Mistrust of writing. Yet here I am, laptop open, with this urge to write something again after so long. Time to tell the truth, I tell myself. But what truth to tell if writing can’t be trusted? What do I want? To find words that bring life closer, that let life speak in me. But how to use words, the very things that distance us from life, to make it speak?
Didn’t I come out here to get away from these questions?
S. seems to be settling in on Rook Lane though she sometimes misses the city. Today she asked T. to stop mowing the grass along the path that leads by our cottage to his old farm so she could pick some of the wildflowers. He did so reluctantly, saying she better do it soon. It’s a joy to watch her move out there, filling the vase, flicking a bug from her face. The other day she convinced him not to kill the kittens of the feral cats that live in his haybarn. He was taking them to the field in a wooden box, with a spade in his other hand. She ran over and asked him to leave them until they’d been weaned off their mother; then, she said, we’d take them, keep one and give the rest away. He looked at her with his steady gaze. ‘Sen’imen’al girl’, he said with Norfolk dryness and took the box back to the haybarn.
Sleepless at three in the morning. I sit in the kitchen, too tired to read, to do anything. A mouse crosses the floor, stops and stares at me with a twitching nose. I look at it vacantly, toying with the idea of letting myself into T.’s house with the key he keeps in the shed and taking his whiskey. I go outside to smoke instead. A fox – or is it an owl? – screeches under the moonlight.
How to speak the truth… I start typing and lies roll across the screen. The truth precedes us. We’re in the way of ourselves, of what might make itself known in us as truth. Our words themselves are in the way. I have a disease, I see only words. Meaning: I can’t see.
In the morning I bring S. tea and fruit in bed. We lie in for a while, chat and laugh. We work, cycle to the supermarket. In the evening she makes dinner.
S. and I go to London, where she has a meeting, to stay with her old school friends for the weekend. We take the bus to the station and work on the train. As we approach the city we pass sooty blocks of flats in that peculiarly British brown-grey colour, scrapyards, loud billboards in absurd contrast. Westfield mall, the Gherkin on the other side, the City behind it. The train screeches down the littered tracks into Liverpool Street station. Afternoon rush hour, crowds shoving around the city. The noise knocks you back after the peace of the countryside. I drink in a pub and play with my phone while S. is in her meeting. We go out with her friends, whom I don’t know, and drink all night. Pub to pub, faces blurring into masks shouting words at each other: strangers among strangers. I wake up at daybreak in a messy flat I don’t know where, feeling porous and longing for a tidy house, open sky, silence.
Taxi, tube, train, bus. A shower to wash off the grime, a nap, then a walk between the farmers’ fields, down the bridle path, through the woods while S. reads. It takes a long time to get the zooming and clanking out of my head. The clouds part to reveal the setting sun. It warms me and I sit on a log, roll a cigarette and squint up at the sky. A snippet of the day at last, I think, the day itself. Long rows of budding cabbage. The sun setting over the copse on the hill, its last rays spreading across the fields, glinting off the dew on the plastic-wrapped hay bales…
What is the day? Surely not a day like today, a day of travel, split into departures and destinations. Maybe it does have something to do with time, I tell myself: but the earth’s time. Planetary time. The drift of clouds across the sky, the shifting of seasons across the earth…
Spend your time, they say. Make, divide, use, invest time; as if time were ours to split up as we please with no time left over.
On the way back I stop at T.’s chicken coop. A bat flaps out from the eaves of the barn to feed on insects in the air. The sky is purple, almost ominous. I always contract a little at dawn and dusk, the blue hours between light and dark, when you’re supposed to be planning a full day of activities, or looking back and taking account. At dawn a voice says: how will you spend your time today? How will you give the day meaning? At dusk: what have you done today that’s worth anything? What have you ever done that’s worth anything? I watch the hens pecking at the ground behind the fence. What do they care about the dusk, or what use they’ve made of their time? They’ll shuffle into their coop soon and sleep easily. Will they dream, as they grow their eggs? They’ll dream of sweetcorn and warm straw perhaps; their favourite things. Dreams as natural as a stream’s currents. They’re joined by wild birds, attracted by the feed T.’s strewn on the ground: sparrows, doves, even a pheasant. Hidden in the day.
The day passes with no opinion of us. A walk through partly razed woodland littered with shredded branches and shrubs. I startle a red deer. It jumps over the stumps, surprisingly big, bony and powerful: something quite different. The deer in turn scares a flock of crows that wheel cawing over the field. In the middle of the field a huge dead tree, split and charred by lightning a long time ago.
At the edge of the field I come across a strange sight: a dead pigeon tied to the arm of a mechanical device, moving in a circle. I stop and look at it. ‘Oi ain’t gonna get new pigeons with yew stand’n there, bor.’ I whirl round and see a man with a shotgun in the thicket. I say sorry and move on. He nods very slightly, keeping his eye on the field. Crossing private land as I make for the road, I hear a shot ring out.
Back home I warm up stew and make salad. All this pretentious talk about the day, I think… when what I really want, if I’m honest, is to escape its tedium. To drink wine and watch old boxing matches on YouTube while S. does her online quizzes.
An evening in The Rose, in the next village. Tricky to get there walking down the narrow road in the dark with cars roaring by. This pub is like a combination of all the good pubs I’ve been to. Mostly silent, some friendly local chatter. Clean wooden floor. No music, above all no music. The drinkers get up and go to the toilet and return to their seats, get up and buy drinks and return to their seats.
We exchange a bit of gossip with the landlord and order my usual: the local farm cider, crisp and dry and flat. S. tries it for the first time. Go easy on this, I tell her, it’s not to be trifled with. You go easy, she says softly, sipping her half. After the third pint I get stupid. Look at this, I say, holding up the glass up to the light. The distillation of applehood! This is what Adam and Eve drank in Eden! One day I’ll write an ode to this cider, I say, an epic! A couple at the bar turn to look at us. Can we go? she says sadly, looking at the table. I agree reluctantly.
I remember F., my drinking buddy when I lived in Norwich and used to work in pubs on my laptop. He’d been a groundsman for one of the country estates before it was auctioned off to developers, fortunately for him not long before he could collect his pension. We’d nod to each other and sit at separate tables in the Swan all afternoon, always in the same seats, sometimes commenting on the weather, whatever what was in the headlines, or the plan to tear down the pub to build flats. He seemed neither happy nor unhappy, neither bored nor interested, and was never unnerved by silence. He just seemed to sit there living out his time, which impressed me in those days, before S. The only thing that made him talk for any length of time was the lives of the plants and insects in the garden of the old estate, which I asked him questions about. After he’d given me a lesson to rival any naturalist he’d sit back and sip his pint as my gaze started to blur and my unease faded. He knew not to bother talking to me much as the evening wore on. I always wondered what he thought of me, the foreign city boy with his laptop.
When I was younger I used to wonder how people so casually crossed the bridge between being alone to being with others; going from their own rooms to interact with people whose thoughts were foreign to them while apparently staying the same, settled in a continuous self. Or how writers, at the readings I went to, were able to talk to audiences about the things they’d written in private as if real communication were taking place. I remember being impressed by a line from Cioran: ‘If we could see ourselves as others see us, we would vanish on the spot.’ I sometimes daydreamed about sending an experimental version of myself out into the world whom I could observe as he lived. Sometimes that I was someone else’s experimental version of himself.
When I flip open the laptop cover, for a few seconds it’s as if the words on the screen are someone else’s. It’s a strange little feeling of freedom, as if I could almost see them from a neutral vantage point and shape them as I want, use them as tools, make them mine. But as I return to them they get jumbled up with my uncertain intentions again and escape my grasp; I can’t tell which are true and which are false, which are mine and which aren’t. Write for yourself, they say. But what self to write for, if you can only come to yourself through words? And what words to use if it’s words that stand in the way of yourself?
The double who stands beside me, watching as I type. No, who types these words!
The difficulty of balancing inner and outer, self and other. We move in and out of ourselves. I begin to see the meaning of living in this landscape, formed by centuries of interaction between human work and the wild. The Broads – lakes, rivers, marshes and wet woodland – are flooded medieval peat workings crisscrossed by dykes, products of failed attempts to drain the land as sea levels rose. (The landscape is dotted with ruined and restored pumping mills.) Today coastal and inland reserves provide conditions for countless plants and animals that would be lost without patient maintenance: seaside embankments conserve habitats of migratory birds, careful reedcutting creates homes for different species of local birds and invertebrates, biomanipulation and dredging restore lakes, light livestock grazing prevents reforestation and makes space for rare plants… All to allow for variation and controlled growth, as when you unravel bindweed from the stem of a flower.
S. goes down the road to give the chickens sweetcorn. A minute later I hear excited clucking and smile. How we love animals!
L. and M. come from Cambridge to stay for a few days. Ping pong in the community centre. Much laughter as the resident cat lies against the net batting the ball away. The happiness of being with people.
When they’ve left life plods on as usual. I translate to the tedious sound of pigeon coos from the eave which remind me of endless suburban afternoons growing up, or waiting to grow up. S. does her historical research and makes weekly trips to the libraries in Norwich or Cambridge. The evenings stretch out like great clouds over the horizon. The last day, the day after the last day. Life isn’t short, it’s long, long…
Memories of the summer when it got bad, when I’d go weeks without talking to anyone except the girl in the off-licence. Before S.
At first I tried to walk myself out of it. In the beginning I’d walk for an hour or two a day, then whole afternoons, sweat soaking my back. I’d walk through the city, through parks, along the river, down A-roads, past industrial estates, into the countryside. I stopped in pubs: a pint here, a pint there. I sat barely thinking, half-listening to tradesmen chat. Warm drafts, sun through the windows in the afternoon. Watch the drops running down the side of the glass into small puddles on the table. Make traces in the water with your finger…
Later, when I no longer had energy to walk, I’d lie in bed thinking of death. So this is what it comes to, I thought, you must be ill. Ill. I’d repeat the word in my head. This is what it comes to, I thought, something in me is ill and look, now I’m ill in a dark room. It was almost a relief, to have only one thought, one sincere wish. Almost easier to be cornered, really cornered and taken out of all fakery.
The monologues I’d have in my sick mind! It’s an illness, you see, I’m ill. There’s the death drive and there’s the life force and the life force is dying, it’s turned into the death drive. This is what it comes down to, it’s logical. The illness has grown inside me, fed on me and now it’s ready. It’s grown in the dark, but now you can see it. You thought I was lying, now you see I wasn’t, surely you see. It grows in the dark until it comes to this and look at me now. It’s an illness, there’s a name for it. Soon you’ll see.
Almost a relief that it had taken me, that they were wrong and I was right. Finally! See for yourself, I thought. Ill. Can you see it? You can almost see it, but not like I can. Here’s something indisputable for once, just look at me, lying in bed thinking of ways to die.
A hole was how I thought of it. Like being in a hole and not being able to look up. It felt like a basic struggle between life and death. Something in me was trying to kill me, something else was trying to live. I couldn’t read, couldn’t sleep without pills.
I’d lie in bed in the afternoon daydreaming of a sudden fatal accident, a crash, a meteor. It was the first thought I woke up to at night, pulled out of deep sleep as if by the thought itself. Almost comforting. I narrowed it down to a train or a truck, though I disliked the idea of implicating others. In any case I was a coward. I often pictured myself holding back at the last moment. I decided on a train, if I were to do it. I’d sort the practical things out first: bank, bills, belongings, if I could summon the strength. I’d get off at one of the small request stops, walk across the fields with an eye on my watch, find a suitable place by a stand of trees and wait. I’d bring what they’d need in my bag, which I’d leave by the tracks.
Underneath it all a voice said:
You’ve run out of options, what’s holding you back? You coward. You couldn’t make your life work and now you can’t even make this work. You’d panic and go home with your tail between your legs like you always do. You’ve got nothing left but me but you can’t even listen to me, you can’t even do that right. Your whole life has come down to nothing and will keep coming down to nothing and you know it. You’ve wasted all your options, you don’t need me to tell you that, so just do it, do something real for the first time in your life.
In the days that followed the worst of it I felt as if I were floating above the hole, but that I could drop back into it at the least disturbance, a hard word from a stranger (and yet words seemed to mean nothing). But one has hidden strengths just as one has hidden weaknesses. One day I drew a line that meant this stops here and stepped across it. I moved the line every day. It was a simple question of life or death, a simple question for once! Going forward meant life, going back meant death.
Sometimes a small shift of attention seemed to change everything, or rather illuminate what was already there, like a light turned on in a room. I gradually started walking again, most days to the parish church. It was always empty. I sat on a pew, a vanishing speck inside you, unsure what to begin to call you, how to begin. I brought you my brokenness, my head full of shit, that was all I had to offer. I felt your overfacing power and I felt you withdraw, and that gave me a strange hope.
I’ve started exercising again. I work in the garden, bike to the farm shop. I’m slowly cutting down on the pills they give me, shaving off a little less each week to prevent withdrawal symptoms. I feel less tired, less woolly-headed.
We cycle up the coast towards Holme, chain our bikes to a tree and walk on a sandy path through the wood. S. stops here and there to open her wildlife book and identify some plant or insect. We chat without paying attention to our surroundings, emerge from the wood, and suddenly we find ourselves before a wide-open view: on one side the sea and sky a vast sheet of whites and blues, on the other scrapes and grassy dunes stretching inland.
These are moments I’d like to live for, to write. Not a story from beginning to end but a story of beginnings, or continual returns: from darkness to light, from self-enclosure to the open moment. Like those moments when you stop and see things with new eyes, as when you work on a problem until it seems insoluble and the answer comes to you in a flash: it was obvious all along, why couldn’t I see it!
Or those thoughts that lie in wait to show you how you’ve been shielding yourself from them, as in the psychoanalytic breakthrough: so that’s why I’ve always reacted that way to things, why didn’t I see it!
Or, in novels, those passages in which the story gathers itself into fleeting moments of clarity and illuminates itself. I daydream of a book containing only such passages, something like Stephen Hero’s book of epiphanies, or a collection of Woolf’s ‘little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark’. But life crashes into our daydreams and pulls us along with it, into more little moments of clarity.
‘Wait, be quiet, still and solitary’, wrote Kafka. ‘The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.’ Here I am, the world seems to say, if only you could see me.
Nothing worse than false optimism. Better to bide your time.
Through the pine grove in Wells-next-the-Sea, with its springy floor of brown needles. Grey roots cross the path. We stop to look at a cluster of ragwort crawling with caterpillars. Cinnabars, S. says. Down to the beach towards the water, crunching dry razor clams under our feet. When we’re settled on our towels we watch the waders pick at the sand on the shoreline. S. points out how pretty the oystercatchers look in flight, with their black wings flashing white Vs. She follows them with her binoculars. I run along the water’s edge to Holkham beach, past dogwalkers and horse riders in jodhpurs. A tern folds its wings and plunges into the water, emerging with a gleaming thrashing fish in its claws. I brave the steely water, then run back to S. We come home to find a neat line of ants from the front door to the kitchen, up the cupboard and onto the counter, where strawberries lie oozing in a bowl, covered in a feasting black swarm.
I cycle, run, swim. To get in shape, to feel strength and confidence slowly gather in you, is a delight and a relief for all kinds of physical and mental ills. Trivial problems drop away and things lighten a little, become more endurable.
On the way to the supermarket today I passed a robin lying on the pavement with a broken wing. It was flapping, trying to get up. I walked past it because I was hungry, thought better of it and walked back. It was raining and people were walking by giving it fleeting glances. I thought I’d do the manly thing and put it out of its misery as they say. I remembered my grandfather telling me stories about doing this kind of thing as a matter of course on his farm. It was worse than I thought, not at all a matter of course. It felt like a tiny broken umbrella as it thrashed in my hands, alien to the touch. As I wrung its neck it squirted out a thin white stream of excrement. A woman flinched and hurried by. Its eyes turned glassy as it went limp and its beak opened. I put its damp body in a bin and lost my appetite.
Today it seems almost impossible to write. My words are traitorous: they turn on me and make me cringe. They become the words of others, of strange judges, using me even as I think I use them. Kafka’s final diary entry:
More and more fearful as I write. It is understandable. Every word, twisted in the hands of the spirits – this twist is their characteristic gesture – becomes a spear turned against the speaker. Most especially a remark like this. And so ad infinitum. The only consolation would be: it happens whether you like or no. And what you like is of infinitesimally little help. More than consolation is: you too have weapons.
What weapons did he mean? In Beckett, too, words turn against the narrator:
How they must hate me! Ah a nice state they have me in – but still I’m not their creature (not quite, not yet). It’s a poor trick that consists in ramming a set of words down your gullet on the principle that you can’t bring them up without being branded as belonging to their breed. But I’ll fix their gibberish for them. I never understood a word of it in any case – not a word of the stories it spews, like gobbets in a vomit. My inability to absorb, my genius for forgetting, are more than they reckoned with. Dear incomprehension, it’s thanks to you I’ll be myself in the end.
What was Beckett’s weapon against the traitorous menace of words, what was his defence against unfreedom? Fail better. Not in order to succeed but to make your failure absolute. Is this really what I want? Haven’t I tried? Where did it lead?
Blanchot, like the early Beckett, saw writing as a giving in to an obscure, incessant murmur outside meaning, there being no alternative. The writer for him was ‘always astray’, always in errancy:
The writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no centre, and which reveals nothing. He may believe that he affirms himself in this language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self.
The words pour through you in a ceaseless stream whether you like it or not, it’s true. So then try to find yourself in them, stem the flow for a moment, just as you’d try to find yourself in a crowd of people all going different ways and saying different things. Start like that.
Small acts of kindness that make the day real. ‘I love you’, says S. seriously as she chops vegetables. For a second I’m not sure who she means. T. brings us some of his best steaks. ‘We have to help each other out out here’, he says and walks back to the farm.
Early morning after a bad night’s sleep. A grey screen of condensation on the window. A few drops separate themselves out and leave clear wet lines as they drop. Outside the fog from the sea moves in over the fields, folding over itself. I sip my tea, empty-headed, until the fog thins into a wispy mist and evaporates into the day. S. comes out from the bedroom, stretches, yawns, smiles and touches my arm.
The bats hang under the bridge like clusters of black mould. It’s hard to supress a shudder, as when you see a colony of rats crawling over each other or a snake slither through the water. Now in the gloaming they come alive, flit back and forth between the roost and just above the river to drink and feed on insects. The water ripples where one has grabbed a bug from just above the surface or taken a sip on the wing. They must be Daubenton’s, says S., they like water. The bat’s call starts as a question thrown into the void: ultrasonic pulses that bounce off the walls, water and trees back into its nervous system, which in turn recreates the world around it so intimately that it can select and catch tiny insects invisible to us as we watch from the bank. What to us is a murk of flapping wings to the bats is an orchestrated feast. Almost sightless, they’re nevertheless at home in their environment in ways we can only piece together from the outside: perfectly adapted.
Heavy with homesickness for being: ill-adapted. In my heaviness the moment passes me by. I’m looking for it in these scattered words. Is it looking for me too, the moment, calling me into itself? Does it need my words to come to itself? But it’s been and gone and I’m passing my time in detours. Then – miracle – the words come together and lift me into it, the silent moment.
A walk before lunch. I sit on a tree stump and write a note on my phone. The screen reflects the sky as I write, partly obscuring my words.
When I name a thing it comes alive for an instant, then sinks back into itself. I move between the named and the nameless. These words really should be varying shades between black and white, appearing and disappearing on the screen. And yet they seem to be making their way towards something. Towards what?
The wisdom of certain everyday phrases (which writers sniff at). We speak of the fullness of time, of a time that’s ripe. We speak of being in the moment and of pregnant moments. Beautiful phrase: the fullness of time. What does it mean? In everyday language, when something happens in the fullness of time it happens at a time that has finally come, a time of fulfilment of some event. Something comes into its own, something time has ripened. For Paul it had to do with the first and second coming of Christ and the fulfilment of God’s plan at decisive moments in history. But what if it were taken to refer not to a past or future event, but to time itself? What if the fullness of time weren’t a time that’s ripe for something but time that’s ripe with itself, that gathers itself in and fulfils itself in every moment?
The kittens have been weaned off their mother, so now we have a cottage full of little rascals tumbling around, mewling and sleeping. We defrost T.’s steaks and feed them slivers as treats before we cook them. S. has put a sign on the road and an ad on the internet. We keep one, black like a rook except for a white patch on its forehead. We thought it was fitting. It’s sleeping on my lap as I write.
Again, this journal seems to split apart as soon as I look at it. I’m outside it. I try to gather my thoughts like someone who stops up in the supermarket and tries to remember what he came in there for, but it’s hopeless. Try again. Write what’s in front of you.
The trees are in full bloom and the undergrowth spreads across the paths through the woods. Snails leave their glistening trails on our flagstones and unfailingly find their way back to our lettuce pots each time we throw them into the bushes. They have a sense of direction, says S., like an inbuilt GPS. She won’t let me put salt out.
T.’s getting on, he stoops now. We’ll have to help more around the farm. He still keeps a handful of cows in his field, which he brings into the cowshed in the winter. The shed windows are caked in cobwebs. Adjoining it is the haybarn, stacked with square bales wrapped in twine beside a mound of loose sileage. The barn on the other side of the gravel path that leads to the farmhouse is full of tools, machinery, a grain silo and a tractor. Old grain is scattered on the floor and the musty air hangs still and warm. Time has slowed down for T. too. The wheat field is fallow. His fruit and vegetable patches are tangled, his kitchen not as clean as it used to be. He still gets help from a couple of local farm workers in return for sharing his machinery, but it’s too much for him: he’s thinking of selling out. Some of his local customers – butchers, caterers, market stalls – have shut down, unable to compete with the supermarket chains and their huge nationwide suppliers.
S. makes him a crumble with some of his rhubarb. She has an idea. After getting his grudging permission she takes one of the planks from a pile in the barn, borrows a handsaw and makes a neat painted house sign above our door: The Rookery. She puts another sign out on the roadside saying ‘Fruit, veg, eggs – knock at the Rookery’, sets up a Facebook page and adds us to a direct farm sales website. We now keep T.’s excess produce in our pantry, eat some and give him all the money we make. We also help weed and water his patches.
I come across an old notebook in a drawer. It’s mostly empty. There are lines here and there, written in pubs, before my writing fizzled out:
Frightening thought: that you’re an imposter who doesn’t know the extent of his own imposture. The imposture that stands between you and the world, that is the world.
The face in the mirror that barely sees itself.
The fear that everything is outside of itself. Buildings, trees, people – scattered among each other, all other than themselves. Nothing can come to itself because nothing really is. The world is one giant diversion from itself, a mistake.
The fear that everything is the same. The days pass under the same vast, blind sky, trapped like you in their sameness, unable to change or begin. That you’re barely more than a thing among things, emerging from the Same only to be swallowed up by the Same.
Days pass like a kind of desolation. The ruination of all plans. Time, slowed to a crawl. Nothing but time.
You hear your words come out of your mouth from miles away. Mouthing lies. You’re a subtraction from the world.
Sudden plunges. Sinkholes of time.
Shed all that like old scales, find new words.
Bataille: ‘Even my “poverty”, in its own interest, demanded that I emerge from it.’
The cat – we call him Rookie – rolls onto my notebook and bats away my pen with beautiful disregard.
My new bike was delivered today. The old one was heavy and creaky (what to do with it?). Despite the drizzle I cycled to the coast in half the time. The low tide exposed a bank of sand on which tiny crabs scuttled between pebbles and bladderwrack.
This stretch of the coast – the closest to us – is a world away from the northern part. In fact the coastline as a whole is as clear a demonstration of the British class system as you could wish for. To the east, Great Yarmouth with its familiar story: once a rich port and Victorian holiday resort, now one of the most deprived towns in the country after decades of budget airlines, package holidays and a spiral of worklessness and neglect as the regional cities have gentrified and pushed those in the margins further out. Here are slot machines, betting shops and terriers. In the north, at a suitable distance from the caravan parks, second homes in tasteful muted colours and Range Rovers have replaced the old fishermen’s cottages and carts. The beaches are wider and sandier, the pubs have Michelin stickers on their doors, the dogs of choice are spaniels and labradors.
In the evenings rooks and jackdaws congregate in the air to go to their roost. Who knows what they’re saying in their raucous calls – sui generis sounds of nature. What else sounds like them? Yet they can mimic human speech with uncanny accuracy. They can recognize our faces, bring us gifts or take revenge on us, even through generations. They’re social, cunning, adaptable – at once like and unlike us.
Early humans, they say, respected and learned about their surroundings from corvids. Interactions between hunter-gatherers and corvids may even have led to a kind of cultural coevolution: the birds changed their behaviour to lead people to large prey in hope of a meal of leftovers, and people in turn changed their behaviour to understand and follow the birds. Our close association with them (and the need to defend our food from them) may have refined our own cooperation and communication. Later cultures saw them as living symbols of natural and divine forces – sometimes of primal darkness, sometimes of light. Crows and ravens carried messages from the gods or had sacred ties to the sun. They were bearers of meaning in the world. The negative connotations of corvids largely came about with the rise of industrial agriculture and the sight of crows picking at corpses on early modern battlefields. They became seen as threats to profit and birds of ill omen – to us.
These literal and metaphorical links between people and animals have long since broken. To us, animals are mostly products and entertainment, used and segregated. But the animals themselves are the same: still both like and unlike us. They still gaze at us from far away, from the silence of the day, but we’re more alone before their gaze than ever. We look to them to find the secret of our origin but they don’t answer. Maybe their non-answer is the answer: find it for yourself.
The faith involved even in typing a sentence, this sentence. Something takes hold whether you like it or not. Something happens in spite of everything, something you’re responsible for, hold on to that. Though you may never arrive you’re approaching and some truth may be given to you in your approach. Perhaps that’s the ‘weapon’ that’s given to you in writing, the hidden strength you need.
In the turning and returning of words the moment calls me into service to name it. The double who stood beside me drawn back in now, the space between us filled with time. Joy.
Kafka: It is entirely conceivable that life’s splendour forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come.
Words are long since worn out, the moment and the day too, barely there, yet as full as ever. A new time of listening and speaking: strange route to what’s already here, silently waiting, breathing.
I’ve bought a homemade kayak from wild-haired N., whom S. and I met when we lived in Norwich. He moved to Kirkwood, bought and fixed up an old farmhouse and convinced us to move out here too. He built the kayak from PVC pipes, wooden planks and the seat of a plastic chair in the old barn, where he makes all kinds of things, including sculptures. He’s experimenting with making sculpting material from glues and woodchips he gets from the local tree surgeon because ‘gypsum pollutes’. He stomps the mixture down in buckets. ‘Don’t come too close’, he says, ‘it smells pretty rank’. At the other end of the barn is a smelter, moulds, gloves, welding equipment and tools. In the garden are swans’ necks carved out of branches and wire sculptures hanging from the trees. By the road is a sign saying ‘Sculptures made to order’. As he helps me carry the kayak down to the riverbank I ask him if he can make me a rook. When we get down to the river I plunk in awkwardly, almost slipping off the pipe, settle onto the seat and paddle for a while between the reeds and willows and over swaying river plants. Chuckling ducks, dozens of blue damselflies skitting across the surface of the water. I paddle back, haul the kayak along the bank to the woods and leave it chained to a tree.
To Strumpshaw Fen with S. From the low-lying path the pleasure boats on the river seem to glide over the reeds. In the hide S. points out a marsh harrier flapping erratically above the reedbed and a cormorant standing on a pole with outstretched wings like some strange idol presiding over this man-managed reserve. Over the meadows shrieking swifts feed on mists of insects they’ll soon carry south across the seas in their bellies. A partridge hops along the path in front of us. We point and laugh at its panicky prance, but there’s no comedy in nature. It hides in the reeds where it stops and looks back at us in what seems like fear as we creep up to it to get a closer look. Sometimes you only see how utterly different wild animals are when you get close to them: the black beads in its head hardly look like eyes, its richly detailed plumage is not for you.
With all its eyes the natural world looks out
into the Open. Only our eyes are turned
backward, and surround plant, animal, child
like traps, as they emerge into their freedom.
We know what is really out there only from
the animal’s gaze; for we take the very young
child and force it around, so that it sees
objects – not the Open, which is so
deep in animals’ faces.
Rookie’s growing fast, but retaining the juvenile white patch on his forehead as pet cats sometimes do. We play with him with a ball of string, which he leaves tangled around the plants and chair legs as he zooms around. He’s testing his strength against the world – mainly the sofa and us – with his claws and teeth.
‘I’m not myself today.’ Pregnant phrase. Who or what then? Woolf: ‘I see myself as a fish in a stream; deflected; held in place; but cannot describe the stream.’
When I was younger it was often as if the current of another life, the success I should have been in the world, flowed over me, pushed me this way and that or left me stuck somewhere. What else is that current but the stories of success that the flow of capital uses to seduce us, having broken down the old stories of our lives? All day I translate business texts to make money to pay our inflated rent. They’ve set up a billboard for payday loans down the road…
We’re degraded by capital, a force as concrete as the foundation under our house and as abstract and fleeting as stock indices rolling down a screen. It reaches us out here in the Broads, of course, infiltrating and compromising our lives: it owns us, makes us want to degrade ourselves before it, mocks these very words, tells me I don’t understand it because I’m not living in the real world, which is its world, a world that seeks to swallow all alternatives.
We try to straighten out the twisted postures this life has forced us into so we can walk, breathe, think. We try to gather strength to unlearn its false joys and happy endings, to see through the screens it erects against the day. Yet here I am, translating business texts on my laptop to pay the bills, never sure how much I’ll make from month to month…
T.’s cows come trotting when they see me, we’ve got to know each other. Their hot breath and strings of drool on my hands when I bite off chunks of apples and feed them into their rubbery muzzles. The skin patterns on a cow’s muzzle are as unique as our fingerprints; scientists have developed an electronic system to identify them more efficiently than branding and ear notching. These animals have a story from beginning to end, which is: the production process from the shed to the field to the slaughterhouse.
No story then, since the stories that haven’t already been broken into fragments are soon taken in by capital, used and brought to market. But the silent moment remains, the day is unconquerable and ‘you too have weapons’.
You’d think a mole emerging into the day from one of its subterranean tunnels would be dazzled, but the skin and hairs that protect its tiny eyes when it’s digging underground also protect it from being blinded by the light aboveground.
N. surprises us with a lovely rook he’s made from twisted black wire. He’s even made a bare patch around the beak by scraping the wire to distinguish it from a crow. He refuses money but I stuff what cash I have into his pocket and have to grapple with him to keep it in there. We end up lying on the lawn. S. hangs the rook up on the oak tree where it turns slowly in the wind. I give N. my old bike. He says he’ll use to make a sculpture.
Sleepless till five in the morning: a new record. I’ve taken two sleeping pills. The enemy the mind won’t give itself up: it bounces the same thoughts back and forth until at last it’s released from itself and sinks into blackness.
Now, one of those clear fresh mornings when I’m sure I can smell the sulphide from the sea. S. doesn’t believe me. I finish a translation just before the deadline and go back to bed.
In the afternoon I bring the lawn chair and a book out into the garden. As I sit down I’m pelted by a small army of flying insects. I look behind me and see a swarm on the ground, in the plants, on the wall, mingling with the ants pouring up from the cracks between the flagstones. I get up, flick them off my shoulders, arms and legs and step on them but they keep coming, massing around a crack beside our front door. Are they attacking the ants? Rookie bounds out of a bush, leaps up and swats at them. I go inside until the swarm clears, go back out and start scribbling again, a dozen insects twitching on the ground beside me. When S. comes back from the shop and sees them she puts down her bags and asks me what I’ve done that for. They were everywhere, I say, attacking the ants. She explains that they were ants: that I’d been pelted by winged males and virgin queens on their nuptial flight. Some of them might have been from another nest, she says, they fly at the same time, I saw some on the way back. The big ones are the queens, didn’t you see them? She looks at me, disappointed that I don’t know any of this, and goes inside to put the shopping away. Looking it up now sheepishly, I find that their queens can continue to lay eggs for up to twenty years after mating in the air, and hope I didn’t step on one of them.
Heidegger: ‘We speak our language. How else can we be close to language except by speaking? Even so, our relation to language is vague, obscure, even speechless.’ And: ‘As mystery, the word remains remote. As a mystery that is experienced, the remoteness is near.’
What does this mean? Perhaps that language, born of silence, retains an intimacy with it; that it binds us to the near and remote silence which our words at once conceal and reveal.
S. and I move about the cottage each sensing when the other is present and absent. When she goes outside I swear I can feel her absence even if I haven’t heard her leave.
She tells me about a study which showed that when couples live together they begin to physiologically mirror each other. Their heart rates, breathing and brainwaves synchronize when they’re in each other’s presence, as when our footsteps fall in with those of the person we’re walking with.
Noise weighs on me now the way silence used to, even out here. The right words only come in stillness. When the pigeon isn’t cooing, the cat isn’t scratching something, customers aren’t knocking on the door wanting to buy eggs, delivery vans aren’t rolling by to T.’s farm, S. isn’t clattering in the kitchen… then something takes hold that’s mine yet not mine.
The field at dawn, still half hidden in the night. The birds’ chorus begins. Each element of the landscape slowly comes into focus as the sky brightens: each row of cabbage in the field, each tree in the stand of birches beyond it, each pole in the fence between them. A pair of pigeons pecking at the ground between molehills. As the light separates things out it also reveals their interconnections. The landscape makes sense, it’s as if it’s happening, and I with it as I stand looking out the window, slowly waking. Then I sit down, turn on the computer with a yawn to check my emails, find the internet’s playing up again, and the spell is broken, as they say.
Heidegger: ‘We do not wish to get anywhere. We would like only, for once, to get to just where we are already.’
Rookie now only seems interested in us when we’re doing physical work around the house, especially cleaning the floor. Perhaps a farm instinct: when people work on the ground they might stir up creatures to eat. Soon he’ll be out chasing rodents and birds himself and later a mate. He’s still semi-feral. It’s hard not to bother him as he sits like a loaf of bread in the sun on the windowsill – to make him come to me, do my bidding. He tends to hiss if I do anyway. I have mixed feelings about having him as a pet.
We’ve eaten so many blackberries we’re almost sick of them. Brambles grow like weeds here, crowding other plants, covering fences, paths, ruined churches… Their fruits are amazingly varied in flavour since different variants grow beside each other. One berry will be utterly delicious, the next sour. Some practically dissolve as we pick them, staining our hands, others are hard to the touch. They range from yellow to deep purple. Like animals, we quickly learn which are likely to taste good.
It still comes over me sometimes, of course, the thought: how do people do it? How do they get up, do their jobs, sit, sober, through the evenings without topping themselves? After tragedy, farce. And after farce, what? Boredom. Deep, grieflike boredom under an empty sky. This is life, it seems to me in those moments, and nothing else: no possibilities, no alternative. What’s surprising isn’t that people drink, take drugs, throw themselves off buildings, wander the streets muttering to themselves: it’s that more people don’t.
I’m helping T. collect eggs in the coop when he leaves and returns with a shotgun and a box of shells and hands them to me. ‘Oi cahn’ see good enough to aim new more. Yew take tha’ and if yew see a forx, shoo’ tha’ on soight’, he says. I tell him I don’t have a licence and have never shot anything in my life, but he waves off my protests. I put them aside and bring them back to the cottage later, unsure of where to leave them. I decide to lean the gun against a corner in the living room and the shells in the chest of drawers in the kitchen. S. is uneasy.
Today I took the kayak out for another paddle. The seat started sliding off when I was in the middle of the river and I fell into the water. I ended up having to fling it into the reeds with one hand while holding onto the paddle and kayak with the other. I couldn’t get back on the kayak because it tipped too much under my weight, so I manoeuvred down the river for what seemed a long time, the water plants gripping my feet, until I came to solid bank by a willow tree where I could climb up. I was frightened despite myself, and it was instructive to be taught again how small a shift is needed before we’re totally out of our element, floundering like an animal brought out of its natural habitat. It was impossible to bring the kayak through the brush so I left it. I lost a shoe in the suck and my legs and arms are scratched.
It’s similar with moods: one small shift and you can be plunged or lifted out of one mood into another and you feel like a different person. I wake up in a great mood, spend the morning joking with S. while making mackerel salad and toast, eat too much, take a nap and wake up heavy-headed and irritable. I snap at S., catch myself, apologize and decide to go for a run. I notice an overgrown bridle path I’d overlooked before and head down it. Nettles sting my legs. I stop, rip a branch off a tree and thrash the nettles, hogweed, all the other shit I can’t name, and finally break the branch across the same tree I ripped it from. Birds scatter from the field and something runs out of the bushes.
First hints of autumn… The earth is starting its great rest. Mornings and evenings are cooler, the dawn chorus is quieter. The birds that haven’t left are consulting each other about their journeys (Zugunruhe, the Germans call it, migratory unrest). The refined smell of smoking leaves from T.’s burn barrel reaches our garden. The farmers are ploughing their fields followed by flocks of gulls after worms.
No writing for two weeks… Just translating other people’s words, formulating other people’s thoughts, mostly to do with how to make more money. Try again: what’s in front of your mind? That I’m distracted, derailed. Too much of a burden to get back into myself in order to get out of myself. All I want to do is disappear, drink, have nothing to do with anything or anyone. The gun isn’t a wholesome thing to have in the house in moments like these. Try again then. Read that paragraph again, the one that made you happier than ever: The faith involved even in typing a sentence, this sentence… Strange place to be, where only writing can lift your mood. I try to be nice to S. Why should she have to deal with it?
I thought autumn was coming but summer’s lingering, the sun still has life to give. The berries, apples and pears are ripening of course, and we found a fig tree in the cemetery with its secretive bulbous fruits growing softer to the touch, more and more like breasts, turning from green to mottled purple.
Uneven time between seasons, quietly dramatic, like the indifferent dramas in the sky between the days and nights. Later… the sky all swollen greys. Cloudburst. Sodden earth. The water runs like cables along the side of the path and tumbles out of the spout into the rain barrel at the corner of the cottage, reminding me I need to borrow T.’s ladder and clean the gutters.
The endurance of animals. Not just survival but the endurance in their eyes. Enduring the same, the same. They bear reality in ways we can’t.
Yet animals have their distractions too. Their ‘excessive’ curiosity for instance – in excess of instrumental behaviour. Or their pointless play. There’s a video on the internet of a crow bringing a lid onto a slanted snowy roof, sliding down on it, bringing it back up in its beak and sliding back down. How like us they can be in their play, which seems irreducible to purely evolutionary explanation, as ours is irreducible to statistics, forecasts and algorithms.
Like animals we’re thrown into attention, but it’s a heavier burden for us. We can’t sustain it for long. I work long hours for two weeks, make some money, think I’ve achieved something, think I can rest, but it never ends, the need to attend to things. What things? S. Hunger. Housework. The need to justify yourself, to mean something beyond your capacity to earn money. To write this journal, for instance. But I get bored and seek distraction. At times I think I’m nothing more than the play between attention and distraction. Only in writing do they come together, mysteriously, temporarily.
Apes, so close to us, get bored too, you can see it in their eyes. But perhaps it’s only boredom produced by captivity, or being watched by us.
Meanwhile Rookie loafs in the sun, content to be left alone.
Cats don’t meow to each other except as kittens. The territorial sounds they make to each other are completely different, more animal. The meowing of domesticated cats is a behaviour they’ve learned, perhaps from human babies, like walking around our legs. They also have a special annoying solicitation purr. Rookie doesn’t meow and is still mostly nocturnal, as he would be in the wild. We wake up from him knocking things over in the night or biting our toes. We haven’t had him neutered.
I sit on the sofa beside Rookie with a book, read a line that makes me stare into space, return to it and stare into space again. My thoughts roam around some just-out-of-reach thought or feeling (or memory of a thought or feeling) and peter out until I realize I’m gazing at nothing, thinking about nothing. I get annoyed at myself, return to the book, force myself to read a few more lines, but can’t take them in. I reach out to pet Rookie. He stands, stretches and hops off the sofa.
But the restful thought remains, that there’s no real progress to be made, or that progress is a continual return from distraction to attention.
Bare branches against a sky the colour of cigarette smoke. Cold damp air. Leaves turning all kinds of colours from grey to auburn. Autumn: the year’s dusk. The usual sense of slow decline and foreboding. Endless grey skies. How do I get through it this year?
‘All is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil’ wrote Hopkins from deep inside an industrial England spreading its greyness across the world. ‘And for all this, nature is never spent / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.’
We bring home our bounty from the fig tree literally grown out of graves. The fruits are the size of S.’s fist and heavy, their rubbery skin bulging with goodness. We devour two each on the way back, skin and all, ripping open the obscenely red flesh with our teeth and wiping our hands on the grass and our jeans. What was it D.H. Lawrence called them? I look it up: ‘womb-fibrilled.’
The way autumn fruits ripen, come into their own as the weather turns cold and grey and everything else wilts, remember that.
I love to watch S. as she carefully – attentively! – washes the eggs with the garden hose, dries them with a rag and puts them back in T.’s boxes. There are fewer eggs now the summer glut is over, but we’ve made a fair bit of money from roadside sales.
The brambles are wilting, their berries shrinking into hard and bitter beads.
I decide to take the gun out to try to shoot some wood pigeons. Does it need oiling? I try to remember all the things my grandfather told me about hunting on his farm in Denmark with his dog. As a child I always longed to be asked to join him, but he only let me play with his air rifles. Now’s my chance. He had a contraption he would stick in the ground, which folded out at the top into a leather seat. Our plastic garden chair will have to do. He also had binoculars, heavy and leather-covered, which I used to play with, adjusting their sights and turning them over in my hands. I borrow the plastic ones S. has for birdwatching. I shoot a few shells into the air to test the recoil and the spray of the pellets. Then I go to the woods at the edge of the field and sit down facing away from the trees, load the gun, cock it and keep it pointed up, as he taught me. Then I wait – for what? I wish I’d brought my hat. Finally a pigeon flaps out. I start, stand up and shoot almost randomly into the air. Other birds emerge, there’s a great commotion behind and in front of me. I see a pair of pigeons, take aim, and one of them drops! I walk over to it: happily it’s dead. That’s enough for today, I decide, and bring everything back to the cottage to S. like a proud hunter. For some reason carrying the dead bird isn’t unpleasant this time, and S. is on board with it. My grandmother used to prepare the birds my grandfather shot. I remember her showing me how to take out the entrails in the sink. She had a vat in one of the sheds in which she would dip the pigeons and pheasants in boiling water before defeathering them. We watch a YouTube video about how to do it all and I roast the pigeon with potatoes and braise red cabbage with butter, sugar and vinegar, the Danish way.
Irreducible play… Play, distraction, is part of our being, of our attention and creativity. But hasn’t our play, our distraction, been almost completely colonized and commodified? And hasn’t even that of animals? Turned away from the Open and monetized as entertainment, nature programmes, YouTube videos, video games… new, exciting and hollow. What’s left but uncreative boredom when the newness ceases to fascinate, when the new becomes the same and we’ve all seen through it all? How do we recover ourselves? We learn and create things without a view to commodifying them, without ends, like N. (But how does he survive? Where did he get the money to buy his house? I can’t afford one. – This is the poisonous distraction of capital talking, which turns us against each other, against ourselves and against the Open.)
Herons stand on the riverbank gazing into the water. Solemn, hieratic. I never see them catch anything. In fact I rarely notice anything actually happening in nature, I don’t have the patience of a naturalist.
In the evenings we hear the barks and bellows of rutting stags. Like the foxes’ shrieks there’s nothing cute about it. It’s bestial. It’s time to strut, fight and mate. The stags piss on themselves to attract hinds. Over dinner at ours (one of T.’s chickens) T. tells a story from many years ago when he found two with locked antlers. They must’ve been lying there for a long time, he says, because one of them had died and been partly consumed. He takes a sip of beer. The glass looks small in his huge gnarled hand. ‘Bloody forxes’, he says in Norfolk singsong, ‘’a yew shot one yet?’ ‘Crows too, I imagine’, I say to distract him. He nods. ‘’Em crews’ll eat anything.’ He says he had to get the neighbouring farmer to hold down the live one while he sawed off part of an antler with a handsaw. ‘’A were a roight palahva’, he says, ‘it were raw an’orl’. They had to run off as it thrashed to free itself from its rival and finally bounded back into the woods. ‘’A noh’ a word of thanks’, he says, taking another bite.
The morning picks me up where I am and carries me into itself. Isn’t my purpose to keep the morning open and alive? Isn’t it always open to me?
S. has gone to London for a meeting. I have one of my cleaning fits. I take everything out of the pantry and fridge and clean the shelves, soak the shower curtain in hot water and mould remover, vacuum and mop the floors, even wipe the kitchen walls and door with a wet rag. Rookie’s annoyed at being woken up in every room. He gives me sleepy little growls as he pads off.
I clean after I’ve finished a big job or when I’m feeling out of place, to feel at home again or at least to maintain the ecology of the household. To regain control. Like most young people I know, S. has wanderlust. They’re tired of home, or resent it, want more out of life. For people like me who grew up in different countries (my father was employed to set up branches of a multinational insurance company), it’s different. You make your home where you can or drift somewhere else. Growing up I almost felt envious of the rootedness their wanderlust grew out of. They took their homes with them, after all, when they left, even if they resented them. They had homes to go back to. I say this without bitterness since there’s freedom in rootlessness too. The British class system, for instance, doesn’t touch me: I can wonder at its idiocies from the outside, at the way everything and everyone here is marked by it, so that no British person can escape it as long as they stay…
I’ve travelled since I moved to Norfolk. It didn’t change me or broaden my horizons. There weren’t really any horizons to broaden: I’m a foreigner wherever I go. After ten years here I’m still an outsider. The locals tolerate but don’t welcome outsiders. They leave you alone. Which suits me fine.
But doesn’t every home contain an element of foreignness? A home in the sense of a dwelling is defined by its difference from everything that isn’t home, from the outside from which it separates itself with walls, fences, driveways. The familiar takes its meaning from the unfamiliar, is tied to it. And a home itself can suddenly seem alien – after a row with a lover, for instance, a break-in, or missing a month’s rent… Or when you let things pile up, when it gets dirty and colonized by spiders, damp, mould, limescale. There’s a Danish word for what happens to a house that hasn’t been lived in for a while: it gets jordslået, literally ‘earth-hit’. It gets fusty, mildewy, loses its homely borders as the earth starts to reclaim it…
Home is more than a house. But we’re more homeless than ever. The corporate coup is almost complete, the virtual is absorbing the natural, all roots are being cut, all ground razed. We move about in an unshared state of homelessness in which even the foreign is ceasing to exist, since there’ll be no home from which to define it.
What’s homesickness but the pull of home? Boredom, fear of the blue hours, the countless clever distractions and entertainments with which you try to escape them… They fall on you like veils. What do they veil? What else but their opposite, the fullness of time?
Homeless at home. What choice then but to prepare a home in homelessness? To go through homelessness and return to where you are, again and again.
Home in the midst of homelessness. Closer than this cottage, closer even than yourself. More you than you, like that morning when you woke with the landscape at dawn.
T.’s field is getting muddy and it’s time bring the cows into the shed for the winter. His helpers are busy, so he comes and asks if I can give him a hand. In the haybarn we cut the twine on the bales and fork hay into the shed for bedding. I notice rat or cat droppings. T.’s left some leftovers in a bowl for the cats on one of the bales. We line the trough in the shed with a blend of sileage, beets and vitamins from the mixer wagon. Then we go out to the muddy field and I’m surprised when the cows respond to T.’s calls, mooing and following us into the shed, where they tuck into the trough straight away. We don’t even have to touch them. ‘Thang’ya’, says T. as he locks the gate. I think it’s the first time he’s thanked me. ‘They ba’er come an’ ‘alp muck out’, he says.
Morning. My phone pings me awake like a command. I’m tired and need another hour’s sleep, but check it anyway. Google Maps couldn’t find your location: please turn on Location Services. Emails. A company I bought a backpack from once telling me about its new offers. Facebook telling me someone I met once years ago has updated her status. Amazon asking me to leave a review. WhatsApp messages about a night out from a group chat. The day seeps through the curtains. S. is asleep. Her phone beeps. I get an automatic email from an agency’s online project management system (they call it a ‘community’) with a translation offer. Because of the time difference, the project managers will already be in their offices waiting for replies. I click on the link, log in, skim through the text as quickly as possible and click to claim it before anyone else. I get it, with a deadline in the afternoon. I know I won’t be able to fall asleep again: I knew it the minute I picked up the phone. But I’m too tired to get up so I go on the American message board I spent two hours on last night before I fell asleep. After scrolling through memes, pictures, comments and news I realize they’re the same ones I looked at last night. I click through to some news articles and a video of people falling over set to a techno soundtrack (which I quickly mute after S. groans and turns away). After an hour of this I put my phone on the bedside table, reach down and pick my laptop off the floor, log into the online translation program that’s linked to the agency’s site, translate the first sentence, get stumped by the second, put the computer back down, get up and go to the bathroom.
I give my attention willingly to those who compete for control of it. As my attention shifts and flits, it turns into distraction. My attention and distraction become one and the same: a product.
My boredom before it’s dispersed in this depthless drift at least has a kind of substance. It seems to fill my being. It’s close to fullness: only a single step is necessary. The boredom of dispersal is more akin to apathy, a thinning out.
In creation outside dispersal – outside hypercommunication and the commodification of attention – boredom and distraction have their places as parts of a whole. What looks like laziness can be part of meaningful work. You write something, get stuck, stare out the window or go for a walk and suddenly the living truth that was there all along comes to you.
In dispersal boredom becomes a mix of apathy and a roaming anxiety that are very hard to turn to positive ends because they’re not rooted in a person engaged in a meaningful task. They fragment rather than point to their opposites.
Dispersal exists side by side with surveillance – at home, on the streets, at work. This country is a world leader in private and state CCTV cameras: if you call the police about a disturbance in a city they’ll often be able to see it in real time. Every one of my clicks on the internet is tracked through my online and phone IDs and combined with real-world data about me (such as my address, income, education, relationship status, movements, everything I’ve ever bought with a card and everywhere I bought it) to create the most precise marketing profiles possible. My phone itself tries to connect to our other devices to tailor ads for me, even when I’m not using it. Algorithms guide me through the web, shaping my life in ways I don’t understand…
As a freelancer in the countryside, I’m spared the apathy and anxiety of working in a physical office with pointless meeting, targets, performance reviews, competitiveness and monitoring by management. I have the luxury of time, of old-fashioned boredom: I’m free to say no to jobs. But being on the margins causes its own anxieties. I need to be communicable the whole day. If I don’t claim job offers straight away some other freelancer, somewhere in the world, will. I never know how many people a job has been offered to. I’m connected to the same networks as everyone else and if they’re cut off I’m lost and start to worry. My life is largely structured around deadlines that I suspect the agencies make unnecessarily short to be more competitive. I haven’t raised my fees in ten years because of competition and improvements in machine translation. I work in the evenings, weekends and holidays. My monthly income varies wildly. I have no contracts, no financial safety net. From time to time an agency will stop sending me work – I never know why – and I have to send out another round of unsolicited emails to addresses I find online, or fill in application forms on agency websites. (And if the work were to stop and I needed to apply for benefits, it would be on condition that I provide documentation showing that I was spending thirty-odd hours a week looking for jobs – a fulltime job in itself that’s literally impossible to do and pays barely enough to survive.)
For serious people, even now, there’s only work and laziness. There’s no such thing as meaningful idleness. Idleness is laziness and laziness is a moral failure to work (meaning to make money), even now when for many there are no prospects but debt and meaningless stress. You make your own prospects, you get out and sell yourself and so that eventually you too can rip other people off. But when money is the Real it no longer matters what you’ve done to earn it, whether your activity is useful or not. Once you’ve got it you’ve made it: you’re real too. People can now become rich by spamming ads, streaming themselves playing video games or being on reality shows. Crooks and lazy people become respectable once they have too much wealth to ignore. They cease being objects of contempt. They’ve gamed the system to their advantage, which is something serious people have to respect, since they respect the system and the system is money. ‘She’s not as stupid as you might think’, they’ll say, or: ‘Whatever else he might be, he’s savvy.’
In the early Christian church, acedia and tristitia, sloth and sadness, were related deadly sins. They ranged over states such as apathy, laziness and despair: sins of wilful withdrawal, flights from the divine. They were spiritual problems, problems of the whole person to be cured not just through work but also through prayer and spiritual exercises: meaningful idleness. In prayer, endurance and grace the sufferer was meant to move from the darkness of self-enclosure into the light of God and the community of the faithful.
In their contemporary forms they’re private conditions to be overcome with drugs, managerial cognitive behavioural therapy and self-help techniques designed to help sufferers administrate themselves into fulfilment. But don’t sloth and sadness still lie in wait? And when they appear, don’t they tell us the truth about their everyday causes and our limited cures?
Boundless by nature, being unceasingly lets things come into being, unfold themselves, become what they are. Our communication networks are pale versions of it, providing little nourishment: information and profit without meaning. Operating within their own echoing worlds, mirroring vital forces and real human contact, they work not to give life but to replace it. Within them being veils itself in us as all kinds of symptoms, regularly rebranded to sell us cures that don’t work.
We find big house spiders on the walls. ‘It’s that time of year’, says S. When she sees me about to bludgeon one with a roll of kitchen towel she stops me, slides it into a glass under a piece of paper and brings it outside. ‘Won’t they just come back in?’ I say.
Drifts of dank leaves. Shuddering branches. The clocks go back and all of a sudden it’s dark at five. In the mornings the bushes and hedges are cloaked in silvery spiders’ webs.
In T.’s garden the apples drop with precise thuds. I bring them to the pantry in a bucket along with a dozen pears which S. pickles in a brew of boiled vinegar, sugar, cloves and cinnamon sticks. The kitchen windows steam up and the scent fills the house. I bring a jar over to T.’s. The cows are moaning in the shed but he’s not in there. I knock at the house, open the door and call, hear something from upstairs and go up.
The wallpaper’s peeled in two places and the stairs are stained with food. He’s in bed. ‘What’s wrong?’ I say, ‘you look pale’. ‘I dun’ harf feel queer’, he says. It’s the left side of the belly, he says. I ask him if I should call an ambulance, of course he says no, he’ll be better tomorrow. I don’t know what to do. I go downstairs, put the kettle on, do the dishes, make a cup of tea and spoon some pears into a bowl. I try to make him drink and eat, but he tells me to leave it on the bedside table. ‘I’ll check on you tomorrow morning’, I say. ‘Call me if you feel worse.’
Last spring one of the few small translation agencies I still work for was bought by Denmark’s largest agency, which in turn was bought out by one of the largest agencies in the Nordic countries. Emails were sent round about the growth and great benefits everyone could look forward to after these ‘consolidations’ and ‘synergies’. Now they’re shutting down the agency, firing all the staff and absorbing their local clients and us freelancers. The money will flow out of the region into the hands of a multinational company, and for us freelancers ‘consolidation’ always means more competition between each other, shorter deadlines, lower pay and remoter management.
I’ve started dreaming again. It must be because I’m coming off the pills. Last night I dreamt I was pregnant and was swimming in the sea like a seal.
I tried to cut down many times. I learned it has to be done with great care to avoid dizziness and sudden, suicidal drops in mood. The longer you’ve taken them the longer it takes to stop. And as when you first start taking them, the effect of withdrawing is slow, profound and hard to understand, since you’re inside it.
Looking back it’s clear they blunted my senses for years. Much of this time is hazy in my memory. What did I do? Watched shows on the internet. Worked. Drank. Got fat. Slept all morning and took long naps in the afternoon from which I woke groggily, often to find I’d missed a job offer…
T. is up and about again, so we go to Morston to see the grey seals, which have started breeding on the long spit of sand and shingle formed of drifts from the eroding shoreline to the east. The sky opens up beautifully when we reach the coast on the bus (all the other passengers but one are looking at their phones). Morston and its neighbouring village Blakeney used to be big seaports, but the harbours and the river valley have silted up, in part due to the reclamation of the marshes, leaving only room for small boats. The seal tours are the main business now.
Quay sounds. Ropes creaking against poles. Halyards clinking against masts. Seaspray spattering the deck. Our boatman, a retired lobster fisher, tells me he’s watched the spit lengthen in his lifetime and seen the fishermen move to wider harbours to the west. The tides transform the coast here daily, sucking the sea in and out of the land: at low tide you can walk to the Point, where the seadogs feast on exposed sand eels.
Back on land, we walk to Stiffkey through a saltmarsh of greens browns and greys, dotted with pools and small creeks. Tough, weather-beaten gorse with delicate yellow flowers. Hundreds of stub-faced Brent geese newly arrived from the tundra, gathering to honk about who knows what. The hinterland is a jigsaw puzzle of woodland, fields, buildings and wild meadows divided and subdivided by roads and paths, the soil varying from rich clay to sandy gravel. S. stops and looks out over the Point through her binoculars. Once you would have been able to walk from here to Denmark, she tells me. The sea was one land mass, Doggerland, dotted with nomadic hunter gatherers following fish and game in seasonal patterns. (In their odd alliances, archaeologists are reconstructing this lost land in 3D models based on ancient remains dredged up from the seabed by trawlers and oil company surveys.) Even after the land flooded, people may have moved more freely between here and the continent than within East Anglia itself, whose fens, saltmarshes and soggy heaths would have presented a greater obstacle than the sea. Long before the medieval peat excavations Alfred of Wessex used them to his advantage to conduct guerrilla warfare against Guthrun the Dane. Later the Anglians and the Viking settlers joined forces against William I (himself descended from a Viking), aided by the waterlogged land which resisted Norman castle building.
You’re not as foreign as you think, S. tells me. (She’s right in a sense: the county is dotted with Danish place names, including our own parish.) But whose home is this? Flora, fauna, history and geology: all seem as provisional here as the shifting sands of the shoreline itself.
As provisional as these words, which slip and shift from under me, draw me in and out of myself.
The day remains what it is, silent and indifferent. I’m a babble of voices, expelled, always returning. No escape from words or from the day. Strange predicament.
Then prepare to let words take hold in you. Let them listen to the silence and speak in you. Speak for yourself and see the world as if for the first time, in time’s fullness.
Words are alive, they resist dead time. They’re not entirely drained of meaning, not entirely dedicated to capital – not yet. They can still respond to what the world silently says. They can still beckon us into the day and the day into us.
The word is not the thing, the thing not the word, but when the right word for the thing is found, the thing emerges into the Open. All happen at once: word, world, speaker. The distant day now suddenly close.
I watch the spider work outside the window in the wind and rain. It spins its filaments out of itself, arranges and rearranges them in widening circles. One thread quivers and drops off the eave: the spider crawls up to replace it, stops to rest, starts again. Slim pickings in this weather but what else can it do but build its net, heal it when it breaks, rebuild elsewhere when its weaving is disturbed, wait? It’s so easily displaced, so easily makes another home. The web spreads out in any old nook, its gaps growing wider, sometimes only visible in the sun. The worker sits still for ages, its work apparently all for nothing, until the web is either wiped away (as I’ll probably wipe this one away when the weather’s dry) or comes into its own when shaken into life by an insect.
The comforts of the straight story, the satisfying ending. Filling in gaps, running over silence. The spider at work and at rest tells me something else. What does it say, in its patience?
We cast our own fine-meshed nets over the earth, mapping and monitoring it with pinpoint accuracy. Military-developed GPS satellites circle the globe, linking to billions of receivers on the ground, synchronizing them via atomic clocks. They plot every millimetre of the world, guide missiles, aid logistics, stock-market trading, weather forecasts, infrastructure grids and the internet. Even farm machines are now fitted with positioning systems that automate ploughing, planting and harvesting: the farmer can run his driverless tractors from anywhere while he downloads weather data and sells his grain on the global market.
Desire for presence in abstract space. Is this desire itself a form of presence? Didn’t they used to say of prayer that the desire to pray was itself prayer?
Nature loves to hide; we love to cover it up. A dark age, that loves to disguise itself.
My mobile pings. I check it in the bathroom, in the forest, in the supermarket, on the toilet. I want it to ping. I feel bereft when it doesn’t.
I get a text from T.’s sister saying he’s in hospital, and an urgent email about a translation I sent yesterday – the customer has criticisms and extra text she wants translated before she gives her presentation this afternoon. I text T.’s sister that I’ll come straight away. I have trouble opening the client’s document because PowerPoint needs updating and I have to reset the router. Once everything works again (and I’ve got another urgent email and a call on my mobile asking me if I’ve got the previous emails), I have to google points of grammar and explain why certain phrases can’t be translated directly from Danish if she’s talking to an English-speaking audience. Finally I send the email with the revised file attached and hope that’s the end of it. I’ve missed the bus so I call a taxi.
I’m led to his bed, where he’s lying hooked up to wires and drips. It’s the pancreas, he says. Cancer. They need to do more tests but it doesn’t look good. He says he got a call from a property developer who wants to buy the farm last month and is considering it. I’m not sure what to say. There ain’t much to say is there, he says. What does he want to do with it? I ask. Make it into something expensive I imagine, he says, like all the rest of ‘em. He gives me a set of keys to his house his sister’s had made, and asks me to turn on the heating in the evening if it gets frosty so the pipes don’t freeze. I tell him I’ll come back soon and to tell her to call me if he needs anything. He nods and I leave, feeling guilty.
I got drunk on the way back from the hospital, dropped my laptop on the street between pubs and bought a new one from Amazon the next day. When I tried to set it up it was very slow. I spent two days trying to sort out email, internet and Office, deleting colourful, bouncing apps and turning off the automatic ‘services’ – it took half a day to install 34% of an Office update. I lost work and started to panic. What should I do? Send it back, wait for a new one and lose more work? What if there was nothing wrong with it and I’d just been stupid and done something wrong? I finally realized my mistake after looking it up on S.’s laptop: I’d put our wifi password in during the Windows setup process instead of skipping it, which caused all the bloatware to start up and slow everything down to the point where I couldn’t use it for much at all, even though I was deleting everything the system let me delete. It was also linking up to our other devices and slowing them down. The solution, I found, was to go into Settings, click Reset PC and wait an hour for it to reboot in a slimmer version… The product I’d bought was bogging itself down through its own pre-installed advertising and surveillance programs.
Another dream last night. I was being driven in a car. Dark, souped-up cars started ramming others to get across a bridge. I told the driver sarcastically that these are the kinds of guys who’ll survive when the apocalypse comes. Then we ourselves crashed into another car on the bridge, and I rushed out to check on the passengers. There was a mother holding a baby in the front seat and another infant lying on the seat next to her, wrapped in a blanket. She looked at me, then the child on the seat. I opened the blanket. Someone cried out not to touch it. It was a newborn boy, raw and red, with a full head of hair, who started talking and smiling like an adult. I didn’t understand what he said.
I installed an adblocker app on my phone that must have been malware, because it started slowing down, finally crashed and won’t turn back on, though I keep going back to it to try. I’m considering leaving it in the drawer and getting a basic mobile for calls and texts, even though that means I’ll miss out on jobs, since I won’t get emails on the phone and I can’t check my laptop constantly.
When we can, we help T.’s helpers with the cows, chickens, deliveries and pickups. We still get some customers knocking for fruit, veg and eggs. I put the money in a drawer in T.’s kitchen.
We visit him. His face is sallow. He asks S. to plug his phone charger in: he’s too weak, this big strong man with a lifetime of labour behind him. He says he’s accepted the developer’s offer and he’s bringing the contract for T. to sign tomorrow. Jesus, I say, don’t you want to have someone look it over? What’s the rush? He looks me in the eye until I have to look down. They ain’t even gonna operate, he says. S. takes his hand. When yew gor’a gew, yew gor’a gew, he says. On the way out we speak to a doctor who tells us the biopsy showed it’s already spread to the liver and that it looks like the best thing is to send him to the hospice.
More business texts… I must have translated thousands over the years. The ones that aren’t specifically about the companies’ products and services, the ones that talk about their business philosophy, tend to say similar things. They talk about creativity, innovation, ideas, relationships, navigating a changing world, having the courage to face challenges and competition through openness to change, and so on. They, and I along with them in my translations, often describe their businesses, products, management and employees as if they were all part of a vital existential journey, fraught with challenges but moving towards ever-greater successes, as if the movements of the market were the individual’s responsibility. They’re always moving forward, always positive.
I suddenly start crying while doing the dishes. What the hell difference is that going to make, I tell myself as I wash my face.
I itch to check my phone. I look for it on my bedside table when I wake up in the morning. I reach for it in my coat pocket when I’m walking to the supermarket. But it’s freeing not to be able to constantly check it and spend hours browsing garbage on the internet. S. tells me about an app that blocks internet browsers and the ability to unblock them. She says she’s installed it and shows me how it works, why didn’t you tell me about this before? I say. I did, she says, you must not have been listening. I was probably on my phone, I say.
It’s too cold and rainy to run and cycle outside, and I was worried about getting out of shape again, but S. has found some YouTube fitness videos you can do at home. It turns out there are lots of exercises you can do using your own bodyweight. It feels silly at first but it keeps us fit. At first Rookie ran away from the jumping and music, but he’s got used to it now. He sits on the arm of the sofa watching us with what looks to us like a mixture of wariness and indifference – but who knows what he really thinks.
I take the train to Norwich to try to have my phone fixed and reduce my monthly bill to the minimum, since I won’t be using the internet as much (Virgin has raised the price from five to twenty pounds without telling me).
I go to Carphone Warehouse where I bought the phone and ask the assistant if he can send it off to be started up and reset. He tries to turn it on and confirms that it’s broken. Since it’s out of warranty, fixing it is apparently a huge undertaking that requires sending it away to technicians, who’ll need to check whether it’s a software issue, the motherboard or something else. Often they’ve been dropped or there’s been spillage, he says. I haven’t dropped or spilled anything on it, I say. There’s no telling what’s wrong with it, the assistant says, the cost could run up and it probably won’t be worth it. You’d be better off buying a new one, he says, and shows me lots of different price and insurance packages to consider. I end up too confused to make a decision and leave while he’s still talking at me.
I go to the Samsung shop, where the assistant shows me how to turn it back on and do a factory reset. I tell her I installed an adblocker that may have made it crash. She asks me if it was free and I say it was. She shakes her head and says, Nothing good comes for free these days. I thank her, then go to the Virgin shop to ask if they can reduce my tariff. The assistant tells me I need to call customer service. But I’m in the shop, I say. I know, he says, I’m sorry, but we don’t deal with that, we just do sales.
I call customer service. I’m given six options, then four other options, then transferred to three different members of staff in an Indian call centre. I have to explain my situation and give my number, name and three letters of my password to each person. I end up in the sales department. When I ask to have my bill reduced the assistant keeps interrupting me with other offers. Finally he offers to reduce it from twenty to five pounds a month, with the same data allowance. I thank him and end the call.
I sit on a bench and try to install the app S. told me about. To do so I have to sign into the Google Play Store, which turns on lots of Google functions that need to be updated. There are 18 updates pending. I ignore them. Google Locations keeps trying to find my phone even though I unchecked the box when I reset the phone. My old Gmail account opens and downloads dozens of emails. The blocker app opens but requires a password. I haven’t been asked to set one up, so I can’t open it. It’s now dark outside, so I take the train and bus home.
I ask S. to set up the blocker and she does it in half a minute; I’d downloaded the wrong app. I click on the email icon and find I’ve forgotten the settings. I go into Outlook on my laptop and find the settings, but find the setting requirements are slightly different on the phone. I try to look up the settings on their website, but the internet’s down again, so I unplug the router and wait. Once I get back online I see the settings on the website are also slightly different from the ones the phone requires. I type them in five times in different variations but keep getting error messages. Meanwhile the phone has started updating itself and installing more things: Google Street View, Samsung Push Service, Google TalkBack, GoogleMaps…
It’s nearing midnight. S. has gone to bed. The phone beeps and tells me to charge it. I fetch the charger and plug it in, trip over the wire as I go to the toilet, and the phone drops on the floor. It won’t turn back on.
We visit T. in the hospice. He’s sunk into a haze of pain. He knows it’s us but we can’t quite reach him. He shifts and moans, the bed creaks under his weight. S. cries as she holds his hand, puts some of her lip balm on his cracked lips. My mind is empty: I can’t stop looking at the sleep in the corners of his eyes. His phone is on the floor, charging.
We help his sister clean and tidy his house. She’s brusque, loud and efficient. I tell her about the money in the drawer. She opens it, puts the notes in her bra and gives me the change in a plastic bag. This is pointless really, she says as we clean, since the clearance men will just track mud all over the place, but it seems like the right thing to do. I’m about to snap something back about that being a bit premature when I realize she’s right. She straightens up, her face softens and she looks at me: ‘It’s all happened so fast, innit?’
Bleak fields and branches brilliant with hoar frost on the way down to the river. I think of Wallace Stevens’ mind of winter. Does that help? I can’t decide, it’s too cold to think. A boat chugs by leaving a dense wobbling wake in the near-freezing water. The path is ridged with hard mud. On the surface of the willow pond pure freshwater forms shapes like oil slicks as the brackish water sinks and starts to freeze. I spot a snipe at the water’s edge, blended with the reeds and puffed up against the cold, the end of its long beak sticking out from under its wing. Everything here seems indrawn and dormant: conserving energy, waiting, secretly growing. On the way back there’s black ice on the road and frost feathers on the cars spreading out in unique, elaborate patterns.
I don’t remember the combination of buttons the shop assistant pressed to turn my phone back on, so I google it, try it and it works. I call our IT provider’s service centre and finally manage to set up my email.
I toy with the idea of deleting my Facebook account, which I haven’t logged into for months anyway. Then I would truly be cut off from all the contacts on my phone whose email addresses aren’t in my Outlook address book, and dozens more. Real people who’ve been part of my life for good and bad: friends, acquaintances, enemies, relatives. Getting rid of social media on your phone is one thing, but Facebook? Yet all these years it’s been tracking me across the net via its icon to sell ads through real-time auctions, and still is, even though I’m not logged in. All these years, reducing my friends and me to saleable data points, filtering our feeds, guiding our eyes to what’s most valuable to its interests…
To wean yourself off your skewed allegiances. To work yourself out of your need for acceptance and fear of missing out (fomo in text speak) – out of the empty pleasure of instant communicability, in whatever way works for you. These are practical things that can be done at least. Futile gestures maybe, but what if enough people did it to reach negative critical mass: simply refused?
A., a friend of S.’s from university comes to visit for the weekend and we take a few walks together. She’s a real birder, the kind of English naturalist I can’t help but think of, unfairly I’m sure, as in the Victorian tradition of cataloguing and comprehending every part of the earth.
On our walks she spots straight away what’s going on in the environment. She can identify and explain everything you ask about, or knows someone who’s writing a thesis about it. Binoculars in hand, she sees a sparrow hawk and bearded tits, which we can’t see even when she points them out to us. She hears fieldfares and redwings and tells us all about their breeding and migration patterns, how they’re changing because of global warming. ‘What was that? I ask, seeing something brown flash by. ‘Oh that’s just a blackbird’, she says, watching for something more interesting.
For me the smaller birds and their songs, though I like hearing about them, tend to fade into the general ambience of the place: they’re there, rustling and calling to each other, yet never quite there, flitting about in the backdrop.
But for L., who regularly rings and tags birds, they have definite individual presences. She can tell the females from the males, the juveniles from the adults, detect seasonal changes in their plumage, behaviour and calls. She can collate, analyse and extrapolate from her data, predict future outcomes, demonstrate trends in the wider environment.
I get the impression that she sees all the other elements of the landscape in the same way: each can be understood in terms of its place and function in the habitat, each habitat within the larger ecosystem and so on in widening circles. I can only ask her so many questions on our way through the woods and along the river before I start to feel irrelevant. It’s as if everything fits, everything is explainable, from the tiniest particles to the structure of the universe, and anything that hasn’t yet been explained will be when our knowledge inevitably catches up to it.
Looking through the recycling leaflet we got through the door this morning I remember the kayak I abandoned. I’ve had pangs of guilt about it now and then. Now there’s less vegetation and it’s been dry for a while it might be possible to retrieve it. In the afternoon I put the wellies on and go down to see if I can find it. It’s a pain in the ass to pull it out of the brush and drag it up to the road, but I manage it. N.’s place is on the way home so I drop by and tell him what happened over a mug of tea in his cluttered kitchen, and he says he’ll pick it up in his van and either fix it or take it to the tip.
I haven’t yet dared to delete my Facebook account, but at least I no longer have Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter or the ability to browse the internet on my phone, and it already feels like a relief. I don’t carry it around with me everywhere at home; sometimes I even forget about it. I bring it on my walks to the supermarket and around the fields, but I don’t pull it out of my coat pocket as often since it only beeps when I get an email or text, and I know I can’t browse the internet when I’m bored, standing in a queue or on a walk.
I stop at an ash tree and look at the buds on its upturned branches: slick black growths dense with life in the middle of winter. I look at them until I realize how cold I am, jump up and down and shake myself warm. No, this isn’t a season of death, I think on my way back to the cottage. Those buds point back and forth through the seasons, just as each season points back and forth to the others. Doesn’t the year complete itself in every season? Isn’t it always at home in itself?
For us, home must have something to do with questioning, since it’s not immediately given. But sometimes what’s sought guides the seeking – the answer guides the question. Where am I? I’m placed in this question, which I was never prepared to answer. What am I but this question put to work in me, to open me up to what’s already open to me?
To a young man seeking guidance from him, Rilke wrote:
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them… Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Last night I dreamt we’d sown a small plant that grew to hip-height overnight. We watched as its big oval leaves trembled and reached for the light. ‘Look’, I told S., ‘you can almost see it growing!’
The cows and chickens are gone from T.’s farm. They had to move quickly, I guess. The neighbouring farmer knocked on the door and told us he’d been to see T. and that we can have the eggs and do whatever we want with the fruit and vegetable patches. ‘It’s all gunna be tore up anywhy’, he says. ‘Just as well tha’s win’a.’
Dogwalkers everywhere. In town, on the paths, by the coast. I’ve trained myself to ignore dogs when they come up to me; before I would always bend down and fuss over them. I even ignore Rookie most of the time (S. pampers him). Of course he comes to me more now. He even sat on my lap the other day, like he did when he was a kitten.
The birds leave rune-like marks on the snowy lawn as they peck at our bread crusts. S. hung a ball of fat out for them next to N.’s rook the other day, but a squirrel must have stolen it.
The gale blows me sideways along with the birds, branches and grasses. The sleet makes no distinctions either: it whips into us all. Odd decision to take a walk in this weather, yet I feel as much a part of the landscape as ever. Not a thing among things, but placed under the same conditions as things, walking on the same open ground.
Kafka: A heavy downpour. Stand and face the rain, let its iron rays pierce you; drift with the water that wants to sweep you away but yet stand fast, and upright in this way abide the sudden and endless shining of the sun.
Today I went to the hospice to see T. and was told he died yesterday. I called his sister and she said she’s arranging the funeral. It’s freezing now, so I went to turn his heating on, sat looking at the floor for half an hour in my coat and hat, turned the heating off and went home.
The enchantment of the virtual and the banalization of the real. The dream of a pure passivity of being: a frictionless, disembodied world with no here or there, in which you can send out your profiles, avatars and sims to live your life for you. But this is a distortion and diminishing of being, which beckons us into the real, to claim and be claimed by it.
What was it one of Bernhard’s characters said about photography?
I found it:
The inventor of the photographic art was the inventor of the most inhumane of all arts. To him we owe the ultimate distortion of nature and the human beings who form part of it, the reduction of human beings to perverse caricatures – his and theirs. I have yet to see a photograph that shows a normal person, a true and genuine person, just as I have yet to see one that gives a true and genuine representation of nature.
Saturday and S. is taking the day off. She lies in bed drinking tea, eating crisps and watching an American sitcom. She says she feels sad and rundown. You need a blast of sea air, I say, and make her shower and get dressed. Again the sky seems to clear when we reach the coast. We walk on stones sucked smooth by the sea, the sea-sides of our faces numbed by the wind. Gulls squabble over something at the water’s edge. There are patches of broken ice on the heavy sand and grasses growing out of the cliff face. I love the part of the beach where the cliff turns inland and the sea seems to open up. On the horizon are the revolving white blades of wind turbines built by a Danish company I translate for. We turn back and drink ales by the fireplace in the pub while waiting for the bus and get ruddy. The funeral is on Monday.
I left my phone at home for the first time in years and didn’t check it until a couple of hours after we returned. There were no emails and notifications anyway. I realize I don’t miss social media at all, perhaps because hardly any of what happened on them was meaningful in the first place. (Many of the meaningful events of my life may have come about through social media, it’s true, but I struggle to think of any that happened on them.) They create a feedback loop of desire, insecurity and validation that you only crave while you’re inside it. Delete the loop and it vanishes like the mirage it was. We knew this instinctively in the early days of the internet, when it was embarrassing to admit to being on social media, to have found a partner on a dating site and so on, but we forgot it as the virtual became normalized and our lives diminished.
The social media designers and bosses, those hijackers of the mind, know this better than anyone. In fact many of them use their platforms less than you’d think, and many won’t let their own children use them.
I find the following quotes in a Guardian article about social media.
Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook: I don’t have a kid, but I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on. There are some things that I won’t allow. I don’t want them on a social network.
Facebook’s former vice-president for user growth Chamath Palihapitiya: The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works… It is eroding the foundations of how people behave by and between each other. I can control my decision, which is that I don’t use that shit. I can control my kids’ decisions, which is that they’re not allowed to use that shit.
Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker: God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains… The thought process was, how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? It’s exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology…. The inventors, creators, understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.
S. has left her iPad on the sofa and on a whim I pick it up and log into Facebook to check my messages. There’s only one, from a friend asking if I’m coming to the party she posted an invite for, am I still living ‘out in the middle of nowhere’. When I try to reply a window pops up asking me to install the Messenger app. I refresh the page, try again and the same thing happens.
That’s enough, I think. I refresh again, click Settings and look for a ‘Delete account’ button. There is none, of course. I close the window and my eyes are immediately drawn down the page of status updates, pictures and comments. I catch myself, scroll back up and find the Help search bar, type in ‘delete account’ and am taken to a window where I can submit my account for deletion within fourteen days. I click the button.
Who knows whether they’ll delete all the data they’ve collected on me through my likes, messages, the posts and pictures that other people tagged me in and so on. Perhaps it’s already out there anyway, being used, and deleting the account just hinders further collection. Luckily I don’t think I ever signed up any other apps or services through Facebook.
I google what happens to your data after you delete your account, click on a link to a forum where someone has asked the same question, but the page is blocked by a sign-in page that requires me to sign in through Google or… Facebook.
I turn off the iPad and put it away.
N. calls to tell me to come and see the sculpture he’s made from my old bike and other scrap metal, forged or melted down and recast. It’s a tree, about eight feet tall and so elaborate I have to walk around it for a while to take it in.
The trunk is made of thick twisted ropes of grey and black wrought iron with delicate ridges and knots, the branches and crown an intricate network of matte and brushed metals, some with faded colours, some with parts of trademarks still on, the leaves paper-thin sheets of tin and copper with veins and teeth. The more I look the more I see. There’s a burr on the trunk made from part of a curled-up bike chain – mine, presumably. There are streaks of hard polished wood here and there. There’s a bag made of brass with a Tesco label somehow embossed on it, wrinkled and draped across the branches with incredible precision.
N. starts telling me all about how he made it but I say I don’t want to know the details – I want to know it only in this form, as if I’d come across it in some post-catastrophic landscape. ‘Someone might eventually, it’ll last forever’, he says. ‘It better, I burnt myself like twenty times.’
He should be able to charge many times more than I can afford, I tell him, and he deserves it. He says he’ll try Lord Whatever of Holkham Hall, maybe he’ll want it for the park. That seems unlikely, I think. Or someone might want it in their second garden up there, he says, there’s an arts and crafts fair coming up in Holt. He says he doesn’t bother with the ‘tearoom galleries’ anymore. ‘I can tell they’re getting ready to say no as soon as they see me.’
I take a picture of it with my phone and tell him I might be able to help.
The funeral’s in the parish church on a damp grey afternoon. Among the small group of mourners, I recognize a couple of older locals from the pub, the neighbouring farmer and his workers, one of T.’s suppliers, and his sister. Annoying formality; slow, unnatural movements. I’m distracted by faces, a puddle forming under an umbrella, the wheels of a walker turning different ways, steam rising from an electric heater… Nothing genuine in me, just an awkward, empty sadness.
More storms. Leaves fly off the trees like birds.
Near the shops a huge oak has fallen halfway across the road, its trunk peeled open, bright white and yellow against the drab surroundings.
To stand open where you are, in your flaws and questions, and find your way to the home that gleams within the foreign in every moment – the home that refuses to be made homey by us, and that we make more foreign by the hour.
I email the photo of N.’s tree to myself and start setting up accounts for him on a couple of art market websites. I call him and ask him what he’d want to charge while I scroll through the prices of the other sculptures. We agree on a price at the high end and I register the accounts with his number, the photo and a description. Without much hope I email R., whom I know from Norwich and who lectures at the university and the arts college and used to work as an arts coordinator for the council. I attach the picture, tell him there’s a sculptor out here he should visit, and ask him if he still has his gallery and art show contacts.
The paths along the river are flooded and trees have fallen over in the woods. Tree surgeons have already gone to work on some them. I pass a wall of orange discs: the ends of neatly stacked alder logs. In the clearing a giant willow tree veils itself in its own countless branches.
At last a sunny day. Boundless blue sky. The sun, no longer ripening anything, seems to shine for the sake of it. Quiet happiness again, like an advent… The early Christians believed the end was near: they lived as if it could come at any time to save them from the world. But perhaps it’s the beginning that’s near, and always was, not as a salvation from the world but as the world coming to pass before God in a silent, readying moment. Perhaps the moment is always readying the world for God.
Some days, indeed, there seem to be hints of the hidden God everywhere. A God of intimations… The last God, who may or may not come…
We can talk about being with some boldness, even stake some claim in it, but how to dare talk about God? Beyond the word God, God withdraws – into God.
Eckhart: ‘Whatever one says that God is, he is not; he is what one does not say of him, rather than what one says he is.’ And: ‘God is a being beyond being and a nothingness beyond being. God is nothing. No thing. God is nothingness. And yet God is something.’
We stand before the nothingness of God, the opacity of the world, and see that we’re not at home. Yet what could be closer to us than a God? We can say nothing worthy of God yet we can try however awkwardly with the words that are given to us. Some truth may be given to us in our approach… I remember those summer afternoons in the dim musty chapel. The light in the stained-glass window. I felt your overfacing power and I felt you withdraw, and that gave me a strange hope. Something pointed me far beyond myself and returned me to myself.
What they used to call faith, blooming out of nothing.
Azriel of Gerona: The node of being as it begins to emerge from nothingness is called faith. For the term ‘faith’ applies neither to visible, comprehensible being, nor to nothingness, invisible and incomprehensible, but rather to the nexus of nothingness and being. Being does not stem from nothingness alone but rather from being and nothingness together.
The days are slowly getting longer. I run around the football fields at the school and do pull-ups on the crossbars. Snowdrops have come up under the trees. A dog – a stray? – runs up and sniffs me confusedly, then runs away. I suddenly remember the cats on the farm: they must be starving. When I get back I take a bowl of Rookie’s food and a tupperware container to the haybarn. I leave the bowl on the bale where I saw T. had put out his leftovers and fill the container with water from the tap in the cowshed. I look around for droppings but don’t see any… The next day the bowl’s licked clean and the water’s gone.
S. tells me people on our group WhatsApp and Facebook threads have been speculating and joking about why I left (one thought I’d left in anger, another that I’d ‘finally cracked out there’). M. texts me to ask if I’m all right, and R. texts saying, ‘Thanks for unfriending me, dickhead’.
I haven’t heard back from R., but N.’s sold his tree for slightly less than the asking price after someone who saw it on one of the websites called and came to visit him. He says it’s saved his year: he was broke and living on baked beans, tea and reduced Tesco sandwiches.
Sunday. I wake up wrong again. The day’s all wrong: a series of separate moments that don’t fit. S. is in a bad mood too. We move around awkwardly, irritated by the sounds we make, the propaganda on the radio, Rookie’s pestering. Even the fitful wind seems annoyed. I move from the bed to the living room with my laptop, then back to the bed when S. starts clattering dishes in the kitchen.
I’ve written 40 pages of this journal now and on a whim look up the submission pages of small publishers’ websites, and immediately get discouraged. ‘We receive more submissions than we can realistically read.’ ‘Read these rules carefully before you submit.’ ‘We aim to respond within five months.’ ‘Please state your publication history and who you think your writing will appeal to.’ ‘Reading submissions is a weekend activity for us because we’re very busy.’ I start writing a synopsis for a publisher that says it looks for ‘new approaches to landscape and place’. I go back to the website, read the whole page and see they want a sample of maximum ten pages.
I realize I have no idea how to assemble a representative sample of all this, shove away the laptop and go and make it up with S. We hug, make food together and start joking again. It was nothing, we agree, Sundays are strange sometimes.
In the morning a removals lorry drives up to the farm. I wonder if T.’s sister is there. I have a deadline, so I don’t go up to check. In the afternoon it comes back down. I go and feed the cats while S. cooks dinner. The cowshed smells sickly sweet of manure and rotting hay so I rinse it all into the drain with the power washer. I let myself into the house. She was right: there’s mud, leaves and rubbish on the floor, along with boxes labelled ‘Do not remove’. How still it all seems, how abandoned already.
Long rainy days indoors. Winter isn’t ready to loosen its grip. Work’s dwindled: I haven’t heard from one of my main sources of income for weeks. Soon I’ll have to send out some more applications. I feel the old heaviness sink over me again, the old feeling of worthlessness. As always I don’t know how much of it is my own doing, whether I’ve done something to bring it on or not done enough to prevent it. It was probably a mistake to go on those publishers’ websites. I need a break, I tell S, let’s go somewhere, where can we go? She says she’ll think about it but she has to go to London this weekend to help plan a hen night. I’m worried I’ll be too tired to go anywhere by the time we’ve planned something.
To write yourself out of a bad mood… Now I have time, too much time, but nothing to say. It’s Friday, I waited for a job to be posted so I could work on it over the weekend. Two popped up on my phone while I was in the bathroom but had already been taken when I got back to my computer. I take a sleeping pill, find a crime series to watch online, wait for the stream to load while I smoke a cigarette in the garden. When I come back the screen’s full of weight-loss and penis-enlargement ads.
In the morning I walk to N.’s, sit in his barn and drink beer while he tinkers with whatever he was doing. Then I go home and sleep until evening. When I wake up it takes me a while to figure out what time of day it is.
All this talk of being, God, nature… nothing seems more foreign now. No one cares and neither do I.
Lift yourself out of it. Clean the house. No, too much work. Take a walk. No, too boring. Do it anyway.
Another two weeks without an entry… We’ve both had the flu. As Dylan Moran said, it felt like being beaten up underwater. But I was quick enough at least to claim a long boring job (a law firm’s website) that saved my month, which I did in bed, probably badly.
Looking back over the journal I barely recall the upbeat mood of some of the passages. But today the first scents of spring in the air brought a throb of liveliness. The spring work is starting and the trees are budding, even after all this! I remember those lovely lines of Hemingway’s:
With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life… In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.
There are land surveyors in high-vis vests on T.’s farm, moving tripods about and measuring out the plot with satellite-locating equipment.
Something takes hold, in spite of everything… In everything well-known something worthy of thought still lurks, said Heidegger. There are crocuses amid empty lager cans and crisp packets in the square beside the Coop, primroses in the under the bare fig tree in the cemetery.
A cold turn, the coldest this year, just as the leaves and flowers were coming out. The earth seems to shrink back from the cutting winds. There’s a shaft of ice under the drainpipe at one corner of the house. I hit it with a hammer while holding the pipe. Another one drops out; I keep hitting them until they’re gone.
It’s Monday but I don’t want to sit at home all day and wait for jobs that might not come, and the last thing I want to do is send out applications, so I take the train to Wroxham to see if I can find a footpath. (Passing through on the train in the past I’ve noticed a sign saying ‘The Heart of the Broads’ with a map and images of local wildlife.)
Drab dun landscape under the ever-changing Norfolk sky. One moment snow flurries blur the treelines, the next clouds in the distance separate and corridors of yellow light pour down upon the stubby fields, grey buildings and industrial lots.
There’s a path down to a boardwalk by the River Bure which, it turns out, is only a couple of hundred metres long. As I walk back and head towards the village shops, I check my email on my phone and see three jobs have come through. I find the local pub and ask the bartender if they have wifi. He says they have a Cloud (which means you have to register with some service the pub has signed up to that’ll use your information and spam you). I order half an ale, sit down, open my backpack and remember I didn’t bring my laptop. I check who the project managers are and it turns out to be the same person, so I email her and ask if she can send me the texts in case they haven’t been claimed, so I can check them and get back to her in case she can claim them for me. It’s a long shot with big agencies, so I when I haven’t had a reply and finished my drink I leave and go across the bridge in search of a footpath.
I ask in a boat hire place, where the lady points up and down at a map of the river and tells me, ‘It’s all private land round here, there’s nowhere to walk, but you can rent a boat’. I thank her and go back in the other direction, thinking there must be somewhere to walk: there’s nature all around!
I walk for an hour along an A-road between hedges and farmers’ fields, snow tickling my face and cars and lorries thundering through brown puddles. I see crows and pigeons, as usual. There are some purple fruits on the hedges. I think S. told me what they were once, I can’t remember. I check my phone now and then (the signal is up and down), but no emails. I realize I’m getting nowhere and go back to the station.
When I get back home I check the agency’s site to see whether the texts have been claimed; they have.
In the still, snowy evening we walk to the pub for dinner. All sounds are muffled. In the British tradition the small roads haven’t been cleared and there are no cars so we walk where we want across the hard white sheet of compacted snow glinting under a full moon. After the meal I go outside to smoke. Under the pub lights the shadows of the snowflakes look like swarms of insects.
Blanketed earth. Lead sky. What lifts the heaviness? A beautiful line in a book, one of S.’s weird jokes, a flash of sunlight, Rookie waking up and bounding around the room for no reason…
Give us this day our daily bread, says the prayer, our mana from heaven – not just this day but every day, every moment!
There’s some truth to Pascal’s saying that all human miseries stem from the inability to sit alone in a room. ‘If man were happy’, he wrote, ‘the less he were diverted the happier he would be, like the saints and God.’ Kafka said evil is what distracts, and fantasized about living in a cell buried deep in the earth in which he could do nothing but write (he’d be passed food through a slot). Monks of certain orders are said to have slept in their coffins.
Give me a break. If I don’t get a good long dose of sunshine soon I’ll start dribbling. I bring up a holiday to S. again. She’s working on ancient Anatolia and says she’d like to see Istanbul. I say I’d prefer somewhere with nature and we leave it there.
While we think about it and work, move about the house, do the laundry, eat, the sun comes out, the snow melts, the eaves drip and branches gleam, spring seems like it might really happen and a holiday seems less urgent.
Two days later another cold front hits us and the weather’s practically Siberian again. S. goes out to the garden with scissors, cuts the daffodils that froze as they started to blossom and puts them in a vase in the kitchen. By late afternoon they’ve thawed and come back to life in the slanting sunlight and I can smell their scent from the living room.
K., who works on the same research project as S., drives us to Southwold on the Suffolk coast. We eat dinner in a pub and walk down the dark damp pier. The lighthouse beam sweeps back and forth through the fog. It’s like the final scene of a film, says K., where a spy gets picked up, a couple have to say goodbye or someone drowns tragically. We amuse ourselves by making up increasingly absurd scenarios for movie endings, probably to relieve the hostile atmosphere of the place. But it’s not a setting for anything, I think as we walk back to the car – tragic or comic. It’s nothing but itself.
Only one real thought, however kitschy it sounds: how to live in the face of the impersonal.
Tree surgeons and reedcutters are making room for new spring growth, opening up the landscape. The birds, flushed out of their hiding places, are everywhere. Pheasants flap and squall in the remaining brush at the end of the field. In the garden a pair of magpies are madly nest-building and in the woods green shoots are growing through blankets of dead leaves and brittle bracken. Along the road the blackthorns and cherry trees are blooming. S. says she saw her first bumblebee yesterday. By the river we see a blue tit hacking open a bulrush and spitting downy wisps to all sides. What’s it after we wonder: nest bedding? seeds? insects? We move quite close but it’s too busy to care about us.
Today I feel no need to leave this place: spring is here in the nearest things, in the shooting weeds, in the smell of the grass and the air, as the earth lavishly renews itself.
In the well-known, something worthy of thought still lurks… Writing of conservation, the Norfolk-based naturalist Mark Cocker says it’s the common that needs to be protected not the rare:
Our inherent orientation towards the rare has often distorted the way in which we look at the environment. How often one finds conservation policies built around a few charismatic species, such as the tiger, polar bear or, more parochially, the Eurasian bittern or corncrake. Singling out the flagship animal is often a way of simplifying a project for public consumption… Yet the downside is that it continues to reinforce the idea of a charismatic few. When what truly makes an ecosystem flourish is the very opposite of its flagship representative: the sheer bio-luxuriance of its commonest constituents – usually the plants and myriad invertebrates. A reedbed doesn’t amount to very much without its multiple millions of phragmites’ stems.
Cocker also writes that ‘a preoccupation with the exceptional is almost hardwired into the human imagination’. It’s become almost impossible to escape the lure of the exceptional. But perhaps the exceptional (the marketable) is becoming the least worthy of thought. Perhaps the mystery in the familiar is becoming the hardest thing to understand.
I grow too used to the world again. I make it commonplace, veil the day behind the everyday. I become a burden to myself, moving from bedroom to bathroom, from the bathroom to the kitchen, from the kitchen back to bed and my laptop. It’s raining.
Sometimes the nearest things, what we’re most used to, are the hardest to see: we see them too often to see them fresh. Too much home and home becomes oddly alien. I’m a body moving through the same rooms, the same fields, the same shops… No dramatic mountain peaks in this flatland. No vantage point from which to sweep your arm across the horizon and grasp it all…
What did I mean by the mystery in the familiar? (Already the phrase grows stale, kitschy.) Giacometti said, ‘The closer I come, the grander it is, the more remote it is.’ Rilke wrote of ‘what is simple in nature, the small things that hardly anyone sees and that can suddenly become huge, immeasurable’. Doesn’t being lurk most intimately in the beings we encounter every day, in the mystery of their being here at all? In the things and people we move among, in ourselves, doesn’t the fact of our shared being hide in plain day, closest and grandest?
For my father, everything was familiar. He had the vantage point from which he could grasp everything. If new information appeared that contradicted what he said, or someone got emotional and acted out (he called it being ‘primitive’ or ‘hysterical’), it was all part of the same vista. Nothing seemed to surprise him; everything had happened before and if it hadn’t it didn’t matter since it wouldn’t make a dent in the general order of things anyway – plus ça change, the poor will always be with us, etc. He admired easygoing landowners in English costume dramas who knew everyone’s place. His favourite saying was ‘that’s the exception that proves the rule’, and the rule could be as general as he liked, could absorb any event or emotion, could be made to span life itself. Thus he swept his arm across the horizon, familiarized himself with the world and spared himself the need for thought.
By contrast, when I went to university, everything seemed to be about the exception rather than the rule. We were to learn critical thinking, which seemed mainly to involve focusing on marginal subjects: the margins of traditional academic disciplines and canons, of history and language, even of thought itself. It was the focus on the marginal that was thought to give critical thinking its subversive force.
We learned, first, that meaning was constructed and deferred along contingent and fluid chains of signs, and that any statement about general rules had to be put in quotation marks and examined for its underlying preconceptions. We learned to be suspicious of the ‘metaphysics of presence’ and focus on what was excluded in its hierarchies of concepts. We read dense texts we barely understood. We searched for, wrote and talked about neglected artists and writers and thinkers, about othering and aporias, about the abject and the liminal, and so on in an endless critical mill. It felt transgressive to use this new language of critique. We were deconstructing all oppressive essentialisms, even the notion of the stable ‘subject’ itself, the ability to say ‘I’!
I absorbed the unwritten rules of critical thinking very easily since there was nothing very solid in me to resist them. I made sure to use the latest buzzwords and subject my own arguments to the same suspicion I directed at my subject matter, to the point where I wasn’t saying much at all. In the end, I remember, I saw writing essays as more of an aesthetic exercise than an intellectual one. I did what I needed to get good grades.
By constantly re-examining the conditions and limits of thought, critical thinking seemed to lose its critical force. In the end it didn’t have much more to offer than revisions of the jargon of the exceptional and interrogations of texts that dared to express real views and emotions.
By replacing the forms of thought with any sustaining content of thought (and what could that possibly mean for us?), our studies were preparing us perfectly for what was already happening in the ‘real’ world, where capital was at work erasing the borders between the centre and the margins without our help, bringing the outside in and the inside out. Our minds were being prepared for what we’d soon be fully thrown into. For in the ‘real’ world the exceptional could no longer be used effectively to break down anything, since everything was already breaking down. In this new world capital was putting its best people on co-opting the exceptional in every possible way, from using avantgarde art in ads to tapping into minority markets. The exceptional was becoming absorbed into the norm and the norm was to become absorbed, not into my father’s rule, but into dispersal and precarity.
In fact, even universities themselves were being absorbed, and would soon be run like businesses, as my friends who stayed went on to do PhDs experienced. They became hourly-paid associate tutors, competing to teach seminars, mark essays and reply to students’ emails, for less than minimum wage, while doing their PhDs and paying their own tuition fees. Some also had to work part-time jobs on the side. While trying to finish their theses, teach, mark, do admin, apply for more funding and so on, they sent out applications for all the lectureships and postdoc positions that were advertised and travelled across the country for interviews, often competing with each other. Only two of the people I knew from that year group ended up with proper contracts in universities: one of them had travelled to five interviews before he was hired, and one of them was hired by a Chinese university. The others became schoolteachers, public sector administrators, bartenders, drifted off I don’t know where…
So in a sense my father’s laissez-faire attitude had now become appropriate to these new times in a way he hadn’t imagined: nothing means much, nothing makes a difference, it’s all the same anyway…
Finally off the pills altogether, after a week of dizziness. I feel as if I’m waking up. The blackthorns are in white bloom, forget-me-nots have replaced the crocuses and primroses and the trees are leafing. Budbursts everywhere! It’s sunny and our open windows let in frantic flies and bees, a white butterfly. S. is weeding. She comes in smelling of fresh air and earth.
Yesterday an excavator rolled up the path and started demolishing T.s farm. We had to close the windows against the noise and dust. I walked up that path and stood at the edge of the courtyard. The cowshed was already a heap of rubble. Weeds and wildflowers had grown almost to the windows of the house, which the excavator was hacking into like some giant steel bird. A man stood in the courtyard with T.’s power washer, aiming the jet of water at the holes the machine made in the roof. A Range Rover rolled up the path and a man in red trousers and a gilet got out and looked around. He came over, introduced himself as the developer and stood looking at me waiting for me to explain my presence. His mobile rang and he walked off to take the call. A minute later he came back, and as we watched the demolition he said by way of small talk, ‘Small farms have to diversify or die these days, I’m afraid’, still angling for the reason why I was there. ‘Yeah’, I said, still watching the demolition. ‘I’m sorry, did you know him?’ he asked.
In the woods a tree lies chopped up where it fell as if it’s been dissected. I hope the tree surgeons forget about it so I can watch it slowly be colonized by invertebrates, fungi and moss.
A sleepless night, rarer now. The giant night, and a misty grey-blue dawn. The sound of the binmen tipping our rubbish bin into their lorry, interrupting the birds.
There’s something to it, I tell myself, the old idea that despair is a seductive sin, a sickness unto death. That’s one thing the Christians always understood: that there are some limits we transgress at our own risk.
Later I get caught in a thunderstorm biking back from the shops and curse this backwoods shithole while getting splattered with mud. Of course it stops just after I get home and have peeled off all my clothes and put them in the washing machine. ‘Oh fuck off’, I mutter as I rummage for washing powder under the sink and realize we’re out.
I have things to say, or think I do, but as I sit down on the bench in the garden with my notebook or take my seat at the computer I split in two, watch myself as I start writing, formalize the act, and the moment of inspiration recedes until I’m left with – what? Writing about my failure to write.
Strange illusion, the sense of splitting in two, into actor and watcher – the one who lives and the ghostly double watching as if from beyond the grave. Strange since there’s no separation in nature – there are no isolated organisms, no ghosts looking on at the living. In nature life and death are inseparable. Animals don’t put the dying in hospices, they die where they lived, open to death.
Everywhere out here death mingles with life, as any farmer knows. On the beech tree in the garden, last year’s dead leaves mingle with the new, which push them out and renew the cycle: in the same budding tree, both winter and summer, life and death. The trees across the field communicate and send nutrients to each other through underground webs of fungi that feed on dead plants and animals.
‘Everywhere around us, death is at home’, wrote Rilke. ‘When a tree blossoms, death as well as life blossoms in it, and the field is full of death, which from its reclining face sends forth a rich expression of life.’ It’s only we who attempt the impossible movement of pushing death away from ourselves and so split ourselves in two.
Death is inside us, inescapable, and therefore can’t be tricked. But it only haunts us when we guard the boundaries of ourselves against it, only seems hostile when we turn our faces from it.
In Rilke’s Open there’s no separation. The Open says yes to both life and death, affirms both presence and absence. And it’s here we have the chance to draw death back into us: not in order to turn away from life and seek to die, but to live more truly, to be returned to the world as if in a second grace. We have the chance to draw the ghostly, hostile outside into what he calls the Weltinnenraum, the world’s inner space:
Through all beings stretches the one space:
the world’s inner space. The birds fly quietly
through us. Oh, I who wish to grow,
I look out, and inside me the tree grows.
I care, and the house stands inside me.
I take refuge, and refuge is inside me.
In the Weltinnenraum the outside is in and the inside out, but not as in Beckett’s and Blanchot’s dispersals, and not like the daily distractions that are forced on us and that we willingly subject ourselves to. Here, says Rilke,
it appears that everything
makes us at home. See, the trees are; the houses
that we dwell in are still here.
This is no longer a hard slog. It’s a little lighter, a little easier. Now if I can’t get to the journal for a while, if I get a big job or no peace to think, I start to feel edgy and berate myself for not getting back to the work that matters. When I do, it’s a physical relief.
Leafing through another old notebook the other day – rarely a good idea – I found this, written a decade ago:
Endless work. What’s your real work? You ask the question so often the question itself becomes a form of work. You tunnel through a mountain of other people’s words and smuggle out your own dubious hoard with no destination in sight. Always halfway.
And today this, from W.S. Graham:
With words my material and immediate environment I am at once halfway the victim and halfway the successful traveller. There is the involuntary war between me and that environment flowing in on me from all sides and there is the poetic outcome. I am not the victim of my environment. History does not repeat itself. I am the bearer of that poetic outcome. History continually arrives as differently as our most recent minute on earth.
From the same old notebook:
I wake up tired of waking up. Lured into another endless day, the last day begun again. There’s something I’ve missed, some fatal flaw in my reasoning that prevents me moving from here to the real vantage point, to real life. I see no path to take. What would it look like? Where would it go? It would end up back here, in dead time.
Nothing to say and the guilt of not filling time, that makes you speak to yourself in their words. ‘Stop making up little hardships to make yourself look interesting. Get a proper job. Get a life.’
I could take up a hobby to at least look active, like sailing, master wind and tide and all that, grow a big beard. But I’d have to learn and I’m not the learning kind. And imagine all the fuss, all the tarring and rigging and straining. Or maybe I should get a pet, that’s what people do isn’t it? Something to care for, a loyal dog you have to walk. But then I’d have to get up early, hoover more, go to the vet, pick up poo. And I wouldn’t be able to travel – not that I do.
So easy to drag yourself down like this, so hard to get back up!
As bleak as winter was, as lush is early summer. The contrast is staggering. We go off the woodland paths while we still can, before the vegetation grows too thick. The breeze is warm, the light plays softly on leaves, blades of grass, wings of insects. To vague layman’s eyes like mine it’s a nice tranquil scene at first sight, but I know from my old naturalist friends that these woods are full of millions of specific, urgent activities only a tiny fraction of which I see or understand. I do know that the hawthorns, bluebells and cowslips are blooming, and hoverflies, bees and butterflies are out in abundance. Jays mob something in a tree, maybe a sparrow hawk or kestrel, says S. She spots finches, warblers, frontrunner swifts, some unusual bird whose name escapes me. She tells me the birds might be on their second or even third broods already. A muntjac stops and stares at us with wide eyes until a pair of playful squirrels scare it off. We walk back to the cottage full of sun and life.
S. has been going to weekly meditation sessions at a Zen Buddhist priory in Great Yarmouth for a month now and has started meditating in the living room every morning too, using an app that makes gong sounds. She sits on a pillow on the floor looking at the wall. I’m careful to stay away and stay quiet. Once a month the prioress, a woman in brown robes with a shaved head who used to be a GP, gives a lecture about some aspect of Zen. This month’s lecture, S.’s first, was about ‘right effort’, one part of the Eightfold Path. As I understand it from what S. says, it was to do with finding a middle way between applying too little and too much effort in meditation, between letting your thoughts wander and trying to control them too much. She said when you apply right effort you might experience what she called ‘openings’. What did she mean by that? I ask S. I’m not sure, she says, she said she’d go into it next month, I’ve only just started!
She shows me a story from a book she borrowed from the priory:
Daiju visited the master Baso in China. Baso asked: ‘What do you seek?’
‘Enlightenment’, replied Daiju. ‘You have your own treasure house. Why do you search outside?’ Baso asked. Daiju enquired: ‘Where is my treasure house?’ Baso answered: ‘What you are asking is your treasure house.’ Daiju was enlightened! Ever after he urged his friends: ‘Open your own treasure house and use those treasures.’
End of the month. Jobs finished, invoices sent, dishes done and now a free, sunny afternoon stretches out before me. Bliss! I bring two translations of Kafka’s aphorisms and the laptop out to the garden, where I can barely get the wifi signal, and sit amid buzzing bees and floating hawthorn blossoms. After the workers’ lunch break the construction work on the old farm starts again. I go back in to find my earplugs, sit down, copy out and make notes on some of those glacial, enigmatic sayings that have been with me for so long, turning and returning in my head.
‘Grasp the good fortune that the ground on which you stand cannot be any larger than the two feet that cover it.’ An elementary lesson, perhaps, a starting point: learn to stand before you can walk, like a child.
‘The true way is along a rope that is not suspended high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked along.’ The way is very close to the ground, not high up. It’s not the ground, but neither is it unreachable, impossibly abstract. We may trip over it while we’re looking for it up high, stumble onto and off it. It can be an obstacle as well as a way.
‘You are the task. No student far and wide.’ You’re the problem to be solved, the experiment that must come into its own. No student in sight to work on you. No curriculum or method. If there’s a teacher or taskmaster he isn’t mentioned. You’re the task and the student, then. The material you’re given to work with is what’s closest to hand – so close it’s hard to see clearly, and impossible to see from a neutral vantage point.
‘There are only two things: the truth and the lie. The truth is indivisible, so cannot know itself. Anyone who seeks to know it must be a lie.’ You can’t know the truth because you’re in the way of it. Moreover: ‘Only evil has self-knowledge.’ You couldn’t know yourself even if you were in the truth. This would seem to make the task that you are impossible.
‘There is nothing but a spiritual world; what we call the sensory world is the evil in the spiritual, and what we call evil is only a requirement of a moment in our everlasting development.’ This is Kafka at his most Gnostic. The world and the body are transitory prisons which must be escaped if we’re to attain eternal life, but from which escape seems impossible since we’re enmeshed in them – in lies. Only through self-destruction can the lie of the world be escaped: ‘If, having gained knowledge, you want to attain eternal life – and you cannot do other than want to, for knowledge is this desire – then you must destroy yourself, the obstacle.’ Not unlike Beckett, this version of Kafka counsels absolute failure in the face of the world: ‘Fail to know yourself! Destroy yourself!’
‘In the struggle between you and the world, second the world.’ Sekundiere der Welt. One translator writes: ‘hold the world’s coat’. Assist the sensory world in its duel against you. Help it destroy you in order to spiritualize yourself.
‘How is it possible to rejoice in the world except by fleeing to it?’ You can’t rejoice in the world except by fleeing from your true responsibility, your spiritual fulfilment.
But as Ritchie Robertson suggests, ‘There is a counter-current in Kafka’s thought: the idea that possibly the world of the senses can after all be made acceptable.’ How? ‘Anyone who seeks to know the truth must be a lie.’ But is there a way to seek the truth and be in the world at once?
One of Kafka’s diary entries reads: ‘Contemplation and activity have their apparent truth; but only the activity radiated by contemplation, or rather, that which returns to it again, is truth.’ Thinking and being: looking on from the outside, acting in the world… Both have their place, their apparent truths, but only in their continual return to each other and their mutual illumination can truth itself happen, in an interweaving of the spiritual and the sensory. (And isn’t writing a space in which contemplation and activity can come together as an event or even weapon of truth?)
In a handful of aphorisms Kafka speaks of ‘the indestructible’. ‘Theoretically there is a perfect possibility of happiness: believing in the indestructible in oneself and not striving towards it.’ Not looking for it but trusting implicitly in your connection to it and going humbly about your life. (In a letter he rewrites this sentence, replacing ‘the indestructible’ with ‘the decisive divine’.) This Unzerstörbare is impersonal yet individual: ‘A person cannot live without a steady faith in something indestructible within him, though both the faith and the indestructible thing may remain permanently concealed from him. One of the forms of this concealment is the belief in a personal god.’ The indestructible, and the possibility of free and true being, is in each person, concealed but as real as our bodies, a force both individualizing and uniting. It’s not unlike the Hindu idea of atman, the spark of the divine hidden in each person: ‘The indestructible is one: it is each individual human being and, at the same time, it is common to all, hence the incomparably indivisible union that exists between human beings.’
But what if for whatever reason this trust, this connection to the indestructible in oneself has been severed, as it had for Kafka? (‘The way to my neighbour is very long’, he writes elsewhere.) How to recover it? There’s no technique for attaining true being in Kafka’s idiosyncratic theology. Despite its affinity with Gnosticism, it’s not a hermetic teaching or a path for the elect. There are no secret Kabbalistic rites whereby the initiated can access the indestructible (he never defines the word). Nor can it be commanded by reason, though sometimes the ‘right word, the right name’ may summon it: ‘This is the essence of magic, which does not create but calls.’
Kafka links the indestructible with ‘life’s splendour’, with paradise: ‘If what is supposed to have been destroyed in paradise was destructible, then it was not decisive; but if it was indestructible, then we are living in a false belief.’ This false belief, in Roberto Calasso’s words, has to do with a basic misunderstanding about why we were expelled from paradise: ‘Humans are convinced that they were kicked out of that place for eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. But this is an illusion. That wasn’t their sin. Their sin lay in not yet having eaten from the Tree of Life.’ Our trial is continual. It’s the conflict between our limited, deceptive knowledge and the veiled essence of being within us. But if being is indestructible, says Kafka, then it’s possible that our expulsion stems from our own illusions and that in fact we’re still in paradise ‘whether we know it or not’. And that the way to return to where and who we are, to bridge contemplation and activity, to find the way back to our neighbour, goes through the ‘mad strength’ of faith, which he does define: ‘Faith means: freeing the indestructible in yourself or better: freeing yourself or better: being indestructible or better: being.’