Walking in to work each morning gives me time to think, to get away from the ubiquitous Information Technology that surrounds us all these days.
Today I am musing on some recently aired, light hearted grumblings about the country I live in and, specifically, whether images, conjured by authors like HV Morton, merely feed impressions of an idealised fantasy world (let’s call it “cuckoo-land”) to readers with a rose-tinted view of somewhere that is always just around the corner, forever out of reach.
Is it right or wrong to fuel this alleged delusion, does such a delusion even truly exist? It’s certainly food for thought.
Locking the front door behind me, I step out onto a road which bears the name of an empire whose citizens, some two-thousand years ago, walked the same route and allegedly grew vines on the now frozen slopes above, and moored boats in the valley beneath, before the marshlands were drained to make way for productive green fields. Many a time, in the hope of uncovering Imperial Artefacts, our family has staged excavations in the front garden, only to encounter broken pipestems, fragments of pig trotter and shards of Edwardian crockery.
I am most envious of my daughter who I have just packed off, blinking and pale-faced at this unaccustomed hour, on a school trip to visit what the English refer to as the Mother of Parliaments, at Westminster. I wonder if I reminded her frequently enough to take plenty of photographs which I can purloin for future Morton-related projects?
I trudge on, swathed in warm and weatherproof garments, the cold nipping fiercely at any extremities injudiciously exposed to the elements, my breath billowing ahead of me. I imagine myself to be a stealthy ninja warrior, only my eyes visible, as I stalk the silent streets in search of my hapless quarry. To anyone with a more rational outlook I am more like the Michelin Man, after he’s let himself go a bit.
This morning the sky is clear and blue, something I’m sure I haven’t seen for months. Everything – red-brick houses; old, stone bridges; even the slumbering, hollowed-out shells of former industry – is given a pleasant hue by the warm colours of the rising sun.
There is a smooth, flattering cover of frost over field, hedge and fence, lending an unblemished, slightly unreal quality to mundane things – even parked cars are transformed into works of art, courtesy of this freezing makeover. Looming out of the low-lying mists along the banks of the meandering river below are the tops of the highest trees, groping upwards, like skeletal hands; and tall, disembodied chimneys from a lost industrial past – which JB Priestley and HV Morton would probably have spat teeth at and ignored respectively – but which now, softened by the passing of time, are part of our landscape, history and culture and have become as familiar as old friends.
As my walk continues, I realise the everyday world around me has been elevated to Turneresque heights – a dignified and distant silvery etching of trees, higgledy-piggledy houses and little hills which is suddenly astounding. I try to imagine it captured, frozen and in a frame, gracing the most exalted of art galleries.
It is part of the human condition that only after months of mud and mire, of rainfall and floods are we able to appreciate mornings like this – without the proverbial “rough”, we cannot enjoy the “smooth”. We need the contrast. But it’s difficult sometimes to avoid becoming preoccupied by the “rough”. It requires effort to appreciate what we have on our own doorstep, to be able to count our blessings and “see things with new eyes” – as those infuriatingly smug “New-Age” types are wont to say. It is too easy to become bogged down with the ordinary, the minutiae, the every-day blandness.
Misery and depression, death and destruction, murder and mayhem all sell newspapers (or their e-equivalents) far more readily than good news. So we have to look hard for that good news – the little chat with Tony the taxi driver down the road as he tells me his cat is much better now, thanks; a chance meeting with a grumpy lorry driver in day-glo yellow, who has probably been on the road since the crack of sparrows’ knee-caps, but who can still be persuaded to raise a smile when the driving skills of those Kings of the Road, the artic. drivers, are remarked upon in complimentary manner.
“In the early morning before the sun is strong, a man standing on this hill looks down, not upon the neat flat pasture lands of the Vale of Avalon, but upon Avalon, an island again, rising from a steaming sea of mist… the mist rises from the fields as if it were the ghost of that sea which covered the valley in the age of legend. In the cold wind that runs before the dawn a man looks down upon this faint, moving veil, watches it writhe in spectral billows over the land, steaming upward in faint lines in the high places and so exposing the darker objects beneath which, in this hushed hour, seem almost like the bones of heroes, or the hulls of legendary barges sunk in some old poem.”
HV Morton, “In Search of England”, chpt 6
This country is different – it couldn’t be anything else (nor should we truly wish it to be) – from that of nearly a century ago. It is no longer (if it ever was) the place described by Morton’s amiable narrator, as he bowled along in his little car. True, nowadays bad things happen and times are tough, but they are not nearly as bad or as tough as they were (and were shortly to become) in Morton’s day, regardless of the alluring optimism of his travelogues. This country is still a pretty good place to be, if one can rise above the petty clamour as HVM did in his day, and I would still recommend it highly as a place to visit or to stay. We live in a cynical age, when it’s difficult to admit to being content with one’s lot, and we are all much more inclined to grumble than to eulogise. One book which claims to be a modern successor to Morton is in fact entitled “Mustn’t Grumble”, although in it, by all accounts, the author does indeed grumble, quite a lot.
If there is a heaven (and I’m yet to be convinced), it may not just be be a place where things are pleasant and comfortable, but one where we are able to appreciate that which is pleasant and comfortable without the need for the unpleasant and uncomfortable – now that would be a trick!
Until then I’ll continue to take life as I find it, one day at a time, and endeavour to appreciate the things around me more.
As I arrive at work I see the daffodils in the flowerbeds around the front-door are in bud – pioneering spears of lime-green, courageously poking out of black, frozen soil – Spring is in the air. It won’t last of course!
Now I need to hope I can find a spare moment, when I can sit down to catch these fleeting snippets of thought before they are snowed under with everyday normality – amateur writers, who needs them!
Niall Taylor February 2013