So, nearly two months out of the country, forty days of which spent in the Julian Alps of NE Italy, for once surrounded by the beauty of living beings and not having to blinker my sight or otherwise dull my senses to a large portion of the landscape, and coming back to England has felt so strange.
Well, the weird feeling began down in the valley, waiting for the train. So hot, sweaty, stifling in the late afternoon; such a bleak flatness to the land, largely devoid of trees; dust in the air, the noise and hurtling carelessness of roads, the jarring sight of squatting box supermarkets and the glaring bare tarmac of their welcome-mat carparks. And then the sights from the train window: more flatness, rusty-grey blurs of industry, sweltering cornfields, uneasy whitewashed residential areas marked by a shrieking crescendo of train noise as concrete barriers bounce the sound back towards its source, sparing the residents the worst of it (one assumes). Like the whole land is being weighed down by a sickness; a blanketed malarial fever… A young black woman relentlessly talking down the friend or relative of her elderly Italian companion in French as he sits in glum silence, occasionally offering mild resistance but neither agreeing nor disagreeing (perhaps grateful for the company). A nice moment of recognition, pulling out of a station when the thick-necked thirty-somethings in the aisle opposite notice the pigeon I’ve been watching – sat on a platform sign while his buddy pecks at the parasites on the back of his neck and around his blissfully closed eye – and share with the laughing and pointing.
Then Venice itself: the air humid, muggy as always. Perspiring backpackers swirling in stressed-out eddies; smokers, lovers, snackers lining the steps outside the station facing hotels, a bridge, more crowds, architecture, a huge cigarette billboard across the first canal. I don’t have time to wander, so I sit up against the glass wall of the station and make greasy, satisfying sandwiches of mouldy cheese, smelly salami, sliced tomato and oregano, using the side of my shoe as chopping board and table. Then, averting my eyes and satisfied with the filthy, eccentric reality of the portrait I’m presenting, I pluck melodies from the air and from the movement of greedy pigeons; fingers greasing up the fretboard and strings of my mandolin.
Then the sleeper train with the pleasant French/Canadian family (wife/husband and two young girls) and drummer psychologist. Red sun over the Venice lagoon, drying my face in the warm rush of air coming through the one broken window. Chiming in to R.D. Laing’s suggestion that ‘a toxic environment may render us insensible to its toxicity’ and vowing to resist and not succumb to the ‘anaesthetizing noxious sublethal environment’* by keeping my senses alive, no matter how painful it may be to receive their input. Then – immediately provided with the opportunity to do just this – looking the other way with the other men in the couchette as the mother smacks the younger child for her excited fidgeting which repeatedly crumples up her bedding. I wince almost as much at the statement she reiterates: “Tu es vraiment insupportable”, but do nothing to intervene except to smile at the child in such a way as, hopefully, to show at least one person willing to tolerate, even ‘support’ (if not defend) the expression of her fragile personhood. Weird how difficult I find it to screw my attention to the meaning of the words:
Insupportable – the mother finds her child literally ‘unbearable’, like a load that’s so heavy she has to drop it to the ground; coupled with the violence of the ‘you are’ – unrelated to specific behaviour in a specific circumstance, but rather a state of ‘being’ built into her bones – semper et ubique – which she can do nothing about and never escape.
… and then feel my own reaction to them. The despair and disgust; the fear and anger still buried in similar memories of violence on my own person which the dominant part of me would rather forget. As with the Lester Luborsky experiment†, I know exactly when to stop listening.
Then the white, middle-class fear of banlieue-black Otherness, ricocheting to an inauthentic desire to ’empathise’ and ‘understand’ in the middle of the night, naked but for underpants, listening to the same wife/mother confront a French youth who was speaking a loud (drunken?) patois in the corridor, the train having halted at a grim, grey inner-city station. He maintained that he couldn’t understand her – was she speaking Italian? She refused to be spoken to in ‘tutois’‡ and stood her ground when dealt further insults. I didn’t feel at all prepared to wade in in defense of the family if things got uglier. Even the scenes I was rehearsing in my head all ended in disaster and/or humiliation. I thought of my uncle who deliberately raised my cousins in both city and country surroundings so that they could navigate both environments without getting screwed over, victimised or killed. It occurred to me, a lifelong suburbanite, that the gift of my upbringing was to get forever caught in the middle, never feeling a sense of true belonging in either of the contrasting situations (though for sure I felt more at home in one of them!)
Then Paris, evercrowded on the metro, eyeing my scruffy reflection and bent backpack posture in passing windows, spending ten minutes staring at a fruit stall before deciding to buy a Spanish melon, lunching with my Grandmother, talking about relatives I’ve never seen, walking a local walk, her remarking on the changes in her lifetime – they never used to let the mauvaises herbes grow on the pavement like they do now – sampling the fruit trees in the park, seeing what grew on the ‘waste’ ground, again saying how remarkable it was for them to leave it like this. (Then, of course, on the return journey seeing a giant lawnmower vehicle noisily sucking up all the plants we’d been admiring. Exasperated laughter.) Later, on the bus to Paris Nord, rushing around myself to follow the suggestion of the woman to my right that I take my bag off my seat and put it in front on the floor where another lady was standing. She moved, interrupting her conversation, but didn’t sit down as I thought the plan was, instead getting off rather huffily at the next stop. Trapped in my own earnest foolishness; my eagerness to ‘be a good boy’; my fear of engendering the slightest disapproval – a pointless pained expression on my face.
And then England. What to say? The first English voices with no balancing lilt of Spanish, French, Italian, Czech, German, Polish (always a multicultural crowd that comes to stay in the mountains) pretty stark and brutal. The depressing notices about taking violence seriously, warnings about flu and terrorism, the pinched faces and brisk manner of the two male customs officials. And then coming through the tunnel, emerging into a sea of grey… I walked through some of this area of Kent and the South-East just over four years ago – sleeping in the hills as the motorways (M’s 25,26,20 and 2) and Eurostar trains rumbled below – and the new grey constructions of motorway, bridge, rail, industrial estate, retail park etc. have always (especially since) left an unsettled, slightly nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach. Here the land lies bleeding, deeply wounded by these sterile, gleaming operating theatre instruments. But the sickness feels more cancerous; the chemical and deep surgical treatment itself nearly as destructive and life-threatening as the underlying disease; a permanent post-op dullness to the experience.
Then the cold prison atmosphere of St. Pancras station. I start talking back at the tannoy anouncers, collect over £10 in change from the ticket machine because the queue was too long and I only had a £20 note, barrel down the escalator – “S’cuse me: Wide Load coming through!” – and hop on the train, grinning incongruously just before the doors close. The Anaesthetic starts to kick in, localised at first to my eyes which practically glaze over and stop looking outwardly with any kind of curiosity… An odd conversation with a blonde lady in a business suit who wanted to know where I’d been traveling. She expresses her jealousy after my story, then we get on to careers, rent, the importance of doing what you want and of living on your own terms, the dangers of burnout when required to do the thing you’re ‘passionate’ about all the time etc… Her parting shot (which everyone seems to be trying to hammer into me lately): “You need money!” I remain unconvinced, but don’t think to start on explanations of where to find burdock root, how to squat on abandoned property, what to make soap from, how to build shelter from recycled or harvested materials etc &c. Why do I never have the courage of my convictions? I have direct, lived experience of many of these things already! Why do I always defer to the stunted imagination of my peers?
As I get into familiar surroundings I let my legs and feet go into autopilot and eyes descend to the pavement below, the upper bands of vision obscured by the rim of my habitual baseball cap… So yes, this ‘culture shock’, this ‘state of bewilderment and distress experienced by an individual who is suddenly exposed to a new, strange, or foreign social and cultural environment’: the word that comes to mind is Oppressive. I never quite noticed before how oppressively the social and built environment strikes me in England. I re-read Paul Kingsnorth’s excellent ‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist’ the other day in the first Dark Mountain book (having read it online here about a year previously) in which he describes a similar experience coming back to the country after a two-month spell in Indonesia:
Now, back home, the world seems changed. A two-month break from my country, my upbringing, my cultural assumptions, a two-month immersion in something far more raw and unmediated, has left me open to seeing this place as it really is. I see the atomisation and the inward focus and the faces of the people in a hurry on the other side of windscreens. I see the streetlights and the asphalt as I had not quite seen them before. What I see most of all are the adverts.
For the first time, I realise the extent and the scope and the impacts of the billboards, the posters, the TV and radio ads. Everywhere an image, a phrase, a demand or a recommendation is screaming for my attention, trying to sell me something, tell me who to be, what to desire and to need. And this is before the internet; before apples and blackberries became indispensable to people who wouldn’t know where to pick the real thing; before the deep, accelerating immersion of people in their technologies, even outdoors, even in the sunshine. Compared to where I have been, this world is so tamed, so mediated and commoditised, that something within it seems to have broken off and been lost beneath the slabs. No one has noticed this, or says so if they have. Something is missing: I can almost see the gap where it used to be. But it is not remarked upon. Nobody says a thing.
The adverts especially got me too, this time round. I felt them as a withering, almost physical assault from which there was no escape except through willed unawareness; through succumbing to the Anaesthetic. Walking down a typical street was like getting slapped in the face a hundred times. I’m finding the sounds from the TV (I’ve mostly managed to avoid the screen since coming back – a state of affairs I’m looking to prolong) exceptionally ugly and distasteful. The news is the worst – I have to shut the door from the next room when it’s on to keep the shrill lies and distortions of fear at bay as much as possible. Maybe things have gotten worse since the riots and the response which the sane people say they’re even more disturbed by. I heard various things about it while away, but felt no compulsion to find out more other than to quietly note what the internet lefties & greenies were saying. There was an Evening Standard by the loo with eyecatching pictures and a provocative headline and I read about a paragraph before putting the paper back, face down, saying: “I don’t want to hear about this from you”. So easy to get sucked into the Unreal. You can get lost for hours before coming back to emerge, blinking into the sunshine.
It was nice to see the changes in my wildly overgrown garden; the apples slowly russeting and weighing down the branches of our baby apple tree. Nice to settle into pruning the big old pear tree – over a hundred years old according to one elderly neighbour; to step out gathering nettle seed, hawthorn berries, yarrow blossom; to look at the hazels, beechnuts, limefruits, acorns swelling and maturing on the trees… You might call it a selective, blinkered vision but witnessing, feeling these things makes me feel good; provides me with the experience of an environment that I want to expand.
Oh, and advice-to-self (thanks H): Remember where you’ve been.
#2 will follow…
* – full quote:
We only know whether or not the environment influences us by noticing we are influenced. If we do not notice we are being influenced, we cannot know we are.
We may still infer it. Some E [environment of genetic system] may be of the order that its influence is to render us unaware of its influence, in inverse proportion to its influence, e.g. a toxic environment may render us insensible to its toxicity.
Are we re-creating around us an artificial environment which has a tendency to induce in us an unawareness of its noxious characteristics: an anaesthetizing noxious sublethal environment? (The Facts of Life, p.31)
† – see Derrick Jensen’s interview of David Edwards, ‘Nothing To Lose But Our Illusions‘, from which:
A man by the name of Lester Luborsky used a special camera to track the eye movements of people who were asked to look at a set of pictures, three of which involved sexual images. One, for example, showed a woman’s breast, beyond which could be seen a man reading a newspaper. The results were amazing. Many viewers were able to avoid letting their gaze stray even once to the sexually suggestive parts of the pictures, and later, when asked to describe the content of the pictures, they remembered little or nothing suggestive about them. Some people couldn’t even recall having seen those three pictures at all.
What interests me is that, in order to avoid looking at the objectionable parts of the pictures, those people had to know in some part of their minds what the picture contained so that they could know to avoid it. In other words, when the mind detects something offensive or threatening to our worldview, it somehow deflects our awareness. This avoidance system is incredibly efficient. We know exactly where not to look.
‡ – ‘Tutoiement et vouvoiement‘ (fr) – basically ‘tu’ is the familiar form of ‘you’, whereas ‘vous’ is considered more formal, respectful. Friends and equals ‘tutoi’ eachother, but you would ‘vouvoi’ a superior, a stranger, someone older than you. This came from Roman emperors who introduced the ‘royal we’ of nos, impressing upon others to use the plural vos in reply. English uses just the familiar ‘you’, although oddly enough this used to be the deferential term! Apparently we have the Quakers to thank for this – as a mark of egalitarianism they would refer to everyone in the then-familiar ‘thee’/’thou’ form, but for some reason this lost its subversive sting and became quaint & old-fashioned, even swinging over to the more respectful, polite side when used among the respectable, affluent Quakers. More info at the bottom of this page.