At the end of September I took the train to Higham to walk alongside the Thames marshes and riverbanks of Kent up to the village of Cliffe. This is Charles Dickens territory very close to his former house Gads Hill, 30 miles south of London. In July I’d crossed this off my list of walks but couldn’t enter the house for it’s now a working independent school (I peered through the front window half an hour after the end of the school-day. An old chandelier and Victorian ceiling frieze allowing me to imagine Dickens, arm cheekily outstretched, pointing to the school book-case hopefully containing his complete works.)
Now I’d returned to cover the Dickens churches. St.Mary’s at Higham (His daughter Katie was married here in 1863) and St.James’s, Cooling (the setting for the opening scene in Great Expectations (1861). Aided by Google maps on my phone I walked the bridle path alongside the marshes. No convicts, blacksmiths or would-be gentlemen around. Only a rotting hull of a ship, too much plastic litter, sunshine, a warm breeze and a riverbank giving off a Wind in the Willows charm
After a lunch of garlic mushroom and salad (the micro-waved heat of the bread-coated mushrooms burning my tongue to be cooled by a pint of beer) at the pub at Cliffe, I walked three more miles to Cooling Church. Here lay the body-stones that Dickens used to describe Pip’s family.
“To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine – who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle – I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trouser-pockets and had never taken them out in this state of existence.”
I love that sad surreal detail about having “their hands in their trouser pockets.” My literary adjunct to that would be children with pockets of marbles that they never enjoyed playing enough with, owing to their brief life. The church at Cooling was apparently a favourite spot for Dickens: he often had a picnic in the graveyard. Tracing my hand round one of the lozenge graves, I wondered if Dickens had also done so and then placed his hands in his own pockets, standing back and sighing about infant mortality. Then perhaps drinking some wine or beer, eating a sandwich and conjecturing on what he’d write, or by then on what he’d written?
A sensual apprehension of a real and literary past crept over me. Those graves have passed into literary legend. Yet here they were, at my feet as if Pip’s labelled stones had fallen off the page of my Oxford paperback edition of Great Expectations to materialise before me. Or the real lozenges had sprung up, from the earth, to be transformed into words, on the paper of page three of chapter one: real objects becoming art objects. Yet infant lozenges belong to all writers to fictionalise in a story or poem. Though they would never be quite the same literary lozenges again – only things on loan from a writer of genius. The church was of Norman origin, and part of the mouldings used in its decoration was the lozenge. These features of the church, its graveyard and a lozenge shaped cough sweet might be sucked into myself: fertile and re-usable material for the imagination.
That thought made me recall another mythic blend of the real and the fictitious. In 1984 I was on holiday in Southern Ireland in county Galway near the town of Gort visiting W.B.Yeats’s Norman Tower (and home) at Thor Ballylee. As my feet stood on its winding stair I felt I was about to enter not just more of the tower, turned into an Irish Literary museum, but tread the steps leading into Yeats’s poem. I could now ascend or descend into A Dialogue of Self and Soul. My excitement on that stair was mythopoetic. I’d stepped on a poetic symbol enabling a greater inwardness of experience. The old Norman stair became Yeats’s consciousness, his poetic thought process. Yeats, who believed in magic, would have me entranced by the occult power of symbols.
My Soul. I summon to the winding ancient stair:
Set all your mind upon the steep ascent,
Upon the broken, crumbling battlement,
Upon the breathless starlit air,
Upon the star that marks the hidden pole:
Fix every wandering thought upon
That quarter where all thought is done:
Who can distinguish darkness from the soul?
My Self. The consecrated blade upon my knees
Is Sato’s ancient blade, still as it was,
Still razor-keen, still like a looking-glass
Unspotted by the centuries:
That flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn
From some court-lady’s dress and wound,
Can, tattered, still protect, faded adorn.
Like Dickens’s lozenges the Yeats winding stair was made of stone. And the frisson of stone pulls me back to the door of my own kitchen. Here is a large smooth pebble employed as a door-stop. A pebble from the island of Iona that I visited in the 90’s. I brought it home in my backpack. Iona is seen as the symbolic centre of Scottish Christianity. The island had some famous visitors, including Samuel Johnson and James Boswell writing their Tour of the Western Islands (1786). It’s a fanciful madness to assume that the pebble I brought home might have been stepped on by these luminaries. My pebble is distantly connected to their past and directly my own past. But such a connection between real object and art object can produce an enviable rivalry.
In the 1930’s the great Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid sat contemplating rocks on the Shetland island of Whalsay. MacDiarmid, who was a communist and fierce Scots nationalist, lived there in a cottage and wrote a long poem called On a Raised Beach. (1934). This poem is one of the great unsung masterworks of 20th century poetry in English. I’d place it alongside Eliot’s The Waste Land and Basil Buntings Briggflats. Three years ago, Andrew Marr did a BBC TV series on Great Scots. MacDiarmid was one such Scott. Marr, who as a student had studied MacDiarmid’s poetry, took himself and a camera crew to the island, and enthused. I’m sure, after viewing the Whalsay rocks, he agreed with the certitude of these lines.
“We must be humble. We are so easily baffled by appearances
And do not realise that these stones are one with the stars.”
On a Raised Beach is a philosophical poem. MacDiarmid’s comprehension of the island’s materialism strips down all our defensive layers of culture and civilisation to convey a stark, primal reminder of where we came from. Origins are a sobering shock but we need to acquaint ourselves with their reality, their beginnings.
A culture demands leisure and leisure presupposes
A self-determined rhythm of life; the capacity for solitude
Is its test; by that the desert knows us.
It is not a question of escaping from life
But the reverse – a question of acquiring the power
To exercise the loneliness, the independence, of stones
And that only comes from knowing that our function remains
However isolated we seem fundamental to life as theirs.
We have lost the grounds of our being,
We have not built on rock.
In all honesty I can’t pick up my Iona island pebble and be easily drawn back to the primal ratifications of what constitutes my existence. My relationship with stone has, like most of us, been reduced to domesticity – it’s my humble door stop. I have tamed it to serve me. And its smoothed down readiness, for my chosen function, was prepared by the sea over centuries: whereas MacDiarmid’s rocks gauntly looked back at him, in the face, every day. He wouldn’t, couldn’t, take them back to the mainland. Rocks embedded in the landscape: to be looked at for their mournful comfort and existential unease, daring you to make them a poetic idea as you try to absorb their hard evolutionary message.
On a Raised Beach is a spiritual poem, yet not about Christianity. On Whalsay MacDiarmid was spied on – his Scottish nationalism and Communism deeply concerned the government. Despite this surveillance he produced some wonderful poems; though as Andrew Marr says MacDiarmid was often ‘eating dictionaries’ to write difficult poetry. But every obscure word has its rightful place in his poetry. We make the effort to consult a dictionary for it really matters – they’re exact words fully conveying the sound and the sense of the verse. Like The Waste Land, the more you know and refer to notes then the more pleasure is to be got from MacDiarmid’s poetry. Words such as ataraxia, lithogenisis and haptik cluster round the edifice of the poem that is On A Raised Beach (Do read the poem and look them up, please!) Amidst our knowledge that stones where here before humankind and will survive us, after we are long dead, that they evoke God, or a supreme creative force, well before the trappings of any religious dogma, all makes for a harsh MacDiarmid certainty.
I own a worn-out copy of the original 1736 printing of The Book of Common Prayer. I’m not a Christian, nor a follower of other religions, preferring to reflect between atheism and agnosticism. So my copy of The Book of Common Prayer doesn’t undergo everyday use on a Sunday in church, or any other day. I’m an unbeliever who bought, for five pence, a copy in a charity shop, in Hove in the nineteen seventies. It’s passed through families from the late seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century. The names of the owners are written inside.
From the Rev. J.Chad – June 9th 1787 –
Inherited by one G.W. Chad at the death of my sister Cecilia Rachel Chad on 28th June 1828 to be given to Marie at my death. This book must have been more than 70 years in use.
I’ve written in my own name and that I bought it in 1976. Purchased but never actively used (I don’t pray) over more than 40 years ago of un-use.
Its probably likely that more people in 1736 owned a copy of The Book of Common Prayer than they did a novel – Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719 with its sense of adventure, enduring solitude and the creation of a material world, on your island, both very real and of the imagined self, giving me greater meaning than a prayer book.
So if I was abandoned on a desert island would any of the objects I’ve mentionedhelp me survive my ordeal? Probably not. Books and things. Words and sources. I’d swap the whole lot (including great films, plays and paintings ) for music. And if I couldn’t have CDs, records or computer files of Bach, Beethoven or Mozart (but how could there be just these three, and only the classical guys?) then I’d listen to the sound of the sea. Though if my beach wasn’t all sandy, then my well positioned pebble would remain. I’d like to hear the pleasurable sound of the waves hitting it and all the others.
Of course, it would inevitably remind me of a poem. Maybe this untitled poem by Basil Bunting, dedicated to Peggy Mullett. Here’s an excerpt.
But when mad waves spring, braceletted with foam,
towards us in the angriness of love
crying a strange name, tossing as they come
repeated invitations in the gay
exuberance of unexplained desire,
we can forget the sad splendour and play
at wilfulness until the gods require
renewed inevitable hopeless calm
and our foam dies and we again subside
into our catalepsy, dreaming foam,
while the dry shore awaits another tide.
No, not that all of the time. Let’s have some Whitman too.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim – the rocks – the motion
Of the waves – the ships, with men in them
– what stranger miracles are there?
And I’d still be collecting objects on the seashore. Wood, stone, palm leaves etc to build a home. Protect and shelter me from nature. That would eventually make me pray to be rescued from the island and more importantly the civilising of myself.