Posts Tagged ‘Dungeness’

Dinosaurs at Dungeness

March 27, 2012

My husband and I got out of London and spent the weekend in Dungeness – a coincidence of a lucky break in the bookshop rota and six months of being married was too happy a thing to let pass us by.

It’s a strange place, Dungeness. The man in the hotel described it as ‘Mad Max country’. It certainly feels wild, unkempt, eerily disregarded and forgotten about. Old boats, shipping containers, and rusted winches strew the endless expanse of shingle beach; industrial flotsam left behind by the retreating sea. A nuclear power station gently hums, looming behind two lighthouses, which look almost like fairground rides.

The person most associated with Dungeness is the artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman, who moved there when suffering from AIDS. He eked out a strange garden from the inhospitable shingle, scrubby plants arranged around odd bits of flotsamed rusty metal. His house, Prospect Cottage, still stands, and you can walk right up into the garden, which is overlooked by a John Donne poem mounted on the side of his house. The poem is the beginning and end of ‘The Sun Rising’, setting a peculiarly hopeful scene of daybreak and beginning, given that Jarman’s life was drawing to its close.

But Derek Jarman and John Donne weren’t so much on my mind. Instead, as we wandered across this strange landscape, I kept thinking of Virginia Woolf. This was in part because I am reading Olivia Laing’s wonderful To the River (of which more in a future post), in part because Dungeness is just a short hop along the coast from Woolf’’s East Sussex, and in part thanks to the profusion of lighthouses. This, in spite of the fact that Woolf never, to my knowledge, went to Dungeness. I can’t see any mention of it in her letters or diaries, in any case. I’m not sure she would have liked it much. So bleak and strange the landscape.

But the feeling I got at Dungeness reminded me very much of a preoccupation in her last novel Between the Acts. At university, I always felt this was the novel that I understood the least, the one that I didn’t quite get, in which I couldn’t quite discover the genius that was, doubtless, there. When I’ve read it, read about it, and thought about it since, I’ve admired Woolf’s playfulness with words, the feeling of her listening to language as it is spoken, and her success in capturing that on the page.

But what I was drawn to at university was her preoccupation with prehistory. Time and again in Between the Acts the long-ago past is summoned and strangely conflated into the present day. Perhaps this is clearest near the beginning:

… [she] had spent the hours between three and five thinking of rhododendron forests in Piccadilly; when the entire continent, not then, she understood, divided by a channel, was all one; populated, she understood, by elephant-bodied, seal-necked, heaving, surging, slowly writhing, and, she supposed, barking monsters; the iguanodon, the mammoth, and the mastodon; from whom presumably, she thought, jerking the window open, we descend.

It took her five seconds in actual time, in mind time ever so much longer, to separate Grace herself, with blue china on a tray, from the leather-covered grunting monster who was about, as the door opened, to demolish a whole tree in the green steaming undergrowth of the primeval forest. Naturally, she jumped, as Grace put the tray down and said: ‘Good morning, Ma’am.’

I hope you don’t mind the long quotation, but it really is so tremendously clever, I couldn’t bring myself to cut it short. I love it when novelists bring dinosaurs into the equation. One of my favourite bits of Dickens is the opening of Bleak House, when ‘it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn-hill’. But back to Woolf. What the hell is she doing with time?!

First of all we are told quite clearly that the real time of the present are the two hours, ‘between three and five’. But she (who is, in fact, Mrs Swithin) uses those two hours to think of a strange prehistoric time, imagining it both in the large scale of continental geography and in the minute realisation of rhododendron forests in Piccadilly. The ‘monsters’ are really quite extraordinarily described – I like the way Woolf picks out their imagined movements: ‘heaving, surging, slowly writhing’, and then there’s the threat of violence, felt so often in Between the Acts, in ‘barking’. But this strange vision of the past is made relevant to the present. Here we are back in the moment, ‘jerking the window open’ and the link is openly stated: ‘we descend’ from the monsters.

On to more odd time stuff: there’s the ‘actual time’ of ‘five seconds’ contrasted with the ‘mind time’ of ‘ever so much longer’ and this time is used to try and separate this strange conflation of worlds: to distinguish Grace, the servant, from the monster of Mrs Swithin’s imaginings. The monster hasn’t been left behind in pre-history, he is still there and – now we get a flash of the future – ‘about, as the door opened, to demolish a whole tree’. This very clever episode is brought to a brilliant, bathetic close: Mrs Swithin jumps at the servant putting down the tray and wishing her good morning. The reality of mundane life is here. It is ‘morning’. The monsters of the past are gone.

But the monsters stay lurking close to the surface throughout Between the Acts. Again and again, we feel that time can conflate, that something that happened so long ago could burst through the surface of the present. Mrs Swithin says, later on, ‘Once there was no sea … no sea at all between us and the continent.’ Later, Giles kicks a stone ‘a flinty yellow stone, a sharp stone, edged as if cut by a savage for an arrow. A Barbaric stone; a pre-historic.’ History and pre-history are there, in the stones, in the landscape, literally, just below the surface.

No there weren’t any dinosaurs at Dungeness. But there was something about the feeling of abandonment there, something about the way the sea drifted ever outwards, exposing more and more shingle, rendering the boats and winches useless, that felt epic, connected to a bigger time scale than we can easily imagine.

Not far from Dungeness, we sought out the ‘Listening Ears’. These things, of which I’d never heard, but which the husband was determined to find, are extraordinary old concrete structures that were built to ‘listen’ to approaching aircraft and act as an early-warning system. They were built around the time of Woolf’s writing, in the twenties and thirties, but were swiftly rendered obsolete by the invention of radar.

You can only see the Listening Ears up close on special tours in the summer, so we climbed to the top of a shingle bank and looked at them in the distance across a vast moat. The husband threatened to swim over there.

The Listening Ears are magnificent and strange. More abandoned things. More relics of a time that’s past. More pieces of obsoletism. Looking at them there, standing huge amidst the scrub and gorse, they seemed impossibly ancient and indestructible. They looked so odd they could almost be Aztec. And I couldn’t help but imagine them in thousands of years’ time, overgrown with jungle – perhaps forests of rhododendron bushes. What would they think, whoever discovered them? Would they think they were methods of worship, of praying to the sky gods, ways to listen for omens in the wind? I felt as though time were conflating before my eyes, that something from the thirties could be from an ancient civilisation, and yet could also date us as an ancient civilisation.

Perhaps I can’t convey the feeling quite as elegantly as Woolf, but it was certainly very strange indeed.

The Great Outdoors

February 22, 2010

‘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.