Sometimes our reading maps onto our walks. Or vice versa. The night before I had been reading in Raymond Williams’ People of the Black Mountains how Glyn goes in search of his Taid one evening, when the older man fails to return from a long walk in the hills. He has left a note for this daughter, Megan, and grandson Glyn, which includes the lines:
‘It is such a lovely day, so still and bright, that I’m taking a lift back . . . so that I can go once again along the best of all walks through these mountains: what you’ve heard me call its heart line. I shall go up by Twyn y Gaer and along its old pastures to the Stone of Vengeance, then to the old circle at Garn Wen and the Ewyas tower, along the ridge above the reservoir . . . across Gospel Pass and along the ridge to Penybeacon, then as always above Blaen Mynwy and past Llech y Ladron to our spot height above Blaen Olchon and so along the Cat’s Back to the Rhew and the lane to the house.’
A conversation has just taken place between Glyn and his mother, Megan, in which Megan has expressed concern about her father’s late return:
‘Has he been well?’ Megan asked, forcing her voice.
‘Yes, as usual. He’s got so much more energy than the rest of us.’
‘Seems to have more energy.’
‘Yes, because he lives in one piece.’ ‘
‘He’s sixty-eight, Glyn.’
‘In one piece, in one place. It makes all the difference.’
So that is the opening premise, and like Glyn, who sets out to do his Taid’s walk in reverse, we ventured up Crib y Gath (the Cat’s Back) in his footsteps. Given that it was a day of low hanging cloud in late December, our expectations were limited, but I was also deeply conscious of my own investment in these mountains, and of what I have learned about them, and continue to learn, over many years. Williams also had thoughts, which he expressed, via his protagonist Glyn, in another passage:
‘Solid traces of memory! The mountains were too open, too emphatic, to be reduced to personal recollection: the madeleine, the shout in the street. What moved, if at all, in the moonlit expanse was a common memory, over a common forgetting. In what could be seen as its barrenness, under this pale light, there might be the sense of tabula rasa: an empty ground on which new shapes could move. Yet that ideal of a dissident and dislocated mind, that illusion of clearing a space for wholly novel purposes, concealed, as did these mountains, old and deep traces along which lives still moved. An empty and marginal land, in which the buried history was still full and general, was waiting to be touched and to move.’
Over the past month, over several excursions, I have become accustomed to a very particular light in which these hillsides bathe when the cloud is thinning and the sun is about to drop behind the western skyline. The effect of this densely filtered sunlight — beginning about an hour before sunset — is to cast an amber wash over everything, so that the whole spread of the upland; the peat bogs, the wide expanse of tussock grass and sphagnum, all of it, is luminescent with an understated warming glow. Unfortunately, this light does not translate.
The state into which I plunge is paradoxical; both deeply present and yet strangely detached, as though, like Williams’ protagonist, with ‘dissident and dislocated mind’ I too were ‘moving over an empty ground on which new shapes could move’.
For a moment, then, I consider this steep-sided ridge, Crib y Gath, as a mighty ship, plying the deep pasturelands, into a sea of mist. At the far prow, on a rocky outpost, can be seen a single figure — my daughter Rhiannon — unwittingly performing the lead role in a Caspar David Friedrich painting. To the right, the cloud covers the Olchon valley and creeps up the walls of Hatterrall Hill. In that moment everything lies fully within view, circumscribed by mist and as improbable as the hawthorn that sprouts at right angles to the rock. In fact the entire landscape creates its own rules of harmony, lives by its own innate rhythms. There is a symmetry to it all, which I cannot fathom, but which, as the years pass, seems ever more deeply to resemble a kind of consciousness.
There is a world above the fog line, as we discover. Two hundred and fifty metres above sea level, we emerge into a landscape filled with colour. The sky is a cerulean blue. Like the inhabitants of Plato’s cave, we are stunned to learn of the existence of this brave new world. If we return to the world of fog the others will not believe us, and may kill us. We can see the fog lands stretching out beneath us, to the river valley, southwest to the capital, and far beyond. Best to stay put.
We hear gunfire from further up the cwm: men are hunting with dogs, which is against the law of the land. There is a woods, and the way is perilous, but we make it onto the upland pastures of Darren fach, the disused quarries of a deeper green than even the grasslands, the sheep dropping currants, the various fungi now at season’s end, among them the liberty cap, psilocybe semilanceata, the collection or possession of which is against the law of the land: but whose land? Three watchful horses graze where once there were two. Who is the third that always walks beside us? We sit by the cairn and eat our sandwiches, drink hot tea from a thermos. I wonder whether the farm that lies at the base of a perfect parallelogram, below Pen Gwyllt Meirch and surrounded by three fields — three adjacent parallelograms — was built there by design or by accident. Or whether the design — if indeed that is what it is — stretches far beyond that corner of the hillside to encompass all of this, and us.
Or whether that particular shade of russet, edging to ochre, or is it saffron — no colour chart could do it justice — can ever be replicated in a photograph or painting, any more than I, seated beneath the cairn, knife in hand, dropping apple peel for the luminous insects at my feet, might discern the vast and intricate pattern of spider webs that lattice the entire hillside and which glitter like a silvery counterpane under the oblique rays of the winter sun as it falls behind the bulk of Pen Allt Mawr.
Coming off the mountain, one of the horses, silhouetted against the mist — which has edged up the valley just a tad — eyes us with suspicion. The air is colder now. Retracing our steps down the forestry track, a pair of deer appear from our left at speed, leap across the path ahead of us, and vanish.
Walking along the ridge that separates Cwm Grwyne Fawr from the Vale of Ewyas, I am attentive to the details, and enter a familiar state of watchful trance. But the details are relatively few when walking in a cloud, which swirls around me, as though I were on the deck of a great liner plying the folds of the sky. Far off to the south, a mysterious light beckons, the distant glow of somewhere. I know exactly where I am headed, but am aware that if I go the way I had planned when I set out I will be walking down much of the mountain in the dark: I decide to take a short cut, despite all the received and accepted wisdom about not taking shortcuts. But there are times when it is necessary, and this route is familiar. You remember the line from Roethke’s poem ‘I learn by going where I have to go’ but not necessarily, not always.
I cross paths with a wandering pony, a grey, but of such a strange hue as though stained with blue dye. I call her Ceridwen, I’m not sure why, and tell her I have an apple, but she isn’t listening. Another ambient mortal taking a shortcut over the marsh, talking to horses, imagining I am someone I am not. It is difficult enough surviving on this moor without having to conform to the fantasies of some passerby. And I too am having difficulty negotiating the exceedingly lumpy and boggy terrain, but the shortcut is effective and I cut a chunk off the circuit, and eventually descend though rock and moss to sit by the stream, y grwyne fawr, though it is hardly big, even in comparison with its sibling, y grwyne fechan (the little grwyne), and I sit and eat my apple and then a cheese sandwich, under the curious gaze of another blue pony. I pour coffee from my flask and watch as nothing much takes place. Here there is no mist; the cloud begins in a sheet around thirty metres above the stream, hugging the sides of the mountain above my head; due to the meteorological conditions it has no choice to be anything other than a cloud, but there is no ‘it’, I tell myself, just billions of tiny water droplets, visible water vapour, crowding around the upper reaches of the mountain. A few late crows harass the gibbous moon. As I descend the path past the reservoir, dusk is falling, and by the time I am past the dam, the darkness has settled, or rather, the accumulation of black air is complete. It is also noticeably cooler. A light shines from the window of a solitary farmhouse, the only dwelling in the upper reaches of the valley. There is always, in that descent towards human habitation at nightfall, a sense of safe return, something as primordial and as reassuring as a fire, a hearth, the company of kin.
Before the sheep, there were horses. People always associate sheep with these hills, and for good reason. The sheep have been here for three thousand years, but before the sheep, there were horses. Always there were the horses, for as long as there were men and women. Sheep became widespread on the Black Mountains during the Bronze Age, and their wool was one of the first textiles to be spun here. In Roman times the wool from these lands became famous for its quality. But the horses were here before the sheep. Tough, hardy, agile, less fussy eaters than the sheep, the horses formed a part of the landscape and the landscape formed the horses, and for much of the neolithic period, along with red deer, they were the most common large mammals living on these hills, which they shared with their two major predators, men and wolves. Both wolves and men hunted them in packs. There were brown bears too, of course, and lynxes, though the lynxes wouldn’t have hunted ponies. Nor the bears, for that matter. Later, in the first millennium BCE, the smaller Caspian breed of horse from Iran arrived, and they were certainly the dominant breed after the arrival of the Romans; they interbred with the indigenous stock to create the Welsh mountain pony of today. In this dead pony are all the dead ponies I have ever come across on these moors. The sadness of horses is immeasurable, cannot be sought in these pitiful blind eyes.
In his novel People of the Black Mountains (Volume 1: the Beginning) Raymond Williams imagines a neolithic horse hunt:
‘The five horses had stopped at the edge of the shale. The first had ventured in, then slipped and retreated. The men closed steadily. A red mare, facing them, turned suddenly and went in, slithering, on the shale. The others stood uncertainly, but as the men still advanced they turned and followed her, heaving and scrambling for a footing. The men ran to the edge of the shale, and suddenly Maran and his two were standing in the notch of the pass. They had loose stones for their slings and aimed them down at the legs of the horses, which were scrambling, terrified, in the deep shale. There were several hits on the legs. Maran and the others lifted their spears. But now the men also were scrambling. A young stallion, bleeding from a leg, broke back and ran through the line. Seran threw and missed. Then the red mare was down. Marod and Piran ran close and speared her. The big eyes rolled as she threshed her bleeding legs. Then Maran was above her, driving a last, deliberate thrust to the heart. She was dying but the others had broken, two back down the valley, one through and over the pass to the plateau. Piran began a chase but came back. Maran finished the mare with a stone.’
Raymond Williams, People Of The Black Mountains Vol.I: The Beginning v. 1 . Random House. Kindle Edition.
Following the hilltop path, there is a warm patina, almost a glow, to the afternoon, despite the chill. You look down on this sleeve of land that is Cwm Grwyne Fechan. You have been walking here your entire life. The autumn colours on the hills, ranging from gold to russet to purple, the gradations of light, and the untamed horses, many of them the descendants of those abandoned by their owners over the years, left to breed in the wild, so that a new race has emerged from the stock of indigenous ponies and the incomers. You have a half-eaten apple, but you know they will not approach, so you show it, and toss it gently towards the nearest horse. He stares at you, unblinking. You shudder with the fleeting memory of something, then it is gone. The valley is small, and yet so vast. You experience the moment like a shaft of joy, even though there is something else, something that brings you to the edge of tears. You know so little. Back home, you watch the short video and the view across the valley brings to mind the final lines of ‘The Sleeping Lord’ by David Jones – who once lived not far from here – lines that now read as extraordinarily prescient:
yet he sleeps on
very deep is his slumber:
how long has he been the sleeping lord?
are the clammy ferns
his rustling vallance
does the buried rowan
ward him from evil, or
does he ward the tanglewood
and the denizens of the wood
are the stunted oaks his gnarled guard
or are their knarred limbs
strong with his sap?
Do the small black horses
grass on the hunch of his shoulders?
are the hills his couch
or is he the couchant hills?
Are the slumbering valleys
him in slumber
are the still undulations
the still limbs of him sleeping?
Is the configuration of the land
the furrowed body of the lord
are the dark ridges
his dented greaves
do the trickling gullies
yet drain his hog-wounds?
Does the land wait the sleeping lord
or is the wasted land
that very lord who sleeps?
The following is an extract from my as yet unpublished travel memoir, Ambassador of Nowhere. It concerns a trip to Mexico in 2014.
Caminar en esta zona no le recomiendo: es muy peligroso, said the security guard on the graveyard shift at my hotel in Cuernavaca, as I set out for a midnight stroll. ‘I don’t recommend walking in this area: it’s very dangerous’. I am staying at the Hacienda Cortés, a sugar mill built in 1530 by the conquistador, Hernán Cortés, for the son he had with his mistress, La Malinche, and worked by the family – or rather, their slaves – until it fell into disuse and was, much later, reinvented as a hotel. Guests are housed in small bungalows, each with its own tiny patio garden.
Earlier there was a storm, rocking the trees outside my room, which shed leaves like thin leathery hands and a quantity of other solid matter, along with a downpour of such intensity that I put off heading downtown, settling instead for the more local comforts of the hotel restaurant.
On the latest leg of my Mexican journey, I have just spent a day and a night in Mexico City, returning to the capital from Veracruz to attend a tertulia, a literary discussion group organised by the poet Fabio Morábito and friends. Afterwards I visited the barrio of Mixcoac, passing Octavio Paz’s family home en route, before returning to the more familiar territory of Condesa, and dinner at Luigi’s with Pedro Serrano and Carlos López Beltrán.
Back on the bus to Cuernavaca, the perennial Mexican bus, we pass through the sprawling shanty outskirts of southern Mexico City and into the mist again. Daily travel awakens in the traveller a sense of permanent dislocation, which is of course what the word means; displacement, an absence of locus. I am drawn to Cuernavaca, not only for its alleged splendour, lying as it does, under the volcano – “plumed with emerald snow and drenched with brilliance” – and the setting for Malcolm Lowry’s magnificent, terrible novel of that name, but also because my friend, Peter, who died destitute on the streets of Athens thirty years ago, came here sometime in the 1970s in search of Lowry’s ghost, and to drink mescal.
The night before, I broke the journey from Veracruz by stopping off at the town of Puebla, where I had made vague plans to meet up with yet another poet. There, I witnessed an incident, insignificant in itself, which I could not shake off. As I was walking into town, an Indian woman – ‘Indian’ is not considered to be an offensive term in Mexico and Central America – utterly bedraggled, with long grey hair and dressed in rags, came running past me, chasing after a huge SUV, crying out, at volume and with some distress ‘Don Roberto, Don Roberto . . .’ She carried on at pace up the street calling out Don Robé . . . Don Robé . . . for an entire block, and I followed her until I could see the vehicle turning at the next set of lights. When I got to the junction, she had stopped, and was resting, hands on knees, her crevassed face fallen into a state of resigned torment. She seemed elderly, although poverty and stress and struggle probably added twenty years to her features. I asked her if she needed help, but she seemed not to see me. I asked again, are you all right? And she stared at me as if I were mad, as though the question – estás bien? – were so idiotic as to defy rational consideration. I cannot imagine what her story was, or what she felt she was owed by the object of her chase, the cruel, oblivious Don Roberto. Quite possibly, of course, she was delusional, and there was no ‘Don Roberto’ in the car that had driven away, only a random stranger, but the quality of her distress convinced me that some terrible injustice had been committed against her. The scenario was timeless, and her gasping of the honorific ‘Don’, as her spindly legs carried her in desperate pursuit somehow epitomized the gulf between want and privilege; his status and her subjugation. The image stayed with me as I rode the bus to Mexico City the following day, the massive form of Popocatépetl to my left caught fuzzily on my phone camera above the misty woodlands and broad meadows that gather around its base. The journey impressed on me the extraordinary diversity of the landscape; that within a few hours one can pass from the coast, across prairie, forest and the high sierra. The only constant is the truly terrible music being played full volume wherever you go.
I plan to read Under the Volcano in its proper setting, and I take my copy along with me to the dining room. Within an hour or so I am just as astonished – more so perhaps, because better able to acknowledge the scope of the achievement – by Lowry’s novel as I was the first time I read it, half a lifetime ago. I digest Michael Schmidt’s Introduction along with the chicken consommé, intrigued to discover that Schmidt grew up in the same streets that backdrop the story; and so I proceed to consume the first few chapters with my steak, nopales and avocado, washed down with a bottle of Chilean red, and I linger over dessert (fig tartlet and pistachio ice cream), then order coffee and a tequila. I have not eaten so much in months, and certainly not since my arrival in Mexico. By eleven, I have been reading for over three hours, having forgotten enough of the story for it to read like new.
In Lowry’s novel, we accompany the ex-Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, as he lives out the last day of his life – which also happens to be the Day of the Dead, November 2nd, 1938 – in Cuernavaca, which Lowry calls by its Nahuatl name, Quauhnahuac. Much of the novel is recounted in a stream of consciousness, describing the lurid visions of a man in the throes of alcoholic meltdown. The novel also narrates the events of the day in the external or material world, in which Geoffrey’s estranged wife, Yvonne, returns to him after a separation of several months. Others present – for at least a part of the Consul’s final day – are his half-brother Hugh, who has been intimately involved with Yvonne in the past, and is still attracted to her, the film director Laruelle (another of Yvonne’s ex-lovers), and a cast of minor characters who inhabit the actual town, as well as the infernal multitudes that populate Geoffrey Firmin’s increasingly haunted imagination as the story unfolds with steadily measured suspense – but with all the digressions of a mind in the throes of disintegration – towards its hallucinatory and terrifying climax. This duality, between the inner and the outer, between the spectacular writhing of Firmin’s tortured soul and the quotidian events that need to be negotiated if he is to have a function as a human being – an ‘animal with ideas’ – lies at the heart of the novel, and reflects a fundamental paradox in the life of the Consul, a tortuous, self-loathing self-portrait of his creator. ‘Function’ – not at all incidentally – is a word that is uttered with sinister insistence in the closing chapter by the police officer who will kill the Consul.
The novel has attained mythic stature for readers, its fans including numerous writers from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, as well as from the English-speaking world, since its publication in 1947, after a strenuous, decade-long gestation.
Despite filmic potential – as a classical tragedy set against a dramatic landscape – it has only made it to the cinema once, in one of John Huston’s last ventures, and although Albert Finney’s Consul is superb, the film fails to convince in its portrayal of the other lead characters, Yvonne and Hugh, perhaps for the very reasons that the novel fails: they are really not that interesting. Essentially, Lowry was only concerned with character: the Consul, Geoffrey Firmin.
Foiled in my plans for a late night constitutional by the watchman’s warning – I tend to err on the side of caution these days – I return to my room. I am a long-term insomniac, and although optimistically convinced that at some point I will ‘catch up’ on all the sleep I have missed, that rarely happens, and I suspect I will remain in a state of lack for the rest of my days. Instead, I read, drifting in and out of slumber on occasion, a rhythm that especially suits the reading of this book.
At one point, quite early in the novel, the Consul insists, with typical grandiosity, that he is involved in a ‘great battle’, although he is, at that moment, doing nothing more than discussing whether to go on a visit to the bullfight in a neighbouring town or to stay at home with Yvonne. That notion of ‘the battle’, the sense of carrying a massive burden, of suffering this great responsibility to ‘come through’ in a struggle for survival, is drawn upon by the Consul when he resists the opportunity of going home, of calling off the trip, of simply spending some time with poor, exhausted Yvonne. Laruelle, his friend, reminds him: ‘you’ve got her back . . . you’ve got this chance”, to which the Consul replies, with magnificent self-importance, “You are interfering with my great battle” – and again, rhetorically: “You deny the greatness of my battle?” At the end of this passage the Consul continues speaking, taking Laruelle’s part in the conversation as well as his own: “even the suffering you do is largely unnecessary. Actually spurious.” But Laruelle isn’t there anymore. The Consul is talking to himself. For much of the book, if he is not talking to himself, he is addressing one of his inner demons or ‘familiars’, which amounts to the same thing.
One of the best examples of the Consul’s mind at battle with his familiars appears in Chapter Five, when he leaves Yvonne sleeping inside the house – or so he thinks (in fact Hugh has taken her riding) – in order to venture into the garden and retrieve a bottle of tequila he has kept hidden in the shrubbery. The chapter picks up on some of the novel’s main themes or ‘useful debris’, in which we find references to film and to cabalistic philosophy, varieties or brands of alcohol, the local geography, horses, flora and fauna, and we meet with dogs, which, in different forms, appear fifty-eight times over the course of the novel. The passage is worth citing in its entirety:
‘We warned you, we told you so, but now that in spite of all our pleas you have got yourself into this deplorable – .’ He recognised the tone of one of his familiars, faint among the other voices as he crashed on through the metamorphoses of dying and reborn hallucinations, like a man who does not know he has been shot from behind. ‘ – condition,’ the voice went on severely, ‘you have to do something about it. Therefore we are leading you towards the accomplishment of this something.’ ‘I’m not going to drink,’ the Consul said, halting suddenly. ‘Or am I? Not mescal anyway.’ ‘Of course not, the bottle’s just there, behind that bush. Pick it up.’ ‘I can’t,’ he objected – ‘That’s right, take just one drink, just the necessary, the therapeutic drink: perhaps two drinks.’ ‘God,’ the Consul said. ‘Ah, Good. God. Christ.’ ‘Then you can say it doesn’t count.’ ‘It doesn’t. It isn’t mescal.’ ‘Of course not, it’s tequila. You might have another.’ ‘Thanks, I will.’ The Consul palsiedly readjusted the bottle to his lips. ‘Bliss. Jesus. Sanctuary . . . Horror,’ he added. ‘ – Stop. Put that bottle down, Geoffrey Firmin, what are you doing to yourself?’ another voice said in his ear so loudly he turned around. On the path before him a little snake he had thought a twig was rustling off into the bushes and he watched it a moment through his dark glasses, fascinated. It was a real snake all right. Not that he was bothered by anything so simple as snakes, he reflected with a degree of pride, gazing straight into the eyes of a dog. It was a pariah dog and disturbingly familiar. ‘Perro,’ he repeated, as it still stood there – but had not this incident occurred, was it not now, as it were, occurring an hour ago, he thought in a flash. Strange. He dropped the bottle which was of white corrugated glass – Tequila Añejo de Jalisco, it said on the label – out of sight into the undergrowth, looking about him. All seemed normal again. Anyway, both snake and dog had gone. And the voices had ceased . . .’
The familiar speaks to the Consul amid the din of other voices ‘as he crashed on through the metamorphoses of dying and reborn hallucinations, like a man who does not know he has been shot from behind.’ This arresting image presents the Consul as a man awash in a sea of phantasmagoria, the idea of ‘being shot from behind’ heavily foreshadowing the novel’s ending. Moreover, the brisk discussion being carried out by the Consul with his familiar carries a toxic, comic – or toxically comical – element that will persist over several such scenes. Its insistent, hectoring tone both incites the Consul to drink (‘Pick it up’; ‘You might have another’) and at the same time to back off (‘horror’ . . . ‘Stop. Put that bottle down’), an argument that the Consul has with himself throughout the first half of the book, after which he is too drunk to care. The snake, cunningly disguised as a twig, appears as a symbol both of the Fall, and of man beguiled by woman. Not, of course, that the Consul was concerned ‘by anything so simple’ as snakes – and here again we are confronted by the man’s grandiosity; he, who has stared into the very mouth of hell (the book has close parallels with Dante’s Inferno), is not concerned by a mere serpent, and on this account he feels pride, before ‘gazing straight into the eyes of a dog,’ which recalls the ancient Mexican belief that these animals acted as guides to the underworld. The dog is ‘disturbingly familiar’, which is not surprising as we met this very dog a few pages earlier, when the Consul and Yvonne entered their property on Calle Nicaragua, and its ‘familiarity’ has an explicit double meaning also. The Consul’s reaction to it, too, is identical to the previous encounter, and he utters the word ‘perro’ (dog) as much in recognition as in description, thus iterating one of the central themes of the novel, that of perpetual repetition, or endless return.
I am not sure if the proliferation of animals in Under the Volcano has been given full critical treatment but it strikes me as one of the central features of the novel. One writer who has paid attention is Javier Marías. There is a section in his Written Lives in which Marías lists some of the disasters of Lowry’s own life as recounted by Lowry himself. The strange thing is that the three stories he tells all concern animals: (i) a pair of elephants allegedly spotted by Lowry and his friend John Sommerfield hanging out on a street corner in Fitzrovia in the 1930s; (ii) the occasion when Lowry, convinced that a passing horse had snorted at him ‘derisively’, punched the poor creature so hard (just below the ear) that it ‘quivered and sank to its knees’; and (iii) the time that Lowry, stroking a pet rabbit with his ‘small, clumsy hands’ accidentally broke the animal’s neck, only to be consumed by remorse, and ‘wandered the streets of London for two days carrying the corpse . . . consumed by self-loathing’.
In Under the Volcano, it is when the Consul is at his most lubricated and fluent that the animals begin to pile up in abundance, as in Chapter Five. If this is the case, it reflects that the mind – especially, perhaps, the alcoholic mind – thinks in terms of animals because animals provide a natural metaphoric filter. Animals, as Claude Lévi-Strauss insisted, are good to think with.
The references to animals are almost too many to name, but it is interesting to reflect on the peculiar term the Consul employs to refer to animals: ‘people without ideas’ (in contrast to his term for humans as ‘animals with ideas’). ‘Earlier it had been the insects; now these were closing in on him again, these animals, these people without ideas.’ They include a pariah dog with three legs ‘with the appearance of having lately been skinned’ (clearly a xolo), as well as, in Chapter Five alone, ponies, a snake, a tiger, scorpions, leafcutter ants, Quincey, his neighbour’s, cat; (pink) elephants, a lizard, humming-birds, butterflies, ants with petals or scarlet bloom, an unnamed insect (caught by Quincey’s cat); a snake in the grass and ‘a procession of thought like little elderly animals’; various birds, a bull, three black vultures, a caterpillar, a large cricket (with a face like a cat); a scorpion and some ‘murdered mosquitoes’. Indeed, ‘the whole insect world had somehow moved nearer and now was closing, rushing in upon him.’ Throughout the book flutter a host of birds, in their capacity as omens: in Chapter One alone we encounter ‘sleepy vultures’; ‘small, black, ugly birds, something like monstrous insects’; ‘a frantic hen’; ‘fowl roosting in apple trees’, and another vulture for good measure. In the book as a whole, I counted 153 references to mammals, insects and birds, and no doubt missed a few.
Lowry’s own ‘great battle’ with alcohol has been well documented, and not least through critical analysis of his masterpiece. He was never able to replicate the success of his singular, most powerful novel, and the reason is clear: he was too drunk, too much of the time. One of the best studies of Lowry and his writing is by the American writer and rock musician, David Ryan. In his intimate, exacting essay, Ryan says that Lowry, like most addicts, never developed a healthy self-identity, remaining wrapped in a state of infantile narcissism. Drawing on Lacanian theory, he claims that Lowry’s behaviour as an adult, his mammoth drinking binges and voluntary disappearances suggested an inability to distinguish between himself and the world around him, resulting in chaos with every misconceived utterance and histrionic gesture. That would certainly be true of his Consul, Geoffrey Firmin. And the ‘mirror’ theme is supported by a couple of instances recorded by those who knew Lowry.
One of Lowry’s biographers, Douglas Day, provides an anecdote from an old friend of the author, James Stern, who ‘recalled how fascinated he [Lowry] was with mirrors’, and recounts one episode at a party when Lowry disappeared, and Stern found him in the bathroom, in front of the mirror, snorting blood from his nose, which he caught in his hands and ‘thrust up to the ceiling , so that the whole place was red and white’, all the while staring at himself in the mirror and laughing. Lowry’s French translator, Clarisse Francillon, remembered his ‘habit of slyly watching for audience reaction whenever he was behaving outrageously’.
Among the many photographs of the writer posing, glass or bottle in hand, one shows him holding a mirror, reflecting his own image as he is being photographed; and this inevitably leads to the question: why do so many of the photos of Lowry – including those on the dust jackets of books about him – show the writer shirtless, dressed in bathing shorts, staring at the camera in a manner at once glazed and pompous, trying to make an impression with his meagre moustache and his chest pushed out like a bantam cock, as in the often-reproduced photo of Lowry at Burrard Inlet? Why so many photos of a half-naked Lowry? And when we get past the bared torso and the chest hair and the focus on the face – the one on the back cover of the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Under the Volcano – there is something both arrogant and vapid and fearful in those cold, clear eyes. The gaze is, we might surmise, intended to be piercing and riveting, but our attention is distracted by the sparse filaments of the faint moustache, the suggestion of vulnerability in the chin and the plump cheeks, a vaguely satyric pointedness to the ears; in fact what the portrait suggests more than anything else is that the sitter knows that he is meant to be there, but is unfortunately elsewhere, unobtainable, or more likely nowhere, waiting for this to be over with so he can go get another gin. More gin, buckets-full if at all possible, rivers-full, oceans-full of gin. This fantasy, which I am attributing to Lowry, originates in the Consul’s delirious outburst in Under the Volcano, when he attempts to recall an earlier life in Granada, Spain:
How many bottles since then? In how many bottles had he hidden himself, since then alone? Suddenly he saw them, the bottles of aguardiente, of anís, of jerez, of Highland Queen, the glasses, a babel of glasses – towering, like the smoke from the train that day – built to the sky, then falling, the glasses toppling and crashing, falling downhill . . . bottles of Calvados dropped and broken, or bursting into smithereens, tossed into garbage heaps, flung into the sea, the Mediterranean, the Caspian, the Caribbean . . . the bottles, the bottles, the beautiful bottles of tequila, and the gourds, gourds, gourds, the millions of gourds of beautiful mescal . . . How indeed could he hope to find himself to begin again when, somewhere, perhaps, in one of those lost or broken bottles, in one of those glasses, lay, for ever, the solitary clue to his identity?
Oh, that beautiful tequila and beautiful mescal! The simplicity of the descriptor reminds me of Hemingway’s choice of adjectives when writing to his friend Archie MacLeish in June 1957. Having been restricted by his doctor to a single glass of wine per day with his evening meal, he looks forward, with euphoric anticipation, to ‘a nice good lovely glass of Marques de Riscal’. This is an impossible utterance in the mouth of anyone except a crazed devotee, but as expressed by a writer who avowed a parsimonious approach to adjectives, the collocation of ‘nice’, ‘good’ and ‘lovely’ must be regarded with deep suspicion.
Malcolm Lowry’s grotesque diminution, his descent into the wretched, querulous, occasionally violent individual who choked to death on his own vomit in a rented house in Hove, England – a place epitomising parochial English decorum – represents a pathetic shadow death compared to the Consul’s fictional passing, flung down a Mexican ravine after his drunken debacle in the El Faro bar, followed by a dead dog that someone throws after him. *
It always seemed to me that what literature and alcohol had in common was that they both allowed, momentarily, the ability to watch the world from a place of enhanced perception, or even to provide the illusion that you were really engaging with the stuff of life at a heightened level. Lowry summarises this clairvoyant state perfectly in Under the Volcano, when the Consul attempts to explain to his wife, Yvonne, why he is the way he is:
‘But if you look at that sunlight there, ah, then perhaps you’ll get the answer, see, look at the way it falls through the window: what beauty can compare to that of a cantina in the early morning? . . . for not even the gates of heaven, opening wide to receive me, could fill me with such celestial complicated and hopeless joy as the iron screen that rolls up with a crash, as the unpadlocked jostling jalousies which admit those whose souls tremble with the drinks they carry unsteadily to their lips. All mystery, all hope, all disappointment, yes, all disaster, is here, beyond those swinging doors.’
And a little further on: ‘how, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old woman from Tarasco who plays dominoes at seven o’clock in the morning?’
I am tempted to compare this passage with Ronnie Duncan’s account of a visit to Crete with the Scottish poet W.S. Graham, in which Graham expresses an idea that would be familiar to Lowry’s Consul. Duncan is trying to get Graham to come out for a walk, to visit a museum, rather than continuing to drinking himself into oblivion – as he has done every day of the trip thus far – on the balcony of his hotel room:
So I held on like a terrier and eventually he gestured around the balcony – at the sea, mountains, beach and the tumble of houses on either side – and said that his task was to turn all these into words. ‘It is all’, he said, ‘better than I could ever have hoped’ – reminding me that he’d said this on arrival. And then it came to me that there was really nothing else he wanted or needed: this one experience of a Cretan setting, supplemented by visits to some all-Cretan tavernas, was all he could encompass or wished to encompass.
Lowry and his early morning cantinas, just as Graham and his Cretan tavernas; both of them are relaying an idea that promotes a kind of epiphany – what alcoholics are reputed to call ‘a moment of clarity.’ Compare ‘not even the gates of heaven, opening wide to receive me, could fill me with such celestial complicated and hopeless joy’ with ‘all he [Graham] could encompass or wished to encompass.’ And again, consider this eulogy to Lowry, written by his close friend Earle Birney, and cited in Schmidt’s Introduction: ‘. . . his whole life was a slow drowning in great lonely seas of alcohol and guilt. It was all one sea, and all his own. He sank in it a thousand times and struggled back up to reveal the creatures that swam around him under his glowing reefs and in his black abysses.’ Both Lowry and Graham shared the conviction that alcohol might open the gates of perception. How extraordinary that so much can be invested in an alcohol-enhanced vision of this kind, in which you are – or else believe you are – seeing more sharply, engaging more profoundly, empathising more absolutely, feeling more deeply; in other words, it might be said, replicating the aims of great literature.
How well I recognise this joyous, delusional state. During the most intense periods of my own drinking career this was all I wished for: to watch it all, to bathe in it, to sink into the sun-dappled splendour of the world. Perhaps – eventually – to turn it into words. I started serious early morning drinking while living in Hania, Crete, in my early twenties. It had always been taboo, I guess – recalling the story from my schooldays of a boy whose mother slept with a bottle of Scotch at her bedside – but once I started round-the-clock drinking, the chips were in; even I understood what it signified. And for my friend Peter, who lived in a tin shack next door, but who had once lived in Cuernavaca, intoxicated absorption in the beauty of the moment was his creative mission; but long ago he had lost the impetus that originally drove him – to turn it into paintings – and now the drinking was simply an everyday necessity, and he had stopped painting, working instead as a comedic or parodic waiter at the once notorious To Diporto fish restaurant in Odos Skridlov, the street of leather, until he was too dissolute even for that place, whereupon I took over the job. How pervasive is this terrible myth among the artists I grew up amongst, the ones I read and admired, the ones whose pictures I watched being made in the Slade School of Art when I was an undergraduate in London and where I spent more of my social time than among my fellow-students at the LSE; how prevalent this delusion that drink and drugs would somehow help us experience life more ‘deeply’. Those rakimornings with Peter, when the morning sun flooded the ramshackle square in the Splanziaquarter, where we lived, with its pots of red geraniums and the sheets hanging out over the railings of the brothel next door, the sounds of the town waking, the glorious sense of detachment too – to be a part of it and yet apart from it – these are the things I felt in regard to both my Cretan and, much later, my Mexican sojourns, until a final, catastrophic visit to Guadalajara put an end to this bright and beguiling fiction . . .
I am so comfortable in my whitewashed room that I don’t want to sleep, and I read almost until dawn, completing the first half of the book, before drifting into fitful slumber. I wake at nine, utterly distressed and worn out, the fan above my head whirring insistently with a regular click at each revolution. Outside there is absurdly loud birdsong, and the sun is struggling to break through thick rainclouds. I drink a coffee, smoke a cigarette, and order a taxi into town, where I have arranged to meet up with the poet Pura López Cólome, Seamus Heaney’s Spanish translator, who will be my guide to Cuernavaca for the day, and we will visit Cortés’ palace to see the Diego Rivera murals, and walk the streets that furnish Lowry’s novel. But already I am less concerned with the reality of Cuernavaca than I am with the one conjured by Lowry in his parallel city of Quauhnahuac. The actual place has been spoiled for me by its fictional double.
I am four or five years old and we have arrived at a campsite in southern France or possibly Spain. It is late July. I am looking at the incredibly bright night sky and ask my father which of those stars we came from. I am confusing our voyage over the English channel with intergalactic travel. I realise my mistake before he corrects me, but perhaps I am not wrong either.
I am nineteen and have taken LSD in my friend Guy’s house in Finsbury Park, north London. I am wearing a sleeveless woollen jumper that once belonged to my Taid, and am staring at myself in the mirror of a dresser that stands in the hall. I have just been to the bathroom and I stop by the dresser before rejoining the others in the front room. I stare in the mirror for a long time thinking: this is who you are. Somehow the fact that I am wearing this jumper seems significant and I feel close to my Taid and very much a part of my ancestry, the chance incumbent in a long line of ancestors. This has never occurred to me before. The earthy tones of the sweater; brown, amber, a hint of grey-green, appeal to me. Life feels like a priceless gift and I am wholly there for a moment, even though, looking into the mirror, I know there is darkness in there too. This is who I am, I think.
And in August this year, pausing on a peak above an undulating ridge in the Black Mountains, I am struck by the notion of looking out over a landscape as though it were an image in a book and peeling back the image before me from the top right hand corner to reveal another seemingly identical image, and then beginning to turn the pages and finding more and more iterations — each one minimally different and yet the same — and we inhabit one of them; and I begin to imagine the many worlds we might inhabit and the multiple lives we might, hypothetically, live, but as contingency dictates we are landed with one life, which takes place in whatever world it is that we have been allocated, and there comes to us one day the knowledge that we will eventually leave it behind, the knowledge that, as Rilke put it, we are offered this gift ‘Just once; no more. And we too, / just once. And never again.’
Yesterday we enjoyed a virtual visit from the fabulous Leone Ross: she took a class with students on the Creative Writing MA at Cardiff University and in the evening we had a chat about her new novel.
The attached review was originally published in Wales Arts Review on 10 May this year, and a link posted on this blog shortly thereafter. I am re-posting the review in celebration of Leone’s visit.
In her new novel, fifteen years in the making, the British-Jamaican author Leone Ross offers the reader an imagined island, like Coleridge’s caverns, measureless to man. The novel, taken as whole, is an infectious celebration of life, and especially of love, in all its divergent glories and sorrows, as well as a timely reminder of the perils of judgmentalism and prejudice.
On Popisho, a Caribbean nation in which the inhabitants are blessed with unique attributes, ‘a little something-something’ called ‘cors’— for example, the ability to talk with animals, or walk through walls — the ruthless Governor Intiasar controls the local economy with his monopoly of the toy factories, staffed by woefully underpaid workers, through which the island gains its revenue, and its leaders their fortunes. In response to this injustice, among others, a mysterious graffiti artist has daubed the walls of the factories with exhortations in orange paint, notably THERE IS AN ALTERNATIVE, while a group of scavenging indigents, reviled and outcast, who inhabit the nearby Islands of the Dead, serve as a collective scapegoat for all the failures and frustrations of the population at large.
The island of Popisho is itself a wondrously unreliable narrator, a place that harvests stories as readily as its supply of edible and intoxicating butterflies, and it evoked, for me, the Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of the fictional worlds that serves as a precursor for this equally inventive novel. There are other influences: the author herself has mentioned Tony Morrison and Roald Dahl, among others, but I was reminded also of Alejo Carpentier and Jean Rhys, also Caribbean writers with a sharp eye for the follies and foibles of humankind.
The novel follows a single day in the life of three characters and their interlocking stories: one is Anise, whose ‘cors’ is to heal others, although she is unable to heal herself of whatever ailment causes her own babies to be stillborn. Anise has a cheating husband, but her quest to track him down and confront him leads her somewhere far more interesting, as she joins the riotous residents of a brothel in their resistance to a group of overly pushy punters.
Romanza Intiasar, the disowned teenage son of the Governor, whose cors is the facility to tell truth from lies, has fled the family home to live among the indigents with his male lover, Pilar. During the course of the day he comes across Xavier Redchoose — the novel’s central character — gifted with the ability to impress flavour into food, with the mere touch of his fingers. This awesome endowment has earned him the title of ‘macaenus,’ which carries with it the obligation to feed every citizen, once, and at an opportune time, in his restaurant — aptly called The Torn Poem. On the day in question, Xavier has been asked by the Governor to prepare the wedding feast for his daughter, Sonteine, and the request, more especially the man who has made it, vexes him greatly.
One of the features of island life is the preponderance of butterflies, which can be grabbed in mid-flight and eaten, offsetting a brief but glorious intoxication. If butterfly-quaffing is the equivalent of a fine wine or a spliff of quality ganja, the consumption of moth is something darker, shameful and more dangerous: a Popisho version of crystal meth. Xavier is a conflicted man, haunted both by the ghost of his dead wife and his addiction to moth. He has been in recovery for quite some time, but when a young fisherman gifts him a prize moth, he secretes it carefully away in a cloth pouch and carries it with him, just in case.
Popisho is a wonderfully sensuous island, and its qualities are those of abundance: fruit orchards, vines and resplendently coloured flowering bushes that border and encroach upon the human dwelling places. The scents of green pepper, ginger and cardamon float dense on the air. This sensory abundance is so all-encompassing that one is not surprised when things get out of hand, as they do, in the course of the day — the inevitable consequence, one feels, of ‘too-muchness’ — houses bend and shudder, an avalanche of scarlet physalis flowers fall from the sky forming immense puffy snowdrifts, and, alarmingly, women’s vulvae, or ‘pum-pums’, drop from their prescribed places and have to be snatched up and hidden from harms’s way, or better still, reattached, before being lost and picked up by the wrong owner. To rack up the tension a little more, a hurricane is on its way.
But just as mayhem threatens to overwhelm the narrative, there are moments of exquisite tenderness and beauty, one of which involves the emerging friendship between Xavier and Romanza, when, in the course of a short sea crossing to the Dead Islands, Romanza steps from the canoe and appears to walk on water, beckoning Xavier to follow. The notion has a famous biblical precedent, of course, but on this occasion walking on water seems simply to be the natural course of things; rather than a show of divine intervention, their feat is merely an emanation of the island, whose colours, scents and music permeate the lives of its inhabitants in magical ways. As Romanza comments to Xavier, while the two stroll across the coral reef and look down on yellow sea anemones and smiling runner fish, ‘I hear some places in the world prettier than Popisho, but I can’t believe it.’ I, for one, was converted, and relished my brief time as a guest on Leone’s enchanted island. I’m suggesting a sojourn there to everyone I know, as a refreshing and subversive tonic for the times we live in.
This One Sky Day is available now from Faber in the UK and as Popisho, published by Farar, Straus and Giroux in the USA.
My short story ‘Hide & Seek’ is now out with the Three Impostors Press, the fifth publication in their Wentwood Tales series, inspired by the works of Arthur Machen. You can order it HERE.
‘Wentwood, the largest forest in Wales, undulates across the low-lying Gwent hills overlooking the coastal plain and the silver slash of the Severn estuary beyond. To the traveller entering south Wales it forms a mysterious green smudge along the northern horizon, and to the young Arthur Machen gazing east from the windows of his childhood home in the rectory at Llandewi Fach, north of Caerleon, it was a sinister and disturbing presence which lodged in a corner of his imagination for the rest of his life, emerging later as the setting for a number of his dark and unsettling stories. Machen walked the woodland trails and Roman roads of the forest many times, and was familiar with its ancient remains, old houses and farms and sheltered villages, but he concluded that it was ultimately unknowable.’
‘Hide & Seek’ is my own modest foray into Machen’s wooded netherworld. In it, an unsuspecting man finds his own reality turned inside out when his children disappear in the forest:
He sees only an image, or replica, of a life played out by others who – although they might resemble the figures, his own included, that make up his life, his world – are nonetheless figments, ghosts, a fleeting apparition. He is spellbound, but knows, at the precise moment of recognising the blankness of his mind, that he must break the spell, and whatever it costs him, he must return to his real life, return to the real nursing home, the car park, the Audi, his wife and kids. His decision is made; to assert the reality of the real.
Many thanks to the Three Impostors for making such a lovely object, to have and to hold (whatever you might make of the story).
A couple of weeks ago, in the town of Figueres, as I was about to cross the road by Plaça Catalunya, I spotted a van which bore a familiar motif.
The design was strongly reminiscent of the cover of my book The Vagabond’s Breakfast in its Argentine edition, translated by Jorge Fondebrider and published by Bajolaluna:
I am intrigued, no, obsessed, by the recurrence of patterns, moments of repetition, serendipitous instances that incite one to reflect on the seeming perpetuity of certain images. Especially when those images evoke patterns that have emerged as a consequence of one’s own actions, or, worse, one’s own mistakes.
When the editor at Bajolaluna, Miguel Balaguer, first proposed this design for the book cover I was pleasantly surprised (if a little concerned that it might misrepresent or exaggerate what the book was actually about) that the image already had a precursor in a photograph I had taken around that time. The photo captured a wall of bottles in the celebrated bar Poesia (Poetry) in the San Telmo district of Buenos Aires, the shelves stacked with a fabulous arrangement of spirits and wines; row upon row of colourful bottles, ascending to the ceiling in a most picturesque and alluring way; a display to delight any dipsomaniac.
The tableau brought to mind a fantasy voiced by Lowry’s Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, in Under The Volcano, sunk in the depths of his own, self-driven desolation. The outburst occurs as the Consul attempts to recall an earlier life in Granada, Spain, and terminates with the terrible realisation – hyperbolic, no doubt, but nonetheless alarming – that somewhere, in one of those innumerable bottles, was the very thing that he had lost, and would never retrieve:
‘How many bottles since then? In how many bottles had he hidden himself, since then alone? Suddenly he saw them, the bottles of aguardiente, of anís, of jerez, of Highland Queen, the glasses, a babel of glasses – towering, like the smoke from the train that day – built to the sky, then falling, the glasses toppling and crashing, falling downhill . . . bottles of Calvados dropped and broken, or bursting into smithereens, tossed into garbage heaps, flung into the sea, the Mediterranean, the Caspian, the Caribbean . . . the bottles, the bottles, the beautiful bottles of tequila, and the gourds, gourds, gourds, the millions of gourds of beautiful mescal . . . How indeed could he hope to find himself to begin again when, somewhere, perhaps, in one of those lost or broken bottles, in one of those glasses, lay, for ever, the solitary clue to his identity?’
In Wayfinding, by Michael Bond, a fascinating account of how people find their way in and around the world (and the perils of GPS on our innate navigational systems), the author quotes a Siberian reindeer herder on how to avoid getting lost in the wilderness:
When you travel in the tundra, you always think ‘Have I taken the right direction?’ And ‘Have I not missed the place I am going to?’ Everyone has these fears, especially if you believe that you should have already reached a place but you cannot see any sign of it around, these fears become really strong. Now, you should not surrender to these fears. You should be brave! It is not easy, especially when you are alone in the darkness. You can think, for example, ‘I have probably gone too far to the left, I should go a little bit to the right of the course I am taking now.’ You can even eventually become completely sure about this, especially if you do not see the place when you think you should already be there. Still, you should not change the course. If you keep on the same course, you will eventually come somewhere, maybe not the place you wanted, but still to a place you know . . . If you change course just once, you will get lost, because if you change it once you will want to change it again . . . If you start changing course, you will be unable to stop, believe me, nobody can. Then you will start to go in circles until your reindeer drop down . . . All the people who have become lost in the tundra and died did so because they were not brave enough and surrendered to their fears. *
More than anything else, the passage cited by Bond reminded me of writing a novel. Everything about it: the need to continue in a predetermined line, not to be distracted by detours to the left or to the right (with its echoes of Wallace Stephens’ firecat in ‘Earthy Anecdote’); the fact that if you change course once you will do so again; and the final catastrophe of going around in ever diminishing circles until your reindeer (or your ideas) lie down and die . . . It is such a salutary tale! Even if I had never made the association between writing fiction and wandering in the wilderness before, I would now, and it will never leave me.
*Cited from Kirill V. Istomin (2013) ‘From invisible float to the eye for a snowstorm: the introduction of GPS by Nenets reindeer herders of western Siberia and its impact on their spatial cognition and navigational methods’. In Judith Miggelbrink et al, eds Nomadic and Indigenous Spaces: Productions and Cognitions (Routledge, 2013).
‘All things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger.’ J.L. Borges
The black bear appeared out of the woods to my left and lumbered across the highway, just ahead of me. It was early morning and the shadows were long. I pulled over, crawled beside the guard rail, and spotted it again; an adult male, I guessed, from its size and the shape of its head. He had crossed the deep ditch beside the road and was climbing, foraging on the grassy hillside about fifteen metres away.
I was drawn to him by some elemental gravity, a force beyond reason. Something remote yet familiar stirred and fluttered between us and was carried on the air with the scent of juniper. The bear raised his head, kept his gaze on me for a brief spell, but he wasn’t especially interested, and his snout returned to the flower which he had been sniffing with devout attention before he looked up. He took his time. He wasn’t bothered by my presence nearby. He ambled slowly up the hillside, out of sight, and I got back into the car. Watching this animal, I was completely entranced, outside of time. I had been drawn towards the bear in a way that, afterwards, I tried to explain, but could not. Words failed me utterly.
The black bear appeared out of the woods to my left and lumbered across the highway, just ahead of me. It was early morning and the shadows were long. I pulled over, crawled beside the guard rail, and spotted it again; an adult male, I guessed, from its size and the shape of its head. He had crossed the deep ditch beside the road and was climbing, foraging on the grassy hillside about fifteen metres away.
This encounter in the Canadian Rockies, however fleeting, nonetheless filled me with a kind of awe, which I struggled in the following days to comprehend. I had not really been in any danger, and the bear, as I have said, seemed to be more interested in sniffing the flowers than in anything I was doing. But nonetheless, something had passed between us, and I explained it to myself and to my friends, back in Banff, in what might have seemed inflated or grandiose terms. The truth was, I felt suffused at the time, and for a couple of days after, by something like deep contentment, even love; as if I had not only learned something about the gaze that passes between human and animal, but equally about my deeper self – what I can only call the soul – and in a way I had barely considered before, but had always known.
What was the nature of this thing that passed momentarily between us, which for want of any other name I call the animal gaze? In the eighth of the Duino Elegies, Rilke writes ‘And yet, sometimes a silent animal looks up at us and silently looks through us.’ The bear looked through me, and I was going to write almost as though I was not there. But that is not quite right. The animal gaze may be indifferent, but is not oblivious.
I recall other instances when I have been a recipient of the animal gaze, or participated in an exchange of gazes with an animal in the wild. A fox crosses the field just ahead of me, catching my scent on the breeze, and turning his head, he stops suddenly, mid-step, one of his front paws raised in a characteristic pose, snout turned towards me, long whiskers twitching, alert and questioning. The passage of a few milliseconds as we assess each other, before he sets off on his way. That rupture in time’s narrative, that sudden hiatus as one creature enters another’s world unexpectedly, an animal going about its business, never expecting a human to appear. Whenever an encounter of this kind occurs, it is entirely new and unexpected. It feels like time out of time. I have come face to face with deer and boar while hiking in the Pyrenees, and almost always there is a moment of surprise, or shock, followed by a sort of mutual acknowledgement, before each of us goes our separate way. There are exceptions: once, last year, I disturbed a boar sow with attendant cubs, who, on seeing me, emitted a threatening growl. No time to examine the nature of the gaze then; the message was clear enough. She would certainly have charged me, had I lingered.
Among those writers who evoke our relationships with animals in the wild is Jean-Christophe Bailly, who offers a compelling account of the author driving at night along a country road and encountering a solitary deer:
A deer has come out of the undergrowth; frightened, it runs up the road, trapped between hedgerows: it too is caught in the estuary. It rushes ahead, just as it is, just as it has to be – fear and beauty, quivering grace, lightness. The driver, going slowly now, follows the creature, watches its croup move up and down, bounding in its dance. A kind of hunt is under way, in which the goal is not – certainly not – to catch up, but simply to follow, and since this race takes longer than one might have imagined, several hundred metres, a strange joy comes, childlike, or perhaps archaic. Finally, another path opens up for the animal, and after hesitating ever so slightly the deer plunges in and disappears.
It is this ‘strange joy’ that Bailly describes — childlike, or archaic — that I recognise, and want to think about, to write about . . .
In his essay, published in English as The Animal Side, Bailly recognises his reaction to the deer, but nevertheless is ‘taken aback, overcome. The sequence had had the clarity, the violence, of an image in a dream.’ He ponders what has happened during this bizarre chase, as the driver pursues the deer down the road, and concludes that he has touched some part of the animal world . . . with his eyes. He knows this is impossible, in any literal sense. He hasn’t entered the animal’s world but rather the strangeness of that world has revealed itself to him once more, ‘as if I had actually been allowed for an instant to see something from which, as a human being I shall be forever excluded . . . a strangeness [that] ought to be considered on its own terms, as a different posture, a different impetus, and quite simply a different modality of being.’ And he confesses that this experience moved him to tears, a sentiment which, after my encounter with the bear, I fully understand. It was, he says, ‘both like a thought and a proof that there is no supremacy, neither of humans nor of beasts, that there are only passages, fleeting sovereignties, occasions, escapes, encounters. The deer was in its night and I in mine, each of us alone.’
Is it, then, something to do with a quality of aloneness — the bear (fox, deer, or boar) in its world and I in mine— that reinforces my sense of having been granted, briefly, an opening into another world. A sense of origin, of something deeply remembered, though now forgotten?
What I earlier termed ‘love’ with regard to the bear, and the corresponding sentiment – a realisation of transience (‘fleeting sovereignties, occasions, escapes, encounters’) that produced tears in Bailly – might be pertinent to the topic that he addresses next in his essay. He writes that ‘declarations of intense feelings on the subject of animals quite often not only fall flat but give rise to a sort of embarrassment.’ This is a murky area, in which one might be accused of sentimentality, since most people regard a love of animals as something quite childish, a consequence perhaps of the general Disneyfication of our engagement with ‘the animal kingdom’ (this term itself is worthy of attention, with its neatly superimposed monarchical assumptions). But what I am talking about here is as far as imaginably possible from a Disneyfied attitude of cuddly objectification. While we have confined beasts into manageable conceptual spaces – domesticated animals as pets in the home, wild animals in zoos – we have retained a profoundly ambiguous relationship to them in our thought and in dreams. Animals will not stay put in their allocated place. They have continued, without even trying, to make the boundary between their worlds and ours an unsettled and unsettling one. Every animal encounter of the kind that I have described evokes a reaction of loss, and reminds us of something that surpasses the individual and yet is somehow integral to our humanity.
While Jean-Christophe Bailly’s essay speaks directly to the experience of encounters with animals in the wild, John Berger, in his essay, ‘Why Look at Animals’, reminds us of the more complex and elusive relationship between humans and animals that have been kept in captivity, either as domesticated farm animals, as pets, or else on display in zoos. He starts out by claiming that for most of human history animals constituted the first circle of the world that surrounded us. Indeed, that statement already suggests a distance that was barely apparent in the pre-industrial world; after all, animals and humans lived cheek by jowl. It is true, writes Berger, that such centrality was often ‘economic and productive’, since humans depended on animals for food, work, transport, clothing. But to imagine that animals ‘first entered the human imagination as food or leather’ would be to ‘project a nineteenth century attitude backwards across the millennia.’ Long before then, animals held a symbolic and magical value; they were good to think with, in Lévi-Strauss’ phrase, rather than merely resources to consume.
Berger then goes on to make an unusual point about the look that passes between animals and humans in the wild (which he later contrasts with the looks exchanged between humans and animals held in captivity, notably in zoos). When humans and animals look at each other, the human recognises the animal’s look as ‘familiar’, he writes. ‘Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look.’In other words, as I suggested in my encounter with the black bear, a kind of power is ascribed to the animal through this exchange of looks, ‘comparable with human power but never coinciding with it.’ The observed animal has secrets which are addressed specifically to us. ‘The animal has secrets which, unlike the secrets of caves, mountains, seas, are specifically addressed to man.’ It is because of this ability to recognise ourselves in this other creature that a companionship can arise between humans and animals: ‘with their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is offered to the loneliness of man as a species.’
But it would be foolish to read too much into the relationship between a human and an animal in the wild, or to read the wrong kinds of message into the gaze that is exchanged between them. Such was the case with dim-witted Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s documentary film Grizzly Man. Treadwell was a New Age voyeur who believed that he was in touch with his inner bear, but only succeeded in getting himself and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, killed and eaten by one. His story, according to Werner Herzog’s film, based on Treadwell’s video footage, was ‘a tragic misunderstanding of what wild nature is all about’. ‘What haunts me’, Herzog adds, in his commentary towards the end of his film, ‘is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.’ Treadwell’s tale is salutary, and his ending is summarised accurately, if brutally, by a park warden in Herzog’s film: ‘he got what he was asking for, he got what he deserved.’
While animals have served as metaphors for human character traits, humans have also likened themselves to animals (Aesop, La Fontaine, Beatrix Potter, Disney); thus has anthropomorphism flourished over the centuries. But in parallel with this, as we celebrate their alleged ‘human qualities’— or the corresponding ‘animal qualities’ of humans — we have, for the most part, lost the habit of interacting with animals themselves. Most children today, growing up in cities, have never seen an animal in the wild, in its natural habitat. Probably they never will.
The result of this detachment from nature and wildness (and a direct consequence of the overcompensation it occasions) is that people have begun to regard animals nostalgically, and the animal has become, in Berger’s phrase ‘emptied of experience and secrets.’ It is this new, invented ‘innocence’, argues Berger, ‘that provokes in man a kind of nostalgia.’ It is almost as if, in a deranged act of housekeeping — of ‘keeping the wilderness at bay’ — we have divested ourselves of all that pertains to our animal selves, with the result that we are left only with cardboard cut-outs of the animals we once lived alongside. The animals have thus become caricatures, not of themselves, but of us. So it is that we must consider pets (the term ‘pet’, Berger tells us, once referred to a lamb raised by hand in the household). The acquisition of pets, incidentally — especially cats and dogs — has undergone a massive surge during the coronavirus pandemic, as thousands have attempted to acquire or purchase animal companions, apparently to lessen their own sense of loneliness. The past year has also seen a burgeoning black market in stolen pets, especially the cuter breeds of dog.
In the past, as Berger reminds us, people kept domesticated animals for specific purposes – guard dogs and hunting dogs, cats for controlling rodents – but nowadays pets are household trophies, a distinguishing feature of consumer societies. I can remember how, forty years ago, in rural Spain, practically no one kept a dog as a pet; nowadays every household seems to own one. Berger describes the setting in which the pet survives: ‘The small family living unit lacks space, earth, other animals, seasons, natural temperatures, and so on. The pet is either sterilised or sexually isolated, extremely limited in its exercise, deprived of almost all other animal contact, and fed with artificial foods. This is the material process which lies behind the truism that pets come to resemble their masters or mistresses. They are creatures of their owner’s way of life.’
The pet also serves another function. It offers its owner a mirror to a part of himself or herself of which only that person is aware. But this relationship, in which each party reflects the other, has none of the satisfying parallelism that marks the separateness of animal and human lives. It creates a new nostalgia, growing out of the domesticity that binds them together: a nostalgia for the wild.
But what is the ‘wild’? It’s a horribly overused word at present. Titles of books and documentaries celebrate wildness and ‘re-wilding’ abound, and the other morning I caught the opening exchanges, on BBC Radio Four Woman’s Hour, of aninterview with Glennon Doyle, author of Untamed, a book about getting in touch with our inner wildness. Start to ‘untame’ yourself, Doyle’s webpage urges readers: ‘We’re born with these wild, individual selves and then we start to just give up who we are . . . We lose our wild selves, and then we have to reverse the process so we can reclaim some of who we are or were before the world told us who to be.’ The ‘wild’ person is ‘who we are’, and ‘wildness’, we are told, is an inherent quality to which we have rights, and which has somehow been taken from us, rather than willingly surrendered.
Annie Dillard’s famous essay ‘The Weasel’ begins with the declaration: ‘A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks?’ and goes on to recount a story about a man who shot an eagle from the sky and discovered the dry skull of a weasel attached to the bird’s throat, the assumption being that the eagle had once pounced on the weasel, which had turned and sunk its teeth into the bird’s neck, to be carried thus for the weeks or months or years until the bird was brought down from the sky. The rest of Dillard’s essay purportedly explores the notion of ‘wildness’, focusing at one point on the moment when the writer herself comes face to face with a weasel: ‘The weasel was stunned into silence as he was emerging from beneath an enormous shaggy wild rose-bush four feet away. I was stunned into stillness, twisted backward on the tree trunk. Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key’. Dillard makes the most of the moment: ‘Our look was as if two lovers, or deadly enemies, met unexpectedly on an overgrown path when each of them had been thinking of something else: a clearing blow to the gut. It was a bright blow to the brain, a sudden beating of the brains, with all the intimate grate of rubbed balloons. It emptied our lungs. It felled the forest, moved the fields, and drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes.’
Not satisfied with a blow to the gut, Dillard invokes a beating of the brains and an emptying of the lungs as well. I cannot help but wonder whether the weasel underwent equivalent anatomical distress. Dillard assures us that he did: ‘I tell you I’ve been in that weasel’s brain for sixty seconds, and he was in mine.’ I am not convinced by this, however; my guess is that the weasel, like my bear, looked through her. They were not like lovers, or deadly enemies meeting unexpectedly on an overgrown path: that is all human interjection. Fortunately, Dillard relents towards the end of the encounter: ‘What does a weasel think about? He won’t say. His journal is tracks in the sand, a spray of feathers, mouse blood and bone: uncollected, unconnected, loose-leaf, and blown.’ And here we come the crux of the matter. All those words Dillard employs to convey the utter confusion of her side of the encounter (damage to gut, brains, lungs) is reduced, on her creature’s part, to a list of weaselly phenomena — the bits and pieces that furnish a weasel’s day (tracks, feathers, blood and bone). A phenomenology of death. Dillard’s account, despite its title, is not really about a weasel; it is about Dillard. She wants to be wild, and has come to live in this place in order to learn from the weasel: ‘The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons. I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.’ It seems to me that this admiration for the weasel’s wildness, as exemplified by its tenacity in hanging on like grim death to the eagle’s throat, is not that far removed from the narrative of the American Dream: to ‘grasp your one necessity and not let it go’, as Dillard puts it, a call to indomitable tenacity and heroic individualism; and that is why it is admirable and acts as a kind of incentive to greater achievement. Dillard’s essay serves as an example of how easy it can be to conflate ideas about ‘wildness’ and the requirements of the ‘self’. It is an error that neither Bailly nor Helen Macdonald makes.
At the time of my encounter with the bear I had been reading Macdonald’s memoir H is for Hawk and had been moved by the way the author synthesised and channelled emotions of grief at the loss of her father though training a young goshawk. I too had recently lost my father, and her story resonated with me. I too had felt an unfathomable pull towards the natural world, and animals in particular, following his death, and in a way that I found very hard to explain or account for.
At one point in her book Macdonald writes of her growing understanding of the hawk, Mabel: ‘I am becoming fascinated by her quality of attention. I’m starting to believe in what Barry Lopez has called “the conversation of death”, something he saw in the exchange of glances between caribou and hunting wolves, a wordless negotiation that ends up with them working out whether they will become hunter and hunted, or passers-by.’ Again the exchange of glances, that moment of time out of time as two creatures assess each other. I remember a friend, the novelist Tristan Hughes, mentioning an unexpected encounter with wolves, near his home in remote Northern Ontario. I email him, curious to know whether he too experienced a moment of hiatus, a suspension of normal time, while the wolves and he measured each other up. His answer comes back after a couple of hours:
I was making my way through the dead grass at the edge of a beaver pond when I looked up over the top of the grass and found them directly in front of me. I’d had no clue or indication of their presence until I saw them. There were three of them, two grey ones and a black one in the centre. They were no more than twenty yards away.
There was, just as you describe it, a kind of paralysis of time (I’ve no idea how long the encounter lasted), and one that took on a physical aspect too – on my side anyway. There was a sudden and intense narrowing of focus, a sort of tunnel vision; it was like my brain had performed an instant bit of triage – there was only one urgent thing in the landscape, and all my senses were bent to it. And that hyper-awareness or focus seemed to put everything into a kind of slow motion (a trick of adrenaline, I guess, to increase the ability to react). And then, another effect of adrenaline. The cliché is ‘spine-tingling’ but that is exactly what it was: a million-year old mammal response; the memory of being prey. There was also a momentary paralysis or hiatus in cognition. For a few jumbled milli-seconds the cultural reference points or iconographies of wolves weren’t in place – I knew they were wolves, but I didn’t know them as wolves. Instead, for those few instants, my mind seemed to break them down into essential qualities: they were big, they were grey and black, they had yellow eyes – and those eyes were looking at me.
As for the way they were looking at me, I’d probably describe it as a mixture of curiosity and indifference. They must have known I was there for a while, through scent, and worked out I was no threat to them and wasn’t food. Getting sight of me fulfilled no function or need – they just wanted to look. And once they’d looked for what felt like a long time, but could only have been twenty or thirty seconds, they moved slowly away into the woods, as though I were something unusual thrown up on a beach – an interesting piece of flotsam to be examined, noted, nudged with a toe, and passed by.
The indifference of Hughes’s wolves not only evokes, for me, the reaction of my black bear, but ‘indifference’ is Herzog’s chosen descriptor for the faces of ‘all the bears ever filmed’ by Timothy Treadwell. John Berger, in another essay, defines nature’s energy as ‘fearsomely indifferent’, contrasting it with the sentimental view of nature often produced by urbanites, who regard nature as ‘a garden, or a view framed by a window, or as an arena of freedom.’ Berger’s view of nature, of ‘the wild’, is not only indifferent, but unmistakably bleak: ‘The gale blows itself out, the sea changes from the colour of grey shit to aquamarine. Under the fallen boulder of an avalanche a flower grows. Over the shanty town the moon rises. I offer dramatic examples so as to insist upon the bleakness of the context.’
What we are in relation to a natural, wild landscape, a wild creature, or creatures, is something we, as humans, have almost entirely lost sight of: in Bailly’s phrase, our eyes no longer touch those creatures, that world. A sense of perspective is lacking; we forget our own smallness and fragility below the vast and indifferent shift of the skies, in the tremors of an earthquake, or in the approach of a storm. Perhaps only in encounters with the wilderness do we feel our true status as creatures.
In Helen Macdonald’s book, there is another story, concerning the caves at Lascaux, which immediately attracted my attention. I was fortunate enough to have visited the caves at Lascaux as a young child, shortly before they were closed to the public – an event which made a lasting impression on me. Macdonald remembers that when she was at junior school, a teacher showed her and her classmates photographs of the cave paintings at Lascaux, and explained that no one knew why prehistoric people drew these animals. ‘I was indignant,’ she writes. ‘I knew exactly why, but at that age was at a loss to put my intuition into words that made sense even to me.’
How could the teacher not see? How could the teacher not understand the obvious interdependence between our ancestors and the animals that surrounded them? I recall our family visit to Lascaux but only return to images of darkness and a vague sense of wonderment at the beautiful shape of an animal, a bison, on the wall of the cave. I try my best to remember more but draw a blank; what I can recall is a very bright light — a spotlight — and warm, harmonious colours, reminiscent of the colours of the earth; but then again I have seen so many reproductions of the Lascaux caves that I have no idea if that memory is truly my own, or borrowed, so I message my sister, who is six years older than me, and ask her if she has any memories of our visit to Lascaux caves in 1962. At the time she gets my message — in one of those rare instances of synchronicity — she is packing a present to send to her grandson, Leonardo, in Los Angeles. It is a book called Cave Baby, in which — she sends me a photo of the relevant page — the baby’s mother paints the walls of the cave with bison and deer.
She also sends an extract from her scrapbook of the family holiday to France in the summer of 1962. Of course, our father had insisted she keep a record, as he always did of my older siblings on these trips. I learn from this, which she photographs and sends on WhatsApp, that the cave was discovered by four boys and a dog in 1940. My sister’s best eleven-year-old scrawl records that: ’The cave was lit up and looks very nice’, before continuing: ‘The drawings are of many ages and are the colours yellow, red and black ochre.’ In a final comment, she adds that ‘two of the boys who discovered it are now the present guides.’
I am trying to piece together parts of a puzzle: it is not only what I seem to recall from my visit to the Lascaux caves as a six-year old, but also the joy intuited by Macdonald in her childhood classroom, and quashed by her teacher’s remark that ‘no one knew why prehistoric people drew animals.’ It is the same joy I experienced on seeing the black bear.
Of course we knew why people painted on the walls of their caves! Children, perhaps, more than anyone else: we know it in the very fibre of our being. We need to draw the animals, and to sing the songs of the animals and dance their dances in our rituals, for a very simple reason: we recognise them as both ourselves and as other, a simultaneous perception of identification and of othering; the elemental you and I, perceiver and perceived; the subject and object of all encounters. The essential paradox of being.
Our ancestors were not only fascinated by these creatures who lived their lives in parallel with their own, and with whom they had a pact of sorts. They also loved them. This love is visible in the paintings so tenderly crafted, which in a modern-day observer stirs a sense of a forgotten intimacy, of profound loss. Bailly again: ‘Leaving aside the dispute over the sacred to which these wall paintings inevitably lead, we can nevertheless say that they point to an origin or an originary state of designation, and that they can be understood as a first, stupefying recording in which, at the heart of nature as a whole, the animal is recognised as the great other, the first companion.’
We needed to invoke, to translate that other; the fox, the bear, the bison, the deer, through what would later be termed sympathetic magic. We still need to translate them. They are our others and we need to translate them onto the walls of our modern caves. The cave paintings of Lascaux and elsewhere record that reciprocal gaze in a fashion that seems to me exemplary; the animal is simply there, and the painter is looking at them as things of wonder. What do I conclude? That while animals have not forgotten how to look at us, we may have forgotten how to look at animals.
Troubled and troubling it may be, but these animal encounters lie at the heart of so much that we human animals experienced, day in, day out, over a few million years of evolution, for most of which time such thoughts were integral to everyday existence. The creatures we shared our world with — that same world we have ruthlessly plundered and are in the process of destroying — also help to remind us how to live. Or, as Anne Dufourmantelle puts it in her book, Gentleness, the animal disarms our sense of duplicity, because we humans are divided, in exile from ourselves, whereas an animal’s gentleness ‘comes to us from a being that coincides with itself almost entirely.’ This is not a question of consistency of ‘self’ or existential solidity, but simply of being true to one’s own nature, as a stone is a stone and a tiger is a tiger. To coincide with oneself almost entirely.
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