‘Saturday night at sea’, George Cruikshank (d. 1878), Wikimedia Commons

26 July 2019: My book has become a ball & chain. I can’t even look at it. I’m accepting defeat, for now. Thing is: I have problems organising a sentence. I sometimes forget to write in paragraphs. A book? What was I thinking of?

For the moment I am happy being a consumer of words. 25,000 words of evidence from Smith vs Brownlow, for starters. This court case (1866-70), and the events leading up to it, are one of the foundation stories of both the Open Spaces Society (then called The Commons Preservation Society) and the National Trust.

I’m also re-reading various Graham Greenes, Edward Thomas’s In Pursuit of Spring, and his poems. I’m half-way through Jonathan Bates’s biography of John Clare, and I’m still reading, will probably always be reading, D.H. Lawrence’s letters. I like to finish the day with them, though I don’t take them to bed. I’m also reading (rather, listening to) Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. I suffer from both vertigo and claustrophobia so I’m not sure why I keep coming back to his work. Perhaps I like being discomfited. I’ve just finished Luke Turner’s memoir, Out of the Woods. Turner is the Thomas De Quincey of sex addiction, as well as an informed guide to Epping Forest’s recent history.

Thomas, of course, is also a part of Epping Forest’s history. His escape there, to the nurseryman’s cottage at High Beach in the winter of 1916, was not wholly successful. ‘Home’ by that point was a rather slippery concept for the poet. The Artists’ Rifles may have quit the forest but the war was never very far away, the noise from the munitions factory in the Lea valley nagging at the edge of consciousness, ‘like a huge woodpecker’, he wrote to Robert Frost, ‘tapping in the forest.’

I also went to look for the location of John Clare’s church at High Beach, after hearing it mentioned on the radio (by Luke Turner, I think). It struck me as ironic that when Clare escaped the forest, he thought he was going home, but wasn’t, really. Thomas never felt at home in the forest but probably, in fact, was. At least his unsentimental attention to rootlessness and dislocation make somewhere where we can all imagine living. That could equally be said of John Clare, of course.

I had thought In Pursuit of Spring a foundational text for my book. But now I realise I hadn’t engaged with it properly. I was too wrapped up in my own agenda.

Coming back to it, I am more impressed by it. I even like the faults in Thomas’s prose – the occasional retreat into surfaces and the lapses into lists – like them because I recognise in them my own autistic strategies, a sort of narrative substitute when a story is not accessible.

Above all, this time round, I enjoyed the musicality of the journey. Thomas provides, a hundred years before his time, a ‘playlist’ for his cycle ride from London to the Quantock Hills. Psyching himself up for the journey, checking the weather obsessively, his thoughts turn to a sea shanty, ‘Santiana’. Shanties are almost by definition songs of travel: crews often sang different sets of songs for the outward and homeward journey. I’m not sure where Santiana stands on that score. There are several versions of the song. Santiana was a Mexican general and the shanty was, according to Stan Hugill, popular with cowboys. All of those things endear it to me, as does Thomas’s liking of it. The best version I’ve found so far is by The Fisherman’s Friends, not the one on their own album, but an acapella version they performed on ‘The Mark Radcliffe Folk Sessions 2015’.

A song for a bike ride up the Wandle, anyway, south-westerly or no.


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