1998 England/Scotland Trip Journal
May 12-13, 1998
The plane resting at the gate in San Francisco is huge. It is hard to imagine getting it up in the air. The stewardesses with their jaunty caps make it feel as though we are going to an amusement park. The voice of the captain is like that of an actor as he describes our coming ascent over San Francisco, north into Canada, Hudson Bay, Labrador, England. It seems surreal.
The Irish lady who takes the aisle seat beside me discusses her flying fears. She says she has faith in machinery; it can do so much. I arrive at just the opposite interpretation but don’t tell her. It is just a machine.
We leave the ground with a giant upsurge of force. We are bumping along in the clouds. Time disappears. It gets to be 6 PM. It gets to be 8. It is dark outside. We are over the sub-Arctic, somewhere; we are nowhere. 10 is close to bedtime; yet we are rushing toward a rising sun outside the window, a faint dawn. I find this unexpected, wild, and somewhat elating. Lindy finds it disturbing. She says, as though this were a choice of the airline, “I thought I would get to have it be night so I could sleep.” But there is no true night, just a long double day.
We are over ocean, among clouds and mist, the unbroken planetary scenery below occasionally visible. I prefer land always, though it makes no sense; there is no relative safety from sky to earth. I want the water to end, but every time I look down, it is pretty much the same—gray with whitecaps, the great expanse that mariners and earlier-century tourists had to cross.
Finally Hebrides, North Scotland, not like an Old World landscape, more like another planet—mist wrapped around scags, pearly white on black. Fog creeping along, poking, tucking—a living map of the Shire or Narnia. Lakes are black pools reflecting clouds perfectly. Merlin’s mirrors. In the swift passage of our flight their metallic surfaces suddenly disappear as if they weren’t there. That is the view—fog, hillocks, black lakes, rapidly forming and dissolving clouds, an old country still wild and unsettled.
We are floating over a cloud blanket, a map of England below, turning in the sky toward London. As we come down, fields are lime green and straw yellow in bright-colored blocks. Brick houses suggest a gameboard. Distance has turned simply palpable. This is the concreteness of the ineluctably nonconcrete.
The woman who stamps our passport routinely rejects Lindy’s explanation of “Traveling.”
“On holiday,” she says, very definitely.
The cab driver is from Sierra Leone, on his mother’s side. It takes me a while to figure out that’s what the word “Serralone” is and, even so, no transcription captures the music of his pronunciation. He is surprised I have heard of it. His father is from Nigeria.
He talks about family feuds, mucho guns, executions in Lagos; then road rage here, the other stupid drivers. It is a singsong modern odyssey on which my concentration waxes and wanes: “Shutting window…not a coward, not a boxer, not paid to fight…he just stays there, wants to fight…should execute the highway thieves, here too [punctuating with the horn].”
Everything rushes by in a partially reversed mirror, cars coming from the wrong sidc of the brain. It is like bumper-car lanes, London sliding by. “Shoot the criminals…tie them to steel drums, feet first, maybe twenty bullets or more…. Nigerians now living in the wealthiest houses in London…they paint them like the Nigerian flag…where do you suppose they get that money?”
It’s all out in the open, obvious now, power and corruption in the world bare and explicit.
Hampstead Heath where Lindy’s college friend Wick lives with her husband is an old Thomas Hardy town made of stone, shortcut alleys from her house to the activity center. Evening workers are headed home. The pubs are spilling onto the streets. I smell medicine weeds, see Queen Anne’s lace everywhere. Gardens are flowery and sweet. The people staring out their windows, in brick framing, make everything seem actual and old, a comforting nostalgia.
We walk in the Heath, runners passing us, the buildings of the city forming a vista beyond. We get lost among crisscrossing dirt paths, not quite sure which one we took in.
Everyone here chats idly more. A boy jumps into a puddle, and an old man passing on the street says to us, “Used to do the same thing when I was a lad.” His accent is poignant.
At corners we always must watch back and forth, back and forth again, for cars—that hole in the brain again.
The post office is filled with greeting cards more than official business. The woman behind the counter, turning my travelers’ checks into usable currency, is not perfunctory at all, as she closely examines and continues to recompare and discuss my seemingly nonmatching signatures before relenting. I write like a slob and by mood. A young man is complaining quite assertively and articulately at the next window, creating a musical background.
In the Indian health-food store, there is virtually no health food, instead the suffocating smell of too much incense, giant sides of beef hanging and attracting flies, and enough stacks of Coca-Cola cans to build an entire alcove.
On the tube going toward the center of London, four schoolboys in uniform, blue blazers with emblems, tease and jostle. One of them, a blimp with glasses, is in charge, singing jaggedly and drumming out tunes with his hands. Beside him is a dark, foreign-looking handsome boy. The others are nondescript, shoving each other out the door at each stop and pretending to block the way back in. Meanwhile one holds guard over their places in the throng. They are in their own world of pedagogues, challenges, bravados. A pretty long-haired Chinese woman stands by the door, her head turned away from them, her second face reflecting darkly in the glass.
It is the specificity of this all that makes it real— just these people in this spot, both ordinary and incredible. We have come an infinite distance to a discrete moment. Yet being here makes us real, even as it makes them reall.
With a burst of brass a Portuguese band entertains us from outside at a stop.
We get off at Leicester Square (“Lester Square” locally) and have that virgin moment of stepping into a new city, ragtag chaos, as if a British theme park had taken over Forty-Second Street. There are so many separate details; none of them sticking, all of them are necessary.
We cross Piccadilly to a tour bus. Then we sit for hours upstairs in a doubledecker surrounded by two austere German women smoking, assorted Taiwanese families, and a distinguished French couple out of place. All the sights are already clichés—and we pass many of them five times in a loop through Trafalgar Square. On my earphones, the canned, often out-of-synch taped voice is periodically cut off with an electronic groan. The rally we keep passing at different angles is either Macedonian or Albanian. The tape, made in another time, says nothing of it. The featured items are Buckminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Church, Big Ben, the house of Parliament, the Prime Minister’s residence at Downing Street, London Bridge, Tower Bridge, but they are actually the most insubstantial things we are seeing, thinner and more artificial in pose, no matter how massive, the canned rollover voice telling stories of royalty and soldiers and celebrities, pointing out “Frank Sinatra’s favorite restaurant” before we actually get there.
The tour is expendable, but reality is not—the faces of businessmen and schoolgirls, each one distinctly human; the wrecking cranes; Japanese tourists along the Thames in rows of handsome men and stiff women, young and ancestral, athletic and corporate.
The bus is a madcap, roller coaster, lurching so that its upper deck swerves frighteningly along at a different speed and not along quite the same path as the driver and the engine, at one point almost giving another tour bus a love tap.
What is real is the Tandori Indian restaurant for lunch, the only customers at 3:30 because we are not yet in this time zone. What is equally real is looking for the Green Line, and being told to ask that guy over there—“his name is Elvis. Tell Elvis you want to ride the Green Line.” He knows, as we will soon, that Elvis is a petty tyrant and a jerk in his meager kingdom, ordering traffic around, including the asshole in his 49er jacket blowing smoke carelessly in everyone’s faces.
We debark at Kensington Gardens, pass gray squirrels, pansies, irises, a perfect umbrella tree like a round hood over the path. We lie in canvass chairs aside Round Pound. I fall asleep, a deep Alice-in-Wonderland daze, and awake disoriented to see a toy sailboat skimming along. Lindy points out a man whirring a dog in a circle by a ball on a string.
The ruddily alcoholic driver of our bus wants a quick tea, so stops the procession. He bumps his head on the overhang, departing, and good-spiritedly says, “That’s been there a long time, won’t go away.” He runs into a shop and is back in a jiffy. Couldn’t pull that off in Manhattan and keep the riders at bay.
We take the 24 bus home and see what was above those schoolboys’ journey on the underground—ethnic shops on hippie Camden including Compendium Books at 240 Camden High Street, where we have been shipping our North Atlantic titles for over a decade.
We are let off unexpectedly on the totally other side of Hampstead Heath where we attach ourselves to a well-dressed gentleman coming home from work as our guide—up the hill, past Keats’ closed house, past half a dozen active pubs, among crowds of suited men and women arriving back on Flash Walk, interrupting the cats’ hide-and-seek around tires. Their names we later learn are Annibal and Arfur.
The elevator leads to a passage along a brown curved shell of characteristic train-station tile. We take the tube downtown.
We are on a boat down the Thames. The narrator, live this time, is a cut-up. He gives away Cher’s address: “Don’t care. She’s rich enough. The HMS Belfast last fired guns in anger during the Korean War.” We go past a building said to be built by a lunatic, all the way to Greenwich, turn around and come back. He is so loopy he could fall of into the water and not miss a beat (he’d keep gabbing), but he also gives an unexpected animal-rights plea. We pass under bridge after bridge, the thump of cars and flashing lights overhead, just gliding along. Lindy: “Hey, we’re sailing down the Thames.”
At the station the electronic voice is iconic: “Mind the gap. Mind the gap. Prepare to queue.” We exit the train at Camden town. The streets are ripe with spilling-over grocery debris, the storefronts packed with ’60s leftovers, masks and statues, endless boutiques, post-heroin, post-heavy-metal, pubs fracturing timelessness with their bright alcoholic sprawl.
We visit Compendium, perhaps the bookstore in the world that has the most titles we have published. There we sit with the ladies in charge, go over our catalogue, and write a huge order, in person this time.
The paintings at the museum in Hampstead Heath have lost their context and vitality. Nowadays everyone can be photographed. Back then it was a big deal. Children are reproduced in incredible detail with their horses and dogs. There, for instance, is the future countess. There is a frozen canal in Holland, centuries ago, before fossil fuels changed everything, cold and eternal and of the earth, its oldness merely recent in geological time.
Outside are “paintings” too, bright blue and yellow flowers interwoven in clumps, whole lawns of perfumed bushes, compact as croquet balls.
The crowd beyond the pub is dense and beery, a hot tobaccoey smell like at the World Series, but this is Arsenal versus Newcastle. The energy and sense of cruciality are totally familiar to me, but the game is not. So it feels like a parody of the sports world.
Driving is a gestalt-psychology experiment with reversing-landscape goggles—the steering wheel on the left, the road on the left—I mean the car. You have to picture thread—you’re the thread—and keep it running through the correct side of the shuttles even when you turn into another road. You can’t cross over. “Left” is our password; otherwise, disaster.
We start at high concentration and get lost almost at once, winding through suburban London in search of M-4. We stop often and get directions each time, but it never turns out quite right. Everyone is gentlemanly, though—the Turkish cabbie on his last day, giving very complete instructions that are totally confusing, parting by telling us to be careful, not to “ruin your holiday”; the cab driver in front of the hotel, and four or five assorted attendants, customers, and pedestrians, carefully and patiently directing us with understated elegance. Even the Pakistani car-rental people, Ashi filling out these nervous Americans’ contract without either indictment or false over-courtesy, tells the kid to give us five or ten minutes of instruction before letting us go, and then signing off on the whole matter without a care. “Who’s next?” This wasn’t Avis; this was Express at 46 Camden High Street, a rundown neighborhood if not a full-service slum. In the U.S. one misses such texture of humanity. But it, and not the sights, makes our trip England.
We finally get onto M4 and run alongside giant jets settling to roost like us just a few days ago from the flight of the roc over the Pole. Bright yellow scrambled-egg fields lie to either side, traffic whizzing past to the right.
After a long highway run we try the Chippenham exit, but a shopper urges us back to M4 if we are going to Glastonbury. We finally exit at Bath.
The old stone makes for classic scenery, but it is filled with skimpy, indifferent shops, gaggles of tourists clicking photos. We become almost frantic trying to find a viable place to eat, and settle on a supermarket. Then we move our car to a legal space and walk past a cricket match, a game that is obviously ancestral to baseball but with a totally different energy. We cross the old bridge, along the waterfall, pay a pound each to get into the park, and lunch by the river.
I pee in a urinal set against a Roman wall.
Two dark-haired giggly girls of maybe twelve or thirteen, unself-conscious, totally joyful, ask Lindy, “Take our picture, will you?” They want it to be in front of the Roman pump-house. It is a delicious moment, as she sets the camera to get as much of the scenery as possible.
We cross the courtyard with the girls still in sight, still giggling and hugging each other. The Salvation Army band suddenly fills the air with something Christian and mournful, and the world seems deep and rich again, to have regained a missing texture—a mutation actually triggered by the girls.
Sitting beside a great church, we look right through its nave. On benches two old gentlemen talk, and do they ever!—one like a chubbier Charles Olson, the other clearly Sartre. And though I cannot hear them, and though they are not Olson or Camus, it is obviously serious stuff and of merry depth.
A man wheels a baby, two children trailing behind, picking and blowing dandelion heads white, along the bridge and into the cricket game.
After Bath the road is narrower and more frightening, like my first driving lesson once when the landscape itself seemed to careen. We are squeezed between the curb and parked cars on one side and oncoming traffic at high speed on the other, so that when the a car veers out I think I am going to hit it and Lindy often exclaims. I remember the voice of my driving instructor once telling me to go toward the center because, even though it seems more dangerous there, one is far less likely to collide with a moving vehicle than to do damage to one at rest.
It takes many, many villages and wrong turns to get to Glastonbury and, though the farmland is stunning, the sun is in my eyes to the point of making the road invisible. The concentration on staying to the left is so wearying that I almost forget to look to the right a few times before entering a street. This is getting irritating, even dangerous. It is no longer a novelty.
Glastonbury is a New Age island, Christian and pagan equally. The man closing his shop and giving us directions commends us, “Yes, that number 3 Magdalene is a fine place.”
A youth, two months here from Turkey, leads us to our room through gardens with strained but perfect English.
We wander out and pick a vegetarian restaurant in the town, wait for an hour in a coven of late-night tourists to be served eggplant, squash, rice, and cheese with salad.
Out of a darkness of dreams, a catacomb of worlds—why here?; why now?; why us?; what is the way?
Our author Bruce Thomas comes to greet us. One-time base player for Elvis Costello, he wrote a biography of Bruce Lee that we published a few years prior. As he knocks on the door and we answer, he snaps, “That smiling Turkish kid is about as useful as a Swiss chocolate fire guard!” Apparently he was taken to two wrong rooms before finally finding ours, and to boot he doubts the lad has a visa.
When Bruce asks about his own room, the kid says, “Yes, room, of course,” big smile. Bruce guess that there has been double-booking.
Tor—it sits there, a standing stone atop a giant wavy knob of a hill, simultaneously pagan and Christian.
As we climb laboriously, great meadows fall out beneath us in perfect grids, shades of green and yellow and hues between, occasional trees, sounds of sheep baaing, other climbers going up and coming down in straggly procession.
From the top the whole countryside lays out in patchwork, a full 360 degrees, the village of Wells in the distance, Glastonbury stretching out in a surf of houses, stones, the Abbey just below but still dizzyingly down.
We tell Bruce about our trip so far, singling out the Sierra Leone cabbie and the Pakistanis at the car rental place. He asks Lindy what was the high point of yesterday; she thinks “the driving” because we got the knack. I mention the two thirteen-year-old girls in Bath. She corrects, “They were at least seventeen!” I say, “No way.” Bruce says, “They always look older than they are now.” I then add the rousing Salvation Army band. Lindy mentions the old women with their hymnals. I recall Olson and Sartre in the courtyard. Then we go back a day, and I pick the school kids on the train and the guard sending us into the trap of poor-humored Elvis. Bruce says, “You have written one complete chapter already.”
It is warm, bounteous, benign. As Bruce points it out, I see the ziggarut of terraces and vales. He indicates the direction of lei lines outward to Avebury.
The bigness of the ancient-world grid envelops me. The Earth has sculpted a zodiac of itself. A crow flutters over, releasing his call; we stand on the invisible, despite the theft of all by the materialized world. Then Bruce says that Glastonbury is the outer aspect of the heart chakra of the entire world, Avebury its inner aspect.
I palpate the ground here and feel the flesh of this hill, almost like a kind of rubber. I realize I have changed in some unrealized but profound way. The material village still stretches out beneath, but I am different. The heart chakra has entered with the sadness and even the hope of this creation. Not the visible Tor, not the church ruins, not even the sightline itself, but arising everywhere from within and becoming heart, unseen. I can’t describe what it is or where, but no more could I describe the darkness from which I awoke. It is not the meadows, and of course it is the meadows.
Bruce guides us down the walk to the Chalice Well. The flies are so gentle and tame they can almost be petted. Prehistoric and gangly, they are engraved and lighter-gridded flies.
We continue downhill, past pilgrims coming up, every so often looking back to views of the ruins, each an icon, each unique.
We enter the Chalice Well or Chaliswelle. Heavily red ironed water streams down on the mushroom-like stone and spreads in crisscrossing currents, its patterns suggesting vibrations. The water, the red, the trickle are mesmerizing—beyond lies a garden, a lavender and azure herbrarium; bright peach and crimson roses beyond that.
No photograph, however colorful, howsoever detailed, can capture this spot—the radiance of sound and heat, the aromas in fine tincture, the shifting backgrounds in layers of legenda—cannot be explained by an image or description. It seeps into one’s being through pores of third eyes and ears and vestigial antennae. Being here is simply being here, beyond reckoning, beyond strategy.
We climb beyond the roses to the fount spilling out onto millstones. There are two glasses for visitors to drink from and then wash clean for the next person. I ignore them and cup my bear’s paw. The flow tastes dense and rusty—“like blood,” Bruce says. I scoop it a second time, covering my face and getting it in my ears and nostrils and eyes. “It’s a full meal,” Bruce adds—and that it is. I am no longer hungry or thirsty or anything. I have drunk the elemental iron.
I sit in the deep-shaded sanctuary alongside the well and close my eyes. An unbidden cinema crosses my mind almost immediately, in shades of dark and light, black and white patches, abstractions like chess pieces of unfinished agencies. I feel the minerality and rootedness of being here, the power, the offer of this world, of its brilliant transient tumult. The Chalice Well is the primordial dream, the setting-out spot for life. I stand there within its vibration, still giant and tied, a cord from my umbilicus into the reality I manifest.
We drink a lighter water that comes from under the Tor, through actual plumbing. It is also rusty but fizzier, more crystal-like.
We return to the Galatea vegetarian café; then while Lindy goes into a second-hand clothing store, I visit Gothic Image and talk the business of books with the owner. He is a publisher of guides to Arthurian and occult England, plus other fairy stories and Atlantean accounts, including works of the famous John Michell. With some joint enthusiasm we consider half a dozen prospects for copublishing. Then I note a line of political books in his window, including one on Y2K—bright yellow cartoon cover, another on gangstas—I write down their publisher’s name for future reference: Vision Press in London.
Across the street and down a ways is a strikingly interesting used esoteric bookstore, Speaking Tree, near where Lindy wants to shop for old clothing, so she goes into the thrift store, and I peek into the bookstore. Even as I enter, the proprietor, a man named Gareth, is talking to two other people about how to get some more shopworn and overstock American books, right there out loud, as if he were expecting my visit, or this being Merlin’s country, summoning me. After a while, I cease my passive browsing and pipe up. Almost at once, as if well prepared, he blends with my intention, buoyant with a dozen ideas and possibilities about shipping full pallets of our titles over here. Within five minutes we are talking quantities and discount rate and agreeing on just everything. The Chalice Well is working; Glastonbury is working.
The books Gareth gives me lead directly to the Abbey, a place excavated by automatic writing. Lindy, Bruce, and I walk there now. Its great buttresses stand in discontinuous contingency, like some broken urn. Stepped stones fall away at the corners, erosion leaving a discernible path. Single stones, rounded and irregular, form a jagged shape like a bar graph. At some points, huge chunks are missing; elsewhere, it is just tiny lacunae.
There is a significant fragment of a whole church here like pieces of a puzzle begun, yet huge gaps remaining. But those pieces that remain, though a fraction of the whole, are gigantic and reveal the shape of the church so that its meaning is obvious and speaks a lesson different from the one, no doubt, it was erected to teach, but not different on the inner plane. The invisible is so much greater than the visible, and the fact that the church was once built and functioned here means that as long as even a small part of it stands in the original template, the signature of the whole remains. The fact that this is not a whole finished church any longer but the hint of one makes it greater in its vastness. For not having all the requisite rocks and an indoors to hide its meaning, the Abbey is naked and blatant. Its missing part is also a church—blue sky and puffy clouds, enlisted by the giant stones to finish their rebus. In lieu of stones the sky will do, as the edifice’s lost lines are filled in by luminous world-stuff. The interior of the design is grass and purple clover, wild grasses and shrubs sprouting from the uppermost layer of stones.
The pun is perfect—a ruin rune—an imperfect megalith made perfect because not too much of the material is left; in fact, just enough to defeat our materialistic age. This exposed and broken remnant, Bruce says, is actually an embellished set of unintentional standing stones, a Stonehenge device transmitting energies, a temple no longer enclosing or domesticating its howl.
The ducks are tame. But a big white male pushes a petite female underwater as they fight over the bread I have thrown. As he strides by me, he is so close that his feathers almost touch my leg. Fake civility and innocence “I saw you,” I say. “Don’t give me that quack-quack innocent look. You almost drowned her. You were merciless.” He quacks again as he waddles past.
Yes, the heart chakra is open. I am willing to see, to feel, to forgive, to play.
Back at the Chalice Well, we discover that its manager, Freddie Rosado, is not some sort of Merlin-like Celtic librarian but a Puerto Rican chef from Hell’s Kitchen, New York. A bold giant, he is a lifelong wanderer, restoring ecologies, setting up New Age centers wherever he goes—the American West, continental Europe, now here, Guardian of the Chalice Well below the Tor. His voice still has the gang singsong of New York City, prowling under his Aquarian jive. “I’m a gate-keeper,” the guard at Glastonbury tells Lindy. “That’s all. I get to take home all the gates that get lost.”
Bruce leads us to a meeting room in town where Margaret Caine is lecturing on King Arthur, the zodiac, Christ, and the view from the Tor—a traditional medley in this town. She says that there are three mysteries of Glastonbury: Did Jesus come here in his youth with Joseph of Arithea?; did Joseph bring the chalice soon after Jesus’ death, making this the first Christian church? Did Arthur live here and is the grail buried here? And then there is prior and overarching question: Is all of the secret lore and sacred geography of Glastonbury written eternally in the rivers, fields, and feng shui as viewed from the Tor?
We return to the hill at sunset where a burnished red orb is punctuating an ancient iron horizon, Pilgrims have being going up and down all day, and now large numbers of them have come here at the most bewitched hour. The fields are bathed in a soft gray haze.
The Tor itself is a mandala—on each of its faces is some other human episode: a young man and woman sitting silently. Turn the corner: two very young women with jet-black blue-tinted hair playing with aromatherapy bottles so that the twilight air is tinged with gardenia. Turn the corner, lowlifes in motorcycle shirts with racing ads, spark-plug emblems, smoking dope. Turn the corner: chubby middle-aged women speaking rapid German.
I drift inside at nightfall. There, two men in maybe their early thirties are chanting in Tibetan: sharp sonorous Buddhist syllables. I occupy the stone bench opposite them and stare upward. The windows, cut in the stone, are purple-black squares casting the deepest New York alleyway gloom. I let the chants dispel the evil demons. I fall completely into their sounds.
Without preamble they switch to Sanskrit and intone what sounds like the same chant, maybe fifty times, though in principle forever. What I think I hear I memorize and write down later: “Om bugo vistifihan, vranium tistidor, tistivisania swaha.” The minor chords are haunting and profound beyond our earthly sojourn, like the walking meditation Gate, gate, paragate—all lost, all lost, all lost forever. I don’t really even remember enough of it to make it up but, like the Abbey, it doesn’t have to be complete to be there. An approximation of it carries the full weight: “Dior mihi prestidor.” Then “Om” again.
As I hear the same thing over and over, I feel the space get larger and warmer and explode within me. The chanters do it slightly differently each time because they can’t help it. “T’s” and “f’s” oscillate and lingerr, sounding like all different mantras within the chant. The leader of the two has a rough brown shawl wrapped around his head forming a hood, short hair and a beard, dark ethnic face, totally serious and devout. His sincerity itself moves me and keeps me serious. I have no idea what language he speaks ordinarily. This is his voice.
The other is in powder blue sweat clothes, younger, seems almost a jock, out of place beside his companion, but he follows seamlessly. Both of their eyes are closed. When the leader opens his, they roll around at the top of their orbit. He ends his mantra by a click of fingers just before the last syllable. Then they begin a different one.
I close my eyes, and inside me the room extends into the night sky. I feel myself suddenly at the beginning of this life, having drunken from the Chalice Well, the letters of the world flowing backward, pushing me back in.
I do not want to leave. I cannot stay in the Tor long enough, while early in the evening I could not wait to get out of Margaret Caine’s lecture. I am no longer interested in the issues, just the reality and presence.
Bruce and Lindy come and get me, and we re-trace our path. On the way down the hill, the sonorous bleating of sheep crowded along the fence at the edge of their meadow is their own mantra.
The white horse cut into the hillside chalk 3,000 or 5,000 years ago is still fashionable, though he is not a modern horse. Silbury Hill, a twin to the Tor, is labor, bones, and dirt, too large a heap to believe it could have been piled up by mere humans on overtime.
From the top, we see the hillsides and the distant monuments of the Windmill People, the old Wessex folk. There are also monuments representing World War II heroes. In a field of bright yellow rape-seed a crop circle formed a few days ago. Down below tour buses are lined up like ants along the road. A big farmer’s sign asks visitors not to do any more damage “to my field than is already done.” But by whom? Extraterrestrials? Collective human collective telepathy? Merry pranksters? The Tor telegraphing the ancient signal?
The crop circle has thirty-six inner circles; two clock hands mark where people have tramped into and out of the design.
The stones at Avebury are giant irregular boulders moved from Wales hundreds of miles away. “It’s known as: bring the stones to the energy, “ Bruce explains in the process of giving us the essential information. “If Stonehenge is a church, Avebury is a cathedral.”
The monument does in fact surround and interlace the town, though some of the dolmens have been removed for construction, so the grid is partly down, but Bruce says, “It works. It doesn’t need every stone to be active.”
I guess that’s the baseline theme for this landscape. The ancient power network is so vast that it needs only a few of its giant raw pieces in place to operate and broadcast—like a sun or a moon. The ones still standing singularly are remarkable Titans, gods of an older consciousness, an older gnosis—to say nothing of an ungaugable technology. In our era they take on separate personalities, each a character in a masque, like runes of a Holocene zodiac—giant dull (by human standards only) acupuncture needles set in the earth once. Bruce leads us to the perfect clitoral fertility rock.
The sheep wander among the dolmens, running from me always in waves, so I do not get to touch their wool, however invitingly fluffy it looks— baaa! scattering between and among the standing stones where also American grade-school kids, maybe forty of them (even one in a New Jersey Nets t-shirt), sit working on their packed lunch boxes.
The distillation of Queen Anne’s lace everywhere among the buttercups and purple clover pervades the air with thick, mineral perfume. I lie just beyond the shadow of Bruce’s favorite stone, very much under its influence, and fall into a deep trance. I don’t remember what I dream, but I feel as though I have skimmed the inner aspect of the heart chakra, as proposed.
After lunch at the fancy café Lindy and I say goodbye to Bruce and head back toward London. We try to stop for the night at a motel in Marlborough, but there are no rooms anywhere in the town, a police convention in full swing. We drive to Newbury, but that is not far enough away and is also full. Reading is occupied by a road-construction crew, though everyone is incredibly nice, even the motel keeper in Marlborough, authentically troubled on our behalf, even the random bartender in Newbury who ponders possibilities for us, even the policeman who flashes us to stop and then tells us to shut off our fog lights, a request totally unexpected in the context of all the other reasons his fearsome flashers might have gone on behind us. His speech tells us we have entered hobbitland with its trilled “r’s” and t-like “ch’s.”
The motel proprietor in Reading, to whom we were directed by a prior clerk, phones around town for us, trying not to let it become a crisis, even though it is so already.
Finally, nearing midnight, we have little choice but to call Wick. “Come home,” she says. “By all means, come home.”
“Home,” I am actually too grateful and teary to talk to her, so hand the phone to Lindy. It is too much heart chakra for one day. From there, an easy drive gets us the rest of the way to Hampstead Heath.
The sheer rush of people down Tottingham, Leicester Square, and Piccadilly is overwhelming, like a science-fiction New York City in an alternate universe, black cabs barreling out of three-dimensional control.
We have moved from Hampstead Heath to an apartment off Greater Russell Street, downtown by the British Museum, loaned to us by Ernest Hecht, our partner at Souvenir Press. It is an old, rattly, almost elegant place, in partial disarray: a mixture of stale disuse and overuse from the different sales reps’ sojourns e lie contentedly in our space, sunlight creeping through the angles and alleys to make a haven in one semi-bare room.
We eat at Covent Gardens Brasserie, mega-expensive for nothing, and even at that have to be seated in the hotel lobby with our meals to get away from the thick cigar and cigarette smoke. The crowd is transsexual, transnational. The $70 meal has a service charge added for hotel staff, and that does not even cover the tip.
I feel like a different species from another planet as we walk through London’s crowded streets, people having “fun” in every nuance of the word, the pubs livelier than life itself could ever be or is supposed to be.
All the pieces seem out of place today. In the supermarket my hand cart seems to hit everyone. Back on the street it is almost impossible to dodge the foot traffic, a gigantic human clone spilling into the last dregs of the twentieth century. The hubbub does not make the Earth seem more multitudinous, only more transitory, more ephemeral.
There is a sense that the black and Indian people belong here more, are the real British because their cliché is not as obvious.
This seems like a circus masquerading as serious business, or maybe vice versa, dragging us toward and away from its truth.
I dream that night of a stick in the river, a rushing torrent. The stick is from a separate universe, very bare and palpable, unlike the metaphysical water. There is now an Olympics being held in this river, with swimmers and racers all around at every level of its landscape.
Today is distinguished by our trip to our UK distributor Airlift Books out in the suburbs. We wind down old catacombs into the Northern Line subway. The descent is so incredibly steep and bottomless that we seem to be trapped in a snail shell, part of a mob being led by Charon to a crossing of the Styx. After each long descent to a possible plateau, it seems as though we should arrive at a platform, but it is followed by yet another storey of descent.
We take the first train, then switch to a commuter line, come above ground as we roll into the country—long flat suburbs of industrial modular anywhere, tenements packing the streets, houses all stuck together one to one to one. This is Mike Leigh Land.
Conversations overheard: Construction workers on a platform razz a young homeless guy camped in a doorway: “Why don’t ya ‘et up ‘ere and ‘elp!” Jamaican lady to a kid, maybe seventeen, who is asking us, of all people, directions: “Relax, son. You have to change. Just come ‘ere by me and enjoy the ride and I’ll show you where to get off.” Woman on Enfield platform: “Askin’ and getting’ are two different things. Morons run the trains ‘ere.”
At night we go to the theater to see Rent, a stylized, exaggerated play, as though theater were meant to be rhetorical only and as though intellectual discussions embellished with high stylisms could make up for and replace an entire planet. But it’s sometimes nice to zone down.
We have our visit with the people who are running Vision Press. They are very bright, European (African and Indian) kids, younger than our own children. We try to set up a co-op deal with them for US distribution. Business becomes an on-the-spot invention, enthusiasm conveyed, social ease established, little more than a lick and a promise of trust.
Ernest Hecht takes us to lunch at his favorite place. This one-time Czech Jewish war baby brought to England to be raised in a foster family is part of an older British publishing establishment, now such a fanatical fan of both the Arsenal football team and Brazil the footballk nation that he follows both around the world and, in distinct anomaly to his New Agey list, publishes books on their leagues. His conversational style is somewhat guerrilla, his stories and exchanges good-natured but competitive, him always right or at least having the last word.
People smoke. They just plain smoke the hell out of this place. Cigars, cigarettes, cigarillos, pipes. I think they’d smoke the packages of sugar if someone lit them for them; they are in that much of a nicotine trance. They don’t realize that we are all sitting in a toxic cloud in this establishment.
The entrée includes gigantic apples, artichokes, and mushrooms—Old World civility all the way. The feeling of elegance carries over to our visit with Mr. Nelson in the Steiner Bookstore, walking distance after lunch. He is much more interested in the inner cosmos than commerce, so welcome, so routinely missing.
Les Miserables is stirring theater–revolution: injustice, service, fraternity, secrecy, heroism; flags, costumes, the poor, redemption, death, all raised to an apotheosis of song, themes repeating and changing, tunes coming back at escalating strata of the tale. Toward the end, the revolution breaks down even the barrier between the living and the dead, and they appear on stage together. There is so much applause that the cast is applauding the audience before we are done clapping. This is theater as celebration, ritual catharsis, cultural myth. It is much more alive and joyful than the previous night’s dead intellectual exercise.
We exit into streets full of crowds, hot dogs broiling among onions, vendors entangled with pedestrians, cops ticketing cars, black guys streaming out of a pub, protesting vehemently, though they are clearly parked in no man’s land. Hey, this is not just any place. This is London. We got ourselves here. It is not San Francisco god knows, not Chicago, not even New York. It is mixed, Old World, Franco/Pan-African, mediaeval, aristocratic, post-apocalyptic, high-energy, meta-civilization. Pubs merge onto the streets, their constituency carousing and singing. The brakes of red double-decker buses make their noisy holds, dust and leaded gas in the air; soot, charcoal, tobacco, pulverized rubber and stone, a planetary gas forming rings as around Saturn.
The British Museum is a sea of objects removed from context as from their rightful places. One can focus on only a few things that draw their attention—ancient needles and pots; burial chambers; an Egyptian frog with its face kind of pushed in and rather large; a piece of old tin found in Roman England, on it is written: “I curse Tretia Maria and her life, her mind, her memory, her liver, and her lungs”; detailed maps of old Korea and the area around Seoul like calligraphies of flames and molecules amid glyphs, expanded to a gigantic scale so that each home or district seems a map of an entire planet; flashes of blue and blue-green stones; the delicate gleaming golden-ness of gold coins of all thicknesses, roundnesses, and diameters; a metal statue of a Tibetan death-destroying god with his many arms, each one exquisitely realized and holding an artifact that is also exquisitely realized, heads atop heads, faces within faces, hugging a small human figurine so closely he could not possibly, were he real, see anything but this manifestation in which he is suspended; delicate, complex Japanese plates, both square and round, letters and drawings on their tops and bottoms, and lids of animals, stylized and alphabetic in irregular calligraphies; an Egyptian skeleton in a basket; rusted swords and daggers, darkened, eroded, pulled from the Thames in all different centuries, each uniquely fashioned and bent, leaving one to imagine the tales behind them, not only how they were flung or fell into the river but how the current took them where they were found, more dull artifacts now than weapons.
The floors of this museum carry mysterious fifteenth-, sixteenth-, and seventeenth-century Oriental objects, neither prehistoric nor mediaeval and not modern either—a long epoch in which people lived and died and made worlds. Stone Ages blur into one another, distinct forerunners of eras that follow, their artifacts collected by chance.
There are unusually large numbers of Koreans in the Korean section, Japanese among Japanese collections (and yen in the donation box), Arabs in the Egyptian and early Islamic section, Hispanic people looking at Mexican artifacts, Africans looking at Africa. Does this happen everyday and in every such museum or is it London the world city?
Used bookstores here have kept their ancestral stature. Used books are pure currency. Collectors look through them with pompous reverence, but at least it’s books, pages of dogs, fairies, plants, fish, birds, maps.
The antiquarian shops on Greater Russell Street, follow, one after another, each its own museum, all bunched in a seemingly unlivable situation of competitive proximity. The stores on Charing Cross have a distinctive dusty odor. They are packed with people, every one of them, in this computer age, a marvel that doesn’t exist, not at this scale anyway, in the United States. Basements wind around and under the city, room after room of old novels, old science, German invertebrate zoologies, tomes of insects, crimes, histories of every imaginable nation, district, and era of the world. And they must sell, or at least enough to keep it all going.
At night we take the train to Barbicon to see Love’s Fire, American actors performing seven one-act plays based on sonnets by Shakespeare. It is a new perspective to experience our own cultural frame with nuances framed for British eyes and ears, to imagine how it would sound to us if we were British, how the plays would be different if they were presented in America. We are watching America now from outside even as we see England each day of this trip through an American lens. I feel a mixture of wonderment, cultural pride, and haughty dissociation from the whole thing.
Barbicon is a hyped-up mediocre mall of apartments and theaters with the feel of the world’s largest lobby. Everything in its confines, the bars and stores seem transient and insubstantial.
Coming back on the train through Margate to Liverpool, Tottenham, knowing this place by feel is settling into our systems, so we are not on high alert at every moment. This is how people must move their entire lives from country to country and finally relax. Some things are easy here. Instructions are written on the walls and streets, so we can follow “Way Out” out of the station. But then street signs at corners are as often missing as not.
The Victoria and Albert Museum has a different collection than the British Museum, of course, in meaning as well as inventory. Modern glass Buddhas from Taiwan, multiple statues in a hive of elegant statuettes, show a collective planetary transition toward multiplication and machine aesthetics. A theme of the museum as a whole, is to represent the industrial transition from the singular to the cloned; from the original to the derivative, even the fake; from palpable craft to deconstructionist idea; from gold and ivory and ikon to mirage and chimera; generally from object to metaphor. The goal is to show the logarithmic, fractal, and sheer morphological nature of symbolic reality rather than the kind of raw, skilled labor once necessary to produce something original out of marble, gold, or clay. Yet it still has a credible repertoire—maybe not British Museum ilk— of the “old stuff.” For instance, a Chinese rhinoceros made of earthenware is covered with lead, its armor alone distinguishing it (its face could be any animal). The Indian room is bright curry, ornate colors, exotic scenes of divinity, as Shiva and Parvati merge into the flying Garuda eagle. Korean script, I learn at the Victoria and Albert, was invented from the shapes of the mouth making the letters, fourteenth century maybe. Walking in the Islamic room looking at Persian plates and pottery and hangings, I realize there is a distinctive quality and coloring to them such that when the landscape changes without warning to Turkish, I know it at once, and what nationality it has changed to, without knowing how I know. So I go back and forth across the soft boundary and try to list each art’s characteristics: Persian is curled inward, rounded, but also s-shaped at micro and macro levels. Turkish is more rectilinear and bilateral in its overall grids, though it has roundednesses within its boundaries. Persian is shades of light blue, lapis lazuli, subtle azure tints; the colors are set in fields. Turkish plates are brighter, darker, redder, bluer, and their colors fall throughout the design. The overall moiré of the Persian seems in motion like darting schools of fish. The Turkish is more like flags and distinct emblems.
All cultures reveal themselves this way by hidden cues. No doubt art historians and curators can cite chapter and verse.
The posters are global, bringing back the times of old rock concerts. ‘50s ads for Levy’s Rye Bread have been made art objects by the passage of time, or maybe they always were art like medieaval tapestries or Kwakiutl boats, only a different kind of art, representing the pen of the machine machine. World War II posters warn against wasting electricity, eating too much bread, and loose tongues. The Nazi specter is as alive behind these tableaus as the miracles of Jesus imbue Raphael’s giant cartoons for the Pope that commad other walls. “Uncle Sam Wants You,” is contextualized by a skeletal Sam naked and still pointing. An Indian organ sits inside a carved tiger, a chair made out of primary blocks of colors, old radios are art objects, early American and English coins and buttons, eighteenth-century dresses hung like tapestries. And the standard collection of local river finds: why not something from the Thames as much as from an Egyptian tomb?
The train gets stuck for ten minutes outside Kensington High Street, and the car heats up. Everyone shows stress in one way or other. Two young girls start singing. A Chinese woman shifts, earphones on, maintaining a blank face. Black men in suits all seem to adjust their apparel at once such one almost looks for their connecting marionette strings. French teenagers continue their stream of language, but it grows louder. Everyone cheers in unison as the car moves.
A parrot cries out from its cage formed out of a wall and building along Portobello, making the small shops and streets suddenly like a village in Anglicized South America.
We find John Michell, author on the meanings of ancient megaliths and cosmologies, at Prince Albert Pub, Notting Hill, a meeting set up by the proprietor of Gothic Image. A few minutes later, as we are walking toward the restaurant he has selected, a young guy on the street, without making eye contact or even seemingly noticing us, is speaking into his cell phone in an exaggeratedly loud whisper: “That John Michell, he’s dealing crack these days. The cops are out looking for him. That’s right. One bad dude!” It is obviously a put-on, but John is clearly aggravated and, as he rolls a cigarette, he keeps assuring us he has no idea of who the man is.
He is a thin, elegant and yet somewhat decrepit sire who would not easily fit anyplace but England. While we await our food in the Indian restaurant, he decries Richard Hoagland and Grahame Hancock and excoriates us for having brought the former’s book on the face on Mars into the world to mislead and distort the reality of sacred geometry, the real zones of planetary magic. “You have desecrated history!” he accuses. “You have set loose a generation of moronic imitators.” He thinks that crop circles are computer-generated fractal sine waves, but mostly wants to leave them unspeculated—Stonehenge and the rest—as great mysteries, beyond mankind for now. The real mystery is us, he proclaims; humans are the paradox; all these rest are just subsidiary events. “Uneducated people,” he adds, “are just interested in making up lies, dreaming up good stories, making up theories to put on the market.”
As time passes, he teases us with his playfully querulous energy, the gauntlets taken up by us one by one, and we build a lively dialogue; so we decide to go back to his flat. We walk a few blocks to Powys Garden. He lives on the top two storeys of the building he owns. We make our way up the stairs. Two gigantic uncompleted landscape puzzles occupy a large section of the floor, and we navigate admiringly around them. The shelves are packed with old volumes on earth mysteries, the ultimate library of the various phenomena, considered from every possible angle and in every era.
John decides to continue to be upset at us for publishing the fake and charlatan Mr. Hoagland and, to make his point, he chooses to praise Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh by contrast with Hoagland. “At least he’s a romantic militia figure to some end. He can serve as an example of our mutual bad judgment. Hoagland serves as nothing. He’s just a bad, if successful con artiist.” He even begins using the phrase “Sweet Koresh!” as an expletive in his discourse to continually reemphasize his point.
The conversation changes. He talks of a newly discovered son from an affair with an unsentimental girlfriend some thirty-plus years ago. “He was born under dreadfully shameful conditions,” John says. But now the son has called him and announced himself and they are meeting regularly, and “don’t you just feel sometimes this wave of total joy?” he pronounces. “That’s what life really is, not crop circles or make-believe Martian monuments.”
I say, “That joy and its inverse of fear make the universe for me, more or less.”
“Our consciousness makes up the universe” he counterpoints. “For every use of facts, there is always an alternative explanation.” Further along this branch of our exchange, he adds, “You are a highly sensitive person, so you create a universe around yourself.”
I say that I am a therapy junky. He says he stays as far away from it as possible in all forms.
My notes of our meeting contain two curious pieces of his dialogue that I cannot place. He says that someone, perhaps himself, perhaps this newly turned-up son, as a young man ran numbers and ended up in jail: “Oh, he had a misunderstanding with the authorities.” Later he talks about how Jamie’s wife (who is Jamie?) just took charge when they were in Russia, “Yes, we are going up this hill!” It was that kind of loopy conversation.
It flowls past midnight. He informs us, to our surprise, that no tube runs this late; we had assumed they ran twenty-four hours. When he checks by phone, it turns out there is no bus either. Instead, he call us a taxi and walks us downstairs to meet it.
We hurtle along, a wild cabbie tour through deserted streets, just missing other cars, both ones moving and those at rest. The driver is telling us about some sport that I assume is football or cricket but, before the ride is done, it turns out that he means greyhound racing.
It’s been a sparkling evening, the type we had in our youth when we went to poetry readings and hung out with writers, the kind we’ve just about lost the knack for these days, like our walk home last fall in Berkeley after attending reading by John Michell’s friend Ed Dorn and then going out to a bar with him, his wife Jenny, and a few others. We could be teenagers again, now like then, as we were when we met, just college kids in search of life meaning and adventure and emotional depth, bumping into each and sticking. And here we are.
Spending this much time together everyday, I find that our relationship, our lifelong stuck-togetherness has become more lucid rather than muddier, and is occasionally seen with perspective, from outside the habits of American culture almost as if from outside the life.
I ride alone, carrying a carton of our stuff from the apartment in London to put at Wick’s to Hampstead while we travel north to the Lake District and Scotland. I love changing lines to crisscross the city. I get a bit lost, but I go from the Northern to the Piccadilly, one stop on Central. At moments of anxiety I see my ancient fear, the power of compulsion in it, the continual upwelling of guilt forming the images that haunt me.
After I find my way back to London, we go to the natural history museum and stare at giant kaleidoscopes of air, clouds, water; a chick pecking its way out an egg; gems of many hues and formations, halides, blue-green malachite, tourmaline, sulphides, how they form as gold rust on one another, blue power crystals; animated unicorns and other chimeras: yetis, cyclopses, dragons. It turns into a museum of cryptozoology and cartoons—kids pushing buttons, animating exhibits; hummingbirds by the dozens from the nineteenth century coming alive; eggs at different scales; a rabbit in its stages of decay, becoming grass; photosynthesis beginning anew in a leaf.
Four Greek girls and a Greek guy tell jokes on the tube. They are maybe in their early twenties, giggling, chatting, then yelling, alive and animated. He kisses the one closest to him, but all four seem equally involved in each intimate gesture in some way. Whatever he shouts after them as he leaves, and continues to shout in Greek even as the train is moving, must be scandalous and hilarious, for the girls have trouble regaining composure.
My notes for the day end with a very brief dictionary of cuisine: aubergine = eggplant; corget = zucchini.
The train moves swiftly through countryside. Everything flies by, towns, houses, fields, stone walls, the rapidity a hair faster than reality can handle. Luckily we have escaped the smoking car to which we were mistakenly assigned (our mistake). “Smoking car “really means “addictive smoking hell” here, for the whole car is smoking its collective cigarette and asphyxiating itself. To be locked up where everyone is sucking tobacco is like some sort of post-industrial anti-opium den: all wakefulness, no dream.
The train we switch to at Oxenholme is small and childlike. In the station plants and flowers grow charmingly out of a rock wall. Windemere is surficially a tourist town, but a hike up through fields to above the lake reveals a vast and ancient landscape, divided fields, long stone walls, calligraphy of sheep, glyphs of boats clustered on the lake, mountains beyond. It is a perfect pastoral canvass, gentle and aged.
We walk back into town through brief woods and farms. At the Chinese restaurant, there is much talk in Chinese about MSG (which we ask to have excluded from our food). We learn about an active situation only as we are finishing our meal. A recent article in the local Chinese press warned of potential lawsuits from this cheap flavor-enhancer, as one allergic woman in the U.S., who was told there was no MSG in her food, died after eating it. For this reason they are extremely careful and take a good forty-five minutes cooking us a special meal, then even hang over us eating it.
This vaguely mistranslated event leads an adjacent young couple, English woman and Hong-Kong guy, to talk to us. They are sweet and fresh, students from Manchester on holiday on her birthday. The waitress joins in. She is from Hong-Kong too, but now is an expert on the Egnlish Lakes. She talks about other customers’ food requirements and her two trips to the U.S.—Disneyland in Florida both times.
After dinner we walk through a library garden amid faint honeysuckle scent in the northern air.
The Yewside Guest House in Hawkshead Hill, Ambleside, has Buddhas at the door, bushes growing up around posts and across walls, herbs gardens all over—rich lavender, yellow globes, green and white leaves, bright blue splotches, soft poofy parasols of ochre yellow, red leaves, furry soft mints, clumps and spires of different plants. We walk past the tiny tarn, an island with trees growing in it among lily pads. A small rowboat, more decorative than functional-seeming, hints of the Brontes and Lake poets.
Up through the hills baaas resound, answering each other. There are two shades of clover, light purple and a darker, winier one. A ram perches on a hilltop, a bit smug for a sheep, but maybe he has earned it; he has about forty milking females in his harem. “Stupid and timid, the whole lot,” Bruce called them, meaning the species.
I step over the fence into their meadow. There is plenty of dried dark dung and strands of fleece, as well as sparser grass. Coming back, I cross the creek and ascend through very different high dark grasses.
Ambleside is packed with tourists, crowded on all its roads and streets. Zefferelli’s is a vegetarian restaurant, sort of okay. They like to serve “potato in jacket” with all sorts of things in it: chili, salmon, kippers. The kippers for breakfast at our countercultural commune/inn were salty and smoky, a strange dish to accompany a pancake and yogurt with homemade blackberry syrup.
For dinner we set off early on the path from Hawk’s Head to Hawkshead Hill. This is one of the old walking paths that crisscross rural England from town to town, real rural lanes in lieu of car roads. Our starting point is the Yewfield Guest House. Map in hand, we aim away from Tarn Haws and Coniston, along a stone wall. For a stretch we are on the road, and cars pass, in fact so close that we walk single-file on the wall to let them by. A phone booth and mail-box in the middle of nowhere signal a key landmark on our map. We cross meadows filled with sheep, baaa choruses from every direction. They run away with their cute gallop as we approach. The old Lake Country of Keats and Wordsworth is more or less intact.
Our pedestrian path through sheep meadows takes us over a stream, past a group of trees, up and down hills, across a big farm, cows and heifers noticing us idly, down a wooded rise and stone steps, turning past more houses and stone walls, sheep clustered under trees, some black-headed. Occasionally we pass pedestrians headed the other way; we hail each other unceremoniously.
It doesn’t matter that we are walking on people’s land. The right of way is sacred and original. On this basis it is absolutely not America here.
As we enter Hawkshead Hill , we see a perfect little village below us: a church, roosters and chickens loose along the pathside.
The old town is preserved with shops and a cental square. We walk along the street, past Wordworth’s grammar school, a huge clock with bent hands sticking out on its side. In a cemetery on a hill sits great crosses of weathered stone with holes carved in their centers, some wording erased. The church bells ring out the quarter hours.
The elegant gourmet vegetarian restaurant at which we have reservations is situated in this unlikely spot. We order organic dark beer from Caledonia, Scotland, then hazelnut roast for me and filodough around mushrooms for Lindy.
Having come on foot, we will hike home. After dinner we hurry straight back in order to make it before dark. As clouds pile over distant hills toward sunset, the land resounds with baaas—an icy nip in the air.
This is how the great novels of English literature proceed. You walk between staging areas, village to village, wilderness to civilization to wilderness in gradual stages and transitions. Everything is slow and graceful.
At the tarn, loonlike birds fly up. The cat on the stone gate, back and white and brown, rolls over, forming an idle strike with its paw. As we arrive at Yewfield, it has turned almost totally dark, blue mist with gray clouds casting out netherworld luster.
Tarn Haws. Brick walls on either side of them, trails lead up through meadows stretching out beyond. These walls crisscross the entire countryside. We climb over one of them and ascend through the copse to a barbed wire fence and a dead end.
Now we are among cattle. Down over the crest a tarn sits in its dale, a perfect feng shui, pear-shaped with peninsula and little wooded islands, purple bushes brilliant around their shores. We come down to the foot path and car crossing again, fellow walkers going both ways. The water is warm to touch despite the cold air.
This has an Arthurian feel to it—some and shadow, sun and shadow, cloud banks moving rapidly across, the world reflected perfectly in water, ducks afloat in their duckhood, ringed hills back up through the copse. We find a road through the fields and come up through the copse to the plantation, pick the wrong path, and end up at Rose Haws.
Hiking Allcock Tarn is the afternoon’s venture. We meet a young couple, Abigal and Hohan, as arranged two nights earlier at our bed and breakfast in Windemere where we shared a morning table. They are the age of our kids, one year married, met when she was on holiday in Turkey.
We drive to Dove Cottage in Grasmere, park, and confirm the beginning of the trail.
Hohan enjoys telling us about how widespread the Turkish language is, all across the northern Soviet republics. Abigal is prim and timid in a kind of stodgy way; she is also pregnant. She would like to stay on level ground, she says, somewhat as a wry joke because that is impossible, as we are shooting up the pedestrian path, winding back and forth around the hillside until Grasmere Lake is below us, and then Windemere Lake in the distance, military jets buzzing the valley faraway, fog and smoke curling below.
As we keep jocular conversation going, stories of Turkey in particular, our difficulty following the map is set aside. We get higher and higher and more and more exhausted, resting periodically to look down at what we have accomplished, the entire span of Lake District below.
We forge a path along a wall, lots of moraine in our way; the footing is unsteady and steep. Hohan suddenly does the unexpected, he races on ahead as if he is part of a marathon, so that Abigal calls for him with one of the few Turkish words she knows. “It’s his summons. I have to use it all the time,” she tells us. “He is like a mountain goat from those two years in the Turkish army where they do nothing but climb hills, up and down, up and down. Nothing can stop him now. He sees a hill and off he goes. Goodbye, Hohan.”
After a while it becomes clear that despite our studiousness we have missed a turn somewhere on the map. We vault over a high wall, helping each other to get on the other side of it. But we are still on the wrong path; it is too primitive and untraveled, just rough rocks, winding higher than we thought we were going. Serious walkers with sticks dot these hillsides. A couple from among them gives the feeling that they have been walking here for decades and do nothing else, like regimented ghosts; they are about the glide past us in the middle of nowhere, but we interrupt their trance and get their attention. They point us the right way with friendly if cursory syllables. The discipline of the hike is obviously a ritual they honor so deeply that they can only condescend to us rank amateurs as one-timers, as though from a lesser dimension with a tone that is not meant to be disdainful but represents the ultimate gentle disdain, softened by another ancient ritual, the courtesy of the road and its lost traveler.
The way down from here is still up, so we cross the hillside, ascend higher, the angles sharper. Finally we pick up the original trail. Turning a corner over a hill and around a crag, we see the gentle Allcock Tarn marked on the map, nestled glacially, two ducks bobbing in it, reeds on the far side. An icy wind is just ripping across this bluff, and it is probably twenty degrees colder than where we started. The guidebook recommends “dangling your feet in the warm water.” Abigal says, “I think we can dispense with the dangling.” Perhaps the author had not taken into account this particular chilly afternoon.
Cutting around the tarn to descend, we encounter high sharp rocks with an immediate steep decline. A fierce wind hits us squarely through a river-lined pass between fells. “Medium,” Abigal calls out the rating which the book assigned this particular hike, “but that is based on ‘hard’ being Chris Bennington at Everest.”
Among thick ferns, sheep feed all along the descending hillside, lambs running to their mothers as we approach at a distance. Some lie almost disguised among the roches moutonnées, giving them their name. The drop-off to our right is sharp and a bit intimidating, especially given the loose rocks on which we are walking. Finally we hit the protection of the trees with a mixture of relief and the pride of hikers who have completed the worst proposed by their guidebook. We attained the fabled tarn and returned to safety.
We go down along the river, then, precisely as the map indicates, out by the Swan Pub. And that’s where we end up. Unfortunately, it was not our original target any longer; we have strayed quite a distance. We now must walk forty-five minutes across meadows to our cars.
That night we go to the Landing Vegetarian Guest House for dinner, twenty pounds per diner, but an elegant setting, candle-lit, in a mansion, Scottish beer, a litany of courses, salads, French pies and pastas, the meal capped by three scoops of homemade ice cream, chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla. As we leave, a gentle rain is pouring down through the leaves, playing white-noise music, among colored azaleas at dusk.
Back in our room at Yewside I read the guidebook; it describes where we were: “Allcock Tarn, 3 miles, 1150 feet. General level of exertion: medium. One of Wordsworth’s favorite walks. You go up Fellside, past the circular fishpond, and reach the little rocky height of Grey Crag, cross the southern end of Butter Crag, down across Greenshead Gill, along a wall. Grasmere and Rydal Lakes are visible.”
The little road from Tarns Haw/Hawkshead Hill to the Ambleside Juncture is terrifying for any driver, but especially us in our newly rented car driving on the “wrong” side. Logging trucks barrel along as if we should just pass through each other like specters. Others plow down the center of the road, as if there weren’t two formal sides to it. The stone walls squeezing in the road on either side make shoulders nonexistent. In fact, ferns growing out of the wall on the passenger’s side slap the side-view mirror.
We detour en route to Keswick and go along Bassenthwaite Lake, mysterious through the trees, just large enough to be a universe with island moons, but small enough that the A592 by-pass, hooded by trees between two stone walls, circles it. We cross over a long ancient stone bridge, almost a standing fossil, and come down into the valley of Keswick, a totally crowded tourist town, traffic stalled in imminent gridlock. The method of claiming a space in the municipal parking lot is unclear, as others are wedging ahead of cars already in line, so we wind around a few more blocks and bolt into the Lake Supermarket lot, paid for by one pound, fourpence for a bottle of spring water and two small tissue packets. This frees us for at least a brief wander through town.
The smell of the news-store is archaic and musty, childhood ambiance of old dust punctuated by the opacity that comes from lives before one’s own. The smell pouring out of the bakery is thick, bready, and sweet, like being in the perfumed aura of an oven with various frostings and hot jellies applied. We stop in the wool store to look, irresistible after so many sheep, and Lindy buys a big sweater.
It is tricky finding the correct way out of town for Castlerigg Stone circle. In fact, the first local we ask about it says, “Don’t rightly know.”
A bit of a drive gets us there, an undistinguished footnote on a busy highway, out among fields and rock walls, the standing stones of a former time. The giant puzzle pieces sit in place, stark, indecipherable, incontestable, jagged and irregular, of widely varying sizes— lichen-blanketed three-dimensional runes. The whole is a single flattened irregular circle, roughly the dimensions of a hardball infield, a cluster of somewhat smaller stones near 11:00 on the circle as we approach the outfield grass littered with sheep dung and made wet by the day-before’s rain.
Storm clouds race overhead, as they did during the Mesolithic when unknown people labored to speak powerful truths their few relict bones and tools do not reveal, answered the vastness of night and the stream-threaded, misty mountains of their birth with their own declaration—a sememic regularlity, a proto-alphabetic weir to catch star and moon perhaps, theater for a round dance, gateway into and out of theophanic space. This is the mute existential Heideggerian declaration that someday there would be a Heidegger, an Einstein, someday a zero, a computer chip. Pure is-ness, at the border of being with beinglessness, has been left as stone remnants of a prior cosmology.
Sitting there now, the stone circle’s power is its capacity to be what it is, to hold its riddle in the extinction of its lineage, but also to hold its physical appearance like an impression in clay, a shadow, long after those who exerted mental and mechanical agency to establish it have vanished and everything else about them has vanished except other unnamed ancestral beings who descend from them and gave their genes and proto-languages to our ancestors at the dawn of time. Those genes, in fact, are still here among the villagers, at least a few of them, in arrays resonating with the stones.
Driving back through Glasmere, we stop at the Wordsworth Museum. There, the mountains and lakes we have been wandering among fall back into a pastoral seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scenery that we read but neglected to look at in our college books. The geography becomes actual now: Wordsworth’s grammar school at Hawkshead Hill where we walked past sheep on hills, Grasmere, Rydal, Keswick.
The lines of a first draft of Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” are scrawled much as these words are in my journal, perfectly conceived en route to a poem: “the moon in a leap,””a pang without a grief,” then as now, Castlerigg-like and yet so much more fluent to my own gestation and our time, so much less esoteric in their figurement, though esoteric in a different, time-warp sense. Wordsworth’s own handwriting of the unpublished “Intimations of Immortality” sends me chills down my spine: “The earth did seem appareled in celestial light…” In high school in New York it was an intimation of the depth and possibility of literature to me, an initiation into the world of the avatars—now as native glyphs, as the invention of language penned onto the invention of paper.
I see in Wordworth’s calligragraphy, mastered at Hawkshead Hill, “the tabor’s sound,” “the hare ‘plashing,” that I remember so well from the first time its spray charmed me without the “s,” and “this world is but a dream,” echoed in pop songs and children’s rowing ditties ever since.
“In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn…” sits alongside pictures of Coleridge and De Quincey, and Sir Walter Scott looking like a golfer or a guy just off the courts at Wimbledon.
Alph, the sacred river, remains as sphinxlike in the end as the riddle at Castlerigg, as jagged and desperate a mark—“those caves of ice,” echoing over the earphones, existential and enigmatic.
I lie in the sudden unexplained sun outside on a bench with Lindy, a perfect yellow calendula growing out of soil in the wall. We lay like this in the grass outside Churchill House at Amherst College once and looked ahead, unknowingly, to times like this, as I look back now, through the eternal sensation of my mortality. And that is Wordsworthian, Xanaduan too.
On that damned half a road back Lindy misses the right at the Drunken Duck and is forced to dive into a driveway to correct the error by turning around. Traffic is rushing by in both directions and the driveway is so shallow that it takes ten minutes of occasional breaks in the flow, and her trying to maneuver every which way, to turn around in the narrow space, with me standing in the road directing (as well as one false move when she found herself face to face on the right with an oncoming car and had to retreat in horror). As we finally get facing the right way, I dive back into the seat before the next car can come, and she is gaining speed even before I get the door closed.
At nightfall on the hillside, the sheep’s and lamb’s calls are less baaas than aaarrs, differently pitched horns that are playing, some plaintive and immediate, some faraway, all resounding in a vast multidimensional chorus. The smell of hawthorn and Queen Anne’s lace distill into the cold air, making this Earth a luminous, sweet, sonorous planet.
Yes, England is different, England is the magic isle. Spenser, Shakespeare, and Blake are resurrected for me redeemed, and the mysterious odysseys and geographies of Tolkein and C.S. Lewis take on a new reality, representing a geography and an experience of light, scent, sound, and air, that could not be seen, heard, or smelled in the texts but radiate throughout their subtext in this scenery. You have to be here, on the ground, to know what it is. This is Albion, Blake’s Albion, John Michell’s Albion, the Albion of Marlowe and Chaucer, the Albion of Milton and Herbert, the Albion of the builders of Castlerigg and the Tor from whence John Cabot set sail, not far from here in fact, for Labrador and New York City, New Albion.
Yet it is as fresh and immediate to me now as a new planet, a hillside: my fears, my life, what I have brought here to be distilled and transformed in the difference of its vibration, in the Chalice Well, in the outer and inner aspects of the heart chakra—the baaas and fuzz now of a crescent moon.
As we drive, the land gradually changes from the Lake Country to Scotland. We pass into the misty Tweed River valley, hills and clouds low over the land.
Peebles is old; the people in Peebles are old. It is like a “Twilight Zone” flashback into the ‘50s—elderly upright couples like insignias of sticks. We walk along the Tweed river past the town church as it is chiming, past the institutional indoor swimming pool. The water churns alongside us, wide and shallow, ducks fighting a steep current.
The sound of bagpipes is coming from somewhere, exactly what we might have wished. We follow it around a bend, up stairs, and see a whole bagpipe band serenading the people on the balconies of an old folks’ home. Actually there are only two bagpipes in the band for the all the rich sound they give off; the rest are drums and sticks. The musicians are men of all ages, old and grizzled, and callow and youthful. The main bagpiper is vaguely like a teen Timothy Hutton, both bashful and proud among his elders. It seems that he blows air into his instrument in continuous puffs having little to do with the music that comes out of it. Somehow his hands on the buttons and the separate pipes make the distinctive mournful sound.
All the players are in full kilts and matching red and black uniforms. An old chubby drummer stops and leaves the group, while the rest go on playing, for a smoke. Another drummer simply stands aside, holding his sticks in place, his role unclear but suggesting a martial theme.
The collected old folks and seven or eight immediate on-lookers, us among them, clap as one melody ends. Then another begins.
Strolling a little further along the Tweed, we pass a giant meadow, about the size of an American football field, across which teams of archers are shooting at an impossibly small target on the ground, the size of an ashcan lid. I cannot pick up the flight of the arrows, though I see them leave the bows which quickly drop down, then point skyward at release. No one is even close after five minutes, and we take up our journey again, past the Carovan Park. The map says Neidpath Castle is a fifteen minutes walk, a proximity which is hard to believe, since it was no doubt the castle we passed many miles before reaching the town—but a man in the playground assures us that if we enter the forest along the river, it will appear within five minutes around the first bend.
It is dramatic how the town ends so abruptly and becomes forest, young kids with cigarettes climbing rocks above the river, then total thicket.
The castle appears in the distance, a ruins it turns out, not a working edifice, deserted, spooky, commanding the town from its strategic height, much as it is shown in paintings inside the castle, though not an isolated ruin then when they were stroked onto canvas, thirteenth century and for centuries afterwards, but a sentinel on the river, the basis of the settlement itself. It is remarkable that we can approach this massive icon from below on foot.
Wordsworth decried its demise, blaming the castle’s lord and remarking that the gentle Tweed still ran on, the meadows spread beneath.
The musty stone shell is minimally restored. Yet its vacant catacombs are vast with endless rooms, fireplaces up to their ceilings occupying whole walls. We trek up and then down winding staircases to see these vestigial chambers, all lifeless and damp.
At bottom is a hole down to the underworld, a jail or dungeon no more than a pit carved into stone. Part of the myth of this place is that Mary Queen of Scots passed here in one of her various guises between exile in France and imprisonment by Elizabeth.
It is possible to lie in the turret watchpost and gaze out over the Tweed.
From afar, just before reentering the forest, we see how the meaning has changed, no longer an imposing castle fortress or royal estate, but a Neidpath monolith, a disarray against sky.
On the car radio, a humorous discussion of Casanova involving an Irish man, an Englishman, and an English woman holds our attention. The accents alone are worth it, the words not always clear—did she say, “stouts and stunch,” and what does the mean?
The lamb, confused in the road, does not know whether to cross or go back.
Beautiful meadows and farms stretch out, their names just as splendid, Rachen Mill, Drumelzien.
For dinner at our old-fashioned hotel they serve haggis, oatmeal and vegetables together in a pancake, along with smoked haddock in a chowder.
Wind and rain sweep cold off the Firth and, outside in Scotland itself, the chill is worse than it looked through the car window. Edinburgh is a maze of one-way streets, old and northern, distinctly European. We can’t find parking, and it is even hard to maneuver to its center. Traffic lights last forever.
Leaving the vehicle in a dubious spot, we try walking the streets. A fine rain blows in sharp gusts, and it is truly freezing. It takes me almost ten minutes to make it back and forth from just one corner to Lothian while Lindy waits in a shop, to check out a vegetarian café our guidebook tells us in the basement of St. Johns Church. No go: the gate is locked. From just this short foray we are drenched, so we go to our room on Mayfield Road, change our clothes and sleep.
Late afternoon, groggy, we try Holyrood Park. This city is ancient, shadows of towers through mists. A volcanic hill just off town center includes Arthur’s Seat, Samson’s Ribs, Innocent Bike Path. We drive from Samson’s Ribs to Windy Soule and stop at Duddingston Lock. I have an old crust of organic rye in my coat left over from London, and I break it to feed the ducks, They come up from the Lock by in droves, large tall ones, a fellow with a twisted out-of-place wing who befriends Lindy, and we make sure he is fed among the aggressive little ducklings and chubby other black fowl. They become so many and aggressive, poking at each other with activated beaks, that Lindy says firmly, “That’s not okay,” clapping her hands.
Further up Queen’s Drive the port is visible, ghosts of buildings through the fog. We come down into St. Patrick’s Square where, on a little out-of-the-way street, hidden at the turn of the corner, the fifty-nine year-old proprietor of Anna Purna Indian Vegetarian Restaurant regales us with his travels from Bombay and challenges his more famous competitor across the street to match the delicacies that he is serving up to us, his only customers today—vegetable balls and nuts in a creamy cardamon sauce, saffron-flavored basmati rice, and aubergine grilled with tomato and garlic. “We make own own spices and innovate our recipes regularly.” The meal is capped with a Cobra beer poured into a glass bearing a map of India.
He has been in Edinburgh twenty-six years and will go nowhere else: “I am done.” His daughter is some sort of money-trader in New York City and travels to every coast and continent. “I am not even sure what she does,” he declares. His wife is the cook, and his twenty-four year-old son manages the finances.
The mist and wind are still unbelievably cold, as we hurry home, back to 83 Mayfield amid the double-decker buses and swift traffic rushing too fast, mostly in the other direction, down the too narrow street.
The German tourists with whom we were gabbing do not run fast enough to catch the bus, and we abandon them, yelling at each other, as we race to get in the door. It charges through Edinburgh, colorful graffiti on many walls. At the Castle Tour we join a mob speaking every language and brogue imaginable, the first and second world at least, lots of Americans, more than we have seen since we left San Fran.
Tourist sites like this are impossible. Nothing occur in real time or with a rhythm related to the indigenous landscape, so, far from being a real tourist, one becomes some other indefinable class of thing, and a real castle becomes Disneyland with its wrap-around earphones, CD ROM, its dioramas and murals. The Scots guard is at least minimally real, posing for photos with young bashful girls.
We climb the battlements to look out over the city. It is bitter cold, “bloody freezing,” wrote a visitor from Zagreb in the log earlier in the day. The vista from here is dramatic and gives a view across to the Firth, the northern mediaeval metropolis at this point in history. People swirl and gyrate everywhere among the integuments. We wander through prisons, stand in an incarceration cell (to pretend for an uncomfortable moment to have been a prisoner here in a former life); another cell is filled with life-size dolls of actual nineteenth-century prisoners.
The crowning of Scotland’s kings, rising in relief figure by figure out of the wall, leads us eventually to the famous sword of Scotland and its crown jewels, a guard stationed right beside them (Sherlock Holmes no longer needed), the throng moving past them look, at what? That is, what is different from any other simulacrum in this place, except that it does carry a sense of the separateness of the Picts and Scots, an entire nation based once in Edinburgh with its own people, and Mary the Queen at the center of a mystery play that leads to the transfer of the power of the crown south to England and the so-called modern world. The rest is Disneyland lite. Take anything out of context, and you can trivialize it and turn it into an arcade.
We dawdle in the war chapel, mainly to feel warm, and read the lists of those killed in battle, the names’ specificity recalling the nightmare quality of this world, the brevity of anyone’s actual visitation to any Scotland.
On the street outside the Castle, shops specialize in kilts, bagpipes, plaid fabrics, swords, medallions.
It is hard to find the basic tourist bus, as we are booted off a chartered one that we mistakenly enter. We finally get it. We pay for the loop and can debark and reboard at scheduled as we wish.
This is an expensive day so far; the castle cost five pounds each and the tourist bus another seven and a half, some forty dollars. The supposed thing about Edinburgh Tours, as opposed to Edinburgh Classic Tours, is the live guide for which they charge two pounds extra per person.
Our bus goes up and down the new city and the old; we depart at Charlotte Square and walk to St. Johns Church where the vegetarian café is open inside the One World Shop. The food is bland and industrial, healthy in name only. We board a different bus for the rest of the tour. The first speaker, in fact, was worse than a tape, bored and needing a new battery. This one is a young girl, a student actress I believe I heard her say, with glasses and plenty of jibes for the driver in their stand-up routine (“Now listen to me, will you?”). She is riveting to watch with her performance of histories of buildings, famous Scottish scientists, and the cop’s dog that is buried beside him in the churchyard after it sat by his grave for eleven years, leaving only to visit the taverns for food and drink!
A lady on the street directs us to where we pick up the 42 bus to Seville Terrace—a long frigid wait for us, having just missed the last one. It finally appears in the distance, as we are beginning to shiver, one of the most welcome sights of the whole trip.
We pack our car and drive the Edinburgh by-pass, a long twenty miles to the Firth of Forth Bridge. We pass tiny towns in the hilly land along the coast, Glen Rothes, Leven with its new homes, Lunden, Largo, Windygates to the left, Milton of Balgonie and Coaltown of Balgonie, perhaps once a mill and a mine, into Colinsburgh, out toward Ancroach, finally arriving at David and Jane Lorimer’s house, a country manor quite unexpected. David is editor of a publication on new science, traditionary (esoteric) science, alternative medicine, and parapsychology, so this upper-class setting surprises us. In truth, he is an Eton/Oxford graduate, a friend of Prince Charles, a bit younger than us, who has chosen an unconventional career and also retreated to his ancestral estate, having built on his father’s old land.
We walk paths and hills with David, one huge field of rape oilseed, yellow among the wheat and peas. His dog bounds after pheasants whistling out of the brush, sudden rabbits, and wild turkeys wobbling along the road. In the distance from hilltops we can see fishing towns and offshore islands.
Lindy gives baby Charlotte a bath while David builds a fire in the library where we will eat a stately dinner with them. Another couple arrives; the guy is David’s old Eton friend, and he is building a golf links nearby. He tells stories of old golf in the Netherlands where it was a town game, the ball rolling to a stop at people’s doors—true links, wild, unwatered; brush uncleared, a home-made ball among roots and gardens, a natural event not an artificial tournament. In fourteenth-century Scotland it was “nothing like the American target shooting where they let the ball roll placidly to a stop. It was a violent game requiring two doctors on call.”
He rejects my croquet analogy—“a bit more wild than that!”
Mousse and cordials are served.
The conversation gets a little loopy as they put down Oprah and phony American emoting on TV. Almost totally forgotten by the two guys, I am dozing off as I hear a conversation about Bedouins hiding British machinery during the Gulf War. A seeming non sequitur: “Why I thought that was Roman!”
Perhaps the strangest—or at least the funniest—moment of the trip occurs. Back in the States our press was trying to publish a book of underground comics that were considered too risqué by our usual printer. We had moved it to another printer in Detroit, represented by the familiar long-time rep for the old printer, who had taken this job for a rival after being fired. Gabe Watts was the generic printer’s rep in the Bay Area, with his suave toupée and superior chatter seasoned by years of learning everything there was about every aspect of the business. Oddly cast in his new role, he remained a somewhat imperious, somewhat comical figure, pure California yuppie mixed with true old-time salesman. Back at our office, just his name evoked smiles. And he had guaranteeed that this book would print.
Meanwhile Charlotte had been long ago put to bed with quite a struggle in which Lindy helped Jane by reading her a story. She was completely out of mind when, after midnight, she came down the long staircase and peeked in the door to the library, holding the phone: “It’s Gabe Watts,” she announced—and she wasn’t even really yet a talker. It was the most articulate statement I had heard from her, totally disorienting. ‘Gabe Watts?’ I wondered. ‘How does she know about him?’ It turned out that he had gotten our number from the office and was calling just to say the book was running later that night, the day before in America.
The last cherry log is put on the fire; even the dog is asleep and snoring, as David and his buddy talk neighborhood and classmate gossip.
The night cold and windy, we awake to sunlight and oddly mechanical bird chatter punctuated by loons.
Starting off at 9:30 from Colinsburgh, our goal is Powness to return the rented car and meet the train to London. We cut back through the countryside and cross Forth Bridge the other way. The illusion is that the back roads will be slow, but it will be okay once, skipping Peebles, we take this different route back and hit A702. But it is an unexpectedly narrow, two-lane road and hair-raising for hours. Cars and trucks hurtle toward us, not respecting the middle divide; people pass when they fancy, even if there is no opening, and they expect you to stop dead to make time for them.
It gets worse in the construction zone because the pace does not slow at all. We are completely stopped by the work on the highway, at the front of a line awaiting the flagman when a huge truck barrelling from the other direction, perhaps realizing that Lindy has pulled up too far and wanting to teach her a lesson, aims his rig straight at us, full-speed in our lane. There is seemingly no time for him to turn before hitting us, and we experience a surreal moment of knowing we are going to be hit and not even having leisure to imagine the horrific consequences, just the juices of fear in the blood, before he veers off, past the last possible moment. We experience relief, outrage, disbelief, but also ordinariness because nothing really happened. We simply proceed with the wave of the flagman. It is a life after death experience, as if the kind David wrote about in his books Survival and Whole in One of which we are carrying copies gifted by him. Obliterated by the truck, we drive on as spirits.
The excitement of reaching the end of 702 is mitigated by even more construction along A74, and then pouring rain on M6. It is a grueling journey from Scotland to Kendal, finally arriving at Cambria Car Rental in one piece. The kid who picked us up at the Windemere station just a few days earlier now drives us back. The train we took from Oxenholm a week or so ago returns us to Oxenholm, and there we catch a train to London, back through Lancaster and Birmingham.
The whole trip is beginning to unwind back to its beginning like a Cocteau film. Towns blip by—houses, fields, up and down, objects close and far, fences and stone walls, some of them too close to see as they rush past, others sailing at a stately distance. Some of the fleeting landscapes are stunningly beautiful, like postcards, but they are disassembled instantly in our inevitable rush of metal. Trains going the other way pass us so rapidly with such immense harmless violence that they seem only one car long, a single condensed object thicker and more distorted than most. Of course, everything goes as scripted; the tracks are absolute and trustworthy.
The scene aboard is tired and businesslike, cell phones ringing, papers being perused till they are drained of meaning. We are on the outskirts, then London, Easton, the announcer calling out in an Indian singsong voice—“six minutes early,” he adds with pride. But this means we have to wait a while before getting to enter the station, until the tracks are clear.
The cab driver, an old gray-haired bard, takes us back and forth through the whorls of Hampstead, unable to locate Flask Walk, so we are deposited on a rise above the street. The meter kept running for the twenty minutes he was lost, but he settles on ten pounds. We wheel our suitcases down the hill to Wick’s.
I meet Reda Bouchami for wine at a high-consciousness pizza place in town. He is one of the young people running Vision Press and came to our meeting in London. Since then, he has secretly confided that we would like a job in the U.S., so we are meeting illicitly. He is a charming half-French guy who grew up in Africa, totally educated and hip. I listen to him talk about metaphysics, time travel, book marketing, materialism, Generation X, so much energy, so much European intelligence, that it seems hard to believe he might bring it all to Berkeley.
We take the train down to Leicester Square where we are forced to change from the Northern to the Piccadilly line. It is almost euphoric now, at the end of our “holiday,” this England, its mixture of sun and rain, the styles of its people, the depth of its society, the faces, Chinese, African, Anglo types you never see in the States.
It is great to be here, to be free to go anywhere on my one-day tube pass. I exit at Covent Gardens, taste samples in a cheese-packed shop, all hand-made, some hanging by string. The breads as well as the cheeses not only have tags that list their ingredients, hand-written, but tell stories about the makers.
I take the tube back to Camden. The street is an exotic mix of Halloween and Third World, head shops, open-air fruit and vegetable markets, a filthy, littered slum. Signs bulge out of storefronts with grotesque faces and cartoons; they belong in a comic-strip or freak museum. It is all cartoon-like already, even the big cars almost running down pedestrians at every corner. I visit the basement of Compedium and browse.
The train back is filled with school kids, both boys and girls in blue jackets and suits. The girls fuss with one another, all of them feeling one girl’s frizzy hair. The boys are rowdy and think nothing of rolling on the dirty floor. Theirs are such classically distinctive faces, whole futures written on them—banker, professor, juvenile delinquent, burned-out football star, playboy. They accuse one another of looking up the girls’ dresses, which of course they are, while they pretend to fall down and crawl around. It seems more a game, a way to tease, than that they are prematurely curious. “What…is your problem?” asks one of the girls with her absolute perfect English elocution.
At the Hampstead lift, an impatient guy with gray hair and a mean face, spurning any semblance of courtesy, not an employee of the tube, shoves a girl who is holding the door for a mother and child. “You’re not supposed to do that. You’ll break the door!” he growls. The mother makes it anyway, as schoolkids snicker. It makes me think of the sort of casual busybody violence that seems to happen here too. Downtown a guy was trying to get a transit cop who wouldn’t listen to remove a wino from the station, saying he had been there too long, as if it was his business.
We start out very early, 6 A.M. I hate getting up at dawn to fly, the forced march recalling all the unhappy forced marches of my childhood, plus the edginess of flying.
The driver is a short, stocky Afro Zimbabwean who talk a lot about his kids, his brother the Greyhound dispatcher in Corpus Christi—he and his family will visit him this summer, first time in the States. His kids (twelve and fifteen) love Zimbabwe, go there ever year, get to drive tractors, have a pet cheetah; but no one is looking forward to the U.S. “What is the U.S.?” he asks rhetorically. “Another England; that’s all.”
He instructs us on the war of resistance against Ian Smith. He was conscripted at eight. A guy came to the front door and said, “What are you doing here?” as if he was truant from the army. He was given a gun and three weeks of training; he has no idea whether he killed someone; he just shot in the air. His brother, seven, was killed. He found out when he came home on leave. “My mother was crying. I said,’ What’s that?’ She said, ‘Your brother.’ I said, ‘My brother; he’s only seven. Incredible.’ I changed my regiment so I could be with him. He went out one day, didn’t come back. Now I find out he shot. Incredible.”
We are stuck in rush-hour traffic en route to Heathrow, running this gauntlet out of England. Lindy is asking him detailed questions, and he is answering. “Of course, we had to. Ian Smith thought he could keep us down. But it wasn’t like South Africa. They didn’t have the army. They thought they could come in, just take over. Incredible. It was our country. Incredible. We had to fight. If we didn’t, our kids would be shot in the street, just like that, for walking on the wrong side of the street. Incredible.”
The plane back is just as huge as the one coming, hard to believe you could get such a thing aloft. You have to trust even if you don’t believe. The process of enrolling in this fate is slow but relentless, the milling the boarding, getting a window seat at the last minute, way in the back, 512 J and K..
I stare down at the cargo loaded into our belly. A Concorde takes off on its flight to New York. The driver had forewarned us. He talked about the sound it makes. “Everything shakes. This tiny thing in the sky. My car starts shaking. I thought a plane crashed. Incredible.”
The take-off is swift, and in that soft, tantalizing moment, so brief and infrangible, we are floating. We become the graceful image seen from afar. Graceful it is, considering our cumulative weight. The city is there for a moment, becoming geometric, then clouds. Between cumuli, parts of England glide past. It is not long before I see those ancient crags, the moors and mountains of far northern Scotland that were in our plans, that we never got to, except in the sky.
This is some of the oldest high country on Earth, though not in the universe. The land is wrinkled, dark, steep.
Then there is that last little beach, a single boat shape on the great blue, briefly over land again, a momentary relief, but it is not Ireland, probably one of the Shetlands, a few roads and villages, then just ocean. Just ocean four hundred years ago, and again now, the meaning totally changed but the vastness and mystery just the same. We don’t want to leave, but then we are always leaving—just as we don’t want to change, want anything to change, but we are always changing. I shut the blind. I don’t want to see so much of it anymore. It is too much to handle. I want to get there now; I don’t want to be in such long transit.
It seems impossible, after all this complicated journeying, that we could really return home, but that is where my mind automatically flows.
I am imagining us somewhere over a vast undifferentiated sea when Lindy, looking out a window behind us, gasps, “Look at those mountains! What are they?” I start with the merest alarm that there can’t be mountains yet unless Atlantis has arisen. Yet there they are. I open my blind, and gaze at them in awe, huge peaks like the Rockies, yet even vaster, rugged and snow-streaked, buried to their chins in a thick, glistening snow-pack, almost too bright to look at.
I realize this is Greenland, southern Greenland.
They are the most perfect snow mountains I could imagine. Even though distended falsely over the Mercator projections of the top of the world, Greenland is enormous, gate to another time, another Earth. Today Greenland is real.
Its passage is followed by water with ice floes, then what must be Baffinland, large glaciers, dirty, flowing imperceptibly, with frozen rivers in them, all merged together in different directions, a landscape sculpted of ice.
There is no life on this planet. It is more like a Jovian moon. The patterns in the ice suggest satellite images from afar of Callisto itself, every now and then a line that might pass for a road, a river becoming blacker, wetter, out of gray, presuming habitation.
The jet fuel forms a kind of light aurora, as if in the cold we are riding through a field of our own breath. It is too dazzling to look at for long, and a bit frightening, that it is so cold where this piece of machinery buzzes through the sky without turning into ice. The long shadow of the fuel, a thin line in the snow running out from the larger shadow of the wings.
The patterns change, but it is still all ice, Coleridge’s ice, Kubla Khan’s ice, John Cabot’s ice, so much of it and for so long. We are traveling across a space at least the size of the United States, hour after hour, and it doesn’t change. Only the experience of passing over it in real time, and no map, could give a sense of the actual vastness of it all, how big the Arctic and sub-Arctic of this Earth are.
Now there are ice floes in Hudson Bay, little chunks floating. That too goes on for hours.
It would be beautiful—in fact, it is beautiful—but I keep naively watching for it to end, at least an hour too soon. It doesn’t end. It goes on and on. Each time I look again, it is still ice floes. I don’t know how many hours pass, but time is moving with the planet. Ice beyond history, ice, ice. It couldn’t be this big, but it is.
There is no clear ending to it, for clouds begin to obscure the view, occasional turbulence reminding me that one wouldn’t want to fall into that icy sea.
Then through broken cloud cover I spot possible trees instead of ice. Binoculars confirm this to be true. Occasionally single roads or trails curl through the wilderness. What causes them to be there? Who cut them? How long ago? What vehicle runs on them these days?
Then there are real roads and habitation patches. We are crossing down through Canada, more than two-thirds of the way home, across Idaho, Nevada. It becomes sunny and the timelessness eases. We glide over the West, the Sierras, floating downward, a Herculean feat made ordinary in this century, quite different from Cabot’s voyage.
The city of San Francisco is covered in fog. We descend through layers of it, twisting and settling downward.
In the Bayporter in the bright sun, a late middle-aged, pony-tailed driver plays “Lucretia McEvil” on KSAN. Big unsculpted cemented space drifts past—what this land is, what it always was: open-ness, freedom of expression over courtesy, no subtletly or depth of culture.
The Zimbabwean driver spoke of liking American English because it just flows, no class structure or implication of superiority in inflection. I remember him and think that he was right. Yet as much as I live here and am a part of this, I already miss the old civilization and its sanctuary of detail and nuance—the Blakean landscape that keep me charmed for the whole time and out of the darkness of my own unfathomable depth.
It is amazing to be rolling across the Bay Bridge on a day that began in London with a Zimbabwean driver, to have crossed the ice as well, and be back home, alive and whole.