Saturday, 20 September 2008

Walking the Dog

There are good things to be said for living in the country. We're dog-sitting at the moment and, last thing, Chico the yorkie needs taking out for a walk. A stream and a mill-race run through the middle of the village and as Karen and I walk round with Chico we can hear the sounds of running water on all sides, rushing under bridges and gurgling down culverts.
The moon's not far off full, so the churchyard, with it's drunken gravestones looks suitably Gothic. A few stars are visible in the gaps between the scrappy clouds. On a dark, cloudless night here you can see the Milky Way from our garden and even, if you know where to look, the Andromeda Galaxy. As we pass the well lit windows of the pub, the handful of usual suspects can be seen propping up the bar: each in his or her usual place.
Sometimes I feel frustrated. I used to live in North London, a short walk from Hampstead Heath, Camden Lock, all kinds of wine bars, cinemas, arts venues. I can work up a real nostalgia for the place, particularly after a couple of whiskies.
Nostalgia is neither useful nor realistic. There must have been bad times. It was expensive, and I left because I just could not see how I afford to bring up children there. Perhaps that was all in the mind because, of course, plenty of people do. I ran away to a raw, Northern town on the edge of the moors. I always had an uneasy relationship with the place, but that part of my life, in its turn, can't have been all bad. There must have been good times. There were. Definitely. Two of my children were born there.
And now, I'm here. The dog's asleep on the duvet at the foot of the bed. Outside, the Milky Way is overhead. Me, I'm sat at the laptop. Passing the churchyard it occurred to me that Walking the Dog was a passable title for this: a place to start. Get it all down.
Whenever I go to a big city the nostalgia kicks in – momentarily. But then I come back and I know that for all its isolation, this is a good place to be. Yes, in London, you could go out to a wine bar every night, and you're all talking about the stuff you're going to write, the books you want to read. But you can't sit in bars talking about what you're going to do and read or write at the same time. For others it might work, but for me it was the land of 'one day...'.
Here, there is time. Time for Moby Dick, James Joyce and the rest. And space. Space to be creative. This can get complicated. Perhaps this is all in my head and I'm talking about something I need to think about and which doesn't apply generally, but I think it's very easy for creative work which draws heavily on a rural environment to be sentimental. I hold the view that, as someone once said, “sentimentality is a failure of emotion”, but a little bit (and I mean a little bit) now and again doesn't do any harm.
For example, I have a possibly irrational prejudice against paintings of sheep: anthropomorphised animals with stoical faces that speak of a grim life spent grazing bleak, drystone-wall strewn moors. OK, maybe it's just me. Perhaps sheep really do look like that. And, to be honest, I take my hat off to anyone who can make a living turning them out. Perhaps my problem is that I want art, and the arts in general to 'make it new', as Ezra Pound put it. And if you live in a rural tourist area frequented by coachloads of potential buyers the tendency is, instead, to "make it again and again and again...'. In one way I have no problem with this: I feel very strongly that the arts should not be elitist and that people should make and enjoy what they want*. However, if one's surroundings are routinely and repetitively sentimentalised, freshness becomes a challenge. Fortunately, few things stimulate creativity more than a challenge. Another good reason to live in the country.

*I often find myself thinking how our everyday feelings about what we do and don't enjoy in terms of the arts and entertainment have been affected by the existence of the mass media. It's hard to imagine what it would be like if the only music you had to listen to had to be played by a local musician, and the only poetry written (and read) by a local poet. OK, so rich people employed their own musicians and a few people would have been lucky enough to go to Bach's church, but most people would have had to make their own entertainment. I like to think that all kinds of interesting, off-the-wall things went on that have, sadly, been completely forgotten.


Rachel Fox said...

A very interesting read...a ramble after my own heart!

I did the same thing...moved from a big city (Leeds) and ended up (eventually) in a village in a very quiet county. There are good things about cities but there are down sides too - the bitching, the competitiveness, the noise, the squash and the squeeze! Being the desperately-trying-to-be-positive person that I am I look at the plus points - I had all those years of fun and craziness and now I have something very different...chances to reflect, chances to walk... to look and breathe and live a whole different life! I like the idea that we can have many cats.

As for rural art...shouldn't you just make the art that seems right to you at the time? In your heart of hearts what is is you want to make? Some people want to pickle sheep, some want to paint sheep...some want nothing to do with sheep at all!

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for this, Rachel. On the whole, I wouldn't disagree with what you say. However, three thoughts spring to mind. I offer them raw:
1. I don't think it's just a question of heart. Head comes into it too. Charles Bukowski had an interesting way of putting it: "the way to create art is to burn and destroy/ordinary concepts and to substitute them/with new truths that run down from the top of the head/and out from the heart."
2. Jim Murdoch quoted Harold Pinter the other day: "I work much as I write, just moving from one thing to another to see what's going to happen next. One tries to get the thing…true."
3. Artifice obscuring truth. A painter seeking Pinter's truth would find it hard to paint a picture of a landscape used in Last of the Summer Wine, for example, without people looking at it and saying "Oo look, it's Last of the Summer Wine country!"

Rachel Fox said...

Yes heart is an odd word to use perhaps...I'm not sure there is a word that I really's all a mixture of head and heart and soul and mind and spirit and...whatever the hell it is that makes us think what we think and go the ways we go...

I like the Pinter quote especially. More than I like any of his plays I have to say. But then I haven't seen them all!


Frances said...

Agree with Rachel - a very interesting post. I too have been torn between city and country and each offers something the other does not. I'm reminded of some (probably ill quoted) lines from a poem by Derek Mahon which says: "The victims of infinite choice have built their house below the wood, and are at peace."
It sounds to me as though you have made your choice and its a good one. Remember that the bright lights - like marsh lights - can be illusory too.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Although I agree with your attitude to sentimentality, I am not sure where pure enjoyment ends and sentimentality begins. I can wax lyrical (very!) about birds, scenery, wild flowers etc., because I get such pleasure from them - but at what point does this lyricism become sentimentality?

Mistlethrush said...

Well I don't know about moving since I've lived my whole life in the same village. Dad has also lived his life in Euxton and my mother's family came from Chorley (2 miles away).

What I love about living in Lancashire is that there is so much beauty and variety never far away: moors (I love fell walking), woods, reservoirs, moss. And coasts and estuaries aren't that far away. I've just no reason to move....

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments everyone. As for the question of country versus city, it's easy,as people with the privilege of mobility, to feel torn. It's often said that "life is what happens while you're making plans", so if one wants to make the most of it, one has to live in the Now. "Now" is "Here". Where's here for me now? The country.

When does lyricism become sentimentality? Good question. When it ceases to be true? (See Pinter quote, above).

As for the coast and estuaries of Lancashire: the tide coming in at speed at Arnside is a sight to behold. We quite often find ourselves there, or in Silverdale - although more often a little further North, around Coniston and such places.