Mendham Mill

The Sound of Secrets

We embarked for the Ness on a boat from Orford Quay early on Saturday morning. The sky was grey, the sea darker – the colour of mutton-fat jade, as in Bishop’s poem ‘The End of March’. Our group had read the poem the night before, and discussed the various endings being marked, not just the end of winter, but also the end of wanderings (thinking about the pun in the title) – Bishop had travelled the earth, but her only wish was to retire to a little house (the proto-dream-house in the poem) where she could do nothing:

or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, on foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.

(We didn’t really believe her. That restless, active imagination of hers could never still). It is also an end of life poem – Bishop died two years after it was published. In a way it’s her version of ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’; a poet at the end of her career, not so much worried about the exit of imagination (as Yeats was) as almost willing her imagination to cease. How exhausting it is to always be thinking of the poem in every situation, the imagination working overtime.

But back to the Ness, where we had come expressly to write poems. It is a place where you can’t stop the imagination from running off in all directions. It makes us question what it was like to be there in those heady secret days of code breaking and bomb making. It is a place of extraordinary contrasts: beauty and barrenness, an abundance of life amongst symbols of death, a frail ecosystem in a place that still contains unexploded ordnance.

When we arrived on the Ness, Silke, a National Trust volunteer, gave us the usual speech about staying on the paths (due to the aforementioned unexploded ordnance), where to find the information building and the toilets, but then broke into a moving and completely unrehearsed eulogy to the Trinity Lighthouse, which has stood on the Ness since 1792, and has survived storms, machine-guns and bombs, but will not survive the sea. The lighthouse will be engulfed in the next few years (in 2011, the section of the coast where the lighthouse is situated eroded by 200 meters). It has already been decommissioned, its light turned off, its mercury removed. Another ending. Silke suggested we all go and hug it one last time.

Before we took off to explore, I read a passage from The Rings of Saturn, in which WG Sebald describes his arrival on the Ness:

The day was dull and oppressive, and there was so little breeze that not even the ears of the delicate quaking grass were nodding. It was as if I were passing through an undiscovered country, and I still remember that I felt, at the same time, both utterly liberated and deeply despondent. I had not a single thought in my head. With each step that I took, the emptiness within and the emptiness without grew ever greater and the silence more profound. Perhaps that was why I was frightened almost to death when a hare that had been hiding in the tufts of grass by the wayside started up, right at my feet, and shot off down the rough track before darting sideways, this way, then that, into the field. It must have been cowering there as I approached, heart pounding as it waited, until it was almost too late to get away with its life. In that very fraction of a second when its paralysed state turned into panic and flight, its fear cut right through me. I still see what occurred in that one tremulous instant with an undiminished clarity. I see the edge of the grey tarmac and every individual blade of grass, I see the hare leaping out of its hiding-place, with its ears laid back and a curiously human expression on its face that was rigid with terror and strangely divided; and in its eyes, turning to look back as it fled and almost popping out of its head with fright, I see myself, become one with it. Not till half-an-hour later, when I reached the broad dyke that separates the grass expanse from the pebble bank that slopes to the shoreline, did the blood cease its clamour in my veins.

These days, now that the Ness has reinvented itself as a nature reserve, that sense of fear that Sebald describes has perhaps dissipated. Midas Dekkers talks about the ‘benevolent silence’ that reigns over military ruins. Is that sense of benevolence more relief on our part that this place has passed into peace? Or are some places always tainted by association, the very earth poisoned by the associations of its past (on the Ness, this is a literal tainting, if we consider the undiscovered bombs that may lie just below the surface)? Sebald gets this – he could never really go anywhere without excavating the layers of the place and finding all the glittery trash of history and memory. And now the Natural Trust, who acquired the Ness in 1993, operate a policy of ‘controlled ruination’, which is why the lighthouse is being allowed to fall into the sea. Christopher Woodward writes about this in his book In Ruins. Apparently, the NT originally thought to demolish the bunkers and sheds:

It was Jeremy Musson, an architectural historian working for the Trust at the time, who first argued their value as ruins. The Ness of shifting shingle, he said, was a palimpsest of twentieth-century history, from the wooden huts of the First World War to the Cold War’s Pagodas. In a new and hopefully more peaceful century the ruins would crumble into extinction in exposure to the wind and waves, as if the earth was being purified by Nature.

I guess if Sebald were still with us he might argue against the possibility of the last statement. It is true that Woodward’s book was published before September 11th and the new wars of the 21st century in which destruction is orchestrated largely by computers. And even Nature has turned against us, in a way, with the threat of Global Warming and ecological crisis. So maybe Sebald was right to embrace fear.

Later, after we returned to Mendham Mill, the well-manicured and picture-pretty birthplace of Sir Alfred Munnings (you couldn’t imagine a greater contrast to the landscape of the Ness), we read poems about ‘secret landscapes’ and ruin. I chose Derek Mahon’s ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’, written in the 70s, around the time that the MoD was clearing out of the Ness, and Northern Ireland was at the height of the Troubles. I have mentioned this poem before on Invective, loaded as it is with all the terrors of the century in which I was born. It’s worth quoting the whole poem, but I’ve found this, a recording of the poem read beautifully by Kevin Porter:

Hugh Haughton writes of Mahon’s poem:

it remains a haunting instance of the way a forgotten place — not an archaic, pre-historic place but a modern place full of historical rubbish — might become a place where thought might grow. The site of a new kind of poetics of commemoration.

Haughton could so easily be writing about the Ness in that passage, ‘a modern place full of historical rubbish’. But it’s Sebald I will finish on, as no one has written so meaningfully and so articulately about what it is like to stand on Orford Ness, with that huge sky lowering, and think about how it came to be:

My sense of being on ground intended for purposes transcending the profane was heightened by a number of buildings that resembled temples or pagodas, which seemed quite out of place in these military installations. But the closer I came to these ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe. To me too, as for some latter-day stranger ignorant of the nature of our society wandering about among heaps of scrap metal and defunct machinery, the beings who had once lived and worked here were an enigma, as was the purpose of the primitive contraptions and fittings inside the bunkers, the iron rails under the ceilings, the hooks on the still partially tiled walls, the showerheads the size of plates, the ramps and the soakaways. Where and in what time I truly was that day at Orfordness I cannot say, even now as I write these words.

More images and poems from the weekend at Orford Ness will be posted on the Mendham Writers site. My thanks to Rochelle Scholar at Medham Writers:

After apple picking


It was one of those perfect autumn weekends, when you think warm days will never cease, to quote Keats. Light and sunny, but with a sharpness to the air, an early frost on the grass. And yes, mists over the river. We had gathered at Mendham Mill, on the border of Suffolk and Norfolk, to talk about the theme of harvest in poetry, and the apple as metaphor for all sorts of things …

There is sin, of course (‘the sacred fruit forbidden’, as Milton had it) and desire: the apple being likened to the breasts in Tasso and Spenser, in early 20th century American slang, to a woman’s sex. There is good health: (‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’) many legends feature apples which guarantee immortality; one of Hercules’s labours was to steal the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, in Norse mythology, Loki nicks the apples which are meant to keep the Gods young and the Gods immediately wither and age. There is beauty: the Anglo-Saxon word “aeppel” meant both “eye” and “apple”, both the beholder and what is beheld. There is this world and the next: the roundness of the apple like a globe, high on a branch pointing ‘toward heaven still’.

So we talked, and tasted. The Tydeman’s Late Orange had a sweetness that stuck to the teeth like cotton candy, but the Worcester Pearmain had a tarter finish. The Suffolk Pink was light and fresh, the Laxton Superb had very white flesh. We tried them with cheese that crumbled in our fingers, and washed it all down with Aspall’s cider. And we walked; through the village of Metfield, into the fields beyond, obeying Thoreau’s dictum on the best way to enjoy wild apples:

“These apples have hung in the wind and frost and rain till they have absorbed the qualities of the weather or season, and thus are highly seasoned, and they pierce and sting and permeate us with their spirit. They must be eaten in season, accordingly,–that is, out-of-doors … To appreciate the wild and sharp flavors of these October fruits, it is necessary that you be breathing the sharp October or November air. The out-door air and exercise which the walker gets give a different tone to his palate, and he craves a fruit which the sedentary would call harsh and crabbed. They must be eaten in the fields, when your system is all aglow with exercise, when the frosty weather nips your fingers, the wind rattles the bare boughs or rustles the few remaining leaves, and the jay is heard screaming around. What is sour in the house a bracing walk makes sweet. Some of these apples might be labelled, ‘To be eaten in the wind’.”

We ended up on Wakelyn’s Farm, where we found ancient varieties, as if we’d stumbled onto a garden out of another time: the Leathercoat Russett, around since 1500; Shakespeare might have bitten into one when he was writing ‘How like Eve’s apple doth thy beauty grow’ (although probably not; it’s twisted and brown, certainly too ugly for the shelves of Tesco’s). Or the Coeur De Boeuf, blood-red, nearly black on the tree, and first cultivated in 1200. The apple of the Troubadours.

And we read poems. The one that stays with me is Frost’s, so beautiful and strange. The orchard as a ladder to heaven, and dream:


But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Kellett. Her account of the Apple Walk here:

And thanks to Rochelle Scholar:

A nice bunch of daffs


They are a problem for poets, daffodils. Our group pondered this quandary while looking out the window at a “host” of them (that being the most appropriate collective noun) during the weekend workshop at Mendham Mill in Norfolk, an impossibly idyllic spot, and the birthplace of that painter of quintessentially mannered English landscapes, Sir Alfred Munnings (infamous for his attacks on modernism, particularly in his agreement with Winston Churchill that Picasso needed a good kick up the ass).

They are pretty, there is no doubt, especially this time of year when the sun is shining and they are growing in attractive clusters along the verges and by the river, but they are the flower equivalent of Hallmark cards, of sub-Renoir landscapes favoured by weekend painters and displayed in provincial galleries around the country, of Doris Day (although she’s probably more daisy than daff), of barefoot sing-alongs.

Apart from their appearance, they have a very silly-sounding name, perhaps to disassociate them from their botanical genus, Narcissus, which has those other obvious connotations of vanity and death. All flowers of the Narcissi variety are poisonous, and there was an incident a couple of years ago where a number of children fell ill after mistaking a daffodil bulb for an onion during a cookery class at a school in Martlesham (not far from where we were sitting looking at the daffs benignly swaying in the breeze along the Waveney). And florists are known to be afflicted with a condition known as “daffodil itch”. So really, they are nasty little buggers.

But obviously Wordsworth was unaffected by this knowledge, as he viewed them “Beside the lake, beneath the trees, / fluttering and dancing in the breeze. “ Ugh. No wonder we have not found a way to redeem them, to make them edgy and sexy like the rose, or gothically pensive, like the lily. We may never know if there is any truth to the story that Dorothy convinced William to change the first line, which is said to have originally read “I wandered lonely as a cow”, no doubt based on the irrefutable fact that cows are most often seen in herds, but chiefly because it is a shockingly bad line. As Dorothy often made shrewd editorial suggestions regarding her brother’s poems, it is not impossible. But even if she was partly responsible for what has become one of the most famous opening lines in English poetry, she could not improve the rest.

Why is it that the poem, like the flower itself, seems so “naff” to our modern ear? It was written in a time of grief, after the death of Wordsworth’s brother, John, and that knowledge certainly makes more poignant the revelation of the poet’s “vacant” and “pensive” moods.  Yes, there is no doubt they cheer us up, these bright and inoffensive blooms.  Perhaps his bliss seems too easily earned. Perhaps the rhymes, the words, feel too Victorian, too polite, in our post-confessional age.

At the same time, I rather envy Wordsworth this simple revelation, this moment which is able to lift his heart. The Romans used narcissus bulbs as a medicinal erodent; a poison, which, if treated correctly, could disperse poisons.  Maybe we’ve lost the ability to look on the daffodil as a balm to treat what ills us, and certainly we’ve lost the ability to write about it. So is there a way to redeem the daffodil – at the very least, to be able to write without cliché about the beauty of place, to celebrate spring ?

We still have the capability to feel these things, don’t we?