The Backroad Journal, Number 2

A short piece I wrote for the wonderful Backroad Journal, illustrated by Simon Carter.

A collection of writing that focuses on the themes of discovery and encounter, the journal is the brain child of photographer Justin Partyka and his partner, Bee. From their website:

Just out: The backroad Journal continues with Number 2, featuring twelve contibutors from around the world. These include Al Brydon's night-time quarry adventures; two poems from the new book Splash State by Brooklyn poet Todd Colby; an illustration by Essex based artist Simon Carter to accompany Jack Cooke's lament for Orford lighthouse; British photographer Glen Jamieson looking at Lee Friedlander; a new prairie poem by the Saskatchewan native Ken Mitchell; and award winning crime and television writer John Milne sails around the East Anglian coast. 

Anyone intrigued can order a copy here:

The Southern Land (in the far North)

Sutherland. The Southern Land. The curious naming of our island's North-Westerly corner dates from an era when the centre of power was Orkney not London, and the rulers Norsemen.

For ten minutes I have been standing on the cliffs of Cape Wrath at an acute angle to the ground. The wind blows from the sea, and with such ferocity that I am leaning forward without fear of falling. The anchoring in the bog mud behind me helps.

It is a wind intent on pulling the bones from your skin. Like a snake about to slough, I feel the boundaries of my body acutely. My whole endoskeleton may be laid bare to an audience of one; a large raven that is circling above me in the seaward sky. 

Turning inland, Sutherland is bleak; bare, desolate and often windswept. Looking out across a stretch of moorland that runs uninterrupted by man for nearly a hundred miles, the word fits. It is awesomely bleak. A landscape so rifled by the elements does not have many monoliths left standing. Anything that isn't tied down by ten million years of lithification, the rocky scalp of Scotland, is liable to be blown clean away. 

The rocks themselves, Suilven, Cul Mor, whether taken by their gaelic, Scots or Norse names, are timeless mounds. People travel to exotic destinations for skin-deep nature, eruptions of colour, coral and lava. Scotland's volcanoes are 10,000 years extinct but there is something magnetic in old stone. 

The only people who ever wanted to live here were forcibly removed and replaced by sheep, 200 and more years ago. The only people still living here are isolated - voluntary or not they are far from their fellows. 

Where would I go if the atom bombs rained down and the end of days arrived? What would be my post-apocalyptic house move? Sutherland - though looking across the interior on a windswept Friday, the apocalypse might well have come and gone without notice. 

Sutherland's isolation will not change. Even as our population rises so too will our lust for access and convenience, properties that do not exist in the Land of Mackay. We live on the same land mass but these great plains are oblivion to most; a realm forgotten and unknown. 

A lone bird approaches from the South across miles of open velvet, passing my post in the bog and crossing the line between land and sea. I lean forward again and shout to the wind:





The Garden of Life

A beautiful bit of self-analysis from Japanese author Yasushi Inoue, reflecting on a lifetime's worth of writing:

Forty years have flowed by since then without my seeing them go, fifty novels of varying lengths, a hundred and eighty novellas...When I consider the work I have done, I feel a little like I am gazing out at a garden gone to seed. Amaryllises poking up in random places, roses whose appearance leaves much to be desired. The flowers blooming there belong to the most diverse species, large and small, transplanted from the desert and the Himalayas. Weeds are encroaching everywhere. Yes, it is an untended garden. Each time I look upon this landscape, it seems somewhat different. Sometimes, when the sun is shining, I find it filled with clarity. Other days it is sunk in shadow, hushed and gloomy. No matter how it appears to me, thought, this untamed garden is me. No one else but me, all there is to me.

Excerpt taken from Bullfight, published by Pushkin Press in 2013

The New City

Naples is a city that is falling but never falls. Arches, columns, towers, all seem on the brink of detaching from the skyline, crushing whole blocks with their sudden collapse. Yet they linger on.

Naples is a city of dust. Everything is covered by it, from the statues of saints to the dough of Neapolitan pizza. It is a hot, livid dust, filling the cracks in cobbles and shaking itself from each over-hanging sill. It is dust that rises and falls in chorus, as if some harbour colossus stands sand-blasting the whole city from above, pockmarking the great walls of brick and stone but making slight impression.

Naples is a city with a heart. An enormous, aged heart, a maze of alleyways, each hung with a thousand sheets. Finding your way in, past orbiting rings of scooters and trucks, you are taken by the crowd; a mindless beast that moves at the pace of the old and infirm. You may see ice cream, pastries, roasting chestnuts, but no sooner have you desired them than the mob carries you on.

Naples is a city of churches. Everywhere they buttress the weight of walls; wedges on street corners, doorstops between listing palaces. From their bolted doors, imperial staircases descend in twin flights, gated against a less pious world. Above, crumbling arcades have ceased to vie for the greater glory. On every ledge tall forests of grass are sprouting, lending fringes to cherubs or battlements to bell towers. Idle too long and a cassocked priest may appear at the rose window, dust falling from his tonsure, his hands bearing a crossbow for a crucifix.

Naples is a city of superstition. Here, a mannequin of a football coach leans against a marble Madonna, plastic and stone both polished to reflection by daily caress. A street vendor cradles the manger he has made, a temple for the miraculous birth in miniature, while immigrant hawkers from the port drag long, bejewelled tails behind him. They move north, necklaces and bracelets glowing with glass diamonds. In the street, the smoke of incense and house fire becomes inseparable.

Naples is a city of time.  Condensed history; history that accrues without a filter or a means of disposal, the culmination of twenty-seven centuries spent building on ruins. All things are piled upon and gestation is slow. Even German bombs have failed to penetrate the wreck that lies beneath the ruin. Smouldering shells have been added to the heap, tail fins projecting from broken domes or cartoon fuses threaded through by electrical cables and broken drains.

Climbing the hill to the castle, the churches raise their heads once more. Crosses of wood and iron are twisted into weather vanes far above the city, predicting nothing but outlasting all.

The Green Crown

One doom-laden London day, I found my gaze drawn from a window I could only see into, my office computer, to the big bay of forbidden glass behind my colleague’s head, an opening from which I could look out across the road and beyond to the allusive Eden of Regent’s Park.

A single plain tree erupts from the tarmac three floors beneath our window and sends branches arching over cars and lampposts, across the opposite pavement, falling just short of the park’s green verge. This lonely arbor always seems cast adrift, with row on row of its kin beckoning from behind the park rails but remaining out of reach. In springtime, when new buds breach the tree’s bark and push a fraction further outward, you can almost feel it stretching, as if every new season might reunite it with the lost kingdom beyond the fence.

Jaded by the typeset of a thousand unanswered emails, my eyes habitually strayed to the horizon when I looked out of the window and never noticed the tree’s slow encroachment in the opposite direction, climbing up the office and the window sill, almost into the room itself. It took a surge of autumnal wind to finally bring my attention to the plant invasion happening under my nose, blowing the tree’s extended branch against the panes with a demanding tap. While my colleagues remained trapped in the steady necrosis of office life, I awoke, as if for the first time that week, and stepped across to the window. There, beneath the ledge, the final finger of an enormous branch wavered in the breeze, itching the lattice white chin, enticing it to break from its frame and follow a path of bark down into the bowl of the tree.

Perhaps I could follow that same road? The branch thickened a yard’s jump from the window and began a gentle decline almost to the base of the trunk. Connecting branches offered alternate passage, up and over the street and the traffic. A similar leap at the end of the furthest of these would land me in the park, green at the shins but free from the death grip of digital life, clicking interminably in the office behind me. 

The sudden apparition of this floating causeway brought to my mind one of the great escapist heroes of literature – Cosimo Piovasco Di Rondò - otherwise known as The Baron in the Trees. Conjured by the pen of Italo Calvino, Cosimo is a kind of Renaissance tarzan, an Italian noblemen disaffected with the cloistered routine of his upbringing who, one fateful moonlit evening, steps out of his father’s dining room and climb’s into the oak tree that overshadows it. Despite the pleas of his family and friends, Cosimo does not return to earth, charting an airborne passage across the park’s mature trees and into the wood beyond. Set in an imagined European past when our great forests covered more than lay bare, Cosimo is able to roam for miles in every direction, sustained by the density and variety of the forest giants that surround him. The rest of the novel charts a lifetime of adventure in these lofty heights, where our hero finds ample provision to live and to thrive. 

Back in the reality of this claustrophobic century and the isolation of my office, the trees of Regent’s park, beautiful though they were, did not rise in such abundance as to permit me to follow one branch onto another until I should reach some distant zenith, playing out my days as a would-be Simeon. But the prospect they presented remained irresistible, as if every trunk contained a bar magnet and I stood routed to their common pole.


Far Rockaway

A short piece I wrote on Fort Tilden beach, NYC:

Grit in my bum and thigh-high tan marks – contrasts worthy of a Caravaggio. The beach is burning up. Dark shapes of big men stalk the periphery, gender neutral breasts in the heat haze. A real hurricane breeze coming off the foreshore now, smacking swell and smell. There’s even a tide-line ballet going on here – ‘tumble weed’ foam escapes, scuds, then implodes in the cartoon dune behind me. A couple of bearded nomads pass us by – from Brooklyn or Manhattan, or beyond - who knows where. Adam’s keeled over, like a bust boat, with beachcombing trophies strewn around his personal shipwreck, lost cargoes in the near Atlantic. We’re both turning British beetroot even with the max factor we got from Michelle's. 

My bladder’s synced with tidal surges and the urges - to urinate in the wash - are getting pretty strong. Just try and avoid vigilantes, cyclists - seaside scorn. The classic dash, the seminal plunge, the stroke and gasp and I’ll be out of reach. Serene. Sublime. Possibly pissing in a rip tide.

Banner trailing planes pass, advertising for oysters, and the coastguard are definitely out to lunch. Bye bye Americana. God bless.