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.