Monday, 1 July 2013
Some of you might recall the short-lived BBC soap opera, El Dorado, which ran for a year in the early 1990s. Set in the fictional town of Los Barcos on the Costa del Sol it purported to portray the lives of British and German expat communities, in all their gory detail.
Okay, so maybe you don't remember the series; you haven't missed much, suffice to say that expatriate communities often create landscapes which are more country of origin than the country of origin itself. And it doesn't just apply to northern Europeans, it was said of the Arsenal striker Jose Antonio Reyes that walking into his London home was like entering a miniature Spain, or that Chicano communities in Los Angeles immerse themselves in a mexicanidad more mexicana than Mexico itself.
It might take a girt, humungous stretch of the imagination to apply similar theories of cultural or ethno-landscapes to rural Somerset but it was a line of thinking that struck me on a hike across the scarp that overlooks King's Sedge Moor and is capped by the infuriatingly appealing village of High Ham. Under a soft and sultry sun, with the Levels stretching out to the north and west, the brooding bulk of Castle Nerôche and the Blackdown Hills to the south and the ever-visible Glastonbury Tor always on the eastern horizon I walked through a Somerset that was more Somerset than any guide or gazetteer has ever tried to convey.
But Somerset has always seemed different to me, curiously un-English, its red-tiled roofs and blue lias walls reminding me of France and Spain.
It was the orchards that tipped the landscape over the edge and into that Über-Somerset dimension. I should mention here that I have an almost erotic obsession with orchards that may or may not have something to do with visions of prelapsarian landscapes in which a deliciously transgressive Eve defies God and plucks the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. And if you look at it that way, Eve's act becomes one of subversion and rebellion, like sticking a finger up to a pedantic, petulant God. Whenever I walk past an orchard of gnarled trees, bursting with flower or heavy with swollen fruit I think of Eve and the heady pleasure of succumbing to temptation which, in a neat twist of theology, turns her from villain to heroine.
The Levels shimmered in the heat, beneath my boots the red earth was bone-dry, as if the sun had baked it to a sacred dust. Everywhere I looked was Somerset, every step I took was a step out of the tedious and the mundane and into my imagined Somerset. And like Eve I surrendered, not as a passive, unwilling victim but as an active participant in my own self-sacrifice. I let Somerset into my mind and my body, let her explore every deep and dark declivity; for the briefest of moments I was Somerset and Somerset was me; we tripped out of history into a universe where the sun, heavy with age, had entered into one eclipse too many and where the stars had cut great swathes into the sky with the incessant passage of their weary orbits.
Somerset was, Somerset is, Somerset always will be.