Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Fisher King

On the crisp early mornings of November, my son and I walk across frosted fields to the brow of the hill, the sun behind our backs throwing blurred shadows across the whitened grass. We are talking today of Arthurian legends, and the story of the The Fisher King; the keeper of the grail who, confined to his castle by his injuries, must wait for the Knights of the Round Table to arrive. Meanwhile, all he is capable of doing is fishing in the river which flows by the castle. My son is animated, alive; I envy the way his agile mind leaps from one topic to another, the way that his body can jump from stone to stone whilst I follow leadenly behind.

I have been kept from my desk by a bad back; a benevolent injury in which I cannot lie down or sit, but which can be eased by walking. So I have taken to walking the lanes around the village once or twice a day like a restless soul, destined to beat the boundaries of the parish until I collapse. Call me Ishmael.
In doing so, I can observe the progress of autumn like a wave covering the land; the hawthorn berries burnished like worn saddle-leather, the dusting of blue over the ripening sloes, the last of the crab apples, mustard-coloured jewels half-buried in the mud. From a hedgerow, a sparrowhawk rises from its kill, buoyed on a cushion of air. We watch it jink across the field in its jaunty, irregular flight, keeping low to the hedges. I recall John Baker's description in The Peregrine of tracking hawks across the bare autumn fields of East Anglia, his recognition of his own mortality in the face of these expert killers. 'I think he regards me now as part hawk, part man;' he wrote towards the end of the winter, '...never wholly to be trusted; a crippled hawk, perhaps, unable to fly or kill cleanly, uncertain and sour of temper.' Baker himself was beginning to suffer from the rheumatoid arthritis which would blight his life, and his pursuit of death became an act of atonement for the ill we have inflicted on the land, the 'filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals' as he called it.

The Fisher King, my son reminds me, lives at the edge of a wasteland, a barren landscape which is an external reflection of the king's injured soul. Only the bravest and truest of knights can heal his wounds, and in doing so heal the fractured land. I think of this as I hear the rumble of the quarry on the hill, smell the sulphurous taint of splintered limestone on the wind.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


November, and the fires are lit. It is the dark time of the year, the time when the moon illuminates the skeletons of trees with a fierce light, high in the sky like a midsummer sun. Strange how the moon, our dark twin, mirrors precisely the movement of the sun: it rises where the sun rises, its arc replicates exactly the transit of the sun, but at the opposite end of the year, high in winter, low in summer. They are precisely the same size when we look at them in the sky. It is a time for drawing indoors, to concentrate on the pools of light which we create to protect us from the wild animals in the woods. It was, to our ancestors, the time of Samhain.

The Samhain festival was one of the liminal points of the year; a time when the membrane between the spirit world and our world is stretched thin, porous. It is like the time when, falling into sleep, the mind is open to chance, to the arrival of the unbidden, to the benedictions of angels soft as a moth's-wing touch; a time when death and life seem poised in a beautiful yet precarious balance.
On this night, the westerly window in the house was left open during the night, a beeswax candle placed on the sill. It was a night when the spirits of our loved and lost might return. Ghosts, we may call them, although the word comes from the same root as guest, one who enters the house to rest. Sometimes they are known as revenants: those who come back to us. It is from the west that they come, arriving with the weather, emerging after the setting sun. The west has always been the direction of wildness, of change, the direction in which the most distant horizon lay; the direction to which we look when we want to understand what might arrive.
As I grow older, I seem to understand less. Only I know that it is important to open the westerly window on winter nights, to invite in the unknown, to be open to the spirits of the people or things we have lost.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A telegram, or a picture postcard

Here is the end of the world: a small hut, hunkered on a concrete base at the foot of the dunes. Marram grass ratches against the door. The slit windows moan the insistence of a south-westerly wind. Beyond, a pebble-scattered beach and the inscrutable sea.

We came to Walney in search of birds; the residue of blow-ins and migrants which follows autumn's storms. Instead, we found lichened pebbles nestled in the grass like birds' eggs, crusted with the orange scales of Xanthoria lichens; the shattered carcass of an old pier, its splintered limbs as bleached as the sky; dry sand blowing across the surface of the beach, the ground in motion like an insect swarm. We found the whale-backed land adrift from the coast, rimmed by mud, sand and sea, scoured by wind and the low, grey clouds.

It is an island where history sits uneasily amongst the grass and mud, a landscape which has been a perpetual observer to the comings and goings of the Furness peninsula. Until 1908 it was a true island, a barrier to the ocean, creating the deep water channel on which Barrow's prosperity is founded. Now the island seems more like an afterthought; an apostrophe-shaped addition to the land proper.
From the rusted gun emplacements sequestered in the dunes, looking across the channel beyond the red bulk of Piel Castle, shipyards and submarine sheds crowd the horizon. On Shore Street, the removable bollards and traffic islands are silted with leaves and the coastal sinter of grit and sand. On submarine-launching days, the road can be stripped clean, opened out to allow the huge black bulk on its vast low-loader to pass between submarine hall and launching dock. Today, its impermanence seems pathetic, lost.
Out in the ocean, whale-black submarines which once descended the slipway into Walney Channel now glide silently through the water in the North Atlantic, the Persian Gulf, the Arctic Ocean. They are the restless souls of the world's seas, lurking near to global conflict like the ghosts at the feast. Their sinister shapes once slid through this narrow channel between Walney and Piel. Here is the end of the world.