Sunday, 22 February 2009

The Pattern Under the Plough

I have several times mentioned that I have a taste for the old, the used and weatherworn. Nothing unusual in that. As I mentioned in the post Closing Time in the Gardens of the West, the Japanese have a whole formal aesthetic (wabi-sabi) based on these characteristics, and I'm only too aware these are staple photographic cliches. In my case, this taste for the old may simply derive from growing up in a town where most buildings were no older than me, all made from the same dull industrial materials, and where everything was ageing at the same glacial pace.

I remember the exciting discovery one summer that the poorly-primed paint on the metal poles supporting our front porch had begun to bubble. We kids would flake it off with glee as we span round on them. They looked so much better. However, my father, never a wabi-sabi man, was not impressed (not least because we council tenants were not allowed to carry out external decoration to our houses).

However, a compensatory master stroke of the town planners was to name our town's streets and landmarks using the names of the fields, lanes and woods that had been overlaid by the New Town. Once you became aware of it, it became a form of archaeology: to live in Half Hyde, Broom Barns, The Glebe or Peartree Spring was to inhabit a real landscape, with names that had often survived intact from mediaeval times. Moreover, the streets were allowed to follow the contours of that landscape, and flowed with and around ancient copses and single standing oaks. I would sometimes imagine that the whole town could somehow be levered up like a paving stone, leaving behind just trees, grass and mud, exactly as it had been before.

Real archaeology turned up, too. Clay pipe bowls and stem fragments, discarded by field labourers, were common in the soil of our gardens, and in a back garden not far from ours an entire Celtic bronze shield had come out of the ground (the finder had initially thought it was the usual builder's rubbish he had put his fork through).

Later, when I discovered that -- unlike almost everyone else at school, mainly Cockney and Irish "blow-ins" -- my family was 50% native to the area, I realised that this subterranean history was not just there, but also mine. My ancestors had laboured for generations and tossed their clay pipes away in exactly similar fields just a few miles to the North.

developed an interest in folksong and folkways, read the books of George Ewart Evans, and tracked down the sites of local legends like the giant Jack O'Legs or the Hermit of Redcoats on my bike. This all coincided neatly with the late-sixties electric folk boom. After cutting my teeth in the local folk and youth clubs, I became a devotee of the likes of Pentangle and Fairport Convention*. I think I have never been more content, never felt more full of connections and directions. However pre-packaged and fake, the past always seemed a more solid road to the future than the present.

In later years, when building newer estates the council reverted to the dull street-naming convention of random themes -- explorers' names, British towns, Roman emperors, etc. -- and the density of housing went up, packed into grids that ignored the underlying patterns. It seemed such a betrayal of that strong foundational vision, so ignorant, and above all so uncaring, a form of disrespect to the inhabitants.

By then, of course, I had gone out into a wider world, but it seemed that every time I came back something important had been changed or destroyed, or another friend had left, until it simply wasn't my town any more. The "right" for tenants to buy their council houses introduced by the Thatcher government and the post 70s slump in manufacturing sent the town into a downward spiral.
Then my parents moved away, and that was that.

In such ways, biography and history combine. In one respect, I was simply experiencing the disorientation of "post post-Imperial Britain," the 60s hangover, and the spiteful, brittle new certainties of the Thatcher years. Who wasn't? But -- from inside -- it felt as if everything in the world was conspiring, actually or symbolically, in that Expulsion From Paradise that is the end of childhood. I knew all about the "pathetic fallacy" and "objective corellatives" from my literary studies, but it still felt very personal, and I began to dream of knocking on the doors of houses where I was no longer known.
How does it feel
To be out on your own,

With no direction home,

Like a complete unknown?

(Bob Dylan, Like A Rolling Stone)
But luckily at that point the other 50% of our family story -- the restless, roving Liverpudlian and Scottish blow-ins -- made its timely contribution. It wasn't so bad, really. Because the only correct answer to Dylan's question is, of course: "It feels just fine; and what other way is there, anyway?"

I saw the "Full House" Fairport lineup play a benefit gig in a hilly field just down the road at Little Hadham in 1970, the significance of which you either appreciate or you don't.

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