In company

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I was lonely so I drove to Mullion. I’d seen a picture of its harbour arms in a guidebook: they seemed like polished clamps that once served a purpose. The name ‘Mullion’ promised me that it was special: it had substance, made the tongue straighten to touch the lower palate, created space inside the mouth. I had wanted to go for some time.

On my way down to the cove from where I’d parked my car, a coal black horse in a field whose mane had been plaited and tousled like a human’s. It shone like graphite. There was something in its eyes that made me sense that it was wiser than I would ever be.

Along the sides of the road, wildflowers different to those at home. Despite living only twenty miles away from it, the Lizard Peninsula is a different land, toes a different climate. I take my phone out of my pocket, still awkward with how to work its camera. It soon comes naturally. When I get home, I learn that I have met Bird’s-Foot Trefoil, Sea Campion, Red Campion and gangs of Sea Carrot. The Alexanders, Bluebells and Thrift I knew from before, but they seem to grow differently here, fearlessly, perhaps.  The Foxgloves sit up on the cliffs, backs straightened to look over the long grass. The Thrift grows in great numbers, gathering together and threatening to enact city-like sprawls.

At quiet, sheltered Mullion, the black cliffs absorbed light from the afternoon sun, brightening the sea, grass and wildflowers around them. The cove is still a working harbour, the arms still protect fishing boats that bring in mainly shellfish these days. Once, tons of pilchards would have been transported between them. An unmanned sign advertised seal trips and three boats lined obediently up at the harbour mouth. Beyond the harbour arm, a great rock with grassy shoulders and scalp where gulls made their nests; beyond that, some mile distant, another island. Mullion Island was uninhabited, a National Trust sign read.

I couldn’t stay there: all the best spots were taken by earlier risers, who stretched their legs from benches or rested their backs in grassy cliff seats. It was too small a place to idle and linger alone without being watched. So I walked along the coast path, from Mullion to Poldhu Cove two miles to the north, the path carefully gravelled and stepped. The wind a flood that sought to sear through me; it was at last balmy, and so insistent that I unzipped my top as I walked. I had waited months for the wind to warm like this.

I soon forgot my sadness.

And on my return, just as I was beginning to pay less attention to the flora I documented the first time round, the fauna came up to meet me: three baby stoats, gabbling and waddling along the path as if late for school. I thought they were going to bound into my shoes, but with two metres to go, six black beads stared up at me. Half a second was all I had to look into their strange eyes before I lost them to the long cliff grass. As I walked away I heard them for some time, yikkering near the cliffs, playing with their echoes.

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The Pilot Whale

I wasn’t sure how I’d come to get such a central view, but there I was, leaning over the railings with my hood up, redundant and frustrated, watching the pilot whale die. It was smaller than I thought it was going to be – 12 foot long, perhaps, and pressed right up close to the sea wall. It was covered with a great red sheet, smooth and sodden from the seawater that volunteers had been pouring over it for several hours. Water was scooped up in big containers from rock pools and passed along a human chain to a man who poured these offerings into a dustbin serving as a water butt. From there, a further team collected the water in smaller pots and tin watering cans, distributing it across the whale’s body. Sometimes, when one of the team stepped out of the way, you could see the gentle curve of its shiny black head peeping out of the sheet. Whenever this happened, there was an ‘ahh look,’ from someone nearby.

Thirty people were on the beach: coastguard rescue, the local policeman, vets, a photographer, marine biologists from Tremough campus, and an assortment of volunteers without any uniform at all. Everything that could be done was being done. A windbreak had been set up to fend off the wind as it tore across the beach to dry the animal out. One woman stood ankle deep in a rock pool. I have no idea how long she had been in that position, bending down to scoop water and pass it along the chain.

The crowd up above on the promenade, and the rescue team down on the beach all at some point stared at the tide. The whale had been stranded about 11 am, and by the time I heard the news and drove up at 2pm, with some vague notion in my head of being useful and helping out, I was of course far too late to be of any use. High tide was expected around 6pm. Though the waves seemed to press towards the land, they made little difference to it and came no closer to the pilot whale whether we willed it to or not. I wished them on, nevertheless, as if this was one way in which I could help. I stared at the sea in a way that I had not stared for a long time.

Sometimes there were things said in the crowd: that the vet was coming to put the animal to sleep; that there was something wrong with its muscles which had resulted in it being beached in the first place. I couldn’t believe that it would end like this. I stood there for over half an hour, waiting for good news to trickle through via text messages between the audience and the stage.

From time to time, the exposed tail would flap up and down, each movement a burst of saved-up energy, a will to live. It made many of us ache with our own uselessness. ‘I’m not standing here to watch it die,’ a young girl said to her friend as they put their cameras away and walked from the scene.

I was angry about the cameras at the start. As well as smartphones, there was expensive kit that hung around craned necks as the crowd swelled, absorbing passers by. But as time went on, and I realised that the animal was indeed going to be put to sleep, I found myself taking my own phone out of my pocket. I still do not understand why I did it: a combination of bearing witness, of effecting an action, of willing it to live. I do not know whether or not to delete it.

I looked at it later, when I was home and it was over. The image was of thirty people, shivering brazenly into the April wind on a rocky slip of a quiet beach, working to ease suffering in whatever way they could.

New Years Day and the ephemeral feeling of promise

The road to Maenporth, which has been shut for months, was temporarily re-opened over Christmas and New Year. On New Years Day, the very last day before the drills are taken up again and the yellow diversion signs are set back on roundabouts, we take our dogs to the beach at low tide. We put them in the boot of the car and settle into the front seats. The dogs bark excitedly all the way. I have my wellies on.

The beach is busy as we park in the beach car park. Dad opens the car boot – ‘I’m going to try and grab Maddy. You take hold of Sandy. I’m going to do this quickly, so one, two, three-’ and we each grab a dog. We clip leads onto collars, and when we are a little way down the beach and away from the road, we unclip them.

This is the best bit, because Sandy, our golden retriever, goes bananas in a way that I wish I could emulate when I myself experience joy. Freed from her lead, she bolts but cannot settle upon a direction: she runs towards a gang of black headed gulls which scatters and disperses into the cliffs; runs to the beach stream that cuts across the sand like a crack on a plate; runs back to us in loops and swirls, checking up on our progress, eyes glinting with craziness, tongue escaping from her mouth. Her paws print the damp, compressed sand with her movements, which perhaps replicate the direction of thoughts in her own mind. Maddy, the collie, is fully focused upon the ball which my Dad inserts with wet, sandy fingers into the ball launcher, and tears off down the beach every time that he raises it in the air and brings it down like a scythe. We walk to the beach stream and begin to cross it. The water threatens to break over the top of my wellies; the current is strong, strong enough to momentarily paralyse me in the middle of the stream with the fear that I will fall. We reach the other side without incident, however, and have to ourselves a part of the beach where caves can be found in the cliffs, where pebbles form concourses around much larger rocks and where rock pools are, for a few hours, exposed.

Sandy heads first for the sea, running over sand only recently exposed by the receding tide. Low tide sand is never land for long: in the hour in which it breathes in the open air, it is so saturated that a thin layer of water lies upon it like a mirror. As Sandy runs, two dogs are visible, one in this world and one in an exposed world underneath. I mooch around in the shallows and amongst the rocks, from time to time calling the dog to me, rewarding her with treats as I go. I take to standing in the sea, the waves passing over the top of my boots as the tide turns and they start the ceaseless tasks of cleansing and erasing. I watch as a trail of my own footprints are lost, then a deep scuff in the sand made by the hind paw of a dog taking off in another direction, perhaps after a ball.

My brow loosens and I uncurl toes that were gripping the insoles of my boots. Out on the horizon two great container ships, painted red and green, manage to look jolly. The sun breaks through cloud that for weeks has been thick and heavy with rain; so bright is the light that as I move back among the pebbles and the rock pools, I feel like I am walking in an Instagram photo. Reality feels more colourful, more yellow. It has been a long time since yellow has been here.

After half an hour, my Dad tires of slashing the ball launcher through the air. There is satisfaction written into the creases of his face: his eyes are more open than usual, and his shoulders are relaxed. The sea moves its way up the beach, shooing us inland, and we make our way over the stream and reach the car. Dad opens the boot  – ‘come on Maddy, in’ – and shuts it.

We settle into the front seats, and as we drive back up the road, the dogs begin to bark. The noise rings in my ears and is so loud that it is all that I can focus on. It seems to hold something open all the way home, something that is trying very hard to close.

Peninsula Magazine

Last week, Peninsula Magazine was published – a product of my postgraduate Writing course which is now winding down and coming to its close.  My coursemates and I spent over six months working on Peninsula – from conceiving its theme, contacting our favourite writers to ask for contributions, liaising with copyeditors and designers to get it just how we wanted, and then getting it out there – in UK bookshops and as a downloadable PDF online.

The process made me fall a little in love with litmags, and realise how invaluable they are to the spread of good writing, and new writing too – something that I’m hungry for, more than ever.  For my part, I interviewed Jay Griffiths, one of my favourite writers, about Wild, one of my favourite books.  I was also fortunate to get other great writers involved, whose work and sentence craft continue to inspire me: Robert Macfarlane, David Lawrence, Matthew Oates, Kathleen Jamie, Jeremy Mynott, Mel Challenger…all of these writers, some whose work I read prior to making the decision to pursue writing more seriously, some who I stumbled across whilst completing dissertations for my course, all have given their words to Peninsula with generosity, and have made it eclectic, diverse and very, very readable, covering themes as wide ranging as footpaths, Antarctica, butterflies, London, birds, the paranormal, Glastonbury, road trips, Hawaii and Cornish policing.  I also contributed some of my own writing, on pages 68 – 70, about returning to my childhood home.

There are very few print copies left (which, by the way, are free – we post them out to whoever wants them), but the PDF is available here.

I think you should click on that link.

Wheal Coates in March

ImageWheal Coates is a tin mine that stands on a North Cornish cliff bound by heather and gorse.  Its mineshaft reaches down through the rock to Towanroath Yugga, a cave off Chapel Porth beach that can be entered into when the tide is out.  Today, however, the tide is in, and the weather is foul.  The heather lies low on the ground, as if trying to shelter from the wind and the rain.  It’s a wonder that Wheal Coates still stands and hasn’t been blown into the sea, I think, holding onto my hat as I walk towards the tin mine’s silhouette, through weather that batters me, as if trying to force me back. 

Wheal Coates dates from the 1870s, and was finally abandoned in 1913.  Nearly a hundred years on, the site looks fragmented, as if the cliff had been bombed. Three engine houses still stand, their roofs lost long ago, their tips tinged back into life with the green of moss.  All have cavities where windows should be: the tallest engine house has an uppermost window-hole that frames for me a patch of heavy sky.  Elsewhere are low strips of wall, which, to my ignorant eyes, seem randomly built and abandoned half way through.  The National Trust information board gives these fragments sinister sounding names: Calciner, Boiler Pond, Dressing Floor.  Still, hundreds of people understood this land and used to come to this very spot to work in a world far beneath my feet.  Men died down there, dying of injuries and landslides; many drowned in the dark. 

It is the wailing of the drowning miners that you are meant to hear at Wheal Coates, coming up the mineshaft.  I don’t see the shaft at first: I am too easily distracted by the colour of the stone that has been used to build the various walls.  Blood red, with the occasional streak of white.  It’s not noticeable at a distance, but up close, parts of Wheal Coates look as if they were built from slabs of red meat; gristly steak.  More of the same stone covers the ground and paths: scattered off cuts.  I slide a couple in my pocket, wiping the wet from my fingers onto my sleeves.   

The mineshaft is covered with a metal grid, splitting its disturbing darkness into small, manageable oblongs.  In one corner, part of the grid has been stretched and widened, creating a hole large enough for a dead miner’s forearm to reach out and grab a foot.  Not really knowing what I am doing, I pick a stone out of my pocket and toss it into the shaft to gauge its depth.  Poorly thrown, or swept off course by the wind, it clatters on the shaft’s sides as it falls, creating echoes and thus revealing nothing.  I reach for my other stone but as I do, the wind mimics my actions, tossing rain into my face and whipping my hair.  For the rest of my time on the cliff, it seems to pursue me, howling within the engine houses when I step into them.  It knows the stones better than I do, and uses them to create unusual sounds.  On one occasion, it creates a sound close to my feet that makes me stop still.  Like it knows of an  underground cavity, and is sweeping through it.

It doesn’t spook me at the time, because I assume there is a rational explanation for what I hear. But replaying it in my mind after I have come away makes my spine grow cold.  So, too, does the stone that I find in my pocket, days later, whilst searching for something else.  Now dry, its colour has paled to an anaemic pink.  It is almost as if it has been drained of something, and I wonder whether the colour slowly changed, unseen in my pocket, the further I took it away from its cliff.  

Dawn Chorus

Sunday morning, early May, 4.30 am.  I walk down the lane in the pre-dawn darkness with my guitar strapped to my back.  It sits uncomfortably on the curve of my spine, and bumps against it with each step.  The zip of the guitar case ruptures the quiet around me with a tinkle like breaking glass.   

     I am late; it’s already started.  A robin was already warming up as I left the flat, and wrens and wood pigeons sing softly in the trees I now pass.  Other birds are singing too, but I cannot identify them.    

     There is just enough light from the moon to see the gate leading to Lower Marsh Nature Reserve, where I have chosen to conduct my experiment.  I cross the road, guitar bag chirruping, lean over the gate, and unlock it.  I can just about pick up a silver ribbon of path in the darkness, beckoning me in.

     The chorus seems to develop and become richer the deeper in I go.  I find a place to sit: it’s not acoustically perfect, just a patch of bare earth by a fence that I will later find borders onto a pool of water.  I unzip my case, taking out my guitar and my field recorder.    

     I feel for the recorder’s power switch in the dark.  Its red light winks: it’s ready.  I set it on the ground at a fair distance from where I am going to sit, not wanting to be too much in the foreground. 

     I sit.  I wait. 

     I’m not even sure what I’m going to do, or how I’m going to join in. The chorus feels closed to me at present.  I cannot sense any space into which a guitar could slip. 

     I close my eyes and listen to it build. I try to identify the birds as their songs bubble in and out of the chorus. I hear a blackbird wake and reel out a brief, emotive series of notes, stretching its throat as I would I stretch my arms and back as I get out of bed.  It works on its song for a minute, and then wraps up prematurely.  Then a wren starts, trilling a refrain like an alarm call, dominating the show.  Underneath its line, collared doves call softly to each other.  A cuckoo, deeper in the wood, clears its throat.      

      Sitting amidst a dawn chorus is a completely different experience to hearing it from bed. It’s so loud, for a start. And it is far more fluid than I thought it would be.  There is not so much of a climax, but more of a slipping in and out of different songs, as birds announce their presence and leave a hole, an absence as they disappear.  Not being able to see anything around me makes this musical presence/absence far more striking.    

     Just as my ears grow accustomed to the lead refrain of the wren, a cockerel, far off in the distance, crows a repeated series of notes with a rhythm that awakens the musician in me.  And I know exactly what I will play and sing, too, as I experience a timely flashback of a moment when I was twenty, leaning on a windowsill, listening to a bird break the morning in.  I’d written a song about that moment, about wanting to escape with the bird and its song.  I’d not played it for years.

     The lyrics become oddly prophetic as I roll them around in my mouth; I place my fingers in positions on the fretboard that they have not assumed for a very long time.    

     The cockerel continues to crow, counting me in.  It is as if I am standing on a platform as a train rolls slowly by, spotting the approach of an open carriage door, waiting for the right moment to leap. 

      I would burr strings, fluff notes, and overshoot the vocals with a voice rigid from the cold, but it felt right on this enchanted island thirty miles from the UK mainland, a world full of overshoots and vagrant chorus members.  And when I stopped, I would hear the space of my song’s absence for a fraction of a second, before the rest of the chorus rushed in.    

 

– taken from ‘Songs About Birds’, a recent piece of writing about reawakening song-writing through ornithology and birdsong,

Number 1

I figured that a good place to start might be with something prewritten.

I wrote the below for a writing workshop, about 3 months ago.

When I want to be alone, I go running before anyone else wakes up.  I put on shorts and a T shirt, tie up my trainers.  I strap on my watch, flicking my wrist first out, then in, letting the catch find its familiar hole in the watchstrap.  Then I think twice and take it off, leaving it on my desk.  I peel the house key off my main set of keys, pad downstairs on the parts of stairs that don’t creak, and open the front door, taking care not to slam it shut behind me. Wherever I’ve lived over the past few years – be it in Hertford, where I used to run through the fields of a private estate, or in Dalston, where the care taken over door-slamming was unnecessary, seeing as the constant Zone 2 roar made the walls of our flat vibrate – the ritual was, and continues to be, the same.

For the solitude to work, you have to get out as early as you can.  In winter, I run down streets in complete darkness, running from memory of my surroundings in the light, waiting for the sunrise to catch up.  In summer, I run with the tail end of the dawn chorus, the chill on my arms torched off by the strength of morning sun.  I jog slowly and stiffly at first, breaking in my ankles, which respond like the spine of a book being flexed open for the first time.  Then I run as fast as I want, letting the mechanical movements take over.

It’s the mechanics that detune the wavelengths of my brain, like a fingertip rolling itself across a radio dial.  My head slowly fills with a white noise, over which only my heart, my breath, and my nervous system can make themselves heard.  I focus on emptying and filling my lungs.  I feel the shock of the ground through my ankles and knees and resist interpreting it, or deriving from it a train of thought.  It can work for about forty minutes.  After this time, the reason for my search for solitude finds a way to tune in, and people start to appear, going about their morning routines.

Last year, during the worst period of my job, I had to sack scores of people. I would run away from my laptop, my mobile phone, and my responsibility to everyone, as often as I could.  Sometimes I couldn’t wait for the following morning.  ‘I’m going out,’ I’d tell people I worked with over the phone, on days that the rest of the world recognized as weekends. ‘I don’t know when I’ll be back.’ I used to run like I was being chased, avoiding the main thoroughfares. When I lived in Stevenage, I had a loop of seldom-used subways that I ran through, smacking my palm against the wall of each as I passed.  It was not how I normally conducted myself, but the aggressive connection with something solid helped me to re-calibrate something inside.

Once, while working overnight in London, I got up at 5am and ran out of my hotel towards Blackfriars Bridge, overtaking late night partygoers sobering up in the dawn.  I finally ended up down Oxford Street, a road never normally accessible for a brisk walk, let alone a run.  The street cleaners were out, their machines sucking up junk from the gutters, but I was still alone: they didn’t take any notice of me as I darted around their one-man vehicles, with wide circular brushes that fed the machine’s jaws with rubbish, a fish feeding on plankton.

This year, now I live in Cornwall, I try to get myself lost if I need the solitude.  Yesterday I followed a footpath I’d never noticed before.  It slowly petered out into thick grass and uneven ground in the middle of a field. I ran bewildered, the dew juicing in my trainers, unsure where to run without a path to follow.  My watch had been left on my desk: I had no idea how long I’d been running for.  I didn’t know whether I was trespassing, and I wished I’d taken my phone with me.

I stood in the centre of that field for several minutes, panting, eyes searching for an exit.  It took an age to pick out the fence in the distance, over which I would then climb, snagging my shorts on its rusted barbwire.