IX

I wake to a dawn chorus of pure wood pigeon. From somewhere far off, in an instantly-forgotten dream I hear five, six, a dozen birds close to the window, calling. When I wake the birds are still there, still sounding themselves. A link from the dream world to the here and now of the bright morning. The finches, the thrushes, the warblers have perhaps already given up the ghost. The pigeons here have grown fat and plentiful over the past fifty or so years. Culvers, they are called by the old men on the allotments, occasionally other names beginning with ‘c’ if they have taken particular liberties with the brassicas. They have thrived since the agricultural revolution, and gone on thriving as the fields have expanded, as the nature of crops has changed, as their natural predators have been persecuted, as the gardens of villages like this one have put out more and more birdseed. I find these birds strange, their stare runs through me, somehow. I remember Stephen telling me, when we were quite young, that doves and pigeons produce a kind of milk, to aid them in the feeding of their chicks. I can remember even at the time understanding that fact as a kind of challenge to how I’d imagined the things of the world. When I was much older, in a jag of reading the likes of George Lakoff and struggling my way through work of my own—the pretentious and over-wrought work of a second-rate talent, an under-educated novice, of course—I had hoped I might somehow clarify for myself the complications I half-perceived in how words and names have been made, however ill-fitting, to turn the living world into a kind of grid of description, of reference, of knowledge that always somehow rang false to me. At the time, and in fact it is probably still true now, I felt my way into my own thoughts like somebody entering an unfamiliar room in the pitch dark, feeling my way round for objects to familiarise and orientate myself. For my thoughts have often been half-formed, or perhaps more accurately half-lit. It seemed to me to mean something, something I could almost comprehend, and which, if I could, would resolve, somehow, a particular anxiety I had always carried around with me, that here was a bird that produced milk, that here was one which could not fly, that here was a fish which could breath out of water. The suggestion of all this, to me, was of life’s abandon, of its infinite wildness. Of there being a kind of fundamental way of knowing the earth, and the life of it, that was different to simply naming and organising. At what point, I wondered, did a certain stage of evolution progress from one category of taxonomy into another. Was ‘progress’ even the right word? At the same time, what did any of this have to do with the living of life itself? My thinking abandoned me, or perhaps my grasp of things simply came up short. In turn I abandoned that work, like so much else, and came to despise everything I’d written around that time. Stephen went on to study questions of that order in a far more rigorous way than me, first at Oxford as a Zoology student, then at Imperial College, London, where his first post-graduate degree was in Taxonomy, Biodiversity and Evolution. When we did still see each other, in those days, around the time he was finishing his doctoral thesis, we would talk about the philosophical and scientific implications of those kinds of categories, how his work allowed him to see both their usefulness and their limitations. Long, late conversations deep into the night, sat at a table in the Lantern after closing time when he was back home to visit.

Leaving the pub I come to the end of South street. I turn right onto the main road running down the hill and through the village. Mid-morning and the streets are busy once again. The two or three coffee shops have people outside, the Post Office is open, one or two small shops have started to trade again. We have, in what strikes me as quite a short time really, evolved a kind of outdoor version of our old ways of doing things. People meet in the parks and beauty spots, they sit on the benches outside the shops, or down by the clock tower. There is a rumour that the area outside the small supermarket and pharmacy, a sort of market square called the Manor Waste, will be turned into an outdoor dining area for the three restaurants and the deli. There is a kind of excitement behind the rumour, a sense of novelty, of a kind of imported glamour. Another little irony for me to chuckle along alone to—that in this emblematic middle-English county, this land of leave and the French second home be damned, the people still yearn for their grey and sodden version of Europe. I remember an argument in the Lantern once between a couple of the younger regulars and a much older man called Ron. Ron had been an accountant in his youth, and by his own reckoning— believable too—cut quite a dash in his day. He has his stories about growing up around Fulham, and especially about his salad days under Thatcher, when he spent his time in London casinos and drove an array of sports cars. His one truly great tale is of dancing, once, with Ava Gardner, on the top deck of a jumbo jet. These days he comes into the pub very late every night and has a couple of pints, no more, before driving up the hill back to his cottage. That particular evening he came in, found only Tom and Jim at the bar, and the three of them spent an hour or so talking about Ron voting to leave the EU in the referendum, and about his subsequent application for a French passport via some spurious relative, along with the same for his kids, in order that they could still travel as extensively as they were used to. The sides in the debate were drawn as crudely as that—the young against the old, just as our lamentable media would have us believe the split was playing out at the time across the country. No complexity, no surprise. I listened to the arguments but did not offer my thoughts. It is not quite true to say though, that there is nothing surprising about the interaction of the three of them, for they have, rather strangely, become quite close friends. In fact I often, on these recent long, warm nights, see Jim and Tom sitting out on the cricket pitch with a bag full of beers, and at about nine o’clock a large car will pull up and Ron unfolds his rangy frame from the front seat and carries a bottle of wine of his own over to the boys. I think about the three of them sitting out, drinking together, talking about football, about Ron’s days out watching Fulham and eating fish and chips at The Seashell by Marylebone station, about Jim’s love of horse racing and about pubs and HS2, and it strikes me that they have, too, in their way rejected the taxonomy of so much of our socialised selves. And even, almost unbeknown to them, to reject the taxonomies of their own prejudices. Youth and old age, class, geography. The strange and discreet ways they have each come to be here, and to know each others’ company are facts of exactitude, not category, they have outgrown their original, almost archetypal, interaction to experience something odder, something particular and something for which I cannot help but find, when I think of how we live here, I feel something like a sense of gratitude for. And it strikes me that perhaps there is something in the accumulation of their contact, and so perhaps in all our contact, that might in fact generate that deepening of comprehension—that what begins as something rather thin, something to do merely with the surface of things, accumulates specifics and richnesses, a kind of authentic reality, through time and repetition. And so, for instance, Ron finds that, through their slowly evolving, authentic, interactions, Tom’s Irish-ness (for that is one way that Tom perceives himself, though he moved to the village at the age of five), is not, in fact, quite the same Irish-ness he uses in his awful ‘old-fashioned’ jokes, or that he used to see in the prohibitive signs in the pubs of his own youth. He certainly starts to think of ‘the Irishman’ in the joke and Tom as having separate meanings, somehow. Impossible, I imagine, to articulate any of this to Ron, who continues, despite that growing sense, to want to make the jokes and in fact, if he is ever pulled up on a point of politically correct etiquette, quickly bemoans a culture which he thinks, despite the evidence in front of his eyes—in, for instance, the column inches and headlines in the Daily Mail newspaper that he leaves behind him in the pub most nights for us to ceremonially put in the fire—is conspiring to stop people ‘like him’ speaking what he thinks of, rightly or wrongly, as ‘his mind’. For my part, I think of my walks along these paths, about how the hills behind the rooftops on the high street change across the hours, days, weeks, months, seasons and years, and how, finally, they come to be something so burningly alive, so unique and powerful and intensely real that at times I can hardly bear to look up at them. They grow until the word ‘hill’ cannot contain them. 

At the bottom of the high street, past what is referred to, rather unfairly it seems to me, in the 1976 Countryside Commission Long-Distance Footpath Guide to The Ridgeway, as an ‘ugly clocktower’, I walk up the Tring Road, past a little row of thatched cottages known colloquially as Ann Boleyn Cottages, supposedly a wedding gift from Henry VIII. Hollyhocks struggle with the wind in one or two of the little front yards, another is filled with lavender, another a couple of small rose bushes. Outside the cottages, lining the roads, expensive cars shine in the early morning sun. An Audi, an Aston Martin. We have received an email from Thames Water about an increased pressure on water usage throughout the lockdown period but perhaps the washing of cars of this sort is essential. Opposite is Bank Farm. A rainbow flag drifts in and out of life at the top of the flagpole which stands outside one of the big barns. A kind of symbolic show of gratitude, or support perhaps, for the NHS workers during the pandemic. I notice that it is, coincidentally, the week of the Pride festivities in London, or would have been under normal circumstances. There is the chance that this coincidence has crossed the farmer’s mind. He has, after all, a rather colourful history, that of a benign trouble-maker, a kind of local trickster, a devout hedonist in his younger days, an attender of gigs, raves, the early super-clubs. I recall a conversation I had with him just before the last general election in the queue for the Post Office, where, and this despite his current public show of affection for the NHS, he had said the prospect of a Corbyn-led Labour victory—your lot, he said to me—would be a bloody communist disaster. In the weeks after the EU referendum, he flew a huge EU flag from his flagpole, and I remember him saying in the pub that he didn’t really give a shit about the funding, about the loss of subsidies, or how he might be better off outside the EU, or inside, or whether he could now export his lamb to bloody Timbuktu, all he cared about was that now it’d be royal pain in the arse to fly his little plane over to France for the day for lunch. I have a great deal of time for him, one way or another. 

Past the cottages and up over the top of the hill, I cut across the road and up into the first line of houses on the estate. Past the front gardens in their neat row of wooden gates, a toy tricycle outside one, more lavender and lawn, and at the end of the road, I cut through a little alley and up into the woods that rise with the hillside behind the south-eastern edge of the village. These are the woods that are named for the village and cover the hill from here to the nearest next town. In amongst the trees at this south-western edge of the wood, there is an old Iron-age fort, now an earthwork ring, a jump for kids on their bikes, a point of interest on one of the chalkboards at the large and newly-appointed visitor centre by the carpark which the Forestry Commission spent so much of last year expanding. Pointless to get het up about these things. These woods have, since those pre-Roman times of the fort settlement, always been managed, or perhaps more accurately man-handled. Charcoal-makers, bodgers, sawyers and pig-herders would all have left a distinct mark of their own and much later, most notably during the two world wars, the woods were heavily felled to provide timber. Now there is a cafe, public toilets, trail markers, a huge statue of a Gruffalo overlooking the valley to the east, a Go Ape centre with its attendant ropes and swings and pulleys in the trees and staff in high vis jackets. Bridleways, mountain bike trails. Dog shit bins, picnic tables, permanent BBQ stations, a solitary bird hide hidden away off one of the paths. Relations between the human and the forest are the story of these woods, and they offer themselves, over the course of time, as classifications of their own kind, to history. Great houses, great families, war, commerce, technology. The hill at the back of the woods is called Aston Hill, and from 1904 until 1925 was the site of an automobile speed hill climb. Success in the climb led to one driver, a Lionel Martin to build his own cars. There is a monument now at the roadside near the top of the hill. The inscription reads: 

The Origin of Aston Martin

From 1904 to 1925 Aston hill, part of the Lord Rothschild’s Estate, was a renowned motoring venue.

Lionel Martin made his first ascent of this hill in a tuned Singer Car on 4 April 1914. 

Shortly afterwards, on the 16th May, at the Herts County Automobile & Aero Club meeting, he was so successful that in March the following year the sporting light car club first registered a car in his name called an “Aston-Martin”.

It was the start of a legend in the history of the automobile.

This plaque was placed here by the Aston Martin Owners Club and Aston Martin Lagonda Limited.

I think of the plaque whenever I see one of these cars in the village. Perhaps there is one parked in the pub carpark of an evening, perhaps I see one cruise down the high street and I think of how we constantly rub up against the material facts of the past, more often than not without knowing it. You would drive through this village, perhaps even in your Aston Martin, and think nothing of it, up and out by the woods, past the track that leads up to Aston Hill, on the way to London, or the airport, or the coast. You would not be coming here, for you would have no reason to, for nothing here has the appearance of mattering very much. Another little market high street. Another hill. Another wood. The villages pass you by as names alone until you reach your destination. Wherever it is you are headed. Or perhaps you are simply headed home. 

Will Burns

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