Field Trip to Aberfoyle and Loch Katrine

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Telling a story is not like weaving a tapestry to cover up the world, it is rather a way of guiding the attention of listeners or readers into it.

— Tim Ingold, ‘The Temporality of the Landscape’

 

It seems I am happiest now when out in the country. Brought coachwards through Maryhill, Bearsden and north to the Trossachs, warmly we arrive where the air is clear and there are plenty of lichens to prove it. Something relaxes within my chest, the familiar twangs are settled.

On the road, we talk of stories and allusions. There is a cipher in the heart of Scotland and a myth that says more than etcetera. I jokingly call it Rob Roy of the Anthropocene and something makes sense.

October tells a story of all that has happened in summer. The leaves fall like words but never ask for discernment. One of us asks, What is the intention of the wind? It is easy to grasp what the people and the pollen and the tractors are doing. But what of the wind, most aleatoric of weatherly elements?

We arrive here to think through a specific term: Tim Ingold’s notion of ‘taskscape’. This notion brings temporality to an otherwise static conception of landscape: it factors in the performance of all entities involved in a landscape’s conjuring and perpetuation. Birds singing, workmen whistling, the whir of traffic, groan of thunder, sigh of trees. I stir up a whole anthropomorphic cauldron; its ingredients activating each other, bubbling and working. Ingold would prefer a more symphonic metaphor. Everything is performing some task or another, enmeshed in a complex, living system — what Ingold calls an ‘ensemble’ of ‘mutual interlocking’. The ‘taskscape is to labour what the landscape is to land’.  To dwell in the taskscape is to enact a form of noticing that is multisensory, a way of attuning that picks up the subtleties of crackle and static within the picture, and in doing so reminds us of (multi-species) sociality, time and life: ‘the landscape is the congealed form of the taskscape […] the landscape seems to be what we see around us, whereas the landscape is what we hear’. Our guide for today’s trip, Dr David Borthwick of the University of Glasgow, presents us with paper ‘frames’ to remind us of this difference between landscape and taskscape, active and passive.

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We shoot pictures of frames within frames, we flatten. I try to capture with my phone the green and the gold and the red and the light, but I cannot capture the fullness of surround sound, of medial sense, that makes a taskscape. And even with field recording, where would the motion of the water be? With video, how could the heat of the sun be felt? The smell of carbon coming off the road, and mingling with the forest’s brackish aroma? The burr and clunk of a passing lorry, laden with logs, which was more of a ribcage rumble than anything heard? Is writing able to capture some of that sensory dynamism? 

Archaeology, for Ingold, is the study of ‘the temporality of the landscape’. The beat of its rhythms and actants, their play and tasks. Sometimes a taskscape eludes measurable time. The ease of synchrony. It could be time split into multiplicity. The time of the myriad ants trailing over pine needles in infinite fractals, the time of composting, the endurable time of the woman who works in the wool mill, the waitress who serves us coffee. Labour as glitch and repetition. The gift shop has summoned Christmas early with excessive trinkets, each one a throwback to a prior nation, the act of (re)imagining, Scotland the Brave contained on a keyring.

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When we linger too long in one moment, Dave warns us we are burning daylight.

But we linger awhile by a grave. ‘Because I could not stop for Death – / He kindly stopped for me –’. Maybe we are mesmerised in churchyards because a slumbering looms beneath us, compelling. What is the work and the sound of death? Is it perhaps Emily Dickinson’s famous ellipsis, the almost-just-so of each fat dash? Is this the punctuated work of dwelling?

The grave belongs to one Robert Kirk, ‘The Fairy Minister’ best known for his book The Secret Commonwealth: a book about fairy folklore, witchcraft, ghosts and second sight. People have placed silver coins on the symbols adorning his grave. There is a currency to this kind of mourning, that blurs into well-wishing. Maybe it is more of a summoning. We learn that Kirk’s fairies were human-sized, tricksy and prone to following us, often as doppelganger creatures with their own mortality. Kirk had set out this alternative ontology, not entirely incompatible with his Christianity. These fairies live off of light, their flesh is comprised of air congealed. Idly I browse Wikipedia for further anatomy: ‘somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud, and best seen in twilight’, their bodies are made ‘pliable through the subtlety of Spirits that agitate them’. The internet weaves stories around the things I am seeing. I click off my phone and instead breathe information in through my lungs, closing my eyes when the light is too bright and catching soft rainbows inside my lashes. These speckles of rainbow are my fleeting sprites, made of air and light and shining.

We ascend Doon Hill through burnished woods to find a shrine. There is a tree in the middle of a clearing where people have tied bright rags or ‘clooties’, along with loom bands, glitter, ribbons and a stray satsuma. Lichenous twigs are piled as offering, pennies and sweeties and conkers collect. We talk about whether these human trinkets make us feel closer to the tree, question our role as observers, the slide between intimacy and distance. The key word here is ‘kitsch’: these are mass-produced items, cheap commodities, remnants of sentiment and transient tourism. I am reminded again of the objects on sale in the Aberfoyle gift shop. Looking upon this kitschy monument, are we compelled or disgusted? Are such human-made objects utterly incongruous with the rustic landscape, or does their presence remind us of how land exists in time, is formed in continuums, assemblages, ensembles of affect and process and change. Dave tells us the last time he visited the tree, it was surrounded by mass quantities of plastic — presumably toys, wrappers of sweets, litter made sacred by fact of arboreal proximity. A sign down the hill says biodegradable clooties can be purchased in town. A problem was identified and the ecosystem of the land and the shrine shifts in tandem. There is perhaps a new aesthetic. Nothing is static, not even a monument. Lichen and moss spawn on a grave, a fly lays eggs inside a lost silk bow.

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We admit the brightly coloured things, pastel and garish among the autumn hues, kind of gross us out. But we can’t stop looking. In Ecology Without Nature (2007), Timothy Morton says kitsch

exerts a fascinating, idiotic pull. It is often synesthetic, and it has no power except for the love we invest in it. Kitsch is the nearest thing in modern culture to the shamanic ritual object. Kitsch is immersive. It is a labour of love: you have to “get into it”. It poses the problem of how the subject relates to the object in a striking manner.

The more we look at the tree, the more we feel the pull of millioning time zones: the midges at night that might glow around it, the people who came and went, who took and stayed and left. It is only after we’ve been staring and puzzling the shrine for a while that Dave tells us the story behind it: ‘What if I told you…’. It’s important that this story exists in the conditional; for it too is a part of the taskscape, a melody played among the rest. The shrine began after the Dunblane school shooting, when a local primary school teacher brought her pupils up the hill to this tree, where she encouraged them to lay something of themselves in its roots. There was the hope of some kind of catharsis: a gesture towards memorialisation, to make a hurt world wholesome again. Dave suggests the term, ‘a secular spiritual’. The tree becomes a collage of innocence, of selves in time. When the pressure of being a ‘subject’ is too much, we call to the ‘object’. We want of the tree a longevity denied to others. There is some kind of empathy between species. Does the tree speak back? Here I am in this realm of kitsch and already yearning for a sort of panpsychism, a promise of communion, of relief and immersion.

Dave offers an answer, ‘To bear witness to landscape is to undertake an act of remembrance’.

The shrine began as a response to a deeply human calamity, but I wonder how this would function in the case of ecological destruction. Do people visit flood-sites, ruined forests, the ravaged remains of wildfires, with a similar sense of necessary ‘return’: the elegiac act of imparting one’s sorrow, sympathy and regret? Tying a ribbon to a tree, perhaps with the string of a message — is this part of ‘a new culture of eco-confessionalism’, which Stefan Skrimshire summons in his recent article ‘Confessing Anthropocene’ (2018)? Riffing on Jacques Derrida’s thoughts on witnessing and confession, Skrimshire suggests that: ‘the essence of the ethics of confession is that I never confess for my “self” in that modernist sense, but I always confess the other in me’; when we confess, we realise ‘the other’s desire for forgiveness operating in me’. My urge to lay down a flower, a toadstool, or some other jewel of the wood, is an act of remembrance and witnessing that also admits how such other species speak through me. I recognise the impossibility of asking for forgiveness for ecological crimes that exceed my limited comprehension; I gesture towards the small worlds of these things and how their hurt, their life and precarity, resonates inside me.  

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Perhaps what we need, in addition to confessions, are spells. I think of Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’ recent book of acrostic spell-poems for children, The Lost Words: A Spell-Book (2017), which seeks to encourage children to recognise biodiversity, to perform little charms that ask us to notice the beauty of species before they disappear. While Macfarlane and Morris’ work gestures more towards the flora and fauna of the past and present, we might also think of enchantment as an attunement to the kinds of deep time inaccessible within ordinary human comprehension. Cautiously, Ginn et al. (2018) advocate Jane Bennett’s mode of ‘enchantment’ as ‘an uncanny and unsettling reminder of vast forces beyond one’s control. We might try to channel these forces in more or less enchanted ways, but success [in terms of progressive politics] will remain elusive’. Enchantment means noticing material vibrancy, the activeness and collaborative potential of everything in and around us, even while aware of the limits. It means thinking with, and wondering. 

So we are still, so we listen. A little chill creeps in. I am grateful for shelter within these trees, the steps of their roots built into the hill. The wool in my fleece, which makes me look slightly sheep, but keeps me warm.

‘Enchantment is not a choice (although receptivity to enchanting experience can be cultivated); it is usually something that arises unbidden’ (Ginn et al.). I suppose we are doing our own work of enchantment, listening to Dave’s tales as we break fresh ground on the Highlands, trying not to think of ourselves as mere tourists — trying properly to see and hear and temporarily dwell.

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Another fairy shrine…

Is folklore a form of environmental seduction? I listen to the trees, the way the wind speaks through them. I note all my instances of anthropomorphism. Okay, so Rob Roy was blatantly used to sell Scotland to American tourists, and, as a ‘thoroughly mythical character’ in Walter Scott’s fictional depictions, ‘the embodiment in life of all that the Romantic writer seeks in art’ (Leslie Fiedler). I wonder who our heroes are in the anthropocene, and whether they are human, and how we might queer them. If Roy is ‘the very spirit of risk and of the wilderness which he inhabits’ (Fiedler), then who might embody the spirit of global risk society (a la Ulrich Beck), who renders a wilderness once rich now spent and depleted by the actions of anthropos?  

I miss when I was little and the woods were full of magical creatures, where now I often just see Buckfast bottles, fire pits, broken glass and other evidence of human activity. Of course the latter was there all along, it is a question of noticing. Does enchantment really have a summoning, interventionist function, stirring political desire, or is it more about consolation?

Maybe the anthropocene demands a kind of imaginary vigilantism? Letting rainbow smoke off into the taskscape, performing poetic intervention. Explode the light of all that action, demand appreciative feedback loops of refraction. This is nature hyperreal and this is it inside me and in you; this is it just as it is, this is why it matters. This is ‘the matter / of all of us mattering’ (Elizabeth-Jane Burnett).

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The sound of a distant wood saw does its work. We fold back and descend to Aberfoyle.

Somebody spots this bird or that. Their branchly flitters an interruption, a quaver in the staves of the day, one talk flowing after another. As if to say, we are not gone yet; we are here and we still make sense.

The sun squints into my eyes, makes rainbows. The air is crisp and I crave orange juice, a supply of this light I could bottle, smell of mornings and woodsmoke.

We cruise along Duke’s Pass and make it to Loch Katrine. When I drink Tennents in Glasgow, sipping my yellow tin, I am drinking the water of this loch. Whenever it might taste bittersweet, or clear or cold or good, a remnant of that originary gold is present. To advertise your freshwater source is perhaps itself an act of ecological kitsch, a gesture of synecdoche that craves its place-name, its blue security. But I love it as I love the gold of these mornings. Drinking the landscape to drunk immersion.

There is of course also the light on the water, its scintillations just there, rippling, like someone spilled mercury. Silver and gold, but nothing of Christmas yet. There is a rhythm, just as Wordsworth and Nico both said, there was a pleasure there or then. To push such beauty into past tense. Miranda tells me about wild swimming and I’m already relishing a sort of burn and shudder within my extremities, the plunge of cold which is doing its work, shocking my body.

Noticed things:

Murmuring burns
Clumps of moss, soft & bottle-green hills in miniature
Pale teal lichen
Intimations of meadowsweet
The wires black-taped to rocks (origin & purpose indeterminate)
A fine specimen of birchwood polypore clamped to its tree
Tiny waterfalls
A fluffy pig sleeping in the sun

What is the intention of the wind?

Wanting to preserve my tired light feeling, I decide against coffee. Calm as I am, sleep-deprived and attuned to things as though they were already wisps of memory. To make of a landscape only medial presence, and thus richer than if it were grand and static. We can’t look at the gorgeous sweep of the hills for too long, but we stare at the mushroom and the grave and the tree and the pig.

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These harvested fields of depleted green, this sense of the real-time seasons.

Dave tells us the legend of Sir Walter Scott visiting the Wordsworths, and being so disgruntled by their continual serving of porridge that he jumped out the window and ran for the pub. I think of Jazzer in the Archers and this archetype of the Scotsman with his fondness for pints, company and hearty dinners. I think of these men as a weird continuum, the overlapping currents of cultural narrative.

Like porridge, the Trossachs are truly nourishing — as in, all your carbs and protein at once. I come back softened yet inclined to wildness. Home to Glasgow, I want to go back and walk and walk. Is this what David Lynch meant by The Return with the new Twin Peaks; as in, this odyssey towards belonging, the wind in the douglas firs, the cherry pie taste of a former present, always already slid into retro?

Rob Roy was also known as Big Red. Before he was co-opted as a folk hero, tartan-filtered & highly masculine, Rob Roy was a shapeshifter, a problematic noble savage. I remember a childhood trip to visit his grave, wandering the moors with my mother and father, unable to find it. Now I can just see it on the internet, but as jpeg the image is spectral, flat and distant, overgrown with ferns and pixels. By necessity, compressed. But in fact it wasn’t his grave we were looking for, but his cave, somewhere along the banks of Loch Lomond. Memory acts in slippage of language. I have invented the moors for my own ecological ambience, adding the wind and the mist, a childhood hunger for the warmth of a car and a packet of crisps. How do we carry our own taskscapes, or is it more that they haunt us, making their overlays of locality, literary story and myth? I don’t think we ever found that cave, and thus how could I confirm that it even exists?  

Imaginary outlaws of ecological rupture. Where might we forge a folklore for the anthropocene, in its always unfolding, its gesture towards archival pasts and residue futures?   

Ingold: ‘For the landscape is a plenum, there are no holes in it that remain to be filled in, so that every infill is in reality a reworking’.

A porous landscape is the illusion I want, pouring in dreams of milk and honey, preserving Romantic patches of mystery. Is this why people wedge pennies in trees? What are they trying to keep out or in; whose time are they buying?

I used to always be unnerved by the viewpoint symbol on a map: half a sun, half a symbol for buffering. As though the landscape’s vista were beaming out from the person, or beaming back into. Subject and object, difference and deferral.  Was each line one of sunlight or current or spirit? What is it really that we’re supposed to be seeing?

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So I get home and I take out my phone and skip through the roll of images. So I scroll through my notes. I close my eyes and there are imprints of sound and sense, the warmth and chill, the wind ripping raw my ungloved fingers, the flash of my hair flaring fire in light. There is so much to parse in place-names, these histories in miniature I can hardly manage. Dan Hicks (2016) revisits Ingold’s concept of the task-scape and concludes that archaeology is actually ‘the study of the temporality of the landscape revisited’.  

Back in Glasgow, I hold the word ‘Aberfoyle’ in my mouth like a toffee. I’m trying to make it last a long time, hoping it won’t melt.

In Gathering (2018), Alec Finlay writes: ‘sometimes people say and repeat place-names simply because they like to hear them’. I am so ignorant of the complexities occurring within the Trossachs, within this taskscape or that. The delicate filigree of history, literature, tourism and labour. But I hope by merely feeling pleasure, learning the names and lay of the land, listening for its shimmers, I am doing something of the work of dwelling, appreciating, gesturing towards a sense of care, mixing myself with the wind and all of its unknown intentions.

We could make a list of all the places we’ve been, the things we’ve noticed:

‘may these place-names be, once again, useful in the world; may we be inspired by them to remediate the landscapes they describe’ (Finlay).

I fold out a map and think of the future, dotting at random. There is so much I don’t understand. Space is a palimpsest of half-remembered places; sometimes you can’t traverse it clearly. Maybe there are holes, or pores, or fissures. So anyway, you tell a story.

The air is full of spells, and names, and fairies.

~

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The trees of Twin Peaks

 

Bibliography

 

Burnett, Elizabeth-Jane, 2017. Swims (London: Penned in the Margins).

Fiedler, L., 1997. Love and Death in the American Novel (Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press).

Finlay, Alec, 2018. Gathering (Zurich: Hauser & Worth).

Ginn, F., M. Bastian, D. Farrier & J. Kidwell, 2018. ‘Unexpected encounters with Deep Time’, Environmental Humanities, Vol. 10, No. 1., pp. 213-225.

Hicks, Dan, 2016. ‘The Temporality of the Landscape Revisited’, Norwegian Archaeological Review, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 5-22.

Ingold, Tim, 1993. ‘The Temporality of the Landscape, World Archaeology, Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 152-174.

Macfarlane, Robert and Jackie Morris, 2017. The Lost Words: A Spell-Book (Hamish Hamilton).

Morton, Timothy, 2007. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Skrimshire, Stefan, 2018. ‘Confessing Anthropocene’, Environmental Humanities, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 310-329.

 

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Mining the Light: My Time on Orkney

 

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I always have this sensation, descending the steps at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, of narratives colliding. It’s a kind of acute deja vu, where several selves are pelting it down for the last train, or gliding idly at the end point of an evening, not quite ready for the journey home. The version that is me glows inwardly translucent, lets in the early morning light, as though she might photosynthesise. I remember this Roddy Woomble song, from his first album, the one that was sorrow, and was Scotland, through and through as a bowl of salted porridge, of sickly sugared Irn Bru. ‘Waverley Steps’, with its opening line, ‘If there’s no geography / in the things that we say’. Every word, I realise, is a situation. Alighting, departing; deferring or arriving. It’s 08:28 and I’m sitting at Waverley Station, having made my way down its steps, hugging my bag while a stranger beside me eats slices of apple from a plastic packet. I’ve just read Derek Jarman’s journal, the bit about regretting how easily we can now get any fruit we want at any time of year. He laments that soon enough we’ll be able to pick up bundles of daffodils in time for Christmas. The apples this girl eats smell of plastic, of fake perfume, not fruit. I’m about to board a train that will take me, eventually, to Thurso and then on via ferry to Orkney. I wonder if they will have apples on Orkney; it’s rumoured that they don’t have trees. Can we eat without regard to the seasons on islands also?

I needn’t have worried. Kirkwall has massive supermarkets. I check my own assumptions upon arrival, expecting inflated prices and corner shops. I anticipated the sort of wind that would buffet me sideways, but the air is fairly calm. I swill a half pint of Tennents on the ferry, watching the sun go down, golden-orange, the Old Man of Hoy looming close enough to get the fear from. Something about ancient structures of stone always gives me vertigo. Trying to reconcile all those temporal scales at once, finding yourself plunged. A panpsychic sense that the spirit of the past ekes itself eerily from pores of rock. Can be read in a primitive braille of marks and striations. We pick our way through Kirkwall to the SYHA hostel, along winding residential streets. I comment on how quiet it is, how deliciously dark. We don’t see stars but the dark is real, lovely and thick. Black treacle skies keep silent the island. I am so intent in the night I feel dragged from reality.

Waking on my first day, I write in my notebook: ‘the sky is a greyish egg-white background gleaming remnant dawn’. In the lounge of the hostel, someone has the telly on—news from Westminster. Later, I’m in a bookshop in Stromness, browsing books about the island while the Radio 2 Drivetime traffic reports of holdups on motorways circling London. Standing there, clasping Ebban an Flowan, I feel between two times. A slim poetry volume by Alec Finlay and Laura Watt, with photographs by Alastair Peebles, Ebban an Flowan is Orkney’s present and future: a primer on marine renewable energy. Poetry as cultural sculpting, as speculation and continuity: ‘there’s no need to worry / that any wave is wasted / when there’s all this motion’. New ideas of sustainability and energy churn on the page before me, while thousands down south are burning up oil on the London orbital.

When we take a bus tour of Mainland Orkney’s energy sources, we play a game of spotting every electric car we see. Someone on the bus, an academic who lives here, knows exactly how many electric cars there are on the island. There’s a solidarity in that, a pride in folk knowledge, the act of knowing. On the train up to Thurso, I started a game of infrastructure bingo, murmuring the word whenever I spotted a pylon, a station or a turbine. Say it, just say it: infrastructure. Something satisfying in its soft susurration, infra as potential to be both within and between, a shifting. Osmosis, almost. The kinesis of moving your lips for fra, feeling a brief schism between skin and teeth. A generative word. Say it enough times and you will summon something: an ambient awareness of those gatherings around you, sources of fuel, object, energy.

The supermarkets in Kirkwall seem like misplaced temples. This was me idealising the remoteness of islands, wanting to live by an insular, scarcer logic. The more we go north, the more scarcity we crave—a sort of existential whittling. Before visiting, I envisioned the temperature dropping by halves. On the first night, warm in my bed, I write: ‘To feel on the brink of something, then ever equi-distant’. The WiFi picks up messages from home. Scrolling the algorithmic rolls of Instagram, I feel extra-simultaneous with these random images, snapshots of happenings around the world. Being on an island intensifies my present. In Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (2016)a memoir of recovery and return on Orkney, Liptrot writes of ‘waiting for the next gale to receive my text messages’. On the whims of billowing signal, we wait for news of the south to arrive. Maybe I was an island and I wanted my life elsewhere to vanish, disappear in a wall of wind; I wanted to exist just here, in a hullabaloo of nowness.

I say an island, but of course Orkney is more an archipelago. And I’m on the Mainland, home to the burghs of Stromness and Kirkwall. Here for the ASLE-UKI conference, there wasn’t time to visit the harbour at Scapa, or the neolithic village of Skara Brae or the stone circle Ring of Brodgar. I spend most of my time in the town hall opposite Kirkwall’s impressive, sandstone cathedral, aglow by night with fairy lights strung in surrounding trees. Yes, trees. Orkney has trees. They are often gnarled-looking and strange, stripped by wind or held up inside by steel plinths. Anthropocene arboreal hybrids. But still they are trees. Using my plant identification app, I find hazels and birches. Autumn is traceable in the swirls of thin leaves that skirt the pavement, tousling our sense of a general transition.

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At one point in the trip, we visit the Burgar Hill Energy Project in Evie, alighting from the bus to stand underneath several massive turbines. The sound is wonderful, a deep churning whirr that feels like the air pressed charge on repeat. Under the chug chug chug of those great white wings we gathered, listened, moved and dispersed. I watch as our tight knit group begins to fragment; we need time apart to absorb this properly, little cells bouncing off and away from each other, quietly charged, loosening dots of pollen. Some of us finding the outer reach of the hill, looking for a view or panorama, leaning back to snap a photograph. I film the shadows windmilling dark the rough green grass. Capturing the turbines themselves seemed almost obscene. I don’t know why I was making them into idols, afraid to reduce them to pictures. It was easier to glimpse them in pieces, a flash of white, synecdoche. My friend Katy and I agreed the best photos were the ones out of focus, a bird-like blur against the blue.

Places I have been hit by wind:

  • The cloisters at the University of Glasgow, a wind-tunnel roar to blast out your thoughts post-exam.
  • The hills of Aviemore, my first and last time attempt to ski.
  • Ayrshire beaches in winter, icy particles of hail cast into my eyes and ears.
  • The last day of the Wickerman Festival, wrestling with tents that needed drying and folding, the wind blasting against my cliff of a hangover.
  • On the deck of a ferry, mascara stinging the black black veil of my lashes.

I am an air sign, Gemini, and there is something about losing your breath to elemental forces. I think I once finished a poem with a phrase like, ‘lashing the planetary way of all this’. We used to stand in the playground at school, brandishing our jackets like polyester wings, letting the wind move us forward, staggering in our lightweight bodies, our childish intuition of the way of the world. The pleasure in surrendering. Making of your body a buffeted object. Returning to Glasgow, I soon find myself hit with a cold, preemptive fresher’s flu; a weight on my chest, a diaphragm lag. A sense of my body heaving against itself.

On Orkney, I can smell the salt from the sea. Earlier in the summer, I was struck with wisdom tooth pain, the kind that requires salt-water rinses every half hour, not to mention agonised gargles of whisky. Wasting my precious bottle of Talisker. Amid the haze of those painkiller days, I felt closer to an elemental heat. Metonymically, I was inhaling islands. The taste of self-preservation, of necessary self-sustenance, is never as strong and unwanted as when you want a part of yourself to be wrenched out of you. Pulling teeth is an easy metaphor for lost love, or other forms of psychic distress. Breaking apart, making of the self an archipelago. There’s that song by The National, ‘I Should Live in Salt’, which always sticks in my head in granular form, occasional line. Refrain of refrains, ‘I should live in salt for leaving you behind’. I never knew whether Matt Berninger was singing about preservation or pain, but I saw myself lying down in a kelp bed, child-size, letting the waves lap over my body, salt suffusing the pores of my skin. Begin again, softer.  

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The rain here is more a tangential shimmer. I wake up to it, dreaming that my window was broken and no-one would bother to fix it. Fear of boundaries loosened, the outside in. The future as a sheet of glass, a shelf you could place your self on and drink. Salt water rinse and heat of whisky. We leave the hostel early and wander beyond the Kirkwall harbour, to the hydrogen plant bordering an industrial estate. Katy and I discussed our fondness for industrial estates as homely reminders. She would go running, and wherever she ran the industrial zones were inevitable. As if in any city you would reach that realm, it called you in with its corrugated fronts and abrasive loneliness. My love for the canal, biking up through Maryhill where the warehouses watch serenely over you, loom behind trees, barely a machinic rumble disturbing the birds. We traced the edge of a man-made waterfront, a crescent curving lip of land. The way it curled was elliptical, it didn’t finish its inward whorls of land upon water, but still I thought of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, or the cinnamon buns I bought from the Kirkwall Tesco. Finding a bench, we ate bananas for breakfast, looking out at the grey-blue sea, our fingers purpling with the cold. I like to think of the banana, Katy said, as a solid unit of energy. Here we were, already recalibrating reality by the logic of pulse and burn and calories. Feeling infra.

I love the words ‘gigawatt’, ‘kilocal’, ‘megabyte’. I like the easeful parcelling up of numbers and storage and energy. I am unable to grasp these scales and sizes visually or temporally, but it helps to find them in words.

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We learn about differences between national and local grids, how wind is surveyed, how wave power gets extracted from the littoral zone. My mind oscillates between a sonar attentiveness and deep exhaustion, the restfulness gleaned from island air and waking with sunrise. I slip in and out of sleep on the bus as it swerves round corners. I am pleasantly jostled with knowledge and time, the precious duration of being here. Here. Here, exactly. This intuition vanishes when I try to write it. A note: ‘I know what the gaps between trees must feel like’. Listening to experienced academics, scientists and creatives talk about planes, axes, loops and striations, ages of ages, I find myself in the auratic realm of save as…, dwelling in the constant recording of motion, depth and time. Taking pictures, scribbling words, drawing maps and lines and symbols. We talk of Orkney as a model for the world. Everything has its overlay, the way we parse our experience with apps and books and wireless signals. Someone takes a phone call, posts a tweet. I scroll through the conference hashtag with the hostel WiFi, tracing the day through these crumbs of perspective, memories silently losing their fizz in the night.

I grew up by the sea, in Maybole, Ayrshire (with its ‘blue moors’, as W. S. Graham puts it), but a lot of my thalassic time was spent virtually. I loved video games like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, where the narrative happened between islands, where much of the gameplay involved conducting voyages across the sea. The interstitial thrill of a journey. There were whirlpools, tornados, monsters rising from the deep. On Maidens Harbour, I could hardly reach that volcanic plug of sparkling granite, the Ailsa Craig, or swim out to Arran; virtually, however, I could traverse whatever limits the game had designed. The freedom in that, of exploring a world already set and scaled. Movement produced within constraint. In real life, mostly our bodies and minds constrain. What excites me now is what I took for granted then: the salt spray stinging my lips, the wind in my hair, the glint of shells bleached clean by the sea; a beautiful cascade of cliches that make us.

‘To wake up and really see things…passages from a neverland.’ Back in Glasgow, fallen upon familiar nocturnal rhythms, I find myself craving the diurnal synchrony I achieved in Orkney. Sleepy afternoons so rich in milky light. The vibrational warmth of the ferry’s engine, activating that primitive desire for oil, the petrol smell at stations as my mother filled up the car for journeys to England. My life has often been defined by these journeys between north and south, born in Hertfordshire but finding an early home in Ayrshire. Swapping that heart for air, and all porosity of potential identity. Laura Watt talked of her work as an ethnographer, interviewing the people of Orkney to find out more about their experiences of energy, the way infrastructural change impacts their daily lives, their health, their business. Within that collaboration, she tells us, there’s also a sense of responsibility: stories carry a personal heft, something that begs immunity from diffusion. Some stories, she says, you can’t tell again. The ethics of care there. I wonder if this goes the same for stone, the stories impregnated within the neolithic rocks we glimpse on Orkney. Narrative formations lost to history’s indifferent abstraction, badly parsed by present-day humans along striated lines, evidence of fissure and collision. All that plastic the ocean spits back, co-evolutions of geology and humans. Plastiglomerates along the shore. But Orkney feels pure and relatively litter-free, so goes my illusions, my sense of island exceptionalism. I become more aware of the waste elsewhere. The only person I see smoking, in my whole time there, is a man who speeds his car up Kirkwall’s high street. Smoke and oil, the infinite partners; extraction and exhaustion, the smouldering of all our physical addictions. Nicotine gives the body a rhythm, a spike and recede and a need.

We learn of a Microsoft server sunk under the sea, adjacent to Orkney. There’s enough room in those computers, according to a BBC report, to store ‘five million movies’. And so the cloud contains these myriad worlds, whirring warm within the deep. Minerals, wires and plastics crystallise the code of all our text and images. Apparently the cooler environment will reduce corrosion. I remember the shipyard on Cumbrae, another island; its charnel ground of rusted boats and iron shavings. The lurid brilliance of all that orange, temporal evidence of the sea’s harsh moods, the constant prickle of salt in the air. The way it seems like fire against all those cool flakes of cerulean paint. I wrote a blog post about that shipyard once, so eager to mythologise: ‘Billowing storms, sails failing amidst inevitable shipwreck. It’s difficult to imagine such disasters on this pretty island, yet there is an uncanny sense to this space, as if we have entered a secret porthole, discovered what was supposed to be invisible to outsiders…The quietness recalls an abandoned film set’. Does tourism lend an eerie voyeurism to the beauty we see, conscious of these objects, landscapes and events being photographed many times over? Perhaps the mirage of other islands and hills glimpsed over the blue or green is more the aura of our human conceptions, archival obsession—the camera lights left buzzing in the air, traced for eternity.

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I come to Orkney during a time of transition, treading water before a great turn in my life. Time at sea as existential suspension. There have been some departures, severings, personal hurts, burgeoning projects and new beginnings. A great tiredness and fog over everything. ‘Cells of fuel are fuelling cells’. At the conference, my brain teems with this rich, mechanical vocabulary: copper wires and plates and words for wattage, transmission, the reveries of innovation. There is a turning over, leaf after leaf; I fill up my book with radials, coal and rain. My mind attains a different altitude. I think mostly about the impressions that are happening around me: the constant flow of conversation, brought in again as we move between halls and rooms, bars and timelines in our little human estuaries. We visit Stromness Academy, to see Luke Jerram’s ‘Museum of the Moon’: a seven-metre rendition of lunar sublimity, something to stand beneath, touch, lie under. I learn the word for the moon’s basaltic seas is ‘Maria’, feel eerily sparked, spread identity into ether. We listen, quietly, in the ambient dark, taking in composer Dan Jones’ textures of sound, the Moonlight Sonata, the cresting noise of radio reports—landings from a future-past, a lost utopia.

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On Friday night, Katy and I catch the overnight ferry back to Aberdeen. Sleep on my cinema seat has a special intensity, a falling through dreams so vivid they smudge themselves on every minute caught between reading and waking. Jarman’s gardens enrich my fantasy impressions, and I slip inside the micro print, the inky paragraphs. I dream of oil and violets and sharp desire, a pearlescent ghost ship glimmer on a raging, Romantic sea. Tides unrealised, tides I can’t parse with my eyes alone; felt more as a rhythm within me. Later, on land I will miss that oceanic shudder, the sense of being wavy. I have found myself like this before, chemically enhanced or drunk, starving and stumbling towards bathrooms. We share drinking tales which remind me of drowning, finding in the midst of the city a seaborne viscosity of matter and memory, of being swept elsewhere. Why is it I always reach for marinal metaphor? Flood doors slam hard the worlds behind me. There are points in the night I wake up and check my phone for the time, noticing the lack of GPRS, or otherwise signal. I feel totally unmoored in those moments, deliciously given to the motioning whims of the ferry. Here I am, a passenger without place. We could be anywhere, on anyone’s ocean. I realise my privilege at being able to extract pleasure from this geographic anonymity, with a home to return to, a mainland I know as my own. The ocean is hardly this windswept playground for everyone; many lose their lives to its terminal desert. Sorrow for people lost to water. Denise Riley’s call to ‘look unrelentingly’. I sip from my bottle, water gleaned from a tap in Orkney. I am never sure whether to say on or in. How to differentiate between immersion and inhabitation, what to make of the whirlwinds of temporary dwelling. How to transcend the selfish and surface bonds of a tourist.

The little islands of our minds reach out across waves, draw closer. I dream of messages sent from people I love, borne along subaquatic signals, a Drexciya techno pulsing in my chest, down through my headphones. My CNS becomes a set of currents, blips and tidal replies. A week later, deliriously tired, I nearly faint at a Wooden Shijps gig, watching the psychedelic visuals resolve into luminous, oceanic fractals. It’s like I’m being born again and every sensation hurts, those solos carried off into endless nowhere.

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Time passes and signal returns. We wake at six and head out on deck to watch the sunrise, laughing at the circling gulls and the funny way they tuck in their legs when they fly. These seabirds have a sort of grace, unlike the squawking, chip-loving gulls of our hometowns, stalking the streets at takeaway hour. The light is peachy, a frail soft acid, impressionist pools reflecting electric lamps. I think of the last lecture of the conference, Rachel Dowse’s meditations on starlings as trash animals, possessing a biological criticality as creatures in transition. I make of the sky a potential plain of ornithomancy, looking for significant murmurations, evidence of darkness to come. But there is nothing but gulls, a whey-coloured streak of connected cumulus. The wake rolls out behind us, a luxurious carpet of rippling blue. We are going south again. The gulls recede. Aberdeen harbour is a cornucopia of infrastructure, coloured crates against the grey, with gothic architecture looming through morning mist behind.

Later I alight at the Waverley Steps again. Roddy in my ear, ‘Let the light be mined away’. My time on the island has been one of excavation and skimming, doing the work of an academic, a tourist, a maker at once. Dredging up materials of my own unconscious, or dragging them back again, making of them something new. Cold, shiny knowledge. The lay of the heath and bend of bay. I did not get into the sea to swim, I didn’t feel the cold North rattle right through my bones. But my nails turned blue in the freezing wind, my cheeks felt the mist of ocean rain. I looked at maps and counted the boats. I thought about what it must be like to cut out a life for yourself on these islands.

Home now, I find myself watching badly-dubbed documentaries about Orkney on YouTube, less for the picturesque imagery than the sensation of someone saying those names: Papay, Scapa, Eday, Hoy. Strong names cut from rock, so comforting to say. I read over the poems of Scotland’s contemporary island poets, Jen Hadfield for Shetland, Niall Campbell for Uist. Look for the textures of the weather in each one, the way they catch a certain kind of light; I read with a sort of aggression for the code, the manifest ‘truth’ of experience— it’s like cracking open a geode. I don’t normally read like this, leaving my modernist cynicism behind. I long for outposts among rough wind and mind, Campbell’s ‘The House by the Sea, Eriskay’: ‘This is where the drowned climb to land’. I read about J. H. Prynne’s huts, learn the word ‘sheiling’. Remember the bothies we explored on long walks as children. There’s a need for enchantment when city life churns a turbulent drone, so I curl into these poems, looking for clues: ‘In a fairy-tale, / a boy squeezed a pebble / until it ran milk’ (Hadfield, ‘The Porcelain Cliff’). Poetry becomes a way of building a shelter. I’m struck with the sense of these poets making: time and matter are kneaded with weight and precision, handled by pauses, the shape-making slump of syntax. Energy and erosion, elemental communion. Motion and rest. My fragile body becomes a fleshwork of blood and bone and artery, hardly an island, inclined to allergy and outline, a certain porosity; an island only in vain tributary. I write it in stanzas, excoriate my thoughts, reach for someone in the night. I think about how we provide islands for others, ports in a storm. Let others into our lives for temporary warmth, then cast ourselves out to sea, sometimes sinking.

Why live on an island? In Orkney we were asked to think with the sea, not against it. To see it not as a barrier but an agential force, teeming with potential energy. Our worries about lifestyle and problematic infrastructure, transport and connection were playfully derided by a local scholar as ‘tarmac thinking’. Back in a city, I’ve carried this with me. The first time I read The Outrun was in the depths of winter, 2016, hiding in some empty, elevated garrett of the university library. I’d made my own form of remoteness; that winter, more than a stairwell blocked me off from the rest of existence. Now, I read in quick passages, lively bursts; I cycle along the Clyde at night and wonder the ways in which this connects us, its cola-dark waters swirling northwards, dragged by eventual tides. I circle back to a concept introduced by anthropologists at Rice University, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, ‘sister cities of the Anthropocene’: the idea that our cities are linked, globally, by direct or vicarious physical flows of waste, energy and ecological disaster. This hydrological globalisation envisions the cities of the world as a sort of archipelago, no metropolis safe from the feedback loops of environmental causality, our agency as both individuals and collectives. On Orkney, we were taught to think community as process, rather than something given. I guess sometimes you have to descend from your intellectual tower to find it: see yourself in symbiosis; your body, as a tumbled, possible object: ‘All arriving seas drift me, at each heartbreak, home’ (Graham, ‘Three Poems of Drowning’).

 

Playlist: June 2018

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These bias-cut days of diagonal action, mostly slow rise and decline, drift into restless though feathery sleep. ‘The dreamer in his corner wrote off the world in a detailed daydream that destroyed, one by one, all the objects in the world’. So goes Bachelard and my own sense of crawling, hovering, in the cracks between things. Letters, cups of tea, cutlery, brushes and pens, awakenings. I worry that making a fantasy means reality won’t happen. You can spend too much in your dreams. I pay my debts in daily wandering, lifting plates and cracking hard metal off the grinder to fill up the cylinder with further coffee. Speak standard grade French for ebullient tourists. A, petit pois! What was it he said? A vast divergence between work and vocation. What splits in you and hurts evermore like a skelf. I’m waiting at the bar for a check, looking miserable because elsewhere in my head.

The heat brings fights to the park. I seem unable to read in daylight.

Caffeine dissolves all sticky platitudes of self-surrendering, the negative web. Objects I love become loss, so I stop. Pull out the game. Everyone I know seems to be moving away. There are these Instagrammed images of shifting reality. I ‘like’ them as if to say…

So maybe I go home but not really. So maybe in my father’s car, passing the house I grew up in which now has a shiny white 4×4 in the driveway. There is a dj with the same name as a boy from my school who wore ill-fitting boots. Remember I told him I was pregnant with triplets. I know every road and house in this town. Nothing alters on the virtual maps.

Two miles south. There is this playground in the forest, pine-built tunnels that lead through the treetops. I shimmy my way through child spaces, accessing the world from a miniature angle. I chew away low-level anxiety. We sit in the park, rolling buttercup stems between our fingers. Think in yellow, and have no thorns to distance me. There is so much to discuss but this chat is symbolic only; mostly between, mostly hungry. I cycle around Govan in aimless circles, prolonging the river with industry. People sit on walls outside their houses, but they are not talking or rolling tobacco or playing chess.

Half of this month is a blue-dark nothing. No difference between eve and day but shades of blue. 4am my friend, our twilight spirals. I’m aching.

I spend a weekend in Munich and meet the illustrious Robert Macfarlane, who wears a mushroom pin badge and enthuses on Sebald. The Bavarian meadows are everything. I write condensed sentences in my notebook, sometimes unsure of source: ‘The painting asks the viewer to prefer shadows to sun’, ‘The brain’s sweet opening to calm and green’. I am travel tired, pleasantly so, and involuntary naps overlay with words—so images stir around me, lift from the page new worlds. I take photographs to mark a certain summer. Foxgloves, cash machines, the margarine tree; gorge of solstice which gives into poems.

We share wine outside. I lace my sangrias with a bottle of port, you’d call it darkling sunset, but not a good taste. How often this month have you woken to fog in your head?

Black-and-white plate of burnt kale.

Is our depression competing? Compression.

Admissions of sickness, 39 likes, mustang. He only smokes when drinking.

Maybe we don’t need sleep at all!

What lore of virtual archipelagos? I think of each chat log itself as an island.

My brother came home on the last day of May. Now off to Israel he leaves in our flat a blue bag of avocados, three fillets of salmon which rot in the fridge.

Sometimes time does me a favour. The way roses look at four in the morning, gilded with lamp light against husky sky, a faint azure. The hazy look of Lana roses, a vintage filter in always already.

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The tenements were blood meridian. Sun moving west.

Scrunch salt to make curls in my hair. Post-chlorine shower feeling. Involuntary.

Wake to your messages, drop more before sleep. Two blue ticks. See everyone and then again everyone leaving. Homesick for dialect, yelling haneck. A mosher at heart requires eyeliner always. I keep some old stone beneath my pillow.

The lines around your eyes, a ring for every hour not slept.

Fall into chorus of gulls and whispered recordings. All of my gross human narcissism.

A birthday. Rose dress and fishnets, refusal of dancing. Middle-name. Tanqueray forever.

I resolve to make new

Slim readings, okay so I swore and did not cry because I’m saving my hot bright tears for July. Cute motivational pastel skies. Line after line being temporary.

There’s a song but I just want everyone glowing around me.

When they played ‘Keep Yourself Warm’ in Sleazy’s.

I would look up, intermittently, through a canopy of light-filled leaves. I’m sorry.

As if nothing happened, / I’m so busy, I’m so busy.

When it burned down we were in the street, all interlocked, we could see the embers. Blue and red. Helicopters overhead and my heart in my throat, something lisping the skin of my ribs.

The comedown just happens. I’m not the only one who’s numb.

Invitations to the Catty all weekend.

Work a whirlwind of smiles and graduations. Bottles of prosecco forgotten and balloons that go missing in minor scandal. I try to be better. Accessing all these families. There’s heat and light and a barbecue; ‘Some Velvet Morning’ dragging the scene to its sunburned, surreal conclusion.

Deleuze for the Desperate makes me wanna visit Devon.

Word of the month is ‘catatonic’.

How lucky we’ve been with this weather!

I hope something pure happens, softens inside me. Precarious mentality preserved in blue.

Little sweet, cycloramic tweeting.

After that article, feeling wholly grateful for my vision. I mean she had scars on her irises.

Does anyone ever want pineapple juice?

Slimmer now, reflection in coffee shop windows then not. Near tears on the phone. It’s mostly viral, the body’s bright omens. Everything revolves or resolves around you.

An hour a day I actually feel adult.

Calum does my tarot again and this time there are mermaids, mountains, a perfect circle.

Rodefer, Rodefer, Rodefer:

‘Breeze, trembling trees, the night, the stars. And there you are,
      in a manner of speaking.’

Infinite ugly gas bills from winter.

Disclosing my name as if to say, the end is near. Everyone lovely is reading Remainder. So talk of football and residuals, the free cappuccinos. A system.

‘You two look intimidatingly cool.’

I start painting again but find it hard to mix colour. I want the authentic, luminous lime. There will be a triangle off-centre in the heart of this landscape. Is it even a landscape.

Bike through gushing rain to get back to the present. We dwell awhile in the darker mezzanine, listening to the passing trains, the motorway traffic like hard waves sloshed against a sea wall.

My excuse is, this is all just sketching.

Better for energy, blessedness! A very old episode of Grand Designs.

Somebody somewhere is square-going a seagull while you read this.

Jazz gigs & taxis.

Fear of swallowing moss is utterly irrational, totally a Virgo thing. Intelligent attention.

She is likely to put on a facade of indifference.

Feel bad as ever for bailing.

Slather myself in factor 50, go out to embrace the evening. It’s half past three and I wear white cotton, 30 degrees washed and then a whole new 30 degree heat. Times the right way you make ninety, then three, the year of my birth. Somehow survived a quarter century.

I drink black coffee and watch seven swans moving towards me slowly.

Back on the west coast, I want Lee Harwood to describe the sea. Thin haze of blue Arran and my childhood dreams.

Later.

Even managed to change the sheets. The electricians came without warning.

Late.

Walk 20k steps for the sake of a stranding. June is all over me.

Skewed in a sunburst pleat, I wear less and contain my reactions.

Lately. 

Light and luxury.

 

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* * *

Sharon Van Etten – For You

Kathryn Joseph – From When I Wake the Want Is

Fiona Apple – Paper Bag

Cat Power – Lost Someone

The Weather Station – Free

The Innocence Mission – Bright as Yellow

Frightened Rabbit – Nitrous Gas

Feng Suave – Honey, There’s No Time

Devendra Banhart – Your Fine Petting Duck

Lou Reed – Coney Island Baby

Bright Eyes – June on the West Coast

The National – About Today

Parquet Courts – Before the Water Gets Too High

Man of Moon – The Road

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – French Press

Ryan Adams – Come Pick Me Up

Tom Petty – It’ll All Work Out

Low – Just Make It Stop

The Jesus and Mary Chain – Sometimes Always

Aïsha Devi – Light Luxury

Vessels – 4AM

Ross From Friends – Project Cybersy

Prurient – Christ Among the Broken Glass

Oneohtrix Point Never – Toys 2

Mazzy Star – Still

Snail Mail – Thinning

There Will Be Fireworks – Foreign Thoughts

Damien Jurado – Ohio

A. Wesley Chung – Neon Coast

Erin Rae & the Meanwhiles – Clean Slate

Gillian Welch – I Dreamed a Highway

To the Sea

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Watching the sea is like watching something in pieces continually striving to be whole
Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person

—Emily Berry

Richard Dawson’s ‘To the Sea’ opens with anxious strings, unearthly vocal drones and harmonised chants that carry across a darkening, eldritch bay. There’s a shiver in my heart and a sense of the waves chopping apart what constitutes the sea, the sea, the sea. How much sea do you need for it to be sea? Is every wave an incantation—and if so, whose? What if you took whole eons and chunks of the sea away, would you be left with puddles or rivers? That word that shudders: estuary. When does the sea become ocean? I feel it is to do with a feeling. To feel oceanic is different to feeling the sea. There’s an intimacy with the latter, its intimation of bitter-green waters, childhood memories, tidal flats on which you take off your shoes and wade towards the water. The sea is a mirror for our feelings, but they don’t stay still—you can’t just project them. They change like light; the water answers. The water has its own shanties, stirred up by night tides that lick at the edge of the land less like lovers than knives. A silver kiss of sharpness and silence, a tiredness. 

How many times have we apostrophised the sea? Built into it myth, folded our cavernous longing through song and let ourselves out into the blue. The sea is a monster, a tyrant, a Leviathan; the sea is feminine, rippling, birthing and giving. We can never decide. The sea is the unseen foetus of sound in a shell, little figure as portal, an unwhorling. Imagine how its voice would look on a sonogram, the whispers. The sea is a place to blow away cobwebs, to unravel your hair and blink into wilderness. In ‘On the Sea’, Keats urges ‘Oh ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired, / Feast them upon the wideness of the sea’. The sea is expanse, expansive, expanding. We can stand at the edge and be caressed by its urges; the catharsis in that. The elastic edges, islands and coastlands and cliffs that shift and zoom and shrink with parallax. We whisper and the wind carries forth our voices. It’s good to howl at the sea, alone on a beach.

Then there’s Charlotte Smith’s catchily titled, ‘Sonnet: On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic’. The sublime in this poem is born less from the sea itself, the Sussex Cliffs Smith walked all her life, than the ‘giant horrors’ of the man’s madness. A madness glimpsed readily enough by the speaker, at a distance: ‘He seems (uncursed with reason) not to know / The depth or duration of his woe’. His mind is the unseen deep of the sea. If reason is a curse, this state of nature in which the man has found himself can’t be so bad. He can only plunge through his days in a kind of ‘moody sadness’ of unknowing, an eddying through time: his ‘hoarse, half-uttered lamentation, lies / Murmuring responses to the dashing surf’. This primal communion between man and sea is met with the sensation of legend, adorned with a sonnet’s rhythm and rhyme. 

But the sea, equally, is a haunted place for all of us. I remember being obsessed with this Los Campesinos! song at a time in my life when I was stuck in the city with unhealthy constancy, wanting to wail for the blue back home. There’s a burn in your chest, then indifference again. ‘The Sea is a Good Place to Think About the Future’ is a song about a broken girl, intimate with and yet distant to the singer, starving herself in response to grief. What could be a self-lacerating song, a depressing lament, is lifted by the strings, the joined-up shouts, the catharsis of those candid lyrics and the way they break into chorus, so loud:

And all you can hear is the sound of your own heart
And all you can feel is your lungs flood and the blood course
But oh I can see five hundred years dead set ahead of me
Five hundred behind, a thousand years in perfect symmetry

The song swirls with the clutter of contemporary culture, our fraught politics and virtual addictions; but it draws towards the deep time of the sea, the abyssal possibilities fringing Britain with mist and grey. What could be a desolate song of dwindling spirit, bursts into that thumping, rousing chorus and the release in that, the release so strong. Waves crashing ahead of you, the splash-backs spitting your face with salt tears so that just to stand there is to have a conversation with the sea, with what hurts in the Earth and might hurt forever in you, but that’s okay. An inhuman empathy; the human washed out of language.

Why is it we need the sea to look ‘just like the edge of the world’? Why is we need the horizon of apocalypse ahead of us? Does love always require the threat of the ending; does death have us thinking of forever beginnings? There is the question of translation. Are we all, like Charlotte Smith’s ‘lunatic’ (she must be forgiven for her eighteenth-century lack of political correctness) just muttering in our pain to the sea? Who will hear us? In Emily Berry’s poem, ‘Picnic’, communing with the sea is like the kinds of communication you do in therapy. Trying to pick out the pieces that make up the story of the sea, the pieces that make up the story of grief, then ‘polish’ those uncertain feelings before ‘a man in a room’, whose ahhs and mhms are perhaps no coherent than the whispers of the sea. Sometimes we just need someone—something—to listen. Sometimes we just need to listen. 

Susurrations of the tongue and throat, the vowel sound sweetening eeeee. Sea, sea, sea.

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At the brink of most existential crises in my life, I revisit the sea. Summer 2016, I got a train to Cardross then walked a couple miles along a busy road, wildflowers growing in the verges past a cemetery, to Ardmore Point. The smell of the brine was like a drug: this vague area where the River Clyde becomes Firth and innumerable fragments of quartz are washed up on shore, residue of the sea’s mysterious industry. I looked across the water and I suppose I saw Greenock. There is so much of the jagged geography of westerly Scotland unfamiliar to me. The northness of names I have loved since childhood, the west coast forever of fishing villages, port towns, places of old time and tiny ruin: Luss, Arisaig, Applecross, Ullapool, Stornoway, Uist, Portree. A new indulgence in studying maps, mostly for a vague sense of where blue meets green. I have started to worry about sea levels. I keep a vague memory of my mother’s old home in Twickenham, where there are plaques to mark places where the river burst and flooded as high as the houses. The fields near my father’s house in Ayrshire become so easily sodden with water, a sunken valley where sheep sometimes drown. A favourite childhood memory is the single night we camped in Arisaig, and I’m sitting on a rock snapping fizzy laces between my teeth and watching a lurid strawberry sunset. Still I am filled with such sugary imaginings. The sand was so smooth, in the last light it seemed almost a mirror. It didn’t matter that we woke to torrential rain, with that sunset still within me. 

I open my sky-blue edition of W.S. Graham’s (Greenock-born) New Collected Poems and find ‘Falling into the Sea’: ‘Breathing water is easy / If you put your mind to it’. I think it is maybe a poem about dying, about the changes in the body, scary at first, a metamorphosis you adjust to: ‘Breathe / Deeply and you will go down / Blowing your silver worlds’. It is a plunge through new emotions, learning how to float in the bubbling eternity you have blown for yourself. Is this a dream? Is this a survival guide for the drowned? When you arrive on the ‘sea / Floor’, Graham suggests, you will encounter a ‘lady’ from ‘the Great Kelp Wood’ who offers you good British hospitality then ‘asks you / If you come here often’. How many times do we pretend we are mermaids as children, harbouring some hope of adoption by the elements. I spread my dreams on the sea like butter on a scone, the way they glimmer in the light then go. Are we recalling some anthropogenic trauma, deep embedded blue and sea green in our genes? In every deja vu there is a song, a half-remembered line with a context long forgotten: ‘Go down to the sea / And tell me what it is that you wanna be’ (Swim Deep). The sea is possibility, maybe; summertimes and sweet jangly, insouciant indie. Singing the greys, the blues, the self in crisis. The backdrop to so many of our deepest conversations, the murmurings melodic. The backdrop to perfect silence. When things went wrong in our house, we’d drive out and take long walks along Maybole Shore. We often didn’t talk; it was the wind in our ears and the kicking up sand and the smell of the salt that cleared the air, that did the work of unspoken feelings. There was the night two friends and I took vodka down Prestwick Beach and talked our lives out and embraced in the drunken rain, the spray of the water. It was so cold it burned the blood from our fingers, but we didn’t care. We were so fucking pure. 

Ten minutes listening to Drexciya in your living room and already I feel subaquatic again, 8am on a Sunday. Remember, we came from the sea. Our bodies are so much water and salt; we can hardly process any more of it. Crisping the lisp between here and there and what might drown. I was still a teenager when I sat by the harbour and twisted pink thrift into the plaits of my hair. I’d weave this space into a novel someday, the pain of the land sloshed up in geologic process; again the erosion, the sense of two worlds coming apart as a gaggle of teenagers stand lost in the waves, on the rocks and in water. It would all come to an end this way. I guess the bad techno thudded through every staccato chapter, the fault-lines of pointless dialogue. On a whim, I titled the whole thing West Coast Forever. Its universe was jagged, familiar and strange at once, self-destructive to the point of indulgence. I wrote it because I missed the sea, its harshness. I gave my twin protagonists eyes of green; two halves of what could be. I wanted to think about all the ways we are wild once, to try not to forget it. The sea is a lore we pass onto our children. The rocks we are not supposed to swim beyond, the orange buoys that mark the danger. The lives lost and loves found, the glitchy repetitions; the sand that thickens our mouths like overripe fruit, our words purpling and furring. 

Then there are gentler lagoons, bays which float out and away into grander blues. Clear and liquid lyrics, drizzling like moonlight or syrup over some wide and distant surface, the panoramic sea. The finger-plucked acoustic soothes and tells us what to do in its melancholic verse. Cat Power’s ‘Sea of Love’, Julie Byrne’s ‘Sea As It Glides’. I am obsessed with how these songs might sound, crackling and passed down to us over a ship radio, the edges worn away. The uncertain rasp of tuning in. I think of ‘Above the road (Skies of Blue)’ by Fionn Regan, or Johnny Flynn’s ‘Heart Sunk Hank’: antique and between times; recordings on a Voice-o-Graph; all white noise and sparseness, the yearning words. When I was twelve, I spent four days on a little fishing boat, bobbing up and down the Sound of Mull, between Oban and Tobermory. I lived off a Pepsi cup full of pick’n’mix sweets for the most of it, my sugar levels spiking like the rise and fall of the tide around us. Back then, I rarely noticed the wax or wane of silver and night, flesh and bone, blood and milk; I was only just learning to treat my body in cycles. There were very little times in the journey when we couldn’t see land, but Oh the loneliness when it went away.

When the mist came and there was only the greys. I used to play this game as a child, embracing my Pisces moon, thrashing through the waves and swimming out so far that someone on the sand would be shouting me back, roaring my name. I rarely cried; I dealt with my emotions that way. I liked that fort-da play of presence and absence, testing boundaries; the idea that I might disappear and become something other. The running against what resisted. I liked the way the waves licked my arms and thighs and stung me, the sand in my pores still flaking away later when I stood in the shower. The body catches a taste for the other world. It unravels. 

All weekend I’ve been listening to Frightened Rabbit, ‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’, trying to heal the torn-apart strings of my heart. Ways we deal with loss, chasing the source. Some kinds of plunge are stilling, others sweep you up again and you’re back to before and the shock of it. You think you are okay but then again the sting behind your eyes, like somehow you let the sea in. This song will always feel new to me, a tune coming fresh out of hurt and to burst into something else altogether. There’s the rolling bass and energetic strums and the way the mood changes easy as weather between brilliant and bleak. I watch a YouTube video of Scott Hutchison singing an acoustic version in some courtyard; you can tell it’s spring from the two fire tulips that grow beside his bench. It’s spring like it is now, spring before the sunshine and colour felt wrong. There’s a helicopter flying overhead, so you know the world goes on and there are other bodies drifting into distance. And I miss him. I miss him. 

And the water is taller than me
And the land is a marker line
All I have is a body adrift in water, salt and sky 

Collapse again and again on the anaphora, the swirling, thirsty water. Who gets to wash up, who is vomiting their life and drying out on the sand and who presses a cool palm to their raging forehead? Why do we have these fantasies of saving someone from the sea? Is it a primitive fear: that we will lose everything we know that way; our life’s loves and possessions dragged away, river to firth to sound to sea. I flick through my Instagram stories this very morning, and my brother is filming the sea with his phone: an hour ago, ten seconds of grey-licking waves. He’s somewhere far away, I don’t remember—Bali, maybe. The sea is a trip-hop ballad, a rippling distance in which the ambient sounds don’t save me from thinking. The sea a great wash of the late 1990s, a millennial curve at the turn of distance. I think I think too much. Didn’t they worry, before 2000 came, that every system would collapse on zero? Didn’t Emily Berry describe the sea’s wee ripples as glitches? I long for the tidal flats and the drag of scavenging gulls in the skies above, howling some song that would save me. What are they hungry for, the circling birds? Arthur Russell is telling me to jump off the platform again; in the glimmer of that cello I can hear the echoes of a seascape blurred, pixelated to grey but alluring still. I plug myself in, deep in the chasms of sonic escape; here it is all wave and wave of shoegaze. The sea glows red before I sleep. 

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We need to break the waves, we need to break our minds. There’s a cleaving in there, hard as a diamond but liquid if you breathe deep enough the cold salt grey. It’s the saddest summer of my life and where was that aeroplane when I needed it, soft and sweet. Then neutral, oh so neutral; in all oceanic tang the lingering metallic taste. Do you miss me. I miss this. How blue the sea was from the air, so clear! One of maybe five songs I can play on guitar, the simple chord progression kills me still. How close his vocals are to the mic, that loudness an unabashed roar, a unified sound. My guitar strings are so old they sag like kelp strung across rocks deep below and in that looseness there’s a release, a new feeling. A lyric embrace which is the voice rising from platitude in earnest acrobatics and disappearing in a brass solo. The sway of the rhythm, I’m realising now, is a bit like the buoyed-up feeling of being on a boat, or watching the waves side-to-side from the land and finding your body a little seduced by the back and forth. Who is there on the shoreline, who waits? Before it gets dark, when we are still the sweet notes and the swaying trees. Little cross rhythms, a minor key and so far apart in our shadows and secrets. Ocean rain. I won’t say the name, I won’t say anything. 

The sea is a darkness we hold under our tongues. Sometimes when I think of it too much, I see myself as a siren. But Oh the cost of screaming in the night. Elizabeth Fraser in ‘Song to the Siren’, haunting and flawless: ‘Here I am / Here I am’. The way her voice curls and shimmers, like a whirlpool coming into itself upon shipless waters, swallowing those foolish enough to break their bodies on the sea—‘Oh my heart / Shies from the sorrow’. In what lick of tide may we assert ourselves. I flip up the lid of my laptop, see the screen, and all is a glorious ersatz blue. A whole thalassic core of thought. 

Berry again: ‘If a person standing still watched another person minutely moving would it / seem after a while as if they were watching the sea?’ How do we hold who we love in our vision, crawling at the brink of distance, disappearance? Why do they always become the sea? Why is there ever this scattering, and can that alone be the work of elegy—the between the between, the breezy, the needing?

Let go, for eternity
is too much with us
& not
with us yet. 

—Francesca Lisette

 

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The General Synopsis at Midnight

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To the best of my memory, I have only ever been on a sailing boat once. Or, I have only been happily in control of a sailing boat once (there was a time we had to try windsurfing in primary school, a time whose details have, thankfully, long been repressed).  It was 2005, I was twelve years old, and had won a competition through the local youth club to go on a sailing trip to Oban. I don’t remember anything about what I must’ve learned regarding sailing, but I do recall a beautiful suite of seafaring terms: a special vocabulary which transformed previously mundane structural features into curious artefacts of mysterious potential: cleat, keel, stem, rudder, transform, tiller, clew, boom, shroud, telltale, jib, winch, deck and spreader. The man in charge was a hardened fisherman type; I don’t recall his name, but we called him the skipper. He was dismayed to learn I was a vegetarian, having packed little in the way of vegetables for our journey. I was happy to live off Ovaltine, jam rolls and digestives for the following days. It was such an odd combination of children—were we still children?—on that trip. No popular kids, but a few of the scarier misbehaviours (probably not okay to still call them neds), the freaks and geeks—then me, wherever I fit in. ‘Goth’, which in the case of my school was generally singular. Somehow, we all bonded rather than fought in the tiny space of that boat.

One boy, who would always be in fights, bullying and hunking his weight around, was so sweet to me. He saw I had eaten barely anything and gave me a whole bar of Cadbury Mint Chocolate, insisting I had all of it. It was such a kind gesture that I remember it still. Everyone was different at sea: softer, more honest. We were willing to admit our social vulnerabilities; there was no-one, no context, to perform for. A boy I’ll call L. opened up to me about his love for 2Pac, and when Coldplay came on the skipper’s stereo (it was their first truly mehhhh album, X&Y), we shared a little rant about how cheesy it was. We ate fruit out of tins, pulled scarves over our faces on deck and watched the coloured houses of Tobermory loom closer. The skipper let us all have a go at the tiller; he told us stories from previous trips, about how the weather had turned nasty and they’d had to pull themselves through miniature hurricanes. I found myself craving the wild mad weather, even as I was shivering in some inadequate waterproof jacket (I have a history of coming ill prepared to such outings). The skipper and I sort of oddly bonded, since I was usually the first one up in the group. He’d put the kettle on and we’d go out on deck to watch the sky. He’d point out things to look for in the cloud patterns, the colours that bloomed on the horizon. It’s this kind of practical knowledge that I thirst for. Chefs talking to me about how to sharpen knives, bake brownies; motorcyclists betraying the secrets to keeping your speed; engineers talking about formulas and team rivalries and how to build a bike wheel. I’m completely incapable of almost anything practical, so it’s always a magic alchemy to me. When people ask what I want to be when I grow up, I say shepherdess, even though I have little idea of what that entails, beyond reading the excellent The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks and occasionally listening to The Archers. I think I’d just be content to wander around hills.

Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight…

I awake to steady rainfall, first day of November. I have been thinking a lot about that sailing trip recently, mostly because I’ve been doing writing workshops in Greenock, and the nature of the place as a harbour town has everyone often turning back to boats and fishing topics. I talk to a chef at work about fishing, not because I’m all that interested in fish but because there’s something about its psychology that reminds me of times gone by. Once, I took myself out to Cardross on the train, following the road up to Ardmore to sit on the point which was a good spot for anglers. It was so quiet and still, the beaches strewn with lumps of quartz. I sat there for an hour or so, listening to the steady lap of the estuary, then slowly made my way home, tearing my skin on all the brambles. It had the feeling of a secret, overgrown place. A little out the way, a nest you could curl into: an almost island. I recall those tiny islands on the Swan Pond at Culzean Castle, where we used to leap across to. As a kid, I’d hide among the bamboos and rushes and feel entirely in my own little world. The pathways and grasses were lit with secret creatures, this 12th World I’d created—it was over a decade prior to Pokemon Go, but here I was in my augmented reality. I’d sit up on the top of the stairs reading for as late as possible, imagining that I was on top of a waterfall, and all before me was water cascading instead of carpet. I’d lie upside down and the ceiling became the first planes of a new universe. I’d wake up early and write it all down; but those pages are lost to whatever antique sale of the past stole my youth.

Now I am adult, less governed by diurnal rhythms. I find myself lost in the long bleed of night into day, up far too late in the bewildering recesses of the ocean online, the oceanic internet. Far corners where articles smudge their HEX numbers in true form down the page and I am rubbing my eyes to see beyond light. Time, perhaps, to rehash that old metaphor, surfing the web. Occasionally, some page would bring me crashing back down in the shallows; I’d wake up, ten minutes later, groggy on my keyboard. Press the refresh key. Instagram has me crossing continents at bewildering speed, lost in Moroccan markets, Mauritian beaches and Mexico City. In the depths of some nightclub then the heights of a Highland peak. So many fucking faces. Closeups of homemade cakes, delicious whisky. Memories. Oscillations I can hardly breathe in, watching my thumb make its onward scroll without my direction. The rhythms become flow, become repetition. I need an anchor. It’s been hours and hours and maybe I’m hungry.

On the boat, whose name I have sadly lost, we slept by gender in two separate cabin rooms. They were tiny, low-ceilinged, and we were just a handful of slugs pressed tight in our sleeping bags. It was better than a sleepover, because there was no pressure to stay up all night and we were all too exhausted from the sea air to talk much. I’d close my eyes and feel the steady rock of the boat’s hull as it bobbed on the water. There was a deep throb of something hitting against the walls outside, maybe a buoy or rope; it felt like a heartbeat. Sleeping in many strange places, the floors of friends’ flats and houses, in tents and on trains, I try to revisit that snug tight room where sleep was difficult to separate from consciousness itself. It was all of a darkness. Something Gaston Bachelard says in The Poetics of Space:  ‘We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection. Something closed must retain our memories, while leaving them their original value as images.’ There was no mirror in that boat, so all I remember are smells and objects. No sign of my own pale and windswept face. Everything we ate was an old-fashioned brand; it made me think of rationing and traditional values. I wasn’t quite sure what that even meant.

I need an anchor. A place to dock in.

Governed by some primordial instinct, I go to make my dinner around the same time most nights—which happens to be one in the morning. The shipping forecast used to be the last thing on the radio, before a sea of white noise till dawn. When cutting veg, my fingers weak from another long day, I switch on the radio and there are the familiar intonations. I listen as I would a poem or a shopping list, a beautiful litany of place names, nouns, directives. I have no idea what any of it signifies. It’s been a double shift, perhaps, or an extreme stint in the library, a walk across the city. My mind is full of words and sounds, so many conversations. The debris of the day threatens to spill out as a siren’s cry, and how easily I could slump against the kitchen cupboards, wilt upon the floor. Make myself nothing but driftwood, no good turning till morning. But instead I chop veg, listen to the shipping forecast. It’s difficult to think you deserve food, even when your body’s burning for it and you haven’t eaten for hours. But there are so many other things to read or do! You need an anchor, a reason.

The general synopsis at midnight.

Many of my childhood lost afternoons, bleeding to evenings, were spent playing The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on a GameCube I shared with my brother—avoiding the narrative quests and dungeons in favour of epic ventures across that cobalt ocean. What I wanted was that rousing sense of the wind’s spirit, the freedom to glide and find new islands. Whirlpools, tornados and Chtlulu-like creatures hurled me out to stranger lands. It was all so beautifully rendered, an expansive thalassic field of possibility; with each route I was fashioning some lovelorn story for my lonely hero. The ocean has always represented for me some point of erasure where reality dissolves into imagination. I think maybe it’s this perceptive meshing that we need to attune to in order to make sense of the vast scale effects of the Anthropocene. How else to grasp those resonant shockwaves of consequence, whose manifestations often transcend our human grasp of time and space?

Headache, Viking, southwesterly veering. The same refrain, moderate or good. When occasionally poor at times, do I picture the sailors with rain lashing their faces, rising through mist towards mainland? Is that even where they want to head? Rain at times, smooth or slight, variable 3 or 4. The dwelling conditionals; always between, never quite certain. The weather being this immense, elusive flux you can guess at, the way paint might guess at true colour. Cyclonic 4 or 5. In Fitzroy are there storms circling around the bay? Very few of these places could I point to on a map. I like the ambiguity, the fact of their being out there, starring the banks and shores and isles of Britain and beyond: Shannon, Fastnet, the Irish Sea. There’s a sense of being ancient, from Fair Isle to Faeroes.

I went to a talk last week for Sonica Fest where a girl from Fair Isle talked about climate change, how her home island would probably one day be swallowed by the sea. I can’t help picturing a Cocteau Twins song when she says it. She dropped handmade bronze chains in different oceans so you could see the divergent levels of oxidation, relative to saline content. It was beautiful, this abstract material rendering of elemental time. The world rusts differently; we are all objects, exposed to variant weathers. Her name was Vivian Ross-Smith and she talked about ‘islandness’, a project which connects contemporary art practise with locality and tradition. The term for me also conjured some sense of the world as all these archipelagos, whose land mass is slowly being ravaged by warming waters. The pollutants we put in. Islandness betrays our vulnerability, the way we were as 12-year-olds at the mercy of the tides, the weather and our gruff skipper. I had little conception of what climate change was, but even then I didn’t set a division between humankind and nature.

Back on the boat, I traced my own moods in the swirls of those mysterious currents, dipping my fingers in the freezing North Sea. Who are we before puberty, pure in our childish palette of pastel moods? When I think about how that sea spreads out to become the Atlantic, so vast and impossibly deep, I grow a bit nauseous. Maybe that’s the sublime; an endless concatenation of seasickness, feeling your own weakness and smallness in the face of great space, matter, disaster. How easy you too could become debris.

Increasingly, that waltzing Cocteau Twins song feels more like an elegy, haunted by the shrill of soprano, those shoegaze guitars resounding like notes through a cataract. A line from Wordsworth’s  ‘Tintern Abbey’* I always remember, ‘The sounding cataract / Haunted me like a passion’. Interplay between feeling and form, sound and vision. The ocean warming, the beat steady and mesmerising. Are we sleepwalking into the Anthropocene, over and over again, a lurid repetition compulsion? Why we keep burning up fossil fuels, emitting our plumes of carbon, senseless in the face of a terrible sensorium? I crave solid objects that show up the archives of history, those plastiglomerates of Frankenstein geology, the warped materials of the Earth’s slow and drawn-out hurting. Liz Fraser’s operatic howls are maybe the mourning of the land itself, begging to be swallowed by the sea. A saving? If originally we came from water, hatched out of amniotic sacks or evolved from subaquatic origins, then maybe we return to its oceanic expanse, its blue screen of death. When I’m anxious and needing to write furiously, write against the tides of exhaustion or time, I listen to Drexciya—Detroit-based techno that harks back to Plato’s mythology of Atlantis, via Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic. There’s this crazed evocation of diaspora, drowning, a mysterious race of merpeople. What evolves below water, what is spawning in the recesses of subculture; what resists the mainstream, the violent currents of everyday life. This subterranean city is a ‘sonic third space’. I can’t help but think of my own other planet, that 12th World separate yet attached to daily reality; somewhere distant but still impossibly intimate. That resonant intensity that drives you from sleep and into midnight discos of the mind, all pulsation of lights, wonder, horror.

There’s a sense that sound itself can be physically embracing. This is maybe how it crosses over into sonic third space, where embedded mythologies flourish in resonant affect. Where sound becomes tangible, making vibrational inscriptions of code upon the body like transient hieroglyphs of an assemblage’s trellising energy. In Tom McCarthy’s novel C (2010), the protagonist Serge is obsessed with hacking the radio to tune into the ether. Alongside the obvious supernatural connotations, there’s a more pressing suggestion that Serge is able to make his entire being become channel for sound. He lays on a ship as I once lay on a boat, listening to the warm stirs, the conversational blips and signals of objects:

The engine noise sounds in his chest. It seems to carry conversations from other parts of the vessel: the deck, perhaps, or possibly the dining room, or maybe even those of its past passengers, still humming through its metal girders, resonating in the enclosed air of its corridors and cabins, shafts and vents. Their cadences rise and fall with the ship’s motion, with such synchronicity that it seems to Serge that he’s rising and falling not so much above the ocean per sea as on and into them: the cadences themselves, their peaks and troughs…

McCarthy’s lyrical clauses accumulate this notion of sound as spreading, seeping into words and orifices, surfaces. Presences, absence. A lilting simultaneity between the movements and pulses of objects. Sound becomes material; is spatialised as cadence, lapping the edge of Serge’s senses with lapidary, enticing effect—always tinged, perhaps, with a lisping hint of danger. The sounds, after all, also evoke the dead. There’s a radio drama by Jonathan Mitchell, where the protagonist has developed a device which allows you to extract sound from wood. There’s the idea that wooden surfaces absorb sounds from their surroundings, and the time and quality of storage depends on the type of wood. It’s a brilliant sci-fi exploration of what would happen ethically if we could extract auditory archives from material surroundings—the problems and possibilities of surveillance, anamnesis and so on. Consequences for human and nonhuman identity, the boundaries between life and death, silence and noise.

https://soundcloud.com/jonathan-mitchell-1/the-extractor

Do the walls hear everything? I think of rotting driftwood, how porous and light it is. How its every indent, line and scar marks some story of the tides, the stones and the sea. Robinson Crusoe, chipping the days away as notches on wood. I think of the hull of that boat, perhaps coated in plastic, sticky with flies and algae.

On the last day of our sailing trip, we were sitting round the table of the cabin, docked in Oban harbour, reading the papers and having a cup of tea. Our youth club leader got a text from a friend back home. She was informing us of the London 7/7 bombings. This was a time prior to having internet on our phones. We weren’t so wirelessly in tune with everything everywhere always. But that little signal, a couple words blipped through the ether, brought the sudden weight of the world crashing back down upon our maritime eden. I had family in London who escaped the attack by the skin of their teeth, a fortuitous decision to take that day a different route. How everything was at once the dread of hypotheticals. I did not understand the vast arterial networks of terror that governed the planet; these things happened in flashbulb moments, their ripple effects making what teachers called history. Somehow it didn’t seem real. Bombs went off all the time on tv; I grew up with the War in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those televised wars were the ambient backdrop to everything on the news. Later, my friends would wile away their teens shooting each other on Call of Duty. It was all logistics, statistics, the spectacle of bodies and explosions. Nobody explained it. We were distracted by MSN Messenger, then those boys with their controllers tuning in and out of conversation, signing online then drifting away into present-absence. X-Box (Live). Signifier: busy. It was good to be away from the telly in the relative quiet of the boat, startled instead by foghorns and seagulls. But even then, we remained connected.

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The Shipping Forecast has been issued, uninterrupted, since 1867. Its collation of meteorological data provides a map of sorts, a talismanic chart of patterns and movements, currents, pressures, temperatures—something that helps millions of sailors out at sea. I look at such visual charts and truly it boggles me. I prefer grasping such data as sound, delivered in the hypnotic lilt of that voice: its clear diction and poetic pace, calling me home. I think of the west coast, the bluish slate-grey of the sea. Becoming variable, then becoming southerly, rain or showers, moderate or good. Always between things’ becoming, becoming. There’s the pitch-black womb of a cabin again, the childlike promise of dreams and sleep, a genuine rest I’ve forgotten entirely. Listening makes it okay to be again, buoyed up halfway between where I am and where I’ve been. A constellation of elsewheres to placate insomnia’s paranoia; to be in winter’s dark heart or the long nights of summer, endlessly tuning to atmosphere, cyclonic later, slowly veering from the way. My present tense is always eluding, like ‘In Limbo’ with Thom Yorke’s seaward crooning, the morse code of emotion in whirlpool arpeggios, closing and bleeping and droning on a wave far away, the spiralling weather, the fantasy…Another message I can’t read.

*Full title, of course, being ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798’.

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Rethinking Punishment: Scotland’s Future and the Future of Justice

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Rethinking Punishment: Scotland’s Future and the Future of Justice

(This article was written in February 2015. Note my pre-Brexit, pre-General Election 2015 naivety in places…)

“Imagine you’ve been burgled,” the professor suggests to a room full of sociology students. “He’s taken all your favourite possessions. How many of you would, if you could, have him locked up in five minutes?” Almost all of the students raise their hands without second thought.

“OK, so what about if you knew this man was a relapsed drug addict? What if his family were deep in debt and he hadn’t eaten for three days? Couldn’t get a job? What if he’d been churned in and out of the justice system without decent legal aid more times than he’d had hot dinners? Is prison still the best place for him now?” The lecturer does not deliver these possibilities with the air of derisive triumph, but rather calmly lays them down for all to consider. Everyone in the room looks at each other sheepishly, as if they have missed a punch-line. The joke is that even sociology students (perhaps the most stereotypically liberal sector of society) fall for the seductive narrative of simple, instant punishment.

Criminologists have a phrase for this: populist punitiveness, or penal populism. It’s the idea that criminal justice becomes less of a moral or practical issue and more a party political one; that parties can tap into a general fear of crime or disenchantment felt amongst victims, in order to garner votes. Being seen to be ‘tough on crime’ raises the political climate to the level of populist, Daily Mail hysteria we witness today in relation to the likes of immigration. With penal populism, we have the tabloid recycling of stock, ‘blue-collar’ criminals, but rarely do we have the contextual story necessary to fully flesh out the nature of the crimes we read about.

The problem with this of course is that it leads to extreme, right-wing approaches to criminal justice, seen perhaps most dramatically in the ‘bang-em-up’ North American model of tough sentencing, chain-gangs and super-prisons. This sits uneasily alongside the progressive liberalism, soft conservatism or centre politics that most major parties wield as their ideological banners in the UK. Yet as Jonathan Simon suggests in Governing through Crime (2007), this increasingly punitive approach to justice found in the US but also (albeit to a lesser extent) in the UK, is not just a pragmatic response to problems with crime, but rather a more comprehensive tool of social governance. The United States has quadrupled its prison population in the past three decades, while the UK’s prison population has doubled since 1993. Accompanied by statistics which show a recent broader decline in the rates of violent crime, these figures might seem perplexing or counterintuitive. Why are we locking up more people when less violent crimes are being committed? The fact is that the prison system is becoming less about justice and protecting society, and more about asserting the long arm of the state in a society where its ‘soft’ role of welfarism is slowly crumbling.

And yet this is not just a process that can be attributed to the state; it is also one accelerated through the punitive appetites of the media. In the past few decades, crime has increasingly occupied a prominent pedestal in media reporting. Part of this problem is the sensationalist and individualistic style of reporting, as well as its predominant focus on so-called ‘blue-collar’ crime committed by those who occupy a lower rung on Britain’s persistently rigid social stratum. In fact, if you absorbed everything the mainstream media told you, you’d be forgiven for thinking that crime was something that only happened in urban areas by working-class youths, or else by the odd drug-hazed celebrity entering a spiral of personal decline. Although this outlook on criminality has been changing in recent years – with revelations of MPs’ expenses, phone hacking, police cover-ups in relation to Hillsborough and child sex scandals, as well as the corruptions of bankers – such interest in more corporate or ‘white-collar’ crime continues to generally focus on the ‘bad apple’ individual over the systemic problems which necessarily contextualise the offence in question. The kind of systemic problems that led to the banking crisis and the institutional racism unveiled by the Stephen Lawrence case.

Media reporting of crime often uncritically accepts the view of criminal justice officials as its source, and while criticism of police failures is sharpening in the UK, reporting of individual crimes still relies often on hysteric headlines and moralising quotations.  A quick glance at the ‘Crime’ page of The Telegraph’s website reflects this emphasis on violent crime and celebrity offending over more analytical crime reporting. The media’s power to shape the population’s perception of crime was famously demonstrated in Policing the Crisis, a 1978 study by Stuart Hall and his colleagues which showed how the press effectively invented the term ‘mugging’. By saturating the public with extreme reports of its occurrence, Britain’s media whipped up a ‘moral panic’, so that reporting of violent robberies increased, and as ‘mugging’ was absorbed into official crime statistics, it was the media’s scapegoating of black working-class youths that became synonymous with this apparently ‘new’ crime itself. We have seen this more recently with the politicisation of youth crime and moral panics about ‘hoodies’, ‘Neds’ and ‘Chavs’ – the demonisation of the working-class, as Owen Jones puts it – following Thatcherite attitudes to the ‘feckless’ poor and New Labour’s ASBO legislation and tougher ‘welfare-to-work’ approach to welfare.

What seems to emerge from this interplay between social policy, crime statistics and media reportage is that mainstream media often frame the overall picture of crime through a neoliberal ideology of individual responsibility. While this might help foster the confidence of victims to come forward – for example in cases of rape – it also means that whole sectors of society become demonised as ‘risk’ populations, and with the media’s uncritical reliance on official crime statistics, we often get a distorted picture of the extent of crimes whose definition may have changed along with shifts in sentencing policy. The demand for moralising, punitive justice stirred up by the media is one factor among many that might explain our rising prison population.

When the media does report broader trends in crime, the problem is that even with articles from ‘respectable’ sources like The Guardian, these trends often remain distorted as a picture of UK crime as a whole. This is because such articles frequently rely on the Home Office’s statistics and the British Crime Survey, which focus only on England and Wales, thus giving a potentially misleading impression about crime and sentencing in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Scotland has had its own criminal justice system going back to the 1707 Act of Union. Traditionally, this system has been seen as more socially democratic, reflecting the endurance of more left-wing ‘Scottish values’ against the encroachment of neoliberal punitiveness. The Scottish approach, then, has conventionally been seen as ‘softer’, offering a more holistic method of dealing with low-level offenders in particular. The Children’s Hearing system is exemplary of this, whereby offenders below the age of 18 are referred to a Children’s Panel which considers both young offenders and victims within a welfare context, paying attention to a child’s needs and how this plays out in the local community. Within the court system itself, sentencing is more flexible and is judged on a case-by-case basis; with the exception of murder, judges are not forced to impose any mandatory sentences.

However, somewhat paradoxically, following devolution in 1999 Scotland’s unique approach to justice has apparently become diluted. The Scottish Government, especially in the early days of the Labour-Lib Dem coalition, increasingly absorbed more Anglo-American ‘risk-based’, populist and punitive trends. This so-called ‘detartanisation’ of Scottish criminal justice is seen in the hardening of a two-tier approach to justice, related to changes to legal aid and to the plea-bargaining system that reflect a move towards efficiency-based procedure. For example, there is a shift into an implicit approach of ‘sentence discounting’. This encourages early guilty pleas in exchange for more lenient sentences; but while it might cut the court’s legal fees, it is obviously profoundly unjust to foster a system where the accused are quickly churned through the system to drive efficiency. It risks threatening human rights if innocent people are being encouraged to plead guilty – even if it is to be ‘let off’ quicker. Moreover, it creates, as Dorren McBarnet puts it, a two-tier justice whereby some have access to a jury trial while the justice of everyday court procedure is diluted by this trend towards relinquishing the right to trial. There is a class issue here too, as more affluent defendants can afford the advantage of personal legal aid. If the quality of legal aid available to all is weakening, then so is social democracy.

Scotland’s somewhat disturbing move towards more efficiency, risk-based and the ‘punitive turn’ of Anglo-American justice is also evident in policy changes within the justice system. There are tougher approaches to community sentencing, which include increasingly invasive methods of surveillance, a re-emphasis on punitive elements and a strict adherence to ‘risk assessment’. In recent years Scotland has also seen the reintroduction of ‘Youth Courts’ for 16-17 year olds, representing a turn away from the ‘child-centred’ welfarism of Children’s Panels and resulting in what has been called a ‘Burberry court’ – named after its predominant association with prosecuting working-class offenders. With measures such as these, Scotland risks joining the trend towards a ‘decivilising process’, whereby public discourse on the working-class echoes the Victorian rhetoric of the ‘undeserving’ urban poor. Our newspapers are unfortunately awash with moralistic, personal attacks on benefit claimants, ‘junkies’ and ‘Neds’, and this filters down into the increasing alienation and demonising of whole communities that already face multiple forms of social exclusion and economic deprivation. A New York-style ‘zero tolerance’ clamp down on ‘antisocial’ conduct is born out of the desire to show a ‘clean’ image of Scotland. We should also acknowledge the impact of (and not just upon) business, as space itself becomes increasingly privatised and issues of beggars, public drinking and young people ‘hanging around’ become criminalised in an effort to preserve the ‘modern’ image of an increasingly service-based, leisure and consumer-driven economy like Glasgow’s. There is a whole other issue here about the ethics and targeting practice of private security firms (used, for example, in nightclubs and shopping centres), but that’s a story for another occasion.

The_Old_Tolbooth.jpg
Img Source: Wikipedia // Edinburgh’s Old Tolbooth: established in the 14th century, it was used by the Burgh Council and early parliamentary meetings, as well as being the burgh’s main jail. Incarceration, punishment and physical torture occurred regularly in this prison and after 1785, public executions were conducted. The buildings were demolished in 1817.

With this problem of criminalising the poor, we turn to the matter of prison itself. The thirst for punitiveness which seeps through the layers of British society has of course contributed to a steadily rising prison population not just in England and Wales, but also Scotland. Yet the ‘prison works’ ideology famously championed by Michael Howard in the 1990s clearly oversimplifies things. While prison has a place for violent offenders who pose a danger to the public, in its current state – especially with all-round cuts – it isn’t working as it should, as figures from the Prison Reform Trust prove. Nearly 50% of adult prisoners reoffend within one year of release. This failure to encourage desistance from crime is not just a waste of taxpayers’ money and a risk to the public but also reflects upon the need for a greater emphasis on rehabilitation in prisons. There is a whole concatenation of needs associated with vulnerable inmates. The decaying walls of old Victorian jails tend not to be equipped for elderly or disabled prisoners. Young people have an array of social, educational and psychological requirements which are not always met in prison. Prisoners who require psychological rehabilitation, the likes of violent or sex offenders, would do well not just to be cordoned off altogether but to be integrated with normal behaviour via appropriate treatment programmes. For female prisoners, there may be separation from children or family: since there are fewer women’s prisons, female offenders find themselves disproportionately further from their homes. In England and Wales, nearly 50% of female prisoners are reported as having a history of domestic abuse. In Scotland’s only women’s prison, Cornton Vale, two thirds of its inmates were on suicide watch in 2013.

Related to these mental health issues is one persistent problem that I would like to linger on: the issue of alcohol and drugs within Scottish criminal justice. It is difficult to look at many crimes without recognising the role that legal and illegal substances play. Indeed, a recent study conducted by the Howard League Scotland showed that two-thirds of young offenders reported being drunk and 39% on drugs at the time of their offence. Alcoholism and drug addiction seem to pervade prison statistics at all levels, and these problems, stemming from a complex array of social issues, must be treated properly if we are to readdress our approach to criminal justice in Scotland. As it stands, drug users are sucked into the broader decivilising process whereby working-class individuals are excluded from mainstream society, often via criminalisation. People do not take drugs in a vacuum. For example, the association between heroin addiction and poor housing estates is not because of some moral failure but stems from issues of related social deprivation such as unemployment, poverty and localised problems with crime. Areas of deprivation are also more likely to be policed, which means it is possible that working-class users are often targeted by the justice system more than their comparatively affluent counterparts.

Drug charities and various studies have persistently reiterated the links between ‘problematic’ hard drug use and deprivation. One key issue here is that drug users are often ‘recycled’ through the justice system without receiving adequate treatment, and thus fall back into committing drug-related offences upon release. Perhaps, as the Scottish Centre for Criminal Justice Research has argued, we need to acknowledge that ‘reoffending’ itself is a flawed concept which focuses only on legal rather than behavioural criminality, and unlike the notion of ‘reintegration’, cannot do much good for recognising indicators of successful desistance from crime.

Some steps are already in place to tackle this issue by directing offenders towards the correct treatment. The 1998 Crime and Disorder Act saw the introduction of ‘Drug Treatment and Testing Orders’ (DTTOs) in Scotland, which demonstrate a specific aim to, as the Scottish Government website puts it, ‘reduce or eliminate an offender’s dependency or propensity to misuse drugs’, and to more broadly address the scale of drug-related offences in Scotland. There has also been the introduction of special ‘Drug Courts’ which tailor sentences to assist with the work of DTTOs and break habitual cycles of reoffending linked to drug dependency. Findings have suggested that these measures are proving somewhat successful, by improving the offender’s accountability and making drug testing and treatment mandatory, as well as helping to avoid a custodial sentence which might merely intensify the problem.

We shouldn’t, however, overestimate the achievements made possible by these measures. Although the Global Commission on Drug Policy has argued for a ‘public health’ approach to drug crime – the kind being adopted by the likes of DTTOs – these should be situated in conjunction with a holistic and therapeutic approach that looks at the opportunities possible for the individual out-with the cycle of drugs and offending. To call someone a ‘junkie’ is to other them; to recognise their illness but also to categorically distinguish them as different from oneself, as morally inferior. While the issue of decriminalisation is beyond the scope of this essay, the question of how we represent offenders and drug-dependency is certainly relevant to a broader imperative to rethink crime and justice outside of the punitive narratives supplied for us by political and mainstream media discourse. A socially just future Scotland would be reflexively critical and aware of the structural conditions that lead to concentrated drug crime (including de-industrialisation and housing) and would take steps to recognise them in its treatment of offenders.

Such a socially just future is not completely beyond the current horizon. We can start sowing the seeds of optimism in relation to the issue of women and imprisonment, with the Scottish Government’s recent decision to cancel plans to build a 500-capacity women’s prison at Inverclyde. Following talks and activist pressure from a number of sources including Woman for Independence, the Howard League for Prison Reform and a campaign by the Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, the decision reflects the potential for a more reflexive, discursive and collaborative politics which Scotland can offer towards its justice system. Too many women are held on remand in prison, far away from their families, which raises an unnecessary risk of psychological and social harm. Rather than throwing short-term, low-risk women offenders into a new ‘super-prison’, the government can proceed with plans to divert them from incarceration altogether into alternative sentencing, or into more appropriate community-based units. Ideally, we can build on this small success and move towards an approach which does not make justice a party political issue but one based on a pragmatic appraisal of what works, as well as a foundational interest in social justice, extending not only to the individual offender and victim but also the societal conditions that cannot be detached from the crime itself.

Could this, then, be evidence of ‘re-tartanisation’ following the SNP’s occupation of government? Certainly, since 2007 we have seen various measures taken to reduce the rate of short-term sentences in favour of more constructive community sentencing. There have also been serious initiatives rolled out to tackle organised crime and efforts made towards corporate and cybercrime, which suggests an increasing recognition of the fact that organisations and companies cause far more societal damage (whether economic, environmental, social, political or personal) than the average ‘street’ crime.

Moreover, accompanying these policy shifts has been the more general impact of the Internet on mainstream media narratives. Indeed, the ease of access to a plethora of publications from non-profit organisations gives us the power to be critical and reflexive about the stories told to us by television and print media. It is easier to hold governments, journalists and the justice system to account when we have instant access to the latest statistics, and the possibility of corroborating and comparing these statistics with those gleaned by different studies, or with different nations. To some extent, it is up to us, as readers and consumers of media, to rethink our attitudes towards justice – and what that means exactly.  Rather than passively absorbing, we should be actively critiquing.

Where can Scotland go from here then? It seems the biggest challenges are to resist the continual Anglo-American ‘punitive turn’, whilst remaining ultimately part of the UK; to reconcile local, national and international demands in an increasingly globalised world where crime crosses borders; to move forward with a pragmatic rather than party-political approach to deciding justice policy. Scotland is often compared with Scandinavian nations such as Norway, and perhaps these models provide what might tenuously be an optimistic blueprint for the future. Treating prisoners like people instead of demonised ‘others’ (consider that under UK law prisoners do not have the right to vote, and the Con-Dem coalition’s recent attempts to ban books from prisoners which were thankfully ruled unlawful by the High Court) is the way forward. In Norway, where prison staff are encouraged to foster positive relationships with inmates, and where the emphasis is on education, training and psychological treatments, the reoffending rate is the lowest in Europe. Your punishment is the loss of liberty; everything else should work towards re-habituating the offender into a fulfilling role in the community. Giving a person a chance to reconcile themselves with opportunities they might not have had before conviction is surely the best way we have (short of whole-scale societal change) to not only reintegrate someone, but to protect the public from future reoffending. The media is a big part of the problem, as I have suggested, but it can also have a positive role in making us rethink justice. We need to stop looking at examples such as Norway’s as ‘luxurious’ and a ‘waste of taxpayers’ money’ and think practically about how we can learn from them, and in the process not only save our own government a lot of the money lost through crime and reoffending, but also work towards a more just society.

 

Things to check out:

  • The ‘Discovering Desistance’ blog http://blogs.iriss.org.uk/discoveringdesistance/ – explores why people desist from offending. There’s lots of interesting research on there and a documentary, ‘The Road from Crime’, in which an ex-offender turned probation office looks at what we can discover from those who have ‘desisted’ from criminal behaviour.
  • Lesley McAra’s important 2008 article in the European Journal of Criminology, ‘Crime, criminology and criminal justice in Scotland’ in which she puts forward the concept of ‘detartanisation’ to explore how devolution has paradoxically resulted in a ‘less Scottish’ model of justice. To what extent, we might ask, is this still happening, or has there been a turnaround since the SNP’s occupation of government?
  • Factsheet from the Prison Reform Trust with statistics detailing who makes up the current UK prison populations and the problems many of them face. Useful for grasping the extent to which those from more working-class or deprived backgrounds are imprisoned, but also issues of gender, age, race and ethnicity in prison: http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/Prisonthefacts.pdf
  • Photos from a Norwegian prison: http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1989083,00.html
  • More information on women in prison: http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/womeninthecriminaljusticesystemscotland.pdf
  • Document on the relationship between alcohol and crime. Useful for grasping the extent to which many offences were fuelled by alcohol, but also for considering what policies might help to reduce this problem in the future. http://www.ias.org.uk/uploads/pdf/Factsheets/Crime%20FS%20HM%20May%202013.pdf
  • Really useful publication from the London School of Economics analysing the global ‘war on drugs’ and the problems of mass incarceration related to this approach. Considers how different policy approaches to drugs might work as well as detailing the failures of current systems. Situates the problem of drug related crime and social harm by placing the local and national problem of drugs and their policing in a global/transnational context. http://www.lse.ac.uk/IDEAS/publications/reports/pdf/LSE-IDEAS-DRUGS-REPORT-FINAL-WEB.pdf

 

 

So Long, Marianne

So Long, Marianne

(a story I wrote back in April, after a friend gave me two prompts: ‘railcard’ and ‘lonely’).

She found the railcard lying in a puddle. It was the case that caught her eye: its plastic glitter coating blinded her momentarily as she waited to cross the road. A single beam of sunlight had caught that glitter and Amanda knew it was for a reason. She knelt down to pick it up, wiping it clean on her jeans. The man standing next to her on the pavement eyed her warily as she examined it. The name on the card was Marianne Holbrook, and the picture, slightly blurred, showed a girl of Amanda’s age, with cropped brown hair and eyes rimmed thick with kohl and shadow, lips a deep rich red. On the flip side of the case was another card: a student ID, whose expiry date was last year.

“You should hand that in you know,” the man beside her said, interrupting her reverie.

“Yes,” she replied.

Amanda did not hand it in. She took it home with her and tried to go about her evening as normal. She put it up high on her bookshelf, next to the little cat ornaments her grandmother had given her as a child. She put the radio on, to make the flat seem less quiet. She boiled the kettle. She stood in front of the mirror, brushing her long thick hair. The jangly pop music seemed only to ricochet off the silence, intensifying instead of subduing it. Amanda tugged and tugged at her hair but she could not get the knots out. Tears of frustration sprung to her eyes.

She felt pathetic for crying. Her arms crumbled to her sides and she threw down the brush. The kettle began to whistle. Amanda burnt her tongue on the first sip of tea. She checked her phone but there were no texts; there had been nothing, now, for three days.

The following morning, she went out on her lunch break and got a standby appointment with a hairdresser near her work.

“I want it very short,” she said carefully, fingering the long strands of hair that framed her face.

“How short?” The stylist asked, lifting clumps from the lengths of Amanda’s hair and letting them fall again, as if she were trying to gauge how much her tresses weighed.

“Oh, a crop. A pixie cut.”

“Bold, huh?”

“Like Laura Marling. Very short.”

“I don’t know who that is honey. You sure you have the features for something that short? I’m not saying you have a big nose or anything but wouldn’t you like to look at—”

“No,” Amanda said firmly, “I want a crop. Please. I don’t care about dainty features.”

“Okay, whatever you want.”

It took an hour. Great wads of hair fell away past her shoulders as the stylist attacked Amanda’s locks with her scissors. She cut away in steady, hungry snips until all that was left was a ruffled mess, short as a boy’s.

“Don’t worry,” the stylist assured her, “it’ll look weird until I’ve wetted it and done the layers.” Another half hour and it was done. The blow-dry took minutes. Amanda blinked in the mirror and tried to imagine what she would look like with heavier eye makeup. Marianne Holbrook. The girl in the railcard photo, blankly staring, mysterious.

“Thanks.”

“It does look rather amazing,” the stylist admitted, surprised.

Amanda went back to work and everyone was so shocked at what she had done that they all forgot to reprimand her for being late.

“Very sexy,” her boss said, biting his pencil. Amanda felt hollow inside as she sat down at her desk. The afternoon stretched before her, empty and dark as an elevator shaft. She couldn’t wait to get home; there were things to be done.

That night, she took the glitter wallet off the shelf and carefully pulled out the two cards inside. She took the student ID and held it over the bin as she snipped it into pieces. The girl in the photo looked very young: she had shoulder-length hair, blonde, a shock of fringe and a lurid shade of lipstick. It hardly seemed the same Marianne as the one in the railcard photo. Amanda turned the railcard over in her fingers. She had looked it up online and discovered that it granted the user unlimited free travel to any UK rail destination. It was a mystery as to how this girl obtained such a privilege, but Amanda realised that it had fallen into her hands for a reason. Without the obstruction of fares, the whole of Britain opened up for her like some elaborate flower, ready to ooze its precious nectar. She googled train routes across the rest of England, Wales and even, with some timidity, Scotland. The red patterns spiralled outwards, running their veins lusciously across the green countryside, alongside rivers, canals, forests and coastline. She looked up towns and cities, high speed connections and leisurely scenic routes. There was so much to see that soon enough, Amanda could hardly contain her excitement.

She would take time off work to live on  Britain’s trains. How difficult could it be? She would give herself up to the whims of timetables and route planners, to vague and uncertain destinations and journeys. There were some trains that ran through the night. There were stations with shelters that didn’t kick you out. If worst came to worst, she would tap into her savings and stay in hostels and cheap B&Bs. The whole while she would assume her new identity. She would be Marianne Holbrook. She would never be lonely.

She phoned up her work the following morning.

“Hello Gina,” she said, “can you tell Mr. Raymond that I’ll be gone for a few weeks?” Gina, the manager’s personal assistant, raised her voice to a shrill pitch.

“What do you mean, gone a few weeks?”

“Oh, I’m going away for awhile. My circumstances have…changed.”

“‘Manda—” She cleared her throat loudly. “I’m going to need a better explanation to give him…do you have a doctor’s note? Are you leaving? You’ll have to hand in your notice, there’s procedure—”

“Tell him I’ll just be gone awhile. He won’t mind. Have a nice day, Gina.” Amanda hung up. For once, she realised she did not care about procedure. She stuffed her phone back into the side pocket of her rucksack, and turned back to the window. It was partially open and a cool breeze rustled the bare skin of her neck, which felt deliciously naked without her long hair to cover it. April hadn’t brought many showers since it turned its first few leaves; in fact, the weather had been glorious. Outside the carriage window, the sky was a bright bright blue and the crumbling buildings that skirted the city gave way to fields which rolled over and over in verdant, romantic green. It took forty minutes before they were properly out of the city. Once the ticket inspector had checked her railcard, Amanda plugged in her headphones and listened to an old Cat Power album.

She had to change trains a few hours in. The whole process was far less stressful now that she had no fixed destination, no time constraints. Every hour was her own, and time itself did not matter. She sat on the cold station seats, trying to read a leaflet about a local whisky distillery that she had picked up by the ticket gates. People looked at her differently with her new hair. Girls glanced at her with lingering intrigue. Boys rarely noticed her, or else they had to do a double-take. Amanda wasn’t sure if these were good double-takes, or bad ones. She wasn’t even sure what the difference was.

As the station clock clicked to ten o’clock, Amanda checked her phone. Still no texts. And yet, why did she care? She had already told him it was over. 

She travelled up and down the whole of the UK. She spent a day in sunny Brighton, looking out to the limit points of this country she called home, at the sparkling lights at the end of the ocean. In the nightclub that evening, she found herself dancing to Eurotech, face gleaming with metallic makeup and sweat. A stranger slid his hand to the back of her neck and she let him kiss her amidst the flashing lights and thumping music. His mouth tasted chemical sweet. Outside, gasping for breath on the beach pebbles, she wondered whether this was something Marianne would do. Take things on impulse. Treat people like shadows, passing through your day, swelling, shrinking, disappearing. Somewhere in the darkness, the sea whispered its history of secrets. The city withheld its judgment.

Back up the country she travelled. She skirted round London, past the rolling hills of the South Downs; past Basingstoke, Luton, Milton Keynes. The changing accents haunted her with their shrill cacophony. She slept in a Travel Inn that night, washing her hair with the complimentary lemon shampoo that smelled good enough to eat. It was a very lonely motel: all the corridors were empty. Even the cleaners drifted along like ghosts, never looking up or smiling. She caught herself checking work emails on the WiFi and had to force herself to stop. She took a small vodka from the minibar.

What would Ruaridh say to all this?

Night after night, the meaningless names drifted through her mind. She had seen so many towns and cities now that she had lost her sense of what made each one distinct. England became unreal, this vast, impenetrable stretch of motorways, train tracks, telephone wires and suburbs. The crowds and the people and the buildings were different, but each time she felt the same. She did not feel real, floating aimlessly down street after street with no direction or purpose, nestling into the armchair of yet another Starbucks. Amanda told herself she was just exploring.

Sometimes she found herself wondering what Marianne had studied at uni, what she now did for a living. She imagined her, all cropped hair and smoky eyes, leaning over a desk at some sleek fashion magazine office. She pictured her in a court of law, sharp in a suit, scrawling notes. She saw her lifting weights at a gym after a hard day at the bank. She saw her serving tables at a classy restaurant, drinking martinis at some downtown bar. These were all possibilities. Marianne was made of possibilities.

On the train from Birmingham, disillusioned with cities and their grey array of indifferent buildings, Amanda managed to bump her way onto the first class carriage. This was something Marianne would do, sleek and easy like her hair. It was simple enough to turn tricks when you were less self-conscious. She brushed her fingers over the plush seats and nestled into her headrest. A skinny man dressed as a waiter came round with a trolley bar and every time he passed, Amanda ordered another Bloody Mary. She licked her lips as he stirred in the celery, the other passengers impatiently waiting.

Three drinks in and she kept dialling his number on her phone.

“Come on Ruaridh, pick up,” she hissed. People around her were staring. She was an odd sight on their carriage, with her little white belly poking out of her cut-out dress. She dialled again and again and of course he did not pick up. It was three months since they had last spoken, since she told him they could no longer be together; three months since the silence started, since she cut herself off from the world. And yet, a fortnight was all it took. Two weeks since her first outing as Marianne Holbrook.

“You never tell me what you want, how I can make things better for you.” Is that what he said to her, or did she say it to him? It hurt that now she could hardly remember; there was a time when she thought she had the words they exchanged engraved in her soul. Now it seemed, they slipped away, easy as the faces left melting on the platform as the train pulled out of the station…

She was in Leicester, Nottingham, Coventry. She found herself addicted to all the stations, their absolute sense of space devoid of place. In the stations, everyone could be anyone. She liked the dull parquet floors and the green painted railings and the matching uniforms, the logos and slogans, the slow and constant stream of announcements. People coming and going, bags and suitcases rolling along, teenagers moping around by the Burger Kings, waiting to be asked to move on. In so many ways, each station was the same. Aside from the stacks of leaflets advertising local attractions, it was easy to forget where you were. Each one was a kind of anywhere. Accents blended and clashed and Amanda felt like she was in some way everywhere in Britain at once: the stations were just another node in the network of cities, people and identities. The same chain stores brightened her view as she stepped off the train. She started buying the exact same things every time: the superfood salad from M&S, the Wrigley’s gum and magazines from WHSmith, the treat bag from Millie’s Cookies, the almond butter hand cream from The Body Shop that depleted so fast, what with the air conditioner on the trains drying out Amanda’s skin. It was so satisfying to follow a pattern.

“What’s your name?”

It was the day that somebody broke the pattern. She was hovering by the ticket gates at Preston station, clutching her railcard and hoping to catch the northbound train.

“Am-Marianne,” she found herself saying in reply. The stranger was an old man, laden with a heavy-looking rucksack.

“Ammarianne, it sounds Greek or something.” Amanda bit her lip.

“I’m Jim,” the man added. He wore an old tweed cap and had a vaguely Scottish accent. She did not know what to say, what he wanted from her. She thought about what Marianne would do, the possibilities that the interchange offered for experimenting.

“It’s actually Marianne,” she said.

“Hm?” he was checking the screens, squinting to see his train time.

“My name. Not Ammarianne.” She forced a smile.

“Where are you heading then?” He gestured towards the board of departures and arrivals.

“Well, somewhere up north I think,” she replied vaguely.

“Glad to hear it,” he said, “me too. I’m a fish out of water here. Scotland is a good place to go for the lonely.”

“Yes.” She hadn’t planned on heading that far north. Carlisle had been her limit point.

“Oh. Well,” he hauled his bag from the ground. “That’s my train. Better hurry.”

“Bye,” Amanda whispered, watching him stumble through the ticket gates. Just before disappearing around the corner of the platform, he turned and shouted out to her.

“So long, Marianne.” She could see that he was grinning and she did not understand the joke. What would come upon a person to make them approach a stranger like that, for no reason other than to say hello? It was so foreign to her, that kind of politeness, that pointless brand of interaction. Stepping on her own train, the thought of the man lingered in her mind. So easily he had broken the silent contract of anonymity which seemed to govern the stations. Was this something she could do too?

The thought of talking to strangers made Amanda feel powerful. She knew, then, that Marianne was the kind of girl who had no problem letting her guard down.

They had thrown her off the train where she sat in first class. She had drunk one too many Bloody Marys and was slurring nonsense at her fellow passengers, bits of celery still stuck in her teeth, tomato juice stinging her lips. It was difficult for her to recall now, but she had more than once broken the silent contract herself. She had not so subtlety propositioned a businessman, declared to everyone an undying love for her ex-boyfriend, blithely told a woman that she should eat less of those chocolate bars because they were making her fat.

“But don’t worry,” she had droned on, “look at the state of me too,” she pinched a roll of flesh that clung to the skin of her dress, “I’m gonna lay off the cookies too once I get off this ride, once all this stops…” She had promptly vomited all over the polished floor and the conductor had to clear it up while the train was still moving and his mop bucket sloshed and then at the next station he escorted her to the exit, while everyone eyed her with disdain. She threw up again on the platform and knew that night she could not stay at the station. The world had clocked her for who she truly was.

The thing was to keep moving. She got herself to Blackpool on the bus and won some money on the slots. There was such a pure satisfaction in the click and spin of the fruit symbols, turning and turning. The leap in her chest when they matched up: three bright sets of cherries. That night she watched the boats twinkle over the bay, the carnival music blaring wickedly from the Pleasure Beach. There were couples everywhere, locking lips as the blue lights shone down from the rides, as the waves slushed gently on the sand, as the breeze whistled in the cold dark air. Leaning over the pier, Amanda ate fish and chips drowned in vinegar, hoping to cure her hangover. Her phone bleeped with a message from her mother: Hope you’re OK honey. Guess who I bumped into in town today? xxxx

Amanda hardly wanted to know. It was probably an old school teacher, or some pal that Amanda hung out with in primary school.

Who? x The grease from the fish supper made thumb prints on her phone.

Ruaridh, of all people! and we thought he had gone away! 

Ruaridh?

I don’t know how long he’ll be here for. He was asking after you.

Not that he ever texted her back. Not that he ever really tried to touch base anymore. She flicked through her messages to him:

I’m sorry. Can we talk? 

Please can you answer the phone. I want to explain. 

I miss you. I’m faraway from home and I still miss you. 

Call me back. 

Please Ruaridh, call me back.

It had been so long since they had talked that he had started to appear to her only in the abstract, the name on her phone a source code that might unlock some pattern from the shards of memory resting useless in her brain.

And yet he had asked after her; he had spoken to her mother. Had he perhaps changed his number? Was his old phone lying, battery dead, at the bottom of the desk drawer where he kept his protein shakes, his condoms and badges and passport?

She thought of those texts, drifting on through the ether, directionless as she was. Town names and station signs blurred into one. Even the old-fashioned stations seemed the same, with their pretty red brickwork, their giant clocks and gleaming phone boxes. The whole journey she had been going nowhere, but all the while she longed for one destination. Was it him? Could it possibly just be him? The city she had lived in all these years seemed so distant. It felt impossible, the prospect of just going home. In the carriage with the tables, the ragged newspapers, the empty bottles and coffee cups, she was leaving her old life behind.

The train was so quiet. A little girl was licking crisp crumbs from her fingers, staring at Amanda across the table, eyes wide and oddly fearful.

What does she want, what does she want?

She was in Scotland now at last, passing by sparkling lochs and pine-covered mountains. She hadn’t planned on coming here. The train just kept going, rolling on slower and slower, and Amanda had lacked the energy to change her route at Carlisle. Scotland seemed like the end of the universe. It was easier to stay on the same train, easier to let the world direct her like this. This was the land of accents she could hardly understand. Silvery land of wilderness and silence. Everything enveloped in mist. Everything cold, mysterious, romantic. The train tracks wound dramatically round mountains, farmland, fields pregnant with the summer harvest. Sometimes the mist cleared and Amanda would glimpse patches of bright sky. In the past few weeks, the evenings had grown longer, so that now at half past eight the carriage was bathed in a soft yellow light. The grass that Amanda could see from the windows was a kind of supernatural green, so vivid it was difficult to look away. The fields stretched out into endless hills, lush with ferns and trees, fluffy white sheep and even the odd telephone line. Often they passed little cottages and farms, or villages speckled with lights that twinkled through chimney smoke. There were very few houses in the mountains; the train was disappearing into somewhere very remote. Surely by now they should be in Glasgow, or maybe Edinburgh? She couldn’t remember which one came first. All that surrounded her now were the mountains, snow-capped, rust-coloured, rocky, sometimes a deep and sinister green.

It struck Amanda that the mountains reminded her of her father, who used to take her up to the Lakes sometimes when she was young, forcing her to learn the maps even though the sight of all those squiggly lines and symbols made her dizzy, more disorientated than she was before. He made her traipse across acres of countryside, reciting his favourite segments from the guidebook, stretching out the hours with his constant narration. Reviving himself with cider at some farmer’s pub, where the locals would stare at them suspiciously as Amanda sipped her lemonade and the whole while her father never noticed. It was in the summertime, two years ago now, that he died.

Nobody talked about it. Amanda’s parents were halfway through a messy divorce when he discovered he had cancer. It had all happened so fast. The appointments, the vomiting, the weight loss – the transition into anonymity and sickness.

At rockbottom. Please call me, even just for a minute. 

She hated herself even as she typed the message. All I want is to hear your voice. The thought of all those pathetic unanswered texts piling up on his phone made her physically sick. The train churned on, its sluggish rhythm another source of her nausea. The only messages she’d been receiving were voicemails from work, telling her she’d missed deadlines, meetings; telling her they were disappointed, telling her not to bother coming back.

In the cracked glass mirror of the carriage toilet, her reflection looked strange somehow. There were new shadows etched under her eyes, greenish as some disease. Little flecks of red that veined the whiteness round her irises. She realised she hadn’t slept more than three hours a night for weeks.

She thought of her father, emaciated, pushing a supermarket trolley, his fingers gripping the bar so hard you could see the tendons round his knuckles. The smile he forced as she shoved bottles in the trolley was grotesque and strange: a Cheshire cat grin smeared upon those hollow cheeks. He was buying her vodka because she was going to a birthday party, because she was not yet eighteen – a clandestine mission concealed from her mother. She thought how he would appear then to a stranger, vodka rattling in the trolley, this gaunt figure swathed in scarf and overcoat, incongruous against the mildness of that May.

There were secrets in these hills, Amanda thought, that nobody knew. Such endless stretches of greenery, pure as the wool on a lamb’s back; stretches which no man had touched with his brick or chisel. In the hills, there was a sense of possibility; in the hills, you could be free.

This freedom was quite terrifying.

The train had slowed as it finally approached a new destination. Nervously, Amanda fingered the plastic coating of the railcard with Marianne’s face on it. She was tired of always playing a role. It drained you, the whole process of never revealing your true name, spinning webs of lies to perfect your anonymity. Brushing past strangers and missing out on meaningful conversation. Out of a picture she had fashioned an entire existence, but now this identity felt crude and shallow. She was tired of staring out of windows, tired of flirting with strangers. She found herself missing her mother, the 24-hour shop down the road, the memories that haunted her home in Bristol.

She disembarked from the train in some small town, the name of which she couldn’t even pronounce. Everything was tiny, shrunken somehow, like a toy sized version of reality. Standing outside the town’s single newsagent, Amanda checked her phone. There was no signal whatsoever. She walked round and round the village, but to no avail. She knew then that she had completely left civilisation behind.

This was probably the loneliest place she had ever visited. Her father had never taken her somewhere like this: his favourite destinations in the Lakes were the comparatively bustling towns of Ambleside and Windermere. Tourist hotspots with ferries and buses and trains. Here, all the pretty streets, with their flower baskets, their plant pots and cobbles, were empty. Only the humming bees provided company. It was, perhaps, a town that time had forgotten.

Amanda realised she was starving, that the pains in her stomach meant something. She came across a tiny shop which seemed to be the only amenity in the village. The sign in the window said: “No More Than Two Children At Any One Time”. She stepped inside and a bell tinkled. The woman behind the counter greeted her in a thick accent. It was not like the Scottish voices on the radio or telly. The shop was so small that Amanda had to duck her head the whole time as she looked around. There were only a handful of aisles, shelves half stocked with off-looking bread and chocolate bars and tin after tin after tin of beans. At the counter there were a few fresh rolls and some fruit. Amanda bought what she could and thanked the woman.

“What brings you to these parts?” she asked, noticing Amanda’s conspicuous Englishness, the Queen’s face on the £5 note she handed over.

“I don’t know,” Amanda admitted. “I guess I’m looking for something.”

“Well, you might find it here. Folk have found worse in this village.” She smiled wryly and the wrinkles of her face creased up like the sand folding in patterns left by the tide.

“Oh?” The woman handed Amanda her change but her lips remained shut tight. Outside the shop, the weather had changed ever so slightly. There was a faint breeze stirring in the surrounding trees. The village seemed to be in a valley, protected from the harsher elements. It was a miracle there was a train station at all here – probably it was some relic from the Victorian era. Maybe there was a coal mine here once, or maybe the roads were in such bad condition that even the buses couldn’t get out this far into the wilderness. Amanda had the vague sense that she was in the Highlands, but she couldn’t be sure. The air had a thick moisture to it, a soothing texture to every breath she took, to the smoke that rose from cottage chimneys, the clouds that curled round the snowy tops of mountains.

She wasn’t quite ready to eat yet, though she was very hungry. She wanted to explore every inch of the village first. There were a handful of tiny winding streets, windows in miniature, house after house with Gaelic names etched on the door. Wild cherry trees flowered with late blossom round a square, in the centre of which was a war monument. Amanda stood and read all the names of the deceased carefully. Everyone seemed to have the same names: John and William and James. She touched the thick grey stone and its coldness seemed to spread through her bones. All those people, whose minds and bodies were lost in the turmoil of something far larger than themselves. The memorial seemed the only thing, apart from the ancient railway line, that connected this place to the outside world.

Ruaridh was a soldier. His job was to fight in whatever war they sent him to, to follow commands with cold precision, to give himself up to the mechanisms of higher forces. He had been in Iraq when Amanda was still at school and Afghanistan when she took night classes in college, serving coffees in Starbucks during the day. This whole other life had washed over him, while she remained at home, slowly growing, mostly staying the same. He had seen things he could never explain to her.

I miss you. I’m far away from home and I still miss you. 

Perhaps his reticence was worse than hers. Perhaps he was the one who was truly unreachable, the one who could never match her in their silent exchanges beneath the sheets. She remembered the way he used to shake with nightmares, though denying them upon waking. It could’ve been his name, up there on a monument like this. Only no, because soldiers these days didn’t fight for glory, not like the old ways of valour and poetry and bravery. These days, even more they did not know what cause they were fighting for. They were just sent away, hardened with protein bars, coldly dished therapy and standardised training. She thought of the muscles in his neck, quivering as he spoke. Despite the strength of his body, it seemed all the time like it might snap, like the stem of a rose.

A photograph from the news: skinny, doe-eyed children, the reverberating dust of explosions, debris flying through a colourless sky. Soldiers in their khaki uniforms, praying for this world that they had not yet had time to properly love. For this world they might lose.

She remembered kissing him for the first time, in his mother’s living room, while they watched a black and white movie. The sound turned down, the whisper of their voices rustling the air. The walls would still contain those voices. Her fingers brushed the cold marble setting of the monument. Youth and innocence. Was that all that love was worth? And what about war?

Was loneliness the reward for all she had taken the guts to sever?

She thought of the scarring on his arms, the swellings of all those magenta welts which flowered outwards in jagged patterns, not unlike the etched textures of tree bark, both coarse and strangely smooth. The burns he had suffered were some price he had paid, his dues to the people he lived and fought for. Sometimes he would lie awake at night in pain while Amanda rubbed them with expensive oils and honey. She would watch his eyes close before the tears could leave them.

She turned away and the wind picked up and stirred the trees, shaking fistfuls of cherry blossoms from the branches, swirling them in the path with the shrivelled daffodils and the silver gravel. Some of the blossoms settled in Amanda’s hair. She walked away, past the church, following the tinkling sound of a river. She sat on its mossy bank and ate her apple, watching the midges rise above the water, spiralling in the gold light playing in the reflections of the pines in the river. Afterwards, her mouth felt sour as her soul. She wished she had cigarettes. She looked through her texts.

At rockbottom. 

At rockbottom. 

At rockbottom.

Three times she had sent it. Three times, and no reply.

She pictured herself, tied to the stir of the riverbed, pulled along by an unseen current. She would let it drag her where it willed, battering her on the sharp stones.

Somethings you just have to let go. Her father, whose ashes they scattered from Friar’s Crag, looking out upon a brilliant body of water, the light in the sky the colour of indigo as she watched her mother tearfully smile her final goodbye. The wind in the pines, the light on the lake.

Somewhere, Ruaridh would have stood among dust and chaos, a gun in his belt and his heart encased in a golden cage. In sparse Internet cafes, he would have written all those emails to her, sent her pictures of the crumbled houses and the desert. From this lush valley of greenery and quiet, it seemed another planet. She realised, then, that she was so many people. She wasn’t just the Amanda that maybe he had loved and grieved over and then ignored. She was the girl who would always mourn her father, who would long for summer afternoons in the Lakes; for the taste of ice lollies, for the breeze on her face. She was the lonely employee, biding her hours in her stuffy office. She was all these Amandas. But she was also Marianne: this monster who had burgeoned from a picture, larger than life, a figure of surface and depth, past her expiry date, readymade to inhabit. She had built this person from nothing but a picture, its plastic gloss the surface foundations. She knew, then, that she had the power to put herself back together.

I want to explain. 

The midges danced on the water. The clouds moved overhead, the gloaming settled its purple shadows around the pines.

She no longer needed him to remember. Probably he was broken too, broken beyond her control. He would be back for awhile, but the call to leave would always drag him along again. War was, in a way, another kind of travelling. She did not crave the same excitement, the same desperate thrills of horror and danger that lay in the army; but still it was the impulse for movement that drove them both. She saw that now. They were both trying to escape the same lonely feeling, the hollowness that gnawed out from the bones that once held them up, that once fused their connection to the land and earth. To each other.

She caught the last train out of the village, finishing the last of her picnic. She watched the river’s silent starlit glitter stretch along the valleys, turning round the hillsides. She waited for her phone to regain its signal. She knew when it did, she would text her mother back at last: Tell him I’m fine. 

And then she would delete his number from her phone.

And later, when she fell into sleep, she finally realised what the old man at Preston station had meant when he bade her goodbye. What it was he was quoting. The rich deep baritone of Leonard Cohen drifted into her mind and she remembered, she remembered. A song her father used to play on Sunday afternoons, smoking illicit cigarettes from the bedroom window while her mother was out getting the shopping.

I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web
is fastening my ankle to a stone. 

And the chorus came to her, easily as sleep did, easy as the loneliness that now she embraced, languid and happy; as easy as the slow tug of the train that would take her who knows where, that would link this life and this self to the next one and bring her always some fresh memory that was better than home:

Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began…