Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Nostalgia, or homesickness / Nostalgia, or timesickness

[previously published as 'Landscape and Loss' and as the photo-essay Grief Vacation]

In May this year I found myself back in the motherland – for an even more melancholy reason than the March visit.
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.


We did all the the usual drives and walks we do when I'm staying - but it being a longer visit, we found ourselves straying well beyond the familiar Chilterns haints -  out into the less hilly but still rolling wilds of Bucks and Beds, Oxon and Northants.   


“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.  

Pitstone Hill

But “wilds” in the sense of being virtually empty – huge stretches of farmland, woods and common    with barely a human to be seen.  And they say that Britain is overcrowded -  "all full up" ! 

Back in the motherland...   And it was my mother’s land I saw. Her mother’s before her. Unchanged, almost. The elms gone, true; the ash threatened, now;  kites, reintroduced, in absurd abundance. But in the fundamental look of things -  the same views gazed on and rambled across by generations of Knapp’s, Culverhouse’s, and other maternal-side-of-family maiden names lost to memory... barely changed at all.

On this trip, my mum started dropping science on me for some reason. It was pouring out of her: local lore, names of places I’ve somehow never picked up even though we’ve been there dozens and dozens of times over the years - Clipper Down, Duncombe Terrace . And sayings.  

My favorite out of all them is something her mother used to say, although I never heard Granny say it myself: “Feint May”.   

The darling buds of May

"Feint May" - it's an expression for the fluctuations of the weather in May, the way you never know what to wear  when you set out in the morning.  That’s what it’s like during my fortnight in England – across just a few hours it’ll go from a light drizzle, to bright sun, to overcast, to a sudden blowy cold spell, the trees lightly tossing.  One night we came back late and it felt like there was about to be a frost; the next morning it was baking hot, July-like. But even  when the weather holds static for a good while it often has an undecidable, in-between quality – close, slightly sticky, neither warm nor cold. Moisture sometimes seems to hang languidly in the air in a state poised midway between condensation and precipitation.  That’s England  - the country where there should be at least twenty different names for gradations of rain, types of downpour. 


“Feint May” -  from feinting, I presume? The boxer’s and fencer’s art of deception. Before that, from the same roots as “feign”. I look up the saying on the internet and there’s no trace of it.  Either it’s lore that’s very local indeed, escaping the dialect-ician's net, or it’s just a private family saying.  

There are others  that Mum mentions that prove equally untraceable and unverifiable.  “Dinksing into town” – that means,  I think, to parade into town with the young lad or lady you’re courting  or “going around with” on your arm.  

“Cla’ the washing in”, as in “it’s about to rain, I better cla’ the washing in” – bring in the only half-dried laundry you’ve hung  on your washing line. The latter saying gets a fair bit of use during the  month of May. 

One proverb that Mum mentions is well-documented and famous: “Ne’er cast a clout / Till May is out.” It means “don’t put away your warm winter clothing until the end of the month of May, cos you’ll probably still need it”.  An alternative meaning is don’t put away your winter clothes until the hawthorn’s blossom – known as may – is out. 

 Pointing to what she describes as a typical Chilterns vista – the way the land opens out between hills – Mum notes that the trees have all gone green now, compared with my last visit in March – except for the ash. The sole remaining trace of wintry in the woodscape, ash is the last to leaf.  She recites another old saying:

 “Ash before oak, we’ll have a soak
“Oak before ash, we’ll have a splash”

                                                                  Pitstone Quarry, flooded (pic by my brother Jez)

That saying wryly indicates that – this being England – the summer will always have some wet in it – it’s just a question of degree.

But it’s also a silly saying, she says, because the oak always leafs before the ash. 

                                            A typical Chilterns vista, says mum.

The saying is on the verge of relevance-extinction now, though – sadly. The ash is under severe threat from a fungal disease, ash dieback. They may all get wiped out, like the elm was by Dutch Elm Disease.


But as something dies or declines in number–  elm, ash, amphibians, the thrush apparently, for reasons unknown  – other fauna and flora resurge.  Otters have reclaimed much of the UK’s waterways (although yet to to penetrate the lower reaches of the  Grand Union Canal as it passes through my home town). Kites - not the children’s plaything, the bird of prey –  have flourished after reintroduction, and are so omnipresent you see their wide reddish-brown wing-span hovering right over the centre of towns, or at least over a small town like Tring.  Deer are an unremarkable sight, a nuisance really, and badgers are commonplace.  When I stepped into my sister-in-law’s back garden, there was a pheasant standing there (admittedly they live right next to farmland). 

                                             The "curated countryside" - as discussed in this precursor post, there's a lot more                                                              "helpful" or  bossy signs about  than when I were a lad

Some things remain novelty surprises, sightings that would have thrilled the 9 year old budding naturalist that was me. A muntjac, tentatively crossing the road – a timorous mini-deer the size of a middling dog.  Others are impossibly rare:  Mum says she hasn’t seen a weasel or a stoat in years. The last I recall was probably twenty years ago, nipping across a lane, a ribbon of fur.  And the time before that, perhaps forty years ago: a weasel’s head and neck rising up out of a burrow in a grassy mound -  then rotating warily, like the periscope of a U-boat,  stiff-spined and perpendicular like a raised ruler. Or indeed just like those meerkat sentries you see in the wildlife documentaries. 

Particular subsets or corners of nature might be ailing, but in the larger sense Life is flourishing, replenishing. Life, this month of May, erupts from the hedgerows and trees overhanging the roads, the fields and woods beyond.  That "feint May" mix of rain and sun is perfect for regeneration.   Everywhere looks like it needs a good mowing.  Fauna have been fornicating. Little baby bunnies, like perfect baked goods, nestle in the cow parsley speckled grassy verges along the road between Berkhamsted and Tring. My mum callously quips “oh, they’ll be flat before the day’s out – dim as a bag of sand, rabbits”.  Birds  swoop carrying twigs for nests or food for nestlings. Lambs gambol or teeter on wobbly newborn legs, huddling with their mothers in the shade of a tree -  an age-old English scene.


One evening, walking through a water meadow at dusk, the bird-song is unbroken, a wall of liquid chirruping  - too much to take in. Bats follow us along the dark lane, attracted by the midges we have attracted –  darting shadow shapes swoop alarmingly close to our heads, reminding me of the folk-tale of bats getting tangled in girl’s hair. My mother stops, sniffs the evening air and says she can pick up the scent of sweet briar – an aroma too subtle for my nose. 


Aeroplanes coming in and out of Luton airport are a regular disruption – but Mum says she doesn’t find  them intrusive, indeed has come to accept them as part of the soundscape. She associates them with the exciting concept of air travel and visiting her sons –  the three surviving now all live in America, you see.  


brother Tim (RIP) and brother Hugo (pic by brother Jez)

I’m the eldest, the first born.  Perhaps that’s why my mother – as we walk through one of the area’s famous bluebell woods – shows me where she wants her ashes scattered. Not because it’s imminent, but she is in a "settling my affairs" kind of mood.

She told me that one time walking through that favorite patch of less-frequented bluebell wood,  she  passed just a foot away from a baby badger – it was drinking water that had gathered in the roots of a tree, snuffling noisily. Didn’t notice her at all.

Perhaps this “putting my affairs in order” mood is what makes Mum tell me all these things – the sayings, place names, scraps of local history.  And names of flowers. Lost knowledge – because apparently I knew them all once, every last flower, when I was five. Then gradually forgot them all, except for the really well-known ones – violets, dandelions, buttercups, daisies -- and one lesser-known, for some reason – soldier’s buttons  (a.k.a stitchwort). 

Now she’s reeling them off to me, too fast and too many for my poor tired aging brain to absorb. Ground ivy, wood sorrel, archangel, red dead-nettle, spurge, milkwort, mountain cranesbill, dove’s foot, herb-robert....   

Cowslips is one I do remember and recognise, but I had never realised - until Mum explained -  that it gets its name because the petal looks like a cow’s lip.  I had always heard it and thought it as “cow -  slips”.  

The primrose is another flower I remember and recognise. Round these parts, primroses seem to grow particularly on high banked verges on country lanes - that's where Mum stops to pick some to take to place beside her mother's gravestone. 

Muriel Knapp RIP

Mum tells me what a hedge is made of, something it had never occurred to me to consider or wonder about. I’d vaguely thought hedges were made of some special kind of bush or shrub. Actually they are composed of trees that have been repeatedly trimmed and then grown back in a tanglesome, in-winding way.  Trees like blackthorn, elderberry, hawthorn, hazel,  holly...  Hedge laying is a fine and possibly fading art. 

This trip, I become obsessed with the horse chestnut – a tree whose existence I had  almost forgotten, despite it being  the source of the conker – a hard nut that was used in the schoolchildren's game conkers - a game that’s possibly faded out by now, or perhaps even banned by over-protective authorities because of injuries from flying conker shards.  

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. 


But everything has that effect on me at the moment.   Clouds – the classic terraced clouds, cake-layered clouds, of the English summer sky  – seem, well, bosomy.  English clouds, with their weighted promise of wetness -  and of radiant green growth.

Here to grieve, I rise most days feeling exultant, stirred awake by the sun streaming round the sides of the curtains.  Outside, vivid and verdant, Life brims unstoppable - it's really showing Death "what for" -  renewing itself in unfazed, scornful  abundance. With so much sap rising everywhere around, it’s hard to think about death or decay.  The life force is strong in me too, it flares up defiantly, a fever of the flesh.  

Often I feel a presence...  hovering invisibly, just out of reach.. Physical memory, reconjured as a tactile ghost. This is the denial stage of grief, perhaps, the body refusing to lose -  to let go. Not yet. 


                                            A genuinely haunted road on the outskirts of Berkhamsted and Ashley Green        -                                                  visited   on some  nights by a ghost-ridden coach-and-four, according to local lore. 

Amersham, relatively near  Berkhamsted, is somewhere I have had not been for perhaps 35 years. A quaint middling size town, it's the last stop on the Metropolitan line.  It appears in the John Betjeman documentary Metro-Land , an elegaic celebration of the band of semi-suburban, nearly-countryside that surrounds London. Which possibly inspired the title of Julian Barnes's debut novel Metroland.  That came out in 1980 and I read it not long after, attracted by reviews that made it clear the two main characters were boys after my own heart -  teenagers driven by boredom and pretentiousness to mount epater les bourgeois pranks whose subversiveness (and originality) they overestimated. 

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 Centuryand 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.       


When you grow up somewhere like Berkhamsted, you might find yourself going  - with your chums, or brothers, or your sweetheart - to the very-similar nearby towns just to have somewhere to go.  So it was with Amersham - it was just as quaint and had exactly the same direly limited options as regards refreshments or things to do. I never picked up on the history of the town then. This visit I was surprised to learn that  Amersham had once been a centre of religious dissent. Lollards burned at the stake.  Unlike the epater brats, these people really were nonconformists  shocking the ruling class of their day. Dying for their beliefs -  “the principles of religious liberty, for the right to read and interpret the Holy Scriptures and to worship God according to their consciences as revealed through God's Holy Word”. 

As a sign pointed out “Amersham was an active centre of Dissent from the 14th Century onwards and some inhabitants suffered martyrdom. During the Civil War, Amersham strongly adhered to the Parliamentary cause. Oliver Cromwell’s wife lived here. In the 17th Century  Amersham was the home of prominent Quakers who suffered great persecution.” 

That whole area of the Chilterns – Amersham, Chesham, Aylesbury, High Wycombe – had a lot of Quakers, apparently.  Berkhamsted still has its own Meeting House.  

Mum and I pushed out further still into Oxfordshire, into parts where it seemed like every other house had a thatched roof.

Here we were retracing journeys that we used to take in the early Eighties, when she would drive me (and my records) to Oxford at the start of each term, often through fields that had flooded spectacularly, so that every meadow was a little lake.  

We stopped at Thame,  a market town through which the River Thame -  not to be confused with the Thames -  flows.  

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.

Very quiet and deserted indeed on a Saturday, Thame struck me as a bit of a backwater. In a tea room I was served a cappuccino that was almost hearteningly crap -  a time travel trip to the days when you couldn’t get good coffee outside of Soho. Thick viscid foam, too much chocolate powder strewn on top  - it resembled the cap of a toadstool.  

We were served by an archetypal Saturday-job schoolgirl – listless and distracted by daydreams,  her pale lightly-freckled complexion framed with wisps of indeterminate-coloured hair. 

On another jaunt we traveled in the opposite direction, north rather than west, heading through Buckingham and into the southern reaches of Northamptonshire,  close to Towcester and Daventry. Names  - see also Kettering – that put a chill through the heart of Remain supporters, flashing one back to the night when the results came in.  About as Middle England as England gets.


Buckingham greets visitors approaching by car with a sign proclaiming its “Historic” status.  

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. 

But every bleeding town in this country could describe itself as "Historic" really.  Layers and layers of the stuff are crusted on top of each other – Victorian... Georgian... Civil War...  Tudor...  Norman...  Anglo-Saxon / Danelaw. ..  Roman...  Celtic....  Iron Age... Bronze Age.    

At the Cow Roast -  a hamlet, known mainly for its tavern of the same name, that you pass on the way from Berkhamsted to Tring – there was originally an oppidum: a settlement of the Catuvellauni, a Celtic tribe.  

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). 

I started writing this before the Referendum and since then the idea of a paean to the homeland has become somewhat contaminated.  There's no longer a sense just of  Living In An Old Country; but of a country in which the Old have taken revenge, have taken over - over-ridden the desires and interests of the young. 

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  


Looking back now on the recent visits – and all the visits of the last several years – I can see that the area I grew up in is in transition. Like most of the country, it’s torn between regression and progression.  Proximity to London  by train means that Berkhamsted and Tring have a commuter town component and are culturally in the orbit of the metropolis - and its cosmopolitan worldview. But the traditional market town aspect – the presence of agriculture all around – remains surprisingly tenacious.


Wandering through Berkhamsted it feels like nothing’s changed and everything’s changed.

There are lot more chic businesses, a profusion of charity shops (I don’t really remember any from my youth) including a very well curated Oxfam - with records priced high, appropriate to their value (no more one quid bargains these days) by someone who clearly knows what they are doing; a profusion of collectible Penguins and Pelicans, first editions, etc etc.  


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.

Nearly all the shops are different now, except for a few hold outs like H.H. Dickman the Chemists with its old fashioned lettered and wood-framed frontage. There’s a Waterstones, a Carluccios, and a number of  trendy 2010’s enterprises like the Naturality Wellness Centre.

The library, never a lovely looking building in terms of its exterior, now looks worse because its inside is garish and tacky, as though forced to sell itself -  sell the very concept of reading. New and unedifying-looking books are displayed near the front as if to grab the punter’s eyes. The deep book lined shelves I remember, where I found revelations like the dizzy-making erotica of Nabokov's Ada, or Ardor  seem to have disappeared. Owing to cuts, it opens and closes at odd hours. When I stopped by for old time’s sake, it was shut for the day.

That’s where I would I have borrowed High Rise in the mid-70s – not  that long after it came out.

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


When I first went as a six or seven year old – to see the rereleased Fantazia, and, in an odd choice of my mum's, Kes – it was an old-fashioned  large screen theatre, with a balcony, a smoking section, usherettes and girls who came out in the intermission to sell choc ices and the like from a tray hovering mid-waist.  There was still a balcony when we saw Star Wars the month it came out. But by the Eighties it had turned into a subdivided multiplex with several screens and much smaller rooms . It became shabby and forlorn and soon went out of business.

 For decades it was an abandoned, boarded-up building, until an entrepreneur took it over and refurbished it as a chic retro-tinged experience that generally requires booking in advance. The large single screen was restored, as was the balcony. That’s where the regular seating is; on the ground level, for a higher price, there are tables, like in a nightclub scene in an old movie.   But wherever you sit you can get drinks from the bar and it’s all very civilized.


Which is more than can be said for High Rise, which I judge to be striking looking but ultimately unsuccessful. Ballard is unfilmable, I reckon - a surprise given  his cold “cinematic” gaze. 

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. 

The new Rex suits the changes in in the area – the businesses like the Wellness Centre, the rising property prices. Berkhamsted was always a desirable place to live – the combination of closeness to London with the surrounding rural-ness, the good schools.  Tring places in newspaper lists of  100 Nicest Places to Live in England 

                     The River Bulbourne - more like a stream most of its length, sometimes barely a trickle - runs right                                       through   Berkhamsted on its journey from its source near Dudswell. As this helpful sign - more curation of the   countryside  - informs, it's a winterbourne. 

The Grand Union Canal in winter (pic by my brother Jez)

But although you might say Dacorum as a whole (nothing to do with "decorum" by the way) is decidedly middle class – more so than ever these days, although it’s been that way as long as I can remember -  it still has a substantial minority that is working class. And there are pockets of poverty.  


This social remainder – the left behind – are outnumbered here but quite visible. Sometimes - exchanging words, say, at a bus stop about how the services are reduced, the fares ever-rising - you get the sense that they have been poorly equipped by the education system and semi-abandoned by the state – struggling, without much help, with disability, addiction, or illness - or coping with difficulty with the burden of looking after an elderly, deteriorating parent. My father, in his final years - because he needed to live in a flat with safety provisions for the infirm  - ended up living in one  of these pockets of poverty. Only yards from a piano shop and expensive homes, you could find this little tucked-away mini-block of council housing, the size of a close but with all the problems of a larger estate. People with alcohol and substance issues, or mental illness.  


Even a high-property-value, bourgeois town like Berkhamsted has its residual proletariat. Near where we used to live, there is an industrial park, small but unattractive. On the High Street itself, as you enter town, there's Coopers, a chemical factory. They used to have a scheme for temporary summer work for students and that's where I worked for six weeks in 1982. First packing insecticide in cardboard boxes, - a grueling, tedious  job as they came off the line piping hot and in sporadic heavy bursts, meaning that you worked frantically, hand-assembling the cardboard boxes (paper cuts galore) and shoving the cans in – and then faced long spells of mind-numbing inactivity. Apparently  all through the Middle East you could find empty cans of fly-spray with the bright yellow packaging strewn in the streets, as common as a Coke can supposedly.

They'd updated the packaging by 1982 - but kept the colour scheme.

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.

On the conveyor belt line, my work mates included a Tony Benn fan a few years short of retirement, who had fought in North Africa during World War Two, and a young man who boasted of drinking ten pints every night – and had that beer-through-the-pores smell to prove it. By my calculations, factoring in the odd packet of crisps, that would have meant his entire weekly wage packet went on the pub, with nothing for clothes or bed-and-board money for his parents.  There was one other student working that summer  – an insufferably loud medical undergrad who would read out in his plummy voice the adverts in the Telegraph for doctor’s jobs in the Middle East that paid three or four times what the men in the factory earned. Strangely, though, they seemed to be far more comfortable with this fellow, with his clearly defined class identity - than liminal me: taciturn, withdrawn, sloping off in the lunch break to read Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge on a bench outside the works canteen.


Although many of the people who live in Dacorum nowadays have moved from other parts of the country, and they are a fair number of immigrants and European spouses, there is still a discernible local feel to the population – a recognisable Chilterns stock.  There are even traces of a West Herts accent.  There’s a local girl look you’ll see every so often - thick-lipped, a flare to the nostril, strong eyebrows,  arms blotchy with freckles, a ripeness tinging towards blowsy.  

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. 

I kept thinking how little England had changed from my youth. The clutches of schoolgirls in their greenish or dull purple-grey uniforms with the pleated skirts. Schoolboys, similarly drably regimental in attire - although no longer forced to wear caps or shorts at the age of 14, like in my day - but scruffier than the girls...  scoffing crisps and jamming Curly Wurlys into their mouths.  

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.

Tring is now associated permanently in my mind with funerals – this is my third "grief vacation", largely spent in the town, in six years. And in times of personal crisis I am apt to appreciate sentimentally  the British temperament – the not-making-a-fuss, the soldiering-on.  Even among the youth – influenced by the loudness and openness of American pop culture, by European styles of tactile affection – there remains still a certain reticence, a self-contained quality, a distrust of flash, an un-emotional flatness and dryness to the speech patterns.

But this England – the England so sweetly evoked in Detectorists – the England of footpath rights, hobbies, carefully tended allotments and gardens, pub lunches and pub quizzes – of  History everywhere, above the surface and beneath it too - all that seems a little tainted now, after Brexit. 

Does  “gentrified” even work as a term for a place that once had an actual landed gentry?  I’m not sure, but there is a process that’s been going on here in Dacorum, as with other places in the semi-rural U.K,. where buildings that were once associated with production or the housing of those who worked in those places of production -  barns, small terraced cottages, farmhouses – are becoming homes (or second homes) for people who work in more immaterial forms of wealth-generation.  Driving around, we pass a lot of thatched cottages with expensive, spotless cars parked out the front, rather than a tractor or a mud-spattered jeep.   


One way you can perceive the changes – the invisible battle between new residents / lotsa money versus original inhabitants / less money – is through the names of streets. 

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.

Occasionally it’s hard to tell.  The Shoulder of Mutton – is that a gastro-pub, or a real old tavern? I think the former, but I’m not sure.  

Certain signs we pass, offering produce or agricultural byproducts for sale, are phrased in a way that speaks of a curated chi-chi overlay recently applied to longstanding traditional fare: “our most flavoursome heritage breeds,” well rotted horse manure.”

I love the signs warning of “weak bridge” or “soft verges” . I had sentimentally decided that “traffic calmed area” captured the soul of England almost as well as “mustn’t grumble”. Only to be disappointed to learn that this is an internationally used term in accident reduction schemes that involve slowing down the traffic using bumps in the road or strange jutting-out bits of verges that mean that only one lane of cars can pass at a time.


Sussex too teems with quaint, knobbly Olde Englishe names: Peasmarsh , Stone in Oxney, Snave, Sedlescombe, Bodiam, Hooe, Lympne. The day me and Joy - who's flown in for the funeral itself, arriving at Gatwick - head down to Rye, where the ceremony is being held, there’s a one-day Southern Rail conductors strike and the only way to get there is by a bus journey that involves four changes and nearly seven hours in transit, or getting a cab.  Our driver, semi-retired and a lover of driving, takes the scenic route – gorgeous but after a week and a half with my mum my eyes are almost weary of greenery, lushness-fatigued – and along the way he points out the local landmarks     (the ugly house where Spike Milligan lived; Paul McCartney’s place) and explains some of the names. There’s Pett, and then there’s Pett Level – the level indicates that it’s on lower ground than Pett proper, that it is at sea level.  Rye itself used to be Rye-on-Sea  - it was one of the Cinque Ports -  until the harbour gradually silted up and the town effectively moved two miles inland. 

Sussex is another beautiful, history-laden area of England that will vote – narrowly – for Brexit. We see lots of Leave stickers in Rye shop windows, Leave signs on front lawns.

The driver rejoins us the next day to transport us – still nattering away, oblivious to the gravity of the occasion -  to the ceremony, which takes place at Fairfield Church on Romney Marsh. 


(pic by Lucy Deslandes)


 It's a darling church  - no electricity, only one service a month -  an isolated building in a landscape of tiny straight-line waterways, somewhere between ditch and canal, that cut through pasture dotted with sheep. We tread gingerly to avoid the droppings on the way to the church. The interior features a style of pew I've never seen before – almost like cattle pens, white painted wood enclosures with doors. In the old days these would have had an entire family sitting inside  - plus servants. 

When it came my turn to share memories and I stood in the aisle in front of the oddly adorable coffin – made of raffia, rather than wood – it was hard to  believe that inside the box was an adorable and adored person.  

It didn’t seem any realer - after a drive of some six miles, driver still chatty as ever, to the burial ground in Appledore - when the box was lowered into the ground. Like the sheep and newborn lambs over by Clipper Down, the scene - a grave sheltered by the shade of a glorious old oak tree - was like a painting of an age-old scene. Something that countless  misted eyes  before mine had seen.  I tried to make it real in my head: that’s her -  dainty hands, eyelashes, gawky knees, wondrous nose, copper hair - in there.

“Body” is an English word that is drastically reversible in its emotional charge -  yet  without being one of those words that carries completely different meanings (like “mine”, “suit”, “bark”, “club”).  

“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.


                                                                                        Jessica, RIP, and Burhan, RIP

Faces fade far faster than landscapes. Perhaps a close-up encounter with Death would make you turn to the less imperishable of the two. Not imperishable (on the cosmic level, nothing lasts, everything goes) but at least existing on a vastly longer scale.

 Incombe Hole - not particularly well known, but one of my favorite places on Earth - carved  during glacial times  millenia ago. Which means that in Time, it too will  go -  uncarved by those same  geologic or climactic processes.  And then, given enough  time, it'll be completely obliterated by remorseless cosmic forces.



That close-up encounter with impermanence and loss might equally make you turn, with heightened awareness and appreciation, to what renews itself, cyclically and ceaselessly. 


One of Jessica’s favorite poems when she was a teenager was Keats's "Ode On Melancholy". Reading it now, I realise that my own “the rapture that’s the same as grief” is not only very far indeed from a novel thought, it's an inadvertent - and highly compressed - paraphrase of the "Ode". 


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.

              But when the melancholy fit shall fall 
       Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud, 
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all, 
       And hides the green hill in an April shroud; 
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose, 
       Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave, 
               Or on the wealth of globed peonies; 
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows, 
       Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave, 
               And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes. 

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die; 
       And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips 
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh, 
       Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips: 
Ay, in the very temple of Delight 
       Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine, 
               Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue 
       Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine; 
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might, 
               And be among her cloudy trophies hung. 

                                                                                       ....where it all started.... 


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