For reasons too intricate to go into, I found myself suspended in a lacuna of enforced inactivity. A wait that became a blessing. A blissing.
Nine or ten days I spent mostly with my mother, doing nothing but be.
A good thing to be doing, when you've been confronted with the fragile, ephemeral nature of being.
Nine or ten days living the lifestyle of a retired widow. Which has much to recommend it. Walks and drives. Tea and cake in farm shops. Pub lunches.
“Wilds” is not the right word: this land has been cultivated for centuries. Thousands of years, even. One hill round where I grew up and Mum still lives, a hill that we’ve ascended scores of times, has Iron Age earthworks – Grim’s Ditch - etched into its sides. The Ridgeway, Britain’s oldest road, passes through the area.
My favorite out of all them is something her mother used to say, although I never heard Granny say it myself: “Feint May”.
A typical Chilterns vista, says mum.
Not as storied as the oak, or even the beech and the birch, the horse chestnut tree, but it's a staple of the English landscape. In full bloom, the horse chestnut tantalises my eye and frustrates my lens. The volume of the heavy foliage seems impossible to capture on camera – at least on my poxy phone’s camera. Lush leaves and creamy blossoms.. a sweet succulence that turns my thoughts to the sensual.
In Metroland, the milder of the two boys ends up in Paris in May 1968 - but is so busy being in love, he misses all the action of les événements completely. In my case, thirteen years after the event, I'd heard about the Situationists via a Malcolm McLaren interview in Melody Maker , tracked down a copy of Leaving the 20th Century, and went around Berkhamsted copying the graffiti techniques I'd read about it in the book - pasting “seditious” speech bubbles over the advertisements on the hoardings approaching the train station, making little comic strip style posters and sticking them on the town's bottle-recycling skip, and so forth.
On the way down to the river and the surrounding water meadows, we passed an impressive looking building with a blue plaque on it commemorating some dignitary who once lived there - it turned out to be Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees.
So does Berkhamsted ("Historic Market Town"), and with some merit - it's where the Anglo-Saxon leaders handed the crown over to William the Conqueror. After vanquishing King Harold and army at Hastings, the invading Norman army embarked on a circular tour of pillaging and village burning in London's orbit, coming to a halt 30 miles to the north of the city at my hometown. A big castle was subsequently built there whose ruins and moats greet your eyes as the train slows down to pull into the station.
In Rickmansworth, they found a gravel pit with flint tools in it that date back 350,000 years – before Britain even separated from the Continent as an island. (In the beginning, Remain was a geographic fait accompli).
Dacorum, the district in which Tring and Berkhamsted are situated, voted to leave by the narrowest of margins, less than 1.5 percentage points difference
In 2016 there are approaching twenty different places in Berkhamsted you can get coffee, refreshments, snacks, or treats of some kind. Many of them really quite good – no toadstool cappuccinos here. When I was a lad – late Seventies, early Eighties– it seemed like there was nowhere to go. The options, neither of which we took up, consisted of a greasy spoon offering basic sustenance for working men, where you could get tea from an urn or a milky instant coffee, or a teapot-and-scones type place that was staid and not especially enticing to the young, and furthermore was a little outside our price range. I don’t think there were even any fast-food places.
Now I go to see the movie version, with my mother, at the Rex Cinema – widely regarded as one of the best picture houses in the country
High Rise is also an odd thing to watch with your retired mother, even one as broadminded as she is. (She voted Remain and is aghast). The slight discomfort during the sex scenes flashed me right back to those teenage evenings staying up late to watch art-movies and foreign films on BBC 2, hoping for a glimpse of nudity.
Later I worked in the warehouse, assisting a wiry, gaunt, dried-up older man who deftly controlled a forklift truck with flicks of a single black-gloved hand - reminding me of Davros in Doctor Who. I would be tasked with wrapping in cling film the wooden palettes on which we'd loaded batches of sundry agricultural products to make up a farmer's purchase order. (Cooper's was originally world-famous for its sheep dip). The machine that spewed out the plastic wrap generated a crackling burst of static electricity.
Otherwise there’s the full range – at once narrow and varied – of English facial types, many of which seem to leap out of a Medieval painting. Wenches, yeomen, serfs and knaves. Sharp beaky-nosed Maddy Prior types (she was from St Albans, not that far away). People with fair hair like butter that’s gone off a bit - rich yellow with a hint of green. Anglo Saxon boys, mild and sandy. A little girl with a face like Edward Heath. Old men whose hairless cheeks look like melted candle wax.
For sure, old age looks a little different these days - you get OAP men with hair straggling over their collars and faded blue jeans, who look like they could be in Pink Floyd - or once roadied for them. But mostly the pensioners dress more or less the same as they ever did - sensible unstylish coats and frocks. The old ladies have short hair that often, still - in 2016! - has some kind of rinse through it. And they still pull those shopping wheelie things behind them when going down to Waitroses or Tescos. You see a lot of old couples where the man and the woman look unisex - like they're not that bothered about accentuating sexual difference at their age, through their clothes choices or hair styling or make-up (mostly not bothered with). Walks and drives are the shared pastime; romance a faint memory.
The old roads or neighbourhoods are called things like Oddy Hill, Wigginton Bottom, Ruckles Way, Hog Lane, Eyethrope Road, Hivings Hills, Yolsum Close, Wiggles Lane. The old towns and villages have names like Nether Winchenden, Heath and Reach, Gubblecote, Miswell, Toot Hill Butts, Long Crendon, Worminghall, Tiddington, Dollicot, Frithsden.
But the converted farmhouses or new built areas caused by the expansion of old towns into surrounding fields bear names like Deep Acres and Rushendon Furlong, names that are trying too hard but end up twee. Anything that has a “the” in front of it - the Mandelyns, the Glebe – is a recent intrusion.
“Body" evokes the lover’s body or the mother’s body – memories of mammalian warmth, snuggling up with a parent or a sibling, drowsy intimacy, tender bliss. "Body" also suggests physicality of all kinds: the exuberance of running, jumping, chasing, climbing; the grace of dancers, athletes, acrobats... Body, in both these sets of evocations, is the source of vital delight.
But “body” can also appear in sentences like “they’ve found the body,” or ‘there’s a body on the track”. The body can break down – fail – or erupt internally with rot even while its occupant is alive, trapped in it. Bodies become inanimate - abject objects. This kind of body makes us flinch and recoil. Shudder, not sigh.
A beautiful poem - but at the moment I feel like Keats is here exquisitely posing the problem - without offering a solution, or even solace really. He's just keening the pang's blade, making it more piercing.
....where it all started....