Guildford to Dunbridge
‘What happened to the ambitions of poets here in Britain? Have they not digested the news that Edward Thomas and his world are gone forever?’
(Youth, J.M. Coetzee)
‘On the eastern slope of the Lea Valley is Epping Forest; the people’s forest, festooned with burger cartons, silver cans, ghosts of prisoners, runaways, pastoral melancholics (cop killer Harry Roberts, poets John Clare, Alfred Tennyson, Edward Thomas). On the west is the old forest of Middlesex, Enfield Chase. The broad, marshy floodplain of the Lea is a natural boundary.’
(London Orbital, Iain Sinclair)
No cocks crowed and waked. Rather commotion in the corridor. Downstairs the breakfast was laid out in rectangular steel bins. Baked beans, scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausage, lined up to grab; an industrial toast machine on the end conveyered cheap sliced white – coffee squeezers, plain round white plates, cutlery in grey plastic compartments, beside. All included in the price of the room, complimentary. Different people from the night before sat dotted about under ceiling tiles and spotlights; some gorped at the news rolling across the bottom of the giant screen. The plate fitted a decent amount of food on it if you piled it high, as most did. Outside it was still cold, the sun had not yet warmed the air through; breath was visible, and hands were pale bluish and veiny. The unladen bike was still a front the gleaming gym opposite, sheathed in a morning mist that cleared quickly, and was gone altogether beyond the industrial estate. Edward was waiting in the narrow side street; Jefferies Passage. We took the difficult uphill route out of town together. Much like a night in a Travelodge, Edward had often fared as well as he had the previous night at a smaller cost, and worse at a larger. Mounting the Hog’s Back, involved crossing the a3, which cuts south at a greater rate, and would take Edward home to Steep before the morning was out. On the day in question though, Edward intended to make Farnham for breakfast. A mile out of Guildford and on the back of land was a vineyard, sloping down, trellised from the now dual carriaged road. Both sides allowed for a sunny disposition, out to abundantly pined distant ridges, still clinging to what mist was left, dimming down the greens and browns; Hindhead, Blackdown, and Olderhill north, the Downs and Thomas Country south. Land slides away, to squares of field, seen through gaps in the fern like stubs of tree, and bare skinny fingers wound by ivy. Most people changed lanes to pass by, allowing for a greater amount of twisting about to see over the edge of the ridge, no wider than the road. A settlement of burger vans squatted on the high point, where the tarmac swilled over. After which we descended the spine to Farnham and the pub named after countryman and writer William Cobbett; bikes rolling of their own free will. Edward looked for a statue of the countryman, hoping not to find one, for so long as Rural Rides is read that is all the resurrection the political reformer needs – never at any point does Edward position In Pursuit of Spring alongside Rural Rides, instead he talks of a most select shelf of country books: Cobbett, White, Bourne, Jefferies, Hudson, and Burroughs. Include Thomas now on that shelf. The imaginary shelf got me thinking, back on the bike, at the Hampshire border: Welcome to Jane Austen Country. Who would be included on the nature writing shelf now? For as long as people have been writing, they have been writing about nature; the shelf must reach further than six or seven men. What of New Nature Writing for instance, with its specific, ambitious, and possibly revolutionary manifesto, stating: the way people write about nature needs to change, as our conceptions and experiences of nature change – citing economic migration, overpopulation, and climate change, as transformers of the natural world into something unfamiliar. Nature writing is not supposed to be about bearded men with boots and a stick anymore, walking out into the wild; nor is work meant to be written in the lyrical pastoral tradition of the romantic wanderer. Writers are to be on a journey of discovery, creating voice-driven narrative, told in the first-person, and present in the story; if only bashfully. Their work an experiment in forms: the field report, the essay, the memoir, the travelogue. I had ridden almost to Chawton – a village well aware of the fact that Jane Austen had once dwelt there – and the turn off for Selbourne and Gilbert White, before working out the volumes on the new lengthened shelf. Those associated with New Nature Writing: Robert MacFarlane, Richard Mabey, Kathleen Jamie, Roger Deakin, and Jonathan Raban. And those less so: Iain Sinclair, Will Self, J.G Ballard, Bill Bryson, Raymond Williams, and W.G Sebald. Would be on there; having subverted the nature writing, travel writing, tradition, to varying extents, creating somewhat of a renaissance in the genre of narrating a form of the self, moving through landscapes Edward knew of well, now radically different – weaving sticky streams of consciousness, stitching themselves to the fabric of the land. Edward was to become the lynchpin, encouraging the elongation of the shelf, just a few short years after publishing In Pursuit of Spring. Edward: the covert modernist, pastoral poet.
Beyond Chawton and the Jane Austen House Museum: the Shrave continued to be wide and flat, manufactured to make motion extraordinarily easy, bike zooming along the cycle path, me, but disembodied – as if driving a truck through the mélange of monocultures; hedge bound arable crop. Just though, a cyclist on the highway south-west, travelling at a lovely sedate speed; thoughts migrating to dark places from the past, thanks to the smooth tarmac. And loss, personal at this juncture, struck a chord again, on this one long love letter, and ambulatory homage. A constant white line to follow aside the trough and crash barrier, only road kill and the odd junction to swerve for – this was the direct train to Coleridge Country, stopping at stations marked remembering, forgetting nothing of love, pain. Motorists looked perplexed at my choice of a stopping point; the hard shoulder rather than a quaint village, such as Four Marks, Ropley, or Chawton. Stopping specifically on an embankment, under aspens illuminated with bright sunshine, amid plastic of all shapes, shiny aluminum and tin, and soggy pulp stuff that was once hard cardboard – all in stasis except when nudged by the drag of a lorry. Recyclables stuck in a prickly hedge, thrown there from cars that could carry them far away. I had stopped for a discarded book, seen amongst the everyday synthetic foliage of, in a greedy age, rubbish; cans, bottles, burger cartons. It was open and falling apart; the spine struggling to prevent the pages blowing across the even landscape; a sad sight, another bit of road kill. The pages left were fused together, the text binding and burning itself across from sheet to sheet, paper to tarmac, wind and rain reshaping the story. Soiled and webbed; The Shelters of Stone by Jean M. Auel, mutated into a solid shelter for a spider, which hung there from a single silk strand, swaying side to side when cars passed by. I left the book there on the curb for the insects, as if it was a burger box, rather than a piece of historical fiction. A ripped raincoat, a white blouse, a shoe, a cassette, and other trinkets once loved were held in a cold, thorny embrace also, and could have been the found objects used by a postmodern artist, interested in form not utility. I carried on perplexed, until I could get off the numbingly even a31, looking out eagerly for the next bridge. The flyover where Vaughan had died yesterday in his last car crash came into view. The sexual possibilities of the world around detached in a mess of blood, semen, and engine coolant, advertising and pseudo-events, science and pornography, sex and paranoia. To die by your side would be such a heavenly way to die played on a loop, the speakers hidden in the central reservation. I had to get off the road quickly. Reverie had struck with the cold hard shaft of memory. The place we were headed. Winchester. I had been there once before. Where was the blue vein of m3?
Edward was already off in the villages somewhere, noting their shape; Holybourne was a parallelogram. An old lady quietly tended her flowers there. Edward sat by her side scribbling down what they were; daffodils and primroses, arranged in jam jars. In Alresford, Edward looked again in vain for something that bore the name of a poet: George Wither this time – who praised the pond there. At the Church of St Mary the Virgin, a stained glass window in the south transept, commemorates the lives of George Wither and Henry Perin. It is of undecided age, so Edward could have missed it, and in the process the author of Paralellogrammaton. Beside the pond, the first few lines of the poem, transcribed in full by Edward, were mumbled; eyes shooting from words to water. For pleasant was the pool, and near it then Was neither rotten marsh nor boggy fen. It was not overgrown with boist’rous sedge, Nor grew there rudely along the edge A bending willow nor a prickly bush, Nor broad-leaf’d flag, nor reed, nor knotty rush; But here, well order’d, was a grove with bowers: There grassy plots set round about with flowers. It was the first poetry reading completed in-place of the ride. The uniting reaffirmed a sense of purpose within to question the practice. Completing this particular commemorative service though, felt like giving something back to landscape – an offering of words from a poet whom we can connect with a district of England and often cannot sunder from it without harm. In direct critique of certain literary societies, Edward went on to say something important about reading poetry in-place, with specific reference to Wither. Many other poets are known to have resided for a long or a short time in certain places; but of these a great many did not obviously owe much to their surroundings, and some of those that did, like Wordsworth, possessed a creative power which made it unnecessary that the reader should see the places, whatever the railway companies may say. Wordsworth at his best is rarely a local poet, and his earth is an insubstantial fairy place. But if you know the pond at Alresford before this poem, you add a secondary but very real charm to Wither; while if you read the poem first, you are charmed, if at all, partly because you see that the pond exists, and you taste something of the human experience and affection which must precede the mention. He ended his appraisal of literary tourism with a disappointed; to have met the poet’s name here would have been to furbish the charm a little. Edward, like Wither, would go on to become a poet who furbishes the charm of a specific village. The poems he created were local. They undoubtedly add to the moment of being there. But more importantly they take away, disrupting the landscape. The leitmotifs of homelessness and absence haunt his earth: a shifting, fleeting, spectral place. The poems transport you elsewhere, as you initially taste something of the place as it was, and are then left with a set of images of a dark place prone to collapse. Edward again seems to occupy a middle ground. His is a joyful melancholia – at least on the page – that does more than mourn a wilderness gone, or the loss of countryside practices. He is not a transcendentalist parochial pastoral poet of place and belonging – who is? – despite what is often thought. His work does something odd and clever geographically. It is conscious of the distance between self and surroundings, of dislocation and unsettledness, something to which we can relate in a shifting mobile world – leading to a state of destitution for Edward. As a set of poems they demonstrate the problem with compartmentalising poets without wandering through the landscape of their lives. It seems obvious to say different poems do different things to landscape and that not all strive to encourage a sense of belonging amongst wild nature. But Edward and his poems have been misread as doing exactly that. I wonder how many other poets are misread in the same way. Who is to say that poetry does when placed back in to landscape does what the poet intends it to also? Poems resonate in strange ways.
Post Wither reading. A river tunneled beneath the road. A vale of meadows slid by: the Valley of Itchen. Itchen Stoke and Itchen Abbas. The light was becoming sharp, crisp, grey, and northern, providing scant relief. Cycling through the almost too perfect villages re-minded the last Fellowship birthday loop, only a few days prior, and the poem Old Man, poets in the land; the temporary, transient, performance of poetry by the self installed stewards, guardians, custodians, of all poems and places, birds, hills and trees, Edward Thomas. The birthday spent bounding Steep; looping the bounds and in the process, the extent of his life, beating the bounds of the village, and mimicking the old ritual, drawing a border around what is definitely Edward and what is in all likelihood, not. His was a life that far outstrips the bit of landscape bounded through ritual walking whilst singing the plants into being – as if they need the help of Edward simply to be. The voicings, chantings, at landmarks, the poetic interventions, the brief, spur of the moment performances, engender ownership. But cloud the spur, of the moment, the poetic, ironically. Old Man was nearby, in a garden close by, the smell distinctive, travelled to the nostrils and transported me elsewhere – this is the case when all poems are remembered randomly. Poetry naturally shifts perception away from the moment. This time thinking of Old Man shifted me to the garden where the famous bush was, and the place where the poem was conceived. Thinking of the poem out-of-place sent me to the place, while reading the poem in-place – the place about which it was written – sent me elsewhere. It is impossible to suppress this affective response. And attempt to view the place only as it was through the eyes of Edward, pre-poem. To view the romantic spectacle: a utopia, pre-industrialisation, an old world, lost. Reading Old Man in-place furbished the charm a little certainly, but at what cost to the meaning of the poem, its words of childhood, and fickle memory. To be transported elsewhere when reading a poem in-place is not odd at all, it is completely normal; an expected consequence of the practice. It happened when reading Wither. As such, the myth of crumpling time, attempted, was dispelled for good by the pond at Alresford. Even a more permanent offering of words could not crumple from then on, the length of the route west. Seeing the name of a poet and to reading poetry on-site, as Edward noted, furbished the charm of a place, a little. It became clear words could furbish more than charm though, cycling through Hampshire: Jane Austen Country. The power of representation is known to the Fellowship. It can protect a landscape. Protect it from development and perceived change; faces that do not fit, houses that do not fit, accents that do not fit. Present day poets know this – or at least they admit to knowing it protects the birds, the trees, and the hills; the ecology. Some have inserted their words into a landscape, in a similar fashion to the toil of the Fellowship. Most notably concrete poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, most transiently Thomas A. Clark tying words to trees and stones. Edward knew of the protective qualities of the words he wrote. And Wither for that matter. They did not call it literary ecology though. And they understood the impossibility of keeping a place exactly as it was. The perfect village, a utopia, an English utopia, a southern, middle to upper class, utopia, was understood to Edward as exactly that, a utopian dream. Whether it is understood to the members of literary societies is another question altogether. Members who can invoke climate change now to aid their argument: displacing the real, everyday politics of class, race, and gender. Sending words back to their homeland, adds value to a landscape, and house prices – words that Edward wanted to be considered as for the working class after reading Nietzsche and Marx, and innately homeless, maintain a village: the village becoming a poem in-itself.
The sky was worryingly dim. In quick succession by went the m3 and the a34. A teacher on her way back from school was pushing the bike hard and rocking side to side. I followed, keeping up just about through arable land; dropping down through a council estate, a park, and a university, until parting at Winchester High Street. High society, cathedral, and grammar school. Exactly as was remembered. From a solitary evening a few years prior spent in a cheap restaurant. The geography of love – thoughts inundated with memories of the food eaten, almost tasting it. On passing the place more flooded back – the table cloth, dress, toilets and waitress but nothing of the conversation. It was closed: forever perhaps. It needed refurbishing. But it was good otherwise. Or so I thought struggling to shut out memories. Edward appeared on cue on foot through a crowd, heading uphill towards the barracks. Dismounting and pushing was the only way to reach the summit with all the weight on the bike; Winchester cityscape in view on turning back, blocking half the sun. Like in an old book the weather changed on digging up the ghosts of place. Heat was no longer palpable. The wind seemed encouraged. It was getting moist too but not yet raining. As if a storm was coming. Edward reached the summit and sped off. It was the last I saw of him until Dunbridge. Thoughts returned to the immediate problem: how to get to the guest house in the pitch black. Traffic was heavy and the road narrow, with little space for a cyclist. I concentrated hard on not killing myself. The gentle slopes were just about visible, crossed with slightly darker hedgerows. Everything was in grayscale. Colours removed of their vibrancy. Things looked wrong. Not being used to seeing the countryside by night. The vista curtailed, shut down. It was to get worse. Oak trees enclosed the road and prevented any remaining light from hitting the ground. Without a light pointing ahead, and with no street lamps, the only way of knowing whether the front wheel was headed for the curb were car headlights coming up from behind. The high visibility reflective sash and flashing red light at least allowed them to see me. Cars coming towards blinded. It was rush hour. And people were heading home to Romsey; a constant stream. Cold sweat had set, and my face and hands were stinging from the constant blat of air. To make things worse, the air was damp under the trees, and the road slippery. A van driver shouted fucking idiot out of his window, as he swerved to avoid me. Nobody was using the road except the blackbirds and robins a century ago, while primroses glimmered in the dank shadow of the trees. Once out from beneath the oak, the moon and stars were all that were left to light the way. Luckily street lamps started again. Despite knowing the way, I asked a pedestrian, looking for reassurance. They had never heard of Dunbridge. But Romsey was dead ahead. That was too far though. The destination was a right turn before the town centre. The map became my eyes – signs were unreadable, the landscape invisible, residents useless. Alma Road. The name was repeated over and over, pedal by pedal. From then on I had no eyes. I had to imagine which way to go. Lanes were largely unsigned and entirely unlit. And they were sunken; field, everything, hidden by hedgerow. A maze of them expanded off the main road. If I got disorientated I would have been lost for good, no signal, with only the odd house for company. Knowing which way the lane would bend next meant following the silhouette of hedgerow against the marginally paler sky. It was deadly silent, soaring downhill in the darkness, locking the back brake and skidding regularly. This was wanderlust. Like Wordsworth in the Alps. It was dangerous. The world so dark and no one for miles: the last man. Sapped of all energy, cycling became too much. A couple of times I almost fell off light headed. Villages came and went. All of which looked the same in the intense Byronic Darkness. The world was void, The populous and the powerful was a lump, Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless, A lump of death – a chaos of hard clay. The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still, And nothing stirr’d within their silent depths; Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea, And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp’d They slept on the abyss without a surge The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave, The moon, their mistress, had expired before; The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air, And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need Of aid from them – She was the Universe. Darkness had prevailed and descended, as it had in the end over Edward… Stealthily the dark haunts round And, when a lamp goes, without sound At a swifter bound Than the swiftest hound, Arrives, and all else is drowned; And I and star and wind and deer Are in the dark together, – near, Yet far, – and fear Drums on my ear In that sage company drear. How weak and little is the light, All the universe of sight, Love and delight, Before the might, If you love it not, of night. Edward Thomas and his world gone forever – he died at war a few days after writing those words. Distant window lamps cheerfully twinkled and rain fell steadily, wetting my vision. What a relief, some food and a bed: coasting exhausted to the pub door. Edward boarded a train to Salisbury, from the tiny station opposite. There were no rooms left at the pub, what with it being Easter. I was the only guest. Edward saw the other man again in Salisbury and attempted to engage him in a conversation about clay pipes. The other man preferred to talk of the things he had seen on the road. He reminded Edward of what he was engaged in forgetting. A weather-vane at Albury and a score of other places he had forgotten. Recycling is remembering and forgetting. Another drink and I won’t miss her.
Preston, August 2011