III

The morning after the VE Day celebrations comes on with a violent reminder of the previous world of this pub, of me, of my life with my parents. I sit in the sun and try to sweat the hangover out—a horror that seems barely credible. A few doors down the street the man with the PA system, who in the normal course of things would have set himself and his covers band up in the beer garden of the Railway Arms for the whole bank holiday weekend, is packing his kit down. Is there a little hint of something in his wave this morning? Some acknowledgement of a communal transgression? Today he is in shorts and a pink Ralph Lauren polo shirt. The false, and rather sad, RAF uniform of yesterday back in its box, or wherever it is kept between the regular bouts of nostalgia. The whole scene is heavy with the poetry of our local human decline—a language that is both self-congratulatory and obsolete. On the picnic table in front of me an empty coffee cup. By the back gate the recycling box full of yesterday’s beer and gin bottles. The little row of cottages. Bunting, brick and flint, thatch. Union flags wilting in the early sun. Blackbird and goldfinch and great tit song regaining ascendant position in the music of the place. Now that’s what I call a suburban bird-feeder. The woods are soundtracked by blackcap, song thrush, wood warbler, chiffchaff. The open fields throw up their skylarks, though not in the number they used to.

In his book Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey describes a May Day morning in the Arizona badlands. He raises a red rag alongside his Chinese windbells and afterwards hoists the Stars and Stripes. ‘Impartial and neutralist, taking no chances, I wish good fortune to both sides, good swill for all. Or conversely… damn both houses’ I’m more in line with the latter these days, though ‘swill’ feels like the right word for us here, pigs in charge of our own trough. I find it harder and harder to summon the will to argue for anything, were such an argument even available to me. The whole process looks empty to me, in these days of our solitudes. Perhaps the forced isolation has denuded my faith in communal endeavour. Or perhaps my belief in such things was always tenuous, stretched thin by the evidence in front of my own eyes. The media continues to talk to itself, the empty chamber in parliament a symbol of something forcing itself through the last of the motions, while everywhere else people re-learn how to live, turning inward or off the news, heeding or ignoring advice, throwing their various cautions to the wind.

Some days, the real world presses itself upon me. The physical world of the earth itself. When I left London and moved back here a couple of years ago, I took on an allotment from an old family friend. Of course my initial motivation was affectation. The whole thing seemed congruent with the styling of myself as poet, as a namer of the birds and the trees, man of the region. Perhaps it coincided with the Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry jag. Some lines from Berry’s essay ‘Think Little’ stay with me, I know that much—‘A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, by practices that will preserve rather than exploit the economy of the soil, has set his mind decisively against what is wrong with us.’ However it began, I am thankful now. My time on the little plot is further complication for received ideas of ‘work’. After a few hours I do feel worked in some way, and yet joyful, happy. More Wendell—‘Take pleasure as it comes. Take work as it comes.’ This is non-transactional time. It is something I do, but not, somehow, something that I am. It feels like a rejection of the way we live here, with people jostling for self-identifiable position, exchanging and updating statuses, one for another. Money, power, prestige, comfort. Their materiel is house prices, expensive bicycles, moral superiority. The arms race at the school gate. And the soft power that comes with the prestige of the arts. The ‘creatives’ of the village, with the violence that their noun has done at the altar of the adjective. I do not flinch from my own collusion in all this. The local poet, the bore, the big mouth. The allotment and the long walks, begun as affectation, fertiliser for my own sense of self and worth. I bring my own sacrifices to the festival, along with all the others.

The soil is a text of its own, a memory of gone seasons and old sun and past life become mulch. It is specific. Edward Abbey talked of his desire, in heading to the desert, to ‘evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of cultural apparatus’, to see life ‘as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description.’ This is how it feels to me, planting this bean plant, the seeds of which I was given by my grandfather, dried from his own stock, without recourse to horticultural study, to ‘varieties’, to latin names. The categories which ultimately give way to hierarchies. It is unqualified life, and all its own at that, this small thing making its home in the soil. I walk across the ground, between the distinct patches of land and their plants, their discreet, rickety little shacks and tools, netting, fencing, their clods and their tilth, the pile of manure in the middle of the plot, people bending towards soil in which they have invested so hard. It is more profound than ownership, this. Back when I had the will, I would try to intimate to people like Paul, a local prison warden who drinks in the Paper Lantern, sitting at the bar with his crossword, that he is involved in an intimate, radical act when he undertakes the work required of him on his plot, but it never quite washed. It’s just fresh veg, you daft trot, he would say. Now I simply join in the easy, practical conversation of those of us with a few pole. No theory, no politics. In the pub it is a shortcut into talk that is both flippant and deeply felt. The status symbols of so much village life, the jobs, the schools, the huge and brutal cars, seem meaningless when the talk turns to digging and timings and tender plants. And this morning there is work to do, hangover or no. 

I walk to the plot via a long, wide street lined with plain trees and hornbeam, running north and parallel to the main road out of the village towards the ‘town’. This is the road that is most desirable in the village. The most expensive. The front drives are full of statement cars and in the last decade or so any nod to cottage garden planting has made way for monocultural lawns, or gravel backdrops for the spotless Range Rovers, BMWs and Jeeps. A boulevard-esque monument to petroleum and the global motor trade. At the north end of the road a little dirt track runs round the back of a row of houses and down to the allotments. This morning the path is coddled in beech leaves and nettles, the first of the cow parsley. 

On my patch I water, earth up the potatoes, sow a couple of rows of spinach. The ground is dry and dusty. I see my grandfather on his patch a few plots down and say hello. He warns of a frost in the next few nights. Don’t risk anything tender yet. I can’t help think of his sentence’s beauty, its poise, the seed-like quality of hope it communicates. I finish my tasks, clean up and lock the shed.

From the allotments I cross the main road and head east towards the canal. Another track of white chalk and flint that runs past a large park and then into a thin, hedge-lined lane. The lane is the kind of half-hidden place where tradition dictates teenagers attend to their first, sticky fumblings. If I think back now to that age it strikes me that here, even those exultant, innocent moments were already, at the age of eleven or twelve, loaded with the weight, with the shame, of status. Here, where children are sieved through a selection process for secondary school, where they are ascribed a type, a category, and with it attendant modes of thought, of behaviour, individual desires must early on be subsumed for the sake of propriety. Girls or boys from one school or the other do certain things the others do not. Sex is not a loss of innocence, but a reclamation of it. An act of unalloyed living. The plants perhaps know this better than we do. 

The canal towpath leads out of the village and across the county to the east. After ten miles or so the water in this ‘arm’ of the canal peters out, the bed running dry at the edge of a large field. Where the water runs out, the bottom of the canal bed is baked almost pure white. Huge cracks have opened up in the hardened chalk. It looks like a dried river from another continent. Those images of a damaged earth we were sold as ‘elsewhere’ in my youth to serve (of all things) wrong-headed and patronising notions of ‘charity’. We’ve had two months with next to no rainfall. The earth opens up like a sore, or the chalk streams disappear into the ground. On top of everything— the pandemic, the daily death toll, the loneliness, the hangover, we must walk, confronted at last by the evidence of all our failure, our fallibility. Even here, where the hammer falls least hard, there is the detritus of a terminally degraded world. 

Our section is a small arm of the Grand Union, and you could, if you chose, walk the towpath all the way to London. The arm was only navigable for a short period, hamstrung by constant leaks. A canal that leaks…  there is something so perfect about it. So fitting for a place that has been so wrong about the true nature of the world that its works fail under the strain of their own element. A place that has bastardised the very features of the earth that have given it a name, that have broken them, spent them, ruined them for the sake of servitude. 

Where the boats on the canal once unloaded goods for the big house on the edge of the village there is a bench. I sit and watch and listen. Swifts overhead in yet another huge blue sky, swallows taking food from a midge hatch on the surface. It is still silent of human noise in the early mornings, though lately everyone has noticed a few more cars on the roads. A new point of discussion in the pharmacy queue. The house here was built by a prominent family. The name is still well-known. In fact, if I said that they are the subject of some of Mark’s darker, more sinister conspiratorial mutterings in the pub, you might know, or at least be able to guess at, the family I am referring  to. They owned vast amounts of land in the area, big houses across the county, pubs that still bear their name or their crest. There are photographs of them having their traps pulled through town by a team of zebras. Stories of the animals they once kept in their collection. A plastic bag full of dog shit sits in a tree along the path. Dog shit is a fact of the towpath, of the bushes, the grass, the beer garden of the pub. I think of all the dogs of the Paper Lantern, the cockapoos and miniature schnauzers, the terriers and collies. Big Joe’s weimaraner. In places like this, dogs have out-grown their old categories of work and become archetypal, tarotic. They stand now for human loneliness and all its opposites and inversions, for the warm breath of something living alongside you. The same things the pub has come to mean in its absence. At one time I had a strong dislike of the things, dogs I mean, not pubs. No fault of their own, of course, I had simply once had an idea for a sequence of poems about them which I later discovered a German poet called Durs Grunbien had already written. His work was perfect and could not be improved upon and so the animals themselves became yet another symbol of my many failures. But now, I have come to believe in them, much as their owners must, and their little bags, left on the way paths of the county, like offerings to a long-forgotten god. I believe in all these signs now, signs of the damage being done by a fanaticism just as irrational, as wild, and as fervid as any of the religious or political bogeymen the media continue to drag in front of us, and one based on a fallacy just as fantastical as that of a benevolent supernatural being—that of infinite and perpetual economic growth. Grow and consume, that is the way of things for the people of this country and the dogs that walk beside them.

Will Burns

Where Do We Live Now? Part 1

Where Do We Live Now? Part 2

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