‘Do you like the great outdoors, you know, being out in the countryside?’ a young man from Norfolk asked me at a party the other day. We’d been talking to an American chap, who’d said he was longing to go to Alaska, to be out in the wild. The Norfolkian and I admitted that all we really knew about Alaska was that it was big, cold and had bears, and that Werner Herzog made a film about that guy who was eaten by one. The American looked puzzled. I don’t think he’d seen the film. And that’s when the Norfolkian, evidently realising that we needed to get the conversation beyond Alaska, turned to me and asked the question.
It’s a difficult question to answer. The countryside seems to be a bit like that cliché about Communism: wonderful in theory, but not in practice. I like the idea of nature, I love reading about it, but the real thing is often a bit of a letdown. I suppose, for me, the ‘great’ outdoors is in the city, not the countryside.
As Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway says, ‘I love walking in London … Really, it’s better than walking in the country.’ I’m afraid I can’t help but agree, especially the way Mrs Dalloway walks. As I mentioned in a previous post, her walking allows her mind to wander, dart from thought to thought, endlessly inspired by her catching sight of something new. London is paradise for the distracted mind, filled with a million different things to catch a roving eye, countless connections to be formed, infinite paths along which thoughts can meander.
Will Self writes about these London associations in a piece called ‘Big Dome’, which I read in an old issue of Granta (you can buy it here). For Self, however, this is an affliction rather than something to be celebrated. He calls it ‘claustro-agoraphobia’:
The city is filled in with narratives, which have been extruded like psychic mastic into its fissures. There is no road I haven’t fought on, no cul-de-sac I haven’t ended it all in, no alley I haven’t done it down. To traverse central London today, even in a car, even on autopilot, is still to run over a hundred memoirs.
Spending one’s life in London, one can’t help but form ‘narratives’ associated with various streets. But that’s what I love about it. How magnificent to pass through Soho and remember, as I stroll down Frith Street, an awful date I went on in Arbutus, hilarious drunken school nights spent at Cheapskates, an old friend’s birthday party at the Arabic Restaurant on the corner, an argument I once had about which street the Palace Theatre (now showing Priscilla Queen of the Desert, then showing Les Mis) is on – we strode across London together, all the way to the theatre, both determined to prove our point. All of those stories remembered from, more or less, just one street.
Perhaps Soho is cheating. It’s bang in Central London, of course there are hundreds of memories associated with it. But, for anyone who’s been in London for more than a year or so, pretty much every single part of London has a few thoughts associated with it. Even if one’s never been there, it’s on the tube map, a friend lives nearby or it’s come up in conversation.
Take Morden, for example, right at the bottom of the Northern line. If I were to go there – and, I hasten to add, I haven’t yet – I would think, as I emerge from the tube, of my friend who used to be writing a novel about the Northern Line, in which he described Morden as other-worldly, doubting its real existence. I’d remember a silly pretend argument I had with someone about the Northern Line, mostly inspired by my friend’s book-in-progress, in which I’d said that Morden obviously didn’t really exist as it was too far away, and I was told that yes that it really did exist, in fact he took his driving test there. The name would make me think of Lord of the Rings – is it the inspiration behind ‘Mordor’? Tenuous links, perhaps, but links nonetheless – paths that my thoughts can tread along, as I tread along, as yet unseen, streets. I doubt there is a single pocket of London with which I have absolutely no associations whatsoever. It’s the nature of the sprawling, maze-like city.
This doesn’t happen in the countryside. I can’t stroll through the woods and think, ah that was the oak tree where so and so said blah blah blah, and there’s the bush where whatshisname went and had a pee behind, and by that birch over there is where I tied my shoelace that time I went for a walk with thingummy. There is, I suppose, a giddy freedom in this untarnished mindscape. Thoughts can soar, free from association, solve problems, reach inspired conclusions, form lines of poetry.
Fine for Wordsworth and Coleridge, but actually I need city distractions for my brain to function at its best. While my mind meanders through memories, treading already well-trodden routes, another part of it freely darts off and somehow finds the solution to whatever problem has been bothering me enough to make me feel restless and want to go for a walk in the first place. I find that surface distraction tends to enable more important processes to occur subconsciously.
But then, in theory, I love the countryside. I love those books by Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane, rhapsodising about nature, writing so poetically about wild places and trees. Wildwood is one of my favourite books of all time, ever. I remember most fondly Deakin’s writing about walnut forests in Kyrgyzstan, filled with families decamped to harvest the walnuts, proudly presenting him with their prize specimens, everyone gorging on nuts, blackening their hands like charcoal.
The Running Sky by Tim Dee is another stunning book of nature writing. I recently read this beautiful account of a birdwatching life, mingled with poetry (Dee also co-edited The Poetry of Birds with Simon Armitage), and adored it, even though I had never been birdwatching myself. As chance would have it, I found myself in Suffolk’s Snape Maltings a couple of weeks later only to see a sign for a guided birdwatching walk that morning. Perfect, I thought, here’s a chance to experience something I know I’ll love.
We assembled at ten o’clock, a middle-aged couple plus dog, my mother and I, and, of course, our guide – a man from the RSPB. It was cold. We stood in the car park for a while, being told what we might see. Redbacks, gulls and some interesting water features, apparently. We then embarked on our walk, or shuffle, along a field. I was very excited, mostly because the RSPB man had lent me a pair of binoculars (the middle-aged couple had their own). The excitement wore off over the next forty minutes, as we shuffled along, painfully slowly, or stood still, painfully cold, peering through binoculars at a bunch of winged things in the distance, being told ‘those are redbacks, and those are gulls’. I’d rather read some of Tim Dee’s book any day.
It could have just been bad luck. Over Christmas, I was in Devon and came across a flock of starlings while wandering along the estuary by Budleigh Salterton. They were forming the most astonishing shapes in the air and I stood their transfixed. I didn’t feel the cold, or even a flicker of boredom, then. The starlings’ flight is an astonishingly beautiful, wonderful (literally) thing of nature. And, of course, there are others. Several. And, when written about with deft skill, these natural wonders can be utterly breathtaking. But I’m more impressed by instances of human endeavour.
I went to Dungeness, for instance, to see Derek Jarman’s garden. I’d just seen the Derek Jarman exhibition at the Serpentine and had been moved by his film Blue. I wanted to find out more about him and so made the pilgrimage down to this peculiar knobble of Kent. Dungeness is a strange and magnificent place, where bungalows squat on a shingle beach in the shadow of a nuclear power station. Derek Jarman’s garden, an eerie assembly of rocks, driftwood, found pieces of twisted metal, and local tough sea-resistant plants is incredible.
As it so happened, my visit to Dungeness coincided with a troupe of keen birdwatchers – around twenty of them, who were excitedly running after a particular bird, which hadn’t been spotted in Kent for several years. The thrill of the chase was palpable as they birdily hopped along the shingle, stalking the, apparently unconcerned, bird. They didn’t look at the fishermen’s cottages and bungalows, the nuclear power station, the lighthouse soaring stripily up into the sky, or the garden. They had eyes only for the bird. I had driven all the way down from London to see the garden, to visit the place which I’d heard to be so bleak and yet so valiant. I didn’t think twice about it. But I know I’d never travel for miles, as they had done, to see a bird.
And so walking in the city, where one is accosted with buildings, bridges, streets, squares, lights, statues … millions of things that have aesthetic value, is gorging at a feast of manmade wonder. Walking through the City (the financial bit) at the weekend, is astonishing. With the streets emptied of bankers, one can gaze freely upwards at the playful Lloyds building, the grand heavy décor of Leadenhall Market, feel the ever-present assertion of the Gherkin. I know I’d much rather walk there than through a peaceful, bucolic meadow.
I’m not sure I like the fact that I’d rather be outdoors in the manmade world than in nature. I definitely don’t like the fact that I prefer nature writing to nature itself. Perhaps I need to experience it via someone else’s associations, as I haven’t spent enough time in it to form my own. Or perhaps, unlike William Blake, I simply lack the imagination ‘to see a world in a grain of sand, / and a heaven in a wild flower’. But, for now, I’m more than content to wander amidst London’s ever fascinating, ever complicated maze, thrilled to let it grow ever thicker with association.