No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, September 01, 1997

Ancient Surfaces

This piece first appeared in Banana Wings #8, 1997 (eds Brialey / Plummer)


Going Back (1)

A hot summer's day. Mother and child sitting in the back garden (though this has not the connotation of privacy that it might have to you: no one ever comes past the front of the house either). Mother is smoking and reading a magazine. Her daughter, about nine years old, is sipping cherryade and reading a book.

Some people come down the track past the house. This track is technically private, but there is nothing to stop anyone on foot from slipping through the gap at the side of the gate and walking along it. The track is separated from the garden by a ditch full of nettles and stagnant water (hidden under trailing convolvuli) and a fence of corrugated iron, leaning slightly under the weight of vegetation. This barrier is not enough to stop mother and child hearing a woman say, "That used to be our house."

The mother is fascinated, and runs around the far side of the house and over the bridge (a railway sleeper) by the electricity pole to invite the strangers in for a cup of tea.

The child is outraged, and runs and hides in her bedroom. Not only is she painfully shy, but this is her house – at least her family's house – and how dare anyone say otherwise?

She sulks.

Going Back (2)

A warm day in autumn. A man and a woman are spending a weekend in the countryside. The woman wants to revisit the places she knew as a child: of late she has become increasingly homesick and nostalgic. The man is there to keep her company, and drive her around, and because he likes making her happy. They have parked in the entrance to a track, in front of a gate bedecked with locks and barbed wire. It's a mile and a half to the nearest village, and this is not themeland country: no one famous ever lived here: there are no scenic stopping places or picnic areas.

Next to the entrance with the gate, there's an opening in the hedge which leads from the gate down to the nearest roadside house. The woman stands at this opening, as close as she cares to get to an impenetrable barrier of brambles, and barbed wire, and wired-together wooden lathes. She peers through the tangle, trying to spot familiar landmarks. A line of trees leads off south-east, following the track. Most of the trees are elms and quite a few of them are dead. This area was hit badly by Dutch Elm disease in the sixties and seventies, and many of the remaining trees didn't survive the hurricane of 1987. She can't see the electricity poles, or the lake: the vegetation is too thick.

The man is examining the locks on the gate. He asks why the gate is locked. The track leads to a fishing pond owned by a local angling society, she tells him. They've always been keen on keeping people out.

The road is used by heavy lorries going to and from the timber wharf out on the island. It's not a safe place to stop. A car pulls up, and a man asks them to move their vehicle so he can get to the gate. There's nowhere else to park: the couple drive off.

It takes several days for the woman to realise that she could have explained why she was there, and that maybe he'd have understood and let them drive up the private track.

She does not sulk. She regrets.

Ancient Surfaces

Recently, reading about excavations at a palaeolithic site in Sussex, I was much taken by the idea of an ancient surface. The term referred to a separate, buried, but intact stratum that was once the surface of the land: the ground. This is rarer than you might think. Most of the land in the south of England is pretty much the same as it was when the glaciers last retreated, about ten thousand years ago. Any archaeological investigation has to contend with thousands of years of human habitation, but if you get deep enough you might at least find some indication of what the previous tenants were doing on that land. The land isn't in neat layers which can be dug through until you get to the century of choice. It's been mixed up by successive generations of farming, building and irrigation. Geological factors also play a part in this disruption.

At Boxgrove, in Sussex, the surface they've excavated hasn't been on the surface for half a million years. It was a beach, back when the sea was higher than it is now. Then it became a grassy plain, and was inhabited by humans. Then the climate cooled, the humans left, and sea and glaciers between them covered the landscape with silt. As a record of palaeolithic life, it is apparently almost unique.

There's a field to the north-east of the fishermen's track. Horses graze in it, and there are a few jumps, so they're probably exercised there. Under that field there's a surface – not so very ancient – that was almost my entire world when I was a child.

You Can Never Go Back

"I can't go back," I said.

"You can never go back."

"I didn't mean it like that. I meant it literally. It's not there any more. No one else knew it. I was the only person who knew it: I'm the only person who remembers it."

"In England? There can't be any land in the south of England that no one's used."

"It started as corn fields, and they were level with the road. Then a company found gravel, and they came and dug it out. They went away and left the wasteland. I explored it, every inch: I could still draw you a map. There was a wood, which might have been what they call ancient woodland now: other people went there, birdwatchers and hunters. But between that and the road, there was just rough marshy ground, with a few willow copses, and some hills where they'd left earth from the gravel pits, and lakes – ponds – where they'd dug deeper. There was a stony plain where they hadn't taken all the gravel, and sandy cliffs at the edges of where the pit had been. There was a rabbit warren over near the wood, and a single electricity pole on a high island in the middle of another lake, which had been there before they'd started to dig. There was ..."

"Write it down."

So I am.

The Map is Not the Territory

I don't remember who said that "the map is not the territory". Barthes or some other one of those post-modern types, no doubt. I used to know, but I've forgotten. I forget things like that. I could draw you a map of a few acres of land that have been buried for over a decade. A very detailed map.

I tried to buy a map of the area. The Ordnance Survey sell a range of maps called Pathfinders, which are 2½ inches to the mile: 4 cm to 1 km in what I persist in calling the new system. (The standard OS maps are 1¼ inches to the mile: Pathfinders show more footpaths, tracks and minor land features such as fens and gravel pits).

The map I found was Pathfinder 1143. It shows a truly desolate piece of countryside, with the occasional small village and one medium-sized town (Burnham-on-Crouch, home to the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club). I studied the representation of the place where I grew up.

The map was wrong. That is, the map didn't match my memories. Where I remembered ponds, they'd marked fields. There was a wide track across the middle of the wasteland, according to them: according to me, that would be just around the gap in the elms where the snowdrifts were over my head in that bad winter. (No great feat: I wasn't even five feet tall then).

Could I have misremembered? Were my childhood memories that hazy?

No. The map hasn't been amended since 1976, and then only in part. By a process of deduction, I'd say that the place where I grew up was mapped around 1970. By the time I knew the land, it had changed. Even the contour line (which breaks at the house where I lived, and is resumed right down near the Wash) is different now.

The map in my head, then, is the only map there is for what was there.

I'm sure the landowner had maps, and kept them up-to-date. Some of the hunters probably made maps of their own: rabbits here, pheasants there, stay away from this bit because there is a Child. The angling society might have mapped out the area to which they had access. I wonder if my father has kept any of the maps I made as a child, replete with my own personal mythologies.

I've tried to draw the map that I want: there is a dimension to the landscape that I can't put on paper, however many techniques I try. I've come up with a whole new set of symbols for places. There are places to read, places that were mirrors of imaginary lands, places where I was scared, places to hide and cry, places where I thought I saw things that weren't there.

I cannot imagine the symbols which could describe it to anyone else. I'm using words, but they play me false.

You Can't Get There From Here

No road leads there any more. When I peered past the barbed wire, what I saw was not the track I walked down every day, winter and summer, through snowdrifts, in power cuts, in the pouring rain, with the cat following me.

I divided the track – the Lane – into four parts. There was the section between the house and the fishermen's' gate. The gate was of iron, not a five-bar gate but a simple frame, divided once horizontally and twice vertically. There was a padlock and chain on the side nearest the house, and next to that a gap wide enough to admit not only me, but my parents. The gate was as far as anyone else usually came. To the left, as you walked down, was a cornfield: to the right, elm trees, brambles and hawthorn.

The second section ran between the Gate and the Gap. The Gap was where the wind came through and the snow drifted highest. There were three strands of barbed wire strung across it, but I had no problems getting through that. To the right of that part of the Lane, the trees were almost all elms: there was a half-dead elm stump just before the Gap where lizards and snakes basked in the summer. On the other side of the Lane was a pond – a lake, as far as I knew – with rushes and water birds and little islands. I learnt to row on that lake: I slid on the ice in winter, and climbed the cliffs (stony sand, all of fifteen feet high) until the landowner sold the pond to the angling society and I had to be more circumspect. By then I had grown from being a painfully shy child to a dumpy, paranoid teenager, so avoiding being seen was a fairly high priority. It was on the second section of lane that the boy from down the road set his Alsation on me. Anoraks, whatever their fashion failings, make good armour, and I ran home with no more than a bruise or two. I didn't tell my parents. I hate dogs.

The third section of the Lane had no distinguishing features. It was delimited by the Gap and by the third of four electricity poles. The trees were elms: there was a great deal of ivy. I didn't usually venture that far down the lake, because by then I was closer to the neighbours' houses than to my own.

The last section of the Lane was pretty much the same as the third, except that there was a matched pair of electricity poles, one at each side. Our paper box was nailed to one of them, until the paper boy stopped delivering. Our dustbin was right at the end of the lane, under an elder tree, because the Lane was too narrow for a dustcart. The dustmen came on Friday mornings, and usually remembered to take our rubbish away.

The elder tree is gone, and I couldn't see the rest. The sign my father painted had been taken away. The barbed wire barricade was, I suppose, much more effective than a polite request to 'please keep out'. I suppose the present occupant uses the farm track to get to the house. That's locked, too.

They can't keep me out. I know it too well.

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