V

Lonely, fraught, strange days. I am up at four with the sun and the birdsong. My days have taken on the rhythm of these non-human things, beginning in dim light and settling into the long lull of the afternoon before a brief flare of energy as the evening turns into the night. My walks are at dawn now, avoiding the increased traffic along the towpath, in the woods, on the hills. Up at the monument that stands at the highest point of Coombe Hill people are luxuriating in the new freedoms. The car park at the top overspilling, people having picnics. By late afternoon the grassy hilltop surrounding the austere spike memorising the dead of the Boer War is littered with beer cans and crisp packets, plastic bottles, clingfilm. More dog shit. Even at our lowest point we will find it in ourselves to desecrate the earth. One afternoon my mother takes a couple of recycling bags up the hill and clears up a bit. The large commercial bins that the pub would easily fill every week normally are mostly empty these days. They can accommodate a little extra. From the top of the hill, with its view across the vale, out over a landscape of farmland and small settlements, four counties on a clear day, the field below and to the east with its growing little community of portaloos, trucks and vans all beginning the next stage of the HS2 work, I walk south away from the monument along the Ridgeway and down the opposite side of the hill. Downhill through the beech woods, the bluebells and wild garlic passed from full flower and now gone to seed, the light modulated through the greenscale of the layers of beech leaves in the canopy, the odd ash, rowan, hawthorn. Woodpecker, blackcap, thrush, goldcrest. Heard more than seen. Down past the farm at the bottom of the wood, on the corner of the road that skirts the hill I take the footpath as it crosses the grounds at Chequers. Warnings about straying from the path, CCTV cameras on the fenceposts. I take the path across the grass and look to my right over the large estate park, cleared of all but the odd tree, a few sheep grazing the grass. Crows and rooks are the place’s birds. Kites, a buzzard. 

After the last couple of weeks it’s hard not to think about the proximity of this place, of its purpose, its people. I find it occupying my thoughts, drawing my eye. I find myself walking this way day after day and wondering if any of ‘them’ are here, what future is being imagined in those old rooms. A helicopter passes and I read it like augury. I take up positions relating to the place, attempts at parsing some meaning in the fact of the house being here, or perhaps just being. It is a monument of its own, of course. To the almost limitless accumulation of its associated class for two hundred, three hundred years… perhaps more. To the complacency of power at best, to its callousness at worst. Either way, to violence. Displaced violence here, where all things are kept conveniently at arms-length. 

Edward Abbey describes the ‘fondness’ he believes the owl has for its prey, ‘the genuine affection with which the owl regards the rabbit before rendering it into edible portions’. He wonders if the feeling is in some way reciprocated, if the rabbit feels, finally, some sense of peace or such like at the ultimate act of being eaten. As if the life of the rabbit is anxiety, somehow—the constant anxiety for food, for sex, for shelter, and death (at the right talons) the resolution of that anxiety. The surface violence of the world seems easy for Abbey to anthropomorphise despite his own instinct, his desire to avoid it. For him, the question is whether the rabbit feels a kind of love at the end. ‘How can we speak of natural enemies in such a well organised system of operations and procedures? All the time, everywhere, someone or something is dying to please.’, he writes. I’m unconvinced, now, by his argument. It relies too heavily on a quiescence to hierarchy, to the acceptance that what is, is ‘well organised’. Abbey betrays his own wish to see the world as things beyond the bounds of taxonomy, of category. Surely the rabbit does not classify itself as simply ‘prey’. It cannot know the word, for words are our own special degradation of the world. In Abbey’s America, any facade of organisation, of order, looks like it is crumbling by the day. Generations of violence, of the stacked cards of industrial capital, of wealth and the racism and injustice that are so enmeshed with it, indeed that have generated it, are once more working their way through society via power structures that appear ever more brutal, even sadistic. Peaceful protest some plead. As if they haven’t had that chance before and ignored it. Who could watch and not want the rabbit, finally, to turn on the owl and burn his roost to the ground? Enough, the owl must come to understand. Enough.

I realise of course that I play my own part in the violence of my times, that I inherit the violence of times before me. And we are perhaps, no better off here than in America, certainly no less implicated, no more innocent. I look down the hill at the brickwork of this eminent building that sometimes seems to exult in its place here in the hills, and sometimes seems sullen or sheepish, hidden in the wild service trees that surround it. The brick of that house is pointed with the blood and bone of all the crimes of industrial exploitation, all its environmental ravages. In the act of parliament in which the house was gifted to the nation as the Prime Minister’s country retreat, then-owner Sir Arthur Lee wrote that “…the better the health of our rulers the more sanely will they rule and the inducement to spend two days a week in the high and pure air of the Chiltern hills and woods will, it is hoped, benefit the nation as well as its chosen leaders.” I wonder if the building takes its share of blame, too, when its malignant aspect appears to be in the ascendent. It sits brooding at me today while the government (its government?) appears to be opting out of any last semblance of sanity. Guilt and shame bring their own sedimentary recriminations, of course, and the plain truth is that these walks are the least of my own indulgences. I am too eager to feel like this, to crow about my own inadequacies in order that they might count as conscience. Dormancy is our crime out here in England’s well-fed middle—leafletting for the Labour party or making coffee at the local party’s monthly reading group in the Lantern strike me now as postures, or worse, as acts I might have simply imagined. Walking and reading are not enough, it occurs to me. Perhaps they never have been.

My reading matter comes from the shelves in the spare room I find myself living in. My own books remain packed up in boxes in the garage. A symbol of the impermanence of this arrangement. The books are my parents’. Their little library of the American West. I re-read Rachel Carson, Mary Austin, Gretel Ehrlich. Books I remember from childhood and which created in me a strange and lasting longing for America. I desired its music, its literature, its food. But most keenly I wanted its vast and wild spaces. For most people my age that might have meant travel, but for me that was simply impossible. My generation’s own colonial gesture—gap years and cheap international flights, the shrunken post-internet world, ‘doing’ south Asia, Africa, Australia, America—a new version of individuated grasping, the newly globalised world of the wealthy. The ironic gesture of its borders. I would have loved, of course, to see these places, but the thought of travel even now, makes me sick. So I stayed here when the exotic trips were being had, just as I did when the universities took my peers away from here, and then the City, then home-ownership, then children. I read and listened to records and made places and times out of my imagination. Reading Edward Abbey again I’m struck by the sublime confidence with which he walks through the land, a confidence that reads to me today as yet another colonial posture. My friends from school moved through the world with the same sense, I think—they descended on markets in a foreign country with the power to purchase, they caroused in foreign cities knowing real danger was a statistical anomaly. Strippers in Las Vegas, drugs in the Balearics, the cheap yet-to-be spoiled paradises of Thailand. All there for the consuming. Abbey has on one hand a deep knowledge and connection to his places, but on the other a too-easy disdain for people unlike him, the innate sense of his own primacy, that almost without his noticing slips into casual racism, misogyny. At times I put the book down and think he is the perfect guide for the times, that the mistakes we are still making are in his tradition as well as the traditions he saw as his opposites, his adversaries’—the traditions of ‘progress’, of the developer, of the market. 

Having crossed the grounds at Chequers, I take the path across a wide field. Here, in the early mornings or late afternoons, skylarks—sometimes perceived just as song, as a flute-like tone that seems to burst, disembodied, birdless, out of the blue—climb in stages high into the clear sky, or descend back into the grasses of the fields and their hidden nests. I stop and record the song on my phone. I have long given up trying to photograph them. The song is enough. Enough for what I think to myself. I have nobody to play the recordings to. Perhaps I keep it for some far-off winter day. A hedged-bet against another season.

At the western edge of the field, I enter a small wood, skirt its rim round to the north until, at the other side, I come through a gate into a suddenly quite different landscape. The beeches and oaks and ash are gone, and the hills seem somehow smaller. The lush grassland is dotted everywhere with small, squat box trees, the white chalk path running up and down and over the hillocks that stretch ahead of me. Away to the north I can see Pulpit Hill and the deep, ancient, box wood that I walk through on my way back. Very near here, when I was still at school, a group of kids a few years older began to host illegal parties in one of the hidden valleys just to the north-west. I never went but one or two friends of mine did. They re-named the place Happy Valley, or perhaps they took some older name that had fallen out of use and re-purposed it. For a couple of years these parties went on, secret until the day itself, when people would somehow find out and take themselves off, after the pubs closed perhaps, into the woods and listen to music on the huge PA systems they erected and dance and take drugs. Dancing. Drugs. All that was always beyond me, somehow too. One of the organisers of those old raves still comes into the Lantern now and then. Or did when it was open. I’ve never known him as anything other than V. I remember one occasion a few years ago when he was sitting on his own in a little corner of the saloon bar. The kitchen had closed so he proceeded to get out a packet of salami and a loaf of bread. He didn’t ask or seem to care if he’d been perceived to have broken any kind of rule, or if he’d contravened some delicate point of etiquette. He had just got out of hospital and his right leg had a brace around the knee where he had damaged his cruciate knee ligaments playing football. I think of him now, whenever I walk across this section of hills. On another occasion he was told not to take his medication at the bar. It was around the same time and he was on heavy prescription painkillers for his injury. I think my mother told him she knew exactly what he was taking and that he shouldn’t leave the bottle on the bar next to his drink and that he certainly should not be washing them down with six pints of cider. She took his car keys off him that night, as I recall, and called a cab to take him home. He told one particular story over and over, involving him going out clubbing one night with a famous pop singer and his brother back when he was still putting on parties and club nights. He said the singer’s brother had spent an hour or so telling him about the best cocaine he had ever taken, which was, somewhat unsurprisingly, when he had been touring with his brother in Colombia. V said the singer’s brother had gone on to instruct him, in some detail, as to how one might make something quite like the drug too, just from the leaf of the coca plant, using a microwave. Apparently, you just kept putting a tightly-wrapped package of the leaves into the microwave for very short bursts, 30 seconds at a time, then taking it out and squeezing as much liquid as you could from the parcel. Eventually all the liquid and presumably most of the nutrients are gone from the leaf and the dried remnants could, so he was told, be chopped up into a powder. The pop star’s brother had said to him, honestly mate, a little bump of that stuff, the pure stuff, and it’s like, BANG, WHO TURNED THE DARK OUT? The story always went down well, no matter that we’d heard it all before. V is an amusing storyteller and despite his tics, his occasionally rather anti-social aspect, a likeable man. Is it that oddly-made, slightly wrong-headed phrase that made people laugh I think to myself now, or is it something else? A sense of serious criminal transgression, of boundaries being overrun. Isn’t it all the same thing, finally—the families littering beauty spots across the country, Edward Abbey going out at night, pulling up the wooden stakes developers have driven into the ground to mark out a new road in the Arches National Monument, pop stars on cocaine binges in Colombia, V’s parties in an ancient woodland, his lackadaisical positing of bottles of opiates on the bar in full view of whoever cared to look, government officials breaking their own guidance during a global pandemic—that rules are not something intractable or unbending. Not for them. Perhaps they think of it as daring. Something to do with the will, that what they desire comes inevitably to pass, but it’s not the will, or talent, or courage. It’s because they are born in possession. They are taught to understand and to offer the defence of a sense of ‘reason’ everybody is assumed to understand, they are saturated in the feeling of rightness that comes with their selfhood. Their category, their taxonomy, in the eco-system of capital, which calls on words like ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’ and ‘order’ but which ultimately knows they are empty of meaning, is that of the who-says-so. They cross the world in the knowledge that it works for them. In the world of the owl and the rabbit the owl has it just as hard, despite the bloodshed of the rabbit’s end—long evenings quartering the fields, chicks with an apparently endless hunger, the risk inherent in every hunt. Both earn their merit. But for those born happy, born lucky, born in the light—in the village the saying is ‘born on the right side of the Tring road’—born of the wide streets with the big houses, the rabbit, when called upon, comes quietly.

Will Burns

Where Do We Live Now? Part 4

Where Do We Live Now? Part 3

Where Do We Live Now? Part 2

Where Do We Live Now? Part 1

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