17 Jan
A Walk To the Somme and Back

Life follows physiology and initiates movements. The mark of a modern soul is that it will appear forever inside an ironical eternal recurrence. I spend immense times murmuring in the long stillness of cold afternoons. These are places no one tells stories about but everyone knows. What would it be like to be born together with these, intrigued from the very start with the ceaseless rapture and the following arduous trials? The shadows were frosty when I decided to set out to the one Ealing grave I knew holding a dead man from the Somme. Dying there, you ascribe to him a constant and rare witness, and he becomes a prophet for all wars waiting to be born. They come and come. What were the shadows? Faith and reason, and reconciliation and consolation. I walked along the cold familiar roads between houses older than the grave I was visiting.  

The light held a glow in it which passed along like a shiver and withdrew from real contact. Genuine familiarity is more like a void shaped in a place where everything is questioned at every moment. I walked past the Arya Jamaj London building, a place more elusive than its sultry air and quietness. Some religions seem like yolks and others don’t. The black iron railings were like hesitant brothers lined up to ensure something was always preserved. History and philosophy are shy here. I turned off the main road and down to the park. I wasn't jaunty at all. Sometimes we simply have a sense of action. It was like moving sideways, head down, with a slight wounded limp in the skull. 

Drayton Green primary school was a whole other world, teaming with the higher noise of children and bright conviction. We don’t want to live, rather, we just allow it. But some places refuse to be bamboozled by the complications of vertigo, excess and life’s sharper profiles. I felt buoyed up by this and grateful. Here nature and buildings and amulets had spaces mutually supporting each others instincts. Walking there feels like licking the centre of a circle. Sex, blood and gods are compromising, a confusion seeking out a whole. There used to be an annexe to the Chinese Embassy next door to the school but that's long gone and replaced by flats.

I walked to the bottom of the park and crossed the road to the footbridge over the rail line. There’s a narrow footpath leading to its raw pink metal hemmed in by high blue railings on one side and grey corrugated sheet metal on the other. The space is dark as if swallowing god. It's a tight space with ritual features overgrown by rough vegetation and resignation. We absorb moments and everything is transparent when we disappear. Everything felt like a warning and I kept my eyes to myself as I crossed over.

If you stand in the middle you can look to the West and Brunel’s perfect run to Bristol and Wales. The landscape’s an event of back-and-forth where you might escape or return. Under the grey exploding sky there’s a sort of reflective equilibrium that will never converge on a single, shared truth.  Portable loos stood in the rough ground between tracks like loaves of sugar and the briars were like black spit. There’s more to walking than facts and logic.

And there’s no starting point. What I see are more fleeting signs against a shadowy backdrop, gold braided with rails sharpened with enamel knives, gathered in rows of ice, rainbows united in a background of unreal whiteness. There is more than one way to be ruined. Walking down the far steps there was a trashed back yard as if a howl of black shepherds had been fleeing demons. The house was collapsing into an ever present menace. It was one of those things you wish didn't exist. I felt disconcerted and off balance. Poverty always thumbs its nose and caresses atrocities. 

There was a  car. It was more like something curious from the mind’s vault, where although its facts were horribly visible – four  plastic red and white traffic cones placed on a large white board held down by bricks on its roof, the car itself penned in to a tight site of violence pointing back in time to a certain combination of circumstances  – I half expected someone traumatised to lift her screaming eyelids from the backseat looking for the dazzling light of heaven. We read backwards as well as forwards. Round the back of the Waitrose there are new houses being built whilst the older Victorian cottages line the railway tracks as if pushed aside. This isn’t a road where what is not here is nowhere else. Crows sound harsh after cuckoo song, and yet after the jay they sound mellower, almost like infancy. The magpie flew straight across the sky pretending to be peripheral. Things here move up and down as well. The birds are important because many of them carry seeds and pilgrims' coins in their terrifying beaks. Apparently waxwings have crossed over from the northern lands. I haven’t seen one. 

A small plastic doll’s head lay on the pavement. She was gazing at the other bank and shoal, her nape slight and her eyes globes looking up towards the overarching sky suffused with the light of boiling grey clouds. Her face was as pink-brown as a shellfish. The hedge over her was convulsive imbalance. Here was another sort of movement – not back and forth, backwards nor straight, up nor down – but inwards. She was a kind of abandoned orphan asserting herself amongst all the clandestine fathers and spasms of fratricide. The company of children quells rage. There’s always a thought that the will and morality have to be contended with together. We regenerate in the unknown. Who doesn’t want to offer a child advice to save them from the oncoming degradation? Gather your liberty. 

By a wall a measure had been thrown down and left to rot. Some people you want to shoot out of pity. But this was more the last remnant of being worn out. When I stretched out my arm there was an indifference in the surroundings. Walk, man, just walk. 'Blessed is he who has passed/ through this world/ In its fateful moments.' All the little walls were tangled with thorns, hedges and there were small piles of rubbish in some of the front yards - discarded wolf traps, broken bottles and hurt fictions. Freedom can’t be arbitrary because it needs to be worth wanting. The road had a feel of being neither too big nor too small. At its mouth was a busy car repair garage and an Islamic centre. If you take your time at these T junctions you end up not knowing what’s going on in your head. You don’t have to lie down between the grass blades either. So many things seethe about that you have to get used to changing the subject. 

If I knew a single thing under the sun I might make myself clear. What you hear in this kind of mood are taunts and a great despair as if from a hollow box. You know what that is. It’s something that comes with wanting to know how to live. Turning onto the wild, noisy Uxbridge Road a sort of interpretive guilt started up, like a fly buzzing on a poem. The buildings where West Ealing edges into Hanwell swells with zebroid night. Everything is streaked with roars and flashes, and each building is like a theatre curtain because they seem to be slowly falling down across the century. I straighten up in response. You can’t run in every direction. Everyone looks exhausted, their eyes pellets cast into desolation and alone. An old man in a long coat beetled past me as if looking for a corner of the next night. His eyes carried the weight of a sort of idleness that requires colossal stamina. He was one of the godlike creatures who can wander endlessly. A better twin. My nerves are tuned to the silver rays of light. The traffic is a veil tarnished amidst waves of salt. I frowned as I made my way in the opposite direction towards the two Hanwell cemeteries – one on the right, one on the left. I refused to think that modern conceptions of historical immortality were the last word on anything. I want to enter Olympus with shining foot-soles and primed bodies. I can’t take seriously anyone who thinks they’re a puppet of their family or society. My disdain has swagger. I walk like a pilot whale, breathing lovingly the scent of blood and murder in shady lanes and alcoves. Some women are born with stars for heads. This one, older than her flesh, stepped knowingly between the earth’s cracks and funeral parlors. It’s sometimes useful to place dreams on one side and mysteries on the other. 

A children’s play kitchen had been thrown out and was awaiting collection in the road. It was like a sly comment on hopes and vows. A christmas tree lay at an odd angle against it. Strange flowers die in my arms and these abandoned toys were tears of an unexpected phantom. I read somewhere that anything born selflessly was without equal. I hurried on in a scandalous state of confusion. So much so that the little wooden kitchen struck me a like a knot in a handkerchief. It was an alarm in the mouth of a fish. It was a reminder of a blue chasm in a blue wall. But it didn’t make clear what anyone could do. In such a state there’s little else but to take nothing for granted and recognize that we’re frail and humiliated. The familiarity becomes strange and how to respond  is always an open question. The trees by the side of the road had a calm pain, labyrinth-cheeked, cast at the will of deluges and gulls. In them moved the tall creatures, and sirens, centaurs, gorgons and Jupiter’s sexy thigh. There’s more than one universe. I could imagine Tom Waits singing a lullaby here, sad and tranquil.

Almost immediately you get to the tomb of the Somme soldier. Edward Green was 22 when he was killed. You cannot say things like ‘I shall love your corpse’. It's a rare Epicureanist who’s able to weep. Standing before infamy and madness what crystalised ? Gallows? Dancing horses? Deer antlers? An inevitable tabula rasa? All I knew was that everything is stranger when in pity and mourning . Time takes time from us in just a glance like this. The great black slab of stone was a winter in itself, and one not for this world either. Whether anything makes things easier or more difficult is not for me to say. Life sometimes seems like a great white sheet of paper. What are we supposed to write on it? This was an insufferable alienation. If there’s a horizon it’s an ice floe, or a sob from Palestine. But I didn't want to treat him like a dead hero in a fairy tale who might come alive at the touch of magical thinking. I walked away along the outer wall which was covered in tight green moss. I knew that nearby there was someone buried who had lived a hundred years. 

I passed a small stone lying on its back with a pretty statue of an eight year old barred at the horizon. The hazy atmosphere of the waif was a prism refracting someone else’s white light of love into a rainbow. At these times I’m a night watchmen in the daylight because coming into the world is always a nighttime job. How so? The world is flawed and we need to be reconciled somehow. Darkness helps. Her quietness was neither a broom nor a teacher. Nietzsche thought Olympian Gods were the only satisfactory theodicy. As such, consolation becomes a contemplation of other realms. 

If coming into the world means coming into woe then expect trouble by the next morning at the latest. Everything took on the colours of the moon folded thrice. The trees sounded cowbells and the leaves were think dots. What does tragedy do? When we think of the Somme or the dead eight year old or the hundred year old beginning to find her real measure can we accept the bad and its badness? Sometimes everything comes apart somewhere. All thinking is a famished squid. 

The stone angel near the exit was a fruitless sorrow and it won't change destiny. For that reason alone I was sorry. To have an income we become thieves and liars and must be hanged. If you’ve nothing in your head you’re witless and yet how often do we still open our mouths? Is it good to know the worst when everything is rotten? A small brown cat furtively moved in between the grave stones. I was doing penance but kept my eyes out for green woodpeckers. They forage here amongst the fallen leaves spying food in the same chaos that surrounds us all. I’ve seen great spotted woodpeckers too, furious in the trees. But not this time. In a sequence of Chinese boxes the smallest one is empty. Yet the place spread out in the light as if shod in gold and clashing cymbals and the clouds were bursting bubbles. It takes a certain amount of enthusiasm to breath. That thought settles the nerves. 

There’s a magnificent sandstone house on the site that seems to mourn quietly for everyone, as if its essential material is a full voice, deep but soft. Some houses are radiantly beautiful struggles with chaos. Their light sparkles and overflows like stars frothing up naivety. I am strangely euphoric and feel amazed at the transformation. Some days the earth is a dark but gold chalice. Without further to do I quit the place and stream along the Uxbridge Road hearing its charming requiem, with everyone and everything on the road burning like candles. The road stood in a pale lovely dress and buses in their red waistcoats roared a vulgar mood of elation and life. Spirits are bonded by visions. Everything at that moment was in something else that lived. 

At Gracie's Food and Wine I fancied a chocolate bar but realised I'd come out without a wallet. I passed it with mixed feelings. God, nature, demons, souls, animals, chance, luck and fate glowed through its door and spilled into the street. People thronged about the bus stop outside. I slunk past, crossing over and then continued walking along the Uxbridge Road. This West Ealing section is always full of people going to and fro. They have the ability to shrink and grow. One woman had closed her eyes and her child had been born blind. She didn’t wear make-up and seemed to contract as if under a shock but was also a nebula becoming light. She was unsure. No unities should ever be taken for granted. On this street there’s more and more. Even horror is treated with prudence, as well as a little delicacy. What are we doing if not avoiding extinction for as long as we can? Sometimes longer. The Russian poet Mandelstam died two days before he was officially 'written off' so that his fellow prisoners could claim his bread. A disturbingly pale and thin woman rose like a flower of abjection. What if eternal happiness depended on the colour of your eyes? How many of us might struggle day and night to transform our irises? This place is like the destiny of the world. It seems to be forever unleashing itself in a series of futile gestures no one has noticed. 

I stared into a newly opened  Caribbean place which already had a cracked window. I went inside and asked the young women if I could take a picture of the mural above the bar. She was pleasant and friendly and asked me to come back for the official opening party. I smiled and darted away, saying something that I hoped sounded friendly back. The world is God’s epistle. Schiller said there’s something implacably lonely in a God whose eye was never dimmed with tears. And there’s desolation without romance. Places and people have the ability to be exemplary whose power goes beyond argument and this little place seemed like that. The lights were dimming. It was possible to see the lebenswelt as a kind of flight. Historical immortality is fury and excess. 

The lights of the shops were at times offenses and at others retaliation. Without these there would be just an arid wasteland. I felt like my skin was wearing thin. Sometimes everything is a dismal cadence. The large new Poundland store seemed empty and brittle. I suddenly felt gloomy. I looked for an a single individual associated with the commitment to understanding, the sort Orwell writes of when he says that the truth is great and will prevail. But individualism is also imbecilic when vain. 

I darted up a small gennel running up from a back road to the Waitrose supermarket. It passes a strange church and a children’s play centre and a piece of wasteland behind chicken wire. It was getting dark as I walked along there. The church, play centre and waste ground felt like a description, a diagnosis and a challenge. I saw St Augustine in a ragged coat coming down through the meaning of our new nature. He harries the sense of the abyss within. He holds the key to self mutilation, as if we’re to eat our own limbs. His dog's a terrier. I’m cold and sweating. The intellect is the father of all carrion. Rimbaud inhabits our hydrocephalic brains and drains them of their literature and art. He once lived in the building that's now a post office in Reading. It’s hard to know whether any of these spaces are continuous or not. Who exactly stands in the shadow of death? Who in the shadow of God? 

We need more than fantasies. But the Alexandra Healing Centre is a jim-crack operation on a corner opposite Waitrose that seems as harmless as a game of chess. It makes me smile in a benign revolt each time I pass it. And the guy with the wooly hat and bike is screaming into the cold air as he thunders past as if vanquishing all those shadows – or at least God’s. Are our plans really ours? I walk past the Waitrose and the flats that are covered in scaffolding and flapping covers. Until the work’s completed these places are Grenfell death traps. I walk on past the glass doors that are deep set and shining. The old West Ealing station on the bridge is crouching under an empty sky and open space in its small desolation. The afternoon sounds like a cat pretending to be a wolf. 

I veer off right up the Avenue at Stowell's Corner. The Drayton Hotel was where the first Carry On movie was filmed. Carry On Cabby is a hesitantly beating heart from the Ealing Studio. It fortifies the dignity of laughter. It shows how it can be identical with inner necessity. The point of laughter is to create that alienating experience to induce a difference between our personal motives and the requirements of something universal . Schiller put it in the hands of reason; me, comedy. Laughter is God in three: the body stands, the body slips and the body ceaselessly surpasses all form to become a soul. A small girl is pushing a baby pram whilst the woman by her side seems far more abstract than she does. I’m walking up the hill now with my head down as if fearing my arrested development. For some the whole of philosophy leads from Konigsberg to Jena. For others it’s more a simple psychosis. Me, I think it's an ability to stop growing up. On good days I'm not sure these are more than angry agreements. Who really wants to scorn the world, to live elsewhere? Some walks run over a hundred years from nightmare tears to a grinning reconciliation. Others to the recollection of childhood. Then night fell very like a hammer over the world.