books - politics - walking
Books. He’s got too many books. There are well over a thousand volumes of poetry, philosophy, history, ecology and so on and on crowding every available space here and even colonising spaces that should be kept clear – the stairs, tables, kitchen cupboards, chairs, windowsills – all are crowded over with stacked books. The Táin Bó Cúailinge is in a pie dish and Henri Michaux is in the herb rack. Most of the books just sit there, waiting, gathering dust. Katharine Briggs' fairy survey is rescued from the coal bucket. A large number have yet to be read. Some follow him daily from room to room like permanent dreams.
Should he get rid of a few of these old tomes? Impossible; they are all valuable and deeply necessary and who knows? We might need every particular page one day. For example, here is a book on the uses of conscience in the poetry of George Herbert and Thomas Vaughan. It is a beautifully made object, and thoughtfully written, years of work, and altogether an unfailingly interesting thing to consider. How could he possibly get rid of it? When he puts it back on the shelf it might well stay there until he is dead. Yet Herbert and Vaughan were profound and humane and wrote at a time of great social upheaval, not unlike our own. We can learn from them. The same applies to so many of these books. The poetry of Iolo Goch, anyone? What use can we find for a localised theurgy in the philosophy of Iamblichus? Or essays on the bioregional imagination in Canada? Ah, look, a study of the evolution of the roundhouse in bronze age Britain, hidden under a memoir of a life obsessed with red foxes.
Some people live in cosy, snug, comfortable hutches, homely and organised. Alas, we have to conclude that this man shelters in a library. Yes, one of the most important functions of these four heavy old walls, this house, is that it’s a place to store books. The hour is getting late, it’s dark outside, you’ll have to balance your wine glass on the shoulder of a ghost, but at least we are keeping a candle or two lit for learning, here in the library, lodged like a chilly monastery among the shifting dunes on this faraway edge of Glamorganshire coast.
Politics. “I shall be involved in politics…saved!” So wrote the great French poet and heretic Arthur Rimbaud in his savagely self-critical testament, ‘A Season in Hell’. Once, long ago, a sane human might have hoped to live adrift from the concerns of politics, quietly cultivate the garden, raise children and write songs maybe, and laugh at the wild boar snuffling in the orchard. Now though, politics has come for us all, and will not leave us alone. We are all utterly involved, and there is no escape. Time, we discover, is not running out; it is speeding up. Power and the performance of power insist on dancing upon our attention, attempting to entrance and ensnare us with visions of salvation that are of no profit to anyone but warmongers and vampires. You must play the game. You really must. The only way out is through. Because none of us has a sure grip on reality any more. And how can you possibly hope to grow anything in your garden, or raise the next generation, as the world dissolves and disappears all around you? And you there, yes, you also are fading away, gone as the lapwings are gone, and a thousand other species are gone, leaving what else to the future but silence?
Walking. We follow the dog, a lively affectionate collie, along the dried out dune slacks to the ruined haul road, and on to the vast empty miles of beach. A desolate place at the best of times but we love it and come here as often as we can. We struggle into the rippling gale and shout nonsense words to each other and to the grinning dog and then wander on to find shelter in the lee scoop of a pile of driftwood and ripped nets and dolphin bones and shards of plastic jumble. Quieter now, we eat our sandwiches and crisps. I like pouring the tea, strong and sweet, hot and steaming from the old black flask. Sal, the collie, dances in breathless, nuzzles at us, looking for a cwtsh or a crust or a chuckle, then rushes off again scattering sand and ozone to chase an oystercatcher or a gull, or to sniff at the old wrecked cargo boat exposed by the tide. My son cuts a bit of good rope free from a half-burned tangle of junk to keep for later. “You’ll ruin the knife edge” I grumble, but I’m glad he has a scavenger’s instincts. I waste three matches to light my cigar, huddling deeper under the snapped chunk of a twisted old ash tree, and watch the blue smoke flow as it settles my mind.
We talk about school, and sport, and wild animals. I tease him by quoting poetry – the wind flung a magpie away and a black backed gull bent like an iron bar…slowly – he pretends he thinks this is rubbish, but I know he is intrigued. He teaches me Welsh words I have forgotten, or never knew -- pioden y môr? – and the hours go by and we’ve done nothing difficult and soon the late September sun is leaning into the sea. Rain clouds are clotting over Gower and advancing across the bay towards the steelworks, hauled and hurried by the west wind towards Sker point and Porthcawl.
We pour one more quick tea, then call the invincible collie in from the waves, and set off again on the rough trek across the restless dunes, along the slacks, leaving our bootprints among the goat willows and birches, hastening from the rain and the wind to get back to the warmth of the cluttered old library where we live.