|Posted by Nigel Humphreys on April 30, 2011 at 3:17 PM|
As Stephen Fry once remarked: the definition of ‘countryside’ is the throttling of Piers Morgan. Well I live in the countryside but it’s the gauntlet London hurls down which wires my sensibilities. From time to time I need to be where it’s at. This month I will be in London Town again, a place I love in measured doses, reading my latest botch of something loosely called poetry in The Poetry Place, Covent Garden. The poster reads: ‘An Evening with the Poet Nigel Humphreys’ which is totally flattering and, I fear, totally undeserved. Whenever I come down I always avail myself of the opportunity to visit its galleries (Dutch landscapes at the Queen’s this time), see the latest plays with the finest actors and go to the best concerts (the Finzi String Quartet at the Wigmore I’ve managed to book on this occasion); to tame its fanged roar as though proving something to myself - that I am not disenfranchised of pantheons perhaps, or unfazed by grandeur. Aldgate, Blackfriars, Charing Cross, Bayswater, Swiss Cottage, Holborn are always strangely familiar to me as though I have lived among them before in another life. I feel both au fait and estranged like returning home after a long holiday. I get a buzz from manhandling the most impressive metropolis on the planet. It’s a fix which aggrandizes. It also humbled on one occasion.
Minor incipient mishaps perhaps but injurious such as, when having detrained at Birmingham International that morning on my up-journey down, the platform announcer surreally informed all who could decipher his static that there would be no more trains travelling to London that day. I had to catch a train back to the New Street and walk across Brum city centre to Snowhill station in order to catch a train to Marylebone. Annoyingly this put me on an inconvenient Tube line. Added to which I then found that my reserved Virgin quiet carriage didn’t exist because the fat controller had cobbled together another shorter train consequent to a breakdown at Lime Street. Yet again I found myself in the travelling offices of business types forced to listen to their bureau politics, mislaid orders and the embarrassed consequences of heavy drinking the night before. Why is there an assumption that we all need to listen to their declamatory mobile conversations? Are we being groomed as definers of their self-importance?
An altercation on arrival with an urbane unapologetic Cypriot hotel manager insisting I had not booked didn’t endear me to the suitcase and coffin dimensions of my single room. So Ok, I admit I was standing in the foyer of the wrong hotel but how did I know that I’d booked in its sister pension. What annoyed me more than anything was that his limited language skills prevented him from expressing any regret over the misunderstanding. (Is the-customers-always-right exclusively a British thing?)
Equally tiresome was that night’s appalling play at the National Theatre about waves of multi-national immigrants settling in Bethnal Green over recent centuries. Utterly without plot and therefore denouement. Just cloned acts the only difference between them being that where they were Huguenots in Act One they were Irish and Jews in subsequent acts. Same script, different lingua franca. I left at the interval. It was on the same visit that I came up against the unexpected and exorbitant entrance fee to Kew Gardens which, in my naivety, I expected to be as free as the parks. I refused to hand over my £16 and spent the afternoon in a pub watching two low-grade cricketing nations slog it out in the 20-20 World Cup. So this must have been four years ago. And that’s another thing which nettles – until this moment I had thought it was only two.
In short, on this one occasion and on this one occasion only London had diminished, grown too familiar perhaps. No adrenaline rush, only the drip drip of ennui. And from the moment I arrived I wished the trip over. I longed to be back in the hills, on the dark side of the Cambrian Mountains in undemanding space. Was this prescient ? Read on. I was not home-sick, just strangely sick of London and its unslakable sirens, wheeled suitcases (my own included) rattling over collapsed pavements and the endless tribes of reservation-free schoolchildren raiding the galleries on their pinto ponies. Where before I had risen to the cosmopolitan challenge of the great city, multifarious sounds insulted my eardrums almost surgically, Mediterranean gesticulations struggled with the demotic in wine bars, the tourists’ bungling insouciance galled. That was four years ago apparently and on the many trips since you’ll hear me announcing, in my own version of platform speak, that I have reclaimed old Lud, or Lud has killed the fatted calf.
What is unaccountable is that it would appear all reverses had been decanted into that one trip. Coincidence or what? Was I being set up by some esoteric energy science has yet to discover? You be the judge.
Two days later found me in the breathy Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. The forecast for the south Midlands was poor, rain all day. I expected to spend most if it in the car with my crosswords, CDs and C.P. Snow while my wife got on with the business of showing her fancy rabbits in their best bib and tucker at Hanley Swann, a pert little vintage with its chocolate box village green and duck pond under the benign magisterial watch of those famous Elgar-haunted hills. Luckily, when we arrived after an uneventful two and half hour car journey, the sky slowly cleared and I was able to walk our pet Lab Lizzie along one of our usual routes over the slopes skirting the British Iron Age hillfort and ignoring for that day the gentle switchbacks to the north. We past the reservoir on our left and followed the earthwork ditches as far as we could safely walk. In the distance yet again the familiar sight of a tall imposing monument which stood aloof of the trees tantalised. For nearly forty years I had wondered how I might reach it. There didn’t seemed to be a way of getting there other than by car and on every occasion at the same point I would turn back and forget it despite my stolid resolve to consult a map once I had returned to the car. This day was something else.
For the first time in all those years at that precise point of our customary turn-back I noticed a low brick-built cairn a few paces further on down where the escarpment dropped away. Why I had never seen it before I can’t explain? It wasn’t new; in fact, by its appearance it had weathered over many years. It must have always been there. It was as though I had always been blind to its existence. Until now. On the cairn were directional arrows. One pointed to a quarry and another to the British Camp from where we’d come. A third was aimed at a narrow obscure track disappearing into the bracken and low slung trees leading off to the south-west. On it were written the words: MIDSUMMER HILL OBELISK. So that’s what it was. In short I followed the impish windy path, reached the obelisk, decrypted its many eroded inscriptions as best I could which exclusively concerned Chancellor Somer and his family (he had been instrumental in the Glorious Revolution it seemed) and returned, an epiphanic glow warming me all the way back. Something significant had happened. I was sure of that. Two hours had passed as one. I was no longer of the same mind. Had the disillusionment of my London trip set me up for this ? Why had I not seen the cairn and its sign before? I don’t say our walk was revelatory but there was some sort of alchemy in the mix as though purpose afoot in those pagan hills. I was mentally as far from London as it was possible to be. At the opposing end of the topographic compass but in my comfort zone, my natural habitat. Is that what the stark comparison was telling me by means of something I fail to grasp entirely but consider to be eerily portentous? Town and country, challenge and comfort, adventure and solace, impatience and solicitude, palace and cottage define each other. My card had been marked. I’d been well signposted. Oh yes, and if anyone reading this happens to be in Betterton Street on Wed 18th May at about 7 o’clock please call into the Poetry Place café. Just follow the signs if you are permitted to see them!