Dispersal

Have you given much thought to dying? And have you wondered how things will go when you’ve gone?

Your family will take time from their lives to dig through your barns and stack your stuff in piles according to the value they place upon it, scratching their heads because you are why these objects came together in one place. Only you understand why those nuts are mislabelled and there’s only one boot. In a grand rack of rivets, the most commonly used are kept elsewhere, in a coffee cup. It’s no wonder that your system is junk in your absence; you built this nest, tucking each new thing in place with the labour of your busy beak. Now the four winds rise for a grand dispersal;

the next in line will measure your treasures with cool and pitiless eyes. So feel for the broken spade that you liked to keep unmended. And the blunted shears you took in exchange for that work at Killymingan – their days are numbered, just like the muscles and veins that used to make you laugh. Without you to speak for these things, they’re finished;

and forget about that scythe your father gave you, and the first sheep trough you ever made as a boy, more powder now than tree. Forget the benches where you lay beside that old bitch as she died in the kennels and you could never bring yourself to unhitch her chain from the wall. Those byre stalls have been there for as long as you can remember, but your family will break them up and fetch the splinters blinking to the yard, cleaning up behind you. Everyone will see how ugly that wood became in the pox of worm and the crust of cobwebs and pigeon shit, and maybe somebody will think you don’t live longer indoors; you just die slower. Clean up and clean out.

I bet they’ll find things you never meant to share – things hidden for so long you’d forgotten they were secrets. They’ll see all that, your family, and maybe they’ll wonder if they really knew you at all; a man who kept a smutty magazine or a pair of lady’s knickers at the back of a filing cabinet. And all your fucking paperwork because when did farming become a desk job anyway? If they bother to read the accounts you made of yourself, maybe they’d see how close you came to losing it all one year in the eighties, and the contradictory lessons you gave about parsimony and You only live once. Everything will be there to see, with your cheque stubs gone rusty at the staple and heaps of receipts like money from a game. The museum might take one of your ledgers for the record, but they’ve already got three that almost say the same.

Your family will come to claim your prizes, claiming they’ll remember you clearly in a clock or some object that you never saw twice in your life.  Then they’ll burn what’s left and it’ll be a grand fire on a clear day, raging so well that they’ll be tempted to throw on things which never stood a chance of burning. Lightbulbs and fuse-boxes; bags of bags and litter because the sheds will never sell with all this crap. When the heat fades, the mass will smoulder on and it’ll still be burning in the morning when they come back and dump more of your things to kinnle it up again. You didn’t leave word to say if you wanted a headstone. I gather there won’t be much left by the time they’ve paid the lawyers, so have this instead; a heap of melted plastic and charcoal where nothing will grow for a decade.

I know all this because they did something like it to my neighbour on the hill. He died and his life went up in flames, and now they’re doing it again in the glen and the stinking, plasticated smoke hangs above the freshly dead man’s byres shouting habemus mortem, and we know you. The wind turns and there’s a smell of burning photographs. Smoke hangs in the night mist, and the oystercatchers catch on and peep towards the spring. Then more junk, and it burns for weeks because farmers die old and they can’t help but heap fuel around their ailing bodies like a bier for the send-off.

We don’t burn the dead these days. Modern bodies are rushed away with tact and discretion, so in cleaning the slate in the wake of a passing, we’re obliged to light a different fire. And your life’s end will come in the dispersal of things which hung together only for so long as you held them. Freed of you, they’ll leave in the breeze like a long-held breath.

I suppose you’ve dwelt on this before. Nothing’s new; and yet reaching for comfort, we each of us reach for the stuff that will burn when our turn comes to go.

Outside the Genre

It’s very easy to get bogged down with reading. I have a natural tendency to stick with what I know, and that leads me into ruts and blind alleys. So pushing against that tendency, I’ve made a deliberate effort to read outside my comfort zone; I’ve started to pick books at random from the library or the charity shelves in the supermarket. It’s been hit and miss, but a few stand-out discoveries have recently turned me on my head.

The best of these is The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again by M. John Harrison, a novel so strange and unexpected that I still can’t decide what to make of it. A fortnight has passed since I turned the final page, but it keeps repeating on me and I’m hardly sure how to go forward.

Without spoiling the plot, The Sunken Land follows the story of two lost and distracted people in late middle age. Shaw is a man in the doldrums, baffled by the drone of unemployment in West London. He meets Victoria, who is similarly adrift and downcast. They embark on a passive, almost desultory relationship. The tale begins when Victoria leaves Barnes and Mortlake to live in her mother’s former home in Shropshire.

Ignoring the specifics, the novel unfolds through a growing accumulation of wateriness; a confluence of imagery, motifs and liquid language which runs beautifully through parallel settings of both muddy Thames and flooded Severn. If the book itself had a texture, it would be damp and spotted with black mould. Leave it on a desk or a table if you like, but maybe put down a coaster first. In fact, the theme of moisture is played and replayed so often that it should be tiring – it’s weirdly repetitive, but the accumulate impact is strangely compelling.

Rooted in the permanence of liquidity, dry land begins to feel ethereal and suspicious. Harrison’s characters look in at everyday situations as if they were fish out of water, making strange discoveries about themselves and the people around them. They are oddly struck by social and cultural normalities which might otherwise pass without comment – the noise of drunk people in the streets; the difficulty of navigating in a car – their lives feel difficult and stodgy, lonely and puzzling. That’s reflected in the actial experience of reading The Sunken Land, which doesn’t slip easily off the page but requires persistence and focus. There are long periods of introversion and pondering; an emphasis on small details and minute transactions which are intricately rendered but tend towards an oily stagnation.

As the story unfolds, strange and terrifying things begin to happen around Shaw and Victoria, and yet it’s disconcerting to realise that they are largely unaffected by weird scenes of horror and distress. Standing beside them at these moments, it’s unnerving to realise that they do not share our discomfort – their horror is bizarrely passive, so we begin to wonder if these things are actually happening at all. Is this a literal account of an amphibious humanoid subspecies living in English waterways, or it some kind of collaborative hallucination which binds the main characters together? In a moment’s clarity, we’re told that “big or small, these events seemed all of a piece; they seemed to point to the same thing. But you couldn’t see what it might be”. That is the novel’s atmosphere rendered solid in just a few words.

As The Sunken Land slops towards a conclusion which begs a thousand more questions, there are heavy leanings on Kingsley’s The Water Babies and the painting Sea Idyll 1887 by Arnold Böcklin, which hangs on the wall above Shaw’s mother’s bed. I’m never quite sure how to read fiction which depends upon visual art – I feel like there’s almost an implicit cue to go and google the image in question, as when you read a child’s book and you’re prompted to press a button for the appropriate sound effect. But I searched for Böcklin and found the result was a perfect match for Harrison’s scene. It looks fine to a passing glance, but it’s creepy as hell beneath the surface.

Puzzled by The Sunken Land, I read some reviews of the book online. It was gratifying to discover that I was not alone in my confusion. Others had drawn wildly different conclusions from the book, but they at least had the advantage of knowing that M. John Harrison is one of the most famous living writers of British science fiction. I hadn’t made that association, and I’ve always steered clear of that genre altogether. I read the book without any preconceived expectations of genre or author, and I later wondered how I would have reacted to various situations in The Sunken Land if I had been making those associations from the start. Not only had I stumbled upon exciting new ground, but this discovery seemed to confirm my suspicion that in categorising, summarising and marketing books, we often start reading them before we’ve even reached the first page.

Harrison is a deft, confident and magically capable writer, but in reading more and deeper around his work, I found a broader endorsement by the writer Robert MacFarlane;

“Harrison is best known as one of the restless fathers of modern science fiction, but to my mind he is among the most brilliant novelists writing today, with regard to whom the question of genre is an irrelevance”

Working within pathetically narrowed horizons, it’s ironic to realise that I probably wouldn’t have read Harrison if I had known that he was a science fiction writer. And yet in reading him, I’ve reinforced my growing belief that genres are a poor way to bracket message, style or value.

Feel the Cold

It’s no wonder my hands are cold when the meat falls off them and the veins stand up between my knuckles. There’s nothing left to keep me warm, and the ice bites into my joints and my skin tears like tissue paper on the smallest snag. This never used to happen. I was tight and hot with nothing to fear, but now when I’ve fed the cows in the snow and felt the ice growing into my cuffs, it takes an hour to get warm by the fire. I feel the cold, and that’s new for me at thirty five.

And all the while, I grinned and bore three days when my knee was too hurt to walk for the simple sake of banging it on the byre door. Five years ago, I’d have found that bruise by chance and then wondered where it came from.

And what do I have to warm me by way of consolation? Well, my eyebrow hairs have begun to show a passionate lust for life. Some but not all of them grow like brambles in every conceivable direction. Cabling falls down from my nose and up from my lugs, and if that’s not grotesque then let me call it puzzling.

When I wake in the morning, the skin of my face holds the shape of a sleeping man. There’s give, and the bags hang through my first cup of coffee and sometimes into a second. And when they settle, I’m left with creases creeping between the corner of my eye and the edge of my ear. I’m curling into a million jokes about how it feels to grow old and I think of all those birthday cards that my parents would exchange with their friends about how time flies and hearing fails, and none of it was funny but calling it a joke allowed them to call it something.

I used to play on being young, but that excuse is getting tired. I have less to fall back on now. The next warm day we get, the larks will sing above the yard again. Another year in the making, and I worry that there’s more of this to come.

Straw Dogs

Revisiting the infamous film Straw Dogs on a cold winter’s evening, I was gripped by the re-emergence of themes which I’ve found steadily more interesting over the last few years. It’s certainly tempting to write an exhaustive essay on the ins and outs of a complex and messy film, but it feels more relevant to this blog to grab two distinct ideas and run around inside them for a moment. 

The first is why the countryside should so frequently serve as the backdrop to horror. This bothered me in the autumn as I laboured over films like Midsommar and The Wickerman. I washed up with the idea that horror lies in the subversion of expectation – the countryside is “supposed” to be peaceful and calm, so it’s horrifying to have that idea confounded by gritty tales of rural unease. That’s the main thrust of Straw Dogs, which stars a young Dustin Hoffman in one of his first major film roles, the American mathematician David Sumner.

The first part of the film simply reframes that conceit of an outsider seeking peace and respite in a rural community; Sumner and his wife Amy escape to her childhood home so that he can write a book on Applied Mathematics. The film offers a bucolic vision of farmhouses and drystone walls filmed in a bleak and wintry South Cornwall – but almost from the start, the timid academic seems out of his depth in a macho rural community where “we take care of our own”. Padding around in his little white sneakers, Sumner is bullied and undermined by a host of heavy-handed rustics. Circumstances finally wash him up as the last bastion of moral propriety in a world that has descended to alcohol-fuelled mob violence. So much for the plot, which achieved lasting notoriety off the back of a moment during the film’s finale where a rapist has his head smashed by a man-trap. 

Even from the outset, there is a sense of life on the frontier; we are far from the comfort of civilization. After all, this is an American film where the pub almost doubles as an ol’ time saloon, complete with fist fights and smashed glasses. The cliche of “the hostile country pub” appears so often in films and books that it has almost become a standard fixture, drawing strength of unease from the inherent contradiction of a “public house” that is essentially “private” – that feeling when the door swings open and the piano stops playing. Think of The Green Man pub in The Wickerman (1973), or the improbably dire “The Slaughtered Lamb” in American Werewolf in London (1981) – the expectation of hospitality measured against the reality of grudging silence. 

The “Wakely Arms” in Straw Dogs conforms to this pattern – Sumner’s visits are wretchedly awkward, and yet this is a comparatively peaceful hub in a film that is otherwise jangled with discordant noises and a score which crawls in and out of your ears like a damaged insect. The landscape is devastatingly empty. Windswept trees drive diagonal lines across the scenery as if they had been carved in place by a prop designer. It’s the perfect canvas to spin this tale, particularly when the warm and comfortable hearth of the pub is utterly sealed by introversion and coolness. The magistrate drinks at a table by himself, but it’s clear that his power is fragile – the unexplained injury he carries to his arm is a neat way to convey his frail grasp on authority.

Having established a sense of frosty unease in the landscape, the second point of interest is the portrayal of rural masculinity, particularly as represented by a gang of bully-boy labourers. Sumner is a mouse beside them, and their bullish antics simply accentuate his self-effacing dorkiness. When men come to repair a shed roof, the atmosphere of testosterone is oppressive – but the sexual assault on Amy Sumner which follows is nuanced and eerily ambiguous, dancing back and forth between consent and denial. It’s an extraordinary exploration of manly men; hyper-sexuality and clannish tribalism; this is clearly rape from beginning to end, and yet somehow it becomes steadily more horrifying as the situation escalates. By the end of the scene, we have watched two separate rapes – and yet the film permits us to wonder if one is more understandable than the other. Straw Dogs’ moral compass is boiled in a soup of testosterone – it’s no wonder that the film has been reviled by critics for almost fifty years, but it does offer something more complex than lurid and aggressive misogyny.

As violence gathers, the gang descends into simian lunacy. The men revert to the level of chicks or puppies, pecking at the “weakling” Sumner. In flinging live rats through broken windows during the farmhouse siege, the rat-catcher giggles and, like a nursery rhyme, reminds us that their death is his life. The men caper and play in the darkness, swinging like chimps from the remains of an old greenhouse. And when the magistrate is killed during a confusing scuffle, the raiders reach a boyish consensus that if you break one law, you might as well break them all. So they’re freed by the murder; there is no fear of reprisal when the telephone lines have been cut and it’s miles to the nearest friendly face. That sense of rural isolation compounds the frenzy, but it springs from something more primally human – big, heavy-handed men loosened from the harness and freed to run wild. 

Sumner’s feebleness fades as the tension builds. In throwing down a marker to resist the drunken mob, he makes a statement that is bigger than himself. What begins as the symbolic, almost religious declaration: “I will not allow violence against this house” soon becomes a matter-of-fact declaration of war: “I’m going to keep them out of this house”. The bouncy, boyish professor is now pallid, sweat soaked and coldly pragmatic. Provoked and driven to the brink, he is almost more terrifying than the attackers. It would not be hard to revisit the script to recast this softly spoken American mathematician as a psychopath – an insecure wimp pressed to flip by the boisterous hi-jinks of manlier men. By the end of the film, Hoffman has killed or grievously injured six human beings. He seems to have renounced his marriage and, with an expression of lost bemusement, confesses that he can’t find his way home. In any other context, he would make for a strange hero. 

Away from bigger themes around sex and violence, Straw Dogs is fascinated by the tension between manual and cerebral work; the role of Old and New masculinities and the shocking reality of life without law or civilization. It’s clear that the film wouldn’t work in a town or an urban setting; it has to be that lonely farmhouse in a backwards parish. But conversely, the landscape alone is hardly enough to be chilling without the knot and roil of human interest. 

It’s a nice coincidence that I stumbled upon an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson this morning which worked around the idea of people in place. In Talk and Talkers, Stevenson invites us to treat conversation as a roadmap for good story-telling. Observing that it’s unusual for talk to linger for long upon the literal details of scenery and landscape, he ruefully wonders if writers make too much of setting and geography in fiction. And importantly, he returns to the idea that human beings are primarily interested in other people, first and foremost. The inference is that while a story should have a good setting, place is merely a secondary consideration behind credible, vivid and relatable human interest. Eighty years later, Straw Dogs might confirm this by using a location that is simply “away” – or at least – “not here”. If that’s true, then I’m giving undue emphasis to the Cornish countryside as the location for horror and unease – it could just as easily have been the Argentinian pampas or the Australian outback. A 2011 remake of Straw Dogs was set in Mississippi – it failed because it lacked the edginess and nuance of the original, but there was nothing wrong with the location. And all the while, it’s perfectly possible that I’m just treating Stevenson’s idea like a new toy and I’m bending it to fit in places where it doesn’t.

As one final note on the film, there’s an awful scene where a missing cat is found to have been hung from a pull-switch in a closet. I don’t want to revisit the camera angle in case my suspicions are correct, but it looked to me like that was a real dead cat. 

The Dig

The Dig is on Netflix

Hung up on a growing fixation with Anglo Saxon language and culture, it was inevitable that I should have been drawn to watch The Dig, which was released on Netflix last week. Based around the excavations at Sutton Hoo, the film was heavily promoted on the radio last week. I listened with delight to one interview with the accent coach who taught Ralph Fiennes how to speak with an authentic Suffolk accent; a strange twist of vowel sounds and an emphasis on pursed lips. It was English as I’ve never heard it spoken, and the recording made me laugh aloud in wonder.

At a time when nationalism is locked in noisy combat with globalism, it’s a risky confession to admit that I love regionalism; the microcosmic diversity which permits communities to vary even between parishes and glens. Britain is extraordinarily rich in folk culture, language, food, architecture and outlook – and yet as global forces nudge us all towards conformity, it’s becoming steadily harder to see the line between my home town and yours. I’m inherently touchy about Galloway’s sense of itself, particularly since political narratives have begun to insist that everybody in Scotland shares a common identity. Nationalism downplays regionalism by arguing that the only worthwhile unit of social and political consequence is the nation. But many of us in Galloway would feel more at home in Antrim or the Isle of Man than we would in Aberdeen or Fort William – it has often been uncomfortable to experience this re-kneading of national and regional selves.

Having developed a baggy understanding of my own heritage, I think of myself in terms of Gaels and Vikings. Saxons feel rather distant to me; a foreign people settling a strange land, hundreds of miles away. I study Old English because it allows me to better understand the language I speak today. It’s a beautiful culture and aesthetic, but it’s not my inheritance and it never it was. I feel no personal investment in Sutton Hoo, but regionalism is far more than “each to their own”. Instead, it’s the simple appreciation of local, intricate things that make each of us different on the walkable scale of mountain ranges and river catchments. It’s a useful approach, although it is continually lampooned and ridiculed in the media as narrow-minded parochialism. In a world of constant travel before the Lockdown, it was decidedly uncool to be satisfied by your own immediate surroundings. I hope that’s changing now.

I have never been to Suffolk, but The Dig is set against an extraordinarily compelling spread of wide skies and marshland. I could almost hear redshank calling along the water fringes, and while the sound editor leaned a little too heavily on curlew calls around the dig site, I was utterly sold on the sense of people in an ancient place. Sutton Hoo is not mine, but I’m delighted that it’s theirs. And above all, I almost sobbed to see summer portrayed on screen; rich grass, heavy leaves and the warm light of a lingering evening. Immured in a dull and apparently endless Lockdown winter, it was simply a joy to remember long days and shirtsleeves.

The Dig not an exciting film. It values atmosphere above plot twists and car chases, and entire premise is laid out during a single conversation during the opening five minutes. Mrs. Pretty shows Mr. Brown a jumble of tumuli. He offers to dig into them. After a brief dispute about payment, he digs into them. Two hours later, and with the loose ends fastened on some not-very-interesting romantic subplots, it’s The End.

The archaeological remains at Sutton Hoo are staggeringly significant and vivid, but their modern history is utterly passive – they were dug up. Revolving around that simple fact, the film spins itself into a clean and beautifully textured sampler of pre-war East Anglian life, tapping into a fine atmosphere of rich, distinctive colloquialism which left me feeling like I’d been on holiday. On that basis, it doesn’t need to be an exciting film. I loved it, from beginning to end, and a momentary highpoint came in a burst of perfect comedy – asked how it feels to have uncovered the wildly significant remains of an ancient Saxon burial site, Mr. Brown nods and says “yeah, ‘s alright”. I don’t know Suffolk, but I feel like that warm, self-effacing understatement is part of the puzzle.

My friends are keenly planning the trips they’ll take when the lockdown lifts and the world comes to a new balance. They’re going to New York and Sydney; beach trips in the Algarve and the Mediterranean sun. I say bugger that. I’m off to Sutton Hoo, via the British Museum.

Cold Farrow

I’ve seen Orion before, but never from this angle through a byre vent on the coldest night of the year. As the hours moaned and the cleanings chilled in the straw like pudding, the old familiar stars rolled out of sight and new ones took their place.

The first piglets fell into the darkness and vanished without landing. She ate the dead before I could find their bodies, so the only mark they made on this Earth was a thin contribution to the smell of piss and amniotics. Who knows how many had come and gone by the time my torchlight found survivors steaming like porridge in the cold. Then another, curling and whining on the granite setts as I ran for a coat on my pyjamas. Ice woke to the moonrise with an extravagant expansion. Eggs popped in the coops and the hose burst in segments like a roadkill adder; the coldest night of the year, and the hardest.

In strange distress, the sow had walked back and forth and dropped her young like luggage in the bone-cold shedding. I had been reading indoors as they died; dying where they fell in the cold, and let that be a lesson to me – frost kills like a bullet. Even as I lunged to save the new lives, they slipped away through my fingers; they fell quiet and numb and the pauses grew in their endless squealing like sirens breaking. I tried to find them in the straw but the coldest became the quietest; snooker balls chilling in the pockets, knowing that the sow would eat them dead and cycle them back into herself like a birth reversal. I rushed and flustered, causing her to stand with a start and step upon the pelvis of an hour-old boar. The tiny creature squealed in one continuous shriek as if all the air had gone for it. Then it died nodding as if in agreement.

Two cold survivors came into the house and a box on the stove; two I could find and be sure of. Minutes from death, I coiled them in jumpers and socks; a towel which had been drying on a warm rail. One twitched. The other didn’t. The sow made way to lie at last, and that’s when I stripped milk from her teats by hand. I carried the colostrum back across the yard in a coffee cup and the moon-blaze raged in the frost, long past midnight. I used a syringe to leak milk into their hooky little mouths and was glad when they bubbled up a lather. Then I ran to the byre and smashed ice on the water trough for the hundredth time, and the chips jingled in the stoneware like a tumbler, and it froze again.

The sow lurched on with contractions but the afterbirth was hardly flushed. I rolled back my sleeve and pressed inside her to the depth of my elbow, feeling for more or some obstruction. And in the devastating darkness of the shed; in heavy breath and the low-slung dust of autumn straw, I felt nothing but warmth; a comfortable push-back. I turned my palm and moved in silence like a diver in a wreck, coasting through abandoned bedwear and the vacant stems where life had grown, each bay cupped like the empty socket of an acorn. She eats them too, and in withdrawal I brushed against a ham and the swell of backstrap fillets, and I know that place well enough with a saw in my hand.

She was empty, so whatever I had left was everything. One of the piglets on the stove was resurrected. The other was not, and it lay heavy-headed like a drowned pup, and I thought well she might as well eat that now it’s nothing. The survivor went back outdoors and then I was left with two from God only knows how many to start. The Plough stood begging on its tail in the north sky towards the village. A teal called and my arms itched with dry blood.

Towards four, when the heat lamp was hung and the water trough ice was smashed again, I sat with my back to the rough-stone wall and watched two piglets, tiny as mice in the red electric light. I am used to life which comes in immaculate perfection. Perhaps I was overdue some disaster; I deserved it as repayment for work that is often easy. But I couldn’t have known and I did what I could. If I’d found them sooner, I might have saved more lives. And if I’d gone to bed and looked in on the sow at first light, I might have been none the wiser; my beast unburdened with nothing to show.

New Year

The clarity is cleaner in retrospect, and I’m glad I did nothing to record the bellwether days between Christmas and mid-January. There was hardly a cloud in the sky for three whole weeks. When the fronts came at last it was merely to snow and shift the aspect forward.

In another year, I would’ve wasted that time by rushing from the hill to my desk to record every blink and crackle of ice in the haggs; I’d have cupped those details in my hands and hurried to set them somewhere safe before they could dribble away through the gaps in my fingers. Because freshness was everything, and urgency was imperative. Take the deafening thrill of ten thousand geese with their wings set to land in the fields below the house; the details fade, even as you listen. Recall the crunch and tumble of a vixen killed in the snow; if you aren’t careful, the moment can vanish like a puff of blood.

In carrying pails of water to the cows, I almost stepped on a jack snipe. I stopped and we stared at one another as he crouched like a beetle in the burn; the world compressed to a palmful. Then he flared away to the west, and like a fool I took a photograph, which came out as another pixelated lie. That stung me, so I tried to do better; to roll along with the time and be true to it more generally, allowing the most part away, even though it flew against my need to record and engrave.

I was drunk on New Year’s Eve. Some neighbours came and we stood at a respectful distance in the yard while a dumb, honey-coloured moon rolled up through the gaps in the cattle shed roof. Having failed to make much of 2020, we swore that the coming summer would bring better hay than anything we’d ever seen – we could already smell the grass frying like bacon in a pan. So we drank and laughed and never knew that another neighbour would die in his bed that night and his farm would wake into a new year without a plan or a master. The geese tramped his grass in the dark as if the deeds hardly mattered, but we are sorry that he’s gone.

Those pigs I keep were punctured by a boar in September. Progress was inevitable, and it came at the start of this week now passed. A string of wriggling young’uns rolled into the straw on Monday morning, and I would’ve said that a second litter is due in ten days – but the way that sow is standing and heaving at her own drab sides, I think they’ll come sooner than that.

There’s always another stage before the end of pregnancy in pigs; always something which has to happen first. The bar fattens and the milk drops once and then again before the teats turn red and thicken and the whole bay drops like the offload ramp on a digger trailer. She’ll nest and lie the wrong side up, then carry more rushes and bracken into her den like a bear.

Pathetically keen for progress, I mistake every one of these stages for the destination. I exhaust myself with anticipation, so that when piglets rush out into the darkness at last, it’s just another step and no arrival. And the first litter is firm and fit, and she had seven which is a far more sensible number than thirteen she dropped last time and killed one by standing on it. The sty is warmed by a red lamp; cobwebs hang pinkly on the lintels. As she recovered from the effort of delivery, the sow hardly ate and her slop lay for hours in a stone trough until the rats came for it. Checking the smallest pigs between two and three in the morning, I found an owl wedged on the rails above the trough, watching the trough lip, ready to curl in with an ell-shaped grasp like the knight in a chess game.

And always geese over the house, tramping the snow and moving without care in skeins that run for miles towards the bay. I cart muck to the field and shake it out with a grape; I smash ice on the water troughs and lug bales to the beasts in a darkening rush of sleet and expletives. I have become winterman again; The User. Birds die when I handle them; stores wither and dwindle. I revel at the smouldering fuel; I dish out the stuff I worked so hard to keep. So watch me burning up the summer’s fat, with no memory of what it cost to lay this comfort down. I squander as if replenishment was a given.

I wondered if I’d make a Resolution for myself this year; some fresh challenge to undermine the ground I already hold by the tips of my fingers. My time is apportioned with a razorblade and a microscope, but I tell myself that if I can just take on a few more projects, I’ll be satisfied at last – life will finally hurt enough to give me peace. I look around me, realising that there are hedges to renew and sheds to repoint in the summer. Perhaps I could act more as a father, and maybe there’s time to take on another screed of hill ground without losing the peace to write and read, which are two ends of the same thing. And I haven’t slammed into the buffers because that will never happen to me.

Geese

You say “I’ve not seen many geese this year”, and folk say “That’s because it hasn’t been cold”. But they don’t say why that matters, and the truth is that nobody knows. We think back to the last time that geese were here in good numbers, and we realise that was ten years ago when you couldn’t dig a hole in the ground for the ice. The skeins were so grand back then they’d take half an hour to move from mine to your side of the glen.

And it was bitterly cold, and there was hardly standing room for all the geese in Galloway. They had to fly round in shifts just so the tired ones could land and roost for a while, and great tatty palls of shit pattered around you when they passed overhead and darkened the sun and fair deafened you with nattering. Shooting geese was easy as pie – if you could stand to be out in the ice for more than twenty minutes at a time, you could pull the goosemeat down with a rake and save yourself the cost of a box of cartridges.

So they were here when it was cold – we can agree on that. But try and find the line between correlation and causation in all this mildery mud. If you said “It’s not been very cold this year”, folk might say “That’s because the geese haven’t come”.

Books of 2020

It seems premature to publish my favourite five books of 2020, particularly since I’m currently up to my neck in all manner of fantastic latecomers which might easily be added to the list. But if I don’t throw down a marker now, the moment will inevitably pass. And I share this list in the knowledge that everybody in the world wants to write a blog about books – I have nothing new or unusual to add, and I make no apology for indulging myself.

Wodwo – Ted Hughes

I was slightly astonished that so much of my life had passed before I came across this collection of prose, drama and poetry by Ted Hughes. It was recommended to me by a friend, and I slipped into the book as if it were a warm bath. I often found that I was gliding through the pages as if I’d read them before; as if the stories and images rose up and coiled around me like simple fun. And I was desperately gratified to discover such a strong engagement with shooting and rural life, which helped me to feel less like a literary leper. Think of Grooby, who, in shooting a hare that is driven out of a standing crop by a combine harvester, wounds himself in a manner both ambiguous and graphic. And Billy Red, who catches and kills rats with his teeth like a terrier. I was so enraptured with Billy Red’s story (Sunday) that I wasted an entire night making a print of him in action (above). If I could build my home inside a book, I would choose Wodwo.

North – Seamus Heaney

Heaney has become a recurrent theme for me, and there is so much in his work that I find startling and direct. North was his first real departure from a period of early work which critics have called “the anonymous” – the sequence I have always liked best. I read this collection of poetry in a single inhalation, then pulled it into a thousand pieces over successive weeks. Because here is a vast overview of deep time and the mass movement of human beings, killed and dying with the relentlessness of the tide. Leathery bog bodies are woven into strange relics of Norse and Scandinavian culture, then folded back into modern concerns around nationhood and identity. And if North didn’t have enough to commend it, Heaney also tries his hand at translating Skeletons Digging by Charles Baudelaire. And it’s blisteringly creepy.

Le Gloire de mon père – Marcel Pagnol

I’ve read that “the French are proud of Proust, but they love Pagnol”. Unashamedly nostalgic and concertedly rose-tinted, Pagnol’s autobiography is just beautiful. And it makes my top list because in truth it’s a powerfully evocative description of rural Provence in the years leading up to the First World War. The thrust of the book follows a day’s walked up partridge shooting in the mountains above Aubagne, and the young Marcel’s experience of following the guns through the rocks is a cast-iron testament to that almost religious devotion small boys can feel for their fathers. Pagnol’s novel Jean de Florette featured on last year’s (unpublished) top five, but there’s more than mere loyalty at play to see him placed again. And in the meantime, I’m rediscovering a growing obsession with France – I’ll make the nerdy confession that I set aside a fair amount of extra time to read this in the original French. It was a total joy.

Poor Fellow My Country – Xavier Herbert

Herbert is a literary giant in his native Australia, but he is almost unheard of in Britain. I happened to find this extremely scarce novel by sheer fluke, and it felled me. At 1,500 pages long, it took almost two months to read from beginning to end, but nothing will ever look the same again. I don’t know much about Australia and I’ve never really bothered to look – so I was staggered by this epic post-colonial monster which drew together numberless characters, cultures and landscapes and rendered them in a vast, breathless collage which actively rolled and moved around the page. Herbert was a master of shifting focus; his characters flit and dance with the busyness of termites, but we never lose track of the bigger picture – his ability to examine the smallest human detail and then pose it against the enormity of aboriginal deities actually made me laugh out loud with admiration. And if I get another dog, I’ll gonna call it Prindy, the ‘goanna.

Starve Acre – Andrew Michael Hurley

I’ve written before on this blog about Starve Acre. To say I “enjoyed” the book is an overstatement, but I can honestly say that I’ve thought about this story every day for the last six weeks. And for all I’m a little hesitant about praising a novel that I would love to amend and rehash, I am grateful that my eyes were opened to an entirely new genre. All I’d add is that if you intend to read Starve Acre, make sure you have time to cover the whole book in a single sitting. It has a strange and compelling momentum that will not survive a pause. And I also have to say there’s no reason why Hurley should occupy this spot above Sarah Moss or Daisy Johnson, but I read him first and went to them later for better. Maybe number five should be split three ways. To be continued.

And The Worst Howler of the Year goes to:

The Other House – Henry James

I gather that there are many good reasons why this book is so terrible. For a start, it was originally written for the stage and then adapted into a novel. That process of adaptation seems to have stripped away even the merest muttering of fire or passion, replacing tension with screeds of staid and wordy convolution. I have enjoyed Henry James in other guises and I was glad to learn of his friendship with Robert Louis Stevenson – but this was the first book I’ve encountered in many years which I would describe as genuinely unreadable.

Guts

They came to clean the ditches in 1989. All the farmers chipped in for the job because there’s no use cleaning the top of the glen unless the bottom’s done too. So the digger worked up from the village to the caulside of Barlochan where the burn splits and my father’s half comes up to the back of Clonyard as a steep and hedgy slit in the mud. The water lay backed-up and slack as treacle in the ditch. Jab it with a stick and it stank.

We went to see them working, walking on mounds of birch brash and rush tumps. The digger stood at the business end with a trail of broken soil streaked away behind as if it were an alien spaceship come skidding to a halt. Steam and fuel residues roiled around the cockpit – something was moving inside. I rode on my father’s shoulders and two men stood up from their spade-leaning to nod at the heavy machine. Their expressions seemed to say “It was here when we found it”.

The digger’s bucket boiled in the ditchwater and came up drooling. It teemed a tank of sludge onto the bank like chowder, and the aftermath disclosed a rancid nest of movement. Grey, regretful shapes unrolled from the sediment like a spool of guts. I’d long since seen the intestines cut from sheep and I’d marked the way they burped and bellydanced; the fat, purple coils slithering in the pan of a ‘barrow. And that was my impression as the mud guts drew and redrew their disappointment in endless treble-clefs. The digger driver stopped and lit a cigarette. I was placed on the ground to explore, but I wanted back up immediately. Six feet was close enough.

Frogs and toads had been flayed alive in the upheaval. The bucket had torn into their skin like wet paper, but they walked on as if nothing could have surprised them less; each one bearing injuries that would stagger you to hear them described. But I never saw the mud guts harmed in all my careful watching. They were too slippery to be cut by the bucket’s edge, too decisive in their choice of in or out, so each one stayed or came up whole; lidless and sombre and thick as hydraulic hose.

My father spoke to the men and nobody mentioned the mess as it splayed in the smoke and slime. The mud guts seemed to see me coming. They would nuzzle under clods that were too small to hide them, churning and hunting for somewhere to lie in peace. One of the men saw me staring. He said “have you never seen eels before?”