Shepton Mallet to Bridgwater
I lay awake listening to the rain, and at first it was as pleasant to my ear and my mind as it had long been desired; but before I fell asleep it had become a majestic and finally a terrible thing, instead of a sweet sound and symbol. It was accusing and trying me and passing judgment. Long I lay still under the sentence, listening to the rain, and then at last listening to words which seemed to be spoken by a ghostly double beside me. He was muttering: The all-night rain puts out summer like a torch. In the heavy, black rain falling straight from invisible, dark sky to invisible, dark earth the heat of summer is annihilated, the splendour is dead, the summer is gone. The midnight rain buries it away where it has buried all sound but its own. I am alone in the dark still night, and my ear listens to the rain piping in the gutters and roaring softly in the trees of the world. Even so will the rain fall darkly upon the grass over the grave when my ears can hear it no more… I am weary of everything… I am alone. The truth is that the rain falls for ever and I am melting into it. Black and monotonously sounding is the midnight and solitude of the rain. In a little while or in an age – for it is all one – I shall know the full truth of the words I used to love, I knew not why, in my days of nature, in the days before the rain: ‘Blessed are the dead that the rain rains on.’
(The Icknield Way, Edward Thomas)
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.
(Rain, Edward Thomas)
Edward tried to get in the churchyard again; but it was locked. Monsoon weather had hit overnight, bringing to mind a piece of nature writing and a poem. Robert MacFarlane, who was also in pursuit of Edward, had heard the very same rain – rain that sluiced down on to long white roads and frail tracks. New nature writer MacFarlane, resembling the poet Andrew Motion drifting ahead of him, was exploring a love-affair with paths. Both reflected on the relationship between paths, stories, poetry and folk-memories – old paths were imagined as ghostly spaces of time-warp and spectres. Edward had criss-crossed the Downs on lengthy pursuits, and walked rough-circles, turning left consistently or right consistently. One of the basic situationist practices, the dérive, a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences, could be compared. His loops involved playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical affects – and were quite different from classic notions of a walk or a stroll as a practice. MacFarlane considered how paths might be thought of as sculptures, a kind of democratic art-form. He used Edward as a means to an end. Edward had developed a method of making one-day wanderings in the design of a rough-circle, trusting that, as he put it in The South Country: by taking a series of turnings to the left or a series to the right, to take much beauty by surprise and to return at last to my starting-point. The rain still rained on, inundating guttering. Hit by wind, it poured down to the tarmac in waves with a slap. Edward returned often to rain – piecing together The Icknield Way in 1911 between Streatley and East Hendred, and writing a poem from a bleak hut in 1916 on the war path, being the darkest two images; recurrent like rain, they returned in Shepton, and resonated as always with each other. It was not until mid morning that the rain ceased to be. And paintings of rough seas could be left for the next guest. Cold, dull, townscape rose up: the home of Babycham, the oldest prison in England still in use, and the wet walled Anglo-Bavarian Brewery, closed in 1921 soon after Edward rode by. A lover of size or of beer at any price might love it, but no one else. The plain stone heap is on the Buildings at Risk Register these days, produced by English Heritage – a local landmark, and the first brewery in England to brew lager. Its tubular chimney stack stood high behind us on exiting the town. No smoke spirals or whirls of dust to wave us off. Rather beech as the river drilled deeper underground. Until on either hand was a vertiginous array of greenery. It blurred into one as the road descended smoothly to the base of the valley. The Sheppey meandered little alongside. Bricked in and straightened it followed the line of the road, swapping sides on occasion. It was a tight steep gorge, everything felt squeezed, fighting for space. Even the sky was pushed out and up, into a narrow ceiling of whitish blue. Trees jostling for attention were scraping the sky. While lorries bustled their way through, on a hectic narrow stretch. Leaves rustled about grassy banks, attempting to be heard over the confusion. Smoky exhausts affected overworked underpaid lungs. The dizzying pressure was palpable. Ordinary practitioners live down below, in the depths of valleys. Making use of a space that cannot be viewed, and visibly understood. Gazing was impossible, rendering a certain strangeness, leaving the eye unable to produce an imaginary totalisation. There were tactics of movement down there, as everything withdrew and moved in a neat flow. All sight of the chimney stack lost in a mass of verticals. Leafy landscape was citified for a few moments, in order to make some sense of overbearing surroundings. As if we braked and rolled through the streets of New York. Streets woven with the common hero, the ordinary man, walking each day to work in regular lines. The Practice of Everyday Life for Michel de Certeau. Massively different from dérives and rough-circles. The edge of the island was reached and the familiar sky enveloped the scene. We could once again enjoy the horizon ahead of us. We had become accustomed to waiting and doing so.
Stone cottages faced the road and lined it consistently for a way. Scatterings of ivied oak, elms and ash trees interrupted. A ridge positioned itself on the left. The road clung to its side. In the distance was a view of Wells. Its cathedral sat over the other side of the wide flat-bottomed vale, about two thirds of the way up. The Sheppey was lost somewhere below, with plenty of space to meander how it liked. Drifting about, taking random turns this way and that, camouflaged by swells of trees and busy hedgerows. There two other cyclists crossed our path. They stopped a hundred yards ahead and gazed-with at the cathedral. The other couple, as we shall call them, re-mounted. We followed closely for a while. They were not proper cyclists, riding slowly down to a sign-posted cycle path, talking away. Any turn may lead to heaven or any corner may hide hell. The path was a few feet beneath the flat route to Wells. Above somewhere the major road was hidden by a buffer of sound quelling ash. Ahead was a darkened underpass. Something hung motionless from the centre of its archway. The other couple stopped a few hundred feet before the concrete bunker. As we got nearer what it was did not reveal itself further to us. It looked like a slaughtered pig hanging from its trotters. A little closer it changed again into a mess of arms and legs, a crucifixion of sorts. Until we were dead beneath it on our bicycles, and what it was finally gave up the ghost. A swirling mass of three naked bodies: hips pushed forward, feet and heads tipped backwards. The circle of humans hung to the underpass, and to each other, arm to leg. It was a portal to the underworld, the afterlife. These humans tempted more souls in, or clung on for dear life to this earth, which was unclear. The small of the back stretched to breaking point. That is the only way to see the sculpture properly. Bend backwards and look upwards, mimicking the lost souls. It was a nondescript cycle path, trailed by grassy banks; concrete bounded and crossed from time to time. While ivy clad trees provided a canopy. A liminal sculpture in itself, the back way to Wells: a kind of democratic art-form. While it was not a path on the Downs trodden into existence, or an ancient way – like Robert MacFarlane had envisaged – it had a resilient charm to it. And like the paths winding about urban wastelands, it was every bit as democratic, with or without the sculpture. The other couple had stopped to eat a picnic. Damp concrete greyed all around them. Make millionaires history was daubed numerously. It was a wild place. A faint trace of urine suffused the air.
Edward knowingly laid new tracks on an already marked ancient landscape. Wookey Hole caves were only a few miles away – used by humans for 50,000 years. Yet he thought of one writer at Wells, and that was Mr. W.H. Hudson, who has written of it more than once. Wells is a part of the book; Adventures among Birds. He says that it is the only city where the green woodpecker is to be heard. The book is about his journeys in search of birds, predominantly in southern England. Edward regards it as one of his best country books. It is the best book entirely about birds known to him. No such descriptions of birds’ songs and calls are to be found elsewhere. Edward said this of Hudson: if ever, in spite of his practical work, his warnings and indignant scorn, they should cease to exist, and should leave us to ourselves on a benighted planet, we should have to learn from him what birds were… When he writes of his first and only pet bird and it escapes, there is no pettiness or mere prettiness: it is not on the human scale. The giant crane, South American crested screamers, a kestrel being turned off by starlings, a heron alighting on the back of another heron, starlings detaching themselves from their flock to join some wild geese. Their playful spirit is universal. It is a writing of the non-human; a more-than-human book, exploring the rich connections between animals, movement, and place. The movement of birds through space and amongst places fosters unique sites. There human-animal relationships are negotiated, complicated, enacted, performed, and contested. While Hudson is not obsessed by writing himself out of the work, there is a sense of it being a book shaped by the birds. Adventure among Birds blatantly concerns itself with nature-society, human-animal relations. And is a forerunner to recent works claiming – for ontological and political reasons – to be written from an animal, or non-human, perspective; books considerate of non-human agency in a flat universal relational system. In these books, humans and non-humans participate in a network: there is no hierarchy of humans and non-humans. His birds are intensely alive in many different ways, and always intensely birdlike. As Edward says, specifically of Adventures among Birds; it reveals the author in the presence of birds just as much as birds in the presence, visible or invisible, of the author. Writing about animals is an age old problem. A flat ontology does not fix the problem altogether. It provides thinking space. Edward is reminded of the skylark, just as he was by George Meredith of Box Hill. For the skylark is to Hudson both bird and spirit; and one proof of the intense reality of his love is his ease in passing, as he does in several places, out of this world into a mythic, visionary, or very ancient world. His multi-sensory historical materiality reveals how to engage creatively and critically with the poetics and politics of landscape. In Pursuit of Spring unearths likewise.
Beyond Wells was flat land. Glastonbury Tor, distant, protruded from it, topped by a tower. A path visibly snaked up to the summit of the ancient navigational tool. Straight watercourses networked their way about the boggy grass beneath. Elm, willow, and pine followed contiguous. We wound up at the base of the Tor in no time. So flat and easily negotiable was the land. In every direction were apparently empty marshy fields – evidently why the always muddy festival is staged nearby; the pyramid stage, the dance tent, messy days, and messier happier nights came rushing back unwontedly. At Avalon there were apple orchards for the production of scrumpy. This was how I imagined Somerset. The sun had dried the roads through. And maelstroms of dust kicked up into my eyes from the faded tarmac. Above; the Tor stood magnificent in scattered light. Somewhere up there people were looking down at me from their prominent position – mapping the scene in their minds perhaps. I become only a part of the unfolding, something different to them being distant. In his essay on ascending Glastonbury Tor, John Wylie follows Maurice Merleau-Ponty out of the binarism of subject and object, seer and seen – central to Cartesian models of knowing. A deer was hidden from view, crumpled in a thicket, bloodied but whole; another victim of the dense traffic of this motorway corridor. It could not at least be viewed from above, by the spectators on their elevated station. Even the motor vehicles would have likely missed the beast. It was spared becoming a part of the spectacle by the bramble. Thorny stems wound around, enlacing and intertwining the corpse, preserving the dignity of the creature in death. Unlike the sad exposed badgers, with their insides visible as well as their outsides, all inseparable. Edward went to town. The cultural history of Glastonbury is significant. But not due to the streets and buildings of the place, rather its adjacent fields where people go each summer. For Maurice Merleau-Ponty the world is the field of our experience. I am a field, an experience.
We crossed the river Brue by Pomplares Bridge. In half a mile we were in the town of Street. The boot factory has dominated the place for over a century. A chimney and a squat tower in a past life; it sprawled about with a dullness approaching the sordid. What Alan Berger would have called; drosscape. Phillip Guston; crapola. T.S. Eliot: The Waste Land. Now the factory is a village. An outlet village: retail landfill. Old industrial country lanes are swallowed by the ribbon development. Not on the scale of the Iain Sinclair explored Wellesian Pits; Bluewater, Meadowhall, Metrocentre, and The Trafford Centre. More the deliberately quaint Bicester Village, Cheshire Oaks, and Freeport, which like a mock Tudor house, mimic a twee past. There is less of the Ballardian hypermodernity. They are not the arcades of Paris, a habitat of the flâneur. Rather a few shops down a fake high street. Just hollowed out things; their plastic sheet brick facades hiding corrugated metal. The dialectical image – a place removed of all the extra life it should possess but still somehow the same thing. It is no more than a strange slither of a village. All predicated upon the seconds of capitalism. Cheap tat: broken, jumbled, ripped. We circumvented the no cycling rule, weaving about the cars, attempting to use the site differently. Not purchasing, we were deemed subversive, and were told to leave, along with some kids. Now the situationists have gone there is no fun. There was no epiphany. It was not that sort of drifting. We did not lose ourselves or become something different – see with new eyes. It was impossible to do so in such a village, on only one plain street. Novelty, play, had been sacrificed and replaced by dead ends, meaningless objects. It was just one big car park, mini roundabout after mini roundabout. To use a term that Edward would, soulless. Spectres of Marx hung about. Use value and exchange value cleaved. A downtrodden commodity fetishism, with all of the dirty fetishism removed. It was a world away from the grandeur of the arcades. A self imposed détournement: just bad capitalism. The older shoppers looked desperate – anything would do for school shoes. Moody teens being dragged about – not the make of shoe they were hoping for. It was all very depressing. Not the town centre. Not difficult to park. Not expensive. Not too busy. Not dangerous. But what exactly was it? Where was the spectacle? They define themselves in negatives, Iain Sinclair inscribes. We were glad to see the flat slowly swelling up at last. To the long ridge of the Polden Hills.
For long stretches it was as Edward had promised; the high point where the road tops the hills. There the sea was visible for the first time; at the other edge of the country, the western edge where the Bristol Channel cuts in – a Kerouacian epiphany though again it was not, we rode on hoping one was still to come. We passed abandoned petrol stations selling four star. And conglomerations of houses – pavement touching – with their associated waste products. Before the sea became the focal point, Wales very far off, the Mendips before. Only a glimpse was afforded, gone almost as quick as the bridged m5 – the border of holiday country. For soon we had dipped down in to town, a wetting sea whetting the appetite, reaching the level of the railway. The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner apparent then on amongst domes of distant dim Quantocks, tower, spire, and chimneys of Bridgwater. Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink. Other poems of the sea were thought of too. Reminiscent of The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. Some also removed from the logic of sense: beautifully imagined nonsense. A Sea Dirge: Lewis Carroll. There are certain things – as, a spider, a ghost, The income-tax, gout, an umbrella for three – That I hate, but the thing that I hate the most Is a thing they call the Sea. Pour some salt water over the floor – Ugly I’m sure you’ll allow it to be: Suppose it extended a mile or more, THAT’S very like the Sea. The nonsensical nonsense poem The Jumblies by Edward Lear – renowned for his literary nonsense – started: They went to sea in a Sieve, they did, In a Sieve they went to sea. And ended: Their heads are green, and their hands are blue, And they went to sea in a Sieve. J.R.R. Tolkien in a poem called Bilbo’s Last Song saw hobbit Bilbo Baggins leaving Middle-earth by sea. Foam is white and waves are grey; beyond the sunset leads my way. Foam is salt, the wind is free; I hear the rising of the Sea… Farewell to Middle-earth at last. I see the Star above my mast! Robert Louis Stevenson documented Christmas at Sea for a sailor. Another poem The Sea and the Hills by Rudyard Kipling with its odd sexual imagery, sexualized feminized nature, and colonialist power came to mind. His Sea as she slackens or thrills? Who hath desired the Sea? — the immense and contemptuous surges? The shudder, the stumble, the swerve, as the star-stabbing bow-sprit emerges? His Sea as she rages or stills? The liminal space, the seaside, a sexual space: a space literally on the edge of society. Blackpool and Brighton. Magaluf/Shagaluf. We descended further, past The Harp Song of the Dane Woman heard by Rudyard Kipling. Poets continued to come ashore. They imagined far off places when they gazed into the sea. John Masefield via Cargoes and Trade Winds saying; There is the red wine, the nutty Spanish ale, The shuffle of the dancers, the old salt’s tale, The squeaking fiddle, and the soughing in the sail Of the steady Trade Winds blowing. Allan Cunningham ending the poem A Wet Sheet and a Flowing Sea with: While the hollow oak our palace is, Our heritage the sea. It was the edge of the nation. Siegfried Sassoon wrote a declaration against the continuation of war. Poets entered the beaches left right and centre. They all though went to fight. Siegfried Sassoon returned to the front line; across the Channel. Matthew Arnold sat on Dover Beach writing of the perilous threshold that the sand is. Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night. National landmarks, the white cliffs of Dover, were invoked – the limit of the chalk seam we had at points traversed. Edward had ended up on the outskirts of Bridgwater, with John Keats and Alfred Lord Tennyson – resident of the Isle of White chalk – for company. They meditated on the sea: its beauty, its materiality, its noises, its smells – affect. The poets were all obsessed by the thing in itself, its phenomena, and sought an originary aesthetics, before society turned the word/world merely visual. They sought it. It keeps eternal whisperings around Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound. Often ’tis in such gentle temper found That scarcely will the very smallest shell Be moved for days from whence it sometime fell When last the winds of heaven were unbound. Oh ye! whose ears are dinned with uproar rude Or fed too much with cloying melody – Sit ye near some old cavern’s mouth, and brood Until ye start, as if the sea nymphs quired! said the romantic Keats to the others.
It is grim up north. Bridgwater was no different. It had an empty port that sat on the River Parret. The place with its clayed clogged drain retained an industrial feel. And like the cotton weaving, coal mining, ship building, and good trading towns of the north it was frayed around the edges. A little dilapidated since the closures. Bingo, pubs, and takeaways. The nuclear power station on the river bank was the main employer. In the suburbs I got a puncture. The asbestos filled houses there could have lined Burnley, Blackburn or Bridgwater. A poet who drowned himself came by. Writer of A Northern Suburb, John Davidson – a poem set in the industrialised north. The last two stanzas go: For here dwell those who must fulfil Dull tasks in uncongenial spheres, Who toil through dread of coming ill, And not with hope of happier years – The lowly folk who scarcely dare Conceive themselves perhaps misplaced, Whose prize for unremitting care Is only not to be disgraced. To be downtrodden is miserable enough. Oppression though up north back then was internalised, pathology – a disciplining of the self that Michel Foucault would have recognised. The cycle has not been broken altogether. And is reminiscent still of so many towns in England. Thoughts again returned to the north as I pushed the useless bike town-ward. A lady offered me a lift in her car. She was off to meet her husband at a pub there. I politely refused but was pleased to be asked. The sort of friendliness that places such as, are renowned for. A few poets have written towns. John Betjeman is one, Iain McMillan another. Philip Larkin though was the poet I remembered on my way to the pub. He wished for his poetry to be spoken of down the pub. Like Thomas Hardy, W.H. Auden and W.B. Yeats, his poems were centered upon working folk. Deprivation for him was what daffodils were for William Wordsworth. Aubade is an open wound, the life of an alcoholic bachelor. I work all day, and get half-drunk at night. Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare. In time the curtain-edges will grow light… Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring Intricate rented world begins to rouse. The sky is white as clay, with no sun. Work has to be done. Postmen like doctors go from house to house. It is not self-indulgent. The poem by the end leads to a realisation. Everyone in town is doing the same old, same old, suburban drudgery – just like everyone at night listens to the rain falling, waiting for the morning sun to break and ruin. One million youth are out of work. And have nothing to get up for. Many would be happy with a daily routine. Poets have to be careful when writing about deprivation. They can proffer a glimpse of the towns of England – more than objects, regeneration, bricks and mortar. Philip Larkin offers a peep; writing starkly the north-east. London still sucks all in. The bright lights: moths to a flame. England is a giant suburb of it. Consequently towns are shedding numbers. Town planners named an avenue after William Wordsworth, a road and a square after Samuel Taylor Coleridge. We passed by both with their former social housing. The Quantocks faded to the sea beyond. The forgotten town was in the foreground. Intimate and green, despite the shitscape retail. A pillared dome market coaxed forth, salvaging onlookers. Wetherspoons reveals all that any town is. Everyone goes there at some point. A statue of Robert Blake stood on the fork ignored. The many televisions were instead seen. All ages pile in for burger and beer. Get out of the rain. The lady who offered me a lift in her car was there. Her husband was not about. We talk of other times in Wetherspoons. Fold napkins, push soft chips around a plate. Drink cheap lager, stare beyond thickly gelled heads. That time in Manchester when she was not allowed in. No football shirts. Our thoughts migrate there. Morrissey.