whilst immersed in the water of a flooded trench. With no alternative but to wash their faces with snow, during the coldest winter in living memory. Waiting for the innevitable shell to thud before them. Or a chlorine gas cannister to explode nearby causing them to drown in their own flem, or mustard gas to mist, disabling not killing, leaving them draining the state. Gas, gas, quick boys. An ecstacy of fumbling. And when they see the front line for the first time all they can do is wait for the terrifying call to go over the top. Through the barbed wire and machine guns and a wall of intense noise. Dull thuds of bullets cutting into flesh and the horrific hollow crashes of high explosives dropping overhead. Guffaw. Splutter. Zing, zing, zing. Whizzbang. Splosh. Stuttering shrill choirs. Until they were cut to pieces. Left as one of the unidentified dead, from every town, village, and city. You understand? I hope you don’t, said Doug, looking up at me. It is burned into the minds of survivors. With their faces half fallen off. Peeled away by shrapnel. Shell shock victims with tremors, loss of sensation, and headaches thanks to the intense stress of battle; knowing you could lose your life at any moment. Psychiatrists terrifed them to restore function by giving them electric shock treatment. As if they had not been through enough already. We knew what poetry had done for these men. It had told their stories. Not what the people at home wanted to hear about the war. Poetry changed in these bleak years, got real and confronted the everyday routine. At that moment the horrors of the trenches. Mimicking the sticato rythms of war, and peace. Using brutal words, simple language. They died as cattle. Say it. Let anthems for doomed youth boom. Through translucent verse removed of flowery frill. Remove might and majesty also and tell the pity of war. As Owen, Brooke, McCrae, Sassoon, Sorley, Rosenberg, Thomas and West did to different extents. Most lost to the trenches. Writing the poetry of pity. Reliving their experiences, relaying them in words, which resonate with the common soldier. Who have no words to quantify their experiences being numb and desensatised and past all limits of opphorence. Give them an unflinching depiction of war as they knew it. And the poetry will speak to every generation. Lines of graves, all the same, neat and pristine, tell something of a lie. We see only the sanitised aftermath. The number of dead. Millions. What we do not see is the torrid life of a soldier in a trench. Georgian poets allowed us to count the cost of war more accurately. Giving us an insight into the horrendous conditions of a conflict which still haunts the British imagination. Reminding us and other countries never to revel in the glory of war ever again. Never to fight for a notion of purity of nationality. The Great War hovers now on the precipice of living memory, as the final few British survivors of the conflict all died last year. Bill Stone, Henry Allingham, and Harry Patch, took their memories of the trenches to the grave. Art, poetry perhaps in particular, in blurring times and places, permits us to cling to and grasp these memories for a moment here and there. Private peaceful amongst the glorious dead, at the sounding of the last post, lest we forget. The old lie; Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.
I remember leaving the silent site, and continuing along the same route. Soon turning right and walking through the perfect line of bedraggled oaks. Although I cannot remember what we spoke of, at all, on the journey back to the church. After all the talk of war, we must have just enjoyed the silence, which was seemingly following us from the pit. Any conversation had been exhausted perhaps. Tiredness had taken hold. Thoughts of a sit down had entered our minds. I do not know. We had seen it all before for sure. Views which earlier in the day were awe inspiring, no doubt now appeared mundane. That is my guess anyway. A head down, pacy walk to the finish line, occurred. And banal thoughts of food emanated. Not before long, the church steeple could be seen in the distance. A landmark to orient ourselves. After walking due south, as the crow flies, over the middle of pastoral fields flooded earlier in the week. We had paid little attention to our position on the map, for it was downhill all the way, from the poetic site, to our cars. Encouraging speed to build, focusing our minds on the end of the loop, one foot in front of the other, walking perfection. We knew we were going roughly in the right direction. Despite it not raining all day, village drains still seeped over and were forced wide by the camber. While runoff tinged with fertiliser confluenced from the farm above and also persued us, babbling. Before getting into my car, Doug gave me a gift. It was a film he had made years ago about the Fellowship. Featuring Colin and Larry and the writers who never showed. I shook an outstretched hand and said I would see him next spring to complete my first ever birthday walk. It took a while to find my car key, I remember. It was somewhere amongst my belongings. Stuff that had been in the rucksack for years. Books left unread, blunt pencils, pens, notepad, sunglasses, half eaten apple, camera, dictaphone, sheets of crumpled paper. Below all that the shiny key. I watched Doug drive away and waved him off.
It turned out the car was merely an extension of the rucksack. I sat inside a giant mess of British sandwich boxes, bottles of French water, various items of clothing from allover, Turkish cigarette ends, empty Americano cardboard cups and Big Mac remains. And was glad to be back amongst these familiar surroundings; cossetted in controlled chaos. With everything at hand, sort of, becoming extensions of my body. Flotsam and jetsam picked up along the way from anonymous service stations. Necessary objects nowadays that most people identify with. The heater, set just how, fanned my face and hands, as I attempted a three point turn. It had to be curtailed, as I had a sweat on, after a day plodding all over London’s lungs. Orbiting closer to the west of the capital for a change of scenery, I pointed the car north east, and gunned it to reach the ring road. A few more notches up the green belt and I was off one of the many buckles, the a3, and on the dreaded Thatcher belt, the m25. Stuck on it, without the knowledge; the extent I had to traverse the curve. Excited voices boomed from a speaker by my foot. Somebody had scored in a football match somewhere. For a while the noise transported me from the supposedly placeless motorway, to a real place. A stadium, pie and bovril, singing. Car horns twittered, lights flickered, and I was lost again, drifting. It mattered not a jot. The numb isolation was just what I needed after playing the role of a busybody all day, poking my nose in, strolling and speaking. Humming from the engine was constant. Though a symphony built itself when the car slinky closed up. And the radio crackled, beneath telegraph wires clipping the circle. The slinky stretched itself out again and the poetry in motion continued. I forgot about oppressive time, forgot about finite days, and reverted to a primordal innocence. Sauntering up the m25, sutreing up, the city and the countryside, my northern and southern identity, poetry and place. The odd sensations persisted, whilst driving into the night, until I was suddenly allowed off the merry-go-round. And out of pergatory. It was a fair old poke compared to the direct route previously taken. I was at least on the home stretch, once off the road going nowhere and everywhere. The evening was cold and clear, for the first time in weeks. Stars seen anew and twinkling street lamps shimmered beyond the windscreen. And a shillouette of Oxford appeared on the horizon. Domes, spires, cubes, slghtly darker than the polluted sky. My foot, sock, shoe assemblage did not move from the accelerator pedal. And crank shaft turned wheels, tyres, driving me across the tarmac at a constant speed. Until I twisted my ankle to the left and planted my leg down, to brake for a roundabout. Steering away from the university and on to the outskirts. Paying the car over a toll bridge. By placing five pence in the teenage hand, reaching out from a glass box. Crossing the still swolen river, its banks burst over and out across flood plains. Arriving too late for tea at what was then my second home. Passing a football pitch-pool, an abbey, a church, a pub, a shop, and a row of cottages lain on the roadside, before parallel parking.
After my day flitting in and out of poetry, being an aesthetic decadent dandy. I needed to de-flaneur. Inside those four stone walls being under that slate roof was the perfect place to do such. I remember pushing at the door, knowing it would be off the latch. And expecting behind it an empty front room. Stepping in, the sofa sat there unused but lighted. All as predicted. The middle room was lifeless too, bar the quietly flickering open fire. A smell emanating from which, ever since associated with that grate. Rather than following the voices that could be overheard I climbed the steep uncarpeted stairs. Dropping my bag in the tiny bedroom full to the brim with nicknacks. Presents, accured junk, and sentimental souvenirs from holidays past. Grown attached to over time, leaving them scattered around, and unable to be thrown away. The cacti next to the bed which pricked my arm constantly whilst I slept were a favourite. Sat on the sill of a window once left open overnight, freezing my head. I went back downstairs, and entered the noisy kitchen. It was, as always, a hive of activity. The long table was surrounded with smiling faces, happy at my return. I stood by the Rayburn for a few moments to warm myself through. And described my day to people who were actually interested. Wine and food was given to me as well. Until I was happily full. Soon after I fell in to bed exhausted, beside the cacti. And the pretty, fun, girlfriend, C. Not to forget.
It does not seem real now. Rather a dream that someone else had. It was though, I just about remember, my perfect place, slowly becoming an important part of who I am. A half life largely dissapeared today. Looking back, I used it to escape my original identity. My place of birth; an estate in a cotton town. Perhaps that sort of life was always too good for me. But it left its mark. She did. As did the house itself. In which I felt safe and content. The house where I reside now is cold, unwelcoming, and quiet. A little moustached cat is sitting on the wall outside. Warming, cheering, enchanting for just a few moments. Goodbye old life. Goodbye Rayburn, goodbye cacti, goodbye house, goodbye gin tears, forever. Stay emblazoned on my memory please. First love. It strikes me that we try to simplify our identity too much. Build up a notion of purity. Say who we are neatly, tidily. Create a maquette of dear old England, in ourselves and landscape. Despite most of our heritage being begged, borrowed and stolen from Greece, Italy, Germany, France, the USA… I was not always like this. A northern fairy. A mildly depressed drinker. I am made up, for better for worse, of my relations, my relationships. In which I lose myself. Lose sight of everything else. Identity is nothing else but this processual, relational mêlée. The phone calls soon stop and people fade away, upon which sickly, soppy, shit begins to be written down. Place is much the same. In a crisis, always manufactured, sickly shit starts to be asserted. Boundary lines are drawn up through posh geography, relying on a basic formulation of social constructionism. In a grandious manner for grandious fancies. Usually bourgeoise, high-brow, pompous, pretentious, and snobbish. Filled to the brim with flambouyant, fractuous, self aggrandiding allegories. Constructing the prophetic argument of a propaganda machine. Playing on the simmering tensions of a heightened symphony. Perpetuating an anxiety of the present, and class and race divisions. Unwittingly caught up in this and harked back to, in a narrow, selectively picked cultural heritage, are poetry and paintings of landscape, becoming surrogates of power. They do not define who we are any more than football does. In spite of the reductionist sanitising efforts of many, over the years. Nation building, region building, is always problematic, as evoked are place, identity, and culture, all never pure from their inception. Absolute rule, absolute geography, is a devisive fantasy, and can result in conflict. Poetry and painting should be redemptive practices, in the service of society, as they were when Wildfred Owen and Paul Nash were around. I realised this to a greater extent than before whilst on my walk with Doug. And knew that after walking and talking with him, a mis-guide to landscape, or an anti-topographic, anti-lebensraum, topological mapping project had to be undertaken. And that the quixotic journeying done should be seen as a metaphor for life, because at the heart of the human condition is imperfection, unstructured mess; there is no equilibrium, no self regulating system, simply, lots and lots of stuff.
Preston, July 2010