There is a world of things out there – rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world – Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk

Popular music is not a place for intellectual depth. However I like some Bob Dylan words because they’re like poetry, some of old punk rock words because of the angry subversive energy around them. I like the darkness of PJ Harvey and, at times, her glorious noise.

In one of her collections she sings about the demise of England. It’s not so long ago that England, more so than Scotland, Wales or Ireland, had custody of two thirds of the world. I spoke about this with an Austrian chap in Corsica. I felt uncomfortable. It’s just a fact, he said, which it is. He was implying something about power and ability quite separate from morality and politics. Part of that fact, which we further discussed, is world use of the English language. We then conversed with a French couple. They said, and we all agreed, English is the language of international business affairs. You must have it. It’s like Esperanto.

I find it extraordinary, given the size of Britain, how we still rank highly in economic, military and political terms. Extraordinary too, how this wealth is not evident in daily quality of life. We’re a stable, liberal, and tolerant country but I don’t like British living. I long for somewhere less grey, less rainy, warmer like Spain and the Spanish, less crowded and more charming like France and the French. I find Britain petty, dreary and dull, with a nasty cheap society which erupts on Saturday night. Or maybe that’s just Manchester.

What is pertinent is the calmness of beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it – Kazuo Ishiguro on British landscape, The Remains of the Day

In the Spanish Pyrenees a few years ago I was shocked when I saw a casual magazine with a crotch display. Topless too. I looked at the men, women and families at the camp site bar thinking someone would notice me and disapprove. Obviously they didn’t. It was their country and their general interest magazine. I wondered about Spanish women: but they are strong, not patriarchy victims.

In the French Pyrenees I was taken aback when, with mountain table introductions, a woman said to me enchantee in such a lovely manner I thought she wanted romance. I looked at her again. Her manner continued, spread around the table before soup. Once, traveling into the mountains on a train, I was enchanted at the sight of a pretty teenager, bare legs, reading Simmel like she was eating a baguette or croissant. I thought of Camus, Sartre, Barthes, and Proust. I can’t speak about Barcelona or Paris so this is unfair. However, I find rural Spain and France relaxed and civlised and lovely such that you don’t find in Britain.

We’re not great any more. We are still powerful and influential but you don’t see this on the streets, except in London which is like a separate part of Britain. For the last fifty years or so Britain has been leaving dreams of greatness behind. England’s dancing days, says PJ Harvey, are done. On the same collection she sings about cruel nature:

The land returns to how it has always been
The scent of Thyme carried on the wind
Jagged mountains, jutting out,
crags like teeth in a rotten mouth
On Battleship Hill I hear the wind,
Say “Cruel nature has won again”

This is partly about war but any reference to nature goes further. Nature is cruel when considered in terms of life, death, and temporal facts. When I heard this song, my feeling about nature and the outdoors was temporarily changed. Not so the delights of walking across sunshine mountains, or beside the River Mersey, but the horrific fact of being materially embodied and the laws of mortality and decay.

Jagged mountains, like Striding Edge in the Lake District, about ten years ago, snowy winter, climbing a dangerous Swirral Edge without crampons. One slip in an icy foot hole and I would, I knew, slide and crash down to Red Tarn. Everything rested on a few square inches of traction, depending on angle and weight not the properties of ice. The following day I heard a woman behind me needed helicopter assistance: she was stuck, terrified, unable to advance or retreat. Heard too, how a chap had recovered the body of a man at Red Tarn in the same conditions. Had to pull him across the ice, he said.

For one moment I gazed across to neighbouring Striding Edge. You don’t care, I thought. I will be as Icarus, plunging to my death in the Breughel picture, unseen and unnoticed. You’re just jagged rock and utterly cruel.


Cruel Nature

Tuesday February 2, 2016