Astronaut

No need to move
from the chair
where you can sit
fooling everyone
who forgets that the moon
(along with the blackbirds)
exists only in our heads

all it takes
is a word
and before you know it
you’re setting off
your pockets full of poetry
and apples

 

(c) Sackerson, 2020

 

The Shape of Things

Short fiction

One evening not very long ago I got a call from Ian. I could tell from the background noise he was in his car, probably on the motorway. He asked me if I was busy and told me he was travelling north. Did I want to meet up for the evening? He was staying the night at a roadside hotel at the motorway services just south of Wakefield. There were several takeaway outlets on the concourse there, if I’d not already eaten. It would give us a chance to catch up. I had nothing to do that I couldn’t postpone, so I said yes.

At that time in June it never quite gets dark. Even in the middle of the night the sky glows and only the very brightest stars are visible. I found myself driving down to join the motorway under a cloudless, blue dome. The rush hour was over, so there were only a few other vehicles out on the road. Occasionally, I passed laybys. All of them had already filled up with articulated lorries, their drivers preparing to spend the night in their dimly-lit cabs. The only talk-radio station I could find was broadcasting a programme on the future of the economy. It soon got on my nerves, so I switched to listening to an Ornette Coleman album I’d downloaded. It didn’t take me long to get to the junction with the motorway. In the late evening light, the trees planted on the soft estate around it could almost be mistaken for a real forest.

The service station I was heading for was less than a mile down the carriageway. When I got there, the car park was half empty. I parked up and called Ian on my mobile. He told me he’d already booked in and was waiting for me in a coffee bar on the concourse. When I got there, it was easy to spot him as the place was almost empty. He was sat, as he’d told me he was, at a table by a panoramic window overlooking the motorway with its slow-moving, red and white lights. There was no queue at the counter. A lively young man served me with an espresso. I got the impression he was trying to suppress his amusement at something his colleague, a girl of about the same age, had just said to him before I arrived. I took my espresso over to Ian’s table. I sat down across the table from him and asked him what it was that had brought him up north.
‘I guess I just felt like it,’ he said. He tried to smile.
‘Kind of spontaneous?’
‘Yes.’
‘And Rachel was okay about it?’
He paid close attention to the cars on the motorway. ‘I’ve not seen her for over a week,’ he said. He glanced back at me. ‘It’s one of the great things about living on your own, I’ve discovered. You can do what you like, when you like, can’t you? So long as you can afford it, that is.’

He went on to explain how he’d come back from work to find Rachel had gone. She’d left no note and had said nothing about what she was about to do. There could be no doubt, he said, that she’d gone for good, as she’d taken all her possessions with her. Although she’d said nothing specific, it had not come to him as a complete surprise. He’d always felt, he said, that she had, as he put it, ‘troubles of her own to contend with’. All the time they’d been together, he said, he’d always felt part of her had been somewhere else. They had never discussed where that might be, he said but, wherever it was, it seemed to him to be a cold, inhospitable place. He then retracted this, saying that it was impossible to tell what somebody was thinking or feeling unless they made some attempt to tell you. She had made no attempt to discuss whatever it was, he said, and neither had he. He said he regretted this but then, on reflection, said that he had thought of doing so, often, but never seemed able to find a way in. It seemed inevitable looking back, he said, that things would turn out the way they did.

I listened to what he said but could think of little to say in response that didn’t sound trite. When he’d said everything he wanted to say we sat together in silence for a while.
‘So where are you heading?’ I said.
‘Nowhere in particular,’ he said. He thought for a moment. ‘The sea, possibly. Don’t worry, I’m not thinking of folding up my clothes on the beach and… You know, the way people do.’
‘It never occurred to me that you might.’
‘It’s been a long time since I went to the seaside. Rachel hated it. Said it reminded her of family holidays she never wanted to go on because her parents spent the whole time shouting at each other.’

He kept moving his hands and, every now and again, rubbing his face. He looked worn out. His coffee cup was empty.
‘Let’s walk around,’ he said.
‘Why not?’ I said, affably.

We walked slowly round the tiled concourse. Almost all the shops were shut. An amusement arcade was open but empty. Flashing lights zigzagged across the screens of unattended gambling machines. A vending machine stood silent, its transparent plastic body full of blue and pink cuddly toys. Tape barriers blocked the entrance to a small supermarket. A woman in a uniform the colour of the shop sign was mopping the floor.
‘Let’s go outside.’ he said.
I nodded.

The automatic doors slid apart and we stepped out into the night air and the endless rushing sound of the motorway traffic. Ian took out a packet of cigarettes. He held it out towards me, raising his eyebrows as he did so. I smiled and shook my head. A young couple with two small children walked past us. The doors hissed open again to admit them. Ian took a cigarette out of the packet and lit it. I looked up. Over the doorway a CCTV camera was directing its inert stare towards us. I nudged Ian and gestured towards it.
‘They used to think the eye saw by emitting invisible rays that bounced back,’ he said. ‘You can see why. You can almost feel that thing looking at you. Let’s walk.’

We walked along the raised pavement that ran down one edge of the car park. A thin hedge ran down the whole length of it on our left. On our right, the tarmac stretched away from us under the overhead lighting. It was punctuated at intervals by a regular pattern of small islands planted with stunted vegetation. There were still only a few cars parked in the delineated parking bays. Ian seemed no less on edge. He seemed to crave my company but had nothing to say.
‘What are your plans for tomorrow?’ I said.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I guess I’ll keep heading up north. For now. Where did you park?’
I nodded towards my car, which was parked in a bay a few yards away.
‘It’s good to be out of that place but it would be good to sit down.,’ he said.

We walked over. Ian ground his cigarette out under the sole of his shoe. I clicked open the doors and we climbed into the front seats.
‘Any good music?’ he said.
I turned on the jazz.
‘This takes me back,’ he said. We sat there together for a few minutes, just listening.
‘It’s the shape that makes everything so difficult,’ he said, all of a sudden, more to himself than to me.
I thought for a moment he was talking about the music but he wasn’t. He turned to me.
‘The shape of things. Places, too. Rachel had a radio. An old Russian radio. It used to sit on the windowsill. When I looked out of the window, there was the radio. We used to listen to it. We used to talk about it, too. Made in the USSR. You know how sometimes you have the same conversations over and over with people you love? The same conversations, with variations. The great tragedy of the twentieth century was the failure of the Russian Revolution. Somebody said that, I forget who. We used to talk about that a lot. Now the radio’s gone along with loads of other things. They were all part of the world in my head. Does this make any sort of sense?’
‘I think so,’ I said.
‘Now when I look out of the window, I’m just looking out of the window. There’s a gap. The shape of everything has changed. That’s why I came away. None of this means anything to me. A room in a hotel is just a room.’

The lights on a car across the way flashed as its owner clicked it open from a distance. Two men appeared from the direction of the service station. They climbed in. I expected the car to drive off but it didn’t. Behind the sound of Ornette Coleman I became aware of a more distant, thudding bass.
‘It’s time I was turning in,’ Ian said.
‘OK,’ I said. I smiled.
‘I’ll be fine,’ he added, in answer to my unspoken query. He opened the door to get out.

(c) Sackerson, 2020

These Shoes

These shoes
will always be filled
with the invisible feet
of the man who left them behind
when he walked away
wearing nothing
but a pair of flip-flops
and the confidence that
(in his case) came
with a middle-class upbringing
among people who discuss ideas
read books and contemplate
the trolley problem
late into the night.

We don’t know
what became of him
but if he’s reading this
I can assure him
that his shoes are still here
waiting for him
to reclaim them
if need be.

(c) Sackerson 2020

A link for anyone unfamiliar with the “trolley problem”.

 

 

 

Borderline

The year’s 1930. A black couple move into a boarding house in a Swiss resort.  They’re lucky to find somewhere that accepts them. It helps that the boarding house is run by a lesbian woman who lets out her rooms to Bohemian types. We can assume that the locals -some of whom use the bar- look askance at the place.

The new tenants, Pete and Adah, are played by Paul Robeson and his wife, Eslanda. Robeson has recently chalked up a major success with his performance in Show Boat. Eslanda has just finished a biography of her husband. The plot revolves around the fall-out from an affair Adah has with Thorne, a white man who also lives at the boarding house.

Borderline was written and directed by Kenneth Macpherson. Macpherson was a member of the Pool Group, along with the novelist Bryher and her partner, Hilda Doolittle (the poet, HD). The group were admirers of the film-makers GW Pabst and Sergei Eisenstein and promoted avant-garde film-making through their journal, Close Up.

The film was considered radical at the time, both in its subject matter and in its use of avant-garde techniques. The combination of race, implicit homoeroticism and experimental film-making proved too much for the critics. The London Evening Standard advised Macpherson “to spend a year in a commercial studio”.  It’s interesting how, then and now, critics are often eager to use technical criticism to undermine politically radical work.

Borderline is a great film and its themes still resonate powerfully today. But even if it were no good, it would still be worth watching on account of its curiosity value. Bryher and HD both play parts in it, along with the poet, Robert Herring (who spends most of his time in the film playing the piano).

The film had been thought lost but was rediscovered by chance in 1983. In 2006 it was restored and released on DVD with a compelling soundtrack by Courtney Pine. Although others perhaps spend more time on screen it’s Robeson’s imposing stage presence that dominates the film. He was a man of prodigious talent who crammed three times more work into his life than most people manage in one lifetime. He went on to be blacklisted for his radical sympathies and active in the civil rights movement but as he said later in life, “the artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”

 

 

A Short Walk on Grinton Moor

The other evening I went for a walk on Grinton Moor in Swaledale. I chose one of my favourite routes. I’m not sure “route” is quite the right word for it as, the more I walk the less concerned I am about getting from A to B. When you set your mind on an objective it’s easy to pass over places of interest you pass on the way, telling yourself you’ll come back another day to investigate them. Invariably, you forget, or at least I do. These days, it’s often the case that I’ll set out not to walk a line on the map but to simply wander at will for as long as I’ve time to wander. Day-to-day life is so full of journeys that have to be made at certain times to specific places. Since we’re creatures of habit it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a walk made for no other reason than for the pleasure of walking needs to have similar conditions attached to it. It doesn’t.

Yesterday was a wet day. I’d considered getting out for an hour all afternoon and kept checking the weather forecast. I don’t know why I kept going back to it as I didn’t need the Met Office to tell me that it showed no signs of changing. Then it struck me, did it really matter? I quite like walking on wet days, within reason. I’d go anyway.

It was quite late by the time I set off. If I got a move on, I realised, I’d be able to get in half an hour’s wandering before sunset. Driving over the hills, I found myself driving through patches of fog which got ever thicker the further I got. As I crossed the watershed into Swaledale, I could see there were masses of low cloud partially obscuring the fells. As I parked up, it crossed my mind that I hadn’t brought my compass with me. So much for wandering. I’d have to stick to the Land Rover tracks or, at least, be very careful how I navigated my way through what little I could see of the landscape. At least, if the worst came to the worst and I got lost, I knew that if I headed downhill I would come to a track or road that would lead me back to the car.

The presence of the Wellington Lead Vein is marked hereabouts on the map. A short walk up a Land Rover track across the moor from where I parked is a ruined stone building. I suspect it was once part of the lead mine there. I could see it looming through the mist from the road and made for it. It strikes me now that what was an adventure for me must have been the daily trudge to work for the lead miners over a century ago. From the ruin, I could see through the mist to a line of low spoil-heaps. I decided to head towards them. They were quite close together. So long as one was always visible, it should be an easy job, I decided, to retrace my steps.

I found myself walking through an area of short grass and sphagnum moss, peppered with rabbit holes. A rabbit sat in its doorway darted underground as I approached. I soon reached the furthest of the spoil-heaps. I climbed to the top. Needless to say, there was no view to speak of. Featureless moor fell away from me on all sides, dissolving away into the whiteness. In the absence of the usual features to compare it to, the landscape seemed more spectacular, in a way, than it probably would on a clear day. I descended the heap and began to retrace my steps to the ruin. A minute or two later I realised I could see its outline through the mist, off to my left, reminding me how easy it is to get disorientated in poor visibility. I adjusted my course and soon found myself back at the ruin. I decided I’d stick to the Land Rover track for the rest of the walk.

A change in the light told me that above the mist the sun was probably setting. I checked the time. I still had a few minutes before it got dark, I decided, so I headed off along the track towards Snowden Man, a boundary stone on the watershed between Swaledale and Wensleydale. I passed another spoil-heap and took a moment to wander up it. Again, the view from the top looked deceptively dramatic. I returned to the track and carried on for a few minutes more but the further I went the fainter the track got, sometimes disappearing into beds of reeds. It was gradually becoming noticeably darker, too. It was time to turn back.

Walking around that part of Grinton Moor always takes me back to my very first experiences of fell walking. Years ago, a friend suggested we went to stay at the Youth Hostel in Edale, with a view to exploring Kinder Scout. I can still vividly remember arriving at the edge of the Kinder plateau after a stiff climb up a steep, grassy slope. I’d never been anywhere quite like it or at least, if I had, I hadn’t been paying attention the way I was then. It was like stepping into a different, surreal universe: the bleak expanse, the deep channels cut through the peat by the action of the water, the strange rock-shapes. I’ve never been anywhere quite so uncanny. People must have always felt this way about the place judging by the names they’ve given to the features on the hill: Ringing Roger, Kinder Gates, Mermaid’s Pool, Madwoman’s Stones. Simply reading them out loud from the Ordnance Survey Map conjures up something of the magic of the place.

Grinton Moor boasts nothing quite so fey but what’s left of the abandoned lead mines does lend the area an aura of its own, especially on foggy days. And there is a Youth Hostel a little way down the hill. The elements are all there to rekindle something of that sense of awe I felt years ago on Kinder Scout.

© Sackerson,  2020

 

 

Sea Shanty

I’m all
at sea
the albatross
the rum
the lash
and heaven knows
what else
the white whale
the desert island
the scurvy
shiver me timbers Jim
lad what’s he
going on about
fetch the hosepipe
we’ve heard enough


(c) Sackerson 2020

Motorway

It feels odd
to be this close
to the motorway
at night when
there’s not much traffic
going by
and I want to go to sleep
but at the same time
I want to stay awake
because I want to remember
what it’s like
to sleep in a cheap
hotel
which I don’t do that often
they provide you with teabags
and sachets of coffee
and it seems a shame
not to boil the kettle
and sit
looking out of the window
watching the articulated lorries
making their way
slowly
up the hill
and the occasional car
overtaking them
and then the road
empty
under the streetlights
waiting

 
(c) Sackerson 2020

 

 

 

Thresholds

For centuries, city-explorers have found themselves drawn to the edgelands, the zones that lies between a city and the land that lies beyond it. In the edgelands, the inner workings of the city are exposed. There you’ll find sewerage farms, electricity substations, landfill sites, areas of “waste” ground. Waterways that further into the city are channelled through invisible concrete culverts are, in the edgelands, open to the sky.

These explorers often use the word “liminal” to describe these places. Liminal is the adjectival form of the word “limen”, a word usually used to describe the threshold of consciousness. It’s easy to see how the word came to be so overused. In a sense, when we enter a city, we enter a waking dream. However, as we pass through the edgelands, we can see the machinery of the city, the means by which it induces the dream-state, exposed. The substations of the edgelands channel the power that illuminates the streetlights and the plasma screens that in turn illuminate the dream. The substations are fascinating in their own right but they do not beguile us the way the plasma screens set out to. When we look at the pylons and the transformers, we’re invited to see the things themselves. The same goes for all the machinery that exists in the edgelands to fire up the spectacle in the city. The edgelands are like the perimeter of a travelling fairground, where the engines that drive the generators roar and the workers’ caravans are drawn up in the dark, out of sight of the brightly-lit illusions of the centre.

pipe2

Whenever I read accounts of urban wanderings I feel the urge to go and explore a city for myself. This is a little difficult for me right now, “locked down” as we are in the middle of an epidemic. We live in a village, down an unmetalled road by the side of a beck. A few yards past our house, this road crosses the beck and turns into an even rougher farm-track. Here, the houses end and the fields begin. I went for a walk that way the other night. I found myself thinking about urban exploration and it struck me how villages, too, have their edgelands. They don’t sprawl for a mile or so like the edgelands of cities – in fact, blink and you might miss them. As I walked away from our house I realised I was walking through ours.

When the road turns into a track, the verge widens into a small area of “waste” ground. At the moment, it’s merely overgrown (I say merely, but it’s good to see it that way) but for several years it was used to store a number of huge concrete pipes intended for a land-drainage project. When they were finally taken away, it acquired a mound of hardcore that resembled a miniature Silbury Hill. I have to admit I played a small part in building it. Over the years the heap got used up. You can still see a low mound there, in the winter, when all the vegetation’s died back. Over the years, people have also dumped garden waste in the undergrowth hereabouts. A few yards beyond the remains of our Silbury Hill I spotted a lone daffodil growing on the bank of the beck. Not far from it stood a large-leafed, exotic looking plant I couldn’t name. Fortunately, no-one has dumped anything invasive. I think people here know better than to shit in their own backyard. The daffodil marks the end of the edgelands here. Beyond this point, everything is farmland.

pipebridge

Back home from my walk, I’m sat writing this in our conservatory – a grand word for a lean-to structure built on one end of the house. Boiler-room would have been more accurate, had the boiler not been taken away. There are no hot-house plants here. This is a place to keep bicycles, wellington boots, a tumble dryer, the odd piece of garden furniture which might be taken outside on warm days. The wall opposite the windows is the stone wall of the house It’s built of irregular-shaped pieces of stone and roughly pointed. Part of it has been plastered at one time and there are traces of green paint on one of the stones. An elaborate system of copper pipes which once connected to the boiler still run down the wall. I often sit staring at all this. Anyone attuned to the Japanese concept of wabi sabi (of seeing aesthetic value in imperfection and decay) can sit here for hours. The point I’m getting round to here is that this space is our “edgeland”. One door (the window in which is filled with a piece of salvaged stained glass which, like the wall, can hold one’s attention for quite a while) leads to the outside world. Another leads to the carpeted, centrally-heated world of the kitchen. Wherever we establish ourselves, on whatever scale, we create some sort of liminal space around us. Such spaces serve to sustain the illusions we create within their borders.

We live not far from an Iron Age hill fort. Fortunately, it’s quite remote and rarely visited. Finding it is a test of map-reading ability and many visitors to the area complain that they failed to find it. Being local, I’ve been there many times and so far I’ve always had it to myself. It strikes me now that what remains of it –the mound and the ditch- probably marked the edgelands of the community that settled within it. It seems that the thresholds we create are often the most enduring part of what we leave behind.

(c) Sackerson, 2020

Reading Aloud

Since getting together for poetry readings isn’t possible right now, I thought I’d post myself reading here. In this video I’m reading a poem I posted here recently, Geography, together with a more recent poem, Going Away.

It would be great if more people who posted their poetry on blogs and other social media posted videos or sound files of themselves reading, to make up for the lack of live opportunities at this time. There again, perhaps it’s happening and it’s just that I haven’t discovered it yet!

Going Away

He’s coming round this afternoon
I didn’t think he’d come so soon
he says the mind is not enough
there’s nothing to be frightened of

that people get the wrong idea
(they want to stay, they like it here)
that once they reach the other side
they’re pleased he took them for a ride

Yesterday he called next door
they found the old man on the floor
I wonder where he’s taking us
the driver in his old, black bus

(c) Sackerson, 2020

Geography

Forget it. There is
no trail to follow
through the trees no ginger-
bread house in the centre
of the forest although
there’s no way of telling
where that might be as
we’ve never found our way
to the edge to stand
looking out at the unbroken
sky and perhaps bare hillsides
sloping down to the sea. There is
a map but it’s of little use as
there are no distinguishing features
only the trees and the compass spins,
erratic, leading us nowhere
except to the conclusion that
anywhere might do. Also,
there are so many hiding places
depressions in the ground
where one might lie down
invisible it is impossible to tell
how many people there are
lying low though sometimes
you hear or think you can
the sound of voices that fall
silent the moment you begin
to listen. One could say
that nothing here is what it seems
but that implies we think
we understand the things
we’re dealing with.

Let’s take a walk then,
you and I, among the trees
in the absence of certainty
for sure, knowing only
that we know nothing
except for the smell of resin
and the distant surf-sound
of the wind in the treetops
and the possibility of
an encounter with a creature
not unlike ourselves
but different.

(c) Sackerson, 2020