christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: May, 2013

Following swifts down the Boudica Way

In my stinky old UEA running top outside Norwich station, I assemble with brother Joe and friend Winston for a pre-match photo at the start of our attempt at the Boudica Way.  It’s a thirty six mile traipse through farmland and villages roughly along the warpath of the first century Iceni queen. The route that once put her on a collision course with the might of Rome and towards the sacking of Colchester, London and St Albans would lead in our case to nothing more dramatic than my car parked up at Diss station.

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Still, spirits are high, water plentiful and the weather finer than expected as we set off past the multiplexes and Boots superstore, wondering whether we have enough in the way of blister plasters and freeze dried apple to last us to the finish. True to form, we are lost within five minutes walking along the newly developed riverside. A friendly, bearded cyclist pulls up and asks if he can help. ‘We’re trying to get out of Norwich,’ we tell him. ‘I know the feeling,’ he replies. Across a busy road and a bridge or two, and we see that not all of Norwich has been redeveloped: some old industrial red brick buildings with broken windows and a clock telling the wrong time, lie waiting for a developer to turn them into apartments for lecturers, accountants and solicitors.

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But soon we have drifted into the pretty village of Trowse, with its organic bistro and curious line of Victorian terraced houses, each with a single front window bricked up. Why? A building or architectural error? Surely these are too late to have fallen foul of a window tax. We leave the mystery behind us as we cross into our first field.

As if on cue, a steam train thunders past, belching white smoke, a more common sight than you might think in Norfolk, and it succeeds in scaring the herd of young horses grazing there, which buck and whinny at the sight of this technological wonder. Like a scene from a Western, they actually race it across the length of the field. It allows me to take the picture of some horses I promised my five year old son. ’You will probably see some deer too,’ he told me, somewhat enigmatically, before I set off, ’but I don’t need to see those.’ I remember his slightly crestfallen face up at his bedroom window as he watched me make my way up the street to my car with my rucksack and circular pop up tent. Why wasn’t I invited along? He was still there as I drove down the street again on my way out of town.

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Now we are on the trail proper, a freshly mown path about eight feet wide, which has been immaculately maintained by an invisible team of Boudica way supporters. This is the team that has laid the trail of arrowheads in neat yellow circles and even left information for our convenience in old telephone boxes. We joke that they run a 24 hour helpline for those on the trail answering questions such as how many Cs in Boudica, and what time does The Globe pub open? As it transpires, they wouldn’t have much to do, as for some reason, and despite the late May Bank Holiday weekend, there is hardly a soul to be seen. Joe tells us that the route has only recently been revamped, and that word of this lost wonder of the world has yet to get out.

Following hedgerows, and down tunnels of light woodland, we are rewarded with views of cascading fields through snickets and brambles. Yellow and blue wildflowers skirt the paths and the charms of the Boudica Way begin to reveal themselves.

Presently, we find a bench overlooking a sloping field and feast on some excellent sausage rolls and flapjack, courtesy of Joe’s other half Roberta, who used to make and sell them from a living (‘the finest sausage rolls I have ever tasted.’ according to Gary Rhodes). On the horizon, we can see the Norwich skyline, still exceptionally modest except for its two cathedrals, clock tower and the monolith of the county hall. An American would barely recognise it as a city. It’s our last sight of it as we pack up and head back on the trail.

The joy of walking is to disappear into woods and away from yourself; you can almost physically feel your emotional, work and other baggage falling off (though hopefully keeping hold of some of your other, more useful baggage.) The shady woods are relieved by the open fields and the walk is punctuated by towers of all descriptions – huge, complex, pylons like rocket ships, churches with round towers (all named St Mary’s for some reason – including the lovely ruin hidden in the bluebells, and windmills old and new.We meet a campaigner along the route who tells us why she is objecting to them – the blades are as big as the wing of a jumbo jet and they make a constant noise; they glint in the sun and can be seen for miles around. Why not put them out to sea with all the others? We nod sympathetically, unsure of our own position. In true Norfolk style (‘Do Different,’ they say) a contrary neighbour has a sign in his garden warning people to ignore the campaigners and to bring on the wind farms. There’s certainly plenty of wind and not many people, but it’s difficult to know who to believe. They produce sustainable energy, but are seen by some as unsightly. You don’t know truly where you stand until you’re told they’re going up in your back garden.

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Leaving such tribulations behind, we are met with a warm welcome in Tasburgh where the good folk at The Countryman pub have allowed us to pitch in their back garden (no sign of wind turbines there). The sight of the pop up tent miraculously pinging into shape, a pint of Adnams bitter and a plate of freshly dressed crab is ample reward for a good first day.

Next morning we walk, as if in a dream, through yet more fields, dodging sheep dung and taking one or two short cuts along country lanes to avoid some peculiar detours which take you needlessly off to the east or west (we‘re keen, but not that keen). Towards the end, and with t-shirts wrapped around our heads to ward off the relentless sun, we start to resemble vagabonds as we pass through (or veer close to) places with names like Shimpling, Garlic Street, Dickleburgh and the splendid Colegate End, which sounds like someone’s just run of toothpaste.

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If you’re looking for breathtaking views and dramatic scenery, then this is probably not the walk for you. Instead there are gentle inclines and gentle descents. It is a walk of barley fields, dung heaps, brooks and streams; it is a walk beneath swallows and swifts swooping and diving, stitching the sky as they snap horseflies from the air. It is a walk across footbridges made from old railway sleepers and of paths that suddenly lead you into glades of vivid colour. There are some surprises too. There are wonderfully unusual farmhouses painted in blues and reds that you might otherwise expect to find in the middle of Kansas or Iowa.

For two days, you step out of civilization and live in a kind of purgatory of woods and fields. Apart from the people you meet in the scattering of villages and pubs along the way, you pretty much have England all to yourself.

Just before we arrived back in Diss, the path is blocked by a ford. Unusually long and deep from the recent rain, it seems there is no choice but to wade across. Picking what I think is the shallowest route, the water soon creeps over the top of my boots and the freezing water gushes in, a wonderful balm on my aching feet. With my staff in hand, and t-shirt tied about my head, I acknowledge that I am cutting a somewhat biblical figure and living up to my namesake St Christopher. It’s then that I hear Joe‘s slightly apologetic voice: ‘Er, Chris, sorry about this mate, but I’ve just seen a bridge over there.’

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Pincher Martin – Born Survivor?

Despite being reasonably familiar with William Golding and his work, I somehow missed this strange, unsettling novel about a shipwrecked sailor. That is, until I heard about an adventurer from Scotland, Nick Hancock, who was planning to spend 60 days on Rockall. The news report mentioned that the island in the Atlantic (off the Hebrides and known only by name to most from the shipping forecast) was the location for this, Golding’s third novel. So I picked it up for 40p in a lovely old orange Penguin paperback edition. It would look good I thought, peeking out of the pocket of my new brown jacket.

Essentially it’s Robinson Crusoe meets Bear Grylls meets Life of Pi set in the 1940s and in the bleakest possible surroundings. The setting is a large rock (the real Rockall is barely 25m across) totally exposed to the elements without trees, soil, or any vegetation beyond that which can cling to it.

In the novel WWII British Naval Officer (named Chris Martin, all you Coldplay fans; the ‘Pincher’ is an unexplained nickname, but one which hints at some past misdemeanour) finds himself flailing in the freezing, black Atlantic after his ship is torpedoed, before being washed up on the island. Despite being an actor in civvy street, Martin is impressively clued up on his survival skills and fans of Bear Grylls will enjoy his displays of resourcefulness.

He prises mussels and sea anemones from the sides of rocks to eat, and finds a pool of fresh water in a crevasse, precariously sealed in by a red, reed-like slime and uses his oil skin to catch more rain. He finds a hole in the rock for shelter and even makes a pattern from seaweed to create a land to air signal. So far, so Haynes’ Survival Manual. He builds a mannequin from boulders (‘The Dwarf’) to attract attention from passing shipping and wraps silver foil from the remains of a chocolate bar around its head to catch the light.

In the first few pages of minutes described action (each scrape of the knife, each breath of wind is meticulously relayed) you begin to wonder how Golding is going to sustain your attention. With a single protagonist, and a barren landscape, it begins to feel like a lost Samuel Beckett play – and something of a chore.

But as you would expect from William Golding, things soon take on a sinister dimension and it becomes clear that two dramas are unfolding simultaneously – one on the rock, and one in the survivor’s mind. Dehydrated and malnourished, the Dwarf with its loose stone balanced at the top, becomes a ‘nodding’ companion; it is the dark voice of his subconscious. He is revisited by childhood nightmares and haunted by the guilt of betrayed friendships, thwarted ambition and unrequited love. A specific, significant incident – a sin – is revealed late in the book, damns him by the reader and his own conscience.

Golding’s achievement is in two parts; the first is the brilliant, poetic description of the natural world. The descriptions of the play of the light on the sea are deeply impressionistic and the meaning is double layered:

‘The water was smoother today, as though the dead air were flattening it. There was shot silk in swathes; oily looking patches that became iridescent as he watched, like scum in a ditch’

Martin’s own character is clever reflected here; his lapse into pessimism; the blemishes on his soul and self loathing are all revealed in what he sees around him; the pathetic fallacy of the storm, like Lear on the heath is indicative of the onset of his true, self destructive madness.

The second is the seamless interweaving of memory, the inner voice of the mind, and his own utterances. He is intelligent (as he constantly reminds himself) resourceful and determined. The revelation of character through action and observation is skilfully done and Martin’s vanity and arrogance is both a survival technique and a flaw. As an actor, he declaims Shakespeare and classical verse – like Prospero from the rock – although pointed, unlike Shakespeare’s magician, he fails to master the island.

As in life, there is a constant struggle between hope and despair; sanity and madness; good and evil, strength and weakness (his hapless friend Nathaniel is the virtuous counterpoint to his own flawed character) . The narrative is packed with repetitions and mirrors of itself and is a deliberate echo of Martin’s confusion. The island’s unbearable nihilism playing against Martin’s human response to impose order and normality creates great tension; it is unclear how long he spends on the island – days, weeks? With jumps between past and present; fractured speech and dislocated images, Golding deliberately wrong foots the reader. There is also an ironic distance in the language – eyes are ‘windows‘; his hair becomes ‘curtains‘, as if to emphasise the loss of the self. Recurrent images, initially abstract and inexplicable, gradually reveal their meaning.

There is humour too, of a sort; a sequence on the relief of Martin’s constipation, set to an imaginary, slowly building crescendo of majestic classical music is a comic tour de force. The survivor’s conceit and self regard is darkly comic; his antics and raving are at times slapstick. He feels himself mocked by lobsters, birds, his stone companion and even the island itself as he anthropomorphises his surroundings. It would not be so cruel if he were not so aware of his fate and so skilful at delaying it; his own resourcefulness prolongs his ordeal. He is also able to analyse his desperate situation; understanding that controlling his mind, not his body, is the real test of his survival:

‘The sane life of your belly and your cock are on a simple circuit, but how can the stirred pudding keep constant?’

Like Life of Pi, this is a less a ‘who dunnit’ than a ‘did it really happen?’ Is it an adventure story, a fable, a fantasy or all three? The narrative takes cruel twists and its focus is relentless and there is little pity or compassion as his cry ‘I am so alone!‘ rings across the rock and vast sea; it a lament for the loneliness of the human soul not just for this man, but all of us who carry our original sin; who live with our weakness of character and carry the delusion of hope.

Above all, the novel is marked by Golding’s strange imagination, a warped, luminous vision that sees the whole world through the prism of morality and of course the dazzling originality of his linguistic invention. (language itself is an affirmation of sanity, Martin believes). So, what reading material should Nick Hancock take with him on his 60 days on Rockall? Maybe some Bill Bryson instead.

Rockshow – The rehabilitation of Paul McCartney and Wings

This great concert film, and soon to be re-released triple album Wings over America, captures Paul McCartney and Wings in their 70s pomp. From the clowning Denny Laine, resplendent in his pink flamingo suit, to the rake thin Jimmy McCulloch and Linda’s blonde peacock hairdo, it’s pretty rare to see a band so happy and relaxed. Yes, there is some posturing, but mostly it’s brilliantly played, melodic rock and roll, all delivered with smiles and reassuring winks from Macca.

Paul is on blistering form and he knows it. He celebrates a breakneck version of Lady Madonna (with extra helpings of boogie woogie) with mock bows. His playing is fantastic throughout, hammering the piano like Rowlf from the Muppets, his mullet flying in all directions. His bass on Silly Love Songs is laugh-out-loud good, his fingers appearing to find a completely different song to the one he’s singing.

But it is his voice that constantly astonishes. In recent years it has lowered and weathered, crumpling in the upper range, but here it is a thing of raw power. From the rasping blasts through Jet and Rock Show, when he unleashes his full Long Tall Sally voice, there is complete control of pitch and power. On Maybe I’m Amazed he ascends to helium level heights with complete ease. What amazes more is that can return almost immediately to more tender fare such as Yesterday and Blackbird without a trace of the vocal lacerations that came before.

There’s a generosity shown by McCartney throughout that sometimes threatens to backfire. He allows other members of the band, especially Denny Laine, several spotlight moments. On the face of it, why would we want to hear Denny’s songs from mid seventies Wings albums when we could hear McCartney sing Paperback Writer or Sgt. Pepper? But that isn’t in the spirit of the exercise. Paul is making the point that they are a ‘real band‘, in the same way as the Beatles, where a certain level of democracy and taking turns to show off was the accepted order of the day. He’s also smart enough to know that this makes for a happier band, more motivated and their total commitment to him and the music is obvious.

Denny is sometimes maligned, but his virtuosity here is impressive, moving between his twin necked electric guitar (’Just like the one played by Jimmy Page’) to bass, to piano. His singing is terrific too on Go Now (almost an upstaging moment) and it’s clear how important his harmonies were to the Wings’ sound. It’s easy to think of McCartney recruiting him to be another Paul McCartney, but his personality and distinctive contributions are spot on. His driving, Romany-inspired acoustic guitar contribution to the sing along (the drinking songs’) down the front is one of the many highlights. Songs like Bluebird with its swathes of three part harmonies, woodwind interludes shows their musical sophistication. They are easily as adept at folk and jazz as flexing their rock muscle.

The sound is rich and deep without being over driven; all of McCartney songs are melodic, but they are beautifully arranged too. The four piece horn section (profusely thanked by McCartney at the end) give a fantastic extra dimension. Some tunes are lightweight – Hi Hi Hi and Soily, but are played with such gusto – powered by the unstoppable Wings, including the lovable, Bear-like drummer Joe English, that it’s beside the point.

Linda is an unflappable, droopy eyed presence behind the Moog. Now totally confident with her instrument she is both all American cheerleader and backing singing. Her vocals are genuinely fantastic. There is surprisingly little husband and wife interaction on stage, partly because Paul is focusing on the music and partly because he doesn’t want to upset his female fan base. But when Paul and Linda share a mike (George and Paul style) for the backing vocals on Go Now, it’s clear they are still smitten.

Posterity brings added poignancy to this dazzling show. Not only do we know that Jimmy McCulloch was to die just three years later of a heroin overdose, but that we would later lose Linda too. Although there were further successes, including the squillion selling Mull of Kintyre the following year, the line up never gelled in quite the same way and Wings never commanded this kind of respect again. But for a time, as someone said, ‘It was like The Beatles never happened.’