“Then round and round a thousand eddies boil
On t’other side – then pause as if for breath
One minute – and ingulphed – like life in death”
- John Clare, ‘The Flood’
The figures form in peripheral vision.
Half-glimpsed coalescences of things that now exist only in dream, nightmare, folk song, children’s books neutered and spayed, moronic characters in pixellated distractions for the overpaid and overfed. Figures carved into the old buildings. Leering faces and exaggerated vulvas, wodewose and sheela-na-gig. The name of that guest-on-tap we quaff in our new ale bar, the yuppie’s wine den given a new twist, understanding that people get a sort of comfort from these old figures long after the meaning has been leached away. We want returned to us that which we have lost. We will never find it in these places. We try nonetheless. The Hobgoblin grimaces on our bottles. We smile. We would sit in the green spaces kindly given to the people long ago, when Victoria sat on a throne she didn’t deserve. The local shop, oblique sign of a dead Empire’s implosion, offered green glassed cider with a dancing goblin gesticulating wildly on the label. We couldn’t resist such items. Pathetic sops that made us feel connected to some kind of history even as we swelled the accounts of Thatchers. We drank. The world seemed more hopeful, for a while, as young children kicked under-inflated footballs around and the weak English sun did its best.
Occasionally, the old gifts that I was given as a child were allowed to flare back into life. Look, I would say, a green woodpecker, up there in the tree. They’re hard to see in the city, unless you know where and how to look. Woodpecker fuelled many teenage vomit-nights in provincial parks.
Alighting from our bicycles, we would shelter from the grey sky’s downpour under sighing willows that stood guard between the Hertford Union and Victoria Park. Coots and moorhens, occasionally the majestic heron, would pass us uninterested.
All these things such small stimuli, but constant. So the figures form in peripheral vision. We swear we recognise them. Isn’t that?....
Undernourished imaginations start projecting fantastic figures against dull concrete backdrops. I would stand in an over-lit supermarket aisle, comparing offers with dull abandon, not really caring what pre-packaged faecal matter that I’d shove down my gullet that night. Mealy mouthed objections to consuming dead flesh as I walked the humming consumer corridors that spread for miles beyond the horizon, the only vegetation in sight artfully packaged in clear plastic, sliced, diced and washed for my convenience. I would arrive home after an aeon with nothing to do, no knives to blunt on soiled veg, no difficult peeling. I was grateful for the time saved.
The water was rising to my door. Staring out at a drowned world, courtesy of Thames Water, I indulged in fantasies of escaping the island as burly firemen waded through silted water, clearing debris, while I smoked cigarettes and had my photo taken by the local paper (I would discover later). The island was drowning, their efforts in vain. So what choices are there? Dive in to the flowing Thames water, go under and be swept out to sea. Or stay here, where I am not really home. I am waterbound. I can’t get home.
The politician-show flickers unreal on the old yellow television set. We, qualified, educated and unemployed talk about the state of the nation. Why don’t we take to the road? Or escape to Asia like so many before us. It is tempting. But we are water bound on the island, and no flights or boats are leaving. They say the trains are no longer running. We at least have our bicycles.