Once Upon A Tide

‘Once upon a Tide’ is a variable, restless, shifting narrative. Turns of phrase, stage directions, and lines of dialogue from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610-11) are randomly, repeatedly, and somewhat enigmatically recombined within a close, tense, ship-bound setting reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer (1910), or The Shadow-Line (1916). On the deck of a ship off the shore of an island, two interlocutors are closely observed by a narrator who remains hidden from view.

Not quite a short story, not quite a stage play, ‘Once upon a Tide’ is just one of those moments in literature when time ... stands ... still. When plot advances by simply refusing to budge. One of those waiting times, slack tides, great hollows within which heat intensifies, cold deepens, night thickens, fevers rage, or the sun continues its relentless blaze. Tension builds, and still nothing happens; neither the sight of a sail on the horizon nor the slightest breath of wind. It is within these long stillnesses that sailors’ yarns unravel. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), the entirety of Marlow’s tale is recounted in one evening whilst sitting utterly still on the deck of a ship moored on the Thames. In the pitch dark and the heavy night air of the river, the narrator strains to discern meaning: ‘I listened, I listened on the watch for the sentence, for the word, that would give me the clue to the faint uneasiness inspired by this narrative that seemed to shape itself without human lips...’. 

In fiction, these long feverish pauses eventually break. In a variable text, however, we may hover forever within the tense and nuanced relation between reading, listening, watching, and waiting for the sentence, the word, the clue...

What tide is this – spring, slack, or neap? And what of this ship – charmed, safely in harbour, or bound sadly home? Are the interlocutors slight, strong, or old? Are they mariners, travellers, or strangers? Where are they from exactly? And what on earth – or sea – are they talking about?

To each of these questions there are endless answers.

There is no logical reason to cause Conrad-esque characters to speak Shakespearian dialogue. The compulsion to do so is born of reading and re-reading sea stories across genres and across centuries. The reader of ‘Once Upon a Tide’ is encouraged to do the same – read and re-read, aloud if possible.

The controls at the bottom of the narrative allow the reader to read the text more quickly, more slowly, to stop the text from shifting, or to move on to a new permutation of this sea-sorrow, to suffer a sea change into something rich and strange. 

Back to 'Once Upon a Tide'.

Rufus Emmanuel

Rufus Emmanuel is the name of a nasty little creep I met at a party. He’s nine years old, small for his age, tastelessly dressed, and he responds to everything I say with, ‘Really? That seems unlikely.’ The most interesting thing about Rufus Emmanuel is his dad, who is also called Rufus Emmanuel.

Rufus Emmanuel senior is someone I’d really like to be like – and to like me. Because he’s someone who cares about the future. His computer is made entirely from renewable sources. All his bags are reused. He never does anything in the short term that he, or anyone, might regret in the long term. Which is why it seems to me one of life’s great cruel ironies, of which pessimists tell us the world is full, that Rufus Emmanuel’s single direct contribution to the future, his son, should be such a nasty little creep.

Rufus junior and I were the dregs of a party that should have ended hours ago, but that he couldn’t leave because his dad was still talking – to my friend Cissy – and that I couldn’t leave because I’d promised Cissy’s fiancé, John Leviathan, that I’d accompany her home – which is a euphemistic way of saying I’d make sure that no-one else accompanied her home. Cissy has a tendency to fall in love with herself when she drinks, with the double effect that she expects to be propositioned at least once, and will forgive herself for saying yes once, at least. Sometimes Cissy has been known to be accompanied home by crowds. It occurs to me that she’d happily settle for just Rufus senior tonight, if I weren’t around to act as a sort of portable, detached (and thus unwelcome) conscience, which sets up a nice contrast between her and me, because I don’t seem to be able to get anywhere with Rufus junior.     

Rufus is standing next to the buffet table spearing the remains of the food with a used cocktail stick. He is grinning so widely that spit sometimes drips from his underlip, but never quite lets go. I can’t imagine why it would hang around, and yet here I am. He greets my approach with the offer of a massively punctured olive, which I eat without knowing whether this is a rite of passage or a prank or a bit of both. Then he announces: ‘You should never wear orange.’ To which I respond defensively: ‘Lots of people here like this dress.’ To which he responds: ‘Really? That seems unlikely.’ To which I almost respond by kicking him hard in the shin, but instead I take a second horribly savaged olive and eat it slowly with a look of defiance. ‘You should never eat in public,’ he says.

I send a panicked glance across the room to Cissy, who callously turns her back to me and laughs ecstatically at a joke I know she can’t really have liked, because, 1: she never gets jokes, and 2: Rufus senior doesn’t get the point of them. I catch a glimpse of his confused face over her chiffoned shoulder, but he doesn’t stop talking to her about the endless reusability of bags, or whatever it is he’s talking about. Either it doesn’t matter to him to be understood, or he hasn’t quite understood that she doesn’t understand. Either way it doesn’t bode well for a long-term relationship. But neither has been put off yet, and they’ve been talking for hours. I find myself feeling impatient for their disillusionment with one another, like a vindictive God watching the universe and knowing the plot. I turn back to Rufus junior and venture an ice breaker.

‘Do you like phones?’ I say, holding out mine as an example of what I mean. ‘Why don’t you have an iPhone?’ he says, with a sixth sense for a sore point (it exploded). But he takes the phone anyway and starts to fiddle around with it, commenting every now and again on the silliness of a photo or the idiocy of an app, though without seeming to be conscious of me at all. It’s as if he isn’t criticising me but the phone, and I’m happy to have found a way of entertaining him at no further cost to my ego. I remind myself that I like myself in orange. When I look back across the room, Cissy is laughing uproariously at something I’m sure she shouldn’t be laughing at, and leaning in towards Rufus senior, whose glasses are misting. When I turn back to Rufus junior, I find that he’s disappeared, but that there’s a new folder on my phone called ‘Shit’, which I can’t open. I wonder vaguely whether it contains my unconscious.

When I look back across the room Cissy and Rufus have also left, which perhaps proves that people only exist while I’m looking at them, and that if I turned quickly I might potentially catch life out in its eternal game of filling my visual field with stuff, but maybe it also proves that I’m a bad friend. I decide that the best thing to do about this second discovery is to let John Leviathan know and plead forgiveness. I open my Contacts and find it empty, except for the mysterious personage, ‘Sucker’, whose number is apparently, 999. I go to my text message folder and find it empty too, except for a new one from my friend Tod Sarassen asking me whether I know that someone with the initials RE is posting vicious things about me on Twitter. I say, ‘No … But Cissy has pulled (again) – what shall I do?’

Tod doesn’t reply to this, perhaps because it isn’t an interesting question, because the only thing I can do is retire with my tail between my legs. The question becomes interesting later, though, when I arrive at midnight at John’s front door, after a post-party nightcap and a lot of brooding. John answers the door in goggles because he is in the process of glue-gunning together a matchstick sculpture of Cissy that he plans to present to her on their wedding day. It’s life-size, but otherwise completely unlike her in every way, just as Cissy is herself completely unlike the person he imagines he is about to marry. It occurs to me that it would be just as insensitive (for different but related reasons) to tell him at this point that the sculpture isn’t Cissy as to tell him that Cissy isn’t Cissy, as he knows her, so I decide to help him with his wedding preparations instead, by making a matchstick sculpture of their first child. When I last used a glue gun I glued my hands together, but there are no such complications this time, perhaps because I know to point the gun away from myself – and also perhaps because I am turning away from myself metaphorically: pointing the gun of attentiveness towards John and his child.

In the morning (which I awake to on John’s pull-out sofa bed), it strikes me that what seemed kind in the moment may not have been kind in the long term. I start to think in the way Rufus Emmanuel senior likes to do, in terms of future futures. But I can’t think what to do with the information I have. In the absence of a good plan about how to explain matters (including not just Cissy’s disappearance last night (which may mean nothing of course) but all her disappearances in the company of men she likes (which probably cumulatively mean something)), I decide to help myself to some coffee and to check my emails on John’s MacBook Pro. The password is ‘Cissy’ (I have to guess because John is asleep), and the wallpaper is a picture of a vegetable that looks curiously like Cissy. When I open my inbox, though, I’m immediately distracted from all thoughts of John’s crisis by one of my own. The glue gun of attention is pointing at me, again, after all, because this is what Rufus Emmanuel junior says:

Dear X,

Hello again. Don’t ask me how I know all this: you should assume that I have good evidence, because I do – why else would I embarrass myself by emailing you? These are the things I know:

1)      That you stole your boss’s car.

2)      That you were an accomplice in a diamond heist.

3)      That you impersonated your colleague, Carmen Haze.

4)      That you spied on the cultural theorist, Gio Calvetti.

5)      That you stole a cat from Nicholas Larensen.

6)      That you drink more than you should.

I want £500 for my silence.

Best wishes (not really),


Panicking, I wonder who can possibly have told him my secrets. It couldn’t be Tod because Tod is loyal, for all his faults, and it couldn’t be John, although Tod tells him everything, because John is the sort of person who makes sculptures of people he likes. The sort of fame that interests him is laudatory. The only person who knows everything who would be likely to talk is Cissy, who is probably cuddled up next to Rufus Emmanuel senior right now.

Cissy agrees to have a drink at 5. She peers out at me from her furs with little shiny eyes that catch the remains of the late January light. ‘So I told him your secrets, so what?’ she says, adding by way of explanation, ‘Rufus and I are in love.’ ‘Let’s leave aside the fact that people who are in love tell one another their own secrets rather than other people’s,’ I say, ‘What interests me is whether Rufus has spoken to Rufus.’ She looks confused, and proceeds with her own story. ‘Rufus and I left the party at around 10, and couldn’t find any taxis, so we decided to break into his friend’s house (which was nearby) and swim naked in his pool. Rufus said his friend wouldn’t mind – that he would understand if he saw me. Rufus said he has never seen anyone so beautiful or met anyone with as interesting a slant on life as me. He said (while we were swimming) that it had never occurred to him before that being so eco-friendly was in fact quite funny, although not in a way that detracted from what he was doing at all. He said he would chuckle now when he reused his bags, but would still reuse his bags, so the environment wouldn’t miss out. He said I had brought laughter into a life that had seemed too full of serious things. He said I reminded him of laughter and should always wear yellow, the colour of laughter. Incidentally, he also said at that point that you should never wear orange.’

Cissy says she can’t stay out any longer because she’s meeting Rufus for more naked swimming at midnight and needs a catnap. She yawns felinely, and leaves. I pay the bill, and wonder how I’m going to manage to stomach paying £500, bearing in mind that this £40 cocktail bill (for just four cocktails!) is making me uneasy – or maybe that’s my conscience. It occurs to me that one of the downsides of being a chaperone is that you’re automatically complicit in the things you witness, whether because you agree to throw in your lot with someone else, whatever they’re up to, or because you promise someone to intervene if things go wrong. If you’re the second sort of chaperone, and you don’t intervene when things go wrong, you’re as foolhardy as the chaperone who agrees to take responsibility for whatever happens to happen – like Christ, but without God on your side, if things then go wrong for you. You have the opportunity not to take responsibility for a bad thing, having originally decided to be the more responsible sort of chaperone who doesn’t go along with everything, and you blow it, and no one is on your side. It certainly feels as though no one is on my side now, and I want to blame this on the Cissy and Rufus situation, although, in a way, what’s potentially messing up my life is incidental to what’s making theirs beautiful – as incidental as Rufus junior seems to be to Rufus senior, bearing in mind that he must have made his own way home…

Tod says he’ll meet me for a drink at 4 tomorrow, though he’s busy so he won’t be able to stay long, and in the meantime I brood. I check Twitter for the ‘vicious’ posts, and am vaguely relieved to find that RE doesn’t divulge anything incriminating, though sad to find, that, apparently, I have numerous bizarre Beckettian mannerisms – e.g. I tell all my stories backwards, I walk off in the middle of sentences (my own and other people’s), I march continuously to the accompaniment of a soft ‘rum-pum-pum’ sound I make conspicuously by puffing out my lips whenever I’m not talking (when I’m talking, my feet ad lib), and I cower and cry a little bit whenever I hear my name.

‘X,’ Tod says the next day, ‘you need to stop worrying about this. No one is going to believe a nine-year-old, especially if his so-called ‘evidence’ is Cissy’s pillow talk. Cissy isn’t even supposed to be engaging in pillow talk with anyone but John, and, believe me, she and Rufus will want to keep this whole thing a secret.’ ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘but it doesn’t matter whether RE is credible on an objective level. This isn’t a court of law. The problem is that he’s threatening to spread rumours about me online that are true, and spectacular, so people will want to believe them – and anyway, no one will know that the initials ‘RE’ refer to a nasty little nine-year-old with a chip on his shoulder because his dad sometimes forgets about him. He could tweet all this tomorrow and I’d be out of my job.’ ‘You’re being melodramatic,’ says Tod. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘but somewhere between my melodrama and your massive underestimation of the seriousness of this situation, is how I should be feeling.’  

After I’ve left Tod (at 7ish), I go back to John’s to continue work on my sculpture of his firstborn. John pours me a whisky when I arrive (he already has one himself), and we each fall into a workmanlike meditative silence, exchanging words only when one of us needs to use the glue gun or replenish our whisky. While I work, I wonder how to tell the man whose future I’m helping to design that he may not have the future he wants, and also wondering whether I should feel guilty about all the stealing I’m being accused of – and that I’m guilty of, if not about. The only thing on RE’s list that I didn’t do is steal Nicholas Larensen’s cat. It was Tod’s cat, that Nicholas Larensen stole, and we were just reclaiming it.

At around 10, John looks over at my sculpture and says with fatherly wonder, ‘It’s a she.’ ‘Her name’s Ophelia,’ I say, ‘She’s let down by all the people she loves, but she has amazing dignity.’ ‘That’s nice,’ says John, “Ophelia Leviathan’ sounds quite good too [I disagree with him about that] … Well, I’m going to bed now. If you want to carry on, make sure you switch off the glue gun when you’ve finished with it, because it doesn’t like to overheat.’ I carry on working until midnight, and then just sit there until 3, or maybe 4, staring at Ophelia’s tragic features, whispering (a little drunkenly because I’ve had about half a bottle of whisky): ‘I’m sorry, Ophelia, I’m sorry about everything. I know I shouldn’t steal or lie, but I’m not sorry I made you. You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve made.’

When I wake up I’ve glued my hands together (again), though the glue gun’s turned off – it must have been its dying last ooze. Anyway, I decide that this means I’ve become self-preoccupied (again), and should be focussing more on others, so I make John a cup of coffee and a bacon sandwich and take them upstairs to his room. John is so nice that he says ‘thank you’ although he’s in shock. The copy of today’s Times that he’s reading in bed on his MacBook Air (he has two computers) is in the process of informing him that his fiancé is a member of a gang of delinquents called ‘The Pool Crashers’ who wander drunkenly from one mansion to another in Mayfair in search of swimming pools. Few bother to swim when they find them, but some do; there’s a picture of a loving couple swimming naked in a pool belonging to one of Prince Harry’s school friends. John immediately recognises Cissy from a swarm of freckles on her thigh. He doesn’t know Rufus Emmanuel by appearance (though he happens to be reading his book – called Green Futures), but he’s seen enough to start to feel sick. I tell him that Cissy and Rufus probably aren’t pool crashers themselves: they’ve just crashed a pool crashing party, by the looks of it. He nods as if that sounds sensible, and bolts to the ensuite to be sick.

Because it sounds like he’ll be in there for a while, and because it would be especially insensitive of me to leave him alone right now (though I’m a little bored), I decide to check my emails quickly. I’ve only just logged in and found a new email from Rufus junior in my inbox, when someone rings the doorbell. I assume it’s Cissy, and it is, and she doesn’t seem particularly happy to find me at John’s at 8 in the morning in yesterday’s clothes, but nor does she bother to question my explanation (i.e. I’m here to glue together her daughter.) After this brief exchange, she more or less ignores me, probably because she’s mentally preparing to announce to John when he emerges from the bathroom that she’s in love with RE senior. ‘I’m in love with Rufus Emmanuel,’ she says, when her fiancé appears, green, from the bathroom – a metaphor for the Rufusian future, unbeknown to himself (or itself.) ‘What?!’ he says, ‘that little prick who’s been bullying X?’ ‘No, of course not,’ says Cissy, with some impatience, ‘and I’m sure X is being melodramatic about that. What I mean is, I’m in love with someone else.’ ‘Me too!’ says John, and he points wildly at the sculpture of Ophelia I’ve been working on all night. I experience a weird quiver of maternal protectiveness, but not for long, because John has spotted his mistake. ‘I mean I’m in love with this someone else,’ he says, pointing at his sculpture of Cissy. ‘Its me!’ says Cissy. ‘What I’m saying, though,’ says John, ‘is that she isnt you!’ ‘But she is!’ says Cissy, ‘You’ve made a whole sculpture of me out of matchsticks! I love you!’ she adds, incongruously from my perspective. ‘I love you!’ says John, equally incongruously, and they embrace.

When I’m back at my office computer (at 9.30ish), I’m surprised to find – having skimmed RE’s ‘urgent’ request for a meeting at 4 – an email from Tod, advising me briefly to: ‘Just pay him.’ ‘Why the change of tack?’ I write back. ‘Because he has to be bluffing,’ Tod replies after a minute or so, ‘There’s no way he’ll cash the cheque. He just wants to humiliate you.’ ‘How do you know?’ I shoot back. ‘I don’t; it’s an informed guess,’ he writes, ‘You’re a fun person to wind up – you’re melodramatic.’ ‘Thanks,’ I say, and add: ‘BTW, John and Cissy suddenly seem to be a unit again.’ ‘I know,’ he says, ‘I just got a text from John. Go figure!’ He then proceeds to ‘figure’: ‘It’s something to do with a sort of voluntary mutual delusion. John thinks Cissy’s someone his experience teaches him she’ll never be, and she’s prepared to believe in his ideal, despite knowing herself.’ ‘That sounds likely,’ I say, accommodatingly, while reflecting that Tod has become cynical about love since Nicholas Larensen stole his cat. 

I’m quarter of an hour late for my meeting with Rufus Emmanuel junior, because, I explain to him, ‘I’m much in demand at work.’ ‘That seems unlikely,’ he snipes. I toy with the idea of asking him, ‘Why would you think that I’m not in demand?’ but hesitate for the same reason that I haven’t asked John or Tod to help me open the ‘Shit’ folder on my phone. ‘Anyway,’ I say, ‘This is your cheque for £500. Now maybe you’ll leave me alone.’ ‘It’ll be a pleasure to leave you alone,’ he says, which suddenly makes me nostalgic in advance for his negative attention – a convoluted matter of looking ahead to the inability to look anywhere but back, at something that makes me miserable anyway. So I rack my brains for a question that’ll keep the conversation going. ‘I’m curious,’ I say, not altogether truthfully, ‘as to why you only wanted £500.’ ‘Ah’, he says, ‘Because you wouldn’t have been able to afford anything else, judging by your clothes, accent and manners, and because a £500 deduction from a monthly wage that just about covers rent, meals and a bit of drinking is bound to be inconvenient in a really close-to-the-nerve way. I mentally see you preparing your daily repast of boiled cabbage, lentils and gradually diminishing pasta, and it makes me smile with my heart.’ It’s at this point more or less exactly that I realise that RE isn’t bluffing at all.

A few days later, £500 disappears from my bank account. My first thought is to ask John for a loan, but I already owe him £3,000 – and more if you count all the whisky and the damage I did to his first glue gun (when I first glued my hands together.) My second thought is to ask Cissy and/or Tod, but I can’t imagine either saying yes, though both are rich, so I give up. It’s also a few days after my meeting with Rufus junior, that I’m reminded of his peculiar sounding phrase, ‘makes me smile with my heart’ – and remember that it comes from the song, ‘My Funny Valentine’, which makes me wonder whether all his viciousness might be a kind of confused declaration of love. After all, that song could be pretty vicious in the hands of a sociopath – ‘Your looks are laughable/Unphotographable’ etc. It’s the sort of thing I imagine him saying unaffectionately, apropos of nothing. It’s a little like telling someone they should never eat in public. Maybe he imagines that we’re soulmates because my history of theft makes me a sociopath. But he’s completely wrong about that. Theft is just something I get up to when I’m drunk, when it seems like an entirely harmless and inexpensive (indeed, potentially the opposite) way of spending time. The nostalgia (this time real-time) that the memory of my drunken thieving arouses in me is a welcome reminder that whatever RE’s motives may have been, the end-result is that I have no drinking money and am sitting here eating cabbage, lentils and diminishing (not real-time) pasta, because of him.

I’m solemnly eating cabbage, lentils and a few forlorn twists of fusilli on Valentine’s day – which may seem like a nice day to some people, but not to anyone who’s halfway through the desert of a month of pennilessness – when an email pings into my inbox from ‘Rufus Emmanuel’, and, in spite of myself, I smile with my heart. But, as it turns out, my heart has jumped the gun in this instance, because – before I read the email – my eye is caught by the paraphernalia of status: the ‘Professor’ ahead of the name, the Oxford College (namely, Crispsmith College – I didn’t know it existed!), and the link to a flamboyant advertisement for Rufus Emmanuel’s new book. It strikes me as tautological to give Green Futures a green cover, but then, tbf, what other colour could it be? Even white would seem subversive of the message. Anyway, the email says:

Dear X (if I may),

I’m emailing you on Valentine’s Day to tell you that I love you. When you first glanced across at me at the party the other day, my heart melted, and so did all my elaborate theories about the future (thankfully, the book is published), because the only possible future I could imagine was one with you – though I didn’t (and still don’t) know how you feel about me, or what our combined futures might look like – although I think I can safely say that they’d (may I say ‘they’ll’?) be somewhat more attractive than Rufus Emmanuel junior, poor fellow. I often wonder what you’re doing, bearing in mind your history of adventure, as described to me by our mutual friend, Cissy. I associate you with the colour orange, not just because of your dress at the party, but because orange (for me anyway) is the colour of adventure. You should always wear orange.

All My Very Best wishes (really),


Völuspá: The Seeress’s Prophecy

A Preface to the Poem

'Völuspá' compresses the whole of the Norse vision of the universe’s history and future into its 60-odd short stanzas. It is narrated by a seeress, or Völva, who is requested by Odin to share her memories and prophecies with humankind, ‘Heimdall’s young’. She begins with a version of the creation story, and tells us of the great war between the Aesir and the Vanir that ended with the Vanir’s deification. She then looks forward to Ragnarok, and the death of the Gods, then beyond that to the purified world’s rebirth.

We don’t know when the poem was written. It is quoted extensively in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda (1220), a kind of manual for writing Skaldic verse, and appears in the collection of poems known as the Poetic Edda, the earliest manuscript of which dates from the 1270s, but it is much older, and the stories are older still. It is generally thought to have been a minstrel poem that was passed down through the centuries by word of mouth. The catalogue of the dwarves that begins in the 10th stanza, an important source of names for the characters in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books – Gandalf means Wand-Elf – probably comes from another poem entirely, and some translators leave it out. I think it’s one of the best bits. 

Most translators of 'Völuspá' have sought conscientiously to decode the Norse rather than attempt to capture the poetic spirit of the original. In the Norse the lines are short, dense and heavily alliterative. They have a very distinctive, muscular music, which I’ve tried to imitate in my translation. I’ve also tried to make the poem easier to understand by making the names of the characters consistent. In my version, at the least, it should be clearer who is doing what to whom and when.


Völuspá: The Seeress's Prophecy

Silence, god-blessed,
Heimdall’s young.
All-father requests
My ancient memories.

Giants raised me,
Years before Man,
Before the ash-clasped
Worlds were nine. 

Before Ymir,
Or ocean moved,
Earth was not nor sky,
nor green – Gap gaped. 

Odin, Vili and Ve
Fashioned Midgard,
Then sun warmed halls,
The grass sprung sunward.

Sol and Mani circled,
Grasped crank and spun,
Both seeking home,
Innocent of power.

The Gods in council
Named Night’s children:
Morning, Noon,
Afternoon, Eve. 

At Idavoll they gathered,
Built temples in wood,
Smelted iron, wrought gold,
Carved tongs and tools. 

They played at tables
In meadows for joy,
(Until three maids came
From cold Jotunheim).

The sacrosanct Gods
Created the Dwarves,
From Brimir’s blood
And bone of Blain.

(Mighty Motsognir was made
To lead them, next Durin,
Then others, manlike,
Dwellers in the earth:

Newmoon, Darkmoon,
North, South, East, West,
Sneakthief, Slumberer,
Old One, Meadwolf,

Bombur, Nori,
Bivor, Bavor,
An, Anar,
Wind-Elf, Thrain, 

Vigg, Wand-Elf,
Thekk, Thorin,
Thror, Vit, Lit,
Regin, Rathsvith,

Corpse, Counsel,
Fundin, Sviur,
Fili, Kili,
Hannar, Frar, 

Heptili, Hornbori,
Aurvang, Fraeg,
Foundling, Nali,

Then Dvalin’s line,
Folk of Lofar,
Who sought the loamfield
Of Iorovellir: 

Draupnir, Dolgthrasir,
Greyhair, Hill-River,
Skirvir, Firvir,
Floodplain, Glow, 

Fialar, Frosty,
Yngvi, Elf, Skafid,
Finn and Betrayer –
None are forgotten.) 

Odin and his brothers –
Merciful Aesir –
Went into the World,
And found Ash and Elm. 

Odin gave them breath,
Vili reason, Ve beauty,
Ask and Embla making,
Mankind’s begetters. 

Loam-soaked world-ash,
Keeper of Mimir’s well,
Created dew and rain.

From the pool
The three maids entered:
Fated, Becoming, Must-be –
Runesmiths, law-givers.

Then came the first war,
Freya of the Vanir
Spear-stabbed at Valhall,
Her body burned thrice. 

Three times reborn,
She lives still,
Seer, mind-meddler,
Goddess of witches. 

The Vanir sought redress.
The Gods sat in council:
What gifts could they bestow?
Godhood. Nothing less. 

All-father’s spear
Had started the war,
But the Aesir fortress
Had by battle-magic fallen. 

Frey was promised to Od,
Od promised new walls.
The walls stood high,
But Od – Od was killed.

Thor, Od’s smiter,
Was accused of treachery.
Oaths had been broken,
A binding compact fouled. 


Heimdall’s horn is hidden,
Beneath the holy tree,
In the well where Odin pledged
Body eye for spirit eye. 

He found me, Old One.
‘I know,’ I told him,
‘Your eye’s in Mimir’s well.
I know everything.’ 

He gave me rings and necklaces,
In return for prophesy.
So I saw into all worlds
And described my vision: 

Valkyries riding to Valhall,
Skuld and Skogul;
Gunn, Hild, Gondul,

I saw Baldr,
The blood-stained god,
And over the plain
The mistletoe. 

From that fair plant
Came the fatal shaft.
But Odin’s son, newborn,
Killed Baldr’s slayer. 

Vali would not wash
Till Hod was destroyed.
In her fen-halls Frigg
Wept for Valhalla. 

Vali made ropes
From Loki’s son’s guts
And bound the trickster
Under boiling springs.

I saw Loki,
Loathsome, evil-loving,
With unhappy Sigyn,
In the poisoned grove. 

From the east,
Through venom-steeped valleys
Creeps Slid, Cutting-River,
All daggers and swords. 

In northern Nidavellir
Stands Sindri’s hall;
In Onkolnir
The hall of Dwarf Brimir. 

Sleet-Cold hall holds
The shore of death.
Its roof drips venom,
Snakes wind round its walls. 

In Slid wade oathbreakers,
Outlaws, cheats,
Nidhogg sucks their blood,
A wolf tears their flesh. 

In Ironwood a crone
Nurses her wolf-brood,
One of whom
Will swallow the sun. 

Fenrir will feast
On the fallen,
Summer sun blackens,
The Great Winter comes. 

Eggther of Ironwood
Strums his harp,
While in the ravenwood
Fjalar’s crow wakes giants. 

The cock Gullinkambi
Rouses Odin’s Slain
As soot-red Fjalar
Crows under Earth. 

Hel’s hound Garm howls,
His bonds will snap.
Death comes for the Gods
At Ragnarok. 

Brother kills brother,
Sons betray their kin:
Axe-age, sword-age,
Wind-age, wolf-age. 

Water spirits dance
As destiny burns.
Heimdall sounds the horn.
Odin sounds out Mimir. 

The world-ash groans
As Fenrir breaks loose.
All-father heeds Mimir,
But the wolf will slay both. 

How fare the Gods?
How fare the Elves?
The Dwarves, mountain-masters,
Feel tremors in the stone. 

Hel’s hound Garm howls,
His bonds will break.
Death comes for the Gods
At Ragnarok. 

Here comes Hrym’s corpse-ship
Over serpent-churned waves.
The pale eagle hymns:
Its beak will rend the dead. 

A ship comes from the East
Bearing agents of death,
Devils’ sons, wolf-followers,
Loki among them. 

Surt, the fire-giant
Brings harm of branches,
His sun-sword sunders rocks,
Warriors speed Hel-ward. 

Now Frigg’s second sorrow:
Odin meets the wolf,
While Frey battles Surt.
All-father falls. 

Then Vidar, Odin’s son,
Plunges blade into Fenrir,
Silencing the scavenger,
Avenging One-Eye’s death. 

Earth’s warden, Thor,
Grapples with the snake.
But poisoned by its breath,
Nine paces back he sinks. 

Sun blackens, Earth crumbles,
Stars tumble from heaven,
Fire laps the Ash,
Flames lick the sky. 


Another green Earth
Will rise from the sea.
I see eagles over fells,
Sporting for fish. 

At Idavoll, the Gods meet,
And talk of the serpent,
Their former strength,
And the Wise One’s runes. 

On the grass, roundabout,
Are the tables of gold
At which they played
So long ago. 

Crops will grow unseeded;
Ills healed, Baldr returns
To live at Valhalla,
Shrine to the slaughter-Gods. 

Vili will cast the blooded runes
And the sons of brothers,
Baldr and Hod,
Will live with the Wind. 

I see a sun-bright hall,
Gold-thatched at Gimle,
Where the Gods will pass
Their days in pleasure. 

The black dragon flies,
Over dark-of-moon hills,
Bearing corpses to Hel.
Where I must go too.

Making Of

Jon’s initial plan is to smear a teddy bear with dog food and drag it through the streets of Kilyos. The town is full of stray dogs, so he hopes that by the time we get back out into the countryside we’ll have a comet’s tail of mongrels chasing after our two cars. We’ve come to Kilyos to help him make a film for an art show he’s putting on in London. The film will be only be 30 seconds long, like a car ad, and it will also have the glossiness of a car ad, except for the frantic dogs. There are six of us in the crew – me, Jon, Jesse, Samara, Ali and Mihda – plus Esteban, Mihda’s dog. Esteban is theoretically still a puppy, but he’s already so huge that when he treads on your foot it feels like he might have broken a few of your toes. Apparently his breed was developed to hunt wild boar. His white coat matches the colour of Mihda’s dad’s car, a four-wheel-drive Porsche Cayenne, and whenever we leave him on his own even for a second he gets into the driver’s seat and sits up with his paws on the wheel looking like ­­Rick Ross. Esteban is not here to act in the film. But he’s not just a shark-eyed mascot either. We think of him as key grip.

Kilyos, a resort about 15 miles north of the centre of Istanbul, has had most of the life sucked out of it by the local mafia. The satellite dishes on the roofs here are so brown with rust that they make me think of oversized forest mushrooms. We find that there isn’t nearly enough manoeuvrability on these little streets to do our Pied Piper act, and also the dogs are already so well fed that they may not have much interest in our meaty decoy, so instead we just eat some spinach börek and then carry on to Gümüsdere Beach. On the way, alongside the cabbage fields and cemeteries and go-kart tracks, there are fences which have repeating patterns of blobby holes cut out of their struts, as if eaten away by some meticulous weevil. Jesse explains that the wood must be the interstices from a type of automated woodwork called CNC, so these struts are like the leftover dough that you guiltily cram in your mouth after you’ve stamped out a dozen heart-shaped biscuits. There are also so many strays by the side of the road that when we pass a few cows for the first time there is a terrifying moment when I take them for gigantic horned mastiffs.

After a while we come to a stretch of beach that looks about right to Jon, but all the beach resorts here are privately run, so they all have gates, and the gates here are locked. They do look a bit rickety, but there’s a CCTV camera nearby, and Jon doesn’t want to do anything that might get us arrested. Ali goes to speak to some old men in a café nearby, and they tell him that the guardian of the gate is somebody called Mr Hasan in the village. I was excited to come on this trip because Jon said we’d have to pay a lot of bribes and I’d never paid a bribe before. Surely, I think, Mr Hasan will be our first bribe. But when we eventually track his son, he tells us that he can’t unlock the gate for us but we’re very welcome to break in if we want. I wonder if there’s any chance we might be permitted to bribe him anyway, just for the experience.

After Jon has wrenched the gates open, we have the beach to ourselves. The row of holiday homes further up the slope are all identical in their architecture but in various stages of dilapidation, so from the rear they remind me of one of those anti-drug posters showing the slow decline of a meth user. We’d hoped we might be able to swim for a while, but the grey sea is far too cold. The Bosphorus has a one-way system that changes direction every 12 hours, and by the time we leave so many ships will be queuing up on the horizon that they look like a manufactured coastline. Jesse, Samara and I walk up the beach to look for some stray dogs. Our progress is slowed a little by Samara’s scavenging. Her art is full of creases, furrows, and stains, so she’s finding a lot of treasure on the beach that she wants to take home with her. In this briny wind, everything erodes at the speed of a time-lapse video, so the half-buried tarpaulins and plastic buckets look as if they’ve been here since the Hittite era. Eventually, we do come across three fairly photogenic strays, but just as we’re making our first shy advances with a bag of sliced sausage, two teenagers from the riding school nearby come cantering across the beach, and the dogs go straight for their horses. They really seem to think they have a shot at taking both horses down like cheetahs against gazelles.

We don’t have a hope of catching up. So we’ve failed to assemble a cast of unknowns. But of course our star has been right in front of us all this time. As a test, we tie a length of twine to the teddy bear and dangle it in front of Esteban to see if he’s interested. The teddy bear has a disconcertingly Lolita-type posture and when squeezed sings ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ Esteban is interested. Esteban is very interested. Esteban is so interested that it soon becomes clear that wrestling the teddy bear out of Esteban’s mouth between takes will constitute a full time job for at least one member of the crew (I remember reading that the same was true of Jack Nicholson during the filming of The Departed). Afterwards, I grope the muddy bear again, hoping to hear a slurred and atonal rendition of its little song, like a damaged robot’s, but evidently it’s been traumatised into silence.

Jon has a shouldermount for his camera, but the spring is too weak, so whenever he tries to use it the camera lolls around like a concussion patient. Instead, he’s going to steady the camera by hand. Since I have nothing in particular to do, I join him on the cargo bed of the second car, from which he’ll be filming the action. The sun is setting, and we are entering what’s called the Golden Hour, that divine burnishment which has inspired filmmakers with its fugitive beauty since the very advent of Technicolor: perfect conditions, in other words, to get a few takes of a big dog running after a cuddly toy. Communicating with walkie-talkies between the two cars, we begin filming. The teddy bear is dragged at high speeds behind the Porsche like Hector’s body behind the chariot of Achilles. With three bodies in independent motion, this feels like something between exceptionally complex stuntwork and a total farce. Esteban seems to be having the time of his life, presumably assuming that this entire game has been arranged for his benefit. I find myself wishing that being a novelist involved a bit less sitting alone in small rooms and a bit more riding in the backs of pick-up trucks at high speeds.

By the time the dog finally tires, Jon has come to accept that we aren’t going to get the smooth 30-second take he was hoping for. But he’s got quite a few shorter takes he can edit together. As we’re packing up the equipment, we see that at least one other party has taken advantage of the gate we left open. A guy in one of those stubby, top-heavy delivery vans has driven on to the beach and is now attempting to do donuts on the sand. It’s like watching Esteban practising pirouettes. After a while the guy gets out of his car for a cigarette, so Jesse and I decide to go over to say hello to him. It’s only when we’re within a few paces that I realise I’m still carrying the filthy, ruined teddy bear on its noose of twine like some sort of avant-garde handbag. The guy looks at the bear and then looks at me. I look back at him. Nobody says anything.

The Militarists

My friend the artist once told me an anecdote – an illustrative story – about a captain of the emergency forces, in the days of our relative youth. He, the artist, had come to show me some proofs of a series of etchings on dreams and magic, along with some specimens of his work as a portraitist. The former did not interest me. They were not to my taste, and I had no desire to subscribe myself for a portion of the expenses involved in their printing.

I have always been frank about such things, and I did my friend the honour of being honest. His feathers remained ruffled until I expressed an interest in one particular set of the portrait sketches he had brought, studies of our country’s foremost militarists. He was happier then, and soon enough we found ourselves discussing military matters at large. Of course, it is true that such patter is as much part of an artist’s trade as painting, and I knew that the subject would eventually return to the question of my buying one or other of his pieces. But it was a pleasant enough way to pass an afternoon, and, since he has some small experience of war, it was not completely fruitless for me. So we exchanged stories for a little while, and at a certain point my friend set out on his anecdote of the captain – who had not, as it happens, found his way into the portfolio.

The tale itself is simple enough: the man was killed while trying to still a mob of peasants. This is a common enough fate, but one which in this case bears repeating. The incident occurred during one of those regular and sweeping famines that visited the south during that era, for reasons our journalists liked to dissect, and which we ourselves preferred to ignore. Some years they came because of drought, some because of war, and sure enough some of the wars came because of the famines that came from the droughts; and so forth. The causes and the effects intermingled. A famine is a famine, and we were bored of famines, above all far-off ones. Still, a residue of fellow feeling encouraged us to send soldiers to help the southerners. Or perhaps it was simply to quiet the journalists. In either case, we did it, and it was a gesture of some kindness, even if certain commentators took pleasure in pointing out (to those still inclined to read) that our soldiers were, in their way, exacerbating things.

It is true enough to say that our military policy, intended to aid and pacify, had for a short while the opposite effect: the villages became more violent with the troops than before. The troops after all, were as much in need of provision as the peasants, so they took to requisitioning what they might, slaughtering what little livestock survived, stealing stores, et cetera. And sure enough, not only did order momentarily remain unrestored, it was even seen to worsen. But this soon passed. The peasants took to refusing their protectors’ requests. Wherever they could, they put down stock with the ingenuity of rats, and pled hunger when the soldiers came. And in their turn, hungry themselves, the soldiers began to perceive the situation more clearly than before. To an infantryman some days without food, it seemed safer to burn the villages and shoot or bayonet the inhabitants as they fled than to wait for discontent to organise itself into revolution; and so it occurred.

By this simple measure, order was adequately and swiftly restored. At least, the poor no longer killed the poor over a last loaf of bread or a single egg – or even the corpse of a cat, as one story tells. The measures prevented the peasants from doing these things, and from taking to the roads as vagrants – two consequences which would have been insupportable in the country as a whole – and so, regardless of false beginnings, the army’s presence proved expedient.

If, under peaceful northern skies, or by the hearth of a well-stocked home, this seemed cruel, it was none the less recognised for its efficacy, and recognition climbed the ranks, until it came to be accepted in the circles of command that, in times such as these, cruelty was the very form of pragmatism. Is it not, after all, a better thing to meet death at the hands of a professional soldier than at those of your neighbour? And how much better still than to have your own wife and children turn upon you in the night (for this is also recorded)?

There did follow, it is true, a period of abandon that was in certain quarters considered distasteful. The infantry perceived for a time that their duty was best effected in a debauch of murder, which remains as natural to us as to God’s lesser creations. And, with the sanction of their commanders, an eagerness did enter many of the soldiers. But I defend its efficacy, and say that a professional soldier should love his trade as a tailor loves the cutting of cloth. And I submit that the proper object of distaste is a man who knows not his trade, not a man who takes to it like an old husband to a young wife.

But not all perform their tasks with the steady hand of David before the giant. All trades have their fools: the tailor who stains the cloth with the blood of a pricked fingertip; druggists who confuse the poison and the purgative; there is a finite quantity of craft in this world, and not all men are allotted equal. So too with the soldier’s trade: it has its craftsmen and its journeymen. The craftsmen are those who are able to recognise in the violence of our actions here below the pattern of the skies above; the journeymen make no such leap of conception. It might be said, sadly, that true craftsmen are the minority, that it is the incompetent who predominate. And certain it is that among our armies were a great mass of men with no sense for the placing of blade or bullet – of whom it might, in a flash of fireside humour, be said that they had no comprehension of the grace in the coup de grâce.  

What should be understood, however, is that it was they, the blind to beauty, who bred the abhorrence conceived among the laity for the cruelty employed in the provinces. The citizens of the north failed, simply, to understand that the term was, and remains, more proper to the last refinement of the soldier’s skill than to the maladdress of the incompetent. The confusion is as understandable as it was regrettable, of course. At the time there were a great many incompetent soldiers; and their doings, being the most widely known among the wider population, threw a great shadow over those of the craftsmen – though those in command, having other matters to deal with, cared little for the opinions of the ignorant, even as they became more and more pernicious.

The eventual importance of such opinions is beside the point here, of course. It is not the laity and their distaste that interest me, but the army itself. I had often considered the distance between the craftsman and the journeyman, but listening to my friend recount his anecdote, I recognised that more was to be understood of the soldier’s craft. When the journeymen went about the countryside ignorant of the artistry that escaped them, not only the craftsmen looked on, but also those fastidious creatures who wished out of the trade altogether. The competent, and the more than competent, recognised in the maladroit a failure of understanding and refined their own craft, perfecting themselves to a clarity of action which has rarely been equalled. But the fastidious, shocked and uncomprehending, retreated in revulsion not only from the journeymen but from the craft those journeymen had profaned. There were desertions, and higher in the ranks there were defections, there were even protests and the necessary concomitant deaths. For though they might have found favour with the more delicate citizenry of the north, the fastidious were considered by their commanders simply to be failing in their duty.

It seemed to me that this story of the captain showed the verdict of the commanders to be shared by no lesser authority than Fate herself. At the least, it shows that she considered the methods of the fastidious impractical, and, by that measure alone, worthy of her disdain. This captain – whose name it has pleased history to forget – was one of those who had chosen to remain in the field, despite his evident delicateness, having taken it upon himself to pacify the affected villages without killing those at the root of the violence. He resolved to take only what food his troops needed for bare sustenance, to set in order each village and, as if the situation were tenable, depart again. Though no record survives, it is to be assumed that he was not popular with his men. It is a piquant detail that despite his refusal to resort to the gun in his duties, he prided himself on his marksmanship. He passed each day’s ride happily hunting the beasts and fowl of the field – such as they were in this time of scarcity. He was pleased to feed his men on rabbit, squirrel, or any manner of bird, rather than take a beef or goat for services rendered. He scorned birdshot, for, being of a delicate disposition, he was as much unwilling to pick pellets from his meat as he was to kill a starving peasant.

We can add to this the fact that our fastidious captain was guilty of the sin of pride. For his ability, with nothing more than his pistol, to fell targets at magnificent distance, he considered himself a model of military conduct and a prime example of manhood. When he achieved such a feat, he not only had his men play gun-dogs and fetch his kill, but he had them count the strides taken back to him from where the dead beast fell. It is said to have been his mania to record each distance in a pocketbook devoted to this sole purpose.

To his obsession, furthermore, he applied the mind of an engineer. He introduced certain improvements to his piece: a wider bore, with a form of rifling he had designed himself. It is obvious enough that a more sensible man would simply use a well-made musket, but not our captain; he stuck to his fowling piece. The bore allowed him to use a heavier ball, minimising the effects of wind upon its flight – although commensurate corrections of aim were necessary to compensate for the rapidity with which the ball, drawn by its weight, converged upon the ground. To this end, he designed and installed a delicate sight with correctable elevation and a nitid brass pin. The ball in question was of such a calibre that it could entirely behead a bird the size of a dove or wood-pigeon. The pistol itself is said to have had a uniquely loud report.

Matters came to a head thus. After riding into one village, the captain presented himself to the mayor. As is the case still now, the mayor of a peasant village was himself nothing more than a peasant. But the captain went through a ceremony of meeting the mayor in each village he came to. It is to be assumed that the mayor was wary of the captain, as he had right to be. They went into his house together to discuss the situation; the mayor was presumably ready to plead the poverty of his village, lie about their reserves, protest their peacefulness and loyalty. The captain in turn would have given him the reassurances he offered to everyone. Perhaps they broke bread, sipped whatever peasant wine was offered. Then they heard the angry sounds of a crowd.

Here two differing accounts emerge. The first says that the crowd had gathered around two neighbours fighting over a loaf of bread. Both women maintained that the other had stolen it. They fought. The crowd took sides, a brawl ensued. The captain’s men watched, not knowing without him at hand what action to take, and just stood aside until the noise itself fetched him from the house.

A second account says that the noise was not that of the peasants fighting, but of the village women haranguing the troops. While the men were resting in the square, the crones had discovered the courage to confront them. A corporal attempted to quiet the crowd by holding a knife to a young girl’s throat. The women, taking further exception to this, fetched their own knives. Men began to appear from the fields. One can picture quite clearly scythes and cleavers ranged against swords and bayonets.

After this the two accounts coincide again. Summoned by his men or drawn by the noise of the mob, the captain came to the square with his pistol drawn. He shouted for silence. He shouted again and was ignored. Finally, he fired his pistol into the air. The crowd parted, either around the corporal with the girl, or around the two scuffling neighbours. Everything was still for a few seconds. The captain said nothing. He started to walk toward the centre of the square and covered a full 10 yards before he fell. In the meantime no one had moved. A soldier ran to the body. In the top of the skull there was a clean, black hole, almost the size of a dove’s head, where the ball had entered. Falling from the sky, it passed directly through the brain, ending somewhere in his chest, with no other sign than this neat aperture in the cranium.

History gives examples eloquent enough for you to guess, reader, what his men might have done next.

This could have been Fate’s final word on the matter, but, sadly, it is not so simple. When I extracted the obvious moral, the artist told me of another incident, also in the south, from the same period. This time it involved a captain of particular skill, a man who took no small pleasure in his work and was, accordingly, respected by his soldiers. He and his troops fed themselves well by grace of the villages they visited, and the villagers in turn were relieved entirely of their hunger, into the hands of God or his rebel servant, as the goodness of their lives dictated.

To my mind, the good captain’s method is a study in the art of war which merits repeating in full. The troop numbered in all 12 soldiers. They set out with their horses, their arms, tents and blankets. In addition, each man was allotted the standard ration of rice, dried sausage and sundries. These rations were carried together in a small cart which went behind. Such food does not supply a body of active men for long, so the troop was to augment its store as it rode. Early in their progress into the affected areas, they came across the dwelling of an old couple. By all accounts the house was no hovel; it had a deep well and the pair had laid in sufficient reserves to last them, perhaps, to the very end of the crisis.

The captain found them lacking in hospitality. After some negotiation, he slit both of their throats. He and his men ransacked the house and appropriated all the food therein, along with a covered wagon to carry it. The bounty amounted to some small barrels of salt pork, several small sacks of dried beans, pulses, et cetera, along with potatoes, onions, some honey, several large sacks of good quality rice, some two or three again of wheat flour, as well as a few dried sausages. They also found the wife’s sourdough pot.

They spent two days at the house in preparation. With water from the well they filled a bucket and a large pan, into which they poured the honey. They divided the sourdough between the two containers and placed them by the stove, which they banked up for the night. They ate, played cards, and slept. In the morning they took the liquid in the foaming buckets and mixed it with a great mound of flour to make a dough upon the kitchen table. This they left, again resting near the stove, well banked up.

Here they were confronted with the difficulty of cooking their bread, the oven of the house not being of sufficient size to accommodate such a quantity of loaves.  After a discussion, it was decided to cannibalise the flagstones of the kitchen floor. (It becomes even more evident here that the dead peasants cannot have been of too mean a state at all, or else, it strikes me, they should have had a floor of trod clay and not stone.) The troops prised the flags up with the points of their bayonets and carried them into the garden. Laying some of the stones on the ground, they used others, leant together, to form a roof over them, leaving a low, tented chamber inside. They constructed three of these makeshift ovens, each finished by sealing its joints with wet clay before being mounded with dry earth for insulation. The ovens were then filled with wood and fired. The soldiers, meanwhile, shaped the dough into rounds, to bake in all perhaps a hundred rough loaves. Slid onto the hot ashes of the dead fires, the first batch was cooked quickly enough for the men to lunch on a portion of them, fresh and hot, with dried sausage from the peasants’ stock. Well fed, they were allowed the leisure of a siesta while the remaining loaves were laid out to cool in the shadow of the house.

They were woken by the bleating of goats. A family of them had been attracted by the bread and set to eating it. Two men slaughtered and gutted them while the others finished with the last batch of loaves. Even half-starved, they roasted handsomely enough to be just reward for a day’s long labour.

The next morning, with the bread packed into sacks, the men set off. The shape of the day ahead would repeat itself perhaps a dozen times in the coming period. They follow the dusty road to the next village. Sending the youngest trooper ahead – we imagine a boy, perhaps 12, large-eyed and innocent – to arrive before them and announce relief. Twelve men coming, with bread and rice. Food enough to help you through this terrible time. Words of reassurance. They will help you in the fields, set your town to order. But first, a square meal. Where is your mayor? The men arrive an hour or so later – perhaps a bugle sounded at the first house. The captain stands aloof while loaves are thrown to the rabble. He meets the mayor; they speak; the mayor is reassured. The captain cannot promise to help without the village helping itself. The mayor is to summon a meeting tonight: the men will be organised to get the most from the land during the drought. The women will be divided into rotas. From now, there will be a soup made each evening for the whole village. Bread will be rationed. Everybody will have enough to eat. Not enough to grow fat upon, but a sufficiency nonetheless.

The meeting is called. Further reassurance is given. The soldiers are billeted in pairs, they depart with their hosts. Full of bread and soup the village sinks into a sleep more peaceful than that of many nights.

Starting with their own hosts, the soldiers move house by house silently in pairs. Each pair has a piece of chalk to mark the doors of the houses finished with. Then, finally, sleep. The next day, the bodies are piled in one house. The remaining homes are ransacked. Stores are gathered, the valuables divided, and the domestic business of baking and packing starts again. Full-bellied, they set fire to the corpse house and move on. Here and there they take the time to slaughter whatever cattle survive, eating their fill before they salt or dry the remainder. It is known that at least once the troop arrived in a village accompanied by a pair of live oxen. The captain played variations on his theme.

When events turned, there was little warning of it. The troop arrived at a village and the captain made his normal speech. Months into the crisis the gathered peasants were thin, but healthy. They had been organised by their mayor much along the lines suggested by the captain. They were glad for his help, but others had greater need. The soldiers could leave the next day. The captain too was glad. He was pleased to see a village governed with such wisdom during a time of crisis. After a night’s sleep, he and his men would take their aid where it was more sorely needed.

Looking on the assembled crowd, the captain imagined their stores and found himself anticipating the next day’s sack with particular pleasure. He predicted a haul of some size. His men retired with their allotted hosts. As was usual, the captain went with the mayor. At the mayor’s house he found his anticipation strengthened. The kitchen was hung with sausages, and with them perhaps 10 wizened hams of some dwarf breed of pig. Each a small but veritable ham. When he expressed his astonishment, the mayor explained that these were the property of the whole village. He rationed each day some meat to his people, along with grain or rice; whatever the stores could afford.

Would the captain like to taste? Perhaps some wine as well? His wife sliced some ham and brought them some bread and oil to accompany it. They sat and ate.

As the night passed, the captain found himself warming to this peasant, not just through the food and wine, but with something approaching the pride of an older brother. The peasant told him of a day when the villagers had discovered half a dozen bandits who had been stealing cattle. They ran them before the dogs like hares. The mayor spoke of the event with a satisfaction in which the captain heard his own. The bandits had run in the direction of their camp and the one who survived long enough to reach it had led the mayor’s dogs to a herd of cattle stolen from several nearby villages. The village acquired the herd for common use. A calf was slaughtered in celebration – less bloodily, the mayor noted, than the bandits themselves – and the villagers feasted that night, just as their dogs had during the day.

The captain listened with pleasure and good humour. He looked across the table at a man whose moustache echoed his own – a man of his own age and stature, of like mind, habits and tastes, and felt himself to be with a brother in arms, though an enemy. He removed his jacket and sword and relaxed in his chair.

Together they toasted the death of the six thieving hares. With each glass of wine, the captain was aware that his men were working toward them through the village. Knowing that the mayor’s time was short he offered him a little brandy from his own flask. They toasted again the hares. The captain toasted the fine ham. The mayor toasted the fine ham. They both toasted the mayor’s wife for making such fine ham. They picked its sinews from between their teeth and drank. Each sip bought the moment of the mayor’s death nearer, and the captain vowed to do it cleanly, when his men arrived, no sooner. When they shared a song, they placed their hands on each other’s shoulders and serenaded the mayor’s wife.

Soon, the wine and brandy combined with the day’s march and the captain found himself becoming drowsy. The mayor’s jovial hand upon his shoulder shifted itself. As if through thick glass the captain saw the mayor stand up before him. The hand grasped his hair and tilted his face upward. He looked up into the mayor’s eyes. Then everything began to recede. The hand let his face sink onto the table. Then, through darkness, the captain perceived that his boots were being pulled off.

When he woke, he was still at the kitchen table. The hams hung in shafts of sunlight. In his shirt and britches the captain stumbled up toward the door. In the courtyard he went to the pump: dry, of course. He hung for a moment upon it while he tried to gather himself. On the ground before him he saw a fragment of white chalk. A few yards away he saw another. He ran back to the kitchen. His jacket and boots were gone, so too his sword and pistol. He searched out a knife and went outside again.

The line of chalk led him only a little way. Soon they changed to bloodier signs. He saw in the dust fingers, severed neatly at the knuckles, pointing the way toward the edge of the village. Some had been displaced by whatever carrion feeders lived on in the drought, but the path was clear.

Under the noon sun, the fingers gave way to a broad and steady streak of near-black in the road, a rusty stain clotting thickly here and there in clumps of dirt. At its end stood an oak, in the shade of which the troops’ 12 muskets were leaned one against another, bayonets fixed, as if ready for battle. The ground before them was black with flies. One bough of the oak stretched out horizontally some 10 feet about the ground, its bark scored deeply where a rope ran over it, to a winch, for hoisting the village pigs, heads down, to have their throats slit. The rope hung empty over a squat, full barrel.

Over the bayonets the captain saw no one but himself, staring back at him, his face shaded beneath his hat, his uniform coat unbuttoned at the collar. His mirror self had men on either side, in uniform, with peasant faces insolent beneath military caps. Each held a dog, pulling on its chain.

The mayor came before the leaned muskets and stood looking at the captain. The captain watched as the mayor straightened his uniform, adjusted it. The mayor put out his arms before himself and considered the braiding on his cuffs, then he looked at the captain again.

‘Good morning, captain,’ he said.

‘Good morning, captain,’ the captain replied.

He dropped the kitchen knife and stood in silence for a few moments.

‘No need to call me captain, captain.’

‘If the cap fits.’

The mayor raised his hand and tipped his cap slightly. He smiled at the captain, ‘Thank you. It does. Your jacket is a little tight around the neck, I’m sad to say.’ He gestured to the unbuttoned collar, ‘Still.’

‘Could I trouble you for a drink?’

‘It shan’t worry you long.’

‘No,’ said the captain, ‘I suppose it won’t.’ He shook his head, ‘My men?’

‘Need you ask?’

‘Out of curiosity.’

‘We looked after them, and my wife is looking after them now. She is an excellent hostess, as you know.’



‘The fingers?’

‘We are not so hungry that we need chew on fingers and toes, captain,’ said the mayor. The peasants on either side of him laughed. ‘And besides, I did not want you to lose your way just now.’

‘I see.’

‘You see.’

‘I should thank you for your hospitality.’

‘No, captain, thank you. We’re grateful for the supplies. And your boots, of course.’

‘They fit?’

‘Like the cap.’

‘I’m glad.’

‘We felt you might be faster barefooted.’

‘I see.’

‘Hares don’t wear boots after all.’

‘I see.’

‘You see. Good luck, captain. I should run now, if I were you.’

And with that, the mayor began counting under his breath. The captain turned to run.


The artist stopped at this. I found – still find – myself unable to extract a moral from his tale. I respect both the mayor and the captain, as I am sure they respected one another. I even respect the dogs who ate so well that day thanks to these two men. But a moral evades me. I can only add the artist’s own coda.

Sometime later, when the drought had worsened still, a captain and his men rode out of the village just as a captain and his men had ridden in. They visited the villages all around and eased their peasants out of their stricken lives and continued onward, contributing to the aid efforts, as efficient as the men whose uniforms they wore.

It is said that for conspicuous efficacy, their captain received promotion, and upon that promotion followed other promotions. When he reached the rank of general, he was welcomed at the tables of the northern gentry, and found himself at that level of society where one is expected to commission portraits. Though I have not had the privilege of seeing the finished piece, I can say that in my friend’s sketches at least, good humour shines through his cheeks like lamplight.


Tin Men

At the time, he hadn’t realised how serious the situation had been.

‘If anything happens to me,’ he remembered his father saying. ‘You have to look after your mother and sister.’

He was 11 then, 41 now. Life was long, he thought.

In the staff cafeteria, he pushed baked beans around his plate. Somewhere outside, the Palo Alto Municipal Band drummed a muffled rhythm. He always ate a hot lunch these days; it spared him the trauma of cooking dinner, a skill in which he’d rarely excelled.

‘It’s just not your forte,’ Jennifer used to say. It was an odd expression. He’d only heard it once since, when he was still off work. He’d been sitting in front of the television, the evening spent, unable to move from the couch with the weight of tiredness and whiskey on him. He moved methodically through the channels, reversing; never looping, once he’d reached the end. Half way through his fifth or sixth oscillation, an English detective appeared on the screen, in black and white, some old movie.

Don’t worry, old chap, the detective said. It’s just not your forte.

It shook him out of his slumber and he took himself to bed with a thick head. He didn’t think about it in the morning.

The cafeteria was subsidized by the company. Groceries were expensive; he’d had no idea.

‘If anything happens to me, you have to look after your mother and sister.’

He stared at his food. The orange sauce was beginning to adhere to his plate. He was worried. He ate beans almost every day. Waffles and beans. Jacket potato, cheese and beans. Macaroni cheese, beans (salad: add 50 cents). Memories were only untethered in bad weather.           

‘We’re going to live in the shelter for a few days,’ his father announced one night, hanging up his coat and hat. He worked in D.C., took the 7.37 every morning, the 6.20 every evening. It was late October. Things were getting ‘hot’, whatever that meant. His parents had been watching the news more than usual and it worried him.

‘There’s nothing to worry about.’

They went down to the shelter. It was 50 cubic feet, sunk low in the garden, a corrugated tin dome surrounded by grass. This is what happens when you have too much money, he thought.

‘What if there’s a direct hit on the city?’ he said. His father looked at him, momentarily surprised. He frowned.

‘It’s not the blast I’m worried about,’ he said.

Days passed. How many, he wasn’t sure. With no school and no daylight, it was hard to keep track. The whole thing was stupid. Bobby Ginsburg’s family had a shelter too, and he knew for a fact that they weren’t using it. He sat on the edge of his bunk with a tin of beans, stabbing at the last few. They were cold and hard and he’d eaten little else since they arrived. He peered into the tin, feeling the tomato sauce dry on his lips.

‘Have you finished?’ his mother said.

‘Yes,’ he said. He always left the last four.

‘When can we go?’ His sister, six.

‘Quiet,’ his father said, sitting by the radio. ‘Kennedy’s about to speak.’

That night, they played cards. After his sister had gone to bed and his mother was dozing fitfully in her chair, his father looked up from his drink and said,

‘If anything happens to me, you have to look after your mother and sister.’

He didn’t know what to say, so nodded, then climbed into the top bunk and stared into the darkness until he fell asleep.

In the morning, he was woken by bright red in his eyes. He opened them and saw sunlight framing his father.

‘Time to leave,’ he said. ‘It’s over.’

He clambered out of bed, the outline of his old man hanging in front of his eyes, and followed him back to the house.


Benjamin Johncock is a writer. His short fiction has been published by The Fiction Desk and he is currently working on his first novel, The Long, Delirious, Burning Blue. He also writes for The Guardian.

My Grained Ash

My grained Ash an hundred times hath broke,
And scarr'd the moon with splinters.  

There’s a storm coming in over New York. Hurricane Sandy. I’m up late, thousands of miles away on the south coast of England, worrying about my friends; about John’s generator and whether water will breach Battery Park. There’s been an apocalyptic flavour to the news today. Lower Manhattan is being evacuated and in England the ash trees are dying.

I’ve been thinking about ash dieback all weekend, trying to make sense of it, to grasp the scale of the advancing catastrophe. ‘This is a bit of a disaster for our woodlands’, DEFRA’s chief scientific advisor says on the radio, with typically British understatement. ‘This is not good news for the countryside.’ The Observer reports, incorrectly, that 30 per cent of UK woodland is ash. The real figure is more like five per cent, but there’s no doubt that their loss would prove seriously detrimental to the ecological life of these islands, in terms both of the trees themselves and the species they support: a rerun of the devastation wrought by Dutch Elm Disease in the final quarter of the twentieth century.

Ash dieback was first observed in Poland in 1992, and quickly spread into Germany, Sweden, Lithuania and Austria, creeping onward across central Europe. In some regions of Denmark 90 per cent of ash trees have already been lost. The disease is caused by Chalara fraxinae, a new species of fungus. It takes its name from its host, Fraxinus excelsior, the common or European ash. Excelsior: ever upward, also the motto of New York. 

The first British case of ash dieback was in February 2012, when a consignment of infected trees was sent from a nursery in the Netherlands to Buckinghamshire. Infected trees were subsequently found in a car park in Leicester, on a college campus in Yorkshire, in a property in Durham and in a wood west of Glasgow. All had received infected nursery stocks from Europe in the past five years.

A ban on imports would potentially prevent this kind of spread (island thinking – apropos of which The Observer accompanied their report with a rogues’ gallery of other invasive species, among them fallow deer and greater spotted woodpecker, temporarily cast as the furred and feathered equivalents of the asylum seekers in Daily Mail editorials). In the past few weeks, however, the story has shifted. In October, cases of ash dieback were discovered in East Anglia in which there was no relationship to ash imports. The fungus is apparently being blown over from Europe on the wind, drifting invisibly westward, oblivious to national borders.

When a tree is infected by Chalara fraxinae its leaves wilt and blacken. Its shoots, twigs and branches die off, and its bark becomes afflicted with necrotic lesions. These lesions are sometimes surrounded by longitudinal patches of brown or grey discoloration that resemble tea stains. After a while, the twigs and branches become covered in whiskery profusions of epicormic shoots, like those seen in cork oaks after fire. The tree is reacting to the damage to its crown, that upward region of growth to which the name excelsior refers, by attempting to regenerate in its lower parts.


Those that are sterile abound in foliage and
carry their verdure a long while and are pleasing objects.

Ash is a field tree, and can grow to vast proportions. In Norse mythology it is Yggdrasil, the world tree, which stands forever green. The god Odin hung himself from its branches, wounded by his own spear, and where its roots went, no man knows.

These rumours of longevity and increase are bedded in fact. In Suffolk, there is a coppiced ash believed to be a thousand years old. In woods, ash is more spindly: a fast coloniser, a prolific self-seeder. According to Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica, ashes ‘repaired the gashes’ caused in our southern woods by the great storm of 1987, as well as taking up the stations of England’s missing elms.

The ash is a beautiful tree. Its leaves are greenish yellow, pinnate and nearly translucent. If one lies on a bank in summer and looks up through them, it’s like being suspended inside a Japanese woodcut. In autumn they’re hung with keys and in winter they sprout black buds. The grain is close, and was used for furniture, axe shafts, hockey sticks, oars, skis and billiard cues. In the Renaissance, an infusion of ash was believed to break up kidney stones, an action described as litholytic.

Breaking up, and also binding; restoring. In Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne, there is a letter White wrote on 8 January 1776 about the pagan practices that once abounded among the ‘lower people’ of his parish. He describes a row of pollarded ashes, ‘which, by the seams and cicatrices down their sides, manifestly show that in former times they have been cleft asunder.’ These trees had apparently been cut open and held apart with wedges, so that ‘ruptured children’ could be passed naked through the cleft. When this operation was complete, ‘the suffering part’ of the tree was plastered with loam and bandaged up. If it cleaved together, the child would heal, though if it remained open they would continue to ail. White believed this act of sympathetic magic was Saxon in origin. He went on to report that he had chopped down three such trees in his own garden, one of which had never cleaved and still gaped apart.

I wonder, thinking of these ruptured trees, if M.R. James, the medievalist and writer of supernatural stories, ever thumbed his way through White’s History. In 1904, the year before he became Provost of King’s College Cambridge, James published a story called ‘The Ash-tree’, in which the same tension between rationality and superstition evident in White’s letter is rendered in far darker  colours.

‘The Ash-tree’ is set in an Elizabethan dwelling house in Suffolk, Castringham Hall, against which stands an enormous ash tree, that ‘had wellnigh attained its full dimensions in the year 1690’. The story begins during the witch trials. ‘It will be long, I think’, the narrator muses, ‘before we arrive at a just estimate of the amount of solid reason – if there was any – which lay at the root of the universal fear of witches in olden times.’

During the trials, the owner of Castringham Hall, Sir Matthew Fell, reports having seen a village woman come three times to the ash tree by his bedroom window at full moon. Each time she climbed into its branches, wearing only a shift, and cut small twigs with a ‘peculiarly curved knife’. Mrs Mothersole is tried, sentenced and hanged on Fell’s testimony, and a few weeks later, at full moon, he too is found dead. The servants discover him in bed, his body blackened, swollen, and much disordered. When the women come to wash and lay out his corpse they experience great pain in their hands, and later their forearms swell to immoderate size, though no doctor can find trace of a poison in the corpse.

Some decades later, Sir Matthew’s grandson, Sir Richard Fell, inherits the house. After a bad night in his chamber, he decides to find new sleeping quarters. In the end he settles upon old Sir Matthew’s room, in which no one has so much has set foot since the body was removed. ‘Yes’, he says to the housekeeper, ‘the tree perhaps does make the place a little dampish... No; I do not wish to listen to any more.’

That same afternoon, a house party arrives, and the next day a bishop among their number comments on the ash’s proximity to Sir Richard’s room, observing that not one of his Irish flock would occupy the chamber, for ‘our Irish peasantry will always have it that it brings the worst of luck to sleep near an ash-tree.’ Sir Richard, who has now spent an unnerving night in the room, agrees that the tree’s presence is a touch disquieting.

At this juncture something strange happens to the fabric of the story. The donnish, ironic first person voice dissolves into a ‘we’. We are inside Sir Richard’s chamber; we are watching the sleeping Squire, who is apparently moving his head very rapidly against the pillow. And then it seems – but how is this possible? – that he has several heads, several round and brownish heads. And then something drops off the bed ‘with a soft plump, like a kitten’, and in the morning Sir Richard is as dead and blackened and disordered and swollen as was his grandfather before him. 

One last scene. The gathered guests assemble by the tree, horrified by the news. As they discuss motive and weapon, the Bishop of Kilmore happens to notice a white tom-cat balancing on the edge of the ash tree’s hollow trunk, apparently watching something inside. The cat topples, there is a horrible screech, a woman faints and the gardener is dispatched upward – excelsior! ­– with a ladder and lantern. He too tumbles, though fortunately this time backwards, dropping the lantern inside the tree. The lantern starts a fire. The men gather round, armed with whatever weapons they can find. One by one, spiders rush out, each the size of a man’s head, some “veinous and seared” and some covered in greyish hair. The fire burns all day and at last the ash collapses into pieces. In the hollow place where its roots pass into the ground are found two or three more spiders and in addition the crouched skeleton of a black-haired woman, ‘clearly dead for a period of fifty years.’

What is one to make of these stories of dead trees, dying trees, trees that heal and trees that kill? It seems to me they are connected; that in fact they are bound together, as Selborne’s ashes were once bound together. The woman in the shift with the curved knife: who is she? In Sir Matthew’s testimony she turned into a hare and ran away across the fields, and these three objects – the hare, the curved knife, and the blackened twigs of ash – seem drawn from a far older story. And what of the three felled trees in Gilbert White’s garden, and the burned ash that fell all to pieces, exposing its roots? These, at least, I think I recognise.


the ash for nothing ill

In the winter of 1996, when I was nineteen, I went to a road protest for the first time. We drove through the early dusk and arrived late at night. It was very cold, and the ground was hard with frost and the sky was clear and full of stars. People were sitting around the fire, singing folk songs, and when they grew tired they climbed up the trees that surrounded us in a circle and disappeared. I slept in the communal bender that night, and the next morning I crawled out and saw Fairmile by daylight.

There were treehouses in every tree, connected by double walkways of blue polypropylene. The idea was that you clipped the cow’s tail of your climbing harness to the top rope and walked along the bottom one. In the big tree, the Quercus Oak, there were six or seven houses, each roofed with sheets of tarpaulin. I’ve never experienced anything like the magic of that scene: the sense of having fallen into a storybook world. Lothlórien, no doubt about it.

I only visited Fairmile once, but a few months later I left university and went to another protest in Dorset, in a scrap of beech and ash wood on a hill above Weymouth, set slant to the sea. I’d learned to climb by then, to prussik up a rope, to abseil, and to drop plumb down through a tree, catching at branches to break my fall. That summer we lived an arboreal life, lying for much of the day in a great net slung just beneath the canopy. My treehouse had a camp bed, and at night I’d leave the fire and climb up tipsy, swinging around three sets of walkways and then shinning up a sycamore, from which I had to step, maybe three storeys from the ground, into my house.

I’ve heard it said by ecologists that we might be mistaken in seeing a tree as a single organism; that the working organism, the whole body, is the wood itself. That summer, I lived as a part of a trans-species community in a way I can barely imagine now. I haven’t lost my love of trees, but I no longer remember exactly how it felt to live amongst them.

This sense of rupture, of being apart from the natural world, buzzes away at the core of both White’s and James’s stories. The rational man chops down his ash trees, with their seams and their cicatrices; their intricate, convivial history. ‘Cut it down’, Sir Richard Fell says. ‘If that stands for the ash-tree he may rest assured that I shall not neglect it. Such a nest of catarrh and ague was never seen.’ James, who had an antiquarian’s mistrust for ancient things disturbed, often finds punishments for people who are too modern, too disrespectful of old ways. If he was telling Gilbert White’s story, one can be certain something nasty would befall the country vicar, out in the garden with his axe.

There’s no suggestion yet that ash dieback is directly caused by humans, though its spread has certainly been accelerated by both our patterns of woodland management and our habits of trade. In time, it may prove that Chalara fraxinae arose into existence because of changes in climate, or that the trees’ natural resistance was diminished by pesticides and pollution. Perhaps not. And perhaps Hurricane Sandy is just a storm, and the fact that the East River is currently swilling under the FDR is what one once could call a natural disaster.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that what is happening to the ash trees is as much a testament of our ruptured relationship to nature as was the great destruction of woodlands for roads that took place in the 1990s. I remember the devastation then, the lovely forests chainsawed down and turned to swamp, from which protruded burning stumps. I remember the clouds of smoke, the tang of ashes in the air.

Is there, I wonder, a way to reverse all this; to stop our world falling into what White called suffering parts? I don’t know. I’ll tell you one thing though. If I find an ash tree torn asunder, I’m minded to pack it with loam and bandage it up, just to see what species of mending might occur.

Paree, Paree

She professed to love this country more than any other. But I sensed that for her, as for M. and Mme Verdurin, the great thing was not to contemplate the country as tourists, but to eat well there, to receive guests they liked there, to write letters there, to read there, in short to live there, passively allowing its beauty to bathe them, rather than making it the object of their attention.

Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah


These two sentences crystallize a modern dilemma: is it better to pass through or go native? Until I actually went native, the answer to that question was clear to me. I was, after all, a liberal American teenager, and to that particular demographic tourism means Hawaiian shirts and braying commentary on the size of the Eiffel Tower. We wince at this garish obviousness, our uniquely American brand of provincialism. The Proustian brand of aesthetic, ecstatic contemplation might not offend us, if it occurred to us, but it doesn’t: there is no middle ground between being authentic – being a native – and being a brightly-coloured travelling advertisement on the dangers of obesity and reality television. If you don’t want to be the latter you have to be the former; you have to make yourself belong somewhere new.

Like most things, our desire to leave the US behind for good is really about sex. The urgency of the American teenager’s sexual desires leads to a certain unpatriotic point of view. Where exactly are you supposed to have it? Cars are uncomfortable, and not everyone can afford one; parents rarely leave town, and there are only so many friends with convenient spare rooms in the basement, cocooned in silence. Between the stress over where to have sex and hurriedly having it, one ear cocked for the chastening footstep on the stair, the brain has room for one activity: imagining a place where this planning and snatching and being denied is unnecessary. A place where there are no puritan attitudes to stop you having sex whenever you want, even when you’re sixteen. The name of this place is Europe: the country of the American teenager’s imagination. (more…)

Cemeteries by the Sea

A few days ago I finished translating Paul Valéry’s Le Cimetière Marin. I was pleased to finish, considering that it must have taken me a little over two years. It’s easy enough to lose track of time, but I know that I can’t have started more than three years ago. When I picked up my copy of Valéry’s poems from an Oxfam bookshop, I noted the date inside the front cover. It’s not something I normally do. I have a private ritual of writing my name in all the books I buy, but I don’t date them. I assume I did so only because a previous owner had – with the enigmatic timespan ‘82-83’. I can’t think what relation existed between Pamela Sneddon’s ownership of the Poésies and that particular year, unless she had decided to circumscribe her interest in Valéry to a set twelvemonth. If I come across her copies of du Bellay and Éluard, marked ‘83-84’ and ‘84-85’, I’ll know that she was engaged in a carefully timetabled programme of self-improvement. It seems unlikely, but we shall see.

I dated my Valéry, though, and so, in February 2012, I know that I may have taken as long as three years to finish my version of the Cimetière. The work wasn’t constant. I had, and still have, projects more pressing and less redundant than trying to translate a symbolist meditation on death in the high noon of a Mediterranean cemetery. But it still amounts to a considerable chunk of time and effort. And if the task didn’t obsess me from day one, I certainly stepped up my hours towards the end. As the final stanza came into view, and it seemed like I might actually complete what I’d started, I spent full days – and weeks – concentrating on reaching the finish-line. Which, finally, I have.

Toward the end, I thought more and more about the experience of translation, how it feels to try and alter something so fundamentally while not altering it at all. First of all, I wanted to explain and justify the decisions I had made. This is natural enough: a mixture of pride and defensiveness comes with the territory. I remembered an exercise I went through several times at university, comparing and contrasting an Italian poem with an English translation. The examiners chose poetic translations that, necessarily, departed from their originals in one way or another. This game of spot the difference had a predatory edge; it was difficult not to take pleasure in the translator’s weaknesses. First resorts were pointing out the untranslatability of a word or phrase; failure to replicate the secondary connotations of a line; an elevation of connotation over denotation; a strangeness of syntax flattened; a metaphor unnecessarily tautened. More fairly, more rarely, we would note where the translator had been successful: a phrase turned into a perfect English equivalent, pitched and placed as in the original tongue; a musical effect miraculously reproduced. Looking over my own translation with the same eye, the more I wanted to defend and the more I wanted to explain. Sometimes I wanted simply to throw up my hands and make clear that something was just impossible to translate, other times I wanted to point out the deftness with which I’d managed to deal with an expression or line. And of course, I wanted to make sure that English readers would understand just how hard Valéry is in the first place.

All of this is as petty as it is understandable. And it’s unnecessary. Translations are odd, hybrid things, but they need to get by on their own. It shouldn’t – doesn’t – matter that certain stanzas took as long as six weeks for me to crack, others only a few hours. Nor does the experience of what I think of as a linguistic synaesthesia that comes with reading as a translator. This is important to me: the strange and dynamic intermingling and superposition of French and English; the experience of a rhythm or rhyme momentarily appearing bright in the sidereal gap between two languages. But that is a private and fleeting thing. If I were to try and pull the reader into that space I would be defeating the point of the exercise. Though that experience and the processes stemming from it are the fabric of my English Cemetery, I’m content to leave them latent in it.

What has begun to seem more interesting to me, as I go over them again, are my reasons for starting the translation – my reasons for coming to, and coming back to the Cimetière Marin in the first place. This too is a private experience, but not, I think, such a specialised one. Though perhaps they have the occasion to feel it particularly strongly, it’s not reserved for translators. It has something to do with the idea of reading tout court; with the way that certain texts and pieces accrue significance in our lives.

I didn’t embark on the translation because the Cimetière Marin is an important piece by an important writer. It is, of course. Valéry was one of France’s most lauded and laurelled men of letters, and the Cimetière Marin is a defining piece of twentieth-century literature. But important poems and important writers, rare as they may be in any one era, have accumulated over the years; Valéry is not the only one. Nor did I embark on the translation out of personal affection for the poem, or for Valéry. What affection I have for Valéry is cut through with a sort of reflexive and Protestant scepticism for his navel-gazing. He cuts a quintessentially French figure of the intellectual, whose interests extend to all fields except the practical. And he represents a version of culture of which I am, more than anything else, suspicious: a form of establishment in which high-culture is crafted by statute, rather than by the unreliable graces of friendship or public and academic interest. This is not a world with which I’m particularly comfortable, and Valéry’s writings exist at its centre: the work of a uniquely incisive mind happy to live in the ivory tower built and protected by such cultural conditions. The Cimetière is symptomatic of this protected distance from the world. It transforms a graveyard in the killing heat of a Mediterranean noon into a theatre of classicism, music and metaphysics: gods keep troves of light, marble tombs guard shadows, doves and sails exchange presences above miraging waves. Even as larvae burrow through the tear ducts of the dead, it is not dying that worries Valéry but – more abstract altogether – death. And all this across twenty-four stanzas of dense and classical French. Shaping a world where Zeno’s paradoxes can be made to bear the burden of mortality’s pain, Valéry’s language  is seductively smooth; the poem orchestrates its gathering resources until a point of near resolve and returns to its beginning, brooding on a bright void. It is an astonishingly beautiful thing; for me, almost problematically so.

I did not, then, start translating the Cimetière because I like it – though I do – or because it is important – though it is. I translated the Cimetière because of the way in which it came to stand for the relationship that I have ended up having with Valéry over the past eight years or so. That relationship is a strange sort of aleatoric acquaintance that has grown at hazard since I first came across an essay he wrote. I was nineteen perhaps, possibly younger. The text was in a collection of twentieth-century literary essays and came with a note on Valéry’s career and major works, where the Cimetière Marin took top billing. The essay is on poetry and prose as analogues, respectively, of dancing and walking. Prose is going somewhere: it’s all about destination. Poetry scorns destination: it’s rhythmic movement; a concatenation of measured, aimless beauties calculated to stir the soul into something just beyond itself. I know why this appealed to me so much at the time, when I found it: I would have welcomed anything that exalted poetry over her plain sister. But I didn’t get round to reading any more Valéry for a while after that. I didn’t have the French, for a start, and my intellectual curiosity wasn’t piqued enough to go looking too far. That one essay seemed like enough to be getting on with.

Some time later, though, I ended up buying a copy of his collected writings on poetry. I found it by chance in a cavernous second-hand bookshop, in a corner with a persistent leak in the roof. The collection, and T.S. Eliot’s introduction to it, aroused my interest a little further, but, again, not far enough. I slotted it on my shelf, between same-sized hardbacks. A good year later still, in the same bookshop, beneath the same leak, I found another Valéry: his dialogues, introduced by Wallace Stevens. Like Eliot, Stevens professed Valéry’s influence on his work. I read one of the dialogues, but other reading projects pressed; I slotted the book next to the first Valéry, between the same same-sized hardbacks.

Slowly, though I kept not getting round to him, Valéry became the person I was going to read as soon as I had time. When I left university, I moved to Paris in an attempt to learn French. I failed to fall in love with the city. I was broke and lonely, despite the presence and generosity of three good friends. Paris – whatever anyone says – is not a fun city to be even temporarily poor in. Despite having no money and only tattered remnants of GCSE French, I took refuge in the bookstalls that line the Seine. From walking these over a few months, I began to realise just how much Valéry had written. In the course of the year I picked up copies of excerpts from his notebooks (Tel Quel, one and two), a treatise on Leonardo da Vinci, and the dialogues. I found Tel Quel alternately enthralling and infuriating. I still have difficulty with the idea that someone could say, with a straight face, ‘Syntax is a faculty of the soul’. Then I worked my way through the dialogues. They are extraordinary, strange and beautiful. For positive and negative reasons they continue to strike me as something that no one else could have written. At one point in The Soul and Dance, Socrates turns towards a doctor with whom he is sitting and asks him if he knows a cure for the poison of all poisons, venom of venoms, the evil that calls itself l’ennui de vivre. Well, says the doctor, that is a good question; life blackens on contact with truth the same way a dubious mushroom blackens on contact with air. Their conversation moves on. I return to the passage occasionally, when I feel in need of cheer. 

A more sensible person would have stocked up on cheap copies of Verne, or Camus, even, who has the benefit of being readable for someone with relatively basic French. But I stuck to Valéry. His name was an island of familiarity in a sea of French authors I’d never heard of, and his books were cheap, too, by dint of ubiquity. Besides, when I wasn’t reading Valéry himself, he never seemed to be far away. I caught up on Borges that year; in his famous story ‘Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote’ the eponymous author is credited with a list of publications that include a transposition of the Cimetière Marin from decasyllables into alexandrines, and an invective against Valéry, representing the precise opposite of his true opinion of the great man. During the same six months, I also read Jorge Semprun’s Le Grand Voyage. Sadly little known in England, Le Grand Voyage is one of the great testaments of World War Two, a fictionalised memoir of Semprun’s time in Buchenwald. Among the horrors, Semprun recounts how the camp’s French inmates held secret assemblies in which they tried to hold on to what remains of their culture they could. On instruments contrived from scraps or obtained through theft and corruption, they played chansons and a few classics, and those who knew poems recited them. Semprun’s narrator gives the Cimetière Marin by heart.

Semprun’s recitation represents the moment when Valéry’s poem became one of those texts that I had, sooner or later, to read. There is a parallel scene to the Buchenwald gathering in Primo Levi’s If This is a Man. Levi was in Auschwitz, and, as a Jew, in an altogether different world than that of the French resistants in the Grand Voyage. No stolen instruments or hours without work to use them in; no recitations before fellow intellectuals. But one day, walking to collect his workgroup’s soup ration, Levi finds himself attempting to recite to his French companion a passage in the Inferno where Dante meets Ulysses. He attempts to translate it line by line for the young Frenchman, but has to skip holes in his memory to reach the key moment, when the sea, finally, closes itself unmarked over Ulysses’ head. The canto is one I come back to time and again. Ulysses among the false counsellors – not Homer’s Ulysses, but Dante’s, who refuses to remain at home when first he returns to Penelope and Telemachus. Bored, he sets out on another voyage. Determined to go beyond the limits of the known world he persuades his men to row through the Pillars of Hercules. God has other ideas: three times the boat is spun round and doused in the sea, and finally it sinks; Ulysses the last to go under, catching a distant glimpse of the peak of Purgatory before the waves press him down for good.

The two scenes, coming together in my mind, fused, in a certain sense into one scene: Levi unaccountably impelled to share his Dante with another man destined to be one of the drowned; Semprun clinging to the broken spars of an intellectual’s vanishing Europe. Both attempting not to let the sea close over their own heads, and thinking that, somehow, it might be held back by culture. The distance between the two camps – between a resistant’s experience of them and a Jew’s – cannot be effaced, of course; the two scenes are not one scene. But together they pulled Valéry’s poem into alignment with the horrors of war and the grandeur of the Commedia, and inserted it into my consciousness of these things for good. This, finally, was when the Cimetière Marin it took up its place in the mentally-constructed landscape of cultural monuments that I’ve acquired over the years.

This is the sort of landscape that I assume all broad-readers have: an ever-growing and shifting system of half-located buildings waiting to be explored, built from and linked by paths of association that are half real and half drawn from chance personal experience. A vague map where we place the things that we feel are important. There is a concrete reality to the importance of the Cimetière Marin, and there is a personal reality, as there is with any text. This landscape is a product of the two. That personal reality is less about love or enthusiasm, than about the way in which the things I know have pulled more things to themselves. The Cimetière’s presence in this mental landscape of mine has less to do with my feelings about the poem itself than my feelings about the way in which it has worked itself into my experience of life. It has to do with the manner in which, at some point, things so aligned that the Cimetière became part of the grand European sweep of high culture and base history at once shared and strange to me, and which seems to constitute at the same time an invitation and an exclusion. An invitation, that is, to enter and consider a world that can only ever remain beyond me and my abilities. A world that permeates historical and geographical fact but doesn’t quite coincide with it. 

In a way that is difficult – but I think important – to explain, the Cimetière became one of those texts that is always being spoken to by other texts, and which is always speaking back; and one of those texts that is always being spoken to by history, and which cannot help but in some way reply. It is part of the world of sheltered offices, lodgings and intellectual chatter that belonged so completely to Eliot and Borges, but it is also part of the invasions, resistances and camps that closed over the heads of Levi and Semprun before, somehow, they resurfaced on wreckage, heaving for air.

I’m aware of the fact that this may seem a circuitous way of restating the most commonplace of sentiments: the Cimetière means, or came to mean, something to me. I am also aware of the fact that this kind of meaning – the gradual accretion of secondary associations – is not the actual significance of the poem in the sense a modern academic would use. The significance I am talking about here is something larger; though it partakes of things that the close reader, biographer and cultural historian would hold central, it exceeds them all, individually and collectively. It is not about what I have done to the poem, but what has occurred to the poem through me, and to me through the poem, and to both through what is probably best called accident: the falling out of things over time, long and short term. The Cimetière Marin exemplifies this form of meaning – this form of coming-to-mean – for me. It draws its coming-to-mean across a wide and fraught portion of history, ties it to a portion of my life particularly full of learning and discoveries, and pools it in a text which even now, after two years of translation, I am still grappling to understand. But, in doing so, the Cimetière is, I think, only throwing these things into relief: it holds up to the light the processes by which all texts, if they stay with us, accumulate their meanings.  And if, in doing so, it has taught me something about this mental landscape of mine, and assured its presence there, it has not fixed its location: it has not become a thing understood, a place known and solid; I will continue to make my way through its multiplying rooms; the paths to and from it will shift and proliferate; its meanings will continue to accrue.


I never used to get angry. Though there were, certainly, days when a certain thing, perhaps this thing or perhaps that other thing, might have piqued me like a mosquito. Of course there were. I’d be riled temporarily by a queue, say, or a moment of clumsiness. Dropping a plate would do it, or breaking a glass, or waiting too long for someone to reverse into a parking space; any of the daily calamities to which people are prone could, in the right circumstances, raise a hint of ire. But these were fleeting moments. Small flashpoints. Bacon said the best remedy for anger is ‘to win time’, and that I could reliably do, stepping away, sometimes physically, from the cause of my distress until it had passed. I was quiescent, equanimous, serene.  (more…)