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Friday, 30 August 2013

Fecundity and Desire

It is, I suspect, a symptom of the depths to which modern urban life has sunk to that, to a man and a woman (but mostly the latter), we dream of some rural idyll in the depths of the countryside where the splendid prospect of isolation and a simpler means of existence acts in stark contradiction to our busy, cluttered lives. That is, whenever we have time to dream, for in these days of corporate identity even these private acts of rebellion have been seized upon by a ubiquitous mediocrity.
María Inés de la Cruz The Woodlanders (with apologies to the late Mr Thomas Hardy), Virgin Black Lace 2004
The Carteresque landscape - full of erotic menace
Here’s a confession that’ll immediately lose me half my (admittedly meagre) readership and probably have me up before the courts martial of progressive geography and liberation theology: I have an unnatural – some might say morbid – fascination with feudalism. A fatal attraction; that which ought to repel me lures me into its baited, decadent trap, like a moth to a flame.
It’s been a suppressed yearning, only daring to raise its shaggy-haired head above the parapet on rare occasions. Like the weekend just gone when I ventured out into the erotically-charged landscape of Cranborne Chase. Something about wandering across and through this pastoral landscape brings out my inner sado-masochist; not the kinky fetishism of a bit of slap and tickle but a full-blooded, full-on sado-masochism that’s as cerebral as it is sexual. More Angela Carter than E L James.
In fact, it’s all Angela Carter and absolutely no E L James.
The Chase is the perfect backdrop for indulging these daydreams, walking the perfect ritual to conjure up images of fecundity and desire; it’s not dissimilar to saying the Rosary; the rhythm of my booted feet like the cadence of a Hail Mary, repeated over and over again. Both act as a conduit that translates one from the mundane to the metaphysical. It takes me not so much back in time – to some faux halcyon-haloed rural golden age – but out of time. I am the land, the land is me.
The forest is always encroaching, like a game of ‘What’s the time, Mr Wolf?’ You turn your back for a minute and next thing you know it’s stolen another couple of metres on you. In Angela Carter’s The Erl-King, a maiden wanders into the woods and is seduced by a personification of the forest, a ‘tender butcher’ with ‘white pointed teeth’. She’s intimidated by the forest, terrified she’ll ‘diminish to a point and vanish’. Yet she describes their relationship as ‘two halves of a seed, enclosed in the same integument’. She is both seduced and repulsed my him as his touch both ‘consoles and devastates’ her.
‘Watch your back!’ warns my guardian but I’m no innocent Red Riding Hood; no passive victim, more victim as aggressor. The Chase brings out the wicked feudalist in me and dream myself the Lady Squire, a woman whose earthly benevolence belies a dark side. A woman who demands her droite de seigneure but toys only briefly with the groom and saves all her lust for the bride.
Then, as I emerge from the wood and approach another isolated country house the reverie makes a volte-face and I’m the Lady Squire’s trembling maid, suffering her anger in a delicious mélange of fear and anticipation whilst she admonishes me:
You fail the to realise that as far as this part of the world is concerned, democracy and liberalism are mistrusted as modern concepts that have never really caught on in the popular imagination. On the contrary, people trust and respect authority. They like rules, they know where they are, where they stand in the scheme of things. I think you will find that any attempt to subvert my jurisdiction will be met with contempt and disbelief. Think about it, which of us has the greater honour and integrity? You, a jumped up, common or garden whore, one of the great unwashed – or me, the Lady Squire? As far as everyone here is concerned, I am democracy.
María Inés de la Cruz The Woodlanders (with apologies to the late Mr Thomas Hardy), Virgin Black Lace 2004
See what I mean about being given the could-shoulder by my disillusioned acolytes? I know I shouldn’t give these visions credence but I don’t try very hard to expel them from my imagination; the faster I walk, the harder I pound my feet on the sun-baked tracks, the more lucid and focused they become. Reminds me of St Jerome, an early Father of the Church, whose detailed descriptions of women’s clothing and exposed flesh turned his condemnations into pornographic exhortations. Like self-flagellation, the greater the pain and the punishment, the more profound the pleasure.
The earth in late August feels like it’s slipping away in a post-coital ecstasy; having shagged itself senseless spring and summer long, it’s turned onto its side to enjoy a last cigarette before falling into a lengthy, blissful sleep. I recite a few lines from Ode to Autumn, the ones about watching the last oozings of the cyder press hours by hours but then write in my notebook: DON’T GO DOWN THE KEATS ROAD.
Don’t go down the Keats Road. Now there’s an imperative on which to ruminate during my next hike ...

Friday, 9 August 2013

From the Banal to the Sublime

The Banal: On the road to Nerôche. The upper sign got me thinking about The Beatitudes, the lower had me reaching for divine correction fluid.

There's nothing like an encounter with the wretchedly profane to take the edge off the day. Trudging through rural Wessex I'd assumed (though God knows why) that aberrations such as that illustrated above would be at worst few and far between, at best non-existent. Fortunately I came across the invitation to deviate (pun intented) to the 'Swingrite' (sic) Golf Centre only five minutes into the walk, a few kilometres later any lingering malevolent thoughts were dispersed by an unexpected vision in St Mary's Church in the equally exquisite village of Stoke St Mary.
Patrick Reyntien's three stained-glass windows, commissioned for the millenium, are not the sort of stained-glass windows one expects to find in an ancient English country church, which makes them all the more remarkable and welcome. Even more interesting are the features of the Virgin Mary, so often depicted as a passive pale-skinned mannequin who's strayed from the Miss Anglo-Saxon catwalk. A Virgin memorably described by the late Marcella Althaus-Reid as an 'Indecent Virgin’, a ‘rich, white woman who does not walk’.
Reyntien's Virgin immediately reminded me of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a mixed-race mestizo Virgin brimming who is at once erotic and liberating. She also got me thinking of María Inés de la Cruz's conception of the Virgin as Our Lady of the Clenched Fist: 'I am Our Lady of the Servants and the Slaves. And the Mother of the Dispossessed'. A Virgin who has 'come to spare you from the bony fingers of the dead, and the bloody hands of the tyrants’, who is like a 'constellation descending from on high, only her beauty is beyond all that. A woman of all colours, of no single moment in history or time'.
The experience reminded me of a meeting with a charismatic Scottish nun, Madre Barbara, in El Salvador, many years ago. Over a glass of Coca-Cola she remarked ‘You and I being here, Siân, it’s a miracle, of sorts’. It was, indeed; an encounter somewhere in the blurry, knotted landscape that’s halfway between the sacred and the profane.

The Sublime

The Annunciation: one of three Partick Reyntiens stained glass windows in the church at Stoke St Mary. The others depict St Anne with her husband teaching the Virgin Mary to read and the Day of Pentecost.

Marcella Althaus-Reid: Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics, Routledge (2000)

María Inés de la Cruz: Our Lady of the Clenched Fist, Libertad (2003)

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Climbing Nerôche: Landscape Experience and Performative Writing (Part Two)

In beginnng his account of his ascent of Glastonbury Tor, John Wylie writes: 'From the ground the Tor rears menacingly upward before the walker who approaches it'. I mulled over this description on the public omnibus from Wells to Taunton, about how landscapes evoke fear or tredipdation on the hearts of those who perambulate through them. And that got me thinking about my own relationship with Glastonbury Tor - which is sort of love-hate with more of the latter than the former - and how that compares with my relationship with Nerôche - which is not so much love as insatiable desire.

Back in the summer of 1985, having hitch-hiked from Weymouth to Land's End to Edinburgh and back earlier in the year, I decided it would be a good idea to spend a night on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor. I was a naive - probably gullible - student of Geography and Landscape studies and Glastonbury's neo-pagan esotericism had found a potential convert in me. 

I'd hoped for some sort of spiritual relevation, armed myself with a small amount of cannabis to aid and abet the experience, but none came. I woke the following morning to a bright, warm sun; the underworld I'd hoped to encounter remained beyond material and ethereal reach. In some respects, perhaps, Nerôche is my anti-Glastonbury Tor. I've never regarded it as menacing but I've always felt it possesed an inherent danger; it lures you in and before you know it the hours spent exploring its deepest declivities soon turn to days; I've lost count of how many times I've returned but if I'm a victim I like to think it's more active than passive - there's an element of Angela Carteresque post-feminist gothic about it.

Amongst the many myths and legends pertaining to Glastonbury Tor, that of an ancient labyrinth winding its way around its slopes is, perhaps, one of the most intriguing and appealing. It might - or might not - have been part of some sort of Neolithic ritual but there has inevitably grown a school of thought which links it to Celtic Goddess worship. It was this theory that drew me to the Tor in the first place and on my own 'Night on the Bare Mountain' I tried - in vain - to locate and walk the maze. 

The shape and stature of Glastonbury Tor make its ascent a relatively straightforward affair. As John Wylie writes, there comes a point when 'a crucial shift of vision occurs ... as if a switch had been flipped'. At this moment 'the Tor ceases to be something looked at and becomes instead a process of looking from': what you see is what you get. Climbing Nerôche, this moment - the 'climax', as we might call it - comes only at the very last minute. Of course, Nerôche can be climbed in a relatively direct manner but to do so would defeat the purpose; like a quick shag without the foreplay.

Ascending Glastonbury Tor 'makes one a climber'; I don't think the same can be said of Nerôche, rather in the same way that walking the Camino de Santiago doesn't automatically makes one a bona fide hiker. But meandering, slowly up the northern scarp, there's a perception of gaining height, a sense of elevation that belies the gentle contours and reminds me of El Salvador's cloud forest - or what's left of it. From Staple Fitzpaine several 'no through roads' lead up over a landscape that becomes increasingly buccolic and Arcadian. Here and there a shady nook and cranny; a glimpsed vista of meadows knee-deep in grass, like a flash of flesh behind the bikesheds. With every metre climbed I'm feeling ... well, not so much heady as horny; the sun's at its zenith, the heat's at its most intense and I'm drenched in sweet and sticky sweat. 

It can't go on forever. I make a couple of meaningless diversions just to extend the walk and delay the inevitable, the moment of transubstantiation, but by now both body and mind have passed the point of no return. John Wylie writes of a 'growing lightness, a sense of anchorage being slipped ...', for me it's more like a rapture, a heart-pounding, earth-shattering climax that feels like the act of creation. 

Since alighting from the public omnibus at Henlade I've covered, as the crow flies, barely seven kilometres but I've walked over twenty. It's another ten down to Ilminster; the climb has drained my emotions and the rest of the walk fades into post-coitial torpor of which I can remember little.

At the end of part one I wondered whether, in approaching Nerôche in a labyrinthine manner and in the midst of a heatwave might reproduce those emotions I'd experienced twenty-five years ago when I climbed the hill for the very first time. Would it be nothing more than a banal exercise in nostalgia that had me mourning for the ghosts of my past? Nerôche is a dangerous place, it can drag you back in time; conflate your own personal history and that of the world around you. You get lost, temporally and spatially. Things fall apart, you get sucked in. Insufflated, like a line of dazzling white coke.

In concluding his essay on Glastonbury Tor, John Wylie writes: 'This is not to suggest ... that Glastonbury ... is possessed of of some genus loci which makes it quite distinctive from more 'mundane' or quotidian landscapes'. I know I should shrug my shoulders and reluctantly agree. I know that if you, dear reader, were to follow me up Nerôche, footprint by footprint, under the same sweltering Somerset sun, you'd probably want to know what all the fuss was about. You'd think I was a a bit soft in the head. 

Well, so what if I am? What if Nerôche is as much zeitgeist as it is genus loci? In any case, the conclusion is ... well, inconclusive; not for the first time I'm going to have to go back and do it all again.

And again. Nerôche has got me like a junkie in need of a fix.

John Wylie: Landscape, Performance and Dwelling: a Glastonbury Case Study in Country Visions, Paul Cloke (ed): Pearson 2003 pp 151-155