Thursday, April 15, 2010

Rural psychogeography

I was recently introduced, by my son Charles, to the realm of psychogeography, something I really should have known about as it has been going on for years and, according to some, has almost exhausted its possibilities.  Usually though it is to do with urban wandering, so the rural dimension is, perhaps, a rare variant.

However, urban or rural, it is new and interesting to me.  I won't try and define what it is because it is easy to look up on the Internet, but I have appended below one of many examples of the genre penned by myself without knowing what I was doing.

Solvitur ambulando, it is solved by walking, a Latin phrase normally attributed to St Augustine of Hippo.  But quite what is solved by walking I am not sure, though it sounds good.

Anyway, here is my rural psychogeographic text (from 2001):

8 July 2001 (A walk from Coleford in the Forest of Dean where I was staying for a couple of days with David and Vicki Thornton. I got up early one Sunday morning and, since everyone else was asleep, wandered off with an Ordnance Survey map then wrote the results down when I returned. I had it in mind that these little voyages of exploration might become a travel book called ‘Walker’.)

1. The beginning of Walker

A hot and humid July morning with heavy banks of dark grey cloud mottled with lighter areas and pale golden hollows and valleys. Walker set off westward past the purplish stone non-conformist chapels with their high geometric facades saying “this is the face of God.” From some the sound of muffled hymns escaped into churchyards, car-parks and gardens as though it was not to be confined by walls, however high.

The road ran under the tall brick arch of a long-disused railway bridge and wound past stone houses and cottages deeper into the limestone valley of Whitecliff, with its quarry hidden among the trees heavy in their high summer green. Meadow brown butterflies flopped among the grasses and brambles that scrambled over the ancient field walls. Many of the pastures were horizontally ribbed with sheep walks but, apart from a shorn flock on the hillside near Millend Farm, no sheep were seen due to their all having recently been slaughtered in the foot & mouth epidemic – a disaster that had hit the Forest of Dean particularly hard.

At the junction of the lanes near Whitecliff Farm, opposite the quarry-workers’ cottages with their lovingly tended gardens, great rope-like vines of traveller’s joy climbed high into the pine trees and were being used as supports for the hop-plants now getting towards the limit of their summer growth. These hops had once, no doubt, been used for some long-extinct local beer made, perhaps, by the quarry workers themselves for the heroic thirsts their labours must have generated.

The valley deepened along Millend Lane with meadowsweet and hogweed indicating the line of a brook and, at one place, there was a view towards Newland church that would have made homesick expatriates fall to their knees and weep so perfect was the undulating harmony of grass, tree, stone and sky.

At Scatterford Farm, Walker turned south east up the hill towards Clearwell looking back from time to time into the small valley to the north. Clearwell appeared as a row of white council houses overlooking the same valley and a fine prospect of rolling, wooded Dean hills. At Lower Cross it was north into Pingry Lane, climbing the steep hill that heads over the ridge towards the ancient moat and fishponds. The heat of the day had now increased substantially and bounced from the road and from the high banks with their chocolate-coloured earth. Walker’s forehead was wet with sweat and a squadron of dark flies gathered above, darting and whining through the shimmering air.

At length the main Bream to Coleford road appeared with its wide, grassy verge and hurrying traffic that drove the flies away to search for cattle and horses in more tranquil pastures. Beside the road 100 metres south of the traffic lights a dark square in the tarmac showed where a heavy iron drain cover had been removed, presumably by vandals as there was no sign of it in the vicinity. Walker, like any other thinking person, saw the potentially lethal danger of this gaping black hole. The cars approached the lights at some speed, many no doubt hoping to cross the junction before they changed to red and, if a wheel had gone into the drain’s gape, the car could have turned over and slewed across the road into oncoming traffic. Walker reached for the mobile phone on his belt and, after a moment or two’s reflection in case he was over-reacting, dialled 999.

As the phone was ringing he turned to look at the oncoming traffic and saw the second car, exactly on cue, was a police car. There was a moment’s confusion as he flagged the police down with his folded Ordnance Survey map and informed the emergency services (who had answered the phone) that help had arrived and his call to them was therefore redundant. The two constables, a dour pair of youngsters who both seemed to be suffering from severe hangovers, after some initial suspicious hesitation (“Is this a madman? Is he dangerous and likely to pull a gun?” etc.) grasped the matter in hand, switched on their flashing blue light and surrounded the offending cavity with white and orange cones, one of which they later attached to a projection within the hole with a piece of blue string.

Situations like this seem to generate indecision and for a short while Walker was uncertain whether to go, or hang about as though he could possibly be of some use, or at least had an interest in the covering of the hole and ensuring it was no longer a danger. Since the two policemen showed no sign of wanting to engage in general conversation, Walker said “Well, I think I’ll continue with my Sunday constitutional” and proceeded along the grass verge to the traffic lights where he turned from the main road into the Coleford council estate.

More people were about here. A woman in a mauve jumper with a golden retriever on a lead walked across a wide and weedy open space, too big to be called a verge. Sunday morning men came from their front doors, talking to their companions of plans for the day, the people to be met and the cars to be sold. The road ran straight down the hill into Coleford and looked like a roll of white fly-paper covered in confetti. The houses and roadway itself provided the white but doors and windows, cars, gardens, washing, adults and children with their bikes and other toys created an untidy aniline kaleidoscope, a random architecture of folk, unplanned and unthought about, but with its own logic.

On arriving back in the centre of Coleford, Walker made his way to a supermarket, one of the cash-and-carry “we are cheaper than anyone else” variety. After a slalom of exploration up and down the tall rows of goods, Walker arrived at the cold drinks section which contained little but plastic, one and a half litre, screw-top containers of Sunny Delight. This drink, in its various manifestations, had become popular during the last several years because it was bright and well-marketed and had a taste of orange juice plus. It was much-condemned by the healthy eating lobby because it had no connection with oranges, or any other fruit, and was a remarkable cocktail of organic and inorganic chemicals. Vicki Thornton later told Walker that she thought it was made out of vegetable oil, but it was difficult to see how such a substance could be transmuted into a semblance of fruit juice – a genuine alchemy of the modern gastronomic world.

In the supermarket four varieties were offered: orange, tropical fruits and the low sugar version of each of these. Walker selected a low-sugar orange, partly because he had been reflecting during the morning’s perambulation that it was time he shed some weight.

Getting into the store had been easy: getting out was less so. The one proper till had just been occupied by a middle-aged man with a trolley piled high with loaves of bread and other staples, suggesting he must run either an hotel or an institution. Maybe he had slipped out for the week’s shopping while all his charges were at church. In the far corner there was a female shop assistant perched in front of a stacked army of cigarettes and beside a Lottery ticket dispenser. It was not clear whether she also dealt with trolleys and, in any case, was deep in what sounded like social chit chat with a shabby-looking middle-aged woman with greying hair, a brown, wrinkled face and glasses. Walker decided to get behind the man with the loaves, but immediately another customer with a small basket of groceries went over to the cigarette counter. Since the transactions of the loaf man looked likely to take some considerable time, or at least far longer than one would want to spend standing in a supermarket queue, Walker moved over to the cigarette counter.

It quickly became evident that the middle-aged lady was not only an acquaintance of the shop assistant, but a customer. In between the tortuous ramifications of the social life of Coleford on which she was expatiating, she was trying to work out how best her pursefull of coinage could be divided between Lottery tickets and cigarettes. The two women spread the money out on the counter and inspected it while discussing the most cost-effective strategy for procuring one of the white, black, gold, blue or otherwise-coloured packets that could satisfy the craving that had been worsening since the last nicotine-containing tube had burnt to its end the previous night. The available resources were small and eventually the Lottery ticket, with its promise of a £17 million win, had to be abandoned in favour of the cigarettes. Although this seemed to presage the end of the dialogue and offer the promise of more rapid movement of the queue, the shop assistant tackled her tasks of money counting, cigarette selecting and till ringing as though she had been trained to star in slow-motion films. This began to raise the irritating possibility that the person behind the man with the loaves who was occupying the place abandoned by Walker would get out of the store ahead.

However, this was not to be. Suddenly the middle-aged woman was off with the cigarettes and the man with the small basket had his newspaper and milk processed at half-speed, but without any other hitch, and Walker presented his pound coin for 99 pence-worth of Sunny Delight and exited into the sunlit Coleford with map in one hand and plastic flagon in the other.

He walked into the town centre and passed the clock tower with the cold plastic, now prickled with condensation, pressed against his arm and slowly ascended the winding hill where fading aubrietia still adorned some of the walls of Boxbush Road.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

How have I got into evolution anyway?

How have I got into evolution anyway?  It goes a long way back.  From early childhood I was deeply interested in wildlife and when I was 8 or 9, towards the end of World War II, my mother bought me a book called The Story of Living Things and their Evolution, written and illustrated by Eileen Mayo (1944) who was not a professional biologist.

I was enthralled by this book and, turning the pages today, I can remember the pleasure each picture and the accompanying text gave me.

The book was scientifically blessed with an introduction by Julian Huxley.  This contains some astonishing remarks.  For example, Huxley writes that Darwin and others "finally dethroned man from his claim to a unique position of Lord of Creation."  (I though that was God!).  Then Huxley rather contradicts himself in the next paragraph by saying that "as a result of studying evolution, we now know not merely that man has evolved from lower animals, but that he is now the sole trustee of life for further evolutionary progress in the future."  (So we still are Lord of Creation!).  In the case of the second observation, Homo sapiens does not seem to be making a very good job of it.

In the main body of the book I was very struck by the pages on the evolution of the horse which presented the reader with four animals increasing in size as the smallest, Eohippus,upgraded through Mesohippus and Merychippus to the modern horse.  Why did they get bigger I wonder.  Why don't we have mice the size of horses?  Is bigness an advantage in the case of equines but less so with rodents?

A glance at Wiki shows that illustration of the rise of the horse was, to say the least, a crude view.  But I'll bet our current view will seem crude in another 66 years time.

Mayo also says that Eohippus (now known as Hyracotherium) was the size of a fox, a remark congruent with Stephen Jay Gould's observation that the idea that this extinct creature was of fox, or fox terrier, size was apparently put about in a pamphlet by a celebrated foxhunting paleontologist called Henry Fairfield Osborn.  Maybe he thought all wild animals were fox sized.  Anyway Eohippus/Hyracotherium was, at 60 cm long, only about half the size of a fox (or fox terrier).