Dispersal

Have you given much thought to dying? And have you wondered how things will go when you’ve gone? Well here’s what I’ve gathered, for the little it’s worth.

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.