There are transit vans in the field next to the river. Today is the day of the fishing competition. Each competitor gets a spot on the bank where he surrounds himself with his angling paraphernalia. I count at least twenty five of them, and, yes, they are all men. They look similar, too. Short, stumpy, prone to weight gain, grey, jowled. Most of them are affable, however, and bid us good morning, despite not making good eye contact, using pheromones to delineate their carapace of territory. Then I realise there are probably another twenty five on the opposite bank, one of them looks like he is ready to begin, his rods raised like giant antennae, all limbs and protrusions, like a banded shrimp I once saw in a documentary about the intelligence of animals.
Early morning on the south west slope of the Acropolis, the audience assembles in the warm March sunshine. It’s the festival of Dionysus, the beginning of the sailing season, people arriving from the Black Sea, from southern Italy, Asia Minor and the islands. A soft hubbub of voices echoes around the amphitheatre, from some already settled on the wooden benches, eagerly waiting for the performance to start, others stand in small groups, the temples and the Gods behind, and to the left, Attica. Beyond, in the distance, lie the glittering waters of the Pireaus and the harbour.
The cool morning air, the sunshine, with many benches still empty, it will be a while before the rituals begin: the slaughter of piglets, libations poured to the Gods, the ceremony of the benefactors, the entrance of slaves carrying trays heaped with tributes of silver, the parade of the war orphans. All these before the nine hours of performances. Now there is time to talk, to eat and to savour the promise of a generation, of a society blessed in a time of prosperity.
Tragedy, said Aristotle, serves as a warning to the city. Athens, on this spring morning bathed in sunshine, is unaware that in just a few months the last battle of the twenty seven year Peloponnesian War will be fought at sea, over three thousand Athenians will be slaughtered, Sparta will lay siege to the city and the citizens of the first democracy will be starved into submission.
There is no separation between earth and sky, and distance is swallowed in the vastness of its grandeur. The beach runs for miles, undifferentiated, a gentle line fading into vanishing point. Form is limited to simple lines, even the sea is reduced to a pulse, although when the storms come it can heave over the marshes, flood the quiet settlements, slosh into the square, pour into the antique shop and the organic bakery. Move inland to find things on a human scale – cars, telegraph poles, doors, windows. But the sea threatens all that is human. There are no cliffs here, the coastline is an idea, an idea in the minds of the inhabitants, they cling to it. Salthouses is well named, for the sea will one day swallow these homes, and these quaint flint cottages washed away, dragged out with the tides, dragged out and lost.
Here you are with these words, perhaps they move silently into your mind, or they whisper, or somehow they shape your vocal cords but no sound occurs. Or they cause some muscular rearrangement, a shift in your body’s weight, almost imperceptibly, as a vowel lightens your load, or a consonant creates weight. The words flicker on the event horizon of consciousness, illuminating a distant memory, stirring up the sediment of old stories, fears, even, perhaps, a pleasure. The words do not offer any meaning, nor solution to your, or society’s, problems. The words cannot offer solace or remedy. They are what they are. Like food, or wine there are cultural associations, but nothing beyond the immediate, they cannot provide you with anything more. But they roll like the wind across the centuries, swallowing up and spitting out dust, hair, ephemera, twigs, leaves, a sock, the cap off a beer bottle.
The Minister of Reconstruction has determined that all buildings destroyed in the fire will be rebuilt and restored and every effort will be made, using photographs and other documentation, to scrupulously replicate even the tiniest details, using original materials, or if original materials are unavailable or too expensive to find means to replicate those materials, although where a feature is considered not in keeping with the overall aesthetic of a particular building, if, for example, since the construction of that building a particular feature has been replaced with a less appropriate feature, perhaps for reasons of economy, then, if feasible, the original feature may be considered. The Minister of Reconstruction will make every effort to reconstruct every building to how it would have appeared on the day of its completion. The suggestion by the Shadow Minister of Reconstruction that history is somehow being erased could not be further from the truth. The Shadow Minister believes we should tarnish the new buildings to approximate wear and tear, add such trivial details such as scuff marks, graffiti, artificially adding human traces, or contriving sun damage, weathering, even the layers of various redecorations. This is a ludicrous notion, that somehow we can populate these new buildings with the ghosts of the past, that we should deliberately distort the future with artificial scratches and blisters to somehow pay homage to the passage of time, and to those who passed through.
It rained all day, heavy rain, the sky sagging with the weight of it. Along the promenade cafes lay deserted, entertainments abandoned. Under a shelter a tired mother sat with her tiny daughter, whose scoop of strawberry ice cream balanced on a soggy cone. The red sandstone cliffs looked like rare steak, layer and layer of it, and the coast path that ran along the top was thick chocolate mud, sticky, a sludge. This was the start of the Jurassic Coast, named after the geological period squeezed between Triassic and Cretaceous, of warm seas and forests at the poles, and, of course, dinosaurs. The path rose and fell along these raw red cliffs, the sea stained rust by the rock, and here was a caravan park, where mobile homes sat one on the other, hundreds of them, terraced up hillsides, as far as the eye could see. People sat inside, hiding from the rain, sombre in their silence, waiting for some extinction event: an eruption, a meteorite strike, a tsunami, one that would bury them and their caravans under the layers of strata, to be compressed into stone and rediscovered a hundred million years in the future, sandwiched in the raw meat of history.
The rain has come again, a breeze blows across suburban gardens. Somewhere above the low cloud a vessel moves silently, its curious passengers here for only an hour, their lives are short, they’ve worked hard to afford this visit, one orbit of the planet, then home. They look down on the suburban gardens and quietly giggle, shaking like mice. They find everything humans do funny, especially the gardeners and their greenhouses, their sheds and wheelbarrows. Humans toil all their lives to spend their remaining years tending a tiny plot, and are buried somewhere else, or worse, cremated, and their garden disappears under their successor’s rectangle of artificial grass, an airport runway or a supermarket car park. For these travellers life is short and death is long, and they visit Earth, and other planets, to learn how each species deals with the eternity that awaits them, and so far they’ve learnt nothing.
Bronislaw Malinowski, the father of modern anthropology, said: write everything down. You’ll never know what will turn out to be important and what won’t, so capture it all. So it was, in my teens, I began writing everything down, a simple chronology of events, almost naive in its simplicity, which, towards my mid-twenties became dense, self-conscious and literary, in my mid-thirties intermittent as the distractions of fatherhood and a career took hold, and in my forties demonstrated a brutal self-examination of my failings, my regrets, my loss. A chronology was no longer enough. I needed a new form, a means of not just writing everything down, but an exploration of why certain themes recurred, why my mind chose to record some things, and not others, including an examination of the act of writing itself. When the pen is poised there is a pause before thought and word: what happens in that pause is like a trigger being pulled, but without knowing what sort of projectile will be fired. There is no sense, before that moment, what will appear, only a notion, a shadow, a spectre, a sort of hunch or intuition experienced as tension in the body, a muscular urgency. And when one word is being committed there are a hundred others jostling, waiting, pushed down, like a drowning sailor under the foot of a pirate. Only the most valuable are taken hostage, roped up, thrown into the hold. And this too becomes something that has to be written down, this bird’s eye view of the process, and the bird itself is also something to consider, because the bird is observable from another point of view, from the clouds, the clouds from satellites, the satellites from an orbit vaguely assumed to be somewhere between the Earth and the Moon.
Noon drained the shadows, the Earth’s axis tilted precipitously towards the sun, we’d walked along the shining estuary to the old village with its handsome houses, bay windows, Dutch brick, Flemish gables, it could be Amsterdam, a mirror city, entered via a wormhole, we emerge out of the mud, like primordial sea creatures in search of food on land. We found a cafe where we ordered coffee and cake, but it was too dark inside after the brightness of the day, the cafe’s high ceilings swallowed the light, here we were, in Midzomer, and this was Zonnestilstand, the solstice, and just as the sun reached its zenith everything slowed, the waitress unable to reach our table, she remained in her stride, frozen, looking down at the tray, behind her the streets filled with cotton merchants, huddled in conversation, smoke twisting from tobacco pipes, faces obscured by brims of black hats, each creating its own eclipse, a pause in time when architects folded plans, engineers considered new quays and bridges, provisions were taken aboard for the return journey out into the estuary, then eastbound, into the North Sea.
There were things he had to remember, the obvious things, clothes, bathroom bag, towel. Then there was a book, or maybe two, and maps. He might take a journal, some pens. Soon he would be on the motorway, heading south west, a short stay in a cottage on an estuary. But he had forgotten something, he would forget something. And it irritated him that he couldn’t work out what it was. Something would be left behind, and even when he returned, he would not remember. And so he left, and headed off, into the wide sky, overcast, rain on the horizon. Yet something pulled him back, like gravity, even as he changed lanes, overtaking a white van, the motorway sloping down into a long curve, the car seemed to be fighting against a force that restrained it, and in the rear view mirror, a Peugeot, too close, he thought. His eyes flicked from the road back to the rear view mirror, the Peugeot had fallen away. He glanced at his speed, switched radio channels, his eyes back to the road, then the rear view mirror again, back to the road, its chevrons, bollards, and then pylons, a line of tall, dark poplars beyond. Traffic grew light, he sat back, let the car slip along, allowed caravans and lorries to pass, his eyes flicked to the rear view mirror, cities receding, to places passed and left behind, to an imagined brightness in the sky, a light that held his heart.