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‘Treat those two imposters just the same’

Success and failure, or Kipling’s two imposters ‘Triumph and Disaster’, what constructs those evil twins are! How do you measure them, how do you merit them, how do you know which the hell is which? One thing’s for certain amongst the maelstrom of my mind, you cannot have one without the other and, rather than treat them as twin sides of the same coin as I try to, as per Kipling’s advice, it would be easier if we could have one word for both. The Germans are quite good at coming up with such terms for existential states, I’ll have a hunt around and see if I can find one.

In the meantime, I’ve not been sleeping well and so it was I was awake at 6.00 a.m. this morning, listening to the excellent Radio 4 programme Something Understood. It was, serendipitously, all about a Sense of Failure. It didn’t help me get back to sleep but it was a thoughtful and interesting treatment of what can be a rather depressing sort of consideration. You can listen again here if you want.

I’ve more or less forgotten the whole thing now; I say that, I am sure it is lodged somewhere in my unconscious, but one thing that really has stayed with me is the snippet of a song they played by Charlie Rich. Now, Charlie Rich also sang the 1973 hit song that went ‘…if you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world…’ and I have realised that that is the first radio song I can remember (the second is probably Save Your Kisses for Me by the Brotherhood of Man). If I hear the Charlie Rich song, I am back in my bedroom in the first house I remember, when my parents lived together. The bedroom was at the front of the house, on the road, but set back with a giant sycamore tree in the front garden, that came between me and any traffic noise. I don’t know why I had the radio on, I used to listen to Stewpot’s Choice, I think it was on a Saturday morning. It’s a vivid sort of memory, because of the music. I think I had a candlewick bed spread (duvets were not yet en vogue) and I had a curious sort of wooden bedhead that consisted of an overhead light, with a little white push button on/off switch and a long narrow bookshelf running from the left to the right above me, so my head was sort of in a bookshelf when I slept. Perhaps that’s where it all started…

Back to Charlie Rich. I listened to the song they played on Something Understood again this morning. It seems to me more like a song of success than failure, but that leads me, circular fashion, back to my opening point. It’s all the same thing, probably, the only thing that changes is your perspective.

What has one ever learned from something marked ‘success’? Over to Charlie.

(And don’t be put off by the hee haw reference, there are no donkeys involved.)

Toby & Me circa 1976

Toby was the family pet I was born into having – a rescue who was put to sleep with kidney failure (I think) when I was about 10 or so. When this happened I tried really hard not to cry in front of my mum, in case it upset her. This rational to a 7 year old child approach to loss backfired fairly spectacularly because then my mum was extra upset anyway on account of my not seeming to care about the dog not coming home from the vets.

Sometimes it feels like those funny little coping methods we seemingly have hard-wired into us can be traced back quite simply to childhood and photographs like these are fragments of the map, or a piece to an incomplete jigsaw which has long since lost the picture on the lid.

I wonder what anyone did before snapshots were invented. The past truly did not exist, perhaps.

Looking at Toby now I can’t help but notice a resemblance to Rudi, my current hound, which had not occurred to me before. He certainly had the devil in his ways when he felt like it.

That said, a dog never lets you down, even when it does.

L’appel du vide

Earlier this week I wrote about the fenscape of Lincolnshire and said that we ‘humans need the comfort of a boundary that is less ephemeral than a horizon.’ I also noted that under those fenland skies ‘you are quickly overloaded with the weight of the void’.

After I had written it, or it had written itself to be more precise, I wondered what it all meant. Why did it feel that way, and as in the theme of the previous post, how has it shaped me.

L’appel du vide
is one of those French existential phrases that we don’t have in English, meaning the call of the void or the vacuum. It’s also translated as the urge some people get when they are close to the edge of a cliff. Does everyone recognise that urge I wonder – I know I do.
Perhaps it’s part of the reason I don’t like heights.

Anyway it partly describes what I was trying to talk about when I wrote about humans needing smaller boundaries than an endless horizon. Faced with vast emptiness do some of us experience externally something of the echo of our own internal void? I tend to think, yes, it’s not likely to be just me is it? And when I talk about a fen horizon being too ephemeral I mean that to relate and cope with the vastness of it, we need to box it up a bit, break it down. A tree here, a stream and hedge there – Devon for example. Otherwise the question our horizon asks is too huge to cope with.

Call it what you like in philosophical, literary or psychoanalytic terms but I believe we all have ‘a void’ and some of us try to construct buffers or, like leaking buckets, fill them up to avoid acknowledging the l’appel du vide. Shopping, religion, television, computer games, writing, eating, drinking – all on the list of potential void-avoiding activities.

Perhaps a whole existence is one which is able to encompass the internal space without either seeking to fill it with busyness, or succumbing to it in other ways. After all it is a beautiful and creative place to visit, but if you had to live there all the time it might become rather like the countryside in winter – dark, damp, muddy and depressing. A place where you might need to drink a lot to just get by. On the other hand, working with the void can produce art with qualities that speak to us beyond mere words.

Maybe that explains the paradox in my own life, which is: to give my mind respite from endless existential questions, I have to occasionally immerse myself in the natural space of a landscape, the type which I might be accused of complaining that I grew up with.

Experiencing the void externally in a wildscape teaches me to go back and accommodate the inner one more wholly again.

The process could look like a year’s walk to Istanbul, or as short as an hour walking the dog. It could be a holiday retreat in the mountains, or a picnic on the Rowley Mile. L’appel du vide, for me, is bringing the inside out and it is essential.

I don’t believe it is as bleak as it sounds though, unless of course your l’appel du vide shouts at you every day and looks like the inner equivalent of the fens…

nb Notwithstanding all of the above, writing this has made me as melancholy as hell so maybe it’s just as well we haven’t got a bloody word for it.

Meditation on a landscape

I am not ‘from’ anywhere. I have no terroir that yielded me. I have no affinity with any particular place and I have no town that I call home. I have a house here in Essex, but that home is temporal in nature, it is not from whence I came.

Being from nowhere has, I thought, been neither here nor there for me, except when I have been asked over the years

‘Where are you from?’

Pylons, Bicker, Lincs

Because there is no especial answer I can give, I tend to rush off a few sentences to explain oneself and one’s dilatoriness in the state of belonging to somewhere, anywhere…

Which set me thinking; if where you are from defines you in some respect, can where you are not from do the same? Can an absence of roots affect a person’s psyche less, or more, than a strong connection with place? Which is of course not a new question at all, but it is a new one for me to apply to myself.

When asked ‘Where are you from?’ I would often say ‘I was brought up in Lincolnshire, but…’ and I was quick to qualify this statement adding ‘I am not from there, I was not born there, I have no family there…’ Depending on whether or not I had warmed to my theme and the audience’s interest levels I might go on to roundly decry Lincolnshire as a place, with Little to recommend it. Or the more daring accusation perhaps, of Nothing to recommend it? Could it be that I have been partially defined by spending thirteen formative years in a place I detest?

I was thinking about this yesterday when I posted John Clare’s poem ‘The Fens’. The poet starts off in an onomatopoeic bucolic mood, evoking a place that reminds me not one jot of the fens I grew up in. Thankfully, for the sake of my sanity, that bright mood gives way to a darker reflection on the evident cost to the land of the farming gain that ‘mars the landscape every day’.
And Clare’s slipping mood mirrors how it felt to grow up there.

‘And, when again one rambles down
The path, small hillocks burning lie
And smoke beneath a burning sky’

We had the sky alright, unimaginable acres of it, not just above us but horizontally and on the floor at our feet sometimes too – as far as the eye could see in every direction. And some days it was the best thing, not just about the place but in the world. But on the many, many other days when Clare’s horizon was not ‘stooping smiles’ but the sky was sagging its miserable grey jowls everywhere, or whipping the dusty wind through you, it was desperate and oppressive.

Clare also writes of fire, and at this time of year when I was young stubble-burning was rife. His ‘burning sky’ was very apt in the 1970s; what he wouldn’t have seen was the small crop-spraying planes that flew back and forth over fields, and whatever houses happened to stand in their path, anointing us with their chemical rich load. And when the summer sky grew heavy and lowering, or even when it was in sunnier mood we would suffer biblical plagues of thunderbugs, an insect I have barely seen since those days of fenland life.

The fenscape, the space, was so vast and bare it was forbidding. You wouldn’t walk for your leisure into that wasteland because you could already see every step you might take for a hundred miles in all directions. You might be forced into a walk after the car broke down, again, in the middle of nowhere (this happened day and night and in all weathers). Under those skies you are quickly overloaded with the weight of the void. Too much freedom is an invisible cage for the mind. Humans need the comfort of a boundary that is less ephemeral than a horizon.

The odd saving grace could be found from time to time: a farmer once deciding to plant a field of peas instead of the ubiquitous funk-filled brassica, or a skylark soaring and singing high above our miserable below-sea-level existence. Sometimes a better than Turner (who we had never heard of) winter sky would appear somewhere over Swineshead on the school bus on the way home. But mainly life seemed hard, bound together with makeshift scraps of orange baling twine.

Life in Lincolnshire was your cat going missing for a week before managing to drag its rotting near-corpse home with a brick-sized brand down one flank, scorched brown flesh against its black and white pelt. Or the sickly smell of sugar beet on the wind, mixed with pesticides and rotting brussel sprouts and onions in stinking fields. It was an unknown person living down a lane behind derelict net curtains eating cat food out of a tin. It was trying not to walk too quickly and avoid overtaking the old soldier with the false leg on the way to the bus stop, in case you remind him of his loss. And lest I forget, it was the ritual banging your head on the old brick wall on the way to the school bus stop, a safe distance beyond the vicious village pond geese, to remind yourself that somewhere you still had the hope of a slight existence beyond the fens.

This is not a landscape, or a spiritual home I have to ever return to. But has its clay moulded me as much as an pastoral leafy lane with chirruping hedgerows might have? I bloody hope not.

Where I am not from...