Saturday, November 3, 2018

Est: Collected Reports from East Anglia

Est: Collected Reports from East AngliaEst: Collected Reports from East Anglia by Wendy Mulford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Place possesses us. Place colonises us. It is a dirt simple, soil simple truth that we so often deny.

I lived a tough, yet charmed life as a child. Tough because I was raised by a military man, with all that implies. Charmed because, as a military brat, I lived in more places around the world than most people even see in their lifetime. People often ask "what was it like moving around so much"? To which I reply "It's all I ever knew. It was just how we lived." To recap, I was born in Germany and lived in The Philippines, Italy, England, and all over the US. And I mean lived, not "visited," not "touristed," not "vacated"; Lived. Yes, we saw the sights, but I was much more likely, for example, to intentionally find my way to the seedy parts of London, get propositioned by hookers, watch bums fighting, drop into a game store and play a game of Dungeons and Dragons, and drink at the local pub than to visit the Tower of London (never been there) or Madame Tussauds (never been there, either). Each country and each section of each country had their own je ne sais qua. But of all the places I lived, I loved England most. I lived on RAF Chicksands, near Bedford, Beds, in the "midlands" as they call it. I gathered, during my time there, that Bedford was considered one of those towns - so big that you had to acknowledge it was there, but with so little to do that no one went there for anything in particular. With London less than an hour train ride south, why would you go to Bedford? Well, suffice it to say that me and my mates found ourselves off-base, in Bedford, often enough. Getting off-base was always a good thing (those who have lived behind the barbed wire know why I say this).

We didn't always head straight for Bedford, or London, for that matter. My favorite city was actually Oxford. And my favorite area to "get away" from people was the Cotswolds. My wife and I are hoping to make it over there next year, in fact. We'll see what circumstances and finances allow.

Very occasionally, thrice, I think, I went to the area known as East Anglia. Frankly, there wasn't much there to do. We went to the coast there to pick up our car when it shipped from the States. I went to a Model United Nations Human Rights day at RAF Bentwaters (which is the subject of one of the essays in this book) and had a one night stand with another student there (I happened to be assigned to room at her house, which we both . . . like very much). And the third time, I can't remember why I was out there, just that I was out that direction.

As much as people ignored Bedford, they downright looked down their nose at East Anglia. For American readers, East Anglia is sort of the equivalent of the plains of North Dakota. People live there, but few of them really want to live there. It was considered a waste-space, to be honest.

So, what did I want out of this book? Maybe it's gritty nostalgia. Or my fascination with the cast-off corners of all places, the liminal zones between desireable and undesireable places. Maybe I wanted to recapture the feeling of living near there. I don't know. But, in the end, I felt satisfied, possibly because of the immersiveness of this book. This is a broad range of essays and poetry, but not so broad that it loses all semblance of structure. It's eclectic in both style and subject matter, just the sort of quirky, undefinable sort of book that I love most.

It feels like there's a touch of pride nestled into the self-deprecation of the introduction, and an appreciation for the hidden glory of the banal. Maybe that's what I seek: justification for the "small guy" living in the undesirable spaces. I might just have a chip on my shoulder. While I most miss the hills of the Cotswolds and the bustle of London, East Anglia was very near my home for an important time in my life, my "coming of age" in my late teen years (15 - 18). I do recall hiking out that way over what seemed like a lot of sand dunes, or at least sandy-soiled hillocks. There was a certain ruggedness that held appeal, like the way some people love the desert (though not me!) or the bayou. And the scent of the ocean was always just over the . . . well, not hill, um . . . horizon. Though the horizons there were vast. One felt, at times, like one could fall into the sky.

But it wasn't just the land itself. People lived here. One thing Americans just do NOT understand is the vast old-ness of Europe. Sure, there were people in the Americas thousands of years ago, but there's no tangible sense of inheritance or continuity from those times. In Europe, there is that sense. For example, when I was a teenager, we used to sneak into a priory that had originally been established in 1150 - eight hundred and thirty five years before I arrived in England - to hold seances, frighten girls (they cuddled more that way, when they weren't punching you for being a jerk) and drink, mostly. There were actual secret passages in the walls and a couple of underground tunnels, though one of them had been bricked up by the police years before and the other led to an old stone wine cellar. And it was supposedly haunted. I have so many good, spooky memories of that place!

David Southwell hints at what we were on about in his essay "The Empty Quarter:

Fossil spaces - buildings that outlived their original purpose - still sing songs of their former lives. We march to them not to find shelter nor succour, but something of ourselves. Something lost. What was forgotten in the static of the city, now waiting on the horizon as derelict memories. Ready to be walked to, ready for conversation with us. Ready to live in our imagination.

As you can see, there is some great writing in this collection. One of my favorite segments is this haunting historical anecdote by Edmund Blakeny:

Our travels begin where all my journeys ind, in the fishing town of Cromer, which bravely faces the iron sea. She is a strange sloping town forming an 'L' shape from the four pinnacles of the church tower to the fantastic limb of the pier stretching out beyond the coast. The town and the sea coexist with relative ease, though this has not always [been - sic] the case. Indeed, at one time Cromer was far removed from the abyss and relatively inland, for beneath the frowning arch of the horizon, beneath the swelling waves, lies the memory of Cromer's older brother, the town of Shipden.

It was a cold Medieval night, as the Angelus rang out over the rising gale, imploring the townsfolk to prayer, when a devilish storm was riding out at sea. it lashed the charging waves with its lightening whip and roared with malevolent glee. Terrified by the hollow crash of air against the cliffs, not a single man, woman nor child dared answer the Church's call fr fear of being struck down without mercy, and so the village hid in terror. But the storm was too cruel to accept their submission. The galloping waves smashed into the weak shield of the cliff; rain and hail, like stones from a sling, were hurled against the earth; the wind tore trees and gorse up out from the ground; and the jetties and houses were swept away as the angelus continued to ring out over the chaos. The next day, Cromer awoke to a sky of remorseful pink hanging over the sea's flat and mournful expanse, like a satin cloth covering the tomb of Shipden.

Five centuries later, in 1888, the steamer
Victoria was travelling en route from Cromer to Yarmouth when it struck an unknown object and rapidly began to take on water. The local fisherman rushed to rescue the passengers as the ship was consumed by the sea. When it was discovered that the vessel had collided with a church steeple rising above the waves, Shipden emerged from the mists of history and tales rapidly began to circulate.

But the lost town had long since been a present reality for the people of Cromer before the
Victoria disaster: on frozen nights when the sea strikes out at the cliffs, a toll can be heard resounding under the storm; a sorrowful chime, again and again, like an Angelus bell calling the fearful to prayer.

This is some exquisite writing. This is the sort of non-fiction that can carry one away into the numinous without any reliance on the supernatural. It's rare to find non-fiction prose this good, especially on such a banal subject as the landscape. Yet, here it is.

As I mentioned, I've been to RAF Bentwaters, back when it was an active US Air Force base. Funny that they don't mention the well-known UFO incident that happened there in the '80s, which is still, even now, causing controversy. They do mention the fact that the runway, the longest in Europe (to accommodate the Space Shuttle, should it have needed to land there) is paved over the central village of the East Angles, who ruled the region for 400 years. There has to be a symbol there

Speaking of strange happenings, through this book, I discovered "Seahenge," an ancient stone circle that seemed to emerge from the waves (shades of Lovecraft) long after I had left England.

As most of my Goodreads friends know, I like to read more than one book at a time (life's too short not to). I've been reading Robert Aickman's Sub Rosa in between the chapter breaks for Est. I went from reading Aickman to reading Lander Hawes' short piece without skipping a beat. This is a huge complement to Hawes, whose atmospheric piece here, "His Winter View," is an evocation of the relationship between man and land.

Elaine Ewart's essay on the archaeology of Sutton Hoo and the deaths of her loved ones, "Digging," resonated deeply with me, since my parents both passed away this past Spring. That was a hard read for me, but cleansing for the soul in some ways. Books do that to you, sometimes, baptize your soul with fire, as it were. I needed that read.

On the less pathos-driven, but no less compelling front, there is a bookstore story in here! And a wonderful one, at that, about a bookstore being opened in an abandoned chapel in the heart of an East Anglian village. Robert jacksons "the Chapel" is a delightful read!

"Living Landscape," by Darren Tansley, is a fascinating natural history of the Essex/Suffolk border region of the Stour Valley that reminds me that Britain is, after all, very small, an island where changes in climate and human practices have immediate effects on the land. In very few pages, Tansley gives the reader a strong sense of the earth-spirit of the area, a short glimpse that provides a great deal of "knowing" in its few words. Nature writers should strive to emulate this sort of "unfolding" writing that allows the reader to peek under the covers without shoving his face into the sometimes crassness of academic science. The essay feels, well, natural.

"Deep Traces" goes underground. Here archaeologist Philip Crummy outlines the evidence of Roman inhabitants and, strikingly, the Boudicann destruction of the invaders. In the matter of five pages one is immersed (almost literally) into the pre-Christian history of Britain, learning the human stories behind the artifactual remains. Wonderfully insightful and even evocative. This is how archaeology should be written!

MW Bewick pens a delightful skip through East Anglia by way of Ian Fleming and his famous character in "00". Bond bonds it all together. An interesting contrivance for pulling disparate thoughts together. A neat piece of literary sleight-of-hand. What would you expect from an essay whose touchpoints are spy novels?

There is good poetry interspersed throughout this volume, but none rises to the level of Wendy Mulford's gothic "The Doppelganger II," a dark, melancholy poem of loss brought on by The Great War happening within earshot of the shores of East Anglia.

Across the channel, the guns. That's all she hears.

I won't quote it in full, out of respect for the author. But it is one of the more compelling poems I've read in an age or two. A wonderful way to cap off this excellent volume!

Whether or not you've been to or live in England, you would do well, especially on a drizzly autumn day, to immerse yourself in Est. Though it didn't bring me "all the way back" to England (that's what next year's trip is for!), it did provide enough glimpses to remind me of my time there and the wonderful place it is, even in its most undesirable, empty spaces.

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